Author's Note: Tired of every Autobot represented as masculine, the writer took artistic license and changed Doublecross to female. Please refer to the Glossary at the Café (www.snowcrest.net/koontah) for character profile.
EARTH DATE: NOVEMBER 17, 2038
LOCATION: PLANET CRATIS
Like an unfocused movie in slow motion, Perceptor ran to investigate their newly-arrived visitor. One leg kicked out, his body twisted with movement. The other leg followed suit; knee up, feet pointed with impact. Dust billowed, suspended by the slowness of time. Perceptor knelt beside the little yellow Bug, glancing this way, that, calling with a plea Rodimus could not hear.
The winds shifted, warm and dry. Their static distorted the Autobot leader's sense of reality. Surges shot up and down Rodimus' back like a bad omen. He should order everyone into the ships and activate all force fields.
Perceptor spoke to Bumblebee, his words, however, fell casualty to Roddi's blocked audio receptors. Rodimus glanced left and winced as Trixy ran backwards, up the plank from which she descended a moment ago. Jazz froze in mid-motion as he turned to Convoy.
Perceptor's form began to fade.
Everything started again just as it was a moment ago. Or did they even live that moment a moment ago?
A yellow object tumbled from the sky. It crashed.
And loop again:
A little figure fell straight down.
It scooped a crater in the middle of the camp.
The ground shook.
And loop again:
It broke the ground.
The wind blew.
The planet Cratis stopped rotating. It reversed, paused, started forward again.
Hail battered the bleak, dry ground devoid of life.
Cratis spun twice in six hours.
The Autobots landed on a pristine, but ancient world crowded with lush green and violet foliage.
The Racing Beast lay in ruins. Twenty-four Autobots, one hundred, thirteen humans, fifty-six extra terrestrials, dead.
The Quintessons did not care; slaves were expendable.
Rusti crawled under the Gabriel Genesis as hail bulleted the landing site. Smoke belched from the Vertical Horizon. Parts of Magnus' body lay like abandoned trash.
She blinked, confused.
Gone was the pristine world of ancient trees and beasts with no names. Now the world bustled with enormous cityscapes; billions of people.
The Cold Refractor shot across the skyline like a comet. A train of smoke and plasma fire mottled the sky with darkness. The Refractor bombed the city and the horizon lit like the dawn anew. A sonic blast followed, obliterating windows, tossing organic creatures like seedlings before a desert windstorm.
Rodimus crawled to his baby bird, gasping. His charred frame smouldered; a ghastly sight of exposed components, crisped exostructure and a missing arm.
Kiss the rain.
Make it right.
Go back to sweet autumn mornings in Oregon when laughter and tea parties were all that mattered.
Rusti blinked through the freezing hail. She watched as their Quintesson captors shoved three Decepticons into a Sharkticon pit.
This wasn't right!
There weren't supposed to be Quintessons! There wasn't a city there a moment-or a day-or an era-ago!
A vicious fight ensued between Skullcruncher and Springer. Dirge instigated the challenge and no one was allowed to intervene. The animal Decepticon snapped his powerful tail, tripping the wrecker. But Springer shifted to car mode and smashed into Skull. The crocodile aimed to masticate the Autobot, but missed. Springer leapt high and shifted to chopper, firing as he flew. Skullcruncher shocked everyone when he leapt up and grasped the Triplechanger by the bottom and dragged him to the ground. Groaning in pain, Springer shifted to robot mode to hold back the croc's gaping mouth. Skullcruncher roared and rolled with his prey, twisting and snapping his tail and rolled and rolled.
. . . rolled and rolled.
. . . like the Trench Driver along the desert floor. It spun.
The hail decreased.
The camp returned. The Quintessons and their pet Decepticons disappeared. Bumblebee moaned with a bit of a whimper. Magnus crawled to his overheated exostructure and checked his life signs.
Bumblebee began to fade. The little guy disappeared then returned. He came back and vanished again.
The hail fell to a blissful drizzle.
Bumblebee came back.
A bolt of energy struck the ground some distance, south by south-west of the camp. The area of impact fluctuated with a temporal bubble. It did not last. The affected area bubbled with lava. When the bubble burst, all that remained was a pile of cooling rocks.
A temporal flux globular.
A second one struck further to the north. The cacophony forced all Humans to hold their ears, their very bones vibrated; a sonic barrage.
A third temporal globular struck Air Raid and he smashed into the Saber's Claw, his optics shattered and all other sensors blacked out. The fourth one struck Jasmine Goodwin. She hung suspended for twenty seconds, screaming-screaming until her body split-screaming until there were now two Jasmine Goodwins.
A final bolt smashed into the Interrogator, shattered its sensors and broke the starboard wing.
Hail fell . . . lighter and lighter.
Now all that remained was a muddy terrain.
The survivors sat or lay shaking, weeping, staring into nothing; shocked.
Rusti wept, her nerves on edge.
Rodimus lay quiet under the Gabriel Genesis. His body ached but thank Primus, he was in one piece trembling and overheated.
Magnus lifted his head and checked for Perceptor who lay between an exhausted Springer and a there-for-real Bumblebee. But so weary was the City Commander, he simply dropped his head and blacked out.
Rusti came to the sound of Autobot footfalls crunching over melting hail and slipping in icy mud puddles. She found herself tucked snugly under the plank of the Gabriel Genesis.
"Is everyone alright?" some EDC officer called. "Is anyone awake?"
Rusti peeked out as Springer sat up and snapped a few gaskets back into place. Scratches and dents marked his whole body and a sizeable gash ran down the left side of his chest plate.
Trixy stumbled toward Springer. He stood, unsteady, to greet her.
"What was that?"
"No idea," the Triple-changer answered.
"A time . . . ssstorm." Perceptor answered weakly. Springer helped the Autobot scientist to sit. Perceptor held his head as though it would roll off his shoulders. "Evidently, the temporal pendulum pursued us from Lunarphyte. Either that or it has reached pandemic proportions and attained status and velocity across the entire galaxy. But I cannot gain a fair assessment until I can attain an intergalactic news feed."
Springer frowned over Perceptor's annoying vocabulary. He did understand the word 'news', however. "I don't think there's any paper routes that come this far, Professor X." the wrecker turned to Trixy: "Help me check everyone, make sure they're all okay."
Rusti forced herself to move, though she could not stop shaking. She decided Cratis was exactly as Ambassador Koontah said it was; not a vacation spot. The planet was ugly. The hard ground was warm in spite of the recent storm. There was not one sign of grass or flower and the air stank of dead birds. The sky brooded a sullen red with dirty brown clouds. Now more than before, Rusti wanted to go home.
She crawled to Rodimus. His extreme body heat forced her to remain several feet away. "Roddi?" she called softly.
"Roddi?" she repeated. "Rodimus? <<Roddi?>>"
His optics finally flickered and he stirred.
"Oh man! What hit us?"
"Percpetor said it was a temporal storm. I hate space travel."
He rolled onto his back then dropped his head left and smiled at her. "What's a matter, Rus? This is the fun part."
She shot him a dirty, annoyed look.
His smile turned lopped and the Autobot leader sat up. "Wow. Packed a punch. Where's Magnus?"
Rodimus found the Major-General handing assignments left and right. He sent the Aerialbots on reconnaissance, the Dinobots and Monsterbots to realign the ships about the camp and Gryph took charge of Medical.
"Where's Jazz?" Rodimus asked upon approach.
Kup approached and handed a digipad to Magnus and one to Rodimus. "The whole camp is locked confusion. Nobody can think."
Rodimus glanced at the pad indicating ship names and those Autobots who manned them. "Kup, first thing, we need to do is organize our parameter. I want land details. I see Magnus is working on that. I want detail of every ship; what works, what doesn't. A-a-a-nd where is the Cold Refractor and her crew on the list?"
Magnus and Kup looked surprised. Magnus glanced over Roddi's shoulder strut and read the pad as the Autobot leader scrolled down.
"I hadn't realized she was missing," Kup answered sheepishly.
"Never mind," Roddi answered. "They found it."
"Sky Dive to Magnus," the Aerialbot called over the comlines, "we found the Cold Refractor."
Kup grinned, shook his head and chuckled.
"Copy that, Sky Dive," Magnus replied. "Get me aerial shots, please."
Kup took back the digipads. "It's gonna be a long aft-busting, day,"
Rodimus nodded. "Magnus, we gotta save them-rescue both ship and crew if possible."
Magnus suddenly seemed deflated. "I'll need some extra muscle-cables, Rodimus. And Cloudstreaker, I found, can transfer power sources. I'd like-"
"Do it. I've got enough to deal with here."
Rusti was given the task of hanging laundry between the Razor Lady and the Sunset Kummya. And there was no shortage of it. She and two other girls tossed sheets on lines and pinned clothes on others as Targetmaster Tracer bent scrap metal into clothes pins.
Rusti took down a load of dried sheets and made her way back inside the Kummya to be folded and put away. She rounded the ship's bow and ran into a wandering and bewildered Bumblebee.
"Uh, h-hi." Bumblebee stammered.
Rusti offered him a light smile. "I'm sorry. Wasn't watching where I was going." she adjusted the overloaded basket and tried to keep sheets from slipping out.
"Here, can I help you with that?" Bumblebee took the basket off her arms and received a greater smile.
"No problem. Where does it go?"
"This way." and she led him up the plank and from the dock to the living quarters. "I know you don't know who I am. But my Aunt Missy's told me a lot about you; you're Bumblebee."
"Yes. Pleased to meet you."
"I'm Rusti, Daniel Witwicky's daughter."
"Daniel Witwicky? As in Spike's son?"
"Yeah." they came to a room set aside for folded laundry and Rusti set the basket at another girl's feet.
"Where is he? Where's Spike and Carly?"
Rusti's demeanor fell. "They're gone, Bumblebee. Long time ago."
"Oh." his expression fell equally as downcast. "I see."
"I'm sorry. It must be hard for you." she led the Autobot back outside, facing the ugly world and its nasty smell.
The little Autobot shrugged. "It's . . . it's okay, I guess. I just, I just don't feel like I belong, you know."
She stared, befuddled. "You disappeared many years ago. How did you get back to us?"
"I-I dunno. There was this monster planet and . . . well, you probably don't wanna hear."
"If I was not interested, Bumblebee, I would not have asked." Rusti insisted.
"Uh, okay. Well, there was this monster who could turn into a planet and it ate up planets. Me and Spike were on Moonbase Two and it came at us, ate the whole thing and we fell into it . . . and then I fell through the sky and landed here. Does that make any sense?"
Rusti raised her brows. "Sounds like you slipped in from another dimension, just like Roddi."
"That's kinda like what Perceptor said earlier."
Rusti felt sorry for Bumblebee. He was plucked out of a familiar place in history and thrown into another. She wasn't sure what to say next. "What have they assigned you to?"
Rusti blinked. "Nothing?"
He shrugged. "I guess they didn't want to pressure me into anything."
Rusti felt worse for him. The Autobots should celebrate his homecoming. They should see to it he felt welcomed: a long-lost part of the team. But survival came first.
Grrrr . . . NOT INTERESTED!
Across camp sat the Confiscator and in front of that snarled five angry Dinobots arguing with Ultra Magnus. Rusti shook her head. Magnus, well-meaning, as he was, did not have any idea as to how to treat the Dinos. "Come on," she invited. "You can help me save Magnus' face."
She took Bumblebee by the hand and dragged him across camp.
"Me, Grimlock bite off your stupid head!"
"Me, Slag, bite off rest!"
Magnus wore a contemptuous frown, arms crossed, resolute. From the corner of his right optic; he watched Rusti and Bumblebee approach.
"I heard Grimlock shouting," came Rusti's mousy voice. "What's going on?"
"Insubordination." Magnus snarled.
Rusti blinked and looked to her playmates. "Guys, what's wrong?"
Grimlock, standing in robot mode, pointed an angry finger at Magnus. "Dinobots not work with bossy, pushy Autobots!"
"Me, Slag, not work with ANYBODY!"
Magnus looked ready to blow "There is a cruiser full of Autobots and Humans who cannot escape the canyon and we cannot make contact and you are ordered to come with me!" Magnus' optics grew hard. He was a wild boar ready to charge.
Grimlock shifted to Dino mode and opened his jaws.
"Uh, guys," Rusti intervened. "Can I say something here?"
Magnus and the Dinobots gave her their attention. Rage marked Magnus' expression but Rusti knew he'd never do or say anything mean to her. She stared directly at Grimlock. "Um, you know, Grimlock, Magnus, Roddi and the other city commanders are not as good at the kinda stuff you guys do. You know; the lifting and pushing, smashing stuff. And um, I know Magnus can be a boring stiff. But what he's really trying to say is that he needs your help. Cuz you guys are heros, you know? And he needs heros to help him rescue the damaged ship and babies in it."
Swoop mourned. "Ohhhh . . . me, Swoop go help babies!"
Grimlock lowered his face to Rusti. Gone was the anger. "Me, Grimlock not know babies need help."
"Will you help Ultra Magnus rescue them, then?"
Grimlock remained silent a long moment, his chin stationary on the ground. "Me, Grimlock guess it okay to help weakling Autobots and rescue babies."
Rusti smiled. "You're a sweetheart, Grimlock." and she kissed his nose.
The Dinobot leader did not move for a long moment. Rusti blinked.
"Can me, Grimlock, have another kiss?"
She laughed and kissed him again. The Dinobot tyrannosaur stood and shifted to robot mode. "Come, Slag. Come, Sludge, all Dinobots. We go, rescue babies." The Dinobots turned away to prepare.
Magnus knelt before Rusti and ever so quietly asked: "How did you know there were babies on board?"
Rusti gave a sheepish grin, earning a dubious acknowledgment from the Major-General.
Bumblebee piped up: Um, U-Ultra Magnus, I-I was wondering-"
"I'd love for you to come along, Bumblebee. We might need someone who can squeeze into tight places."
Relief assailed the little bug's face. "Wish me luck, Rusti!"
The girl watched Magnus and The Bee head for the Sagittarian Mozart. She now felt very much alone and strangely enough: she even missed school.
That brought Cody's memory to mind and with it, the old emotional wound. Rusti aimed to return to the Sunset Kummya and waiting chores.
The wrestling sounds of scuffing, scratching and snarling caught Rusti's attention. She approached the Spiral Star and peeked round the port bow.
Six EDC officers struggled with Jasimine Goodwin-both of her.
"Let me GO!" she shouted. "I am NOT insane! But YOU ARE!! YOU'RE ALL THE DEVIL'S CHILDREN! YOU ALL ARE QUINTESSON SPAWN!" with a quick deep breath, she shrieked as though possessed. "I saw them eat you! They'll eat you! Don't go to Bare Anches! I saw them SCREAMING! Their bodies swarmed with THINGS! DON'T TOUCH ME!!"
Dr. Arcanna drew a laser pistol and shot both Jasmine and Goodwin. The two went down, but one, Goodwin, fought the stun and trembled greatly. Arcanna knelt close to her. "I'm really, truly sorry, lieutenant Goodwin."
"You spit on my soul, you FREAK! You're a spawn of your god of science. Wait and watch. They'll mind-rape you! I know. I've seen it."
The Headmaster gravely examined her eyes. "Someone inform Duros and Captain Eastman we will have to incarcerate Mrs. Goodwin-both of her."
A large foot landed next to Rusti and she startled. Turning, she swallowed air and cringed. "I'm sorry," she squeaked. "I heard a commotion." she gasped at the sight of Monsterbot Repugnus.
"Found your DNA. Figured it was yours." The Monsterbot's terrible claw dipped and at the deadly tip dangled a slender silver chain and an Autobot symbol slowly swinging to and fro.
Rusti lifted her hands and received her long-lost treasure. "Thank you," she choked. "I thought it was gone."
"Stay outta trouble." He stomped away as she held the necklace close to her heart.
Magnus wished he could take Rusti with them for the sake of the Dinobots and their tempers. But Rodimus warned him earlier Rusti's exosuit was damaged. The Major-General assigned Trinket to fix the girl's exosuit and politely asked Cloudstreaker to join the rescue party.
Surprised, delighted and bashful all at once, Cloudstreaker swept together equipment and stumbled over her words as she reported her assignment to Convoy. Ultra Magnus asked her of all femmes to accompany him. She paused in sudden self doubt. What if she messed up? What if she made an idiot of herself in front of him? Magnus was always so polite and considerate around her; and he was so good looking and practically a god among mortal machines.
The femme forced herself to calm down. It was a job, not a date. She needed to concentrate on the job, not on . . . Primus was this going to be difficult!
Convoy laughed at her and wished her luck.
Cloudstreaker disembarked from the Horizon, checking, double checking and rechecking her equipment and supplies. She paused a bit abruptly when a scanner bleeped strong one moment then quieted the next. She checked it a fourth time and wondered what made it do that.
Nothing indicated a source and Cloud shrugged it off as a fluke.
She joined Magnus onboard the Armored Crest where he, Repugnus, Bumblebee and Grotesque gathered about a projector table. Magnus greeted her cordially and invited her aboard. Monsterbot femme Doublecross shifted to robot form and scrutinized a 3-D map of the 50-mile radius around the Autobot camp. A forest of gigantic petrified trees clustered twenty to twenty-five miles northwest of the camp. Ten miles south lay an electro-magnetic disturbance. But their mission lay in the canyon on the other side of the forest.
Magnus tapped the canyon area twice and the map zoomed into the canyon, displaying an area crammed with huge crystals and the Cold Refractor sitting among them.
"This is where we're needed," Magnus stated. "We tried all morning to contact the Cold Refractor but something down there disrupts communications. The Aerialbots made several sweeps, but their navigation systems were affected by the same problem. That means we're going to have to do this the hard way. We're going to fly to the edge of the petrified forest and jump down in pairs. No monkey business. We don't know exactly what we're facing. Bumblebee, you and Repugnus will be first. Cloudstreaker and I will follow. The rest of you will team up. Grotesque, you and Sludge, Grimlock, you and Snarl, Crossy, you and Slag. Do not change partners."
Grimlock crossed his arms, "Not worry, Ultra Magnus. Dinobots go to save. Make no mistakes."
Bumblebee felt out of place. Too many strangers, not enough time to learn their names. The Dinobots, however, made him feel better by offering him a ride through the sky. The four of them (Swoop could not) quibbled over the privilege until Grimlock decided Slag would take Bumblebee out and Sludge would bring him back.
"Me, Snarl, want to, too!" the stegosaurus whined.
Grimlock's optic visor flashed with momentary irritation. "Uhhh . . . you Snarl can take Little Bee if Sludge dies."
Sludge looked perplexed wondering how Grimlock knew how he was going to die. He shrugged it off and followed Grotesque to the sky.
After fifteen minutes aboard Dinobot Airlines, Bumblebee clearly spotted their destination; a grand forest of enormous (by Autobot standards) forest of petrified trees.
Slag landed with a thud. Bumblebee slipped off and stumbled about on unfamiliar ground.
Cloudstreaker and Doublecross gracefully landed nearby while Repugnus, Sludge and Grimlock 'hit the pavement' further south.
Bumblebee cast his optics toward the canyon. Thick, blotchy fog concealed the world below. A few crystal spires peeked above the cloud cover, giving the canyon an ominous feel. Cloudstreaker took a few readings then pivoted about and scanned the trees.
"This is bizarre," she said softly. "I can't penetrate the fog with my scanner, yet . . . it's not registering the crystalline, either. How did Swoop manage to get photos?"
No one answered.
Magnus joined the group as Repugnus and the Dinobots arrived. Grimlock and Repugnus gazed over the edge of the ravine.
"Mmm. Me sense funny things down there."
"Couple a' dead bodies, too," Repugnus concurred.
Magnus examined his rescue party of ten and turned to Cloudstreaker. "Report?"
"No readings on the fog below, Commander," she said. "And the crystals aren't reading, either. However . . ." she turned to the petrified forest, "It seems these trees might be made of metal but not of a nature that I can tell yet."
Untouched by time, the trees lofted a solid half mile in height. Their trunks punctured the ground as if grasping the center of the planet by their roots. Their branches stretched high and far before bursting into needles, like deadly silver daggers.
Magnus gazed up and down one tree before him. Not only did the trunk race upward, but shot past the metal covered (or glass?) ground beyond optical line-of-sight. "Repugnus?" he called, "can you see the roots of these trees? I've never seen anything like this."
The Monsterbot shifted from robotic to monster form and his enormous head examined Magnus' tree first, then another before returning to root form. "Big trees."
Repugnus shook his head. "Unidentified." He scraped the tree trunk, making an awful screeching noise. Cloudstreaker cringed. Repugnus examined his claw. "Nice metal. Let's send Prime a post card."
Magnus was not impressed by the Monsterbot's humor. "Let's move on."
The rescue party followed Magnus' plan and separated into perspective teams. Repugnus and Bumblebee descended into the canyon first and disappeared into the fog.
Cloudstreaker offered to take Magnus down but he graciously backed out.
"I need a better idea of what we're up against, Cloudstreaker. Besides," here he reached into subspace, "I brought a jet pack."
Cloudstreaker caught a glint of anticipation in the Commander's optic. She wondered if it was because he secretly loved to fly. A bit strange, she thought. Usually 'grounders' don't like heights. She watched, puzzled, as Magnus strapped on the jet pack quickly and easily then with a running start, the Major-General leapt off the precipice, arms held out, legs tightly together.
Cloudstreaker stared. He was amazingly graceful in the air. Her laser core surged.
Grotesque sounded behind her: "We're waiting for you, Cloud."
"Oh!" she blushed and remembered she was Magnus' partner. The femme copied him: the running start and transformed to supersonic mode.
The rest of the group had no need for a jet pack. But the fog bed lay so thick that visibility was dropped to sonar and internal communications.
Repugnus and The Bee dropped like a pair of dead birds. At first Bumblebee thought Repugnus could fly. But when the Monsterbot did not deploy a set of wings, Bee figured he had a jet pack. But Repugnus did not activate one. Fifty feet shy of impact, Repugnus snapped out a strong set of wings and drifted along persuasive wind currents.
Bumblebee shut his optics until they touched ground. He trembled with surges.
"Love my job." Repugnus pushed forward, crunching hard rocky ground underfoot.
Bumblebee dashed after the Monsterbot who aimlessly stared upward. "I thought we were going to crash."
Repugnus shifted to robot mode and smiled wickedly. "I know."
"It's not funny!" Bumblebee pursued the wandering nuisance, expecting an apology. Repugnus did not answer. The Bee nearly ran into his companion when the Monsterbot paused in his tracks and stared up. Bumblebee traced the direction of Repugnus' optics; a forest of giant crystals surrounded them like ancient monoliths. "Wow," he whispered. "I've never seen anything like this before."
"Emitting low levels of radiation. Might be silicon life forms." Repugnus ignored Bumblebee's annoyed expression and examined the crystal's 'root rock'. "yup. Silico-carbon with a good chunk of iron and some kinda oxide."
"Hey," The Bee called, "weren't we supposed to meet with Ultra Magnus?"
"What of it?"
"Well, he's not here."
Repugnus snorted. "You whine a lot."
"What's THAT supposed to mean?"
"Oh, need a translation? I can use little words."
Repugnus lowered on his knees. "Okay, little words: Uncle Ultra Magnus will be here soon. Don't be afraid. Uncle 'Pugnus will take care of you." he stood and glared at Bumblebee. "Did you understand that, or shall I use single-syllable words?"
Bumblebee did not get the chance to retort before heavy footfalls echoed through their portion of the canyon. Magnus and Cloudstreaker picked their way among the variegated crystalline structures.
"Repugnus, did something happen?" Magnus asked. "You and Bumblebee are in the wrong place."
"Noticed that, didjya? So did the Little One here. Mewed on about it."
Magnus kept his cool but crossed his arms. "Next time you plan a detour, I'd like to know in advance."
"I'm sure you would."
Magnus did not appreciate the remark, but he did not have a come back for it, either. First the Dinobots, now this Monsterbot. He wished he remembered Repugnus' obstinate nature.
Cloudstreaker reexamined her scanner. "C-Commander, Ultra Magnus? I'm getting heavy carbon compounds and neutrino traces."
Repugnus tapped his ol factory node. "Crisped flesh. That's your carbon. Traces of charred metal. My guess is the Refractor's crew got tangled in a fight."
Bumblebee gasped behind Repugnus and retreated from the crystal, optics glued to its unmoving image. Then he neared it, entranced.
A humanoid appeared through a chemical fog within the giant crystal.
Bumblebee's words nearly caught in his vocalizer: "Whoa! What is THAT?!"
Bumblebee and Cloudstreaker drew closer as the humanoid wriggled like a tadpole. A set of boney hands touched the inside wall and a face of tattered flesh cleared the fog. A set of sunken eyes, hollow with death, peered at them. Transparent skin revealed shrunken muscles, blood vessels and decaying bones. The deformed mouth opened and closed, attempting to communicate.
Cloudstreaker shrugged at Magnus. "I'm sorry, sir, I'm getting no life readings. At least, not biological life."
Bumblebee reached to touch the crystal wall but quick as light, Repugnus caught his hand. The humanoid faded into the mist inside the crystal and Repugnus let The Bee go. "Never touch what you don't know."
North of their position, Grotesque's voice bounced off canyon walls as he fed them a tall tale.
"There's our chaps, now!" the Monsterbot called. Repugnus muttered something and slunk away while the lively Grotesque approached with a big grin. "I took all the kids on a field trip. Thought we'd pause a moment, check out the local wildlife." the Monsterbot winked at Cloudstreaker. "And it's lookin' pretty good from here."
Cloudstreaker smiled bashfully and hugged her digipad. But Repugnus frowned. "We're not here to play 'kiss 'n tell', Grotesque."
"Quite true. Quite true." Grotesque agreed quickly. "Seems the local vegetation is a bit different . . . say, weren't we on a rescue mission?"
Repugnus growled, annoyed. He shifted to monster mode and stomped off. Cloudstreaker sent a final smile to Grotesque before following the Monsterbot. Bumblebee tagged before the rest melted into order.
Twenty minutes passed before Repugnus spotted a minute neutrino trace along the ground. He scanned then shook his head. "No readings."
Cloudstreaker attempted to verify his discovery: "I'm finding the neutrino trace has been ionized."
Grotesque pressed forward. "It could be the reverse polarity synthesizers have leaked into the reintegration units."
Repugnus glared and turned away. "While you're busy pretending to be Perceptor, we'll move onward."
"You're welcome." Grotesque said in friendly tones.
But no one bothered to thank him. They progressed another ten minutes before they found the Cold Refractor. Miraculously, it was in one piece, not blown to shreds as they feared. No one welcomed them and no one came out of the vessel.
"What gives?" Bumblebee asked. "This is creepy."
Cloudstreaker advanced another twelve feet, her scanner ticked and she knelt. "Commander!" she called Magnus.
He approached and carefully squatted by the dead Human. "What happened?"
"It looks like radiation poisoning."
Doublecross, who boarded the Refractor, returned, bearing two digipads. "Looks here like the crew crashed with two Autobot casualties, Sir. Tech control Turnbuckle and engineer Locator are both terminated."
Magnus curtly nodded. "Crossy, I need air reconnaissance. You and Swoop-just the one hundred-yard radius. Bumblebee, scout inside. Grimlock, Repugnus, parameter watch. Whatever took the Refractor's crew might come back."
To Magnus' surprise, no one argued. He and Cloudstreaker investigated outside the ship, searching for prints or clues for struggle. Magnus shifted his optic sensors to penetrate the fog with mild success. Ionized neutrinos puddled the canyon in blotches of acid pink. Dents and scars scuffed and discolored The ship. Autobot lifeblood smeared the docking bay and peppered the landing gear.
Grotesque hailed Magnus.
"Yes." Magnus accepted.
"Commander, it appears the Cold Refractor can still fly. Everything looks to be intact. The isometric balancing constructs are still in retentive positions and the navigational tri-lined upswings are functional. I've even found the temploid . . ."
Magnus sighed as the Monsterbot technician yammered on. The city commander crunched over shattered crystalline as he rounded the ship, looking for external damage. Magnus stubbed his foretoe on the Refractor's starboard landing gear.
"Oh my." Grotesque cringed as Magnus spat a string of foul words.
Magnus kicked the landing gear with his other foot and danced once to regain control of his temper and suppress the pain. He was tired, irritable and impatient. The temporal storm had unbalanced his gyros and made him nauseated. He hoped this would be a simple mission: get in, get the ship out, get back. But no. That's not how things worked. The only good thing to come out of this mess was Rodimus staying alive. Magnus vowed to kick Optimus Prime's aft for leaving them vulnerable like this. Prime did not have to go to Mars; not really. But the Autobot leader's damnedable irrationality had gotten the better of his sensibilities.
And if Rodimus dies . . .
"Commander?" Magnus switched his mood like a light as Cloudstreaker peeked round the ship's corner. "Is everything alright?"
He forced a smile. "Better be." He read doubt in her face but did not know how to offer her assurance when he had none himself.
Doublecross shouted incoherently seventy feet above them. Magnus leaped to Cloud's side as the Monsterbot fell like a brick. Crossy shifted to robot mode, landed on her strong, sturdy legs and fired four shots with her AC pulsator.
Magnus and Cloudstreaker turned in the direction of Crossy's target and gasped as a six-legged beast rampaged for them. Crossy fired three more times; accurate and well-controlled. But the creature split itself, head to tail and her shots snapped right between the two halves. It reformed, not missing a beat as it charged down the Autobot's paths.
Magnus leapt in front of the femmes, transformed and took on the bare brunt of the monster's incredible force. Locked grill-against-horn, Magnus spun his wheels but was no match for six legs of steel and claw that dug into the ground for added leverage.
From three o'clock of Magnus' position, Slag rammed into the beast's side. It toppled, rolling over like an inflexible toy.
Something else struck Cloudstreaker in the back and she fell flat but undamaged. She rolled as Crossy shifted to Monster mode and faced a gargoyle-like thing with large tusks and wings too small for its body.
It shouted at her and the Monsterbot gave chase.
Magnus transformed as the six-legged beast returned. But Slag beat the commander to the first punch by shifting to robot mode, drawing his own energo sword and cleanly sliced the beast's head off.
"Ultra Magnus!" Cloudstreaker called. "Seven-thirty of your position!"
"What?" Magnus did not understand until it burrowed from underground and spat a stream of acid at him. Magnus leapt just as the foul-smelling substance ate the area where he stood.
Two squared worms with twelve legs milled toward the Major-General and Cloudstreaker. They paused and their bodies conjoined, legs snapping together like legos, forming one broad creature.
Crossy fired first with no result; whatever she dealt it bounced off its armor.
"No, no!" Magnus shouted, "it's armor-plated. Draw it away from the Refractor. We cannot afford to lose the ship! Cloudstreaker, stay with Grotesque!" Magnus turned to Doublecross and wordlessly pointed south. Crossy nodded, shifted to monster mode and sprayed a barrage of fire and sonics at the creature.
The tactic paid off. To Crossy's amazement, the flat worm shot across the land as though it moved on ice. She raced among the forest of crystalline while Magnus dashed after the creature, dodging intermittent fire and fallen rocks between he and the worm. He could not transform and drive in such hostile, enclosed terrain.
With a great roar, Grimlock charged their way, barreling down the ravine like a mad thing. For a moment, Magnus thought the Dinobot leader and Crossy were playing chicken, but then Crossy shot up, flipped, transformed in mid-movement and landed behind Grimlock.
The T-rex rammed straight into the worm, squished its back with one foot and grasped the tail-end between his terrible jaws. He tugged while the worm squealed and spat acid, melting crystal, stone and flooring. Grimlock snapped, tore and whacked at the thing as though it were a hot rock. The Dinobot won. Grimlock rent the thing apart and shattered the remains against a nearby stone.
Grimlock shifted to robot form and drew his sword. "Me squish big bug. Who's next?"
"Good job, Grimlock!" Magnus praised.
Crossy dashed up and jumped once. "Wahoo! Very nice!"
Grimlock chuckled when she hugged him, but Magnus' attention fell from them when he caught sight of an Autobot stuck inside a crystal not far from where they stood. He bypassed his companions for a closer look and sure enough, recognized Autobot femme Tempra-his own former receptionist-inside the gas filled crystal.
"Tempra!" he called. She saw him and banged against the inner wall. She tried to speak, but her words remained caught in the world of her own prison. Magnus glanced about, hoping to find something with which to strike the walls. "We'll get you out!" he exaggerated his lip movements and she nodded, crouching and rubbing on peeling exostructure.
Magnus' first idea was to fire a missile at the structure, but then he could endanger Tempra; the gas within the crystal could be flammable. However, a weapon like Grimlock's sword might work. Just as the city commander was going to call Crossy and Grimlock, the two approached anyway, both staring curiously at the imprisoned Tempra.
"Is she okay?" Crossy asked first.
"I don't know," Magnus replied uneasily. "Grimlock, do you think you could use your sword to get her out?"
"Me, Grimlock give it a good shot." and the Dinobot lifted his energo sword, struck the crystal and nothing happened-except that his sword remained in place until all its energy drained completely. The sword tumbled to the ground, charred. Magnus, Crossy and Grimlock all stared at the ruined weapon.
"Uhhh . . . never saw that before." Grimlock remarked. He picked the sword up by the hilt and the rest of it fragmented.
Repugnus' sarcastic voice sounded behind the three of them: "It's silicon-carbon. It ate your toy up like gourmet zinc. Ya gotta have an opposite carbide to split that thing. I'm guessing tungsten with a bit of attitude."
Magnus stepped aside and crossed his arms, his expression set with dire impatience.
Repugnus threw him a grin, shifted to monster mode and sliced a claw through the crystal. Tempra fell to the ground in hysterics, screaming and clawing at her exostructure. She convulsed like a fish out of water and no amount of yelling, no sort of order or reason would get her to calm down. Magnus finally hauled her up, lapped her over his shoulder and carried her back to the Refractor. Tempra screamed and wept all the way back.
Once in the infirmary, Magnus, Crossy and Cloudstreaker searched frantically for an electro- sedative. Magnus found one and handed it to Crossy while he held Tempra down. It took three minutes for the treatment to take hold but it was effective and Crossy stepped back, muttering about hoping she did not give Tempra too much.
Tempra shuddered until Magnus found a thermal overlay and covered her with it. He sat beside her, waiting for rationality to take hold. "How long were you in there, Tempra?" he asked quietly.
She shuddered again with a fresh intake of oxygen. "Uh . . . I don't know . . . seems like days. My chronometer says it was seventeen hours."
"What happened? Where are the others?"
"Um, those things came and flew off with most of the crew. I thought for sure they were going to kill all of us. They . . . they vaporized six EDC officers and the Madinite children . . . oh, Primus, they were just children!" and she started crying again.
Magnus waited for her to collect herself before asking another question: "What has happened to Tektonix? He was captain. What did they do with him?"
He fought them, that I saw. They . . . they tried to take off with me but someone shot that thing; it split-oh, Primus, it split in half and -and I thought it was going to swallow me up! But it fell, instead and I tripped . . ." Tempra shook her head and turned away, shivering from overload.
Magnus chose to leave her alone. Crossy shook her head. "She'll be like that for a while, Commander. Chances are, she'll not be rational for at least another day or two."
"I think, Doublecross, the Refractor's crew aren't dead; just held prisoner somewhere in this hole in the ground." It was not something Magnus wanted to think about. He did not want to go on a scavenger hunt only to find the crew terminated. The Major-General stood, fighting weariness. "Alright. Here's what we'll do: Snarl and Sludge will stay with the ship. I'll assign Grotesque to keep an eye on them and Tempra while the rest of us move out. Crossy, you, Grimlock and Repugnus will scout ahead, but stay within communication range. I am not in the mood for picking up Autobot fragments."
As Swoop flew silently above them, the Autobots traveled into a broader section of the canyon. To the west, the gorge curved inward so that the walls hung over. Tuffets of plant life with swollen leaves nestled in the crannies of the overhang. To the right rose a sheer wall yawning far above so that it disappeared into the fog. Magnus did not like this area but he said nothing to the others. He noticed, however, that Cloudstreaker stepped closer and ran into him twice upon the slightest sound.
"I'm sorry, Commander," she rasped.
He graciously smiled. "Any other readings, yet?"
She shook her head. "Just . . . weird stuff . . . feedback and erratic temperature differences."
Magnus paused, aware the others kept moving. He measured their walk at about two-thirds of a mile by now. They should have encountered something more than one Autobot trapped within a crystal. Where was everyone? If they were destroyed, there should be evidence. But not so much as a scrap was to be seen.
It was not, however, for another half a mile before Bumblebee called Magnus' attention to the sheer cliff. Magnus wound around several crystalline structures and found Bumblebee crouched at the foot of the wall.
"I found another drop here." Bumblebee slipped his hand into the smooth wall where it disappeared. He pulled it out, undamaged.
"A hologram?" Magnus guessed. "Why didn't it register? How large is it?"
"OW!" Cloudstreaker grasped her left shoulder and bowed over in pain. She checked for damage and sure enough, something melted past her armor.
"What happened?" Magnus asked.
"I don't know-"
"Ow!" Bumblebee followed, "hey, that hurts!" he grasped his lower right arm.
"Let me see that." Magnus ordered. Bumblebee's armor was also compromised in a small area not much larger than the tip of a pointer.
Something did the same thing to Magnus's torso, leaving a burned line where it rolled down.
"Acid rain!" Crossy gasped.
"Everyone," Magnus ordered, "look for an opening! Swoop, get down here, now!" he knew it was too late to make a run for the Refractor. If nothing else, they could try to squeeze under the overhang across the way, But Magnus worried the rain would simply soak the ground and attack them from that angle.
"Me, Slag find good place!"
Crossy and Bumblebee proceeded first as Swoop landed. He and Slag went in after followed by Grimlock and Cloudstreaker.
Magnus turned to Repugnus. "You're next."
"You go, first, Maggy. I'm the tough customer here."
Magnus shook his head, but appreciated Repugnus' offer. He ducked through the wall, following Cloudstreaker. Repugnus slipped in thereafter and the group heard the rain burst, pelting the world and melting or burning everything under it.
"Magnus to Refractor. Can you read me, Grotesque?"
"Aye, Commander. Clearly enough. But uh, we have acid rain right now; there's enough juice in the Cold Refractor to keep her shields up. Is everything alright?"
"Peachy." Magnus growled. "We've been caught in the rain, too but we've found a cave. Hopefully the storm won't last too long. See if you can contact Rodimus."
Using only their scanners, the group descended twenty-two steps and landed into a wide cavern.
Doublecross reexamined the stairway. "This place must be exceptionally old to be here. What do you know about the planet, Ultra Magnus?"
"Nothing. This was Prime's idea of a rendezvous."
Bumblebee clicked on a light and he, Cloudstreaker and Grimlock all gasped. The Bee drove his flashlight from left to right, illuminating a world of partial images and ominous shadows.
Repugnus fired a magnesium flare and enlightened the underground world, revealing a great cavern fashioned, chiseled and painted into a giant laboratory. Several operating tables stood side by side surrounded by working tables, counters and shelves gaping with missing equipment.
Crossy chanced the first few steps. The minute her foot touched the lab's flooring, the place lit up bright as day, startling everyone but Repugnus.
Crossy glanced over her shoulder. "Guess they don't use light switches here." she offered an apologetic smile when Magnus shook his head, silently warning her about touching anything. Bumblebee and Cloudstreaker descended the stairway and Magnus started to follow then thought about the Dinobots. Investigating anything here could prove disastrous.
He turned to Grimlock. "Grimlock, will you, Swoop and Slag mind watching the entrance while we look around?"
The Dinobot glared at him. "Me, Grimlock and other Dinobots curious, too."
"I know," Magnus carefully answered. He quickly thought of Rusti's tactics in handling delicate Dinobot egos: "But um, if one of those alien creatures comes back, I'd rather they confront you guys than . . . than Cloudstreaker."
Grimlock's face remained hard but when his optic visor settled on Cloudstreaker, he relented and uncrossed his angry arms. "Me guess we stay here."
Magnus took the floor himself and critically examined the room. To the left, a long dark hallway veered out of sight. Chains and cuffs dangled from the right-side wall, posted by small plaques marked in Decepticon writ. He heard Crossy mutter to herself about materials left in a trash can while Cloudstreaker quietly scanned the room. Bumblebee disappeared into an adjoining room, his flashlight zipped back and forth in a lightless world.
Judging the operating tables, cabinets naked of equipment and the chains empty of victims, Magnus got the unwelcome feeling of a haunting past. Not that he himself ever experienced time in such places, but he knew someone who did. He did not want to know what sins scientists committed here and the sooner the party left, the better. He turned to Repugnus. "Is it still raining outside?"
"Yup. Wanna take a tour?"
Magnus shot him a sharp look and turned away.
Cloudstreaker followed her scanner's reading ten-thirty of their initial position. Out the corner of her visor, Magnus examined a line of operating tables. She watched as he peered into the ceiling as though searching for a murder suspect. Following his scrutiny, Cloudstreaker winced when highlights and shadows outlined a ceiling not only of floodlights, but of tools, laser slicers and forceps, injecting devices, scanners, restrainers and other nightmare-inducing equipment.
Magnus stared at the collection with disdain before examining the underside of each table.
Cloudstreaker thought it disturbing that he seemed to know what he was looking for and where to find it; like the tool drawers that opened from both sides of each table.
Unwilling to watch further, the femme trained her attention to the hand-held scanner, now reading activated power sources in three directions. One such source registered directly in front of her.
Cloud stared at a panel lining the wall corner of the left side corridor. Neither markings nor controls indicated an opening.
Magnus and Crossy discussed the biological elements of a dried puddle beside a table. Out the corner of her visor, Cloud watched as the Major-General pointed to discolorations in the puddle, the inconsistencies of thickness and variation in its make. Cloudstreaker realized she was staring at Magnus rather than attending her own job. Magnus caught her stare. Flushing, she hid her visor, hoping Ultra Magnus was not offended.
Magnus left Doublecross to the puddle puzzle and attended Cloud's mystery."Did you find something, Cloudstreaker?" he politely asked.
"I-I can't be sure, Commander." She stammered. Fortress Horizon's second-in-command politely took a step back as the mech examined the panel himself. He too found nothing extraordinary about the corner.
He gazed at Cloudstreaker. "What readings did you get, Cloudstreaker?"
"Um, some sort of activated power source, Sir. I-I think Doublecross triggered it like the lights, Sir. But um, I can't seem to figure out how to, um, open the panel.
"I see." Magnus thought for a moment. "Oh, use a sonar detector, Cloudstreaker. Maybe it's hollow."
She smiled, impressed with his idea. Programming the pad for an output, Cloud waved the scanner up and down until three lights flashed to indicate a change in chamber integrity. "Here." Cloud set the scanner in to subspace and retrieved a sonic key. She carefully pointed at what was a visual blank space and waited for the key to attain just the right frequency. The seam appeared and a two-foot portion of the panel slid up, revealing a secret, well-lit compartment. Inside stood two old digipads and a vial of clear liquid.
Magnus removed one digipad, handed it to Cloud and examined the other himself.
With an extra glance at the vial, Cloudstreaker trained her optic visor on the ancient digipad. She tried to activate it but time seemed to have diminished its core. Without another thought, the femme settled on the dust-strewn floor, took out her own datapad and set the two pads next to each. She laid one hand square on hers, left hand on the relic and transferred energy from one digipad to the next.
The artifact came to life as Magnus squatted before her shaking his head. "I've never seen anyone do that."
Cloud silently smiled, her face plates burned with embarrassment. She timidly offered to take his pad and do the same. Magnus watched, pleased with his decision to bring her along. He took back his pad and settled on the floor with her, pouring over files and images with dates that meant very little to him. The Major-General shook his head. "What do you make of this, Cloudstreaker?
Surges shot up and down her infrastructural rod. She loved how he said her name! "Um, a-I'm guessing it's a journal, Sir. Or-or r-rather a pair of them." Geeze, she sounded like a bumbling idiot around him!
"Oh?" Magnus asked as Doublecross joined them for a look, "Of what?"
She turned her pad around for Magnus and Crossy and the city commander gawked. The face of a Quintesson displayed clearly on the screen.
A single-faced Quintesson turned to the 'audience' and Crossy snorted. "Not a pretty sight. Turn the page, would ya, Cloud?"
"Riiight." Cloudstreaker grinned at Crossy's humor.
"Day 24 on experiment number 119. The Rigilian conjunction links are proving a more tedious task than originally considered. Subject number 3509 continued to annoy us with his insignificant curses until General Gar Sor'Aruth had lost all patience and fed him to the crystal entities outside. If nothing else, the crystal plants are well fed."
Crossy grunted. "Sounds like the Quint is talking about those crystals outside; the same ones that trapped poor Tempra."
Cloud thoughtfully paused the presentation and stared at the Monsterbot. "Do you think the Quints could have made them?"
"Not likely. The Quints can twist things, or copy-cat. But this one-faced moron just said the crystals were alien. Seems more like the Quints either encountered them on accident and transplanted them here, or the crystal monoliths grow here naturally."
Repugnus beeped Magnus over the comlink. "Magnus. Might be in'erested in this new decor Bumblebee's lookin' at."
Magnus frowned. Cloudstreaker and Crossy followed him to an adjoining room in the right-hand corridor from the stairwell.
Charts, calculations and calendars etched in glass stood framed on the floor in groups of four. In the center of the room, propped like a showcase doll, stood a metal endoskeleton. Magnus, Crossy and Cloudstreaker stared at it in both confusion and revulsion.
"Fascinating," Crossy finally peeped. "Grotesque would love to see this."
Bumblebee handed Magnus a small digipad. "Yeah. well, it doesn't look anything like the standard Transformer endoskeleton I've ever seen."
Repugnus smirked. One endoskeleton was pretty much like another. He noticed even Magnus was under- impressed.
The city commander fished through the digipad's information. "This seems to indicate the skeleton is not indigenous to Cratis." he shut the pad off.
Repugnus grunted. "If you ask me-and I know yer not-it looks like that IS the critter."
Bumblebee piped in as Magnus stared at one glass panel, then another. "Yeah, well, it gives me the creeps. How about we see if the rain has stopped?"
Magnus fingered a second panel as though he did not hear The Bee's comment. "What's all this?" He traced a series of numerical equations and formulas that looked vaguely familiar.
Crossy's optics passed over a colored glass panel while Cloudstreaker recorded. The Monsterbot femme shrugged, unable to guess. "Notes of some sort."
Magnus read a series of complicated formulas. Someone was calculating solar equinox and the behavior of Cratis' electromagnetic fields. The Major-General's optics followed the end of that equation to another set of facing panels. Careful analysis and six rotations offered clues of a planet with an unstable E.M. filed. Another sheet of glass, etched in Decepticon writing, diagramed the cycles of an unstable star and the resulting erratic electrical turbulence. The formulas concluded in the possibility of negative and positive ion storms. Magnus' astronomy background told him the star around which Cratis revolved was so hyper-active that it was possible life on Cratis could have been disrupted several million times throughout its history. Whole civilizations must have been wiped off the planet's surface during the sun's worst prominence cycles. And according to the charts, Cratis was about to be hit with another series of electrical storms.
Cloudstreaker stood next to him, recording the data while Repugnus kept staring at the exoskeleton. Bumblebee and Crossy quietly discussed a panel written apparently in poetry.
"Ultra Magnus?" Crossy called.
"You can read Decepticon writ, can't you? How is it that most of this stuff is written in Decepticon but it appears Quintessons were here?"
"Can't answer that, Doublecross, sorry." he tried to measure the distance between the sun and Cratis to determine how long the Autobots had before the first storm hit.
"Sir?" Cloudstreaker almost whispered.
"I'm . . . I seem to be picking up readings . . . like . . . under us."
"DOZ . . . KRAN," Crossy tried to pronounce the first word. "What's that mean?"
Repugnus turned away from the skeleton. "That you're a dork for trying to sound out Deceptanese."
If Crossy could have, she would have stuck a tongue at him.
"Enough, both of you." Magnus ordered as he traced coordinates to an unknown planetoid.
Just to spite Repugnus, Crossy tried another word: "Whunk. Ruungk, ruungk soyy-"
Magnus recognized ruugk: the word for 'open'. His optics darted at her. "Crossy, enough!" he ordered sternly.
Repugnus taunted her. "Yup. Better do what he says. You might damage what few circuits 'r still functioning in yer cranial chamber. Oh, and if you ever need help countin' those few, lemme know; the Dinobots are good at counting to three."
Indignant, Crossy picked out another word that sounded as close to a dirty name as she could find: "you're just a splagrok, Repugnus."
Faster than the Autobots could react, all the glass panels slid across the room and formed a single line. The floor fell out from under Magnus and Cloudstreaker. Doublecross grabbed Bumblebee and leapt to the doorway. Repugnus stayed very still, standing on what was now an island surrounded by a floorless room.
Magnus contacted water and for several seconds, he was too mad to swim back. He got a grip on his anger and paddled to the surface where he half-hauled his bulk upon a rocky shelf. "They never argue when Optimus says to do something. They even obey Rodimus. But when I say something, they have to ask twice. They have to ask why. Sometimes they don't even bother with that."
Magnus half-snarled, half-mimicked in a high-pitched voice, "Golly, Ultra Magnus," how come I have to do such and such or why shouldn't I do this or that?" Magnus answered himself quietly, using his own leveled voice: "It's very simple. But listen carefully: I tell you to do things because I'M YOUR GODDAMNED CITY COMMANDER AND I SAID SO!! CROSSY! YOU'RE GOING TO DO MAINTENANCE FOR THE REST OF THE GODDAMNED VOYAGE!"
Cloudstreaker plunged through darkness and slammed into shallow water. Freezing sharp objects pierced through her legs in five places, pinning her underwater. Spires stood about her, most of them just at the reach of her fingertips. Flaying about, the femme struggled to gain control of her body. Pain shot through her legs and forced her to fall still until she tried again. But Cloudstreaker could not lift her legs free of the stalagmites.
She twisted her body about, struggling to sense the world around her. She found her digipad approximately three yards down. She tried a sitting position and managed to break above the water's surface, but the movement tore several connectors.
"Magnus!" she cried. Pain forced her back and she floated there, helpless until another idea came: she hauled out her pistol and blindly aimed for the nearest spike. The shot hit the mark, but it was not a clean cut. Cloudstreaker fired a second time with better success.
She tried to sit once more but only managed a third of the way. Something snapped inside her right thigh. Pain snaked from her legs to her chest and forbade further movement. Frustrated, Cloud tried to relax.
She could not transform; the ruptures in her legs jammed three weight retraction instuds, preventing transformation.
Muffled thunder boomed through the water. A set of large hands slipped under and tried to lifted the femme. She broke the surface again and struggled against crying out. The same hands that raised her, laid her back into the water.
She laid still, certain it was Ultra Magnus.
Three bright sparks lit the dark world for split moments, revealing a rounded cavern glittering with colorful stalagmites and stalactites. Bubbles fizzed across Cloud's vision as Magnus' weapon raised the water's temperature.
Two spikes just above her knee broke. One above her ankle shattered and another fell out her left thigh. Her body sank toward the bottom and she twisted, reaching for the fallen data pad. She grasped it just as Magnus carefully extracted her. Instinctively, she clung to her rescuer, shivering with onset shock.
"Ultra Magnus," she whispered.
"You're okay, Cloudstreaker. Are you badly injured?"
"I don't know. Are you okay?"
"Ask me again when we get off this planet." Magnus trudged out of the pool and set her against a nearby wall. He shot a flare lighting their little world. The suspended light revealed a ghastly collection of glass monoliths, perfectly straight and frosted with cold. Cloudstreaker gasped and covered her mouth as they beheld the Refractor's crew suspended within the cases.
Magnus set his face grim and examined each glass case in turn. Wavelength. Granite. Pontiac. Tundra. Neon. Stratus. Fineliner. Several EDC officers and six young children. All imprisoned. All in stasis. Or so Magnus hoped. He searched one end of the cave to another for a release mechanism.
Cloudstreaker roused from low-level shut down when Magnus returned. He set down a box of scavenged items and settled in front of her. "How are you? How are your legs?" he asked quietly.
"Well . . . they hurt." She tried to laugh, but failed. At least she could smile.
"Can you walk, Cloudstreaker?"
"I . . ." she flushed, "I don't think so, Sir. I'm sorry. You'll have to leave-"
"Don't even think of it." Magnus opened the metal box and produced two small energon cubes: one for each of them.
Guilty over her dilemma, Cloudstreaker could not ingest anything. She rolled the cube between her hands, wishing for better circumstances. "I'm sorry, Commander."
"For what?" Magnus gave her a light smile. His manner relaxed as he settled on the floor with her. "Not your fault, Cloud. But a certain two-headed female Monsterbot will do maintenance for the next two days."
Knowing his reputation as Fort Max's drill sergeant, Cloudstreaker smiled. No doubt Magnus already had special plans and times set up for Doublecross. She turned the cube about two more times before finally deciding to eat.
Ultra Magnus kept glancing at the glass monoliths. She followed his optics from one to another and doubt filled her. "Ultra Magnus?"
His large optics caused her laser core to skip a vibration. "Even if you were to get them free, how will we get out of here? We must have fallen a good hundred feet or more."
Magnus shook his head as the light above them dimmed. "I don't know. Yet."
She stared hard at him, nervous.
Magnus smirked. "You worry too much, Cloud. Even if I have to make Repugnus and Doublecross dig a tunnel down here with their bare hands, we will get out. Don't worry."
She smiled again, grateful for the reassurance. He stood with a deep breath and stared down the path lining between the glass monoliths. Their only source of light snapped out, abandoning them to darkness. Magnus moaned and muttered something to himself before shooting another flare into the air. "Repugnus!" he called both aloud and through the comlilne. "You'd better make sure someone is doing something up there besides fine tuning their terminal textports!"
"Calvary's coming. Sooner or later."
Cloudstreaker suspected, however, that Repugnus was lying on his back, literally twiddling his thumbs. She wondered what buttons he'd try to push with Magnus before the Major-General would burst. Magnus let out a breath and rested his forehead against Neon's glass case.
"I need a vacation," he muttered.
The air fell thick with silence. Cloudstreaker kept wondering if she could just hobble along, but she knew the damaged instuds connecting her joints could not support her body weight.
Magnus suddenly snapped out of his lethargy. "Wait a minute! Cloud! Do you have those two old tablets with you?"
"Yes," she said slowly.
"Out with them. I have a feeling they're more than just journals."
She handed him one and held the other and they poured through the tablets. Cloudstreaker could not make heads or tails of the script and kept shaking her head. "I'm sorry, Ultra Magnus. I'm not finding anything."
"Yeah, well . . . you were not held prisoner by Quintessons for several years."
She drew back, surprised. "You . . . you were a prisoner of the Quintessons?"
He smiled, but did not look at her. "Among other things. There's . . . a combination here I'm going to try. But I'm not sure if it works on the stasis tubes or not."
"Commander, what if those things that brought the Refractor's crew come back?"
"I'm sure they will, Cloudstreaker."
"Listen," he rebutted sternly but gently, "We don't have time for fear. Now I've found something here and I'm going to give it a try. I'll be right back."
Embarrassed, Cloudstreaker silently nodded and Magnus left for the other end of the chamber. She sat there quietly until she decided to try deciphering the other tablet.
Magnus wandered between rows of free-standing glass cases. Not all of them were used; some were damaged.
Magnus' second flare sputtered and died. He growled and twisting round, shot a third one. One left, he thought. Grotesque had better come up with something. Or, Magnus hoped, he himself would find an answer. Just as he turned from the forest of cases, he found a stairwell dipped further underground. Gazing right then left, the city commander decided the stairs was the best option.
"Cloudstreaker?" he called.
"There's a short case of stairs . . . I'll keep in touch." he did not wait for an answer and descended to the next level. The moment his foot touched the floor, lights shot on, not only in the room he entered, but in the chamber. The room opened before him like a scientist's dream come true. The real laboratory wasn't above in the cave, but down here. Computers, testing equipment, cages and a huge view screen lined or stood about the room. A table large enough to restrain three subjects at a time stood under a canopy of equipment. Magnus guessed the first room was only a showcase for Quintesson customers. What pleased the Major-General the most was a small teleporter at the back end of the room.
Magnus smiled. He beat Grotesque to the solution.
"Finding the teleport is peachy as cream," Grotesque greeted Magnus when he and Cloudstreaker 'beamed' to the top. "What about the crew? Have you-"
"Nope," Magnus's voice was upbeat. "That'll be your job. I think, however, we might rang the front doorbell. I'm sure the Refractor's abductors will come." He carried Cloudstreaker to medbay and turned to Doublecross. "See if you can do something for her, will you?"
"I have Dinobots to round up." Magnus brusquely headed for the door, paused, spun about with a finger pointing upward. "Ah, Doublecross, see if you and Grotesque can get this thing going, would you?"
Again, he did not wait for an answer-positive or otherwise. Magnus headed outside where the Dinobots hung about the ship like a group of bored kids. Magnus gathered his resolve, "Alright. Grimlock, I need three of you guys downstairs to help me free the Refractor's crew, and two of you guys up here with Bumblebee to keep an optic on things."
"Uh . . . what things?"
"No surprises. They're going to come back-the same people who took the crew."
It amazed Magnus that the Dinobots were still willing to cooperate. Sludge and Swoop remained up top while the other Dinobots descended below. At first Magnus thought about being delicate regarding the glass cells. But after taking life readings, he figured the best way to procure the crew was to let the Dinobots have at it.
And they did . . . a bit too well. Magnus had to get Snarl and Slag to calm down and simply tear the doors off when they attended those cases containing organics.
Tektonix came to, lying on the floor next to Fahren. He tried unsuccessfully to sit upright.
"Hey, Tex, how's it going?" Magnus greeted.
Tektonix groaned and covered his forehead and optics with his right arm. "You speak like a damned American, Magnus. It's good to see you."
"Whole damned ship wobbled like it was made of water or something. Couldn't control it. It -we crashed-" he stared at the city commander, "-three times, Magnus. Sounds crazy. But I remember it; we crashed straight into a mountain. Then we crashed again, but it was into a city. Then it was this rot hole. Lost two of my crew. We um, we stepped outside to look around, hoping to get in contact with you and Prime and we were ambushed. Never seen them before. Did you know there were creatures out there that can split themselves in half?"
Magnus nodded. "Bumblebee told us he knew them as Pretenders."
"Who? Bumble-did you just say Bumblebee?"
Magnus did not want to get into the explanation end of things. He helped Tektonix to his feet. "Come on, let's get you out of here."
No sooner had Magnus and Grimlock guided fourteen Autobots back to the Cold Refractor than Swoop and Bumblebee sounded the alarm.
Magnus quietly swore under his breath. He ordered Swoop, Snarl and Doublecross to get the rest of the crew onboard. Doublecross started to protest.
"WE'LL DISCUSS IT LATER, CROSSY!" Magnus spat.
The ship rocked, dragging Cloudstreaker out of another state of light sleep. Doublecross had temporarily patched her instuds, but the damage required finer work than a bandage. She sleepily gazed left of her flat as Bumblebee assisted an injured Human into the bay. "Bumblebee?" she asked, "what's going on?"
"We have visitors and they're trying to attack the ship."
Cloud sat up on her elbows as Doublecross assisted Pointblank into the bay. "How many others are there, Crossy?"
The Monsterbot shook her head. "Too many to make a fast and easy escape, I'm afraid. Don't worry. The Dinobot boys will keep 'em off us a while longer."
Cloudstreaker watched Crossy leave the ship for another Autobot hostage and decided it was time she acted like a second-in-command.
Grimlock was two-for-two and working on a third Pretender.
Sludge clashed with his: he rammed his fist into the first thing that assaulted him then tossed it aside like a used soda can.
Magnus wrestled hand-to-hand with his opponent. Four arms and two huge legs kept the city commander dancing like a marionette.
Repugnus dealt with a flier, cussing so that it distracted Snarl. Snarl's adversary took full advantage and kicked the Dinobot so hard, Snarl slammed into the Refractor's rear port. Slag ran toward his brother, slid into the hard gritty soil, transformed and shot Snarl's enemy first, then his own.
Four-Arms grasped Magnus round the waist and threw him against the canyon wall. Two alien canine beasts lunged Magnus, tearing at his exostructure. They peppered gashes along his arms.
One canine crumbled, sliced in half by Repugnus. Magnus kicked the second one off and sent a rocket into its side. It blew to shreds and he stood, shaking. Four-Arms and a more gruesome two legged thing-all fangs and claws-inched their way toward the two Autobots. "Grotesque!" Magnus called through the comline. "Is everyone onboard YET?!"
"Um, yes. But we can't get out."
Four-arms charged with a boisterous shout. Magnus impacted a kick straight to the monster's chest. But when the Major-General moved, All-Fangs leapt and grasped part of the city commander's upper chest.
Repugnus swung a claw for a nice slice at the head, but the beast turned and they tangled claws and jaws.
Bleeding, exhausted and battered with pain, Magnus forced himself up. "NOW WHAT'S WRONG?!"
Cloudstreaker, who managed to get to the bridge under her own power, gave Grotesque a doubtful look. The Monsterbot cringed when Magnus spat several unsavory words and fired his weapon.
"Um, Sir, the Refractor's neutrodon antigrav boosters were damaged by temporal flux. Three of them simply phased out of existence. The Cold Refractor can get up over the canyon wall, but I can't get her started."
Cloudstreaker swivelled her seat toward Grotesque. "I have an idea."
Magnus heard the suggestion and figured the poor girl was either delirious with pain or just crazy. But when twenty-six more Pretenders poured from canyon walls, crazy looked good.
Cloudstreaker, Crossy, Swoop and Magnus struggled to keep the Pretenders off the ship while the other four Dinobots, Repugnus and Grotesque surrounded the Refractor. Bumblebee and Britania gave the signal: all engines were go.
Magnus kept close to Cloudstreaker, giving her as much protection as possible. She concentrated on all power sources in the immediate area: the underground laboratory, the crystals and the Pretenders themselves.
She opened her subspace conduits and drew it all in. Every ounce of energy available without touching the Autobots or the Refractor. Even what she could gather from daylight she amassed into a fine point. Then she radiated the power into her companions like breathing onto a dandelion. She concentrated, filtering energy so as not to overload anyone's receptacles.
Cloudstreaker did not see the Dinobots and Monsterbots glow with the increase of power. Repugnus laughed, stimulated in a way he'd never felt before. Grimlock gave the command and all eight heavy-weight warriors lifted the ship with no more trouble than if it were made of cheap plastic.
Those Pretenders caught up in Cloudstreaker's subspace conduits fell like dead husks.
Once off the ground, the ship's engines kicked in. With an incredible push, the Autobots shoved the Cold Refractor as far up as their combined strength allotted. The Refractor tilted just a bit but made it out of the canyon and safely upon the precipice.
Cloudstreaker found herself enveloped in Magnus' great arms and swung around once. He let her go before she realized what just took place. Shocked, she stumbled back, her expression vacant with surprise.
A huge grin plastered over Magnus' face. "Good job, Cloudstreaker!"
* * *
As tired as she was, Rusti thought she should drop dead as soon as she hit her pillow. Three breaths and her mind already shifted into dreams.
Daniel yelled at her.
She was late to school.
Where was Optimus?
She opened her eyes as their 'drill sergeant' chastised two boys for arguing. EDC officer Lustervich appointed herself babysitter over everyone past the age of four. She was the slave driver every Quintesson feared, or so the day's joke went.
Rusti wondered how she could squirm her way out of "Ms. Listerine's" domain.
The lights snapped out, the door closed. Half-muttered comments of contempt followed the sudden silence. The boys took less a liking to their task mistress than the girls.
Rusti allowed herself to drift again. Ration meals were cold. The planet stank.
Where was Optimus??
HE CANNOT LOVE YOU! YOU THINK HE'S SOME KIND OF GOD OR HERO-SOMEONE WHO WILL RESCUE YOU FROM ALL YOUR PROBLEMS-
SHUT UP! Not your concern.
. . . not your con-
Rusti's eyes snapped open. She was awake, but nothing looked familiar. Wait. Think back. That part of the ceiling looks familiar.
A ship. Okay. The Kummya.
She groaned. The worst day in school was better than being here.
One girl screamed, then another. The door flew open, lights snapped on, glaring in everyone's eyes. Moans and complaints followed. Rusti tried to sink further under her blanket but it was too hot.
Ms. Lustervich darted for the two screaming girls, demanding to know what was wrong.
The girls blathered between tears, making little to no sense. Strangely enough, their dreams did not reflect the attack on Earth or the death of a parent or a loved one. Something about a great room, needles, voices . . . awful voices.
Rusti tried to shut them out; think of Optimus Prime. Rusti knew she was still young. If her father knew, if he ever found out . . .
"ALL RIGHT, KIDS. UP AND WITH IT!"
Everyone moaned, groaned and stretched.
"COME ON! UP!"
Rusti sat up feeling as though she had not slept once all night. She gazed at the room filled with nameless peers. Lucille bound her dark hair up. Cuts and welts marred her smooth face and Rusti wondered where her acquaintance was working to get so scratched up.
"Davison? Marc Davison?"
"Here," came a reluctant reply.
"You're to report to the Genesis and work with Crosshairs. Mindy Gormes?"
"Report to the Saber's Claw to Brainstorm. Kessler Andblim and Troy Bronston?"
"Andblim and Bronstron?" the 'drill instructor' craned her neck to find the faces to the names. But she honestly did not know one child from another and skipped to the next name:
"Report to Autobot Trinket on the Interrogator. Everyone else dress up. Hit breakfast immediately. Today we clean the Trench Driver."
Moans and groans followed while Rusti attended her shoes, tied her light jacket about her waist and beelined off the Kummya.
Even in the morning, Cratian air filled her lungs with warm, unsavory smells. More people occupied the grounds this time of day than yesterday afternoon. More materials and supplies passed between ships and vocal 'buzzing' filled the air with jokes, shouts and more than occasional cursing.
Rusti boarded the Interrogator and immediately flattened herself against the nearest wall. Two lumbering Autobots backed toward the entrance/exit hauling out an entire control panel between them.
Arcee/Daniel followed closely behind and Rusti froze, daring not even to breathe.
Don't look down. Don't look down. Don't look down, she pleaded inwardly.
"Oh!" Arcee called. "Corner, ten o'clock of your position, there, Titanium!"
"No, no! Tip down. Little-okay, it's through."
"Didn't know these things weighed so much," Autobot Physix complained. "Where's a Dinobot when you need one?"
"At the other end of the planet, hopefully." Arcee/Daniel snarled. "Plank, Physix. Keep it slow."
Rusti thought everyone could hear her heart as it pounded. Her cheeks burned and her legs tried to melt from under her. But the second Arcee/Daniel disembarked, the girl dashed.
Arcee heard the patter of footsteps, but could not determine whose they were. Her optics lit suspiciously, but the next second, her/Daniel's attention returned to the two mechs.
Rusti explored the Interrogator with an insect's eye. The Sunset Kummya was readjusted in several levels to accommodate the smaller refugees but the Interrogator was not. In fact, the Interrogator was refit for weapons repair. Everything from forward cannons to faulty torpedoes to Targetmaster spare hand guns-and all their spare parts-littered the ship on shelves. Racks above those contained tools and every room Rusti passed had an open doorway.
"Hey! Bit lost there, li'l lamb?"
Rusti gazed left and up into Hotspot's optics. She blushed. "I-I was told to report to Trinket, sir."
"Didn't give you directions, did they? Guess they expected you to know. C'mon. I'll take ya that way."
Rusti followed the Protectobot leader to a large lift and hung on. Twice her eyes peered at the Protectobot leader, his face plate and general configuration. She wished he were Optimus Prime. Rusti closed her eyes, her heart aching.
"How you doing?" Hotspot's gruff voice bounced around the lift.
Rusti's eyes shot open as though roused from a dream. She shrugged. "Okay, I guess."
"Yeah? How's the young ones?"
She hesitated, not sure if he meant the babies and toddlers or all children in general. She hazzard a guess that he meant all the children. "They have nightmares, Hotspot. It's hard to sleep."
He stopped the lift, stared at her then knelt on one knee. "That's not good."
She shook her head, looked away and embraced herself.
"You gettin' them too, Li'l Lamb?"
Rusti felt funny over that pet name. "I . . . I miss Optimus. I just . . . feel lost."
Hotspot nodded and upon standing, resumed the lift. "I think we all do, Rusti. We all do."
Hotspot led her into a wide, well-lit room sectioned into thirds. The center section steamed with a basin of hot water and another with hot oil. The first section they entered was crowded with equipment, tools, vials, work tables, microscopes and along one wall hung white coats.
The final section of the same room contained energon cubes and more vials of unknown fluids. Two Autobots quietly conversed in the third section while two Autobots bent over a small component, taking turns with laser tools.
Nearby the wall of coats, a femme slipped into a coat and from a compartment in the wall, produced a digipad.
Hotspot approached her and Rusti followed. "This n's Rusti, here, Trinket. She tells me she had t' report t' you t'day."
Rusti flushed, hoping she heard the 'drill instructor' correctly.
Trinket gazed into her digipad and nodded. "I guess so. Says that Ultra Magnus wants me to . . . fix . . . you have an exosuit?"
Dropping her jaw and glancing from Hotspot to Trinket, Rusti stammered: "Uh-yeah. I do. It was damaged-"
"But ya don't have it with you."
"I'm wearing it."
Hotspot and Trinket gave the girl doubtful looks and to prove it, Rusti undressed in front of them and unlatched the damaged suit.
Trinket held the comparatively doll-sized suit between her hands and glanced from it to the girl and back. "How did you-where-? I was expecting something more like Daniel's-er-your father's suit."
"Optimus and Roddi gave it to me when I started playing football with the Dinobots."
"You gotta be kidding!" Hotspot almost laughed. Trinket smiled in agreement and stood straight.
"Well, at least I can take a break from the Hannibal's hyperdrive."
Rusti sat upon the counter top, legs dangled over the ledge. She figured it was at least an hour by now. Trinket removed burned and damaged parts within the suit Rusti did not know even was there. Perceptor entered the room at one point and set three crystalized boards at one table. He hovered over Trinket's work and asked about it. The femme pointed to Rusti who waved.
Perceptor offered a weak smile in turn. He aimed for the door when he abruptly paused, glanced again at the girl and aimed for the third part of the room. He returned with two trays in hand and set them next to Trinket.
These aren't inventoried yet . . . I suspect they'll give you exactly what you need, Trinket."
The femme looked to him, then to Rusti, back again and then to the suit. She smiled so that Rusti thought she tried not to laugh.
Two hours rolled into four. Rusti dozed. She thought she heard the school's five-minute bell. Students bustled through the hallway. Mrs. Tau waited at the door, counting heads.
Feet shuffled, papers rustled. A test due in history. Name the treaty between the Autobots and Saudi Arabia and describe.
Rusti woke her neck stiff and joints sore. She tried to recall the answer when she realized it no longer mattered. Saudi Arabia like the rest of the planet, was now enslaved by Quintessons.
Equal opportunity enslavement, Rusti thought sourly. The Quintessons had no respect for anything.
"Here you go, Rusti. Try it now."
Rusti examined the suit once then tossed her clothes off and gave it a good fit. The suit slightly shifted, adjusting to her body's specific shape. Rusti activated the power source and waited for a strange noise or disturbing feel of the suit against her skin. But when nothing happened, she tried to access the subspace pocket. To her delight, she retrieved her helmet.
Trinket rinsed her hands and dried them with a lint-proof cloth. "How does it work?"
Rusti wasn't sure. She sealed the helmet over her dry hair and activated the shield. She tuned in to the main Autobot comline. Communications came and went between Autobots and EDC officers like a news office. The girl shrugged. "Seems to work just fine."
Trinket nodded. "I added six new cells and a new power adaptor with greater capacity in heavy environments."
Rusti gave her a blank expression. She eyed a small trash can nearby the exit and concentrated the suit's power into a single focus. Pointing at the can, she fired a low-frequency burst and seared a hole in the side.
Rusti smiled, satisfied. "It works fine."
Two of Kup's security boys clashed into the room, anxiously pointing weapons at every nook and cranny. Trinket had to explain three times that it was a test and no damage was done.
But security was less than happy with Rusti and they let her go with a stern warning.
Rusti left the Interrogator feeling badly about the situation. She meant no harm and was careful to use low-frequency firepower. But everyone was edgy. Everyone was cranky. Everyone was tired and homesick and the girl admitted her actions were of poor judgement.
Apologizing sometimes never felt it was enough to patch up a bad moment.
She started on the road back to the Sunset Kummya when Rusti paused and realized she did not want to go back. Certainly she was still 'child' by some standards, but she was adult enough to know the 'drill sergeant' was less than fair to the others.
A large hand gripped her shoulder so hard, Rusti almost fell to her knees in pain. Tears blurred her vision and she swallowed a scream.
"What are you doing?"
The familiar authoritative voice sent chills down Rusti's back. She gripped her left shoulder and tried to breathe. Through blurred vision she faced her father. He stared down, an angry warrior bearing a deep frown formed by the lip components of his face mask.
"I'm talking to you, Resonna!" he snarled. His fists clenched and flexed. "What are you doing? Everyone's working . . . EXCEPT YOU!"
"Nothing." It was the wrong thing to say.
A deafening whack preceded pain. Rusti lost her balance and hit the ground, lower back first. Her exo-suit shot on, protecting her from the worst of the fall. She was not wearing her helmet and regretted it. Daniel's foot landed too close to her face.
"Everyone else is contributing to our survival. And while you're off playing Autobot princess, the rest of us are slaving away in hopes of returning to Earth."
The shock of the moment kept Rusti from answering. She had been struck before and the shock of the moment still paralyzed her. Tears traced her cheek, hot with throbbing pain.
"Are you listening to me, Resonna?!" Daniel demanded.
"Yes," she whispered.
"What? I can't hear you!"
"Y's . . ." her chest heaved and more than anything she wished Optimus Prime were there.
Where was he?
Her nerves sat on edge. Feebly Rusti stood and would have just walked away. But excited by the sensation of power and control, Daniel grabbed his wayward daughter by her thick red hair. He half-dragged her toward the Spiral Star, ignoring her pleas and weeping. Daniel also resolutely ignored on-lookers, many of whom stared in wordless shock. Gort, standing next to EDC Captain Summerston, quietly spoke into the comlink.
Rusti slapped Daniel's metal arm repeatedly to no effect. She tried to wrestle away. He yanked her hair so hard, she thought he tried to snap her neck. When they reached the ally between the Razor Lady and the Spiral Star, Daniel let go but gave her a bruising back-handed slap.
Rusti struck the ground shoulder-first. No matter what kind of an asshole he was, Daniel had never physically attacked her before. This was not like school where the perpetrators were other boys. This was family: an outright rejection of an estranged relationship. Unable to get up, Rusti covered her face in shame and distress, weeping bitterly. She heard his footfalls step just inches away and she rolled her body into fetal position.
"Stop," her little voice barely rose loud enough for her own ears.
Daniel decided he was not done.
But Rodimus was. His super-annoyingly cheerful voice called through the air, saving the moment: "DANIEL! Can I have a word with you?"
Breathless, Rusti lowered her trembling hands. Her eyes jumped from her mad father to Rodimus. Now was the time to leave.
Rodimus waited until she disappeared then crouched before the indignant human who crossed his arms and stared defiantly. "What do you want, Rodimus?"
"Well, Dan-o, I thought I'd confide in you about problems I've had with a growing temper-you know-the kind that gets people hurt? And, see, I seemed to have a thing for Rusti. . . I'm attached to her."
Rodimus held his chin between thumb and finger and gazed toward heaven in deep thought. "I have no idea why. Maybe it's cuz I raised her? Maybe?" he set his face a bit too close to Daniel for the Headmaster's comfort. "The point is, Dan-o, we're no longer on Earth, ergo, not entirely subject to its courts. The other point is my temper is growing shorter all the time and it's not a smart idea to test my self-control. So I'm going to do you a big favor, Dan-o."
Daniel stared at the Autobot leader, daring to say nothing.
Rodimus thought that was smart: "I'm going to pretend I did not see you slap your daughter. I'm going to pretend you haven't been around her at all. See, I'm being a nice guy about it. Cuz, Daniel, if I DID see you slap her, I might have lost my temper and . . . well, seeing how you're just a little bit smaller than me, you might have ended up like a wad of gum under my boot. Squished."
Rodimus drew even closer so that all that filled Daniel's vision were his blue optics, lit up and meaningful. "Got it?" Rodimus concluded.
"Yeah," Daniel kept his voice icy, defiant. "I got it. Gum."
Rodimus dimmed the upper edges of his optics, a bit pleased. "Say 'Golly, thank you, Roddi'."
"Thanks, Rodimus." Daniel's echo did reveal a bit of fear -enough to make Prime withdraw with a grunt of satisfaction.
Rusti searched for a dark out-of-the-way corner to crawl into. She berated her own cowardice-why didn't she strike back? She could have-and rightly so! Pain masked her face with heat and her skin felt like it was bleeding.
Confused and exhausted, she boarded the Vertical Horizon and snuggled into the darkest, smallest space she could find. She knew in a few more hours all 'children' were to be in bed. But Rusti did not care how much trouble she'd be in, she was NOT going back.
"Repairs are coming along smoothly. The Spiral Star is fully functional now. The Horizon's repairs will be finished by tomorrow and Hannibal's Mark will be ready by the time Magnus gets back."
Rusti stirred as another voice spouted off a list and ended it with "we need the Dinobots."
Rodimus spoke next, though he sounded far more solemn than usual. "News from Magnus?"
Jazz: "Not a peep 'n three days."
"Not surprising," Kup pipped in, "Chances are the source is jamming transmissions."
City commander Convoy said something in turn and Rusti peeked out. All the city commanders and Rodimus sat around a make-shift table. Kup, Blaster and Perceptor sat closer to Roddi. The group of Autobot officers softly laughed at some incident Convoy described with body language.
Lifting a blanket someone laid over her earlier, Rusti started to venture out of hiding. Rodimus dropped his left arm, snap his fingers and shook his index finger, sternly indicating she was not to move.
Rusti acquiesced and silently slipped back into the little compartment. Near the blanket, she found a bottle of water, a rations packet and a small pillow.
Roddi's face turned dead serious. "That leads me to a subject I've danced around long enough. We need a solid plan, people. We need to decide what our next move will be if Optimus Prime does not arrive."
Convoy stared at him in surprise. "He DID say to rendevous here, Rodimus."
I know, Convoy, but we also need to prepare for the possibility we may never see him again. I need input. Like the Centauri ambassador said, we need allies. As fugitives, we are targets looking for predators. I don't know if we can even take Earth back at all."
His words hung heavy. The thought that Optimus might be gone forever burned Rusti so that she choked silently and wept into the blanket.
"We have some good allies," Kup slowly answered. "But I don't know who'd grant us refuge from those gadget-hacking, power-jacking, slander-sopping Quintessons."
Again they fell silent, lost in the thoughts of their people's potential fate. Rodimus sighed and observed each officer. "Well, here's what I'm looking at: we're here to rendevous with Optimus Prime. Chances are good and not so good. If he gets here, our chances of survival would certainly improve. But what if Optimus Prime never shows? We need to choose what to do from there. And I'm gonna be brutally honest with you guys, eventually, the Matrix Virus will kill me."
The air in the room fell cold with despair. Convoy and Jazz looked away. Kup stared at Roddi, sorrow etched lines into his face. Gryph remained emotionless.
"In that event, Roddi continued, "We need to plan. There needs to be a chain of command. There can be no doubt for direction or purpose on your part. The survival of the Autobots depends on your every move and what I want from the six of you is a list of ideas. Surrender to anything or anyone is not an option. And listen to me when I say you can't surrender your freedom. If we die as a species, we die with dignity."
That gave Rusti chills and left a rock in the pit of her stomach. Their situation was grim and Rusti wondered how the Autobots managed to remain so calm. She snuggled in the corner again, fingering the ring about her finger and wondered if it wasn't a good-bye present from Optimus Prime. As her mind shut down, Rusti vaguely considered taking off on her own to find him. She did not think how absurd the idea was, she knew he HAD to be out there somewhere . . . somewhere.
Rusti woke again with a deep breath. Her eyes and swollen face hurt. Her shoulder ached. She tried to loosen the muscles, but pain kept her still. With an inward moan, the girl ventured to the light and found the room all but empty.
Rusti had forgotten she was on the Horizon bridge.
Rodimus lay asleep at the table. A small stack of digipads lay about him. Rusti stole one step and the Autobot leader sat up and with a twist about the waist, popped his central infrastructural rod. "We need a deck of cards."
His joke did nothing for her. "Roddi . . . you sounded like something bad is about to happen. Do you think something's happened to Ultra Magnus and the others?"
"Nah. "Rodimus took to his feet and paced a bit. "I don't want you to worry about it, Lady Friend. How do you feel? I almost pasted your father on the Spiral Star. He's lucky I did not want you to see me do it."
Her heart ached from rejection and worry. Then Rusti gave him that annoyed expression he fell in love with a lifetime ago. "A bit LATE for that, Roddi. I'm already worried. I'm tired and . . . homesick." she swallowed another bout of tears.
The Autobot leader plopped into the navigation chair and swiveled in it for a moment then stopped and bent over, elbows on knees, face drawn and guilty, optics squarely on her. "I know, Rusti. I know. And I know you're worried for all of us. Where I came from, there are no more Autobots. No more Decepticons. No more Cybertron. No more Matrix. It's all gone."
As empty as Rusti already felt, surprise no longer affected her. Puzzled, she wrapped her arms about one another when her shoulder reminded her of the attack. "What happened, Roddi?"
Rodimus did not answer right away. His lip components turned down, corners tight. His fingers laced together, head bowed then lifted but heavily. "That same monster, Unicron." Roddi stared out the viewer past Rusti, the long look of pain crossed his features. "I was very young at the time. But I remember watching from an asteroid how this . . demon sliced up Cybertron . . ." Roddi sat back, his optics fully on the girl again.
'Anyway, we lost our home. Then an alien entity devoured the Matrix. The Decepticons simply self-destructed. They chased us for quite a long time but they turned on one another like starving piranha. We were reduced to forty-five sparks, . . . twenty, . . . thirteen. Optimus Prime died due to . . . complications.'
He shot his optics back to the viewer and looked uneasy. Rodimus stood, paced a moment, turned from the girl and wiped his face plates of moisture.
"And . . . it's all happening again." Rusti surmised. "-except it's the Quintessons rather than Unicron." He did not answer, did not need to. Rusti guessed there was more to the sad story; more regarding the other Optimus Prime.
"Roddi, what do you mean Optimus died of complications? Was he injured?"
Rodimus could not look at her. He stared at the pilot panel wall then through the right viewer screen. "Well, yes. We were all damaged. Parts were scarce and energon was more so." he laid a hand behind his helm and turned back, staring at her a bit wild-eyed as though he had a secret long since kept. "Optimus was pregnant."
Rusti forgot to breathe. Her jaw dropped, her eyes shot wide. "What?"
"We thought it was a last gift from the Matrix." Rodimus choked again and sat down, staring at the floor. "I'll never know if it survived." He stared at his hands and cupped them as though holding a small spheroid object. "I'll never know."
Rusti's heart ached for her own Optimus Prime. She choked on her grief but could not cry. Rubbing her aching shoulder, the girl mournfully turned away.
Roddi sighed. "Don't worry, Lady-Friend. Well give him as much time as we can. I'm leaving no one behind."
Rusti tried to smile with swollen cheeks and Rodimus took to his feet. "Come on. Let's get you to a doctor before I go off to kick your dad's ass."
Rodimus trailed the girl and counted himself blessed to be adopted into another Autobot society. But Ambassador Koontah was right. Without allies, the Autobots did not have a prayer for survival.
"Well, I'm not a doctor, but according to this scan, you have deep-tissue bruising and some bruising to your ligaments."
Rusti met the double-pupil eyes of Zornoy, an extra-terrestrial medical intern from Fortress Sagittarius. She had smooth dark skin and thick hair tightly bound in a large braid wrapped upon her head. She smiled only with her lips, refusing to display double rows of blunt black teeth. "The good news is that nothing's broken."
Rusti felt funny. Her skin tingled almost like an itch but not enough to need a scratch. A bath sounded positively delicious about now. A plate of pancakes stuffed with fruit and whip cream sounded even better.
[What is it, Rusti?] Roddi softly Touched.
"The air feels funny."
The alien intern drew back before treating the nasty bruises marring Rusti's face and arm. "Eh?"
A commotion sounded from the other end of the camp. The second Zornoy finished, Rusti raced outside and just barely made out Ultra Magnus' towering shape. He, the Dinobots and the Cold Refractor landed outside the ring of Autobot shuttles. Rodimus followed her example, transformed and raced to greet Magnus, Tektonix and the Monsterbots.
Magnus waded through the welcoming crowd, grateful Bumblebee took up the audience's attention. Repugnus and Tektonix slipped off to report their accounts to Rodimus.
Magnus carried Cloudstreaker to the med tent as First Aid met them and ordered people away from his patients.
"Wow! Looks like you stepped into a bad patch of astro-cactus, there, Cloudstreaker."
Cloudstreaker cringed as Magnus laid her on the flat. "Big thorns, First Aid."
Magnus smiled. "I'll be back to check on you, Cloudstreaker." And he departed, leaving her core in a flutter.
Rodimus and Kup met Magnus half way to the Horizon. Roddi gave him a pleased smile while Kup punched data into a digipad.
"You're a bit early, Magnus," Roddi chirped. "Not that I'm complaining, really."
"I don't like to be late." Magnus replied in kind as they boarded the Horizon and joined Repugnus and Grotesque.
Rodimus remained unmoved as the three explorers reported their accounts. News of the abandoned lab disturbed the Autobot leader, but Roddi still said nothing until Repugnus told of their fight with the Pretender shells and final escape. "That's not good." Rodimus understated. "Why would the Quintessons build something like that then abandon the whole project?"
Kup's face lined with bitter old memory. "They've been known to do that, Rodimus. Possibly it was a failed experiment."
Roddi frowned. "Decepticon presence of any kind only speaks of trouble. Kup, I want a complete report on all current repairs and a new time schedule. Magnus, I know you're tired, but I'd like you and Jazz to take Silverbolt and head out to Concentric City and see what news you can find there. Keep it brief. Repugnus, good work and if you don't mind, I'd like greater detailed reports later."
Just as Rodimus ended his sentence, the room flashed with intense light. The view screen displayed an oncoming storm and another flick of lightning lashed the ground some miles away. Kup dashed to the ship's sensors and took a reading.
"Great spark of Primus! It's an ion storm!"
Magnus gaped. "Rodimus! I meant to tell you: we found a calendar in the laboratory that shows Cratis has ion storms on a regular basis-"
"SHUT THE POWER!" Rodimus ordered. Kup hit the emergency switch as a sphere of light hit the port, shaking the vessel.
Rusti sat and stared into a cooking fire while other people milled about, talking of nothing. The Dinobots were weary from their trip to the canyon and had long since retired to the Hannibal's Mark. Perhaps it was just as well they could not play. The Cratian sun-or whatever it was the passed for a light source-was waning and soon everyone would be forced to sleep through nightmares.
Two hours passed while Rodimus, Magnus and other heads of staff discussed the situation in the Vertical Horizon. Rusti suspected Magnus' party found more than just the Cold Refractor and her crew.
Her skin kept tingling, prickling like tiny sparks of electricity zapping her.
"Hey!" Lucille settled next to Rusti on a makeshift bench. "They've made omelets. Want some?"
Rusti eyed the plate with scrutiny and recalled a joke in school about powdered eggs and old spam. She supposed that when she finally got hungry enough, even fried ants would taste good. A distant grinding noise drifted along a stiff breeze and Rusti stood, her instincts shouted for her to take cover.
"What's wrong?" Lucille asked with a sip of water.
"Let's . . I think we need to get the little kids inside . . . now."
Lucille shrugged. "Why? Not bed-time ye-"
The first bolt struck the Vertical Horizon and the echo alarmed everyone. The camp fell dead silent.
That was when Rusti spotted Arcee walking with Hotspot from the Razor Lady. The girl swallowed air and frantically searched for a place to run.
The sound of a screaming banshee forced every Human to cover their ears. Rusti thought to dash for the Kummya. She tried to get Lucille to follow but paralyzed by fear, the other girl merely sank to the ground, weeping.
Dirt and ash choked the air with smoky, bitter smells.
People scattered in every direction, grabbing children or each other. Then grinding thunder hit, setting teeth on edge and raking the nervous system with sonic shock. Rusti fell as her whole body spazed and trembled from the low-pitch tones. The ground buzzed like a container stuffed with angry bees.
Once it passed, she raised herself on shaking arms and spotted Arcee heading right for her.
Two more screaming energy globules shot through the sky. One slammed into the ground and blazed a hole in the dirt. The other hit Arcee in the head, forcing the Headmaster femme to flip flat on her back. Then a second shot hit the femme in the chest.
Rusti could not breathe-she clasped her hands tightly to her chest, wondering if she had just witnessed her father's death.
The world swirled about her while the ion storm scattered people in a panicked disarray. Rusti felt nothing as Duros swept her up and carried her into the Kummya.
All refugees outside the ships stampeded for cover.
Disks and spheres of lightening smashed, skittered and slammed the camp. Horrible screeching sounds erupted as the storm cracked overhead, billowing head-grinding vibrations.
Hotspot ushered Arcee and two girls toward the Hannibal's Mark. Half the way, a disk of energy rammed him square in the back. The girls screamed and ducked under Hotspot's fallen form. A disc slammed into Arcee's head before she could transform. The Headmaster femme flipped backward and a second disc struck, shorting her entire system. Arcee wreathed and screamed then lay dead still, her optics leaking dark fluids.
Four more spheres hit the camp, one just barely missed Sideswipe.
And then all fell quiet.
Autobots and Humans hugged the ground, many counting limbs and living comrades among them.
Trinket found Arcee while Sideswipe carried Hotspot to First Aid.
She scanned the damaged femme, refused to believe the readings and scanned again. Out the corner of her optic, Magnus and Rodimus raced toward her. The femme doctor stood and shook her head. "I don't know if Arcee was able to shut down into stasis in time."
Rodimus was about to take Arcee to medbay himself when eight people simultaneously called in damage reports.
"Crappy week we're having," Prime growled. "Take care of her, Magnus. Keep me informed." And he left to handle a billion emergencies.
Magnus assisted Trinket, carrying Arcee to the med tent. A long line greeted them and Magnus pushed his way through, following Trinket straight to a flat. He laid his friend on the table and stepped back while two assistants flew to Arcee's side.
The Major-General watched with trepidation as the medical team removed Daniel. Emergency calls shouted from other sections of the tent. Toward the back wall, assistants attended Hotspot. Some poor child screamed while the intern performed emergency surgery.
Magnus hoped for immediate news but a few minutes turned into half an hour and one Autobot officer after another asked for Magnus' assistance. Forced to duty, the Major-General departed, requesting updates over Arcee's condition.
By that evening, most ships were easily repaired; the storm left only superficial damage.
Four hours after sunset First Aid finally reported to Roddi. The Autobot physician handed Rodimus a cup of high-powered energon, brought him just inside the med tent and kept his voice down.
"We can't repair Arcee." He mourned. "All the microlink circuitry has been fried beyond repair. We--" First aid cast his gaze upon the ground, unable to finish.
Rodimus about panicked. "Is she dying? Is she gone?"
"No!" First aid look up. "I don't mean Arcee herself. I mean as a Headmaster."
It took Rodimus a moment to grasp the concept. "Well . . . can't you just . . . put her back the way she was before our encounter with Nebulos?"
First Aid shook his head. "Rodimus, that's the ONLY thing I can do."
"Then do it." Rodimus ordered. "For Arcee's sake," he added with much quieter tones.
The ion storm left the camp quiet of conversation or activity. Rodimus felt total exhaustion from everyone he encountered. With all the bad events, the stress smothered his people. He ordered all repairs to cease, all logs entries to terminate. A fatigued army cannot defend itself.
Rusti sat and stared into the fire. Her fleeting thoughts melted into one another, shaping no particular concept.
Was her father dead? She knew she could go find out. But Rusti did not care enough. Her head dropped and her eyes fell upon her now-tattered jeans.
The warm air stank. Oh but for one short burst of rain! Just a few minutes of beautiful, sweet, clean, cool rain!
Arcanna made rounds among the Humans and aliens. He asked the condition of one lady, apparently pregnant. He asked group of boys if they were okay. Then he laid an arm across Rusti's shoulders and spoke. But Rusti could not answer.
He forced a cup of water between her hands and lifted her chin, directing her eyes to look at him. With a trying smile on an old, war-weary face, the doctor examined her. "How are you doing, Rusti?"
She knew it was the second time he asked. She did not care. She did not care about anything. She wanted to tell him how much she missed Optimus Prime. She wanted to go home. She wanted the rain to fall.
"Get some rest," Arcanna ordered. He left to attend a cluster of men standing a few yards away.
Rusti stared at the cup of water. She drank two mouthfuls before dropping the cup.
All that water was gone, now, soaked up by a filthy, dry ground. The cup was STUPID! She snapped and kicked the evil cup into the fire.
"I HATE THIS FUCKING PLANET!" she screamed and stomped into the fire to crush the cup, heedless that her pants were catching on fire. Arcanna leapt over the group of boys, grabbed Rusti from the fire and carried her to the Armored Crest as she screamed, enraged.
They gave her a sedative and a comfortable place to rest. As they covered her, Rusti wept until she fell asleep.
Rodimus, Kup and the city commanders worked long into the night. They set watch around the camp as bit by bit, everyone turned the lights off to rest. Depression infected the entire camp. The ion storm left them exhausted and hopeless. Rodimus prayed that with a bit of rest and some good news, their spirits would lift enough to press forward another day.
He visited the med tent several times during the night and into the following morning. Arcee rested from numerous surgeries and Daniel slowly recuperated but the doctors reported he had said not one word since learning of his separation.
Rodimus only faintly understood. Hot Rod had lost Sureshot many years ago and the loss was painful, but Daniel and Arcee's level of dependence was far deeper than that. Bonded, was the word that came to Roddi's mind. Prime suspected things with Daniel were bound to get very ugly; already he treaded the edge of insanity.
A drizzle of warm, smelly rain met the refugees the following morning. Mothers and guardians forbade the children from leaving the shuttles, fearing the stench of death from the rainfall was more a contaminate than real water. Moods in the camp ranged from somber to outrage as chronic depression affected every man, woman, child, Autobot and alien. People barely moved or spoke and some could not so much as get out of bed. Even the children lay or sat docile with sad eyes and somber faces.
Rodimus rested a good three hours before relieving Magnus. He toured the camp, before turning to the med tent.
"I can't say for certain what exactly caused these moods, Rodimus," First Aid poured Prime another potent drink. "We can't afford to stay like this much longer."
"No," Roddi agreed and sipped the doctor's concoction. "Isn't there something you can mix or make to alleviate this epidemic?"
"No." First aid slumped himself. "Everyone is affected, it's just a matter of how much."
"This is serious, Aid. There needs to be something that can counteract the depression."
"Rodimus, the imbalance was caused by a negative energy source-a powerful one." Aid shrugged. "If you had a positive flow equally as powerful, you could correct the imbalance.
Rodimus' first inclination was to turn to the Matrix for help. But he dared not touch it for fear any disturbance might awaken the sleeping virus and make matters worse.
He wordlessly left as First Aid checked on Hotspot's condition. Rodimus sat next to Arcee under a dim light. She lay resting after a final surgery. Her pallid color concerned the Autobot leader and he hoped it was due to shock, not from failing systems.
What was their situation now? Was he going to watch his people die all over again? At the moment, hope seemed as faint and grey as Arcee's color.
Rodimus hunched over in the chair, chin on fists, elbows on knees. His optics faded to darkness and his mind swept back to the last few hours at Fort Max.
He should have died. By every law of physics and mathematical probability, he should have died. And taken Rusti with him. But something intervened . . . or Some One.
"Hey . . . no sleeping on the job."
Roddi's mind wandered back to the med tent and Arcee's bedside. She stared with weary optics and a forced, exhausted smile.
As tired as he was, Roddi's laser core leaped with joy. His face brightened. "Good morning, Precious. Sleep well? Need breakfast in bed on a silver platter?"
Arcee struggled to stifle a laugh, "Shut up."
THAT was the Arcee Hot Rod remembered! How long had it been since he heard such a great come-back? Roddi freely grinned. "How's it hanging, Arcee?
Arcee sat up,"it's not." The femme's countenance fell a bit serious. "What's going on, Rodimus? Why am I here?"
Roddi scrutinized her. "Notice anything different?"
She took her turn scrutinizing him. "N-n-n-n-o. Except you have a nasty scratch on your chest plate and a dent in your right shoulder-"
"I don't mean ME!-YOU!"
"Oh!" she took a moment to do a self-diagnostic then shrugged her shoulders. "Power's down by thirty percent. It seems my quartex-zeta chips are damaged."
If Arcee had been human, Roddi would have accused her of being either ditzy or mentally negligent. In either case, he grinned, choosing to let the femme discover the situation for herself; it's funnier that way, he mused.
That was when her head shot up in instant realization. Her optics glowed bright, her mouth dropped. "DANIEL!" Her hands patted her head then dropped to her chest. She touched her thorax and her shoulders. "He's GONE!" Rodimus! What's happened to me?! Is-is he . . "
"Daniel's still alive and well in this reality, Arcee," Roddi's tone was anything but excited or relieved. "He's in one piece, but Trinket tells me he's bitching worse than an old crabby woman. It's done, Arcee. It's over between the two of you. You can start dating again."
The femme visibly shuddered and slumped against her head rest. "What am I going to do? Where do I go from here?" she seemed lost at the moment, a captive now set free without a personal sense of direction or cause.
Roddi stood when he sensed Magnus coming for him. "One day at a time, Arcee." he answered deadpan. "That's how we're all doing it. One minute, one hour, one day." he turned as Magnus slipped between the privacy curtains. "Hey, Mags. Bread 'n butter."
Magnus gave Rodimus a quizzical look as the Autobot leader departed. The Major-General slightly shrugged over Roddi's silliness and took the seat at Arcee's bedside. He offered her a slight smile, hoping it did not look trite.
"How's Cloudstreaker?" Arcee read the discomfort on the city commander's face and knew it would be hard for him to start the conversation.
She was right. Magnus was grateful for the request of a progress report. "Much better. I visited her earlier today. Funny, though. She asked about you, too. Trinket and Apogee were able to replace most of the damaged plates. Her legs are functional, but she'll be in pain until they can find materials to replace some retraction instuds and explatums."
Arcee's heart went out to her and Magnus thought the look on the femme's face was angelic. He wanted to take her hand but only started at it. "How are you, Arcee?" His quiet voice barely filled the room and the depth of it comforted the former Headmaster femme.
Arcee herself examined the Major-General, almost counting the number of dents and scratches over his chassis. She took in the weary but determined look of his self-disciplined personality. Strength amid exhaustion. Determination in the face of hopelessness. She saw that strength and decided to make it her own. Like Prime and Rodimus, Magnus was a rock, unmoved, steady in adversity. Unlike the two Primes, however, Magnus was free of the emotional burdens of their society. It made him free to love.
Arcee straightened her back. She too was free to love. "Primus put us together: Daniel and me. Now my obligation is fulfilled. I am free."
The light faded toward evening. Rodimus made rounds about the camp, taking notes on needed repairs, supplies and those most heavily affected by the ion storm. He considered giving the Autobots one more day of rest. Then they HAD to get moving, even if it was just to pick up debris. As Roddi knew too well himself, depression left unchecked was a sure road to suicide.
From the southeast heading, Roddi's internal sensors indicated someone closing in at high speeds. Music, loud and obnoxious, hailed from the moving target and words from an old acid rock group vibrated more clearly with each passing moment.
It was Jazz with Blue closing on his bumper. He drove through camp (at higher speeds than permitted) and twenty feet from Roddi, Jazz smoothly transformed and waited for Blue to catch up.
"Heya, R.P.! We gotta a thing or two ta show ya, here. Blue?"
"We found traces of iridium phosphate about twenty miles from here, Commander. And this:" from subspace, Blue withdrew an old laser pistol, clearly marked with a Decepticon insignia. Roddi only glanced at it gazing at her then Jazz for more information.
"We're kinda guessin' it ain't more than a cycle or two old, Rod." Jazz put in.
Roddi frowned. "What's the deterioration rate for iridium phosphate?"
"On this planet?" Blue asked back. I'm not certain, sir. But the weapon does not test older than a few months."
It was not news Roddi wanted to hear. "Thanks. I'll take it to Perceptor. Jazz, you're on duty for a couple of hours. I'm gonna look in on Rusti." Jazz gave Rodimus a thumbs-up. Rodimus turned away and reality blurred in a tumultuous whirlwind as time and space-reality compressed like a accordion and advanced by four Earth years.
* * *
LOCATION: Planet Draun
EARTH DATE: November 29, 2038
A draft of cool air wafted about Galvatron. The unknown world they landed on rested in quiet dark; night hushed creation in a silent lullaby.
Galvatron took three steps from Prime and Cyclonus. His optics beheld a world comprised of semi-organic and silicon matrix compounds. The grass underfoot was not the carpet of soft green from Earth. And while he heard the rustle of leaves in the cool breeze, his optics did not register chlorophyll.
Cyclonus softly called Galvatron's name as their Autobot companion blacked out. Drawing his cloak, Galvatron wordlessly tucked it about Prime's darkened form. Cyclonus supported the Autobot leader close to his chest. Prime needed more time for recovery but no choice was left to them.
Actually, Galvatron amended, *he* had a choice. Cyclonus gazed at him and the Decepticon met his friend's questioning optics.
"I hear . . . life, Galvatron." Cyclonus quietly reported.
Galvatron shook his head, his face reflected Cyclonus' somber expression. "I don't know where we are."
"You could have stayed. The . . . ladies wanted you to stay."
Galvatron liked the Earth term 'ladies'. He thought Cyclonus chose the word appropriately. "They truly were ladies, were they not, Cyclonus? Nothing to prove, no malice or hatred. They redefine the word 'honor'. I wish all Decepticons could be such. But this is the road we must travel." Galvatron paused, his optics burdened with self-imposed resolution. "Rest, Cyclonus. I will take first watch.
The little tune played softly a fifth time.
The third one up, next one down one half.
Two and a half notes on a lower scale then several others accompanied the first five along the base cleft.
Two more beats, a pause.
The melody repeated, simplistic and compelling.
Not for several moments he realize the music played from someone's vocal unit. Prime's optics dimmed on, greeting a world draped in a cheerful blue sky, puffy clouds and a great silver tree sheltering him from a pair of spying suns. To Prime's right sprawled a lake. Three bright red-orange birds paddled along its glassy surface. At the bank opposite his position, a gaffthew dipped for a drink.
Was that right? The Autobot sat up, staring at the shaggy six-legged creature. Its long neck acted like a support beam for several chubby little birds. They chortled contentedly and fluffed their brown and grey feathers. The gaffthew's shaggy blue coat shuddered under the morning breeze before it lifted its head. The fat little birds adjusted their positions along its rigid neck as the gaffthew turned its ears like a set of radar dishes. Its long whip-like tail snapped flies before it sneezed, upsetting the birds.
Roller tugged at the subspace entrance, begging for freedom. But Prime could not access those parts, now. The Decepticons cured the disease and its symptoms, but he and Galvatron could not stay long enough for other repair work.
Roller calmed and accepted the situation.
The gentle tones sounded again, bringing Optimus' attention to his companions-or rather the one companion soundly sleeping.
Prime did not think Galvatron was honestly asleep. "What are you humming?" He quietly asked.
"Hmm?" Galvatron's voice stirred from dreams and deeply inhaled. "What?"
"What are you humming? What song is that?"
"The song you were humming."
"I was humming?"
Galvatron sat up and started at the Autobot leader. Prime's color returned to a full richness and his optics glowed clan and bright. How close did they come? Galvatron decided he did not want to know. A familiar sound of transformation distracted them.
Cyclonus lifted his gaze to the twin suns, delighted to leave Monicus' dark despondency. "This world is appealing. The populace have no fear and honor their soldiers like heros. But I could not find our designation."
Prime returned Galvatron's cloak. "What did you see?"
"Several small towns. There is some technology here, but I am not familiar with it-or the people. I suggest we approach them with discretion."
Optimus glanced back at the gafthew and privately smiled. "I don't think we're in enemy territory, Cyclonus."
Galvatron followed the Autobot's gaze across the lake. After their rounds with Swindle, Ry and the Voog D'Draph, Galvatron hoped Prime was right.
Two aliens neared their position from a nearby hill. Backpacks hung from their shoulders. Coarse clothing covered their tough, purplish skins. Straight brown hair drooped from the head of one alien; apparently the female. Broad cheeks lifted in a smile toward her companion.
The other alien displayed great enthusiasm in his speech. His voice raised to a higher pitch and the female laughed, then stopped short at the sight of the three Transformers.
At first no one moved or spoke. Optimus stared at them before examining their white shoes then the packs over their shoulders.
"Tak?" He kept his voice soft. They did not respond. Prime stepped aside and stared at the male's eyes. "Tak?" He glanced over his shoulder toward Galvatron, "Tak?"
"Ocorth," the male answered. He held his hand toward the lake. "Stor-ocorth." He waved his arms down, indicating the ground. "Tur-ocorth."
In dire puzzlement, Cyclonus and Galvatron stared at the two creatures. Galvatron couldn't decide if the female was the uglier or not.
Prime glanced at him, "I just asked where they were, where we were and where this place was. It's how they greet one another."
Cyclonus crossed his arms. "Why don't they simply say 'hello'?"
"They did. They're from a nearby school facility. These grounds belong to it." Optimus pointed left and right simultaneously. "Kla-gonnag. Kla-donnada. Prees, soimushan."
The female gasped then laughed and rattled off a string of same-sounding words.
Prime turned to his companions. "She thinks it's funny that we don't know where we are. But she'd be happy to take us into town."
Cyclonus offered her a wry smile. It was indeed funny that Prime did not know something. The natives led them a quarter mile into town populated with high rises and antigrav automobiles. Relying entirely on Optimus' knowledge of the planet and its people, Galvatron questioned nothing. He was, however, unduly impressed that Optimus Prime did indeed have currency on hand.
Toward sunset, the three booked into a motel room. They were politely offered energon and Prime thanked them before closing and locking the door.
Cyclonus sat at the corner edge of the nearest bed then jumped to his feet, unaccustomed to a spring mattress. He stared at the untrustworthy piece of furniture.
Galvatron pinned his optics on Prime; a glint of suspicion shot across their corners.
The Autobot, however, collapsed on the third bed and shut off his optics. Seventy-three percent capacity was still not one hundred. He knew his companions stared expectantly at him. Just one quiet moment, Prime thought.
That was all he got.
"Where are we?" Galvatron tried to reign in his impatience. He hated feeling helpless and blind.
"The planet Draun. One of several worlds I encountered during exile."
"You were exiled?" Cyclonus chirped.
Galvatron grinned and answered in Prime's stead: "Several times."
Optimus nodded. "I have family here."
Disbelief struck the Decepticons silent. They stared, expressionless. Prime did not notice. "At the point of my arrival, Draun was locked in war. Invading armies slaughtered entire families. I encountered nine children whose parents were assaulted. I could not find their extended families. So they adopted me."
Cyclonus finally trusted the bed and sat down. "You became their surrogate father?"
Galvatron fingered a phonebook sitting atop an entertainment center. "That had to be meganiums ago, Prime. The possibility that their great-grandchildren would know who you are is-"
"Feasible," Optimus quickly finished. "The Draun have exceptionally long life spans, their physiology is carbon-silicate. And their planet rotation is slower than Cybertron. They almost share our life span."
They spent the night leafing large phone books and wading through a number of telephone conversations searching names and addresses. Once they acquired information on city, region and destination, Prime slept for another five Earth hours. By the time he awoke, the suns peeked over the horizon.
"We have to take a cab," Prime announced. His companions stared with blank faces; it was like asking a child to surrender a favorite toy.
"The district we're going to has a no-fly rule. They'll attack if you attempt flight."
Galvatron brooded in the cab while Cyclonus stared at the sky like a child wishing the hardest wish.
Prime felt badly for them. He spoke to the driver now and again, translating insignificant news events to distract his companions from complete boredom. Cyclonus pretended not to hear. Galvatron sulked.
The highway zoomed and landed three towns over. The Autobot mentioned how many changes reshaped the little village he remembered and the cab driver concurred in repetitive words and physical gestures. Three ribbons of exits headed left and straight until they paused for a street light. Six blocks dipped downward and from the crest of the next slope, a great temple rose before their optics. Galvatron and Cyclonus gapped at the building made of glass shards and polished steel walls. A dome encrusted with glowing gems crowned the topmost tower.
"This is why we could not fly down here," Prime explained. "The temple is protected from all forms of aerial travel."
The driver spoke in his native language and signaled to the left then right before pointing to the temple. Optimus answered in kind, pointing to the temple then to the right. He asked a question and the driver shook his head, mournfully responding.
"What?" Galvatron asked. "What's wrong?"
"Just a bit of local news." Prime turned half around and faced his companions. "There has not been a new priest in over two hundred revolutions."
That impressed neither Decepticon.
"The high priest," Prime continued, "has the power to control much of the planet's ecosystem. It has not rained since the last priest died."
The cab slowed and parked before a large house built of mortar and stone. Prime paid the driver before he turned to his companions. "I'm going up first, to make sure this is the correct address. Will you wait here?"
Galvatron scowled. "Do I have a choice?"
Prime tilted his head: a slight smile. He left and Cyclonus snorted and folded his arms.
"Me, too." Galvatron grunted.
They waited in silence until Prime returned. "Come and meet the family. You can speak with them in Selenese."
The Decepticons disembarked and plodded up the grassy hill to a short front porch. A pregnant female, draped in a blue dress, greeted them at the door and signaled for them to enter.
"Nah'teer, your friends?"
"Yes, Losa," Prime answered in happier tones. He closed the door behind Cyclonus and pointed to Galvatron. "This is Galvatron. This is Cyclonus. They're traveling with me."
"Good for you to visit! No word came of your life. Come, sit. Something for you I can offer?"
Galvatron stared at Losa's blue eyes. A tattoo of gold streamed from her scalp to her cheek. It trailed down her neck and presumably under her dress. Her curly copper hair offset the deep purple skin of her species. She was not ugly like the female in the park.
"Would either of you like something?" Prime asked in her stead.
Cyclonus shook his head. Galvatron expressed awkwardness and said nothing. Losa ushered them into the front room. They sat in chairs while she took the couch. Her right hand massaged her swollen belly; her smile strained with discomfort.
Optimus was aware of his companions' uneasiness around her but could not help them. "When are you due?"
"Not for two phases. Baby is impatient."
"Losa!" Another female's voice rang from the back of the house and out came another female wearing flared-and-cuffed pants. Metal buttons dotted her light, long sleeved blouse that dropped low in the front. "Have you seen Jaeger?" The lady took one look at Optimus and her striking blue eyes shot wide open. "Nah'teer!! Nah'Teer!!" she cried.
Prime stood and almost lost his balance when she all but threw herself at him in a gripping embrace.
Unaccustomed to such notions, both the Decepticons found other things of visual interest. Galvatron stared out the picture window.
For Cyclonus, the distraction found him. A small Draun, scarcely taller than the plant beside him, tugged at the lieutenant's metal fingers. Cyclonus stared at the toddler and leaned forward. He thought he was going to fall into the child's bright amber eyes.
Darkness filled Cyclonus' mind until another presence stirred close to his soul. Under normal circumstances, fear of invasion would have driven him mad. But he did not feel threatened.
"At the beginning here, the planet churned in its own juices, violent and restless. Storms of horrendous proportions jeopardized the world's physical stability.
Its binary star system threatened to shred the tender world.
But a Hero of Old hushed the turbulent atmosphere so that life could exist. He guided the planet so that it took turns revolving safely about each star, the white dwarf, first, then the yellow and back.
And the Spirit gave permission and life blossomed. The Spirit gave the world to the Hero and he called it Draun.
Cyclonus' processors flickered and his mind returned to the house and company. The child grinned, face bright with play, a winking eye and a finger over his lips. Cyclonus wondered what happened inside his head. No one else seemed to notice either the child's presence nor the personal exchange.
He settled back, unconcerned and kept quiet as the child requested, turning his attention to the reunion between Prime and his alien family.
"-yes," Losa continued the conversation. "Nonda went to higher schooling and became a philosopher. Rasplit competed for national games. Teaches wrestling."
Prime beamed with pride and took a place at the couch as per Losa's request. "And Beautha. What happened to her?"
"Bonded again after her first love died in the accident. Has four offspring. Teaches herbal gardening at lower schooling."
"Did she?" Prime's optics glowed with delight.
"Nah'Teer." Losa's pretty voice whimpered a bit. "We heard news. You died. Why are you here?"
"By accident," Prime quickly answered. "Galvatron and Cyclonus, have been my companions. They saved me from a disaster on another planet."
"No," Losa shook her head. "Long time ago. You died. They all said that."
"Who, Losa? Who told you?"
Nonda answered in her stead: "the Quintesson lords, Nah'Teer. They arrived and tried to steal the city. But the warriors fought them away. The Quintessons saw Rasplit and said they knew you taught us. And they told us at execution. We knew they said truthfully. Why aren't you dead?"
"He is Optimus Prime," Galvatron snorted. "He does not NEED to die."
The ladies laughed and Losa hugged him closely.
"There you are, young amone!" Nonda called with a snap of her fingers. Pitter-patter of little legs followed by mischievous laughter forced the mother to leap to her feet and chase her son down the hall. She swept him up and carried him back to the livingroom.
"This," she announced, "is Jaeger, my third and hopefully final."
The young male child pointed to Cyclonus and his mother let him go to his preset destination. He waddled toward the lieutenant and clasped against Cyclonus' knees.
"Amazing!" Nonda declared, "he usually cannot prefer strangers. Certainly a charm from you must have caught his fancy, Bandar Cyclonus."
Cyclonus slowly gazed from the child to Galvatron, uncomfortable under the mother's approving smile.
Losa slapped her knees. "We must shop! We keep no food for you and your companions, Nah'Teer!"
Prime tilted his head just slightly. "Losa, I don't think they serve energon at local supermarkets, even on this planet."
"Yes they do." both ladies chorused. All three Transformers stared at them dumbfounded.
"Since when?" Cyclonus asked for his befuddled companions.
Losa's large eyes searched the ceiling. "A-a-a-a-l-l-l two . . . mayhaps three nigh on four blooms afore hand."
"Huh?" Galvatron and Cyclonus stared in greater puzzlement.
"Blooms Afore hand is an expression of time on this planet." Prime watched the toddler play around Cyclonus who stayed frozen, uncertain. "A giant tree blooms once every one hundred revolutions around their Alpha sun. Since this planet revolves around two stars in a figure-eight pattern, it means eight hundred years ago they started trading and using energon. My question, Losa, is how do we know it's safe for the three of us?"
She shrugged. "The Al'Ag'Arnoth use it."
Galvatron and Cyclonus groaned and hid their faces.
"Well, then," Losa pushed her swollen body to the edge of the couch. "Shall we go now afore the remaining brood return?"
Prime laid a hand on hers, "we can get it, Losa. I'd rather you not overtax yourself."
She waved him away, "no. We need other items. You stay, watch the house, mayhaps a bit of visuals. Nonda and I need an outing."
At that cue, Nonda picked up her handbag from the other side of the couch and little Jaeger dashed to her. "Come?" he begged. Then with a tug at her pants, he pointed to Cyclonus. "Come, too!"
Optimus stood and helped his surrogate daughter to her feet. "We could watch Jaeger, if you'd like, Nonda."
"In honesty?" she chirped. "Most kind! Jaeger, Gran-Nah-Teer will stay with you. Will you show him your room?"
He wailed utter disappointment "No! Sh'Dawn, go, too!" And again Jaeger pointed to Cyclonus. "Come, too!"
Nonda sighed, exasperated.
"Shall I go as one?" Losa offered.
"No," Nonda objected. "Other items need acquiring. Young amone needs no attention from his Sh'Dawn. Jaeger, stay, attend your friend and your sleep room."
The child's whimper turned to tears. Intending to ignore his tantrums, Losa retrieved her purse from the nearby kitchen. She slipped on a pair of shoes, winced and rubbed her belly.
Jaeger kept crying. Cyclonus felt awkward, knowing he was the reason for the altercation. For the sake of embarrassment, he chose to correct the moment and stood. "Perhaps I should go with you . . . to make certain the energon you purchase is the correct grade. Decepticons require something slightly different from Autobots." He watched the two ladies' uncertain expressions then added: "And Jaeger . . . could keep me company."
Optimus dared a sneaking glance at Galvatron whose expression was of nothing short of shock.
"See?" Jaeger bounced from one side of the backseat to the other, pointing out buildings to his new-found playmate. "See? See?"
Cyclonus traced the child's finger from site to site. The toddler's pointing led to significant objects of interest: a great warrior's statue. A huge water fountain. A building cleverly assembled of glass, mirrors and metal, rising to a great dome and from there a telescope peeked into the heavens. Optimus Prime described the town but briefly. But Cyclonus realized the city had a phenomenal history. He said nothing while Jaeger bounced and pointed.
"How long have you known Nah'Teer, Bandar Cyclonus?" Losa asked as Nonda slowed the vehicle for a street light.
"Quite a while," the former lieutenant replied carefully.
"I'm guessing your visit was unplanned here." Nondar drove forward then signaled for a right turn.
"The device that brought us here is unpredictable." Cyclonus was not sure if he should have mentioned the remote transport. Jaeger settled down as Nonda steered into a large parking lot.
"The temple has a transporter, too." she scouted one isle then down another, searching for a close spot. "But only the priests and their assistants know how to run it properly."
Cyclonus angled his head just a bit, "do they use it at all?"
"Yes. But not since our high priest passed along. The instructions were in his DNA."
Such notions seemed absurd to Cyclonus. How could instructions be locked within the physical codes of a flesh-creature? He kept his skepticism to himself.
Jaeger gleefully swung his feet as he sat in the grocery basket. Now and again he pointed this or that to Cyclonus and three times, Nonda was shocked to hear her son say new words, things a toddler his age should not be able to annunciate.
Bit by bit the women found their way to the back of the store, tossing needed items into the cart along the journey. Nonda slipped in juice and sweets for Jaeger and complained about her oldest son's irritating love for an expensive confectionary, but tossed it into the basket anyway.
The supermarket's back wall glowed softly with several rows of neatly packaged energon. Cyclonus stared, amazed at the categories labeled in three different languages. "You must have quite a robot population on your planet to have this variety, Losa."
She expertly examined the energon and picked out three different kinds, surprising the Decepticon even more. "The Al'Ag'Arnoth are the most population. And too, minorities live, like the Y'dorn and the Automotrons." She set her chosen items into the cart and winced. "I ask to be excused! I'll return!"
Nonda stared at the energon, transfixed by its glowing properties. "You need to pick the best for you and your companion, Cyclonus. We know not much of Decepticon needs. Which makes me confused about two Decepticons doing with the company of my Nah'Teer." She gave him a suspicious look, but it came without judgement.
Cyclonus reexamined the energon before choosing two packs most familiar to him. "Fate?" he offered. He could not stare into her blue eyes. "Optimus Prime was in danger on Mars. The attack was brutal. Galvatron-" he realized a short explanation was not enough to convince even himself.
"You saved his life," Nonda filled in herself. He mutely nodded, still unable to meet her gaze. Nonda snapped her fingers suddenly. "I forgot to remember! Please, care for you to companion Jaeger for a moment alone?"
"Yes, certainly. But I hardly think-"
She dashed off. Cyclonus gazed one way where Losa left, then the other where Nonda abandoned him. Then his optics rested on the child, presently busy playing with the buttons on his overalls. "I don't suppose this happens often." He really wasn't talking to the child.
"Yes." The boy sighed and nodded.
Jaeger's voice came clear, exasperated. Cyclonus' whole face twisted in puzzlement. The lieutenant wondered if his audios were malfunctioning. "Hmph. Lack of experience with children makes this inconvenient."
Jaeger lifted his arms, his face now hopeful. "Up?" he asked.
"Up where?" Cyclonus asked ignorantly.
"Up? Please? Up. Go?"
"You wish to fly?"
The little boy giggled and kicked the cart with his little feet. "Up?"
"I cannot permit you to fly. If you fall, your progenitor would be put out."
Jaeger whimpered, disappointed. The whimper turned louder and Cyclonus glanced about, hoping no one saw him make the child cry. It was embarrassing. "You must not fly," he insisted.
But Jaeger cried more, causing the Decepticon to panic.
"Silence, Small One. If I take you from the cart, will you be satisfied?" Jaeger answered by lifting his arms again and Cyclonus took the child up and was rewarded with a delighted grin. The somber Decepticon allowed himself a small smile and lifted the child far above his head, hoping for a better reaction.
His mind flashed-
"Not long ago, a kingly Draun draped in golden robes and a sceptor whispered and the sky grew silver-dark. A generous rain showered the cities. Commerce and education advanced with each passing year and the people traded with other worlds.
But then the priest died and the people suffered invasion, plague and famine. They prayed for deliverance and by the aid of his appointed guardian, a child entered the temple and saved Draun. But now the temple stands empty and once again, plague is slowly taking the planet, little by little."
Jaeger giggled, bringing Cyclonus back to the moment. Cyclonus was no stranger to supernatural phenomena but he wondered if the toddler was communicating to him in such an unusual way. He felt good, as though cleansed and re-energized in like he never experienced before.
Jaeger laughed: "Again!" encouraging Cyclonus to try something else. He gently shook the baby, then zoomed the boy down, painfully close to the floor as if Jaeger were flying. The toddler's reaction tempted Cyclonus to do it again; this time with sound effects.
Cyclonus tossed the child into the air, completely caught up in the fun.
"Excuse me," a female's voice called from behind. It startled Cyclonus so that he would haved dropped the child, but caught Jaeger by one foot.
"Sorry to startle you, but I need to get to the selenium."
Cyclonus stepped aside as Jaeger laughed, dangled upside down. The female, a Gobot, grabbed her packages and stepped out. She caught sight of the Decepticon, clearly embarrassed, and the child hanging from his hand.
"Yours?" she asked politely.
"Em . . ." Cyclonus set Jaeger back into the cart. "No. Infant-sitting."
"Ah." And she went away without another word.
Cyclonus laid his hand behind his head, wondering what on Cybertron possessed him to play with someone's offspring. More so, it seemed there was a secret to the toddler his parent had yet to share.
"Here we come," Losa announced behind him. "Please allow the apology. Difficulties take place. Hello, Jaeger, how did you manage into the basket from the seat?"
Cyclonus did not realize he replaced the boy in the wrong compartment and would have corrected the situation had Nonda not appeared at the same time.
"Crab cakes are unavailable for purchase. I chose to take these in their stead-" she gave her son an annoyed expression. "Jaeger, how often must I express my wish you do not climb to the back section for shopping items?" She shoved three boxes into Cyclonus' arms and placed her son back into the front of the cart. She retrieved the boxes with one arm and maneuvered to push the cart.
"Allow me for that, Nonda." Losa took control of the cart and Cyclonus wordlessly followed the ladies to the check-out.
Cyclonus felt silly, waiting and watching other people like some bored Human in an Earth Kmart store. One female argued with her fussing child and gave it a verbal warning. Two males conversed quietly until one chuckled. Another female kept looking at her wrist watch. Everyday life seemed so awkwardly dull compared to Cyclonus' life as a soldier. Time seemed to stand still for these people. Did they live like this all their lives? Or did they ever do anything exciting or daring? Did they ever risk their lives for what they believed was right? Did they have a sense of destiny, or did they just take life as it came to them, good and bad? Were they even remotely aware of the wars and struggles fought, won or lost by others outside their own little world?
Cyclonus could not imagine living a life where one worked, return home, slept and rose to do it again day after day. It was inconceivable to live the same rhythmic boredom as though they waited to grow old and die.
Jaeger burst into laughter and Nonda laughed at him. "Tell me, my little amone, what bubbles in your heart? You did not laugh so good aforehand. Where does the laughter come?"
But Jaeger did not share it with his mother. He stared at Cyclonus until the Decepticon returned his gaze.
"Yes, they are mere, Cyclonus. But they are life and how empty the vastness would be without it! I see the honor within you, Bandar Cyclonus. Would you consider using your honor and strength to protect them? Consider . . . consider."
Cyclonus stared at Jaeger, astonished.
A Gobot dashed in, his heavily built feet clamped along the tiled floor and he shouted at the top of his vocal unit: "The Temple is alight! A challenger has come!!"
Losa and Nonda glanced at one another and abandoning their basket, followed the crowd, racing to the sidewalk. Cyclonus tagged at a more leisurely pace. It could not be as dramatic an event as these 'everyday-lifers' made it sound.
The great temple crested the north end horizon. A small figure stood before its glass stairs and raised a golden sword. The crowd applauded encouragement.
The challenger took one step and paused, expecting. But when nothing happened, he dared another step. Again, nothing. The crowd screamed in anticipation.
Third step. A pair of great sphinx statues turned their female heads toward him. Their silvery metal bodies gleamed bright in the sun as an aura of power lit their eyes and wings. The crowd fell breathless silent as the Challenger took yet another step.
One final step and he'd be at the doors!
But that one step extra cost him his life. Bright light shot into his chest. His body burst and tumbled along the steps. He landed in the gutter, a flaming, messy failure.
The crowd turned deathly somber. Some of the females began to weep while many males merely turned away, returning to their lives and business. Cyclonus found admiration for the challenger, but wondered what might have triggered the sphinxes to destroy him.
The dispirited return trip to Losa's home lasted too long. Even Jaeger remained quiet, disturbed by the event. Cyclonus assisted with groceries as he and the ladies entered the house. Settled on a large couch, Prime and Galvatron stared hard into a wide-screen television. A male clad in strange clothes draped his body over a chair like a flimsy doll. A ridiculous hat lay loped over the side of his head with odd metal objects peeking in and out of its kaki-green surface.
"FOOL!" Galvatron declared at the television set. "You allowed him to ambush your left flank! Experts in this game only!"
"Game?" Cyclonus set one of three bags on the kitchen table and entered the adjoining room. Galvatron and Prime glued their optics to the television while their alien companion drank from an aluminum can.
"Ah, Cyclonus!" Galvatron greeted. He scooted closer to Prime on the couch and patted the cushion. "Come join us! The second quarter has just started!"
The Draun male took to his feet and wiping his right hand, extended it. Prime stood also, indicating that Cyclonus take the male's hand. "Rasplit, this is Cyclonus. Cyclonus, I'd like you to meet Rasplit, my oldest."
And ugliest, the Decepticon thought. But Cyclonus silently bowed his head in polite Cybertronian greeting. Rasplit grinned and collapsed back into the fluffy chair. "Greets! Prop a cushion. I will supply your person with a draught in a wink. Visualize if Kronk attains this point."
Confused, Cyclonus settled on the couch next to Galvatron. The television before them displayed three scantily-clad Drauns and a Gobot in a tight wrestling match.
"Rasplit?" Nonda called from the kitchen.
"Present, yet physically," the male answered deadpan.
"Shmoke cake was inaccessible. I bought three boxes of presk, in its stead."
Rasplit grunted, more interested in his show than the properties to fill his stomach.
His sister peered round the corner, her curly copper hair spilt over her shoulder. "Another challenger attempted the temple this day."
That got his attention and he looked at her, hopeful. But when she shook her head, he returned to his sports program, a little less enthused.
Cyclonus remained still, his optics scanned the moment from Galvatron and Prime to Rasplit who grew more excited until he leapt from his chair twice then settled down when newcomers entered the ring. At that point, Prime left to assist the ladies.
"Go enjoy, Nah-Teer." Losa lovingly admonished. "Guests here need do naught."
"Guests visit, Losa." Prime answered evenly. He received a warm smile and she set a bowl before him, a cutting board and a short sharp knife. She disappeared behind the counter then returned to the table with another board and knife of her own. "Well, as you insist, I'll allow you to core breebs." She dipped into the large bowl and hauled out a fat root. Its long tail wriggled like an angry worm.
Prime did the same and expertly cut the core from the root. "Tell me about Frix. Did she eventually-"
Losa laughed. "Frix did get into that higher schooling as she desired. But this amone swept her to the Royal Guard. They travel and it pleases her. Of course, remember children came inaccessible to Frix."
"Yes. The automobile accident she survived did a good deal of damage, which was why I tried to make sure she benefitted by means of trade school."
"Yes, she bonded with Virm and did not finish. The rest is with Myra. And Myra is a court judge."
Prime's optics glowed with pride.
Galvatron entered the kitchen, looking a bit lost. "What are you doing?" he asked, "it's nearing fourth quarter." Then he spotted the huge roots Prime and Losa were holding, wiggled as though alive. "What ARE those?"
"Breebs!" Losa grinned.
"They're a root," Prime answered smoothly. He picked out another and started cutting into the core. "You have to cut the cores or they won't cook."
Losa looked a bit smug as she gathered most of the cores and threw them in the nearby trash. "Nah'Teer used to grow them when we were growing up. He raised all kinds of things, vegetables, fruits and arps."
"Arps!" Nonda snorted as she came in from another room. "I hated those things. They were a nuisance."
"Easier to care for than plu," Prime cored one more breeb and Losa took the bowl away.
"And what are plu and arps?" Galvatron took a chair at the table, though honestly less than interested in the mundane life of a family.
"Arps are small, two-legged animals that lay eggs. A family can eat the eggs and the arp and use the scales and bones for gardening. Plu are large six-legged creatures that make more of a mess than they're worth."
Galvatron narrowed his optics and he leaned a bit, "Don't tell me you cooked organic food."
Prime hesitated a moment then wiped his hands on a nearby towel. "They have this square little invention, Galvatron, called cookbooks. They're most convenient-"
"Listen nothing as he tells you," Nonda interrupted, setting fresh flagons of energon before her guests. "Nah'Teer's cooking was well organized, but not always interesting in the tasting department."
"Hoi, Sh'Dawn." A young masculine voice piped in as soon as the front door closed. Losa turned to greet the young male with a kiss on the forehead. "How was the teaching?"
"Fair." The young man stood dead in his tracks and stared at the two Transformers. "Sh'Dawn . . . is that . . . ?"
Losa smiled broadly. "Your Grand Nah'Teer. Yes! Nikel, this is also Bandar Galvatron and Bandar Cyclonus in front of the visual. Nah'Teer, please greet your grand-amone, Nikel."
Black-bluish hair streamed straight over Nikel's head. His face was longer than his mother's, but the eyes were definitely hers. He took the seat next to Prime, face alight with enthusiasm. "Sh'Dawn told me all stories of wonder! How you saved her and raised her and all my sires! And that you worked as a bouncer at the drinking clubs! Will you return for life with us again?"
Optimus said nothing at the moment, except to lay a hand on the young male's shoulder. A glance to his companion told Prime Galvatron was worried.
"Nikel, Grand Nah-Teer will remain thereafter late meal. Find your sleep room and attend study until then."
Nikel groaned but obeyed Losa. She took his seat as soon as he left the kitchen. She winced and pressed the side of her stomach. "Be still now, child," she told her unborn. "Little one does not like the night. I'm glad Nikel did not complicate my orders. His nah'teer works long sessions, comes home as Nikel sleeps. In the least Chyell stays home twice in seven days and uses time with Nikel. And Rasplit, Donty and Syl step in his nah-teer's duties the other when. Donty and Syl frequent the lakes for hunting and clams and Nikel always goes. Nikel uses wisdom and studies all the time."
Prime nodded after taking a bit of energon. The smooth taste tingled with wild flavor. "I recall Donty and Syl wanted to start their own business."
Losa brightened. "Yes! And Morry is the bookkeeper. But she longs for other things. Her crafts become more important to her."
Their conversation came to a close when Rasplit spat out a few unworthy phases. He snarled at the television and asked Cyclonus his opinion. But Cyclonus, unaccustomed to such nuances, could not encourage or discourage the outraged male. Galvatron agreed with Rasplit, however, citing a few words in Decepticon arena 'jargon'. Optimus felt odd sitting here among a group of people he knew a few millions of years ago. They were all grown up and doing well on their own. The one adopted child Losa failed to mention was Adell. But her story was lost along a distant highway; a memorial gravestone marked the end of her life.
No matter how loving and wise the parent, there was always one child who pushed boundaries.
Optimus debated visiting Adell's grave. He knew the accident was far from his fault. But it hurt knowing that she would never have the opportunity to be a mother or hold an occupation.
While the family quietly ate their dinner, the three Transformers settled for private conversation in the living room. Cyclonus recounted the incident at the temple and the crowd's reactions. But more importantly, he relayed the information about the transport kept within the temple itself. Both his companions attended his every word.
Galvatron finished his tankard and set it on the coffee table. "I'm willing to bet that transport has coordinates."
"A logical assumption," Prime agreed. But if the priests are the only ones who know how to use it, chances are slim to none they'll agree to help us."
"What discussion do you hold here?" Nonda stepped lightly into the living room and pulled up a chair. But none of the mechs answered her immediately. "Forgive the intrusion. I did not realize the privacy."
"It's not that," Prime answered softly. "We're not sure how you would take it."
She withheld judgement, "Nah'Teer?"
"Nonda, the transporter in the temple. Can you tell us more about it?"
She nodded. "They built it not long after you left us, Nah'Teer. Their construction for trade of medicines and herbs was all for good. But only officials used its properties. Only priests and the assistants understand its usage. We have no high priest, the transport has not been used. The high priest can call it to use."
"Why only the high priest, Nonda?"
Cyclonus finally stirred at this point, "you mentioned the instructions are encoded in the priest's DNA."
"Correct. A special sequence number in the DNA can call-activate the transport."
Galvatron leaned forward, suspicious. "What of your scientists? Can they not recode DNA sequences to recreate the priest?
"No," Nonda shook her head. "As the high priest dies, the entirety of the temple's system shifts to open to a new DNA strand."
"What?!" Galvatron snapped. "Who designed such an absurd thing?"
"The last high priest." Nonda answered evenly. "His DNA protects from abuse by outsiders and conquerors."
The family retired for the night. Optimus Prime took that to advantage and rested in the front room. Galvatron copied in the living room leaving Cyclonus to make his own mind.
Rest did nothing for Cyclonus. Landing on Droun was one thing; another alien planet. But unable to fly rubbed his nose in misery. Cyclonus missed the clouds and the feel of light and wind along his body.
Flight was freedom and he had neither.
The Decepticon stepped out the back yard and raised his optics to a mass of unfamiliar constellations. As a warrior, his depression served no purpose, wallowing in self pity like a child grounded in discipline. Cyclonus knew his longing for flight only distracted him from the other problem at hand: finding Rodimus Prime and the Autobot refugees.
Cyclonus sat upon thick grass and studied the sky, wishing. He could have stayed with Skorponok. He still had the respect of his comrades en arms. But Cyclonus did not respect more than maybe two of them. Still, his belief in the future and Galvatron was not entirely as solid as he expressed to Prime on Monicus. Cyclonus knew the savage, brutal nature that gripped the Decepticons' appetite. It wasn't enough to satiate the desire to conquer; Decepticons needed control.
But it was painfully obvious that the Decepticons did not even have a destiny.
So was Cyclonus wrong in looking to Galvatron for a future? Should he consider making his own? Cyclonus knew there could be no room for he and Galvatron among the Autobots, no mater what Optimus Prime did or said. Autobots and Decepticons could not live together. Although . . . the potential of being allies was not that remote. Cyclonus might not like many Autobots. But he admitted he felt the same toward many Decepticons. Truth be told, the former lieutenant cared nothing about politics or reasons for war. His concern was the future and welfare of his kind.
And like Galvatron, Cyclonus saw a true future among the femmes on Monicus.
What a terrible, terrible loss! Their honor could have inspired others to change their attitude.
That's what it was all about: attitude. He did not hate the Autobots but felt nothing could be done to persuade them that not all Decepticons worshiped destruction.
How by Primus was Optimus Prime ever going to convince the Autobots that Galvatron was not a threat?
More than that, Cyclonus wondered what lay ahead for all of them: destruction or survival?
Did it matter to Anyone Else?
"Help us," he whispered.
"Best of the morning, Bandar Cyclonus!" Nonda puttered about the kitchen while Jaeger stumbled into the kitchen, sleepy-eyed, clinging to a stuffed animal. Nonda set a flagon of energon before her guest then swept her child into the highchair.
"Did you not sleep all night?"
"No," the former lieutenant replied dead-toned. "Decepticons do not often require rest like other species."
Nonda paused before beating a bowl of eggs and poured them into a pan. "I see. But Galvatron rested through the night. Was it simply your turn to remain awake?"
"Galvatron is recovering from poison."
She popped bread into a toaster and poured milk into a sippy cup for her son. "What do you do when it's quiet like this? Don't you get board?"
Cyclonus merely shook his head. His optics scanned the living room where Galvatron slumped in Rasplit's chair, head down in rest mode. Optimus Prime was nowhere to be seen. The Autobot leader muttered things in his sleep earlier. His voice, the same as on the asteroid in hyperspace, whispered in slow, drowned words. It was creepy. And it was unusual that anyone should talk to themselves during shut-down.
Jaeger reached for Cyclonus' hand with little fingers. The Decepticon placed a finger in the boy's palm and Jaeger squeezed.
The future came at him like a shock of lightening. War lay at the edges of the galaxy; war the likes of which even Transformers had not seen. An ancient creature, born and bred of Quintesson technology, stood at the horizon, an army of vast size and power waited upon his command to begin the seize.
Without Cyclonus, Droun would be one of billions of worlds to fall under the stamping foot of conquest. But under his guidance, Droun would be an ally, capable of lending logistical support and troops.
Galvatron, Prime and Cyclonus did not end up on Draun by accident.
Now Cyclonus understood.
"Not until you've had breakfast, young amone," Nonda admonished.
"Hi, Sh'Dawn." The young man emerged from his room, freshly showered and clothed. He smoothed his hair and settled at the table. Nonda set a plate of eggs, toast and juice before him.
"Do you take practice today?"
Nikel shook his head. "Temple representatives arriving to attend students today. Working as temple guard is available." He drank half the glass before crunching into toast. Nonda sat between her sons and stared with lit eyes.
"Yes?" Nikel scooped eggs onto the second slice and carefully ate.
"Considering work for the temple guard? Wages are worthy and retirement is a guarantee."
Nikel groaned. "Sh'Dawn, standing or marching is not conducive for excitement."
"Bandar Cyclonus does all his life." Nonda countered.
The Decepticon removed his hand from the toddler. It was an unfair comparison. The boy was a child, raised where war was not a part of everyday life. Cyclonus was programmed for nothing else.
Prime saved the moment, stepping into the kitchen and sat at the table. Nonda greeted him cheerily, but he did not seem to notice. Cyclonus struggled to determine if it was just bad kitchen lighting or if Prime's colors really did look slightly washed. His blue optics were not as bright as they should be.
"Breakfast, Nah'Teer?" Nonda offered.
Prime looked askance as if he wanted to speak, but refrained. Nonda approached and stared a bit too close in Prime's face for Cyclonus' comfort. But it brought the Autobot leader back to the moment.
"Breakfast?" she offered again.
"Yes. Thank you."
"What plans for you this day?"
"Galvatron and I would like to investigate the temple transporter." Prime trained his voice quiet and even.
"A hall of knowledge, Nah'Teer?" Nonda offered the flagon to her surrogate father.
"One such place." Prime downed half the flagon. His gaze fell impersonal on Nikel who squirmed under the stare.
Nonda noticed the moment too but did not know how to respond. She kept her voice level but cheerful. "Perchance assistance can be found for you, Nah'Teer."
The kitchen fell terribly silent while everyone, even Jaeger, stared at Prime's sullen, statuesque posture.
Galvatron entered the kitchen. His footfalls thudded against the hardwood floor like tongs against a thick wooden drum. Prime bowed, shoulder struts closed about his face plate and his optics shut off. Cyclonus tore his gaze from the window as Galvatron joined them, unaware.
"I think I have found a way to configure this contraption." He set one deporter before the Autobot and pressed the blue and white buttons simultaneously then the black one by itself. The air shimmered in the middle of the table and a three-dimensional map glittered into existence.
"Whooo!" Nikel's reaction caused Jaeger to copy and the youngster kicked at the highchair.
"The problem is," Galvatron added, "I don't know how to program it."
Prime's gaze turned to Nonda with a bit of hope. Her smile was there, but not the kind Optimus wanted to see.
"The Hall of knowledge is directional, Nah'Teer. I can offer you non other recourse.
"It would be a start, Nonda," Prime answered softly. "When would be the best time for you?"
Jaeger tried to give Cyclonus his sippy cup. "Play?"
Cyclonus took the cup with a bit of a smile and undid the lid, finding the cup half full. He returned it to the child, retaining the lid.
Nonda stared at her youngest son, "yes, Losa is appointed to the doctor later this day. It is conceivable to attend the Hall at that time."
"Play? Play?" Jaeger reached for his Decepticon friend. Cyclonus regarded him dubiously. He recapped the sippy cup and again offered an uncertain smile.
"Cyclonus," Nonda called, "In caring for Jaeger, would you care for doing it in my stead? Losa must attend to the doctor. It will require no longer than a turn's worth of time."
Cyclonus gazed from Nonda to the toddler. "I might, Nonda, if I had experience in child care. I know nothing of offspring."
"Oh, he causes few problems," Jaeger's mother promised easily. "Asides to your resume, Jaeger is unconcerned with your qualifications. He likes you."
Cyclonus found that amusing and his face lit in an honest smile, fascinating Galvatron.
The trip to town bored Galvatron. He missed flying above the buildings and all the land-bound people among them. He missed the feel of the air currents about his frame; the freedom of movement. Stuck in a vehicle; waiting for stop lights to turn was not his idea of transportation. How did Autobots put up with such limitations? He wanted to asked Prime, but the topic was inappropriate both for the moment and their company. Besides, Prime was not in a talkative mood. His frame slumped.
Nonda dropped Losa at the doctor's office, swung around and drove across another part of town. Old buildings and monuments squatted with age. Landmarks punctuated the ancient streets with statues and memorials. Unimpressed, Galvatron slumped in his seat. Even the now-fabled crystal gardens of Iaacon made this town's pride look not much more than a child's attempt at fine art. Few things measured to the magnificence of the Decepticon Hall of Warriors on Cybertron.
Nonda parked nearby a great ancient building carved from bone and laid in ionized copper and burnished silver. Now Galvatron was impressed. "Here. Hall of Knowledge," she announced
Books, parchment scrolls, advanced crystal memory cells and viewing records stuffed the Hall from floor to ceiling. Some categories even had their own rooms. People peeked between rows or covered tables with research material. A worker dressed in black with a silver collar and trim approached with a well-practiced smile.
"Help?" she offered.
"Yes. My Nah'Teer wishes to review histories of the transporter in the temple."
The librarian considered a moment. "Yes. History. She led them upstairs and along a shelf casing hundreds of skin scrolls until she found just the right one. She handed it to Prime with a slight smile.
Prime unrolled the skin and found the temple's lengthy history. But not much on the teleporter. "Do you have more information?" he asked politely.
"A bibliography compiles a list of possibilities for your request at the bottom. Never the less, if none is of availability, please attend the Hall at the front."
It meant he was expected to read through first, ask questions thereafter.
Nonda excused herself to shopping with a promise to return in two hours. Prime and Galvatron settled at a nearby table. While Prime read, Galvatron slouched, his mind drifted back to Mars, back to Fortress Zenith; back and back even further. Faces and names of his former comrades reached the forefront of his meta processor. But Galvatron no longer thought of them as warriors, as fodder for conquest. They were a band of opportunistic predators. And he decided he no longer desired their company.
He thought of Panda, Panther and the other ladies. What a painful decision! But Galvatron made his choice by faith. He believed this was the right road.
Even if death should certainly take them, Galvatron chose not to regret this path.
Prime rolled the scroll, rested his chin atop one end and dimmed his optics. Certainly it was nice to visit with his family here on Draun. But he did not belong here. He needed to get back to the Autobots and he sorely missed Rusti.
"Well?" Galvatron asked quietly.
"I don't know. Break into the temple, perhaps?" Prime joked dryly.
Galvatron smirked, crossed his arms and leaned back in the chair. "Tempting. But as you say this is a no-fly zone. Might be embarrassing if all we can do is run like flesh creatures. Cyclonus and I are not a pair of tricycles."
"Neither am I," Prime grunted. He returned the scroll and glanced at other potential titles. "What we need is someone who knows something about algorithmic and dimensional physics."
"Then we'll need a school, not a library."
Prime leaned against the bookshelf, optics cast upon the floor. "I suspect this is as much as we're permitted to learn. We're strangers to this world. Not even the majority of the citizens are allowed certain information."
Galvatron searched the ceiling and shook his head. A frown lengthened his face and he fell silent, out of ideas. Prime reexamined the limited collection.
Nonda found them after her two-hour time table. They did not need to explain the situation. She sat at the table and read their faces. "I'm sorry for it all, Nah'Teer. Pity for something to do or say in help. But our family is far from distinctive; We are mere citizens."
Galvatron's hands clenched into fists and he bowed his head then gazed at her, a little more relaxed, his palms flat on the table. "Nonda, we must either find a way to use the temple transport, learn how to use our deporter, or we will be your permanent house guests."
Nonda gazed at him, innocent and inviting. "Not too tragic a thing. We have plenty of room."
"That's not the problem, Nonda," Prime answered quietly. He took a seat opposite Galvatron. "Galvatron and Cyclonus are Decepticons. We cannot stay because they are creatures of the sky. They cannot fly here and keeping them on the ground would eventually kill them."
Galvatron stared at the Autobot leader, astonished. How could he understand the necessity for freedom of the sky? Galvatron's systems demanded a deep breath so his power core vibrated again. If Prime heard him breathe, the Autobot made no movement to indicate as much. Galvatron shuddered with new-found respect for his courteous Autobot companion.
Nonda scowled, sad for their dilemma. "I have lost the wealth of good ideas, Nah'Teer. But Rasplit may have one. Let's return home and think on it there."
Optimus agreed to return with some misgivings. He had let Galvatron and Cyclonus down and hoped things would turn around soon.
Nikel was the family artist. And while not yet professional, Nikel's work was impressive for his age. Sketches of tall buildings and people littered the bedroom floor, pasted the walls and stuffed the little trash can.
"They're nonessentials of my dreams," the boy answered the Decepticon's curious examinations. "Odd dreams come to my sleeps and I set them free when I draw them down."
"Do you understand your dreams, Nikel?"
"Understanding is never there, never words or faces Bandar Cyclonus. There comes lights and shapes and ever regarding this one body in robes of gold. A crown touched of light encircles the head. Sh'Dawn is confused and my dreams do not make pictures for her."
Cyclonus pondered over one sketch of a figure with a darkened face and a circlet of gold about his head. His right hand held a radiating staff and behind him rose the temple. Nikel's work was impressive but it left the Decepticon uneasy.
A second drawing framed on the wall piqued Cyclonus' attention: a great alter fringed with leaves of gold and a plaque on the front that resembled a control panel. "Nikel, what is this?"
The boy shrugged, "not to tell. Fuzzy in view from the dream I was disenchanted when I began the work then Jaeger wanted to help. So I permitted it."
"Jaeger drew some of this?"
"What you say?" Nikel acted surprised. "No. His age cannot control his abilities. But he tells me and I put it down."
Cyclonus doubted nothing. "Would you draw another picture from your dreams?" he asked, though not sure why.
Nikel shrugged, happy. "What is your inclination?"
Cyclonus handed the boy his drawing book, "the steps leading to the doors of the temple."
"Temp!" Jaeger dropped a set of automobiles and joined the two as they settled. Nikel revealed a box of drawing tools and waited to conjure an image.
"Kitty?" Jaeger suggested.
"That's right," Nikel agreed. "There's the sphinxes, huh?" The boy blinked, realizing what Cyclonus was asking. His eyes shot up. "The question from you regards dreams about the temple! What guess is this?"
Sullen and silent, Cyclonus had no answer for the boy. He stared at the page, as though expecting the drawing to appear on its own.
Jaeger pointed to the center right of the page. "Kitty!" and he clapped his little hands. His toddler cheeks puffed with a broad smile.
"Yes! Yes!" Nikel sketched the sphinxes and the temple's nine stairs. He raced over the page like an expert.
Cyclonus watched, fascinated by the process. Art was not prevalent among Decepticons. It served no purpose. "What can you tell me about the temple and the sphinxes?"
Nikel shrugged at first while he shaded the doors and steps. "Knowledge says if the guardians find you trespassing, death is imminent. All contestors utilize armor and tricks. Others try potions. One even used music. Temple guardians hold no appreciation for falsehood."
"Are there not workers who maintain the temple?"
"How do they get into the temple?"
Nikel delayed his answer as he shaded the second sphinx. He left the wings and eyes bright, just as Cyclonus remembered them the day before. "The high priest calls and they take permission, I think."
"And does the high priest control the sphinxes?"
"I do not know."
Jaeger left Nikel and climbed around Cyclonus' legs until he settled into the Decepticon's lap.
At first Cyclonus felt awkward, not knowing what to do or think about this sort of physical contact. He held his arms aloft, not knowing what to do with them. Jaeger reached up and took the warrior's hands and set them on Cyclonus' own knees. Jaeger confused him. In one way, he was clearly a child. But in another, a depth of spirit indwelt him the likes of which his mother did not seem aware. Bit by bit Cyclonus grew comfortable sitting the boys. As Nikel finished his drawing, notions fell into place for Cyclonus like pieces of a disassembled laser gun.
"Go?" Jaeger pointed to Nikel's picture. "Take me, go?"
"Are you asking to visit the temple, Jaeger?"
"Yes. He intends all the time," Nikel answered in passing.
"The statues attain his fixation. We pass along on the ride and Jaeger claps his hands. My Sh'Dawn falls to fear the statues enchant Jaeger."
"Go?" Jaeger raised his sweet blue eyes to Cyclonus and pointed to the picture.
Cyclonus felt torn, however. He could not just leave Galvatron. Not yet.
"No. It is not time, yet. Go and return later. Go and return when it is time."
Cyclonus understood the boy-child knew what he was talking about. But why was the temple so-
Losa and Nonda entered the room.
They smiled, relived and pleased at the two well-behaved boys. "I intend not for them a burden, Bandar Cyclonus," Nonda picked up a couple of Nikle's drawings lying on the floor and set them on his desk.
"Not at all," the Decepticon answered truthfully. "The boys gave me a tour of their toy inventory and we discussed the drawings."
Jaeger abandoned Cyclonus for his mother, welcoming her with open arms. "Sh'Daw!" he called and grinned when she picked him up. Nonda bounced her toddler as she stared suspiciously at Nikel's sketch.
While Nonda prepared the evening meal, the three Transformers stepped outside for private conversation. Galvatron and Prime reported their lack of findings to Cyclonus who offered no reaction. His lack of words made Galvatron uneasy and he glared elsewhere, somber, if not privately fuming. Prime took responsibility for their welfare and found the burden heavy. He strengthened his resolve. "We're not staying," he assured them.
The front door swung open and Jaeger's little voice called with the kind of familiarity only the surrogate Autobot father understood.
"Bandar Cyclonus! Bandar Cyclonus! Come, play!" and on little legs he ran to Cyclonus and begged him to play a bit more.
"Forgive me, Jaeger, but Galvatron, Optimus Prime and I are discussing our dilemma. Another time . . . perhaps after your meal?"
Jaeger looked mortally wounded and Prime felt for the child's disappointment. "It would seem, Cyclonus, you have been adopted."
Galvatron smiled, but kept remarks to himself. He leaned against the brick wall and rested one foot over the other. He kept his face straight as Cyclonus allowed the boy to sit in his lap, quiet and contented.
At length, Prime raised his optics to the dimming sky. "There is one other option, but it would take time and a chain of people who know people." He gazed at Galvatron, uncertain of his companion's reaction. But Galvatron said nothing for or against the half-spoken suggestion and Prime continued, "we might go to the Center for Higher Learning at the other side of town and discuss our position with the Magistrate of Astronavigations. It's a long shot, but easier to attempt than breaking into the temple and trying to figure out how the machine works."
Galvatron scrutinized Prime and dragged the words: "Maaagisstrate of Assstronaaavigations. Prime . . . are you mad? These people barely know the difference between a transportation vehicle and a microwave oven! We'll be lucky if they can astronavigate, let alone show us how to plug coordinates into a device we know nothing about ourselves!"
Prime smirked over Galvatron's analogy and conceded his point. The three Transformers fell quiet. Ideas ran dry and moods turned gloomy. They may end up remaining on Draun for a long time.
Rasplit returned from his day after the boys ate dinner and Nikel attended his homework. Losa mentioned the doctor said she and the unborn were doing fine, but she needed to do more walking. It was about that time that Nonda's husband stomped through the door, greeting everyone cheerfully and his wife with a single flower. He asked Nikel about his week's activities. But Nikel merely grunted until Jaeger mentioned 'pictures'. And that was when their father asked Nikel about his art.
Galvatron and Cyclonus remained as invisible as possible. But that was not to last. Nonda and Losa quickly explained to Longt about their Nah'Teer, talking over one another in excitement.
Longt greeted Prime with due respect, but did not know what more to say. He acted a bit odd or maybe possessive of his wife and boys as he laid a hand on each of their shoulders and kept laying his hand on Nonda's shoulders or hands. Optimus knew lines were being drawn, that he, Galvatron and Cyclonus were not to stay at the house; Longt felt threatened.
When the meal ended, Rasplit offered to clean the kitchen. Optimus offered to help, but Nonda would have none of it. She insisted they all gathered in the sitting room with a bit of drink and a game of cards. As she shuffled the deck, Prime quickly explained the game rules to Galvatron while Cyclonus remained in the visual room with the boys who wanted him to watch a few programs and play games with them.
"How came here, did you say again?" Longt asked for the second time. He plucked up his cards as Nonda dealt and shuffled again.
"By accident," Prime replied simply. "We have a device that was made by the Inoux but we have no idea how to plug in the coordinates to use it properly."
Nonda intervened at this point, setting a blue card on a face-up deck. "We visited the Hall of Knowledge, but there came no answers. We intend to look further."
"It's very important we find the Autobots," Prime explained when he took his turn, plucking four cards off the down-turned deck and discarding a blue face. "I've had no contact with them since the Inoux invaded Mars. I believe Rodimus is still alive, but I don't know anything more."
Longt did not reply as he discarded a yellow card. Nonda would not have minded Prime and his friends staying. But it was not how Longt felt; it was his home, his family.
And Optimus was a stranger.
"Nah'Teer? Nah'Teer, please, please wake!"
Prime's consciousness surfaced from shutdown, glad to feel more at rest than usual. He activated his optics and found Nonda's silhouette in the doorway of the hall. "What's wrong?" he asked softly.
"Jaeger and Nikel . . . they're missing."
Galvatron stepped up behind her, his optics the only thing lighting his face. "Cyclonus is also missing."
"This is not like Cyclonus," Galvatron said softly. "Not anymore."
"I know," Prime confirmed in the same soft tones. "We will find him."
"Prime," Galvatron stood, scanning the street before confronting his companion. "He is not . . . this is not like him. He would not put anyone in danger."
"Whatever it is, must have been important. What direction do the tracks take? Can you see an ion trail and is there enough of it to follow?"
Galvatron's face lit with the idea.
Prime swiftly explained the situation to Nonda and that he and Galvatron would be back as soon as possible. But Longt was not convinced. He whispered a few uncomplimentary things under his breath. Prime merely pretended not to hear.
The Autobot leader rolled along in truck mode while Galvatron walked beside him, easily keeping pace. The Decepticon scanned the ground for tracks, picking up ionized particles unique to his kind. Prime made no sound, pausing when Galvatron lost the trail and resuming just as wordlessly when his companion found it again.
Exactly as Galvatron privately suspected, the ion trail led them to the temple. Prime transformed to robot mode and he and Galvatron stood at the stairs, assessing the damage. A laser weapon holed out the sphinx's eyes. The claws of their feet and their proud teeth lay scattered about the steps.
Flashing lights flickered behind Prime and Galvatron as security guards and vehicles surrounded the temple. Two officers held them at firing range. A police captain slammed the car door and stamped toward them. A heavy laser cannon rested over his shoulder. "Here! Explain this transpiration!" he demanded. "Explain of your situation!"
"We were looking for a friend," Prime answered simply, somewhat amazed the officer in question spoke the trade language.
The nearest officer pointed to the vandalism. "Sacrilegious abomination!" he used several curses in his native language, the likes of which the Decepticon did not need interpretation.
Nonda came flying out of her vehicle, avoiding this and that soldier who tried to keep her away from her Nah'Teer. "No! There is no guilt of crime! No guilt of crime! We searched for the third-he keeps my baby! Please! Nah'Teer! No guilt!"
A hundred clicks tapped around Prime and Galvatron and at first Prime thought every soldier and officer prepared to obliterate he and Galvatron. It was illegal, of course. The Draun believed in process of law. But then Autobot leader realized the weapons were not trained on he and his companion, but the temple.
Cyclonus stood at the broken doors. Behind him a dim light burned within the temple. It flared, flickered then shot through every glass window, metal door and crystal crevice until it silhouetted Cyclonus' form.
"DO NOT ATTACK."
The voice was not his, but a young man's, commanding from behind the Decepticon. Galvatron flinched at the sight.
Nikel stepped from behind Cyclonus. He was clothed in the colors of the temple guard and Prime's first assumption was that Nikel had figured himself as the new high priest.
Nikel took two steps down as a smaller figure emerged. Draped in a golden robe, Jaeger gazed admirably at Cyclonus before addressing the crowd in perfect sentence structure and a vocabulary unliken to one of his age.
"I am Jaeger, son of Longt and Nonda. My faithful and kind guardian, Cyclonus of Cybertron, has seen to it I rise to my rightful position as High Priest. His companions, who now stand before you, are guiltless."
Shock held the congregation in standing silence. Then, one or two at a time, the guards and soldiers lowered their weapons. Some of them knelt before their new high priest until everyone in the area copied them. Galvatron and Prime bowed in respect.
Jaeger stepped in front of Cyclonus, patting his brother on the arm. With a silent hand signal, he bade the collection of officers and onlookers to pay attention. "I could not take the temple until my rightful guardian arrived. Yet, as attached I am to Cyclonus, he cannot stay-not yet." Here the child-priest stared at Galvatron, eyes shining with gratitude.
"I will send you and your companions to your chosen destination, Galvatron of Cybertron. You may go wherever you wish. Or you may go separate ways, if that is your desire."
Galvatron understood Jaeger meant the Decepticon femmes in another place and time. But the former leader knew that place was not something he could have; not if he wanted to do what was right. "My destiny lies with Optimus Prime. We go to Cratis."
Jaeger grinned a knowing smile before turning to Cyclonus. "I shall ever bear your mark in remembrance of your kindness and courage. I will bid you to rejoin me as my high-praetorian guard and counselor."
Cyclonus merely bowed and waited as the child-priest and his escort returned to the temple hall. Cyclonus welcomed Galvatron as he and Prime climbed the stairs. Reporters gathered about the temple. Cameras flashed. The chief of police answered millions of questions while soldiers taped off the premises.
"Nah'Teer!" Nonda, Losa and Rasplit ran toward the taped area and Prime turned to wish them farewell. He embraced all three. "Don't say good-bye again," Nonda begged. "Stay a while longer."
"I can't," Prime answered sadly. "The Autobots are refugees now and vulnerable to predators. I must return to them and Rusti. You will be alright."
Rasplit embraced his Nah'Teer closely. "Come to visit us again one day."
Prime parted but tightly held his son's hands. "I can make no promises, Rasplit. Cybertron is gone. There is no telling what will happen." He embraced Nonda and Losa once again and wished Losa good things for her future child.
Heavy-hearted, he departed from them for the second time, rejoining Galvatron at the top of the steps. Optimus did not look back and was grateful for Galvatron's hand on his shoulder.
The three stepped onto the transporter. A flash of light flared and died and the next thing they saw was a series of old buildings, a brown clouded sky and a well-lit tavern alive with music, laughter and hundreds of voices.
Judging the numbers of aliens and mixture of atmospheric molecules, Optimus recognized Cratis.