ROCKS AND HARD PLACES
LOCATION: Aquarius Tri-Stellar IV, (later) The Gambling asteroid
Earth Date: November 15, 2038
Having recovered his gyro-gun, Swindle held Galvatron and Prime at gun point using his buddy's nuclear atomizer. The Combaticon con artist 'supervised' while his companion securely bound the three to the building's ancient support beams. "Ya know, in spite a runnin' inta these three miserable slave-yard rejects, this whole trip's been swell. I think we've procured enough stuff ta swap and shop for the next two weeks, Painter, ol' pal. As for these losers, they're a waste of space. I'm kinda surprised ya didn't jus' blow their lights. Say, we can still do that, can't we?'
'Kinda nice seein' ol' Galvatron over there all girlied up like some earth broad ready ta get run over by the train. Ya know, I've always wondered why they never show her gettin' hit by the train in those old movies, anyway. Kinda boring. Here they promise a good gore scene and some bleeding-heart hero comes an' ruins it. I hate Earth flicks.'
'Cept them horror flicks. Lots a good stuff there. Ya done yet, Painter? I say let's bomb this bunk. Blowing up an old building is nuthin' new and nobody on this planet would miss these clownoids."
Thirty-four minutes and twenty-nine seconds of listening to Swindle. Galvatron banged his head against the old support beam, bringing down dust from the dilapidated ceiling. The dust sprayed lightly over both Galvatron and Prime, making Prime's mood a little worse.
"Can it, Swindle, we're going deaf."
"Oh yeah?" Swindle retorted, "Whattya gonna do about it, Prime, hu? Ya sittin there like an aluminum duck beggin' ta be shot and you whine? There ain't nuthin' ya can do now. 'Course, I can do lotsa stuff, like give ya a shot a my gyro-gun here and then I could make ya walk around like some glop who got hisself all tapped out on radium. Ain't gonna look pretty, there, but I'd be fallin' apart with laughter. How about we go on that round, hu?"
The Gobot yanked at Prime's new-found cloak and gripped it tightly in the Autobot's face. "This mine!" he spat. "My girlfriend's mom's lover' sister gave this to me!"
Galvatron looked disgusted. "That belongs to you?" His and Prime's optics shot at Cyclonus who still leaked from his wound. Galvatron leaned a bit closer to Prime. "Would you like me to sterilize that?"
Optimus gave him a confused, second-glanced look.
"Come, Swindle. Other business calls." The Gobot plucked the weapons procured from the three Transformers, acquired his atomizer from Swindle and started out the room.
"Ya know, Painter, we could probably use these three chumps for a better profit than that one lowly Autobot I sold to yer family several years ago."
The Gobot glared at the Decepticon con artist. "No messes. No loose ties." and he took another two stomps toward the hall when Swindle spun to him, grabbing his powerful arm.
"Hey! Hey! What'd I tell ya? Take every opportunity that's offered. I mean, do you know who these clownoids are? Huh? I mean-heh-we could get a nice price on their heads OR we could get a nice price for their parts on the slavery market."
"Sister's wedding is in two days. She'll kill me if I don't show. You promised we'd be on time."
"Yeah, but . . . " and here Swindle set his optics on Prime. "But . . . we have the leader of da Autobots here in our hands-and what better a deal ta make than ta offer him and Galvatron as a packaged deal, huh? Am I getting through to ya? Listen, you big lug, have I steered you wrong yet?"
Painter turned to Galvatron, a frown creasing his face.
Prime's optics darkened. "Swindle, how would you like to be divided into four equal parts and strategically relocated around the city?"
"Hey!" the Gobot protested, "no threatening the Swindster! He's good friend and business partner!"
"The 'Swindster'?" Galvatron and Prime chorused.
"Awe, don't pay any attention to Prime," Swindle waved away, "he's just an Autobot. But listen up, Painter, look, as an Autobot leader, he could have some scientific value. And most likely Galvatron has a nice price on his head. I'm willing to bet that even Decetron might pay nicely for his caboose, eh?"
"Decetron?" Galvatron echoed softly, "that's the second time I've heard that name."
The Gobot turned from Swindle to the two and back again. He was clearly indecisive. "You're good friend, Swindle. Done lots of fun with me. But you promised to be at sister's wedding on Pairan and we have to go!"
Swindle's answer came delayed. His red optics dimmed and lighted in thought then, "Ah!" His whole face lighted up, "I got it! We'll take them with us to Pairan and sell their heads there!" Painter crossed his arms. "What's a matter?" Swindle looked concerned. "Don'tcha wanna make some money?"
At first Swindle looked cross but then his face raised in a smile and he laid a hand on the Gobot's shoulder. "Yer worried cuz you're new to all this. I understand, Buddy. Lookit, how about ya just pilot da ship and I'll handle the wheelin' and dealin', eh?"
Galvatron entertained the idea of tearing Swindle and his Gobot pleasure-buddy into shreds. But with the atomizer pointed at them, the Decepticon thought it unwise to do anything rash. Besides, transport off this backwater planet was not so bad a thing. He and Prime could ambush the two and take the ship later.
The big lug of a Gobot unchained Cyclonus from the wall and secured his hands. He tossed the injured Decepticon over his shoulder like a bag of merchandise. Then Painter waited for Swindle while holding Prime and Galvatron at gunpoint.
"Alright, you two junk piles," Swindle undid their bonds then chained their hands behind their backs and raised his scatter blaster at their backs. "On yer feet! Let's go!"
Galvatron and Prime followed Painter out the building into a world cast by the shadows of nightfall. Swindle kept an extra optic on them until they were a good thirty feet from the building. Painter paused and turned to Swindle.
"Yeah," Swindle answered impatiently. "Clear as glass. Now call the ship for Cybertron's sake!"
Prime's exostructure pricked as fine laser points burned him a million times over. The Transformers and Ag-al-arnoth transported to Painter's vessel. They stepped off a modest landing pad and Prime and Galvatron glanced at their surroundings. Where or how did Swindle acquire a ship with molecular transport capabilities? Prime tuned to Galvatron, the question in his optics but Gavlatron looked just as surprised. The ship came loaded with illegal articles of one sort or another. Many items hung from the walls or peeked out from half-closed compartments.
An ugly crack marred the front view windshield . Nearby the flooring beneath them rattled slightly and Prime grimaced at a slight unsanitary odor sneaking up from the engines. Galvatron spotted a familiar chest and dared guess what it contained.
"Still hoarding death crystals, eh, Swindle?"
"Hey, hey, hey! Mind yer own business, Galvatron, ya two-bit bloak!" Swindle ordered them into the main deck and opened an empty, dark storage compartment.
"Oh, yeah, " Galvatron almost sang, "he's got death crystals."
Prime only looked confused. "What are death crystals? And Swindle, you could get arrested by the constabulary for that cracked windshield. Your baratine retrofitters are vibrating and you have a leaking conduit in your environmental controls."
Swindle swung about and pointed his gyro gun at both leaders. "Shuddup! Just shuddup! I'm already sick a' you two! One more sound and yer tag-along's gonna get spaced!!"
"Sheesh." Galvatron winced.
The ship shot out of orbit with the ease of a great bird and in a matter of minutes, they escaped planetary deep space scanners.
Prime settled on the floor inside the storage compartment. He had no intention to remain passive about the situation. But for the moment, his systems were reluctant to follow his will.
Galvatron scanned the compartment with sonadar and x-rays. "Five-ply micro-braided tungsten steel carbonite. Nice."
"There is a trap door." Prime added quietly. "I doubt, however, either of us will fit. Smuggling ships rarely use large spaces."
"Hmph. And you know this how?"
"Hitchhiking." Prime felt Galvatron's grinning approval in the dark. "We could tear the trap door off, Galvatron. Use it as a shield." Only the Decepticon's optics glowed visibly in the dark; they sparked with the light of determination, undying will. Prime doubted his own optics glowed as brightly, as clearly. Because I'm dying, he thought grimly.
Galvatron digressed, "No. I do not wish to put Cyclonus at risk."
"Neither do I." Prime concurred.
After pacing for twenty-five minutes, Galvatron settled on the floor beside Prime "I'm bored." he grunted. How did we get into this? Humiliating!"
Prime's optics dimmed. "Not exactly what I intended. Perhaps we should have picked a fight."
"No," Galvatron said flatly. "Bad timing. Ugly Gobot. Big gun. Bad idea." Prime silently nodded and no other words passed between them after the Autobot's optics faded. Galvatron stewed but refused to let the situation anger him. Reaction served no purpose. He thought, however, irritating and annoying Swindle might produce results. The punk would open the door if Galvatron and Prime made enough noise. They might not get free, but it could be . . . entertaining.
"Prime, how long have you been dysfunctional?"
The Autobot leader stirred. "What?"
"There's a word the Earthlings use . . . illness? Yes. How long have you been ill?"
Prime shook his head in silent denial.
"You concern me," Galvatron firmly pressed. "You're tired; languishing. Don't think I have not noticed. I may be a bad boy, but I'm not stupid."
"No. You're not." Prime agreed. He struggled to decide whether or not to tell Galvatron everything. Decepticons despised weakness and Prime tried to keep that in mind. He finally decided Galvatron did not need to know everything. "I've been diagnosed with Zatra-tatlic." That was hard to admit and Prime worried about Galvatron's reaction. But he continued, "There's no known cure. At least, that we've found."
Galvatron nodded. "Zatra Tatlic." he said it slowly as though it were a magic spell. "Astrotrain and Ramjet caught it from drinking contaminated energon. They left the base without permission, later saying they needed a holiday. They came back, sick as a Jerneesium worm." Galvatron laughed softly. "We searched thirteen systems, twenty planets and tolerated 173 doctors before finding someone who knew something about it." Galvatron mused more to himself, "Never realized Decepticons could be so pathetic. The medics constantly complained about their behavior.
The Decepticon frowned, sighing once. The air grew stale with silence and Prime edged toward shut down when Galvatron grunted.
"You know, Prime, I used to think we were invulnerable to such things as disease or invading powers or politics. I believed we were the ultimate in the universe. But now . . . what arrogance. Such a waste."
"I know the feeling." The Autobot leader stared forward in the dark. If they could short-circuit the energon lock holding them hostage-and do so quietly-they could also recalibrate the lock into a weapon-
Galvatron slammed his head against the wall.
Prime gazed at him emotionless.
Galvatron grinned. BANG! BANG! BANG!
"You'll get brain tumors doing that," the Autobot warned factiously.
"Hey!!" came Swindle's muffled voice from the deck, "knock it off!"
It only egged Galvatron on. He banged his head yet again before bursting into song: "I'm so bored!"
Prime stared at him, pretending to be annoyed. "You cannot be serious."
"I'm BORED!" Galvatron sang again.
"Stop singing. You're not good at it."
"BORED! I lost my commission. My dogbot died. My quarters are blown and I cried: I'm bored!!"
BANG! BANG! BANG!
"KNOCK IT OFF IN THERE!!"
Galvatron sat forward. "COME IN HERE, SWINDLE AND MAKE ME!" He laughed maniacally. "Come along, Optimus! You can't sing, either! BORED!"
Prime smirked and added his own musical tagline: "he's so bored."
"Bored!" Galvatron sang louder. "I lost my commission. My life is through. My best friend keeled over and the rent is due. And I'm BORED!"
"Bored!" Prime chirped.
"I'm so bored!"
The storage door flew open and Swindle stood brazen with fury. "SHUDDUP!! I'M GONNA PLASTER THE TWO A' YOU-"
Swindle was a great con artist and a hell of a car salesman. But battle tactics wasn't one of his stronger areas. In other words: Swindle wasn't very bright.
Nor did he see Galvatron leap until it was far too late.
The former Decepticon leader leapt like a cricket and bounced on the little two-faced punk like a ton of wrought iron girders.
Swindle squeaked as Galvatron drew back his arm for a sure-fired punch guaranteed to rearrange the Combaticon's entire face in a single move.
It would have really hurt-
The trading vessel toppled on its port, tossing all crew members, captives, supplies and whatnot against the nearest bulkhead. Galvatron fell away from Swindle. Swindle experienced less than 4.999902 seconds of relief before the ship's automatic gyro condensers rebalanced gravity.
The Combaticon landed on the former Decepticon leader.
Painter's whining voice patronized Swindle over the intercom. "We've been hit, Swindle! I only know how to steer the ship. I don't know how to fix it!"
Swindle stared into Galvatron's bright red optics and braced for pain.
Swindle'S little body made a brand new entranced the storage compartment. He laid close to the deck, slumped and light-headed. Painter glanced at the Combaticon, not seeing the larger ship approaching. "Swindle! Will you stop messing around? I can't-"
Several armor-plated invaders smashed through the transparent titanium glass shield. Painter, kicked senseless in the chest, flew backward and landed nearby Cyclonus. Five uniformed alien guardsmen boarded Painter's vessel. Their hoofed feet clanked along the metal flooring and they reported their positions in short, huffing words. Three transorganic dog-like beasts follow in, sniffing and snarling. Painter came to and just barely dodged laser fire. He gathered his wits and transformed into an anti-grav cycle. He revved forward and shot a hoofed alien in the leg, but missed two others.
The noise brought Swindle around and he coughed and stood while two guardsmen started plundering the ship. "Hey! Ya coulda just ASKED! I would've invited you!"
Galvatron ripped off part of the storage compartment's door jamb as Prime ran for Cyclonus. Galvatron plowed through two aliens like a wrestler in a handicapped match.
One shot him in the arm, but Galvatron only grinned. He smacked the guardsman, tossing the creature across the bridge and would have done the same to the other had two hounds not jumped him. They snapped at his face and locked one arm between their jaws.
Prime called his weapon from subspace and shot the two beasts just before another guard aimed a shot at the Autobot. Prime dropped his rifle and held his hands up. He should have known better.
Swindle did not. Or if he did, he did not care. He swept up a fallen guard's ion rifle and shot at three aliens. But all Swindle succeeded doing was punching holes in the bulkhead.
Two guards leapt for the punk and Swindle squeaked.
"BLENTAT!" a female voice commanded. Everyone froze. A female something stepped from her ship's boarding chute into Swindle's vessel. Wearing scant armor like Rusti's, she looked tough enough to break every one of their bodies-even Galvatron's.
And that's why he stared blankly.
"North, Korone. Lotoov noomala ar armon. Benam Transformers. And dispose of the yellow-colored can opener."
"HEY!" Swindle protested in koine trader's language, "you have no right to abduct what I've taken!"
Prime half-lifted Cyclonus. "I think she's a law-enforcement officer, Swindle."
"This doesn't concern you, Prime," the con artist snapped back. "Now see here, you two-bit broad, none o' this ain't non a yer business!"
One guard swung the butt of his weapon in Swindle's face. "NEVER address the Voog D'Draph in such a manner, slaum! Or next time I'll scrape your face off and shove you up the ship's exhaust manifold!"
Galvatron cast him a slow sneer. "That's right, Swindle. Play nice. After all, you have Death crystals."
"WHAT?!" Swindle could barely control his rage.
"Oh!" the female Voog D'Draph sang. "Death crystals, too, is it? Seems your 'merchandise' can't keep its mouth shut. You are under arrest for illegal interstellar travel without a licence, with a damaged vessel and for avoiding law-enforcement and resisting arrest." She turned away as her minions regained their feet. "Rugarran, bring the robots aboard. We will tow this hunk of organic waste back to Monicus; to Lord Ry's court."
All the robots, including the GoBot, were shackled and arranged within the constable's ship while Swindle's own vessel was ransacked. Galvatron wore a smug expression the whole time, enjoying Swindle's silent pout.
The Voog D'Draph, her entourage of police, dogs and robotic captives, landed on the lighter side of Monicus. They dragged the Transformers through the unkempt streets of a small shambled city. Crumbling buildings and aliens wearing rags met them along the way. There were no automobiles to speak of, and graffiti colored building walls and sign posts.
Swindle greeted the bitter cold air with a grin. "Nice place. Needs a bit a' sun shine, though. I'll bet racketeering is a as legal here as prostitution in Nevada. Hey! I wonder if it's possible t' git a licence t' set up an extra-planetary operation. Get on the Net 'nd set up a search engine that offers numbers & addresses of rich, senile old ladies and little kids with rich parents."
Prime longed to find a universal remote control so he could use the mute button on Swindle. "Doubtful, Swindle. Even Monicus has some rules."
"F.Y.I., Prime. Monicus don't have law enforcement. It don't got a government. It don't got no cops. Free an' clear. A real paradise."
Galvatron glared at Swindle behind him. "Only if you're a filthy sleaze working for a crime boss, Swindle."
Swindle launched into a new dissertation on the benefits of working for a crime boss.
Ignoring the punk, Optimus Prime kept a watchful optic on Cyclonus. His non-functioning form slumped over the shoulder of the nearest guard. Cyclonus did not move and Swindle's mouth would not quit moving.
They came to a white-washed building fringed with close-cropped ground cover dotted by tiny purple and white flowers. Old weather-worn and bullet-ridden doors opened for the group and they entered a musty room with stale air and mold-caked flooring. Galvatron treaded lightly, fearful of the old floor boards that groaned under their weight.
Prime cared less. A broken flooring was possible opportunity for distraction and an attempt of escape. But it was opportunity that did not come. And he worried for Cyclonus.
The Voog D'Draph and two of her personnel pushed a swinging wall on one end, forcing the other side open.
The wall reluctantly gave up its secret and permitted the entourage down a short, well-lit hall and into a cramped chamber. From there, they descended one after another, scimitar between Prime, Galvatron and Swindle. Several flights of steep, slippery stairs later, they progressed through a poorly-lit, rocky tunnel inhabited by hundreds of slimy winged fish. One landed on Painter who freaked and danced about until one of the hounds bit his back legs.
A set of huge doors embossed in gold and silver yawned before the group. They opened slowly and the scimitar snapped and nipped the robots into a large room with a finely polished floor. The expanse of luxurious tapestries swung along the walls in graceful curves. Expensive artwork sprawled the walls and ceiling. Rolls of thick, clean carpet bordered the back half of the room. Several aliens of differing species sat upon cushions or comfortable chairs.
The central figure was the most richly dressed. He bore a crown of wood studded with opals and diamonds. Fine gold and white silk draped about his lank yellow frame and several gold and titanium stud earrings decorated his ears from tip to lobe. Golden hair fluffed and feathered from about his crown but did not touch his shoulder line.
Two Ormoran females, graced with fine blue skin and rich tattoos danced for the group. The company of robots were forced to their knees. Cyclonus was laid next to Painter until the dance ended. As the crowned male stood, a small robotic transport slipped from round the throne and floated before Ry. He stepped up and it carried the crime lord down the long strip of carpet. His eyes glued to one dancer as he spoke: "Voog D'Draph, why do you soil my court with machines?"
He passed the dancers except for a second lustful glance to the taller of the two. He backed up and grabbed her into his arms, kissing her as though pouring his entire essence into her mouth.
His 'court' pretended not to notice finding other things of interest or striking up nonsensical conversation.
The other dancer set her wide dark eyes on Prime but kept her expression impassive.
Ry released the tall dancer and she retreated to his seat while he approached the Voog D'Draph. He acted as though nothing happened and scrutinized Painter and Swindle with a glint of dislike twitching at the corner of his mouth.
The Voog D'Draph politely bowed, arms crossing her chest. "We have reasons to believe the Decepticon here has a collection of death crystals in his possession, Lord Ry."
"Is that so?" he sang. "Death crystals are contraband, my friend." He gazed at Galvatron who only grinned maliciously.
"Erm, no, my lord. The short yellow one."
Ry shot her a cross look and went to Swindle. "On this, you sludge-sucking slaum. Let's out with it."
"Hey, it was just a rumor, Your Upness. You know: a lie. And it was HIS fault." Swindle pointed back to Galvatron.
So Lord Ry returned to Galvatron. "So?"
"He has them. Swindle is, after all, a professional smuggler and he likes bright sparkly objects."
Ry crossed his arms over his flat chest. "I don't like games."
"GALVATRON! YOU EXCREMENT-WIPE! LIAR! Tell them he's lying, Painter!!"
"You forget," Galvatron added smoothly, "Swindle is a con-artist. He might be a opportunistic aft, but he's not a complete idiot." And Galvatron signaled for Ry to lean closer so he could whisper.
"Ah. Ah-huh. Oh. Is that so?" And then Ry scrunched his face. "That's disgusting!"
Satisfaction spread over Galvatron's face. "He's a Combaticon. They're all disgusting."
Swindle launched into a series of excuses and 'lines' while Prime stared at Lord Ry's personal transport. There was something about it that bothered him. He tried to look away, but his optics kept drifting back. Somehow he KNEW the robotic transport was alive, but unable to communicate.
NAME! NAME! He told himself, what is your name??
Swindle kicked Cyclonus: "ENOUGH!!" He pointed at Ry, "the fact here izzat these two losers 'r trying ta soften ya up! Galvatron there is a renegade, excommunicated by the Decepticons. There's probably a price on his head. That's gotta be worth something."
Prime clenched his fists. He wanted to leap-attack the punk but did dared not move. "Swindle, if you touch Cyclonus one more time I will kick your ass."
Galvatron smiled. He'd love to see that.
Lord Ry ignored the dispute. "The fact this . . . 'Galvatron' is a renegade does not credit his worth for anything, slaum. I am disinterested. Decepticons excommunicate each other all the time. Everyone knows that. Now, the crystals-"
"FERGET THE STINKIN' CRYSTALS!" Swindle shouted louder than he ever had in his life. "Look, ya got a good thing here. Aside this hunk a junk-"
And here Swindle kicked Cyclonus again-
He did not know Prime could be so pissed.
He did not know Prime could move so fast.
He did not know Prime could kick so hard.
And once again Swindle flew through the air and crashed against the wall with a satisfying crunch. The wall crumbled about him.
Lord Ry ordered the robots be restrained. But Prime figured between he and Galvatron, they could fight their way out.
Optimus kicked one thug then a dog then another guard and narrowly missed getting his backside burned. Galvatron followed suit with a couple of bodies flying one way then the other. Another pair of flunkies and two more scimitars raced into the hall to assist their comrades. One rugaaran guard shot at the former Decepticon leader, but missed when Galvatron leapt clear of the bullet's flight path.
One shot acid pellets into the fray, hitting one of his own buddies and nicking Swindle in the leg. Another rugaaran squealed like a wild boar when Prime used him as a body shield.
"ENOUGH!!" Ry called. But all he got in response was a pile of three more bodies. "I SAID ENOUGH!!" He about screamed.
At that point, the flunky fighting with Galvatron snorted disgusting yellow-green slime. His eyes flared yellow-hot and Galvatron took a cautious step back. The rugaarn before him morphed into a chunky, thick-skinned monster. Spikes lined down his back as it extended into a huge thick tail. Hoofs stretched into powerful claws and the chest expanded to greater proportions. Galvatron realized these things were genetically designed to handle combat either with 'squishies' or robots. The Decepticon took another cautious step back and bumped into someone. He glanced over his shoulder and found Prime there behind him.
"Did you start this?"
"Uh . . ." A strong metal staff undercut his legs and the Autobot fell face-down. Galvatron joined him a second later and Prime cringed when a vibro axe sunk deep into the floor just precious micrometers from his face.
Lord Ry growled. "Preposterous! In my own court!! Expire their cores and platter me their heads!"
The Voog D'Draph pinned Swindle's miserable form under her powerful foot.
She poised her rifle against the punk's neck. "Forgive my speaking, Lord Ry. But I am impressed with how the two larger Transformers fight."
"She's right," Swindle squeaked. "They put up a fairly decent fight. Not the greatest, perhaps, but decent. How about a fight in the arena? Eh? Nothin' like entertaining other guests and maybe a few rivals. Yer bound to get a chuckle or two out of it. I can be yer agent."
"I tire of your mouth. Slaum. SHUT IT!"
The one blue dancer sitting at Ry's throne crawled along the floor like an animal then climbed up the boss' body in a disgusting sexual manner. She licked his neck and whispered in his ear before nibbling at the metal studs encrusted along the outer edges. Lord Ry grinned, "well, that may have merit," he told the female. Then he pointed to Cyclonus, "Yet that one, the small dark over there, must be fixed. No injured entries to the arena permitted."
Satisfied his court was secure, the crime boss circled Prime and Galvatron. "Yes. This contains entertainment value. Potential wager; potential double my earnings." He paused, staring into Galvatron's optics as though entranced. "That is so, small, yellow sleaze ball. But they'd better win. Otherwise, the deal cancels." he sneered at Swindle, "You will be dismantled and your head will . . . " he glanced about and spotted his wall-length aquarium. "... serve to regulate my fish tank at the taproom."
Three rugaaran chained Prime's and Galvatron's hands in front with energo-cuffs and locked them in a holding cell while Ry's staff repaired Cyclonus for the arena. Galvatron paced, bouncing his bound hands in front. His optics searched fruitlessly for some way of escape. But the circular cell they sat in was perfectly smooth and rounded at the ceiling.
Prime sat against the wall and tested the energo cuffs for weakness. They were not going to give and he resigned to recovering. That bit of effort taxed him and while he really wanted to shut down, he dared do no such thing. But necessity for rest called him from afar and bit by bit the Autobot leader drifted through shadows and abstracted memories until an image of Rodimus focused clear but darkly.
Roddi lay face down as if overcome by despair, drowning in the guilt of sin and evil dreams.
Like two mirrors facing one another, Optimus Prime felt and reflected the same standpoints: There was indeed little to no hope. They lost both Cybertron and Earth. The Quintessons have won not once, but countless times. They were now refugees.
Yet, Prime considered, both Autobot leaders were still alive. They still had a responsibility to uphold. They needed to keep fighting in spite of the odds, in spite of the statistics.
In spite of Primus himself.
At first Optimus Prime could not answer that. It was a hard question. Why indeed? Why bother? Optimus Prime could not turn to the god of Cybertron. Primus had turned his back on his own. Just considering that fact hurt more than any punishment dealt him by Decepticon hand. They were a species of people now orphaned. Why should they bother to fight for survival if the odds are in favor of the Quintessons?
Optimus Prime surmised the answer would have to be personal rather than universal and because of that, he could not give Rodimus an answer. Roddi would have to find his own solutions.
Then Optimus berated himself for his defeatist attitude. What would Rusti say to all this? He could not give up yet; not until he got back to her. She crawled over his desk and picked up a pointer. He told her a thousand times not to play with the pointers.
She banged it on a digipad, breaking the-
Prime's optics snapped on. Galvatron banged his forehead once against the smooth wall. "Didn't move fast enough."
"Neither did I." Prime frowned. He crossed his legs and bowed over. "Rusti's going to kill me."
Galvatron did not move from the wall. "They'll help this 'Rusty' you speak of. I'll just watch."
"It was, however, nice to see Swindle get his share of pain. Better yet that YOU picked the fight."
"The fight was between me and the Combaticon, Galvatron. Everyone else simply chose to get involved."
Galvatron settled across the Autobot, elbows on his raised knees. "There's no shame in starting a barroom brawl, Prime; as long as you finish it."
"It makes me a bad example." Prime countered.
"You carry a heavy responsibility. You tuck them in bed at night, wipe their filters and bandage their scrapes. But even you can't be perfect all the time."
"I need to make sure I get back to Rusti in one piece."
"Obsessive." Galvatron shook his head. "Must you always fret over how others perceive you?"
"Rusti's . . . important."
"Pathetic. Who is this 'Rusty'?"
"Spike Witwicky's granddaughter."
Galvatron fell silent for a long moment. "Not . . . the Earthling. Not . . . "
"He has three grandchildren now, Galvatron. His son, Daniel-"
"I remember Daniel. But what is your obsessive concern about her? Why's she so important?"
"I am not obsessed."
That earned him a sharp smile from the Decepticon. "You have this . . . thing about flesh creatures, about alien life forms, Prime. You have an annoying habit of adopting the pitiful, the weak and the miserable."
"Yes. So which one are you?"
Galvatron opened his mouth to retort but could think of nothing before the electric field was downed and the door opened. The Decepticon jumped to his feet but did not move. The dancer that stared at Prime earlier stepped in, bearing what Galvatron recognized as a Cepheus High Shot .2917. And the weapon was set to obliterate. Few laser weapons could boast of destroying robots in a single shot; this was one of them.
Oddly enough, Lord Ry's robotic personal transport followed the dancer in. On its platform rested two small energon cubes. The dancer kept a nervous finger on the trigger. She glanced out the door, her large blue eyes darted left to right.
"He went and said you'd not attack. No attack. Just speak. Can you hear my words?"
"Yes," Prime answered her broken trade language.
"He went and said he gives you energon. He-"
"Who is 'he'?" Galvatron stared hard.
"He-" she nodded toward the transport. "He knows-Brawn."
Prime about choked. "Brawn?!"
The robotic transport drifted closer and the dancer lowered her weapon. They said I am Tegan. I am Tegan from Omar. I am alone. Brawn talks, though. I hear him."
Prime and Galvatron stared at her. But it was Galvatron who was more impressed. "You have telemechanics."
She nodded. "My brother was better. But they shot him bad when I would not wish to dance. Now I dance. Brawn . . . "
Prime's spark ached for her. Tegan was a victim of abduction and enslavement-a practice used by many alien cultures. He guessed she was very young by her own racial standards. The Autobot leader hoped they could escape and take her and Brawn with them.
Galvatron glanced from the young dancer to the robot calling itself Brawn. "Erm, this unit . . . the same . . . not Autobot Brawn. Not possible. He's terminated."
The transport whirred and clicked unintelligibly even to Prime and Galvatron. But Tegan seemed to know exactly what it said. "Yes. They took him from space. He floated. They liked the metal and rearranged it."
Brawn was buried alive in the mausoleum. He was alive, but unable to communicate. Alive, but dysfunctional. Alive, but powerless. "It wasn't anyone's fault." Prime said sadly. "Everything happened so fast, the Autobots had almost no time to bury the deceased. I am so sorry, Brawn."
The transport floated closer to Prime and the Autobot leader laid his hand on Brawn's right corner port. When he removed his hand, blue hand prints remained.
Tegan and Galvatron stared in surprise.
"Not well." Tegan mourned.
Prime clenched his hand. "No."
Distant voices from the corridor caught everyone's attention. Tegan gasped.
"Must leave! Here!" she gave a small cube of energon each to Prime and Galvatron.
"Wait!" Prime called. "When can we talk again?"
She peeked round the closing cell door. "We will come to you."
The door closed and the cell fell silent.
Galvatron downed his energon in three great gulps while Prime thoughtfully drank his. He wanted to rescue Brawn and somehow hoped time would present better opportunity.
"Stuff tastes kinda funny." Galvatron complained with a scowl.
"Probably just old, might have lead in it." Optimus casually answered.
The door to their cell sung open. Two heavily armored rugaaran hauled them into the open none too kindly. They dragged Prime and Galvatron to a train of three high-priced, classy anti-grav transport vehicles.
Lord Ry and a few of his staff floated on the first two vehicles that accommodated all of them more than comfortably. They sat on cushions and pillows while a small table overladen with drink and food squatted between them. In the first vehicle, Tegan and her dancing partner fondled over Ry while his hands wandered about the 'sensitive areas' of their shapely bodies.
"Ready, Lord Ry." one guard reported as Galvatron and Prime sat between Cyclonus and Swindle. Galvatron gave Swindle several dirty looks. Prime silently stared at Cyclonus who nodded once, indicating he was fine.
"Off we are, then!" Ry declared.
They surfed through ruins of buildings and shambled neighborhoods. For all the money that passed through the asteroid world of Monicus, not one cent was spared to improve living conditions of the poor and enslaved. And at this time of night, people skittered from building to building in fear. Gangsters owned the town and no sane being dared tread sidewalks at night. They traveled northward. Not more than a few miles beyond, glittering bright lights welcomed them to the pit of greed, slavery and death.
Galvatron suddenly erupted in a fit of laughter, drawing all eyes and optics to him. "Oh Primus, I gotta tell ya this one! You know Scourge . . . such a s-s-sissy! He's supposed to be this fearless warrior, great in battle and mighty in strength. Ata meeting we had, there was a glitch mouse scampering 'cross the floor. 'Course, the place we were at was 'fested with those damnedable things. But PRIMUS never saw the like! That moron-" Galvatron broke into laughter again then settled enough to finish his story, "that moron actually got up on the table and hahahahaha!! Tapped about like a damned puppet, SCREAMING! HE WAS SCREAMING BECAUSE HE SAW A G'THACKING GLITCH MOUSE!" Galvatron laughed and laughed as the image of Scourge trouncing all over the conference table replayed in his mind.
The humor of the moment totally escaped his audience, however.
They entered a brightly-lit town not unlike the one Smokescreen visited with the head hunter, Devcon and Sleeezardo, his Scutzoid partner. Obscene advertizement blared at the optics in dazzling colors and huge letters. Businesses promising temporary happiness held their doors open for people to peek in and spend money. Street walkers whistled and howled at Lord Ry's antigrav transport. He ignored them, however, his lips and legs locked about the body of his favorite dancer.
Several city blocks later the transports stopped before a giant, ritzy building studded in lights and bright colors. Great double-paned windows displayed dancers in barely-clad bodies and glitter.
The rugaaran private army disembarked from the second transport. They dragged Prime, Galvatron and Cyclonus off and stood them near the wall under gunpoint. Swindle and Painter jumped out and touched the sidewalk. Swindle eyed the antigrav transport with the expression of a would-be car thief. Painter stared as Ry and the dancer made disgusting noises while they fell deeper into the cushions of his personal transport. Everyone else discreetly left the antigrav and found other things of interest while the crime boss finished 'business' with his employee.
Painter leaned closer to Swindle. "Late to the wedding, Swidle. My sister will kill me."
Annoyed Swindle gave him a sharp look. "We'll be lucky if you get that far, Painter. She may hafta take a number."
"Huh?" but Painter never got an answer.
Tegan straightened her clothes and extracted a small make-up kit from subspace. She touched up her blue face and rearranged her dark hair. She once again set her large dark eyes on Optimus Prime. With a cautious glace back at the transport, she slipped to Prime's side making physical contact.
Again his color wiped off, inking her hand in deep red. For an instant, Prime thought she tried to take something from him, but he did not know what or why. Then he realized she was reading him much the same way Rusti was able to read mechanical devices. "Too truly sorry for your suffering. You have lost parts of your soul. Who did this? Who tore you apart?" her voice was soft, barely above a whisper. Prime cast his gaze at her. She flushed, her cheeks darkening to a lovelier shade of blue.
Optimus did not know how to answer. Her words, spoken so true, bit him deeply.
Her eyes wilted into sadness and she backed away.
Ry and his playmate rose, rearranged their clothes and left the transport. Lord Ry and his groupies leisurely made their entrance to the building followed by his private security flunkies, folding around the Transformers, the Gobot and finally the Autobot servant bringing up the backside.
The building's interior reminded Prime of the classiest taprooms on Depnaar and Koi. Semi-precious gemstone chandeliers dangled from the ceiling shed soft light. Panel lights illuminated the walls and fine carpeting kept the noise to a pleasant level. The lobby was populated by creatures of all kinds, both large and small. Now and again a robot made its way across, catching a glimpse at Prime and Galvatron. But the Decepticon started avoiding optical contact. Guilt shadowed his face.
Ry led his entourage upstairs to a private area. They entered a spacious room with everything from a refreshment center to a pool table (or Monicus' equivalent). Several chairs and cushions lined the walls or gathered round a small table. A huge desk swept to the right side of the room, facing outward from a diagonal direction and next to that stood a large aquarium with a variety of colorful alien fish and other odd creatures. Swindle took a seat without being asked. "Quite the pad ya got here, Ry. Betchya entertain a lot of guests here, eh? Sorta reminds me of Celsius Pi. He was a serious sleaze but had great taste in furnishings. I made the mistake a' playing jacks with him. Quite the cheat, but he taught me a couple of hands I hadn't thoughta."
Lord Ry, however, was not amused. The glow of love-making that softened his features faded and he was once again his usual self. "There are of us who require proof of class. Now mind to remove your metallic ass from the furniture. Let's to business on hand."
"Sheesh. Sorry." Swindle took a glance at Painter and the two followed Ry to his handsome desk overlaid in fine silver, trimmed with bronze. Ry sat behind it while his groupies and flunkies found for themselves either a chair, a cushion or a wall to lean against. Prime, Galvatron and Cyclonus stood in the center of the room.
"Now," Ry began, "just who and where to commence?"
Swindle leaned against the desk, arms crossed. "Well, like I was sayin', we got somtin' of a bounty here. I say we start with yer contacts. Go from there."
"I see." Ry frowned and with the press of a button activated a small computer. He punched in a few command keys then leaned back in his swivel chair.
YOU CALLED, MY LORD?
Prime glanced at Galvatron when the computer's female voice rang with a sexually alluring tone. It was all Cyclonus could do to keep a straight face.
"Yes. Access accounts and notations and regard bounty on any Transformers."
Galvatron watched as the room wobbled around him. Faces stretched either long or wide. The wall to his right raced back, further and further away. It was funny. He didn't know walls could do things like that on their own. He numbly shook his head as it fogged with incomplete thoughts. His optics dimmed lazily and he turned his attention to Swindle . . . the 'sinister Swinster'. Heh!
Oh, watch here as Swindle's form started to stretch upward. Uuuuuuuuuupp . . . to the ceiling. Oooh, that's funny. Lookit, the dumb scum's middle was shrinking. Just like his cranial chamber's capacity.
Watch his feet go flatter.
Galvatron outwardly smirked.
Prime shot him a glance and noticed how the Decepticon's chassis started radiating slightly higher temperatures.
"COMPLETED," the computer declared. "ZORTH PRIKNELL. BOUNTY ON DECEPTICON LEADER GALVATRON. BOUNTY ON DECEPTICON COMBATICON SWINDLE. BOUNTY ON AUTOBOT CITY COMMANDER ULTRA MAGNUS. BOUNTY ON DECEPTICON SUB-COMMANDER SCOURGE. BOUNTY ON-"
"Thanking you, computer. Enough."
Prime suppressed a smirk and stared at the floor, struggling to keep himself composed.
Swindle seemed a bit nervous. He chuckled. "Looks like Zorth Priknell has a chip on his shoulder for everybody."
"Yyyesss. Apparent to the fact, is it, not??" Ry's voice now sounded as slick as a roboto-snake ready for the kill. He stood, his lanky form towered over the Decepticon. "So confess, clankety robotic friend, what crime trespassed Zorth, eh?"
Again Swindle chuckled nervously. "Well, let's just say that . . . that deal didn't go through."
"Ah-hu. And suspicions of debits, right?"
"Well, not *directly*. I mean, by most definitions, possibly, but the exchange . . . there was a bit of misunderstanding between us and, well, we never got back into contact."
Ry clicked his tongue, feigning pity. "Tragic situation! Zorth is my better patrons. Now to consider, there exists a solution perfection, Swindle."
Swindle did not sound as enthused as his words: "really? Does that mean we have a better deal than what I proposed regarding the three here? I mean, after all, it took some doing to procure them-"
Optimus did not like how Ry smiled. The crime lord folded his hands and straightened his arms in front. "To truth, Swindle, you are ripe of amusement." At those last words, the rugaaran stomped forward and pointed all their barrels at the con artist.
"Oh, look!" Galvatron blurted, "Cepheus High Shots .2917's . . . Spec-tac-ular! Can I have one?"
Prime lost all expression. His optics slightly darkened as he stared at his companion. 'Spectacular?'
Everyone else in the room lost their expressions, too. Ry looked disgusted at Galvatron but his displeasure did not faze the former leader. Galvatron's optics stayed glued to the weapons, grinning like a greedy little kid in a toy store.
Ry frowned and snapped toward his office door. "Come!" he ordered. Zorth waits!"
They hustled downstairs; two scimitar, the captives, Ry, his groupies and guards. Prime mused how they all resembled some awkward dark parade, twirling down the spiral stairway. Upon landing, they padded through a short dim hallway and between a set of heavy double doors opened by a pair of rugged bouncers. With a signal, Ry ordered the party to wait near the bar. He pressed toward a small table burdened by a giant bloated alien with translucent scaley skin. The mountainous blob lifted one of four arms and chugged a barrel of steaming liquid. The alien turned to Ry and grinned in greeting, displaying several rows of pointy teeth. He spoke but the party stood too far to hear the conversation.
The monster's grin gaped viciously when Ry pointed to Swindle. Zorth lifted another arm and wiggled four fat fingers in greeting. Then he flipped Swindle the bird, bouncing it up and down.
Galvatron hooted in laughter and received several growls from the rugaaran. Prime leaned cautiously toward the Decepticon to whisper, "Galvatron, what is the MATTER with you?"
The Decepticon merely grinned again, broader and stupider than Prime ever remembered seeing. "Yer my PAL, Prime!" He practically sang it and the flunkies around them stared in surprise. "You 'n Cyclonus . . . Primus I love you guys!"
"Oh no." Optimus got that 'sinking feeling.'
"Oh don't be upset!" the Decepticon's voice rose a bit louder, "I won't tell anybo-anybody. Really. 'Cept maybe that lady that scraped me off that rock. Gods what a bad trip."
Swindle just could not keep his trap shut: "well, whaddya know? Ol' Galvatron's got sugar in his tank! He's tipped at the sides! What'd you give him, Prime?"
"I did nothing, Swindle. So, SHUT. UP."
Ry signaled his flunkies and the whole group approached. Zorth's huge form slumped tipping the table's edge with his bulk. He spoke with a language Prime could not grasp.
The Autobot leader scanned the barroom, finding exits, windows and a fair number of alien customers. They had to escape before the deal between Zorth and Ry was sealed. A distraction would be handy, but Galvatron's poor condition might make for a difficult escape.
However, if Optimus was correct, a good fight could bring Galvatron to his senses, burning off the tainted energon. There was one other aspect Prime had to count: Brawn and Tegan.
While he kept glancing around, Prime watched three rugaaran relax their guard; no one would try anything here; not in front of Ry's guests. Not more than three yards to Prime's right, volatile beverages loaded the service bar with everything from alcohol to hydrogen and radium. His scanners caught something else he had not expected: a weapon; a semi-solar .19. The 'sweet piece' was light-weight and apparently fully-charged. There were a number of customers, however and Prime did not know if he should risk starting a fight.
But with his hands bound as they were, it meant he'd have to find a way to disrupt the energon chain before doing another thing.
Galvatron stared at the ceiling, taking interest in the low-lying chandeliers. They were pretty, sparkling with little happy faces. A fountain of ten-weight energon, metal shards and lead crystals showered from the top of the left-side wall, cascading into a small indoor pond. The little sight tickled Gavaton; he thought he could even see a spark fairy dance in and out of the fountain.
Galvatron leaned in the fountain's direction and pursed his lips in a kiss, "Hey, little spark fairy," he sang in a whisper. "Don't be 'fraid, I won't hurt you. Come this way." He tried to mimic kisses with his lip components but couldn't quite make the sound.
He lost his balance, stumbling against his guard.
Turning to see what the Pitt Galvatron was doing, Prime spotted the fountain. That was the answer to their bondage problem.
Ry returned to the group, standing uncomfortably close to Prime. He signaled his favorite dancer to approach and laid an arm across her shoulders, his fingers itching over her breast. "Our, Lord Zorth pleases to address everyone to the arena cells and prepare all for the future tournament. Ladies and Boys, attend. Dinner is outside tonight."
Optimus kicked Ry so hard that when the crime boss flew, he knocked Zorth over. Zorth's great bulk bounced and rolled like a blob of rubber.
Following the Autobot's cue, Cyclonus gave three flunkies a powerful round-house kick, knocking weapons from their clutches. Swindle shouted and aimed a shot at the Decepticon. But Cyclonus easily avoided the line of fire and plunged into the Combaticon's middle. The two flew across several tables.
Galvatron's expression broadened from laughter to enthusiasm. "Ooh! A fight! Great idea, Prime!" He sprang and kicked the head of one flunky behind him. The gunner fell over, most likely dead. The other backed off, weapon in hand. Not a problem. The Decepticon tipped a table between them and the laser blackened its silvery surface. Galvatron ducked the next round of fire and rammed his head into the flunky's middle. They landed on the ground but even with bound hands, Galvatron was quicker to his feet. He dodged several shots from behind and landed at the fountain, held his wrists out and hoped his hands would not get shredded.
After plowing through three bodies himself, Prime joined him. The chains shorted with a few harmless sparks and the two, now free, ducked behind tables to escape more oncoming fire.
Optimus counted five shots (one from each assailant) before lifting the table and bowling them over.
Galvatron turned to his companion with the same ridiculous grin, "how much time do we have to fight before the law enforcement arrives?"
"There IS NO law enforcement on Monicus!" Prime answered back as Zorth roared to life. The behemoth beast yanked the end of the service bar from its roots and threw it at the two. Galvatron and Prime easily dodged but one of Ry's 'boys' didn't see the chunk coming his way. It scooped him up and sandwiched him against the fountain, frying the critter extra-crispy.
Optimus remembered the weapon behind the bar counter and measured the distance between himself and Zorth. The great bulky alien picked up a table, broke off the legs and threw it like a disc at Swindle.
Good distraction. Prime transformed and rammed head-on into Zorth, squishing the alien's great belly. The Autobot shifted back to robot form in mid-air, catapulted himself over the alien's blubber and into the backside of the bar.
Sure enough there was the semi-solar .19. Prime shot two then three punks including the one harassing Cyclonus. Ry's groupies and customers ducked and screamed from all sides of the room and someone tossed a chair in Prime's direction. Optimus dodged it and shielded his face as mirror fragments rained from the wall behind him. The potentially explosive liquids spilt and flooded the bar. Not good to hold a weapon when standing in such concoctions.
He cleared the bar as Ry rose from his lapse of consciousness.
Prime landed beside Galvatron and the two searched the room for Cyclonus.
"Show off." Galvatron whispered.
Prime smiled but did not bother to answer.
"NNNNYYYYYAAAGGHHH!!" Ry caterwauled in frustration but did not silence the noise of destruction. A flicker of light shot about his form and Prime and Galvatron watched in mute horror as the crime lord's size grew another twenty feet. His hair sparked with electricity and his eyes glared brilliant white. "ADEQUATE AMUSEMENT TODAY. CRUSHING MIGHT REMEDY ANNOYANCES!"
Prime and Galvatron darted in opposite directions when Ry's foot came crashing in their space. The floor crumbled under the pressure. Zorth backed against the entrance door as more aliens fled the scene.
Galvatron took cover behind a private booth. A hand landed on his shoulder strut and the Decepticn swung about for a punch. He froze when Cyclonus greeted him without expression.
"CY-CLO-NUS!!" and he grabbed his buddy and squeezed him hard. "I love you! You've always been so good to me! I've always been so mean to you!" He released his now-squished companion, but held his shoulders under tight fingers. "I hope you forgive me for all the times I was so mean! I . . . don't know what I'd done without you!" The Decepticon pouted like a whipped puppy.
Cyclonus kept his reaction to himself and handed Galvatron the rifle he acquired elsewhere.
"Oooh!" Galvatron's face brightened with delight. "Toy! Mine?"
"Yes, Galvatron. It is yours."
"TOY!" And again the ridiculous grin plastered across the Decepticon's face as he checked its charge. All around them the occupants either crowded to leave the room or fought one another in stupid drunk antics. Swindle struggled between two of Ry's rugaaran while another alien stole drinks from the bar tap.
Cyclonus was going to explain where and how he managed to acquire theirs and Prime's weapons, but decided not to confuse the drunk Decepticon with the details.
Galvatron leaned into his 'happy rifle' and tried to keep steady enough to shoot either the flunky or Swindle. Death to either idiot was suitable. Galvatron pulled the trigger and missed Swindle by mere micrometers. Swindle felt the shot's heat and screamed something incoherent just before his opponent delivered an incredible uppercut punch. The con artist went flying across the room and landed on a table of uninvolved aliens. Insulted, the three of them tipped the table and pummeled the Combaticon.
Meanwhile the one alien turned to Galvatron and stomped toward the laughing Decepticon.
Cyclonus slunk back, knowing all too well what was about to happen.
Galvatron stopped laughing and caught the beast's snapping tail, kicked the drunk with no result then realized his mistake. The double-jointed creature lifted Galvatron overhead and tossed him like pizza dough. The Decepticon crashed into three and four tables, upsetting chairs, drinks and two other little guys who rolled with the impact. They leapt to their feet, hauled out their own 'chunks of metal' and proceeded to shoot Galvatron. In this pulse-raging fight, the Decepticon was far from slow. He shot up, grabbed hold of the nearest chandelier and catapulted himself back to the alien.
The beast prepared to receive Galvatron's flying form and would have kicked Galvatron's head had the Decepticon not suddenly stopped in mid-air, floating and gloating. The alien lost his balance, flipped up on his back (crunch) and howled over his injured tail.
From his position in the air, Galvatron spotted Swindle and Painter scampering from hiding to hiding to escape the wrath of Ry. To the Pitt with Swindle and his pleasure-bot. The Decepticon leapt back into action, weapon fully charged and hungry for victims.
Ry peeked round this corner, under that table, looking for Optimus Prime. He took one step, then another. With short bursts from his finger Ry blew a table here, shattered a window over there.
Prime was never easily intimidated. He reworked the semi-solar as quickly as its delicate instruments permitted and changed the power flow output, disabled the safety gauge and mentally braced for intense pain. One. Two. Three. And the Autobot swung from around a support pillar. "Ry!" he called. The super-boss turned his attention to the little Transformer and made one step. Prime fired the weapon. Not at Ry, but at the counter bar. The Pleiades semi-solar .19 shot a wide-field burst at a much greater force than the weapon was designed to handle in a single shot. All its power drained in one strike and Ry only had a fraction of a second to realize what Prime was doing. Optimus disappeared round the pillar just as the counter top exploded, taking with it the entire wall, everything made of glass, four people and the next room over.
The explosion was such that for a few blind seconds, Prime lost all audio and visual input. He remained still, straining to scan about. But the atmosphere, filled with chemicals from the bar, was so thick that it scrambled his sensors.
Great plan, Prime, he thought. Maybe next time you could take EVERYONE out.
Little by little the smoke and dust cleared and so did Prime's sensors. A shape knelt next to him and Optimus turned, greeting Galvatron optic to optic.
The Decepticon grinned most approvingly. "You know, Prime, if I had known you were this much fun, I would have called a truce a long time ago."
"Not funny." Prime growled. He took to his feet and shook his injured hand. He was very lucky the gun did not mangle it. The three Transformers treaded over glass, wood, metal and a few body parts. Ry lay sprawled along the floor, either dead or unconscious. Several people lay with serious or minor injuries but Optimus remained unrepentant.
Zorth groaned and sat up, rubbing his huge head.
Galvatron checked his weapon for ammo, finding it still half charged. Cyclonus handed Prime his old rifle and the Autobot murmured a thank-you though he held the weapon with his left hand. "I think we've done enough damage for today, Galvatron."
"Yes. I believe we have adequately left our mark here." Galvatron's voice lilted with enthusiasm. "But our business is not finished."
They turned in unison to Painter and an injured Swindle. It took a moment for Swindle to realize he and Painter were in danger. He forced himself up from the floor, rubbing an aching head then a right arm; his gyro-gun now absent. He saw the two approach and the punk held his hands aloft to defend himself from an onslaught. "Hey, guys, it's all been just a joke, ya know? Hehe, just . . . a joke . . ." his optics raised above Prime's and Galvatron's heads and Prime crossed his arms.
"Swindle, I've decided to raise the number of pieces from eight to ten."
"Don't think you'll get that chance!" Swindle ducked and taking his cue, so did Prime and Galvatron. They swung around uniformly, both delivering a powerful kick. Zorth oofed and bumbled backwards, a blobby ball rolling out of control until he crashed into a pile of bodies ad debris. He shook his blubbery head and growled, eyes dilating in anger.
Prime charged his weapon as Galvatron aimed and they shot Zorth dead-center.
The squishy alien whined with a gurgle before he half-blew, half crumbled to disgusting little pieces of fat. Galvatron, Prime and Cyclonus watched in horror as Zorth's remains took on animation, bouncing up and down like tiny children throwing a temper tantrum.
Seeing how Prime was momentarily distracted by the disturbing sight, Swindle and Painter started sneaking away. But neither of them got very far before Cyclonus side-stepped in front, his weapon impatient. Swindle was about to make a rude remark when a large hand gripped him round the backside of his neck and the next moment he found himself dangling like a monryan moon worm between two fingers. Prime's face plates came so close that Swindle could see the reflection of his optics on its silvery surface.
"Unfinished business, Swindle." Prime growled and for a moment, the con artist thought he saw a flicker of darkness in those bright blue visual receptors.
"Hey, how about let's not, and say we did, okay? Bygones be bygones."
Prime's voice dipped dangerously low. "I don't do 'bygones." The Autobot leader dragged his prize away, leaving his companions alone with the Gobot. Galvatron gave Painter a vicious, mischievous grin. If Transformers had teeth, Painter swore Galvatron's would be the largest and the cleanest.
Lord Ry rose from the darkness of sleep to find his world in ruins. His dance club/bar had a sizable hole where the explosion blew out the entire backside of the building. Bits, pieces and puddles of customers lay about the floor. His client, Zorth, also lay in fragments, now growing heads and legs of their own.
Coming down to his more 'civilized' size, the crime boss gathered his tattered silks about him, took in the damage and tried to estimate the cost. The disaster wasn't expensive so much in monetary value as it was in reputation. He was humiliated by four measly Transformers. Chances were his clients would now think him weak and dubious in future dealings.
Ry carefully treaded the stairwell to his office and closed the tattered drapes to the shattered window overlooking what was left of the bar downstairs. He sat heavily in his broken chair and wished the aches and pains away. What he did not see was Swindle's head planted at the back of his aquarium, regulating the fish filters and air support.
As he returned home, Ry noticed a few . . . oddities: a signpost had a new pole-something that suspiciously resembled one of Swindle's arms. A drainage pipe to the right looked a bit like one of Swindle's legs.
A wire clamp held fast an electric cable; the camp looked like one of the Combaticon's own hands. A doorstop at the local gun shop looked more like a Transformer's foot.
Paint and relief work pressed outward from the wall of a nearby abandoned warehouse. Impressed upon its crumbling surface was the headless body of a Gobot and inscribed in English: GALVATRON WUZ HERE.
The Three companions were once again on their own, lost and without means of survival except for their own wits. And at the moment, Galvatron's was drowned in bad energon. Prime met back with Galvatron and Cyclonus just as Galvatron finished signing his 'handiwork'. But he staggered worse than before.
"Op't'mus!! My good friend! HOW HAVE YOU BEEN? What a slag hole this is to find you here- Oh, wait! I came with you, didn't I? Musta f'got." Galvatron smiled lopsidedly.
Prime stared, dubious. Only better energon could purge the poisons from Galvatron's systems. Without an ionizing agent, several of Galvatron's components could gum up and break down. "We must get out of the open and find better energon."
"How did this happen to begin with?" Cyclonus caught his friend as Galvatron lost his balance.
The former leader's optics flared with another hopeless grin and he patted Cyclonus thankfully. "Sucha good guy!"
"We were given tainted energon. I thought it was simply old, but apparently . . . " Prime's voice trailed. They needed to hide but his scanners, slowly disengaging on their own, found nothing.
Galvatron lurched in pain and he slipped out of Cyclonus' arms and into Prime's. Fortunately, Prime caught him chest-wise or what Galvatron vomited would have been all over the Autobot.
Cyclonus winced as thick grey matter expelled itself from Galvatron's system. Galvatron coughed, heaved and panted for fresh cool air. He heaved again but nothing came up.
"He'll be all right, right?" Prime asked Cyclonus.
But the Decepticon shook his head. "This is bad."
Prime held Galvatron tighter as the Decepticon vomited more clumps of grey matter into the street. Unfortunately, the Decepticon's weight strained Prime's back and injured hand. He winced. "Cyclonus, those ruins we came from south of town; they might be a better refuge than the city here.
"It's too long a distance, Prime. I suggest we merely find a hideout here where fuel sources are more easily acquired than the ruins."
Prime stumbled with Galvatron's weight. Both were weak but Galvatron's balance was undone.
"Wait," Prime called. "We cannot move. Not like this. Let's rest here a moment." he settled at the edge of the sidewalk, setting Galvatron against a wall. "I might have rations-"
Cyclonus laid a hand on Prime's arm in objection. "It's Autobot energon. It's not enough."
"It'll keep him on his feet."
"But not for very long." Cyclonus insisted. "Maybe half an Earth hour."
Galvatron wiped a bit of grey pasty residue from his face. His bent knees slid to the ground. "'Ss allll riiight, Cyclonusss . . ." his voice cracked, "Sumthin's better 'n nuthin'." He took the three chips from Prime. They were very sweet and went down nice and cold. "Primus, you're a dangerous robot t' hang with, Prime. Kinda r'minds me a' Mindwipe. Creepy son a' ret'r rrrat. You know-you know he'd tastsst-tessst any-anything-I mean ANYTHING once? Ev'n ate one o' his stupid Headmaster's fingers. He'd . . . he'd off and write it in that . . . stupid book o' his an' -OH! But sometimes it was useful . . .'till he'd regurgitate it. Freak." Galvatron's aching, fuzzy head cleared some. His innards ached and he fought shut down.
It was information Prime would rather have not known. Not that the Autobots did not have odd habits of their own (Cliffjumper collected bunji cords, Wheeljack once bought reams of aluminum foil and wallpapered his quarters with it.) But some information was too insignificant.
Cyclonus shook his head and joined the other two on the sidewalk, keeping an extra optic out for trouble. At the moment, the street remained still but sunrise was not far behind.
Galvatron sniggered, breaking the silence. "I 'member Shockwave ... dumb g'thack. He-he was-oooh, he was weird, that one. I mean, I know that-that Shockwave wasn't, you know . . . NORMAL but P-RRIIIMUS! The THINGS he . . . and the sounds! He likes torture, you know. Maintenance bots always quivered when assigned to his quarters . . . Don't know, don't care to know."
Neither did Prime. His personal experience in Shockwave's torture chamber was a memory he always pushed far back into the corners of his mind. He assisted Cyclonus with Galvatron's weight and the three of them slowly staggered down the ally and round a corner. Galvatron's voice raised and lowered with more Decepticon gossip:
"Soundwave . . . n' those creepy dolls a' his. You know he had one a' everything fr'm some Voodoo . . . priestess in Alabama t' some Cabbage thing he picked up in Yugoslavia."
Prime remembered the findings discovered on the Nemesis sometime ago. Not only did they find thousands of dolls of every size, shape and assortment, but secret journals the Decepticon communications officer kept on everyone else around him. "Where did he get the masks, Galvatron?"
"Some . . . Aaaficannn . . . village n' the Congo." He shook his head. "Went there to watch some bizarre cannibalistic ritual 'r something. Uhh . . . Bombshell aaaand . . . Rumble . . . I don't remember. It was gruesome." Then it dawned on Galvatron: "Hey, how did you know about the masks?"
Cyclonus cut in: "Honestly, haven't we better things to consider than Soundwave's personal obsession?" He received silent stares from both and shook his head.
But Galvatron did fall quiet again. His optics dimmed in rest for just a few short moments. Prime forced himself to his feet and paced up and down the sidewalk. His hand ached and twitched with damaged connectors. He saw three aliens race across the street, their heads wrapped with business hats. Another alien, a female, drove across the way in a small vehicle.
The general public began to rouse from their nightly rest. Unlike Sheol, the smaller town of Zoar slept at night and rose to life in the day. It was advantageous but not for much longer. Weariness hit Prime. All the energy he spent at the club began to tax him mentally and physically. The Autobot leader returned to his companions and rechecked his laser rifle, waiting for Galvatron to realize they needed to move on. One thing Prime did not want to do was push Galvatron beyond his capacity.
"Times to go?" Galvatron slurred sleepily.
"Yes," Prime answered matter-of-fact as he crouched before his companion. "Daylight is approaching. I'm hoping we can find refuge before we're spotted."
Galvatron struggled to his feet and patted Prime's hand when the Autobot helped him up. "Cy-clonus 'll protect us, Optimus! Won'tya, there . . . uhhh . . . uhhh . . . " the Decepticon turned to his faithful friend and just drew a blank. He received a small smile before the warrior examined the street up and down to determine the safest passage.
They found a secluded spot among several crumbling buildings. A river tumbled over filth and debris a few yards away. This was an old place, scarred by neglect, haunted by local gangs and weary with war. It did not matter; they were safe for the moment. Prime and Cyclonus lowered Galvatron into a corner inside an old airline hanger and glanced about.
Other than remnants of former occupants, the building stood dark and empty. Optimus hoped this was not gangster territory. The one thing he and Cyclonus did not need was another fight.
The Autobot settled to his knees to rest just a precious moment. But he pushed himself so as not to appear weak before his companions. Prime hoped to hold out long enough for them to find a ship and a way off Monicus but his hope was quickly fading.
"Optimus, you're overheated." Galvatron sounded a little more sane, but Prime did not know how long that would last.
The Autobot examined his injured hand and wished there was a way to get it treated. For now all he could do was quell the pain receptors and keep moving. "Cyclonus, call me if someone approaches. I'm going to find better energon for Galvatron. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"No," Cyclonus argued, "I'll go. I can fly and I'm not as easily identified as you two."
Optimus knew he was in no condition to argue. His weary gaze locked with Cyclonus and he nodded in compliance. Prime settled against the wall near Galvatron as Cyclonus left the building, transformed and shot into the air.
An eerie silence fell between he and Galvatron who sat slumped in shut down. He seemed so peaceful there.
A small boxed shape pushed through the stone wall from subspace beside Prime and nudged the Autobot's arm.
"Shh." Prime warned weakly. "Do not wake Galvatron."
Roller wheeled his way forward and silently explored the hanger. Prime watched him trail about. Roller's small physic lit by light from the hanger windows above and disappeared between them.
Roller felt the Autobot leader's pain and submitted messages of encouragement. But the Autobot leader remaine dour. He knew what was happening.
Roller paused before the hanger doorway at the far end. He took in readings of temperature and sound, of soil and atmosphere. He sensed decomposition five feet below the surface where an animal lay dead.
Prime watched Roller through a sleepy haze. He remembered and marveled how Roller remained unaffected by the Virus when it attacked several months ago. Could it be that Roller had acquired his own spark, separate from Optimus? Would he survive if Prime himself suddenly terminated?
Somehow Optimus believed that once he died, Roller would survive.
Quipper rolled along the ground, armless and naked. The fire of metal-devouring insects grew rich and fat on his broken and raped frame. They devoured him outside in, sinking further . . . he became a pitiful corpse, screaming for mercy, for sympathy, for release-
Optimus jolted from shut down and stifled a scream of his own.
The Quintessons were gone.
Mars was gone; so was his office far away at Fort Max. Prime cringed with pain.
"Did not mean to startle you," Galvatron muttered.
Prime found Galvatron's red optics. The rest of the Decepticon disappeared into the hanger's darkness, save for the outlines of a weary smile. The Autobot shuddered from emotional overload.
"You were talking to yourself." Galvatron's voice came quiet, once again level-headed. "I was concerned you might have slipped into involuntary defrag and recall."
"A nightmare, Galvatron. One of many."
Galvatron watched his companion through the dark, tracing Prime's weary frame in the subtle light. He tried to scan the Autobot, but the tainted energon kept those systems from loading properly.
"Where is Cyclonus?"
"He left to find better energon for you."
Galvatron smiled again before his optics spotted Roller making rounds through the hanger. The scout car did not seem to notice Galvatron's stare. It paused and took a reading before continuing his journey. It was difficult to believe the scout car was a part of the Autobot leader. Difficult, but amusing.
Roller bleeped twice and journeyed back to the corner. Galvatron turned to Prime and found him sleeping, or at least resting with optics dimmed off.
"Optimus?" Galvatron reached for the Autobot and checked his electropulse.
Prime stirred to the touch of his palm and neck. Galvatron's cool hand roused him enough to stay alert a while. "I'm sorry, Galvatron. Must've slipped off."
The Decepticon's expression remained neutral. "A fine situation we're in: sitting targets."
Prime rolled his head left, staring at his companion. "Do you feel pathetic, Galvatron?"
Galvatron lowered his head just a bit. "Now that you mention it, Prime . . . "
"Hmph." The Autobot slumped further against the wall. "Don't worry. I'll tell them it's all my fault."
"Unconscious Autobots don't speak."
"Must you always be so matter-of-fact?"
Galvatron grinned. "Force of habit. And THAT IS your fault."
"Very well." Drowsiness assailed Prime once again but a sharp pain shot across his shoulder line, cutting off flow between his processors and lasercore. He waited for systemic bypass but he was so overheated he was forced to oxygenate.
"We WILL get help." Galvatron promised. His optics were met with Prime's skepticism. "We will." he insisted.
Prime remained very quiet while his body recovered. He wanted rest but did not dare. Forcing his mind to stay alert, he returned the Decepticon's gaze with a small measure of acceptance. "We DID survive Mars." he said quietly.
"Right! That party was crashed. Heh." Galvatron brightened and Prime was surprised how comfortable he felt there next to his companion. He considered asking Galvatron to watch over Roller, maybe even take him to Rusti. She'd care for him.
"Prime," Galvatron called again, "I know this is not the time, but . . . I found something. I thought you . . . might want to have it back. I found it at Mars. Forgot about it 'til now."
The Autobot stared at him with expectant optics and received a flat rectangular object. He recognized it instantly and gasped. "Where-how?! How did you come across this?"
Galvatron pleasantly and sleepily smiled. He settled back into his corner with a simple shake of his head. He watched his companion embrace the photograph close to his chest. A lost treasure.
"All of Rusti's drawings and flowers are in here." He turned to his companion, his core overflowing with gratitude. "Galvatron-"
"Save it, Prime." The Decepticon's optics hazed back. The bit of weak energon Prime gave him was wearing thin. Galvatron needed a strong dose of hot ionized energon spiked with silicone nitrate to flush impurities from his transductive port stabilizers.
Prime did not argue. He stared at the photograph of Kup, Ironhide and Hot Rod as he traced the frame. He missed them. The years preceding the Decepticon take-over of Cybertron were far too brief.
Finding Hot Rod alive was nothing short of a private miracle. Now Ironhide was gone. Friends come and they leave and the Autobot leader wondered how many more he would soon lose.
"You'll warp the picture . . . by starin' at it." Galvatron teased.
"They look better than you do." Prime quietly joked.
"Mm. Probably FEEL better than either . . . of us."
"The energon's wearing off."
"Oh!" Galvatron brightened a moment from his on- coming stupor. "You noticed! Heehee! But honestly, Prime, such triv-ial stuff. Yerrr a machine. What makes you think you're able t' love? Pathetic notion."
"what of it?" Prime dared back. "What do YOU know of love? Other than a target of jest or ridicule?"
Galvatron nodded. "Point taken. But do you really think you're capable? You're built for warfare . . . destruction. Not summ . . bunch of . . . mushy feelings."
The Autobot stared and wondered if it really was Galvatron to whom he spoke or the poison. "Depends on your definition. Love isn't what most people think. Loyalty is a form of love-unless you consider that a weakness. Devotion is love."
Galvatron shook his head as his CPU clouded further. "Sss. . . yourrr compassion that getss the better a' you, Prime. How do you know anyone loves you back? it's a waste, something that 'ventually betrays you to ruin; a distraction."
Galvatron spoke a hurtful truth. Few Autobots appreciated his sacrifice. Few understood what it was like to be their leader. But responsibility for them went beyond his own spark. His life was not his own. The Matrix shared much of who and what he was. "It's a necessity." he finally answered. Prime considered that a weak defense.
Galvatron struggled through the haze in his head. Loyalty and devotion. Respect and honor. They were all aspects of love-an attitude, not a feeling. "Maybe you're right." he said softly, "it's necess-ssessary. have to believe in something, right?"
"What?" the pain across Prime's shoulder struts eked down his back. "Galvatron, if you don't believe in anything, why are you asking me?"
Galvatron smiled. He had been rescued from eternity in the Pitt and brought here. "Oh I believe," he answered. "I believe."
Prime grew cross, "what could you possibly believe in? And how can I believe what you say? You don't believe in compassion, devotion-or that life is sacred."
Galvatron shrugged. "You're right. You're right. At one time I did not. I re-refused t' believe life after death. I did-didn't believe lots of things." Galvatron's optics hazed completely over, drowning in encroaching static, "But I was wrong. I believe-believed-do-believe in you. You're here. that's a valid thing."
"You." Galvatron answered simply. "Your int-um-int-gre-integrity. That's valid. I think it's valid. I believe in your integrity, your . . . honor. That's love. I believe. I have faith. Can't take corners from th' square, Prime."
Optimus could neither answer nor refute Galvatron's statement. In a way, it made the Autobot leader feel vulnerable because those same traits were easily exploited and betrayed. What was worse was that Prime was bound to them.
They sat a while in silence. Prime dozed but sleep fled from him; pain kept him awake and increasingly cranky.
The only sound now came from Roller as he crunched fine gravel and debris under his six steel-belted tires. The hollow hanger stood motionless like a mausoleum.
Movement registered on Roller's scanner and he softly signaled to Prime. The Autobot leader did not acknowledge him. His optics dimmed on then darkened again. Prime heard but had no compulsion to move.
Just another moment of shut down; another moment of sleep. The quiet world bade him not to be concerned.
Someone laid a hand on the Autobot's shoulder and Prime slowly, reluctantly came to life.
Cyclonus checked Prime's electropulse. Relief touched the Decepticon's unmoved expression. "You did not respond." To his surprise, Optimus Prime did not answer. Cyclonus pressed a small cube between the Autobot's hands. "Here. I found this."
As subtle as the Decepticon's touch was, he still made accidental dents in Prime's softened exterior. Without complaint, however, the Autobot leader accepted Cyclonus' gift and drained the energon. Bitter and strong as it was, the energon was a welcomed sensation to his languishing body.
Cyclonus turned from Prime to Galvatron and examined his friend.
"I'm afraid he's been out." Prime's quiet tone fell flat in the dark. Cyclonus did not acknowledge as he scanned Galvatron's life signs.
"I know you can hear me," his voice fell so low Prime almost could not hear.
Galvatron was unresponsive. Cyclonus fed him two small energon cubes and a vial of cordial. A grim smile touched the lieutenant's lip components. He settled before his companion and watched Galvatron return to shut-down.
Prime watched Cyclonus watch Galvatron. The former Decepticon lieutenant did not so much as blink. Neither did Prime. In spite of the fresh energon, Prime's systems were shutting down. He ached to see Rusti and hoped he had the strength to fight his way back to her.
Cyclonus let go a deep long sigh. His head bowed in weariness.
"Cyclonus," Prime's voice surprise himself. So quiet, so soft. "I understand Galvatron's plight. I understand his status. But you . . . you can still return; or could have. Why do you stay?"
Cyclonus did not look back for a long time. But he finally gazed over his shoulder. "I am here for Galvatron."
Prime stared, struggling to understand whatever vague concept Cyclonus was addressing. "He's a part of you?"
Cyclonus' optics flared. "You think that makes me weak?"
"No. It makes you stronger. You have a wonderful sense of responsibility."
A side of Cyclonus Prime never saw before emerged as though all the passion and determination repressed for uncounted years, surfaced to speak: "I believe in the strength of Decepticon might. I believe in our destiny-whatever that might be. I believe Galvatron is still the rightful leader of the Decepticons and he will one day regain his place."
Prime did not know how to answer that. "Does that include conquest, destruction and hate, Cyclonus?"
The Decepticon shook his head just slightly. As swiftly as the passionate fire lit his face, it dimmed, leaving the usual quiet person: "I will not agree that everything Decepticons have done are honorable-by anyone's accounts. But they are MY people. And there's bound to be a place for us. But . . . how can we fight against millions of years of tainted programming? To be a Decepticon means to be a conqueror."
Once again Cyclonus' question was too big for Prime to answer. The Decepticon snorted in disgust. "What am I asking you for, Prime? How can I expect you to understand? You're still just an Autobot."
Galvatron drew a deep breath and moved as his voice stirred as from a dream. "He understands, Cyclonus. We- we. . .'re in company of the only Autobot to survive Shockwave's concentration camp. Prime understands."
Prime did not add to that. Instead, he gazed to Roller who came to them, beeping once then twice. "Cyclonus, did you see a space port nearby?"
"There is one." Cyclonus stood and rotated his newly-repaired shoulder. "I did not find it impressive. Most of the ships are substandard. Besides, I don't see why we should use a ship when obviously Galvatron has in his possession a deporter."
Both Galvatron and Prime stared at Cyclonus. "Don't think so," the chorused.
They waited several more hours for Galvatron's strength to build enough to travel. Cyclonus found additional energon and managed to acquire directions from local street rats. He feared, however, that word of a tough-guy Decepticon harassing the general public might get to Lord Ry. Cyclonus understood why Prime hated Monicus. It was dirty, unfriendly and desolate.
"The Quintessons would be at home here." he remarked.
Galvatron played with the last bit of energon in the small cube he held. He stared at it, enjoying its soft glow. "At one time it was. Monicus was a mining colony."
"Mining?" Cyclonus pretended not to notice Prime's optics dimmed. "For what?"
"Trisilium, Cyclonus. The rarest of all rare elements, including Cybertonium and psydrenium." Galvatron forced himself up. Cyclonus swiftly stood to help but Galvatron indicated he was fine. He stretched and stared at Roller. "You there, the wagon with six wheels." Roller responded in several beeps and a movement forward then left. "That's right. You're smaller than we are. But are you brave enough to navigate us safely from here?"
Roller answered with several other light beeps and a long grinded tone. He aimed straight for the hanger bay doors.
Doubt silenced Cyclonus. He did not know what Galvatron was up to. He watched impassively as his former leader knelt by their Autobot companion and draped Prime's arm across his stern shoulder.
"Come, Soldier," Galvatron quietly called. "Up. Forward."
Prime stirred. His head felt leaded, his feet reluctant to move. Galvatron lifted him with ease and it took a moment for Prime to gather his bearings.
Twenty feet from the hanger, Prime's body lightened, revived slightly by movement. He paused. "Let me . . . let me transform, Galvatron.
The Decepticon smiled. "Speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour, Prime. You're in a residential zone."
It would have been funnier at another time. But wearied by pain suppression, Prime paid the remark no mind. He slid into truck mode and winced. His systemic nocturn slips ached with brittleness.
Roller zipped about and in front of the Autobot leader, anxious to get moving. Galvatron and Cyclonus walked alongside their companion and in three blocks faced the same shambled town they escaped almost a full day before.
Roller seemed to know exactly where he was going. But being the highly maneuverable and speedy little Autobot that he was, Roller zipped in and out of sight. Prime and Galvatron, unaffected by the game of hide-and-seek, kept their course, pausing before stop signs and maintaining alert as they shuffled along the early day traffic.
Heading due west, the trio and Roller inched toward the town's newer spaceport. A worn, rusted old sign spelled the town's statistics in five languages, including trader's code.
The town's name struck a chord with Galvatron but he could not recall why. Some yards away, Prime paused in his slothful tracks, Cyclonus beside him. But Galvatron paid no mind. His optics dimmed as he struggled to recall a distant past, an event that happened long before his own initial creation.
Galvatron stared and struggled until he concluded he simply could not remember. He sighed and abandoned the roadside a bit disappointed with himself. He stomped past Prime. "I certainly hope you know how to bargain for a ship, Prime. I forgot my credit card."
"I have currency."
"Right. You're going to sell yourself for spare parts." Galvatron glanced back at the Autobot. "Have you seen yourself lately? You're not exactly standard equipment."
"I could always sell you and Cyclonus to a medical facility as cadavers."
"Nice. I'm sure Cyclonus would make a better looking carcass than I."
"Wait!" Prime hushed, "did you hear that?" He transformed but remained on his knees.
Still cross, Galvatron turned, wondering what could possibly happen now.
Soft, distant thunder rumbled about Monicus' dark day-time sky.
Galvatron and Cyclonus exchanged puzzlement while Roller zipped back to Prime's side.
"It's not possible!" Cyclonus declared. "There can't be rain on Monicus! It's an asteroid, a chunk of space rock!"
As he said it, a shadow crept over the landscape and a great white object loomed at the horizon. As it neared, tiny drops of ice-cold liquid kissed the ground. Galvatron raised his face to feel the icy touch.
Prime also reveled in the delicious clean rain, remembering the cold January rains in Oregon.
Galvatron burst into laughter. To Prime's surprise, it was not the maniacal laughter of a madmech, but a clear, confident laughter springing as from a soul reborn. "It's not water-rain, Cyclonus! It's Co2! Soda-water!
Cyclonus stared at newly-forming puddles as the Co2 bubbled like over-active peroxide. He did not see why it made Galvatron laugh.
Galvatron approached Prime, laid a friendship hand on the Autobot's shoulder and proceeded to lead them toward the spaceport.
Roller whirred and bleeped excitedly and by the second series of his chatter, the trio turned to the sound of growling, snapping scimitar dogs.
Instinctively Prime produced his rifle. Galvatron spun back and forced Prime's rifle down. "No! You'll only enrage them!"
Prime stared at Galvatron's optics. They were going to have to make a run for it and he had very little energy.
"Off the road!" Galvatron led them down a jagged ravine forested by huge ancient pillars carved by meganiums of heat and ice.
The scimitar chased madly after, skating down the ravine, tumbling head over end, even crashing against the ancient carcass of a deserted vehicle.
The Co2 rain intensified, blasting down like miniature daggers, obstructing vision and hearing. Roller and the trio of robots dodged broken stone, crumbling rock slides and shooting boulders offset by a powerful burst of lighting.
Cyclonus transformed and pelted the boulders with short bursts from his lasers, saving Galvatron and Prime and temporarily blocking the hounds.
Prime and Galvatron pressed through the punishing ice storm. A frosty blanket of frozen Co2 covered the landscape, weighing down Cyclonus' wings and icing the ground.
The hounds behind them slipped and fell but remained undeterred in their quest for Transformer hemotricity.
A lake loomed ahead of Galvatron. He marveled at the crystal-clear body of pure Co2. Prime stumbled behind him, chilled between overheating and icing over. Galvatron caught him as the weakened Autobot leader slipped. "I think we can cross into the city's drainage system." Galvatron suggested via personal intercom.
Prime's lasercore vibrated hard. His fuel lines ran hot with overheating. In spite of minor fragmenting, his head was clear enough to see there was no way across. At this point, however, he could not conjure hydrofoils from subspace. Optimus Prime only shook his head.
Galvatron reluctantly agreed with Prime's doubt. He himself could not yet fly. No bridge spanned the lake and Cyclonus would soon be too exhausted to keep the alien dogs off their backs.
As Galvatron snapped ice build-up from his shoulder struts and boots, Prime gave the surroundings a more scrutinizing examination.
If (IF) he could focus his weapon well enough he could chop the pillar into stepping stones. But they may not have enough time for steps. A bridge would be messy, but more immediate. The Autobot leader struggled to call his rifle from subspace.
One more attempt.
It did not wish to budge.
WARNING: FAILURE IN ATRICAL ZYN FOURTH POINT ACCESS
Prime by-passed safety measures and re-routed access commands. It worked but the price was a torn access point. By the time Prime retrieved his rifle, the Co2 storm had glued his feet to the ground.
"Prime, what are you doing?" Galvatron fought against mounting ice and frozen air ducts. He pushed through the falling Co2 as his weakened companion tried to change the settings on his weapon. Prime checked his aim on the great pillar before them and reset the weapon yet again before he faltered, obviously either too indecisive or two weak to carry out his plan.
Galvatron realized what the Autobot leader was attempting and thought it clever. But obviously he needed help. As Prime bowed his head again, Galvatron rushed up and caught the weapon as Prime's weary arms dropped. Galvatron respectfully offered the tri-pulsar laser rifle to his companion. "Show me how to use this thing, Optimus."
Wordlessly, Prime laid his hands on Galvatron's, guiding the Decepticon's fingers along the beta side of the laser rifle. He snapped out the subcharge nail, redirected the nucleate relay and re-clocked the laser pattern flow.
With a breath, Prime concentrated at the weakest, most logical place of the pillar's basin and gave it a single burst.
The laser shot wide, with a greater directional hit in the apex, targeting deep into the heart of the rock. True to Prime's amazing accuracy, the pillar shuddered, swayed and toppled, falling like a fossilized tree until it whacked the lake. All the pillar's weak points crumbled away, leaving more or less a solid bridge.
With a swift glance back to Cyclonus' position, Galvatron took two steps toward the new bridge before he realized Prime was not following. Inclined to insist, the Decepticon looked back. But the wearisome expression burdening the Autobot's features told Galvatron something else was taking place in Prime's mind.
The Autobot stared at the bridge; the latest in a long line of fallen giants.
Blood on your hands, a distant, dark voice whispered.
Blood stains the soul. I see it on yours; countless thousands; grains of sand.
How many more deaths?
How DARE YOU ASK FOR FORGIVENESS?
YOUR GOD HAS ABANDONED YOU!
LAY DOWN YOUR WEAPON AND ACCEPT YOUR FATE!
Prime no longer felt the freezing Co2. He did not hear Galvatron calling him. He did not feel his laser rifle slip from his hand.
No one could help him.
Galvatron wondered what care-takers charged now days and whether or not he could get a better fee for babysitting an Autobot leader. He took his companion by the shoulders and guided Prime across the bridge.
The stone slipped under their feet and Galvatron rerouted energy lines to heat the bottoms of his boots so as to attain a better grip on the stone while he supported and guided Prime.
Half way along their journey, lightening struck the Co2 lake, hyper-energizing the active water.
Vaguely Optimus Prime watched the carbonated water respond to the lightning's negative ion dispersion. The carbon molecules, re-energized, lit from the bottom up.
To the Autobot leader, it looked like a lake of liquid diamonds; pure light. Each tiny bubble contained some form of laughter that broke the surface. Just vaguely Prime heard Galvatron but he did not register anything the Decepticon said. The world around Optimus Prime grew abstract and strange. Something tugged him from the left and Prime just went along like a child, confused and disoriented.
Galvatron found it difficult to keep Prime's attention to the moment. He lapped the Autobot's arm over his shoulders and half guided, half-dragged Prime to the other side.
With a final glance back, Galvatron hoped to spot Cyclonus somewhere through the storm. But only iced Co2 met his optics. Reluctantly, the Decepticon took Prime into the drainage tunnel.
Cyclonus growled at the relentless rain. Heavy ice build-up compromised his skillful flying and the dogs snapped and crowed as they tagged the Decepticon when he slipped too close to the ground. He transformed to robot mode to keep his wings from freezing over. The ice storm caked everything around Cyclonus, reminding him of Earth's arctic landscapes. It was beautiful but either deadly, distracting or annoying. The Decepticon treaded cautiously so as to keep from slipping and spotted Galvatron and Prime making their way over a stone bridge.
Cyclonus turned to track after them when two hounds ambushed him from both sides. He took the terrible deep bite from one scimitar to avoid decapitation by the other.
Cyclonus ducked the second dog then shot the first in the eyes. It fell off, but the second scimitar scampered back. The Decepticon warrior shot it two and three times before the beast went down with a yelp. But three more came to replace it.
"This is not what I had in mind." He shot at them as they neared him at top speed. Cyclonus leapt up and transformed. Skill or not, one person could not evade a pack of hunting dogs.
Cyclonus hovered and blew the plank of sheeted ice from under the dogs. Two of them jumped clear, the third, however, attacked with a leap and securely sunk its long sharp teeth into Cyclonus' left wing. The Decepticon tilted with the sudden weight.
One way to handle this: Cyclonus shot straight up, racing against windsheer. One mile into the sky, the hound released Cyclonus' frozen wing and dropped like a rock straight into the Co2. The dog's body sizzled and vaporized.
Cyclonus cut engines and used energy to thaw his frozen exterior as he fell through the waning storm. By the time he reached twenty-five feet shy of the ground, he was able to transform and land just inside the cavernous drainage system.
Galvatron and Prime were nowhere to be found. Knowing better than to act like Scourge and open his mouth, Cyclonus advanced into the lightless world. Outside he could still hear the storm though it progressively faded and all he heard were his own quiet footfalls, padded by damp soil on the tunnel's flooring. Oddly enough, wherever Galvatron and Prime disappeared to, there appeared to be no trace of them; not in footprints or neutrino trail.
That was the strange part of it: Cyclonus should have picked up Galvatron's neutrino particles along the ground. All Decepticons leave such particles. But the ground was clean . . . except for a few drops of Autobot hemotricity.
Cyclonus dabbed his fingers in it. Lidium ditrate, cybertonium ditrate and fresh energon composites. Optimus Prime was bleeding internally.
But how would that erase a neutrino trail?
Cyclonus did not get his answer but he did find his companions a good half mile into the drain. Gavatron sat silent and still while Optimus lay on his side, powered down.
Galvatron neither moved nor spoke for a quarter of an hour. Cyclonus knew they needed to keep moving. Sooner or later the three of them would be found. He did not wish to press Galvatron. But Ry sooner or later would find the scimiatar dead and follow Prime's make-shift bridge.
Cyclonus finally faced his contemplative companion. "Galvatron, it is unwise to remain in one place too long a time. I suggest we press forward."
But Galvatron still did not speak for four more minutes. Cyclonus dared a step then his companion finally spoke: "Why do you stay, Cyclonus?"
Their optics met. But only Cyclonus stared with expectation. He had no answer.
Galvatron dislodged himself from the dirty floor and stretched his acing upper body. "It will not be long before Ry's private police track us here. I want you to leave. NOW. You'll find safety at the spaceport. Perhaps even a way off this rock."
Cyclonus silently, stubbornly crossed his arms.
"Your loyalty is faulty. Whatever assumptions you may have of me, consider them falsified."
"I am where I need to be."
Galvatron frowned, squared his shoulders and faced Cyclonus dead-on. "There is no future with me. Whatever you're looking for, you'll not find it here."
They held each other's optics for a moment.
Cyclonus shook his head. "I am not leaving, Galvatron. Neither of us knows what may happen. I make my own choices and here I will stay."
Galvatron stared deep into Cyclonus' unmoved optics. Such profound loyalty was certainly nothing he ever earned. Galvatron remembered his former brutal self and wondered how Cyclonus maintained the honor to stay so loyal. It had to be based on something far greater than greed, approbation or power lust. A small sad smile curved Galvatron's lip components. "It may lead you to your demise, my friend," he said softly.
"I will not die vainly." Cyclonus' optics darted toward the entryway. "The rain has passed, Galvatron."
Taking heed, Galvatron knelt beside Prime and scanned. He honestly did not know how much longer Prime could survive without help. He reached for the Autobot. Prime's optics shot on, startling Galvatron.
Prime sat up and stared into the Decepticon's optics with a dark but curious expression. Galvatron beheld an unholy light in the Autobot leader's optics. Prime tilted his head just so. "Son of Zh'Xn. I see you."
The voice Prime used chilled Galvatron to his processor. "Prime," he whispered.
Prime's optics dimmed then lit again and the familiar weary expression returned. "You can't help me, Galvatron. No one can."
Galvatron laid hands on Prime's weary shoulders. "Yes, I can." he whispered firmly.
Something more than just the tatlic affected Prime. Galvatron could not even guess and there was no time to ask. Wordlessly, Galvatron helped Prime to his feet and again half-walked, half dragged his exhausted companion forward while Cyclonus-wonderful, loyal Cyclonus-covered them from behind.
They did well the first forty yards. But Prime was silent and somber. His optics remained downcast, his feet dragged on occasion.
Galvatron thought it strange that he should feel so badly for anyone, let alone an Autobot. He hurt inside and finally stopped so Optimus could rest a moment.
Prime leaned heavily against the wall, still making no sound. Galvatron checked his companion's internal temperature, finding Prime too cold in some places, overheated in others.
At that point, Galvatron realized he was actually able to see Prime without shifting visual receptors. He glanced around them. "Where is the light coming from?"
Cyclonus, too, searched before preceding ahead. Galvatron lapped Prime's arm over his shoulders and guided the weakening Autobot leader behind Cyclonus. It was slow going for both of them and Galvatron hoped Optimus could hold out just a bit longer.
What they found was far from what they expected:
A shield of shimmering light blocked the whole passage like a door made of light and water. Galvatron stared but allowed Cyclonus to do the examination. The Decepticon warrior scanned it up and down over several frequencies.
"It appears, Mighty One, this is a shield based loosely on Quintesson phasing technology. But why is it here, in the middle of nowhere?"
Prime's knees tried to give and Galvatron helped him to the wall then remembered he still had Prime's weapon. He removed it from subspace and was about to return it when Prime shook his head. " . . . can't, Galvatron. The access points are torn." The Autobot leader wanted to crawl away and nurse his wounds and illness in private. But all he could do was bow his head and dim his optics.
Galvatron hesitated at first then laid a hand on his companion's arm in sympathy.
"Galvatron." Cyclonus called with an echoless soft deep voice.
Galvatron turned, as three hounds crept toward them in the dark, making not one sound. Galvatron held Prime's tripulsar laser rifle to the light and swiftly changed settings from wide to narrow shot.
Two hounds charged him just as Cyclonus shot the closest one. Galvatron aimed for one hound, crippling its right leg. The second beast knocked him down head-first and gripped the left side of his helm.
Galvatron's first thought was to bite back. Instead, he shot the thing in the belly. Rather than drop off, the bloody mess of a beast hung there, teeth firmly locked. Anger stirred by pain stole Galvatron's patience and he dug his fingers into the beast's brain casing and ripped its head apart.
He threw aside the carcass and just caught sight of movement. Galvatron rolled and back-flipped to his feet as another pair of hounds charged. He protected his face from the second onslaught but one beast blew to pieces, followed by the other.
Mildly surprised, Galvatron turned to Cyclonus who struggled with his own problem.
Prime's weapon sounded off as three Rugarrarn and two more beasts splashed their way closer.
Galvatron leapt to the Autobot's side as Prime fired straight into the Rugarraran's faces. Galvatron ripped the jaws of one, kicked another toward Cyclonus and dodged the third.
Prime finished Hound Number Three as Cyclonus smashed one against the wall and kicked the other scimitar so hard, it flew straight into the liquid-light door. The shield shorted and vanished except the three nodes along the ceiling and walls which glowed brightly enough to allow some visual perception.
Galvatron and Cyclonus stood in silence, staring at the result of their carnage. Prime let fall his weapon. He was so exhausted now he had no strength to keep the rifle in his hands.
Galvatron took up the Autobot leader's rifle. Optimus remained unmoved as Cyclonus joined them. Galvatron glanced at Cyclonus then back to Prime, concerned, and silently offered assistance.
Prime's optics flared lightly. "I think I can still walk a while, Galvatron."
The former Decepticon leader let Prime walk ahead, though he and Cyclonus glanced knowingly at one another. Galvatron did not know if it was Prime's own pride that kept him going or some other aspect of the Autobot leader's personality. Either way, Galvatron gave Prime whatever room he needed.
Optimus did not fully understand why his companions did not just leave him and move on. Was that not the custom among Decepticons; leave the weak so the strong would survive?
Static ate at the Autobot leader's optics and he rerouted lines. Keep going. Don't let anyone down. Don't let them think you're weak.
It was Primus' will the strong survived. Optimus recalled an Earth theorist who made up the so-called law of survival of the fittest. Cold, but often true in the nature of things. Why shouldn't the Autobots just all lie down and die? Such futility! Weakened by their own conscious, norms and standards, the Autobots deserved extermination.
Primus always favored the Decepticons. They were the stronger . . .
His legs gave out and Optimus collapsed. Primus cared nothing for him or the Autobots he served and sacrificed for.
Someone half-lifted him and Optimus gazed into Galvatron's glowing red optics.
If the Decepticons were so favored by Primus, why weren't they appointed to take charge of the Matrix?
Maybe Primus had been playing mind games with the Autobots all this time.
"All this . . . futility." Optimus weakly mourned. "Why are we still alive? The Autobots . . . so worthless. Nothing. We mean nothing to Primus."
"What are you talking about?" Galvatron wiped fluid streaming down the Autobot's faceplate.
Prime did not seem to hear the question. "I mean nothing . . . all my prayers. All I get is silence." Prime's own words threatened to choke him to death. He ached inside-out.
Had this been anyone other than Optimus Prime, Galvatron would have accused him of putting on a display. But such a thing was not a part of Prime's nature. Something was terribly wrong; never in all his life had Galvatron known Prime to be either emotional or irrational.
Galvatron saw movement from his right and covered Optimus Prime with his body. A scimitar landed on Galvatron's back and tore into the Decepticon's shoulder.
Shutting down all pain receptors, Galvatron took to his feet and ripped the blood hound off his body. A second scimitar came at Galvatron but Cyclonus took it out with his weapon.
Galvatron threw the first dog against the wall and shot it twice.
Something freezing hot sliced along Galvatron's back and with a cry, he shot around to face some sort of four-armed alien bounty hunter.
"Talked at Ry to find you easy, Transformer."
Galvatron delivered a jaw-shattering punch but he cussed vehemently the moment the bounty hunter rebounded and leapt for him.
Dimly Prime heard the fighting around him. Shadows danced in his mind and he struggled to attain strength. But there remained no strength with which to help himself let alone his companions.
"Primus," he whispered.
A large foot, larger than his own, stepped in front of him. Prime forced his optics to climb the height of the person before him. Through x-ray and thermo-vision, the Autobot leader beheld a monster of a creature with the upper torso of an Earth bull and the lower section of a humanoid.
Such creatures were only myth on Earth, but Prime knew a Minotaur when he saw one. They were indeed as brutal and powerful as their physic suggested. The mythical beast loomed over him and drew a long blood-stained sword. "Cut off the head, scoop out the brains. Drink down the blood, toss out the remains."
The bounty hunter swung up, all his strength ready for the kill. Something dark woke inside Prime and his body surged, his optics flared white-hot with a power not his own. "YOUR INSISTENCE, BRUTAL. YOUR LIFE MINE."
A gruesome spiked head snapped down from the ceiling and a set of giant teeth bit off the top portion of the bounty hunter's skull.
From a distance, Prime heard the Voog D'Draph's voice echo eerily as from a dream and for a moment, Prime hoped it all was just a really bad dream. But more voices and the howls of the scimitar followed the Voog D'Draph's words. Ry's hunting party advanced into the tunnel. "Here, Lord Ry! Sitting in the water! Someone has killed the scimitar!"
Galvatron heard her voice, too but he could do nothing as long as his head remained locked under the bounty hunter's grip. The wound along his back burned and smoldered and Galvatron presumed the weapon was acid-laden.
The bounty hunter squeezed tighter, not aware Decepticons had two back-up systems for energy and cooling distribution. Which was how, though cut off from energy to his CPU, Galvatron was still able to sneak his arm around the hunter's leg and trip him up. Galvatron plunged his elbow into the hunter's face, smashing his nose.
The Decepticon scampered and without preamble, Galvatron pulled Prime to his feet and the three stumbled over the minotaur into the darkness until Cyclonus and Galvatron heard another round of guns charge up for the kill.
"GO!" Galvatron shouted to the other Decepticon. At first, Cyclonus objected, then realized it would be better if he left then came back in a surprise attack- if that was Galvatron's plan. Cyclonus hesitated just long enough to send a few charges down the tunnel before he shifted to jet mode, keeping his wings clipped to fit the tunnel.
Driven by instinct, Prime and Galvatron ambled along as dogs dashed for them. Ry and the Voog D'Draph's voices egged their hunters forward.
Running was difficult enough for Galvatron. Bitten, slashed and slowly disintegrating from the acid blade, his body screamed for retaliation.
Optimus Prime, however, had nothin left and did not feel the laser shot it hit him in the back.
He slammed against the cool dirty floor as his body gave out completely. Echos and voices rang loud but garbled. Someone half-lifted him from the ground. His whole exostructure ached from softened metal. Galvatron distantly called but Prime could not answer.
The Autobot leader gasped for cooler air in Galvatron arms as he half-held Prime's languid form. The former Decepticon commander sorely regretted there was nothing more he could do.
". . .go." Prime gasped, his optics weakly flared. " . . . go. You can still go."
"No!" Galvatron choked up. "We've come too far! I WON'T let you go!"
The scraping claws of two scimitars hissed along the drain walls as the encroaching dogs snarled and gnashed their solid steel teeth.
Easy prey lay ahead; they could take their time.
The first scimitar came within three feet of Galvatron before it inexplicably exploded. The second one charged and leapt for its prey but it blew to pieces above Galvatron's head.
Someone's body slammed upon the drain's dirty flooring and the Decepticon clearly heard the Voog D'Draph struggle against a silent and invisible foe.
He gathered Prime and started to carry him away when the constable cried out and charged him. Galvatron did not know how he did it, but he gently laid the Autobot down, spun once and cuffed the female in the chin, using her own momentum against herself.
She flipped backward and landed hard on her back. A steel blade flashed out of nowhere and separated the Voog D'Draph's head from her body.
Shocked, Galvatron's optics darted this way, that. Cyclonus was nowhere to be seen. Optimus coughed slightly and when the Decepticon turned back to attend Prime, he encountered a set of strong red optics staring him square in his face.
Galvatron startled and yelped.
The optics belonged to a tall, strong but shapely figure who secured a huge weapon at the hip.
"Phasics set. Take them." a feminine voice spoke behind Galvatron but no matter where he looked, he could not locate the voice's owner.
The figure before him remained unmoved. "Is the Autobot with you?" The voice, though a slightly different pitch, was also feminine.
"Y-yes." Galvatron stammered.
"Take him and follow."
Galvatron watched the figure walk off. What precious bit of light shed through the drain tunnel revealed the figure as a femme.
But it was a robotic femme.
And she was a Decepticon robotic femme.
His powercore froze in shock.
How the Pitt?
She paused and turned back, red optics bright, face expressionless. "Do you require assistance?"
Galvatron stared, dumbfounded.
She approached and the former leader thought his fuel lines would burst with fear and excitement, with wordless shock, with bewilderment and absolute joy.
She knelt on one knee and examined him, still expressionless, and spoke slowly. "Do you require assistance?"
Galvatron could not snap himself out of his perplexity. "How are you still living? Shockwave killed all of you; you're all dead."
"I am Panda. I will not harm you. My scanners indicate your companion is badly damaged."
Panda. Galvatron's lip components moved but no sound uttered from his vocalizer.
Still expressionless, she turned from the immobilized Galvatron to the injured Autobot. The softest tones of compassion from her made Galvatron all but melt. "Oh . . . he has tatlic." Panda proceeded to half-lift Optimus Prime. She cringed when his exostructure sank slightly by her attempt to move him. "We must get him to medbay. He's in the last stages."
Galvatron blinked out of his state enough to take on Prime's languid form, admonishing himself. He too cringed when Prime's metal, softened by chemical breakdown, caved in.
With a drawn breath, Galvatron nodded for Panda to lead the way.
Twenty feet down, a soft light flickered on and Panda glanced at Galvatron. "Your design is alien, but you are still Decepticon. Explain."
"I am Galvatron. This is Optimus Prime."
Panda paused. Her movements were so silent, so fluid, Galvatron thought he could never tire watching her. "I was emphasizing your looks, Galvatron. You do not look like any Decepticon I've seen. He certainly does not resemble an Autobot worker or scientist. I do not understand."
At a loss for words, Galvatron glanced back toward the force field then to Panda. "Neither do I. You are obviously a Decepticon femme, yet there have been no Decepticon femmes for millions of years."
"Nonsequitur. Your statement is faulty. Explain."
Panda shook her head. "I do not know of Shockwave. What is it?"
"Shockwave was a Decepticon high-command who hunted down and exterminated the femme population on-why don't you know of it? It's in our history."
A second femme's voice sounded from Galvatron's right and another figure emerged as if from rock and shadow. Galvatron could hardly see her except for her radiant optics and highlights off her rich dark skin. "We stand ever still inside the phasic shield. Cybertron has apparently changed and you, Galvatron, said your companion's name is Prime. Is this not correct?"
"Yes. Optimus Prime."
"I do not think they are from Monicus, Black Ice." Panda intervened.
Unmoved by her companion's assessment, Black Ice stared hard into Galvatron's optics. "And am I wrong to ascertain that this is an Autobot leader?"
"He is a Senior Prime. One of two." Had Galvatron not been so mesmerized, he would have already grown impatient.
"And what year is it on Cybertron?"
"Uhh . . . AU 33, I believe. Post-Unicronian."
The two femmes stared.
"It appears you are from the past, Panda. My past. I am from Cybertron's future." A drop of warmth landed on Galvatron's left foot and he tried to see past Optimus' form but could not.
Panda bent over, examined the liquid and stood straight. "Enough conversation. Come. Or we will lose him."
Black Ice stepped ahead of Panda and led them another sixteenth of a mile. Galvatron almost could not keep up with the ladies. He certainly was not as quiet as they. Aching from battle wounds and still weary from ingesting poisoned energon, he found it frustrating keeping an optic on them and one on Prime. "Wait," he called. "It's been a crappy day."
The Decepticon femmes paused simultaneously and faced him. Without preamble, Panda took Prime and stole two steps back, staring at Galvatron expectantly.
The Decepticon mech shook his head, bewildered. "I don't understand. He is an Autobot. Why are you concerned for his welfare?"
Black Ice's stoic expression turned to shock. "WHAT?"
"Nonsequitur, Galvatron." Panda chastised. "Explain your remark."
"He is an Autobot. You are Decepticon. What more need I say?" The ladies merely stared at him, astounded. "THE WAR?" Galvatron emphasized. "You know what that is, correct? The Autobots attack us, we conquer them. They revolt and start the process over again."
Panda looked appalled. "The Autobots are our life source. We are their protectors. You speak . . . non-logically."
"Enough conversation." Black Ice said sternly. She turned Panda round by the shoulders and glared at Galvatron.
They descended further underground into a hand-hewn tunnel.
The tunnel broke into a great cavern wherein stood a sizable Decepticon craft. It was well built but, to Galvatron's surprise, it was not a war ship.
Galvatron followed the ladies onto the landing dock at the belly of the vessel. Two sturdy Decepticon fliers zoomed up to greet the party. They transformed and between them, assembled an energy antigrav medical carrier from subspace.
One flier immediately helped Panda lay Prime on the flat. Optimus stirred from the movement. His dark dreams trapped him in regret, violence and death. He gasped for air as though suffocating and stretched his fingers, groping for some shred of hope.
He was being eaten alive while he watched his people die.
"They should have executed me."
Panda held the fliers back one moment longer. Never had she heard such despondent regret come from the spark of an Autobot, let alone an Autobot leader.
She attentively took his outstretched hand and hovered close so he might hear: "We're here for you."
Her words came painfully sweet like the final colors of a dying sunset. The Autobot leader dimmed on his optics and struggled through dark static to see the face of kindness. But he perceived nothing.
The medical team could wait no longer and left Panda to deal with her sorrow. Galvatron and Black Ice joined her, staring down the same dim passage. Panda could not face them.
"I have never seen an Autobot leader so completely dispirited or disconsolate. What could possibly have happened to break his spark?"
Guilt afflicted Galvatron, although he knew he was not guilty.
Black Ice shot him a cold look. "Perhaps a thing called 'conquest', Panda. Rejection of the Rite of Protocol."
"No." Galvatron denied. "He was nothing like this the last time I saw him -sixteen rotations ago." Panda hugged herself and Galvatron saw something he believed was only a recent phenomena: he wiped her face of tears. "You're crying! We never cry-at least until lately." Black Ice stared at him emotionless then proceeded into the ship alone. Galvatron tightened the corners of his mouth. "I seem to be . . . unacceptable."
Panda gave him a wry smile. "Do not let Black Ice intimidate you, Galvatron. It takes her time to warm up to strangers." He did not answer and Panda held out her hand. "Come. Your friend is waiting to see you. He ran into us when he was about to return to you."
Galvatron took her sturdy, warm hand. "I told Cyclonus to go. I knew Prime-" Galvatron almost said 'Prime was dying' but found he could not say it.
"We convinced him to remain." Panda quickly amended. "We've encountered problems with the riffraff before." She led Galvatron down three corridors and into what he presumed to be medbay. Three tables stood in the middle of a room packed with equipment and technology the likes of which Galvatron had not seen. It was not antiquated by any means.
The first table held Optimus Prime's devitalized body. Around him swarmed four Decepticons; one Decepticon called out the stats, another secured life support systems. A taller Decepticon ran several scans over the Autobot leader.
"LIFE SUPPORT IS GO." the ship's quiet computer voice called through the room.
Galvatron watched as the medics, assistants, scanners and other mechanical devices paraded around the Autobot in a mad dance to save his life.
Panda stared at him until the former Decepticon leader acquiesced to her silent question.
"We should have been here sooner."
"He is important to you."
"Jigsaw and Jitzu are both experts. He could not be under better care."
The staff called the computer to startup life-support systems according to Autobot specifications. The center table slid out of the room into an opening in the nearby wall. A large metal basin rose from a compartment in the floor. A shallow pool of silver-blue and marbled-black liquid gently waved back and forth. One Decepticon physician asked the computer to verify the basin's liquid temperature as the medical team gently lifted their patient and laid Optimus Prime in.
"Life support calculating," an assistant reported. The basin automatically adjusted to the Autobot's shape. Basin edges broadened and the fluid level increased so that it did not completely cover Prime. The basin also automatically elevated the Autobot's head and readjusted temperatures.
"SCANNING ALL SYSTEMS AND FREQUENCIES." The computer reported softly.
Galvatron found himself a seat in a nearby corner as Cyclonus approached, guided by yet another femme. The former Decepticon lieutenant settled next to Galvatron and at first, waited for Galvatron to say something before turning his optics to the doctors. "I apologize, Mighty One. I would have returned except they insisted I remained."
"They came for us, Cyclonus. We are safe. And don't call me that."
Cyclonus met his optics and offered a slight smile. "Did you know there are seventy-five Decepticons here? And one-third of them are femme."
Surges ran down Galvatron's infrastructural rod. His optics settled on the silent, dark red and black femme standing behind Cyclonus. She too watched the medics, seeming oblivious to the new-comers.
Her helm swept out then up in graceful curves. Her face reflected no emotion. Complete control. Complete logic. She was beautiful.
"What the Pitt is THAT?"
Jigsaw's comment roused Galvatron's suspicion and the mech joined them. His optics followed theirs to a view screen on the left side wall. A head and chest scan of Optimus Prime displayed fine tendrils sprawled along his neural network and an alien component lay beating within his chest. Galvatron stepped closer for a better view.
Jigsaw, a Decepticon beast of unknown species, scrutinized him. "How long have you been with the Autobot? Do you know what this is?"
Galvatron solemnly shook his head. "Not long enough. And no. Is this not the disease?
"This is a spectrographic analysis of your Autobot friend's life systems. We commonly use the machine to decode the grade of trisilium. On Autobots, it allows us to track the integrity of the transductive port stabilizers and the systemic nocturn slips which are usually affected by tatlic. I have no idea what this thing is, but it exists on the gamma life force frequency."
As they watched, the beating component churned until a faceless head partly materialized out of the monitor's view screen and a set of bloodied eyes shot open. All the Decepticons flinched in surprise.
Galvatron recalled the words Prime spoke and now he suspected it wasn't Prime at all but this thing inside him. Undaunted, Galvatron inched closer, more curious than unnerved. "Can you remove it?" he glanced at the medic round his shoulder.
"Negative. It's not a corporeal form, Galvatron. Technically, it's not real."
Galvatron snorted. "It's real enough to frighten a room full of Decepticons. And it's AWARE of us. How is Optimus Prime?"
"Stabilized for now. It will take time to amend and reactivate his repair systems. He's a remarkable piece of machinery. I've not seen anything built to handle so much tension, so much punishment. Some areas of his physiology are intricate and beautifully advanced."
Jigsaw's answer reminded Galvatron of an Earth automobile commercial and he wondered if Prime would consider the statement insulting. Galvatron returned to his seat and waited.
Bit by bit, the medics and their assistants' voices lulled the Deception to a shallow sleep. Memories of Mars crossed his dreams and he remembered the cold voices of the Quintessons and the sinister Inoux.
Was that why he was given a second chance? Was he supposed to take up the slack when Optimus Prime dies?
Galvatron's optics flashed at the thought. He did NOT want that to happen. He swore to God he was weary of death. The person he once was simply wasn't there anymore.
A gentle hand touched his shoulder and the former leader sat up from his stupor to accept a cordial of energon and nutrients.
Panda sat beside him, watching Jigsaw scan and rescan his own work. "What are you fearful for, Galvatron?"
"What makes you think-"
"I've watched you rest. You are concerned."
"What are you fearful for?"
Galvatron stared as a medic declared Optimus Prime was breathing on his own. "Him. Us. We are a dying people."
She hesitated."what makes you say that?"
"Vector Sigma is dead, Panda. The Quintessons have won."
She stared hard at him. "I WON'T believe that. Until every spark of every Transformer has been extinguished, the Quintessons have won nothing. They STILL fear us, do they not?" Galvatron nodded. "Then they have not won."
"But you and the other femmes do not exist in my time, Panda. They have won one victory through the devices of Shockwave's prejudice."
Panda's expression turned cold. "Then we will have to remedy the situation."
Galvatron smiled, but doubt kept his mouth shut. From subspace he produced one of the two Inouxian deporters and examined it." Panda, do you know anything of this technology?"
She glanced at it and shook her head. "Black Ice, Panther, Solstice and Magenta are the techs. I am just here to kick aft."
That brought a broader smile to the former Decepticon leader. "It can wait. What is that . . . stuff, that liquid they placed Prime in?"
"We call it Latzbitris. It's a home-made mix of lanthanum, zinc, boron, nitrogen and trisilium-and a few other additives."
I've not heard of such a repair technique."
She shrugged. "We discovered trisilium has amazing aspects. Research is underway in miniaturization properties and the construction of nactites. We're searching for a way for robots to heal themselves, or even replicate components within their own bodies. We've been mining for decades directly under Quintesson olfactory. "
Galvatron started in shock. "Auto repair systems that can also physically replace worn or damaged components? That sounds more like science fiction, Panda."
Panda shook her head. "They said the same thing at the time Crystal City was designed. Her optics fell back to the deporter in his hand. "Come! I'll talk to Black Ice or Magenta. Perhaps they can decipher your hand-held mystery."
Galvatron looked to Cyclonus as though asking for permission to leave. Cyclonus gave a simple nod. Galvatron sent him a look of gratitude before Panda led him down a short hall and into a small lab-
A single-faced Quintesson lackey led Galvatron down a cold, filthy corridor. The Decepticon's chains clinked and rattled about his body; a knell declaring his own demise. They entered a doorway -
Black Ice turned to greet them. Her reflective body mirrored her surroundings. Panda stood aside to permit Galvatron in. "Galvatron possesses one of those ancient deporter artifacts," she explained. "He should like to know how it works."
The Quintesson scientist left his work to examine Galvatron first hand. "Am I not correct to assume this was once Megatron?"
"He came with the Autobot leader, currently under examination."
"I see. And tell us, Galvatron, what possessed you to join forces with the Autobots?"
Galvatron bore holes into the Quint with his optics. "Hatred of you?"
"I think there are crystalline elements in here that are not native to our dimension. In fact . . ." Black Ice stood from the electron microscope and gazed at Galvatron and Panda, " . . . it doesn't look like it should work at all." She tapped a tiny pool of unknown liquid"
Cold thunder struck Galvatron's right side and his audios fell offline momentarily. Someone or something just punched him hard enough to knock him silly. He stood, finding his surroundings in polished stone and a great computer spanning one entire wall. An alien hissed several unsavory words at Galvatron before the Decepticon realized what he was staring at a hideous alien with two long muscular legs and tentacles snaking from its back. Its head contained three faces: one loathsome, one offensive and the last unbelievably deformed.
"I warned you NOT to send messages to Bare Anches! Certainly ANYTHING with psychic ability will pick up the transmission!"
An ancient five-faced Quintesson floated from behind Galvatron and answered his enraged counterpart with the familiar, smooth voice. "We were unaware Humans had psychic abilities. It would explain their ability to write or create art-"
"I am SICK of your rambling, Kal-Al-Arn. The damage is done and all the time flashes are leading to a cosmic storm!"
"Fasa Somane, naturally I respect your intellect. But there is no such thing-"
"Are you functioning properly, Galvatron? Do you require something?" Panda scrutinized him and Black Ice turned from her work, her bright optics pierced him.
Galvatron sheepishly shrugged. "Rest, perhaps. But the deporter is by far more important."
Black Ice shook her head. "This requires time. I suspect this is interfering with our phasic shielding, causing time flashes."
Galvatron stared at the dissected piece of machinery. "Time flashes? That can't be correct. We experienced time flashes on Mars-before I used the deporter."
Black Ice turned to Panda. "My calculations appear incompatible with other current phenomena. Something is moving along the positive protonic wavelengths. But when I approach, it disappears."
"I will ask Solstice to investigate. Come, Galvatron. Allow me to take you to a resting place.
Galvatron felt time pressing; something inside screamed his time was short; that he needed to get Prime and Cyclonus out. But he did not know how.
He followed Panda down the corridor, passing the infirmary where attention over Optimus Prime fell quiet.
"Wait," he called softly. "I should like to check."
Wordlessly the black and silver femme followed him into medbay. All but two of the med staff had left a while ago to allow Prime some time to recover from treatment. At a table in a corner of the room, Jitzu worked on several digipads and muttered quietly to himself.
At the cubical sat Panther, attending Prime by slowly scooping liquid and sprinkling it over his sleeping form. Panther welcomed Galvatron and Panda with a light smile. The Decepticons approached and Galvatron searched for something to give him a status.
"He *is* better, Galvatron." Panther said softly. "But he is exhausted. He knows you're here, too." she gazed at him with crimson optics. "You're important to him. I think I can tell why."
Panda interjected here with a touch on Galvatron's forearm. "I should let you know that Panther is psychic, Galvatron."
His face brightened. "Then you must be aware of the time flashes."
Panther turned grim. "I've shielded myself from sensitivity to them a long time ago. Monicus sits on the edge of a ley-line. Time flashes happen often but in the past few weeks, they've occurred more frequently and more intense-" Panther paused as though listening to Optimus Prime. But he was not speaking. "Was he subjected to a life-altering traumatic experience at some point, Galvatron?'
"You could say that."
"His spark is splintered."
"I've sat here all this time because I sensed he was in pain. I see now that his spark is only fraction of what it should be. What happened?"
Galvatron guiltily shook his head. "I don't know. Cyclonus and I have not seen the Autobots for several rotations. We've come to an impasse with the Decepticons and sought assistance. What we found was an offensive maneuver by the Quintessons and something else: the Inoux."
Panther, Panda and Jitzu stared at him. Jitzu put down his work and joined the group. "Why have the Inoux returned? Primus Maximus vanquished them a long time ago before the Dark One took power."
"The Dark One?" Cyclonus echoed from his corner. "Who is that?"
Panther looked away, her face heavy. "We do not mention his name. He spoke and millions died. The light in Cybertron vanquished. The sky lost its color and parts of our world fell to radiation-disease. Whole levels are now unable to support life of any kind."
Cyclonus gazed at each robot in turn. "You speak of Dark Prime. The one Autobot leader who was assassinated by his own warriors."
"Those few who were left, yes." Panda folded her arms, her face downcast. "No one knew any Autobot had such control. No one knew the Matrix of Leadership was so powerful. That's why the Rite of Protocol was formed."
"The what?" Galvatron and Cyclonus chorused.
Panther stared at them, wondering if they did not hear her. "The Rite of Protocol," she repeated.
"What is that?" Cyclonus asked first.
Panther looked to Panda in disbelief. "Are you serious? You don't know?"
Jitzu lined his face with puzzlement. "As advanced as you are, being from the future, how could you not know the Rite of Protocol?"
Galvatron squirmed with embarrassment. "Meganiums from now, your time, the Quintessons will create a monster of monsters: Megatron." Galvatron's own words bit his spark.
A truth of truths. Megatron was a monster.
With a bit of breath and courage, Galvatron continued his explanation: "This monster's narrow-minded obsession with power set the Decepticon social structure into chaos. We became a race of monsters. Uncivilized, we waged war with the Autobots. We destroyed anything standing between us and rulership of Cybertron and other planets across the quadrant. History was either rewritten or eliminated and forgotten altogether. The femmes were driven to extinction. We lost our culture, our logic and our objectivity. The so-called Rite of Protocol has not existed for millions and millions of years."
The other Decepticons were stunned into silence. Galvatron felt as though he had told the darkest and dirtiest secret of his life and felt deeply ashamed of everything. Such waste. All for what?
But now he realized that power and fame did not create happiness. His own lust destroyed the very thing he wanted. What evil possessed-
It was over.
That person was dead and gone because Galvatron was given a second chance. All he had to do was accept it. And he did. The monster inside him was dead and gone and he could move forward.
The challenge of so doing was enormous. Galvatron understood that his people were dying. Prime told him there would be no more children. But he did not know if he were sent back to watch them and the Autobots vanish into extinction, or pull them back from it.
Either way, Galvatron acknowledged he had neither the power or the ability to save them.
He spoke again in a room filled with despair. "It seems to me that the so-called Golden Age of Cybertron pales sorely compared to the age wherein the Rite of Protocol was used. Tell me the Protocol. Teach it to me."
Panther turned wholly to Optimus Prime. His captivating blue optics dimmed on but she doubted he was aware. She dipped her long fingers into the basin's warm fluids and sprinkled drops over his chest and face plate like gentle rain. She hoped they were in time to save him. But why bother? There was no future; not for any of them.
But Panther's honor-all their honor-demanded they pass down the doctrine of integrity. If there was even the slightest chance that someone else caught onto what was truly important, then the Rite had to be taught.
"Article I: Rebound: Death returns to those who deal it out abusively. For death comes to the spark, to the core and to the body alike. What you pass out will return-" Panther shot her hard gaze at Galvatron. "-how could you wage war on the Autobots? We RELY on them! We are a symbiotic society! Without them, we would starve. Without us, they would be vulnerable to enslavement by the Psortaons, the Chank and the Inoux!"
Galvatron could not reply. Even as simple an answer as 'narrow-minded arrogance' did not sound detailed enough to excuse millions and millions of years of war. No, actually, it wasn't war. It was genocide.
Panda took up the next segment of the Rite: "Article II: Hatred is the death of reason. Forgiveness is the rebirth of relations. Article III . . . "
Galvatron silently mourned as the vicious Quintesson scientists tore into Prime's lifeless body.
Ry-Sooqual Al-aldura floated to the Decepticon. His Face of Deceit projected gloat. "By rights I should thank you for stopping long enough to visit us-"
"It's not here!"
Sooqual's Face of Hate switched and snarled at Galvatron. "Where is it, Galvatron? Where is the Autobot Matrix?"
Galvatron grinned. "Let me think. Uhhmmm . . . Oh YES! I gave it to Scourge to destroy. That was, oh let me see . . . about THIRTY-FIVE EARTH YEARS AGO!"
A single-faced Quint snaked over. "Ignore the Decepticon reject. There are other means to acquire the whereabouts of the Matrix."
Galvatron watched them depart. He and Prime endured several days of torment and interrogation in Quintesson chambers.
Weakened by the Virus, Prime fell into a chasm of silence unbroken either by word or torture. But the night he died, he told Galvatron an astonishing secret:
"The Matrix . . . my son has the Matrix."
"Your SON? You have a son?"
"Mechlatex can heal the Matrix. He can go to Mechlatex . . ."
Galvatron searched for a light of strength usually present in Prime's face but he found nothing but the flare of dying optics. "We will find your son. WE will go to Mechlatex."
Prime's form slowly went limp and grey, leaving Galvatron along to mourn.
No Quintessons. No torture chamber.
Prime was still alive.
Panda recited the Rite of Protocol word for word for another hour, inserting bits of history Galvatron knew nothing about. After a while, however, the conversation fell from the whole room to just himself and the femme. Galvatron listened to every word she said, asking questions only when he did not clearly understand. It was like taking a crash course in current events.
Galvatron fell asleep still listening to her, or so he thought. He stirred later, finding the room quiet with resting comrades.
For the first time since his arrival, Galvatron wondered why he and Cyclonus had yet to meet the ship's captain. But time was old and inappropriate for social introduction; especially if this group rejuvenated at regular intervals.
Galvatron thought about checking on Optimus Prime when a shadow darkened the doorway. Black Ice stepped in, quieter than the passing night. She squatted before Galvatron, the reassembled deporter in hand. "Apologies for the interruption," she said via interpersonal comline.
"I was already awake. What have you found?"
"Sequencing. Blue sets the designation. White is the timing of departure and arrival. Black is the distance."
Galvatron took the hematite box from her and examined it casually. "Coordinates?"
Black Ice lined her lip components and solemnly shook her head. "My guess-and I apologize for it-I suppose whomever owns the deporter would already know the sequencing numbers, the coordinates."
Galvatron almost banged his head against the wall but stopped himself before waking anyone. "Nice."
"I can't be expected to skip-rope across the damned cosmos with nothing but my wits, Black Ice."
"No. But with a little more time, I might come up with something."
Panther's voice softly filled the quiet room with a kind greeting in Ancient Autobot. Galvatron pushed himself to his feet and approached the basin, half expecting Prime to sit up and start asking questions.
Prime, however, did neither. He stared at Panther, his optics glowed faintly. The fingers of his right hand opened and closed and he tried to speak, but made no sounds.
Panther slowly moved about him, checking support systems and temperature readouts. Galvatron could tell they communicated privately and wanted to patch in, but felt it would be an intrusion.
"Panther," he said quietly, "Status."
"He is disoriented and wants to know about someone named 'Rusti.' at first I thought he was joking when he said her name then said she was his love. I've tried to explain the situation but he's too confused to understand."
"I see." Galvatron plastered a firm expression and tried to look annoyed. "I grow weary of being your nurse-maid, Prime. You're more trouble than my agent said you'd be. I'm raising my fees."
Dizziness assailed Prime and for a moment he could not understand what Galvatron said. His first attempt to answer failed. He tried again but his voice reverberated slightly and words came slow. "You make a lousy baby sitter . . . Galvatron. If I paid you . . . I'd dock you for paying more attention to the girls . . . than to me and Cyclonus."
The ladies smiled but only Panda laughed once. Galvatron's optics glanced from Panda to Black Ice to Panther. Their quiet demeanor was nothing less than sheer delight. "Well . . . they're prettier than you. I think you can forgive that." he caught a faint smile from Prime before the Autobot leader faded back to rest.
Black Ice turned and left the room. Galvatron looked to Panther. "When will he be strong enough to travel?"
"Unknown. Not all the damage is because of the tatlic, Galvatron."
It wasn't the answer he hoped for but Galvatron was grateful Prime was at least out of danger. Without another word, he chased Black Ice down the corridor, rushing to keep up with her long silent strides. "How can we map coordinates for the deporter, Black Ice?"
She paused dead still and he had to back up two paces. Her striking red optics searched his face. "Stay with us, Galvatron. You, Prime and Cyclonus. I am aware you may already have plans in your time-period. But there is so much we can learn from one another."
Galvatron ran a finger down the side of her helm and sadness filled him. "Millions of years from now, from your time, a monster will rise and eliminate the one thing that kept a check on Decepticon rationality. Make no mistake when I tell you that seeing you-all the ladies here-is a gift. We became a race of brutes." Then he brightened, "how about you come with us? All of you? Rejoin the Decepticons in the future!"
Black Ice recoiled. "Follow you into an era of death? Follow you to a place and time when there is nothing but grief and destruction? To become a part of a society that knows nothing but greed and hate?"
"Not be a part of it, Black Ice, to help us CHANGE it!"
She shook her head. "You cannot expect a blue star to turn cold. How can you expect a Decepticon to stop his barbaric ways? You will never be able to change that. If you are looking to change our people, then you will have to find those who are willing to change."
The ground under them shifted and Galvatron backed against the partition to steady himself.
"It's another quake."
"Another quake? Black Ice, this is an asteroid."
Affirmative. But it's the fourth quake we've had in three days-"
Her words were cut off when both Decepticons saw a line of Quintessons float right out of one wall, cross the corridor and disappear into the next wall. Heedless of possible danger, Galvatron approached the line and stared at the procession and the incredible ornamental crowns they bore.
"Kuthrain. Sord. Sort kuth nemral. Zh'xn. . . Zh'xn . . . Kuthrain. Kuthrian. Pyrt . . . Pyrt . . . Kuthrian. Kuthrian. Ardazh . . . Ardazh . . . Kuthrian. Kuthrian. Sormate-Tri . . .Kuthrian. Kuthrian."
And then the procession faded as though they never were.
Surges ran up an down Galvatron's back. He turned to Black Ice. "Tell me you saw that."
"I saw that."
"Tell me the truth."
"I would not lie to you, Galvatron."
"A time flash. But what it was about, I do not know. Except . . . I've heard the word "Zh'xn" before. But not from a Quintesson."
"They were wearing aimeem. That hss not existed for millions of years."
"What is aimeem?"
"Crowns worn by a powerful cult some sects of the Conntinuum involved themselves. They considered themselves allies or partners to certain races or powers. The crowns or aimeem supposedly connected their consciousness to the powers or peoples they worshiped."
Galvatron recalled Prime calling him son of Zh'xn. But he doubted Black Ice would know anything of it and the mech chose to keep the knowledge to himself.
The ground shook underfoot again and this time the two Decepticons heard a rumbling.
Cyclonus found them and swayed, hugging the wall when an aftershock hit. "Galvatron," he called, "scanners indicate something is breaking Monicus apart."
With a glance to Black Ice, Galvatron followed Cyclonus to the infirmary but planned to head straight to the bridge.
The next quake knocked everyone off their feet.
Prime, however, felt nothing since the basin remained level by anti gravity. But his optics were on and he was dimly aware of his surroundings and more aware of Panther who had spoken kindly to him. He noticed the ceiling disappeared as though faded from existence. Stars, asteroids and faint nebula stretched above them like a magical mural. Puzzled, all he could do was stare.
Galvatron climbed to his feet, holding the edge of the basin. "Cyclonus," he called, "we're leaving. Now."
"Yes!" Black Ice agreed. "Use the deporter!"
"Not without you. Come."
"No. It's not our time."
Prime just vaguely heard the conversation. As did Cold Darkness. It was planning; taking account all possibilities, all parties involved. But Cold Dark did not like the Decepticons. They left a bitter taste in Its mouth. "Galvatron," Prime tore his gaze from the naked ceiling to his companion and managed to sit up. "I think the chip has malfunctioned."
Galvatron assumed Prime's disorientation kept him divorced from the problem at hand. He pulled the Autobot out and supported him with one arm. "Time to go."
Stop. What the Pitt was he doing? He did not, should not leave the other Decepticons! Galvatron berated himself.
But his own hand held out the deporter, ready to give it a try. He hesitated, shook his head. There was treasure he did not want to leave behind.
Prime feebly reached for the little hematite box. "Galvatron. I'll go. They need you."
Galvatron gazed at Panda and she lipped the word 'stay'. His spark ached between the choices.
The asteroid rumbled again, the ship swayed underfoot.
Galvatron finally made his choice.
EARTH DATE: November 28, 2038
Shock and dismay rocked the quadrant today when news of the destruction of asteroid gambling central Monicus inexplicably exploded. Teams of scientists and investigators from Taurus IV, Rells, and Rya-G crowded the scene in hopes of clues and survivors. So far, however, nothing solid has been assessed. No suspects have been tagged with the crime of planetcide.
More news as it develops.
Continued in chapter 8