WARNING: coarse language, violence and some disturbing scenes.
Deep felt gratitude goes to Jayd Hunter for her undying emotional
support, thoughtfulness and priceless friendship. And much
gratitude to Illmatar for her gifted insight, eternal
encouragement and Friday afternoon yak-sessions. Love both of you
Pt 1: Parafax 12
Earth Date: November 5, 2038
Location: Rymathis Xi, Draconis Solar System
An immense assembly of mighty kings, formidable ambassadors and distinguished representatives drooped under a powerful sleeping spell. Their heads dipped, their eyelids collapsed.
Ambassador-Princess Sh'Ree's lilting voice filled the mammoth hall with soft, sweet tones. Her voice dropped once when tears constricted her throat.
Those few who managed to resist her beautiful dialect heard the story of unimaginable disasters brought by the worst temporal infractions ever recorded. Millions of people either lost their lives, their sanity or completely vanished from history. The planet's eco system broiled under horrible temperatures, frigid back lashes, massive quakes and shocking tsunamis.
Ambassador Koontah sat at the table closest to the embassy hall's entryway. He silently jotted notes while he calculated events between planetary activity, solar cycles, natural phenomena and chaotic incidents. His companion and assistant, Weezaxaas, refined all the Ambassador's intricate calculations and pinpointed six possible sources.
As Sh'Ree's voice enticed more interplanetary delegates to sleep, Koontah narrowed his configurations to four causes.
A tall, well-built conference room security officer stepped to Koontah's right with a note. "Begging your grace, Ambassador," he whispered, "there is a televised message for you in room thirty-seven."
Koontah immediately suspected bad news.
He was right.
The lined face of an Abryth stared at the ambassador with four small silver eyes. His bald pate changed from a blue-violet hue to red-orange as Koontah approached the wall-sized screen.
"In better health, I trust." Koontah knew this was not a curtsey call. The Abryth neither forgot nor forgave Koontah their last confrontation. In fact, Koontah spotted the remains of three deep wounds on Taybrin's left shoulder.
"Hopefully better than yours, Ambassador."
Koontah smiled with his eyes. "Can I do something more for you, Lord Taybrin?"
"Unfortunately, you can."
Koontah's ears perked forward. Taybrin, a 'reformed' pirate, did not take kindly to Koontah's intervention and he retained bitterness over the penalty he paid for stolen weapons technology.
"Ambassador, we discovered yesterday someone has been tampering with transporter path lines."
"The entire net access lines system has been tampered with. Two hundred and ninety-three teleports have been compromised. Thirteen of them ended in dead space."
"Taybrin, how could anyone affect the wormhole network? That would take-" Koontah cut himself off, realizing what it meant. " . . . someone experimenting with a temporal weapon, re-coordinating the lines and using . . . oh, thack. Thank you, Taybrin. I'll look into it."
Taybrin broke in before the ambassador left: "I-I deserve something for my trouble, Ambassador."
Koontah paused in the doorway. "If there is anything left of the perpetrators, I'll send you a photo; autographed and free of charge."
Weezy dashed outside the embassy hall and caught up with Koontah as the ambassador phoned his transport in advance.
"You're not going alone this time."
"Who says I'm going anywhere?"
"Don't play dumbass with me. Where are you going, Koontah?"
"I'm calling-Hey, Boots? Need something to do? Yeah. I'm heading there now."
Koontah heard that in stereo from both his closest friend and his sister over the phone. "Parafax 12."
Bootsey said something but it was Weezy Koontah heard: "Are you sure that's the source of disturbance? Why not Monicus? Jupiter?"
"No. Monicus was a result, not an instigative area. And the other two sources haven't happened yet." Koontah kept walking toward the spaceport. Weezy tailed after, concern growing in his voice.
"Wait a minute, Koontah, Parafax 12 is in the Cratian System."
"Yes it is."
"The Autobots are in the Cratian System."
"No, the Autobot refugees are in the Cratian System."
"Are they being followed?"
Koontah paused, perplexed. "Uh . . . I hadn't thought of that. Quintessons won't go to Cratis-Weezy, we need an escort service."
Earth Date: November 10, 2038
Location: Asteroid Parafax 12
The Cratian System
Quintesson Judge Galdain Tu led two colleagues and a small troop of hungry Sharkticons down a crude, hand-carved rock passage into a wide natural cavern. A complex, integrated terminal output system hugged the back of a sub-cave carved further into the cavern. An ancient space bridge squatted just behind it. A powerful magnetic repolarizor sat to the left of the sub-cave. A constant hum vibrated from the machine, making it possible for the Quintessons to withstand the baryon radiation produced by the sun. In the near-lightless world, the procession of Sharks and Quints encountered several giant storage crates and spare parts for the space bridge.
Galdain Tu and Dregmoont, his science colleague, took every conceivable precaution to maintain their secrecy and presence in the Herculean system. Just being in the solar system was enough to set their tentacles flaying. Radiation emitted from the large orange star, even at their present distance, set their nerves on edge. Galdain Tu wondered how their 'noteworthy colleagues', who secretly worked with unknown allies, managed to withstand the three planetary revolutions they spent on Cratis.
For most Quintessons, death is worth the price of accomplishing a project. Galdain Tu boiled with jealously over those Quintessons on Cratis who proved so successful with their endeavor. Not only did they earn great rewards, praise and admiration across seven galaxies, but they reaped a considerable profit.
Fortunately those Quintessons who treaded Cratis' filthy atmosphere did not live long thereafter.
But not one Quint dared express the weak-minded emotion of fear to his companions. Not only was unadvisable to stay in the system for their health, but also for their personal safety.
Cratis was the only habitable planet left. The Quintessons, however, still feared those who remembered them and the price paid for dabbling with Quintesson business and technology. It might have been seven million years since the Cratian System lost nine-tenths of its life forms, but there were the Damules who dwelt in the caves and canyons on Cratis. They remembered. Not more than a hundred Earth years ago, the Damules placed a juicy price on the life of every Quintesson out there.
"Coordinates to the B'Gapin System have been calculated within ten nactometrics outside Dabwok City." Dregmoont, the head technician, reevaluated his calculations. The Intergalactic path lines tore at the fringes. The Quintesson refused to admit he made a serious error by tampering with the time streams along the travel routes in subspace and wormhole access byways.
Not that Galdain Tue or Parkal Rade cared anything about intergalactic repercussions. Their only concern was leaving the system with no trace of their tampering. That meant leaving their Sharkticons to destroy Parafax 12 before self-destruct.
Not entirely neat and clean, but effective.
Parkal Rade carefully disassembled the temporal disruptor. He was pleased with its uncanny efficiency. The fact that he beguiled the Henron and its crew into a course headed for a nearby black hole concealed by a cloud of dark matter was essentially unimportant.
After all, it's the result that mattered, rarely the means.
Absorbed by their individual self-importance and their goals, the Quintessons missed the only hint of an intruder slipping from wall crack to rock fragment.
The Sharkticons, currently occupied with memorizing future orders, did not notice the minuscule bombs attached to their hulls. Throwing irons, barely the size of a bolt, bit twenty sharks like a magnetic gnat.
The first shark blew, shocking all the room's occupants. Two more exploded and Dregmoont raced to complete his calculations. The Quintessons retreated, squealing in terror.
"The space bridge!" Parkal Rade called.
"Negative! The space bridge's coordinates lead straight to-"
Six more Sharkticons blew apart, their bodies littered the room, their fuel lines sprayed the walls.
Galdain Tu cursed as his two companions found temporary refuge behind the magnetic repolarizor.
Ten more Sharks ruptured and 'decorated' the room with their remains.
With a battle cry, a large troop of heavily-armored galactic rangers choked the cavern, cutting off the only exit. They swiftly maneuvered their forces against the back walls and hemmed the Sharkticons in on all sides. While the invaders stood but half the size of the Sharkticons, the weapons they held were doubtless formidable. Even the Sharkticons were reluctant to attack.
Two Human-sized people followed the deft troop at a leisurely pace. Half the soldiers held the Quintessons and remaining Sharkticons at gun point while the other half swiftly cleared a path to the Quints.
Walking beside Weezaxaas, Ambassador Koontah entered the cavern just as four rangers cleared the last crumbs of debris.
Behind his blindfold, Koontah knew the rangers all but mopped and polished the floor for him. But even blinded, he sensed the difference between debris and moving mechanisms . . . and three smelly trans-organic life forms. Weezy beside him made several remarks, one of which curved the ambassador's face into half a smile.
They stood facing the Quintessons. The Sharkticons snarled and grinded their metal teeth but their intimidation proved ineffective.
Galdain Tu reminded himself the Wanakian ambassador was not as cute and cuddly as he looked. He was a sharp diplomat who held no qualms in using brute force.
"Do not bother inventing excuses, Galdain Tu," Koontah sternly spoke in Common Trade. "We can do this one of two ways: my way, or the dead way."
Galdain Tu hissed and spun to face Koontah with Hate. "You told the Continuum you would not interfere, Ambassador. Maybe you should like to chew on your own words."
Koontah bared his teeth and lowered a second pair of incisors just behind the first set. "Don't contend with me, Galdian Tu. You will not win. My words were spoken in regard to the conflict between your ilk and the Transformers. And while it is true, that the war between you is not of my jurisdiction, your abuse of time-stream manipulation is."
Quintesson Dregmoont spoke with a soft, pious tone, "Surely you must be aware of the damage your short-term intervention has caused, Ambassador. Fourteen worlds are in economic and social crisis because of it."
"They'll recover, Dregmoont." Koontah remained undeterred. "After all, the law of survival of the fittest has not yet been revoked. Besides, I did not build the two time windows-or the one presently being built in the Terran system. And I certainly did not authorize use of a temporal device to shift the teleport pathways."
Galdain Tu pushed Dregmoont behind him as he himself switched to Face of Death. "It pleases me to remind you, Ambassador, that you said you have no say over our . . . problems with the Transformers. Need I remind you that our work on the time streams is called into our strategy-GGGAAAAAHHHH!"
As if an invisible hand struck him, Galdain Tu flew backward and splattered the computer system behind him.
"You forget Galdain Tu, that I am Keeper of the Triad and any rules I set for temporal interference WILL be obeyed! Push me one step further and I will invoke the right to either imprison you or eliminate you entirely. As it stands, you have forced me to clean up your mess by advancing the time lines. Weezy, we're leaving. I need some fresh air."
The Wanakian ambassador turned about face and started away.
"Wait!" called Parkal. "Please . . Ambassador, maybe there is an agreement we can reach: something that might be beneficial to both of us."
Koontah paused, triangular ears perked above the blindfold. "You know, Weezy, the last time a Quintesson tried to bargain with me, he offered me the fabled Decepticon Matrix."
Dregmoont's tentacles snapped about in panic. "You misunderstand, Ambassador." he added. "The Autobots simply must not regroup with Optimus Prime!"
Weezy turned to face the Quints and grinned while the rangers activated their rifles. "Is that desperation I hear? Or is that the preamble to a song-and-dance routine?"
Koontah did not answer nor did he turn back. Dregmoont picked up his courage and floated to the forefront. "Hear me out. The war between the Autobots and Decepticons has remained silent for twenty-five Earth years. But we have recently heard that two unclassified Decepticons now travel with the beleaguered Autobot leader. Once he returns to the refugees, there will most certainly be a social upheaval, mutiny. The seed of hate will yet again germinate between the two species-"
"Something your people are responsible for, Dregmoont," Koontah said quietly.
Weezy leaned to whisper in the ambassador's ear, "Here it comes! 'I offer you the chance of a life-time, Ambassador."
Dregmoont dared one more pace forward. "I offer you the chance of a life-time, Ambassador."
"Help us to maintain peace and civility." Weezy whispered again.
"Help us to maintain peace and civility." Dregmoont inadvertently echoed.
Koontah smiled but kept laughter in check. He felt Dregmoont advance another yard and finally faced the deviant. "Dregmoont, you will accompany me to Cratis to shut off the deflector device which you and Galdain Tu set up. Captain Falval and his troop will remain here until I return. Beautaxan will keep an eye on everyone else."
The Quintesson trio glanced about their surroundings, looking for the one named Beautaxan.
"Unacceptable." Parkal objected. "We will not cooperate." and with those words, several other brave Sharkticons advanced. They stomped the cavern floor, snarling and gnashing their teeth.
Ranger Captain Falval gave command to the defensive. Three sharks shifted to animal form and charged.
Two rangers called for the their power rods and with a great leap, sunk their weapons into Sharkticon optics. The 'victimized' Sharkticons roared and stumbled about until another ranger locked his target with a BlackJack .21. A clean-cut hole seared through each of the monster's bodies.
Two other Sharks exploded from no visible source.
While the remaining Sharkticons attacked the rangers at the forefront, Galdain Tu pushed himself off the computer consol and produced a concealed weapon: a miniature version of a Draconis .95 Burster. He pointed it at Koontah.
A female Wancheeah leapt to Koontah's side. Bound in armor, she took a defensive stance just a foot in front of him.
But Koontah did not need protection. Galdain Tu fired.
The shot bolted half way before it paused in mid air and reversed, jamming into the Quintesson's weapon. The gun shattered and crisped Galdain Tu with it.
Parkal screeched a command at the remaining Sharkticons. From nowhere, a bolt of lightening shot down Parkal's form, disintegrating his body. Ear-splitting thunder followed. Confused, remaining Sharkticons hesitated to follow orders, giving the rangers that much time to set charges.
"STOP!" Dregmoont called behind Galdain Tu's smoking form. "You'll kill us all!"
"Oh, look, Koontah!" Weezy mocked loudly, "A Quintesson with common sense."
Rather than answer his companion, Ambassador Koontah and Beautaxan approached the trembling miscreant alien.
Dregmoont's tentacles snapped at the tips. His Face of Vengeance, bedecked with an orange crown, watched as Koontah slowly climbed the wreckage of a Sharkticon body. His sister aided his ascent by sound and word.
They stood atop the shoulder joint and Koontah paused, listening and sensing everything around him. "Where were we? Oh yes, that's right. I needed one of you to come to Cratis with me to re-encode the transmitter. You can re-encode it, can't you, Dregmoont?"
"Ambassador, I implore you not to force your hand. It's painfully true-"
"Nah-uh." Koontah objected. "No more mind games. Honestly, will your species EVER learn? Or are you truly as hopelessly arrogant as you have been in the past? Dregmooont, I'm only asking you to do what you're told, how hard can that be?"
"The Merchandise must never reach their full potential."
Dregmoont forgot his fear a moment and dared but half an inch toward Koontah. Bootsey beside him turned her head just as slightly. Her stone-set gaze flickered like a snake wound tight.
"Ambassador," Dregmoont's voice dropped a pitch. "Try to imagine a species so capable of imitation they could easily copy and replace another life form. Transformers were designed to silently replace entire races of people, to repopulate entire solar systems as to prepare for the onslaught of Unicron."
"Unicron was destroyed. Even the one responsible for making Unicron's body is now imprisoned within the body of a bug."
"Yes, the threat is over. But the weapon designed to combat the threat is not."
"So you're telling me that eventually Transformers will carry out this ultimate design? They will copy other life forms, take their place and prepare for war?"
"Humans are not the first and only species-"
"You're lying, Dregmoont. Just who do you think you're talking to?"
"I'm trying to spare a future where all life forms will eventually be wiped out and replaced with mechanical beings. Imagine the simple, comforting beat of an organic heart replaced by the unemotional vibration of a laser core."
Koontah faced Bootsey on his right and tightened the blindfold about his eyes. "Boots, have I ever mentioned how much the Randuth Alveen confuse me?"
Beautaxan smiled sweetly. "Do you need an interpreter, Koontah?"
The Wanakian ambassador bowed his head in thought. He was silent for half a moment then gazed upward with a deep breath. "No. I just want him to do as he's TOLD!" Koontah pointed a finger at the Quintesson. He swept about, facing the upper entranced wall.
Dregmoont's form shot across the chamber and collided against the wall with a sickening splattering sound. The Quintesson plopped to the ground, dazed.
Beautaxan and Koontah descended from the mount of Sharkticon scrap and approached Dregmoont. Weezy met them half way and the trio faced the wounded alien with stern expressions.
Koontah bared his second incisors: "Dregmoont, we can do this one of two ways: my way. Or my way."
The Quintesson gazed at Beautaxan then at Weezy before switching to his Face of Greed. "Very well, Ambassador. What do you need from me?"
Optimus recognized that city. Many things changed as things do, but the essential shape and location of the city/spaceport remained.
Wait a second. He gazed at the city from the wrong angle. Just a moment ago he was surrounded by buildings.
He smelled the stench of ages-old roads, of alien vehicles and heard the voices of over a million people.
Now his consciousness hung in the middle of nowhere at all. Amid disorientation and confusion, Optimus wondered if anyone knew of his present state of being.
What of his companions?
Movement from the horizon diverted Prime's musings and he watched the sky unravel as though devoured by a shredder.
Prime glanced everywhere and saw afar off the same event. Now he recognized his location: caught in a subspace stream, he hovered above his destination. How long he had been there he could not say; the structure of time differed in the travel streams.
The world about him fizzled. He felt rather than heard colored static and noise.
Gravity sucked him down. He fought against it until his hands moved. His laser core vibrated strongly. Fuel lines surged with power as though freshly awakened.
The teleportation process completed the cycle and Prime returned to his body. But the shock of the moment cut his strength and Prime's legs buckled under. He landed hard on his knees. Systems diagnostics kicked in but they failed to clarify his disconcertion. It took several moments for the Autobot to realize he sat in a room.
He noticed Galvatron to his right. And instinctively, the Autobot leader sensed Cyclonus' presence nearby. Movement dragged his attention from himself toward the front-right. Dimly Prime perceived snakes moving in and out. One snake raised then disappeared behind the face of a computer consol.
The contemptuous face of a Quintesson greeted the three of them with Death. It's tentacles danced silently as the creature scrutinized the three Transformers.
Had ... had he, Galvatron and Cyclonus been captured right out of subspace? How could that even be possible?
The Draun teleport felt far smoother in its transition compared to the crude Decepticon space bridges. Galvatron honestly never liked the space bridge. It was a tool to get from place to place but its unpredictability often made it unreliable. Space bridges depended on gravitational and electro-magnetic energies. Every planet produced a unique signature along the electromagnetic spectrum and aligning a fickle piece of equipment to each planet was tricky at best.
Galvatron sank to his knees and turned inward for a diagnostic and a sense of place and time. At first he thought himself tumbling freely through nothingness, though he was completely aware. Now he occupied his body in a room at a temperature of seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit.
Someone spoke in soft, slow tones.
At first his words did not register. Galvatron's disorientation forbade him to ask his companion to repeat.
A second voice unpleasantly vibrated around Galvatron: "The disorientation is temporary-unfortunately. The electromagnetic fields on Draun are vastly different than Cratis. However, if you feel the disorientation is extreme enough to force your systems into permanent stasis lock, please do so without utilizing a self-destruct sequence."
Both Galvatron and Optimus Prime raised weary, static-ridden optics to face the Quintesson presently speaking to them. The two heard Cyclonus activate his weapon as he stepped between them.
Dregmoont switched to Face of Vengeance and smiled. "Not to worry. Decepticon, your weapons cannot work for another ten Cratian minutes. Electromagnetic reorient-"
"Can it, Dregmoont," came another voice, speaking in Common Trade. Koontah stepped in round the corner. "Computer, lights."
"Ambassador, no one here needs to see by-"
"Hey!" Weezy snapped behind him. "The ambassador told you to shut it!"
Koontah turned to the three robots in the transport. "I thought we were transporting one Autobot; hopefully an Autobot leader."
Weezy ruefully grinned. "Maybe he picked up hitch hikers. Kinda like rocks lodged under a shoe."
Koontah's ears bent forward. "You know, Optimus Prime, most people will bring home things like pets or groceries. You bring Decepticons. Does Rodimus know about this?"
Optimus, still on his knees beside Galvatron, smiled. "Hello, Ambassador. I was not expecting to run into you."
Galvatron stared at the Human-sized creature before them. A blue sash tied his eyes from view. The other creature of similar design--short fuzzy fur and a tail (while Koontah had none)--grinned in a ridiculous manner. Galvatron dragged his optics to Optimus Prime for an explanation.
Koontah smiled. "A sweet young lady is very worried for you. Where I come from, it is an honor to assist a lady in distress. So here I am. However, looking for you has proven something of a challenge. Turns out Squid Legs behind me and his late companions tried to mess with gravitational passways used by teleport devices. It took me an agonizing number of hours to unravel their mess. Then miracle of miracles, some backwater, slum-infested asteroid blows up. No explanation. But since several black markets had their hands invested in it, it became interplanetary matter. I don't dabble in politics, but I knew what happened and managed to find you and traced the damage here."
Optimus dimmed his optics in disbelief. "How . . . how did you manage to get the Quintesson to cooperate?"
Weezy grinned ever broader. "Oh, Koontah knocked the thack out of him."
The ambassador looked surprised at his companion's choice of words. "Weezy!"
"I mean, he kicked the living shit out of him."
"Weezy! Show a bit of respect. You stand before Transformer aristocracy."
"I mean he mopped the floor with his tentacles."
"Can't be much of a clean floor," Galvatron muttered.
Koontah turned from Weezy back to the Transformers. "Unfortunately, I can't stay. The damage they've done is spreading faster than I can contain it."
Optimus realized the ambassador meant time infractions. He leaned forward, very concerned. "What do you think will happen?"
Koontah crossed his arms and tilted his head left, indicating distress. He sighed uneasily. "More than I can fix all at once, unfortunately. I can't undo the past. I can't control every single event in the present. The amount of damage done by these lumbering, arrogant, thoughtless sli'kikik will be felt for a long time to come. What I can do is prevent a temporal crash."
Optimus did not know what that meant, but he suspected the ambassador planned something drastic. "How bad?"
"Four years. I'm going to shift the present time stream and push it ahead by four years. It'll save your people, keep three solar systems from imploding and piss the Quintessons off simultaneously."
Galvatron tossed a wide grin at Dregmoont who returned with a dirty snarl.
"Unfortunately," Koontah added, "the time advancement only prevents catastrophe. It won't fix time flashes. Hopefully things will stabilize in a few more months. And we need to go! Weezy, bring the luggage."
Optimus Prime stood as the long-eared Wancheeah rounded behind Dregmoont and unclasped an energy chain. He tugged at it. "Come along, Cutie-Pie. The ambassador says we have to go, now."
"No!" Dregmoont whined. "We had a deal! He said he'd not kill me!"
"Oh, he'll let you live," Weezy answered, tugging at the chain until the Quint shifted to his Face of Hate. Galvatron almost burst with laughter. A ring hung from Hate's nostrils, connected to the chain.
Weezy tugged until the Quint had no recourse. "Oh, he'll let you live, Dregmoont. He just didn't say where. Personally, I hear Torqulon is open for new clients."
Koontah slipped back into the room and peeked round the corner. "Oh, one more thing, Optimus Prime."
"Next time Earth undergoes a hostile take-over, be sure to consult with me for a civilized rendezvous point."
Optimus looked askance, "I chose Cratis because of its natural hostility toward Quintessons from parasites to electromagnetic fields. It appears, however, I was wrong."
"No, no. You were right. Dregmont's here because he's with us. Bye for now!"
EARTH DATE 2042
Location: Planet Cratis
Galvatron stood as the world around them wavered and blurred then stabilized. Fractional cracks in the walls widened. The room appeared older; the structure even sagged. Other than those clues, the Decepticon found no immediate difference due to the change in time.
Prime glanced about the room and wondered if Ambassador Koontah realized he failed to tell them exactly where they were.
Fortunately, Cyclonus had excellent natural navigational abilities. He led Galvatron and Optimus out the room, up an old cement stair well and to the smelly humid, temperate outside world.
The city greeted them with bustling, confusing noises. Automobiles, busses, personal transports and pedestrians vied for space and speed in four directions.
Towering buildings crowded out the daylight, competing in height and occupation capacity. Privately owned small businesses hedged the larger, more intimidating sky scrapers like little bushes nestled at the trunk crown of large trees. Galvatron turned to his Autobot companion. "Shall we ask for directions?"
Rather than answering, Prime stepped off the curb and transformed. Due to damaged subspace connectors, he could not call forth his trailer.
A horrific honking echoed through the city's intersection and a thin ray of red light ordered all traffic to come to a halt along the north-south throughway. From their left-and presumably the western side of the city-Galvatron spotted an inter-city transport. It barreled toward them a whole level above their heads like living thunder tap dancing between hot and cold fronts.
Galvatron switched to internal communication once it was clear the transport was not going to end any time soon. "Where to?"
"We're going to find a place to stay the night," Optimus answered.
Galvatron gazed at the metro train storming overhead. His optics turned to crowds milling along sidewalks, crossing streets and inhabiting vehicles by the carload. Aliens of ever description from Transformer-height to Earthen insects occupied every nook and crack in the city. The Decepticon frowned. "I hate crowds. Do you know your way around this place?" Prime gave him an affirmative as a group of females and their alien pets on leashes passed them. The train's faint blare boasted of the distance it traveled. At least one hundred fifty cars must have flown over them already. "Just how big is this city?"
"There's only two cities on the whole planet,"
came Optimus' answer.
The train abruptly ended and traffic going east-west halted so north-sound could take its turn. Prime rounded the corner and he drove while Galvatron and Cyclonus remained on the sidewalk. But Cyclonus kept peering toward the sky, his optics clearly indicating a longing to fly.
They traveled five blocks before turning right and traveled another three blocks. Here the traffic was not nearly as congested. A grand courtyard stretched along their right. Restaurants and specialty stores met their scant glances as Optimus pressed past the more pleasant area. One block further they encountered a large multi-leveled motel with different sized stories and three entrances, again, each of a different size.
Prime transformed to robot mode and led his companions in.
A female alien greeted the three mechs. Long leaves draped from the top of her head. Small, slender leaves graced her rounded face. She smiled at them and gelatin-like eyes shifted color. The alien's smile displayed three rows of bristle-like teeth, and her brown leathery skin scrunched up in wrinkles.
Optimus thought her charming.
"Do you have a reservation with us this evening?" she spoke in an old trade language, her accent thick and toothy.
"No. We just arrived planet-side," the Autobot replied.
"Ergstog," she said softly and hauled up a large book. "Our computer system is down for overhaul. Will you sign our book?"
Galvatron leaned close to Optimus: "None of us have identification."
Optimus leaned back to Galvatron with a mischievous smile. "That's another good thing about Cratis; they don't care who you are as long as you have money." He signed the book, using his fortress Maximus, Douglas County, USA, Earth as the address and paid for a large room for two nights, complete with room service. "By the way," Prime added as an afterthought, "we're in the need for stardrive interface repair kits. Do you know of a place that sells them?" She offered a map, a brochure and a short list of phone numbers.
Cyclonus led the way; Galvatron lagged behind Optimus. The Decepticon's sensors alerted him to the slightest of movements; a native lifting a bottle to his lips. a female's dress waved in the breeze of a large passing truck. Someone's child screamed as if it were the end of life. Someone from a window above dropped a photograph. A spider skittered across the sidewalk. The shadowy figure from a familiar shape slipped into the crack of a door.
Galvatron paused to stare. What he thought he saw, he hoped he did not. But he was not sure enough to alert his companions. Galvatron swept his gaze side to side, anticipating an attack. He lifted his optics skyward and listened to the world around him along all frequencies. Nothing. Galvatron did not give into imagination or consider dramatic moments. His optics narrowed, suspicious. He caught up with his companions but chose to keep his premonitions to himself.
Their room swung in a circular design. Two flatbeds sandwiched a single nightstand. A large flat screen television yawned across the wall. A solid metal desk squatted under it. A third bed lounged under a long window overlooking the street one story down.
Two decorative folding doors set the washroom aside. Peeking inside, Galvatron found a broad, square step-down tub filled with hot oil. A rinser dropped from the ceiling. Its shape, like a dragon's head, offered clean hot water from an open maw. Wash cloths, towels and buffers hugged the left wall and several small bottles of wax lined the back of the sink.
Galvatron grinned in sheer delight. "I get first dip," he proclaimed. Neither of his companions argued.
Cyclonus activated the television and flipped through all channels, searching local and inter-systemary news while Optimus laid face-down on the flatbed opposite the night stand. "Are you claiming that flat?" Cyclonus asked Optimus quietly.
"If so, I'd like to take the one by the window."
"Hmm . . .hm."
Cyclonus took that as a yes and sat on the window sill, his feet on the flat. He watched one news program after another, searching for any fragment, any word on Quintesson activity.
The galactic conference ended today by a list of arguments and grievances. Ambassador Shux Wan Toi, charged with conspiracy, declared himself and his world innocent of charges of supporting Quintesson endeavors to eradicate all life on Planet Cybertron and invasion of the Terran system. Our conference correspondent has more details. Blatain?
Thank you, Parma. Tempers raged today as accusations shot from one side of the room to the other. Representatives from twenty-nine systems attempted to reconcile problems dealing with supernatural phenomena, abnormal shifts in many planetary orbits and their environments. Sources from Ablis IV state sightings have been reported concerning what they call illegal entities as per comments made by such officials as Ambassador Yukron Vorx from Cassandra Pi and Ambassador Koontah of Beta Centauri.
The Council of Zhat-Tat-Tuk has yet to make positive identification of illegal dimensional access and existence.
Rumors suggest the very aliens allied with Quintessons may be the same group responsible for such atrocities as the massacre on Planet Mars, the sudden and tragic destruction of Monicus and the communication blackout with the Gemini system, Goudast Pau.
Blatain Rote. ISN News, Statarus IV.
Optimus roused two hours and nineteen minutes after Cyclonus emerged from his bath. His Decepticon companions looked better. The Matrix thought them beautiful creatures. Deadly and graceful like dragons when the universe was yet young. The fact that neither Decepticon harbored arrogance, madness or hostility added to their charisma.
Optimus ignored what the Matrix thought of his companions. He sat up, feeling old and out-of-sorts.
A lint-free cotton towel landed over his head and Prime slowly peeled it off, meeting a deviously grinning Galvatron. "Your turn, pretty boy," the Decepticon all but sang. "I think the oil is still hot, though Cyclonus might have taken all the energy used to keep it that way."
"That was two hours and twenty-six minutes ago," Cyclonus protested.
"That's right!" Galvatron pulled Prime to his feet. "That means it's hot again and you need to use it before Cyclonus finds his way back in there! Off you go!" and he whacked Prime on the aft before closing the folding doors. Galvatron turned and reflected Cyclonus' grinning approval.
The Autobot leader exited the washroom feeling a good deal better. Time slipped away during his bath and he found his companions in shut-down upon his emergence. Optimus considered leaving a note before slipping out to do some light shopping. But as he started on the note, invisible teeth sliced his left side. Shock permeated his body so that he hissed inward, arched back and froze. The pain subsided at its own pace, too slow for Optimus to hide it from Galvatron as the Decepticon woke.
"Prime," he nearly whispered. "What's wrong?"
The sensation echoing through the Matrix lessened so that Optimus relaxed enough to answer. "It's Rodimus," he said quietly. He watched Cyclonus come to life and felt exposed. "I think the sooner we get there, the better."
"Then let's go now."
Prime shook his head. "Can't. There are supplies we need to get here-"
"We can always come back for-"
"-To convert warp engines."
Galvatron stared and Cyclonus half sat. The former Decepticon leader twisted his features into puzzlement. "Where the Pitt do you plan to go that you can't just use warp gates?"
Optimus slowly sat upon his flat. His back ached. "Yolthanis III and from there to Mechlatex."
Cyclonus sat up completely. "Mechlatex?" he echoed.
Galvatron couldn't believe Prime still entertained the mad idea of going to Mechlatex. He narrowed his optics. "Does Ultra Magnus have to go through this?"
"You and your annoying tendency to give only half-answers. You're not telling me everything."
Optimus narrowed his optics, defiant, annoyed that Galvatron's gaze remained equally undeterred. "My subspace access ports are torn."
Both Decepticons stared speechless. Galvatron leaned forward, visibly concerned. "Why did you not say this sooner?"
Prime could not look at him. He wanted to lie. He wanted to make the problem sound like was not important.
"Never mind." Galvatron tried not to sound angry. He stood and walked toward a window before swinging back around. "I am not angry, Optimus. But for Primus' sake, if you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of your troops."
"I tore the Atrical Zyn on Monicus during the storm. I think the Decepticons there were planning on repairing the damage, but we left before they had the opportunity to do so."
He would have to mention Monicus, Galvatron thought. They left someone back there he did not want to abandon. Galvatron hated the choice between saving Optimus and staying with the ladies. Logically, rationally, he made the right decision. But emotionally, personally, he missed her. He missed Panda.
Cyclonus contemplated their situation then turned to Prime. "Why can't we join the Autobots now, get repairs and return?"
"It's too time consuming. The plan entailed a rendezvous here then a second regroup and restock on Yolthanis Three. But I don't know what condition the Autobots are in. And I am unable to contact Rodimus. Besides, I don't want too much activity taking place between Concentric City and the Autobots; physical or communicative. There's no telling who's spying here and for whom. The Quintesson might not withstand Cratis, but nothing says the Inoux can't."
Galvatron nodded. "And Cyclonus and I most likely have a price on our heads. We'd be endangering each other."
"That's why I wanted to arrive here first." Optimus added. "That and rations, medical supplies and extra weapons." Prime gazed at Galvatron's thoughtful expression. "And we need to get you a weapon.
"I have the one Cyclonus gave me on Monicus."
"I mean a real weapon." Prime insisted. Cyclonus found a powerful weapon, a Prism Eclipse .120 in excellent condition. Most weaponry shops kept its ammunition and accessories in stock. But Galvatron's rifle wouldn't upset a kitten. It came from Monicus, 'lifted' from a lesser-known manufacturer and could not be trusted.
Galvatron sat back on his flatbed, staring hard into Prime's optics. "And where will you find the technician or medic willing enough to keep his mouth shut as he repairs you?"
Cyclonus and Prime glanced at one another with no answers.
For three hours, they scanned newspapers, watched ads on the TV and poured through business listings for possible answers. Galvatron started his part of the research on his flatbed. Then he ended up sitting on the desk to annoy Optimus. Then he finally laid on the floor, on his back, clearly bored. He flipped through the same telephone registry that Cyclonus already examined. He disrespectfully dumped it overhead and absently reached for another book of listings. One newscast after another came, repeated and ended.
"HA!" Galvatron declared triumphantly. He dragged his aft off the floor and plopped the listings in Prime's lap. "There." here pointed to a small ad displaying a cartoon character holding a calculator.
Prime read the ad. "Wetware Tech? No. Galvatron-"
"This doesn't say anything about subspace interface or nanite technology."
"Yes, it's a long shot but there's a chance they might think a little bit beyond magic crystals and vacuum tubes. Wetware is conjunctional between subspace frequencies and bio-electromagnetic impulses. And if this guy knows anything about wetware, chances are, he'll understand subspace dynamics."
Optimus was in no mood to argue
Optimus traveled down an isle displaying computer interfaces such as semi-organic transducer relays and contra-matter isolinier chips. He had to admit that Galvatron might be right. Wetware often utilized semi-organic transducer relays in such applications as organic brain waves to bio-mechanical suits without the necessity of cybernetic implants or bio-surgical upgrades to a machine's CPU. Such machines were owned by the Samblins for their exosuits.
"Can I help you?" a female clerk approached Cyclonus.
Cool as ever, Cyclonus spoke to her in low tones; "we are here seeking personal assistance."
"Sure! I'd be glad to help!"
"It's more involved than that."
"Okay. Um, are you looking for a new system? Maybe completely computerize your home-or upgrade your own features?"
"I have a . . . friend whose Atrical Zyn has been torn. We need an expert on subspace access ports."
She stared at Cyclonus a long moment then raised her voice. "Byron! This is your department!"
Galvatron bade Prime to lie face-down on an exam table while a young alien male scanned up and down his body and silently made notes. Cyclonus watched a few feet away. Galvatron retreated as 'Byron' made a second scan. Prime appeared tense and nervous under the light.
Cyclonus watched the alien. He did not bother with the grace in which the copper-skinned young male moved. Nor did Cyclonus care about the smooth, symmetrical face in which Byron's dark, dark eyes sat, now framed by a set of glasses. Cyclonus watched his hands. Every tool or scanner underwent the Decepticon's scrutiny. Cyclonus prepared to de-brain the would-be medic if anything appeared even remotely fraudulent. But the alien never laid a hand on his Autobot patient. He said not a word until he completed the exam. "Your tachyon alignments are inconsistent with the present time stream. Are you a time traveler?"
Optimus hesitated to answer. He forcefully reminded himself he was not in a Quintesson lab. He fought memories of screams and pleas, of drills and droning voices. He purposefully breathed to keep systems from overheating. "I was dead." His mind hazed with nightmares. But the medic did not react to the odd answer.
"There are signs of severe trauma along the neural pathways. And there's indication of phasic deterioration. It might complicate things." Byron removed his glasses and set his scanner aside. The medic held his hands above Optimus' back. Closing his eyes, Byron sensed life force signatures and layers of energy. Cyclonus moved to retrieve his weapon as Byron lowered his hands on Optimus Prime. Galvatron held Cyclonus back with a touch to his shoulder.
Byron winced as though in pain. Small streams of energy zig-zagged about his fingers as he slowly ran them along Prime's back like a blind man reading brail. Byron paused a moment and opened his eyes. Tears tumbled over his cheeks and he sighed. "Uh, what's your name . . . Galvatron?"
"Can you come . . . help me out?"
Galvatron stepped up and flinched as if someone came too close to slapping him.
"I need you to just . . . lay your hands on his shoulders. I can't deal with the intense backlash on my own."
Galvatron did as requested and watched Byron move his hands down and over. Without a word, Byron produced a sonic repolarizer and gently opened an access panel along Optimus' right side. He lowered the tool and it beeped twice.
Prime made a fist with his right hand then let it go, but he did not utter a sound.
Byron drew a breath and pressed a separate switch and a drill from the same tool whined through the room.
He stopped and laid a hand on the Autobot's back. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm almost done."
The only sound Galvatron heard from Prime were several short shallow breaths. The Decepticon stared at Byron who took another moment to steady himself. "You're more than a telemechanic. You're empathic."
"I'm slightly empathic. Your friend here is very empathic and has some damage done to his shields."
"How is it that you are so in tune with robotic life forms? You do not look robotic."
"I'm a Class One telemechanic. I can touch-read any mechanical device. I can also control mechanisms and bio-mechanisms from a distance of fourteen hundred miles. I understand seven thousand versions of technology including base, dos, hex and binary. I can even read your mind if I wanted to. Which is why I left my home world to escape exploitation."
Byron took another deep breath. The drill whined again and Galvatron sensed Optimus slipping into unconsciousness.
The drill stopped and Byron wiped his eyes. He stepped back and measured Prime with a long gaze. He turned to his work station and from a locked box, the alien mechanic revealed two silver-blue spheres. Galvatron thought he heard them chime when Byron moved his hand.
Galvatron narrowed his optics. "Those are not nanites."
"No. They're bio-mechanoid re-synchronizers." Byron hovered one sphere aloft just above the open panel. The sphere melted between his fingers into Optimus' body. A moment's pause later it resurfaced and tumbled to the floor. Byron repeated the process with the second orb then scooped both objects off the floor. He locked the spheres back in their box then gently sprayed the affected panel with chemically warmed lubricant.
Optimus sighed and finally relaxed.
They paid the telemechanic with high-grade energon chips and purchased sixteen navigation reformatters. Optimus wondered if they needed more, but Byron had no others on hand.
The minute the three mechs stepped out, Optimus transformed and called his trailer out of subspace. Roller zipped out and disappeared round the next street corner. Roller came and left as he so chose, chirping to indicate his location. Twice he ran in the wrong direction along a one-way street and was almost got caught speeding.
Galvatron eyed everything around them with a deep frown. People and vehicles came and went. He hated the city noise. Optimus sensed Galvatron's discomfort and made sure they kept to quieter, less populated streets
Visiting one store after another, Optimus purchased odds and necessities. Galvatron engaged in price wars at a few shops and Cyclonus caught one merchant selling faulty wares. They purchased hard-to-find tools, organic food, medicine and a drawing tablet.
Galvatron eyed the tiny tablet of paper with reasonable doubt. "I hope you're not into collecting miniatures."
"It's for Rusti." Optimus answered simply.
"Rusti again," the Decepticon muttered. He took the tiny tablet and shook it at Prime, "She'd better be worth the amount of mooning and brooding you do over her."
Cyclonus peered round Galvatron's shoulder, his optics focused on Prime but he spoke to Galvatron: "Panda."
Prime caught the tablet when Galvatron dropped it from embarrassment. And yes, Optimus confirmed to himself, the Mighty Galvatron blushed.
Neither Cyclonus nor Optimus laughed out loud. They smiled, optics lit, when Galvatron drew himself up and walked off as if silently denying the accusation.
Galvatron's reaction was amusing, but Optimus felt badly for his friend. They would never see the ladies again.
They visited several more shops before stepping into an electronic library. Cyclonus bee-lined for the newsstand while Optimus settled into an ancient records station connected to intersystemary newsfeeds.
Galvatron leaned against the wall next to him. He kept a sharp optic out for his companions. "You're not planning on buying the library, too, are you, Prime?"
Scanning through old news topics, the Autobot shook his head. "Can't take it with us."
Galvatron leaned over. At first he thought about speaking to Prime internally, but chose against it in case the communiqué got picked up by someone else's electronic device. "What are you looking for and haven't you run out of funds, yet?"
Prime did not take his optics off the listings report. "First, I'm looking for anything to do with Procyon System. Ever notice how there's almost never any news from that region?"
Galvatron grunted. "That's because Mechlatex is ruled by a tyrannical fanatic who suffers from delusions of godhood. And if he's been having problems, the last thing he'll want is news that might hint of a weakness."
Prime looked to his companion, surprised at the excellent deduction. He turned back to his search. "And no, I've not run out of funds."
Galvatron leaned closer. "If I had known you had that much currency on you-"
"It's not on me, Galvatron. I established an account here fifteen years ago-oh, I think we have something."
Galvatron found the date: "This was twelve galactic years ago."
Old video recordings from archeologist Dr. Relatan were found under lock and key when authorities investigated the murder of his great-granddaughter Elenshal. The disturbing footage included a cryptic message by the late doctor himself, a tour of Laktromycix, the capital city of Planet Mechlatex and a vast underground network of tunnels and caverns, many of which are filled with millions of robots.
Prime did not like what he was reading.
Galvatron narrowed his optics. "Someone's been busy."
"I wonder what the cryptic message was."
Galvatron tapped the monitor. "This was thousands of years ago, Optimus. If you plan to take a trip to Mechlatex, you'll need more current information."
Prime stared at the monitor, dissatisfied and hopeless.
Early evening city traffic intensified, scooting along like ants in a traffic jam. Optimus decided not to drive and the three mechs swam among a river of faces. Galvatron kept close to Prime, constantly averting his optics from faces and staring eyes.
"I hate crowds," he muttered.
Optimus picked up on Galvatron's anxiety and led his companions into the enclave of a closed shop. The throng of people passed them, heedless.
"We could find a place to wait out the traffic," Prime offered.
Galvatron grew annoyed but did not look at his companion. He thought Prime insinuated his immense dislike for crowds acted as a liability and therefore an impediment to their goal. His optics flashed then he turned to Prime. But Optimus' attention was not on him at all. Galvatron weighed Prime's attitude verses his take on what the Autobot said and decided Optimus meant nothing demeaning. "What?" Galvatron joked, "and leave these fair streets and miss being bombarded by millions of smelly organic bodies? We'd not get to hear the latest gossip, the foul language and see all the freaks and weirdos populating this lovely little town."
Prime scowled and crossed his arms, glancing once at Cyclonus, "Has he always been so masterful with sarcasm?"
"Always," Cyclonus replied smoothly. "Sometimes it's worse; he'll think he's funny."
Galvatron turned to them with a ridiculous grin. "We could take pot shots at them."
Cyclonus and Prime shifted nervously. Optimus shook his head, knowing Galvatron was only joking. "You'd make more of a mess of their smelly bodies, Galvatron."
"If you can't beat them, pulverize them."
"You just had a bath." Optimus countered.
Galvatron took to pacing the small space. Left to right. Right to left, back and forth. Optimus finally intervened. "Are you demophobic, Galvatron?"
The Decepticon silently snarled. He didn't want to drown in the rush of traffic, but he wasn't happy cooped up, either.
The commuter train shrieked overhead as it thundered above city traffic. Galvatron clasped his hands about his helm and lowered to his knees, now overcome with sensory bombardment. Prime knelt in front of him but knew better than to touch him.
Wait it out, he projected. Stay with me. Wait it out.
Galvatron froze his optics on Prime and concentrated drowning out the noise, drowning out the crowds. The world moved around them, milling and climbing and scampering like billions of bugs. Their eyes stared at him, ever present like Unicron. Galvatron felt cloistered, imprisoned.
Several minutes lingered.
The commuter train passed. Vehicles sped by. The crowd dwindled. No one laid a hand on Galvatron's itchy exostructure. The bugs did not crawl on him, they simply moved around.
Darkness descended the city. Street lights burned to life. The crowds thinned to a tolerant level. Optimus remained silent, still, a sanctuary amid madness. Galvatron calmed and shame shadowed his face. He turned away, unable to speak.
"It's okay," Prime assured him. "You're okay."
But Galvatron could not answer.
Prime stayed silent and did not move. For the first time in his life, he saw the child within the former Decepticon leader.
No, not child, Optimus amended, the person.
Galvatron forced half a laugh. "No wonder the Decepticons kicked me out."
"This has nothing to do with your ability," Prime gently countered. "You're just as capable and competent as I. This does not diminish your intellect or your power. It simply proves you're a person, Galvatron; someone who feels and desires, who can be wounded and tell really bad jokes. And I am honored to know this person."
That brought an honest smile to Galvatron's features. He felt the same for Prime. But now he had gratitude and greater respect. Optimus understood.
Galvatron stood. "Cyclonus, let's get Optimus Prime back to the hotel before I turn into something warm and squishy."
Galvatron walked off first. Optimus quietly laughed while Cyclonus could not decide between puzzlement and disgust.
They did not get further than one block toward the hotel when a horn blared from behind. All vehicles along the street parted to either side, giving room to four huge armored cars. As they passed Galvatron and Prime, a building up the street exploded.
Galvatron spun about face and frowned at Cyclonus. "Looks like we must seek a detour."
Two blocks down the cross-street another building exploded. Galvatron and Cyclonus scanned the carnage, the screaming people, the blaring sirens and the billowing smoke. They looked to Prime.
Optimus watched on as two groups of males emerged from the carnage and fought one another hand-to-hand. "Concentric City is run by three major mobs, the Aquarius Syndicate, the Leonid and the House of Twelve. The Syndicate and the House have been at war for the last five hundred years. The Leonid keep the status quo between the two mobs. It's how they control the city. He turned from the scene and walked to the corner from which they started. They'd have to return to the motel in a round-about route.
Galvatron followed Prime in succession while Cyclonus lingered. "We're not staying for the grand finale?"
His joke fell flat on Galvatron but Optimus' sudden stagger did not. Galvatron caught Prime as he blacked out cold. Just like the day before, Galvatron thought he spotted a figure of darkness slip from crevice to shadow and it distracted him from the flash of dark crossing Prime's optics.
Optimus lay motionless. His optics stared into nothing and he responded to nothing Galvatron said.
Cyclonus glared at gawkers and passersby as Galvatron scanned Prime and tried to rouse him. Cyclonus flared his optics once, frightening off an alien and his over-sized animal companion.
"He's not responsive at all, Cyclonus," Galvatron sounded lost.
"I suggest we find a place out of public view, Galvatron. And what are you STARING at?" Cyclonus snorted at a two-headed alien who gave him a wide berth, glancing back over his shoulders.
Galvatron half lifted their Autobot companion and pressed Prime's helm to his audio. With a surge, Galvatron stood and hefted his fallen friend. "We must get out of here before we attract unwanted attention."
The Decepticon jet glanced one way then another, using his navigation skills to plot the best route. Without a word, Cyclonus led Galvatron round the next bend, left and into a dimly-lit ally. Galvatron followed, mindful of possible territorial gangsters or muggers, while Cyclonus darted from hiding place to shadow, his weapon held in caution.
"Wait . . . Cyclonus." Galvatron halted when Prime's form twitched. The Decepticon lowered to his knees and rechecked Prime's life signs with similar frustrating results: no readings; nothing to indicate anything was wrong.
Optimus' optics flashed on and dimmed but he did not notice Galvatron holding him. Cyclonus waved his hand once in front of the Autobot's face; still no results.
An eerie black shape crossed the blue color and Prime's
optics fell dark. With a speechless exchange between them,
Galvatron and Cyclonus agreed to press forward.
They managed back to the motel and Galvatron laid Prime on his flat while Cyclonus swiftly closed all the curtains. He returned to Galvatron, waiting for whatever should happen next.
"I don't know what to do." Galvatron said.
"Should we contact an expert?" Cyclonus folded his arms and laid an optic on the list given them by the desk clerk.
Galvatron shook his head. "I do not wish to expose us any further."
"Perhaps, Galvatron, something went wrong when he had the subspace access ports repaired."
"No. I doubt this has anything to do with the repairs."
The world about him morphed and mutated.
Buildings took on faces, some more than one.
Optimus felt as though he'd walked into one of Rusti's storybooks.
The structures stared at him with Quintesson eyes: that same death-glow; judgmental, condescending.
"So, tell us, Sor Que Pang, what does this one have to offer?"
That voice came from across the street. Optimus raced through his processors, desperately searching to end the hallucination.
The building behind him morphed into a head. An over-developed forehead shadowed its eyes as the pupils rolled back.
The illusion was so complete, Optimus even felt the rush of cool air coming from the nostrils. "Whatever experiments were designated for the Optimus Prime files have all proven faulty and obsolete."
Prime backed into the street and his movements caught the attention of two more buildings. The first of these, an old bone-white with tiles at its corners, squinted one dead-yellow eye at him. "Was this not the same that Alpha Trion built? Was this one not designated as savior of his species?"
Other buildings joined in the discussion, muttering, accusing, arguing.
"It's not true," Prime answered quietly. "He did not rebuild me. He did nothing."
A mauve-colored building surrounded by flowering shrubs leaned from the cross street. "No, no. Trion did what he could. He's the noblest of Autobots. You, however, are a failed attempt."
"It's not true-"
"How many warriors died under your leadership?" the first building demanded. "How many good Autobots died for a cause only you believed in?"
The bone-white frowned. "Don't tell us about the Robo-smasher. We know the real story."
"Why didn't you destroy the Robo-smasher sooner?"
"Why did you allow Megatron to get away more than once?"
"Why did you take the war to Plastax-Dy? Why did you go to Alasx IV? Morvan? Earth? Yolthanis III? Porquain? What idiot would spread his beliefs and conflicts to other peoples? Other worlds? Other lives?"
"Who do you think you are?"
"Primus will make you suffer for it all!"
"May you drink their misery!"
"I hope you suffer every bit as much as they do!"
"You're a vomitous reject!"
"You'll never have peace again. Did you think you'd get away without paying for the war?"
"Don't you know that's why they brought you back? You have to pay for your sins."
"You dragged Rodimus into this. He'll pay for your bad decisions."
They laid Prime upon a stone alter. It spoke evil things to him and mocked everything he ever did.
A spike shot up and pierced his right thigh. Another came up from his back and protruded through the corner of his upper right shoulder. Another spike staked his left leg so that all he could do was lay there and bleed to death.
Galvatron touched him.
No, Optimus thought, don't touch me. You'll be contaminated. You'll die just like everyone else.
He did not deserve kindness. He did not deserve anything good or happy. He brought the war. He was responsible. He caused the death of millions upon millions. He swam in their blood.
Optimus turned away, ashamed.
Silence spanned between them as they waited fifteen minutes, then two hours, then four.
Cyclonus finally sighed and grumbled just enough to get Galvatron's attention. "I don't suppose the problem might be caused by the same manifestation as we encountered on Monicus, is it, Mighty One?"
Galvatron hesitated to answer. The corners of his lip components tightened. "I don't know," Then the former Decepticon leader turned to his quiet-spoken friend. "And you're the mighty one, Cyclonus."
Just the hairline of a grateful smile touched Cyclonus' lip components. The moment ended, however when Optimus' hands covered his face.
He rolled to the left, unable to face them.
"Optimus," Galvatron's voice came as a whisper.
"It's Roddi," the Autobot leader mourned. "I can't help him. Not like this."
"What's going on?"
Reluctantly, Prime faced his companions and struggled to suppress revealing expressions. He wanted to lie. He wanted to pull on that 'everything's fine' mask. But even if he could, the black-out said otherwise. The best he could do to salvage the moment was put aside the inner pain.
Void mocked him.
Galvatron settled on his own flatbed and Cyclonus slowly sat beside him. They stared, silent, but expecting an answer.
Prime tried to chose his words carefully but the Viral attack he felt through Rodimus left his own mind a tangled mess. Bloodlust coupled with regret diverted Prime's attention. Concentrate!
Where is our supposed god, Primus?
We are abandoned to the solar winds; pathetic and forgotten. HELLO! Your underlings are about to die!
You played this game before. Do you hate us this much? Did you know the Matrix is corrupt? Do you even care?!
Galvatron finally crossed one leg over another and leaned forward. "Perhaps you wish to explain the thing that possesses you, Optimus." That earned him a sharp, surprised expression and Galvatron realized for the first time how Prime did not have as much control over his emotions as he once did.
"Yes. You do have a right to know," the Autobot leader admitted sadly. "It may affect you, also."
"What are you talking about?"
Prime almost could not bring himself to say it: "The Matrix is infested with an alien virus." He paused before adding the rest: "And it's killing me and Rodimus. It's . . . we're infected." He paused again, optics on the floor. "Magnus . . . he should have-but did not."
Galvatron stared hard then touched Prime's knee. "Mechlatex?" he whispered. "You're going to Mechlatex because of the Virus?"
Prime gazed at the Decepticon, wondering why the news did not ruffle Galvatron more. "Yes . . . but how did-"
"They scanned you on Monicus. We saw it but did not know what it was. It has a personality, does it not?"
Optimus did not want to answer that. He did not like to think of Void-the Virus as anything more than a highly sophisticated program. It did speak to him on a number of occasions. It planned its attacks. It desired things no mere program should. Optimus dodged the question for another objective: "Galvatron, if the Virus has attacked Rodimus, chances are he's incapacitated. It means I'll need your help to keep things in order while we install the hyperdrives."
Galvatron studied Prime's demeanor. That flicker of darkness just crossed Prime's optics again. He stole a glance in Cyclonus' direction. "Of course we'll help, Prime, I was wondering how long you've been infected ... and affected. How powerful is this thing?"
Again, Optimus wanted to evade the truth. But this time he chose to face the facts. "I don't exactly know how long I've been infected. I do know the Virus is powerful enough to attain a physical form."
Even Cyclonus dropped his lower mandible and visibly flinched. But the Decepticon jet recovered his composure. Prime felt even more vulnerable. He stared at Galvatron's feet before him. "Perhaps it's better you did not come with me." he said after a brief silence. "We may not come through this alive."
Galvatron uncharacteristically shrugged. He stole yet another glance at Cyclonus, clearly recalling the many times The Decepticon jet said something similar to him. Galvatron smiled forcibly, lifting only half his face. "What's that saying they had on Earth? In for a penny, in for a pound? I did not come all this way just to leave you like a fly in the wind, Optimus Prime. I'm not afraid."
Optimus shot him a dead-serious look, but said nothing.
Optimus rested through mid morning. Galvatron ordered room service and studied a city map while he and Cyclonus waited for the Autobot leader to recover. Time ticked away and Galvatron suppressed the itch nagging him. Prime's uncompleted shopping list pressed at the back of the Decepticon's mind.
Cyclonus watched the news and Galvatron sensed his friend's consternation. He set the map aside and waited for the lieutenant to notice the stare. "What are you looking for, Cyclonus?"
"Signs of Skorponok's activities. I find it suspicious that we ran into Swindle and yet have not seen anyone else." Cyclonus frowned. "Skorponok himself may or may not care about the galaxy in general, but Lord Zarak is malicious and vindictive. Even if they considered you dead, I am still missing. Skorponok may count that as treason."
That hit Galvatron between the optics, "do you think he's hunting us, Cyclonus?" "Not unless he thinks-or knows-we're alive."
And just as Cyclonus said it, Galvatron realized what that statement meant. And just as Cyclonus said it, Galvatron picked up on the lieutenant's thought. "Swindle," they chorused.
Prime slept a while, woke thirty minutes later, slept again and moaned as though waking were painful. He sat up after two hours when Galvatron sniggered over a commercial. Prime's head sifted through bizarre, dark dreams. He missed Rusti's voice.
"Here. You need this more than I." Galvatron handed him a bit of energon. But Optimus simply sat there holding it. His jumbled thoughts tossed his emotions from one end of the spectrum to another.
Or maybe it wasn't he, but Rodimus. My head is not my own, he gloomily thought.
Galvatron sat next to him and laid a hand on Prime's left shoulder.
Optimus' head cleared and he gazed at his companion. "I'm sorry." he frowned over the energon.
Galvatron's stare intensified. "Prime, drink the energon. I don't think we don't have a lot of time."
Optimus did not think to question Galvatron's rush. He finished what energon was given and Galvatron gave him another. Cyclonus checked his weapon and Optimus felt compelled to do the same but decided not to bother.
They finally left the motel toward mid-afternoon during the lull of traffic. Galvatron walked side by side with his Autobot companion. He constantly fought down the temptation to glance at Prime every few steps. Optimus' entire demeanor changed to silence, his optics saw nothing and he moved slowly.
They left the neighborhood of clean stores and 'family-oriented' areas and traveled downhill then underground to the space docks and shipyards. The top side of Concentric City sat upon several great and ancient pillars supporting a platform that projected off an enormous escarpment. The cliffs on either side created half a hand-made cavern large enough to move battle cruisers in and out both by air and sea. Galvatron understood why Optimus picked Concentric City: the place withstood the test of meganiums. The city might even be as old as Cybertron.
As grand a scale as Contentric City stood, its underside lay in disrepair. Sidewalks crumbled to gravel and paved roads bore scars of heavy-loaded trucks. Optimus lingered a moment or two at each dilapidated parking lot or unmarked facility. Sadness settled over him, wearing him down. The filth and decay reminded him of many abandoned places on Cybertron. Disintegrating buildings occupied the city's underworld like abused and dying trees. Their weary stature reflected Prime's growing despondency. Several trucks passed the three mechs. Their large tires growled along the road, their grinding engines reminded the Autobot leader of dying city power cores, the very heart that kept so much of Cybertron alive during many wars.
The sounds and memories dragged him into a spiral of emotional oppression. Optimus' footsteps shortened and slowed. They passed by a forlorn manufacturing facility suffering from abuse. Its shattered windows and dismal walls reminded the Autobot of one lost battle after another.
The Virus taunted Prime's attempt to remind himself of the good things that came from some of those same battles. People lived their lives under freedom. Children grew up never knowing enslavement. But how many lives lost? Whole towns disappeared, obliterated off the map. Rules and laws changed. Optimus paused, worn down. "I need to rest, Galvatron."
Without glancing to Cyclonus, Galvatron nodded. "Okay."
They found a sturdy cement bench at a vacant bus stop and Galvatron and Cyclonus sat on either side of Prime. They waited, watching vehicles pass and ancient or fancy space ships come and depart across the dirty water. Somewhere off, Galvatron heard angry shouts, the wail of law enforcement and exchange of weapon fire. He mused over the division of Concentric City life: the 'clean' upper section fraught with normalcy, families and people living day-to-day and 'below', the 'dirty dealers', the mob bosses and violence. The same tale of city life flourished in all parts of the universe, even Cybertron.
Optimus hunched over. Galvatron sensed the exhaustion and sympathized with Optimus' suffering. He laid a compassionate hand on the Autobot's shoulder. Tingling energy radiated from Galvatron's warm touch. Optimus felt it all the way down his back and into his chest. The weariness mysteriously lifted and with it, a slow throbbing pain the Autobot did not notice before. The touch brought Optimus out of his stupor. He felt better but could not say how.
Galvatron, who was not aware of what his touch did for the Autobot, hunched over and settled his elbows on his legs. He steepled his fingertips and fixed his optics across the horizon toward the giant under-city airport. "What is going on with Rodimus? It is Rodimus, isn't it?"
Optimus wanted to lie and say he did not know but Galvatron earned the truth. "He's in a lot of pain ... and I'm losing contact with him."
"Then we should not linger."
Prime agreed and forced himself to move.
They passed a large hanger bay and several boat ramps before moving further inland. Galvatron marveled at the sight; there was little to no indication on the city's surface that this whole other world lay here. The under-city stretched for miles.
Optimus led them past crumbling sleazy motels, rundown restaurants and several damaged shops, boarded up and pasted with signs forbidding entry. The further inland the trio progressed the thicker the crowds. People came, went, stopped, shopped, yammered and came in packs. At certain intersections, the multitude compacted so badly, it seemed the very air stiffened from a lack of oxygen.
Galvatron itched, needing to fly above them. He tried to maneuver to the outside along the edge of the sidewalks and walkways, but other people simply ran into him and Galvatron glared dangerously.
Optimus watched his companion's behavior until they found the place he aimed for: an old worn bookstore filled with ancient books, digipads and scrolls. He slipped into the small store and practically grabbed Galvatron and pulled him and Cyclonus inside.
A pudgy little female with a cheerful smile greeted the three mechs as Optimus closed the door to the outside world. He noticed Galvatron's demeanor suddenly relaxed. The shopkeeper stamped the inside of an ancient, skin-covered book and set it atop an old digipad. The store smelled of dust, old paper and animal skins.
"Errrm ..." Galvatron did not understand the shop keeper. He turned to Prime, looking for an answer.
Calmly Optimus approached with one optic street-wise. "Nefesh trell." His voice came smooth, "Nefesh saluge. So-don reque quorpaque, staque. Nefesh reque komblee-auru. Pre taqual sh'chilin."
"Oh!" and her face lit up. She cantered down the counter. "Vistisas? Arble rel kemmal Transformers soy shrybre decascas saluge? Vi Porzhy Storm tren reque si-matroguth. Tu-pry?"
Prime turned to Galvatron. "She says there is a shop owner named Porshy Storm who sells good weaponry."
Galvatron's expression turned weary. "What did you say to her?"
"I just told her we needed some place quiet and I asked for a reliable weapons dealer and we're not afraid to pay for the information."
"I've never been to this planet. And I thought Monicus was bad."
Prime resisted the temptation to mention places worse than either Cratis or Monicus. He paid the bookshop owner for her time and information. In turn, she led them down a staircase and into a tunnel.
Galvatron walked beside Prime while Cyclonus kept an optic on their backs. "When do we get to visit a planet *I'm* familiar with, Prime?"
"We were on Monicus."
"Oh. Ha. Ha."
Knowing the Autobot leader was only giving him a hard time, Galvatron did not pursue the subject. He appreciated that Prime remained mindful of his discomfort among crowds. Galvatron realized the tunnel stretched into an alleyway, a private access area for owners and workers to motels, restaurants or other enterprises available in the under-city.
They arrived at a small shop protected by multiple forms of security. Prime stared into a window at a huge, handsome weapon. Galvatron and Cyclonus joined him in the moment of fixation. The sleek weapon required good arm strength. Its triangular, heavyset shoulder stock wrapped around the user's elbow. Specialized metal shielded the barrel at the nose. The impressive weapon contained enough power to be of military issue. The price tag burned with the weight of numbers written on it but the firearm seemed worthy of those digits.
"Hmmm . . ." Prime took the lead and entered the shop first. The Decepticons followed; Galvatron first then Cyclonus who glanced behind, searching for spying optics.
The familiar pungent smell of oils and liquid graphite sent surges down Cyclonus' backside. It had been quite a while since he smelled something quite so good, quite so familiar. The clean scent of a high-friction furnace wafted into the room from the shop's back end. It was pretty clear the shop owner not only sold weapons, but made his own ammo casings and magazines. The lieutenant did not miss the subtle scent of fire, molten metal and metal-strewn water.
Cyclonus found Galvatron and Prime loitering around a long counter top. Bulletproof, laser-resistant glass cases displayed weapons of every size, shape and lethality. The shop keeper, a burley fellow standing just a bit taller than Prime and Galvatron, wiped down a hand phaser. He grinned, proudly displaying missing teeth and a scar from the lower lip to his ear. He was an Ardarian, half Rhthamese and half Velegan. Good business people-if one could find an honest one.
"Purdy, i'n't it?" the Ardarian spoke Koine Trade-an uncomplicated, informal language used by traders and scavengers in the Leon Quadrant of Vega. Cyclonus mused that Galvatron should be delighted someone spoke a language that would not have to be translated.
"It's an industrial lightweight that packs a punch in the swampland of Telgos in the Leon system." The Ardarian unlocked the cabinet and used both of his huge hands to lend the weapon to Prime.
Optimus studied it as one would a cheap rock. "Yes, it's good for common street wear," he attested. "But we're looking for war weapons like the one in your display window."
The burley fellow's whole face lit up like fire works in New York City. "Ahh! You have refined taste, my friend! That's direct from Light Touch Industries, a real live piece of work it is, too!"
Galvatron and Prime glanced at one another in doubt as the shopkeeper procured the rifle from the window and carried it like a precious artifact. The squared laser rifle glinted dark silver in the light. It had perfect balance from shoulder stock to its blunt, triangular nose. The laser scope glowed dark purple and Galvatron instantly noticed the weapon utilized more than one type of arsenal. The shopkeeper plucked up a cloth and wiped his prints off the weapon as though he were unworthy to hold it. "Unfortunately, I have to sell your ammunition separately. I'm not supposed to allow you to load or charge a weapon like this-"
"What can you tell us about it?" Prime interrupted, patience waning.
"Oh. Heh, yes. The Ah-photonic Displacement Repolarizer has six settings including a self-destruct with an optional three-micron delay. It's operator-coded-something you won't find from Smat Enterprises or I-Space Corporation. The Ah-Photonic will work under water, under carbon dioxide and with or without an atmosphere AND it can withstand the assault of most weapons, anti-polarizers, high-powered laser rifles, pulsar weapons, even some bombs such as Quintesson star bombs and the lower-powered neutron bombs."
Galvatron crossed his arms. "Hmph. Sounds like it does everything but changes your filters."
Prime smirked but the joke was lost on the Ardarian. He cleared his throat and smiled courteously, but uneasily.
"How much?" Prime didn't care what it cost.
The Ardarian spouted off something close to a quarter trill in consciousness units. Galvatron scowled and turned away. Prime, however, expected as much.
"I don't have consciousness units. However:" Here he produced several chips of energon-lined currency. "I do have these."
"What's the composition?" The husky shopkeeper suddenly lost his friendly tone. "I don't take quartz anymore and don't think about winging your way with the Ah-Photonic by giving me mimic dust-I'll have you slammed in the desert prison so fast, your nuts and bolts will rattle."
"I come from Earth." Prime replied evenly. "There is no mimic dust. This is electrum."
Both Decepticons stared at the Autobot leader as if he lost his mind. The Ardarian's eyes widened, his jaw fell open as if Prime sprouted wings.
Prime produced one such chip on the counter. "You can have it analyzed if you don't think-"
"Twelve. We trade with the Centaurians for their isotrype."
Galvatron felt the same elation as a child whose mother just bought him a 'killer' toy. The shop keeper wrapped the new weapon in a fancy case, complete with a certificate of guarantee, instructions and an intersystemary number of contacts should they have questions.
Prime bought all the ammo the Ardarian had to offer, enough for all three of their weapons and extra boosters for Cyclonus' alternate mode's laser weapons.
The waning afternoon forced their shopping to a quicker pace. Optimus managed to find a few more navigation reformatters needed to install the hyperdrives on twenty ships. But he regretted not knowing the exact number they needed.
Galvatron shook his head. "So? Just call Rodimus and ask."
"I would have done that sooner if I felt it was safe to use an Autobot frequency, Galvatron. I do not want to endanger their position."
"Then I'll do it."
"Oh. That should go over well," Optimus said sarcastically. "I can just imagine that conversation: "Hello, R.P., this is Galvatron. I'm with Optimus. How many ships do you guys have?' As if he'd be willing to relay any information."
Galvatron did not pay much attention to Optimus' gripe. "R.P.? I like that! I think I'll use it sometime-say, Cyclonus, Optimus just made a funny!"
Cyclonus mutely nodded, not looking at all impressed.
Against his better judgment, Optimus decided to attempt to contact the Autobots, anyway. At least he could use internal communications and encrypt the message. He submitted one message, aiming first for Rodimus.
No answer. He tried again with similar results. Optimus tried to contact Ultra Magnus but static ate the communication line. "Something's wrong," he reported to his companions. Prime tried again then shook his head. "Blaster should have been able to pick up the signal and translate it instantly. Something's very wrong."
Pt 3: On the Valley of Skulls
Flying did not appeal to the Autobot leader, but given the circumstances, he did not argue with his companions. Galvatron flew through the stratosphere and kept steady. Cyclonus, however, dipped between spheres and flew upside down before performing a hairpin dip.
"Show off." Galvatron grunted.
Optimus was glad to find firm ground under his feet the second they landed at the Valley of Skulls. He stared afar toward the battlefield, wrought with life blood and carnage. Beyond that stood a monstrosity of such proportion the Autobot leader stared, awestruck.
Prime could not take his optics off the beast. How could the Virus attain such ability and power? What was to be done about it? Nothing. But he could try to find Rodimus. "I must find Roddi," Prime said internally. "But I cannot see the front lines from here."
Galvatron pointed to two Decepticon punks who crouched from a foxhole, taking potshots. "We could ask them."
"Ask them what?"
"I Don't know," Galvatron grinned, "but it'll be fun!"
Optimus followed the enthused former Decepticon leader as he almost flew to the 'cons. One turned to recharge his weapon and gasped, tapping his partner's shoulder.
"Hey!" the 'partner' snapped, "you made me . . . miss?" He stared half a second then jumped to a fighting stance. "Who are you?"
His companion slapped a new energon clip to his weapon and both panned left and right at the three strangers.
Galvatron took on a commanding tone, "this is not a tea party. Declare yourselves to me."
They hesitated and Galvatron glared.
"I'm Capper," the first replied, "this is Tapps." Capper now looked puzzled. "What am I telling you for?" he asked, "I don't even know you!"
"Right!" Tapps leapt, shifted to that of an alien bird then he and Capper combined into one tall Transformer and charged. Optimus flattened along the ground, Cyclonus back-flipped out of range but the sweeping fist caught Galvatron in the left cheek. He went flying, causing the Duocon to laugh, staring in his direction.
Prime tackled the forty-five foot robot and they rolled until the Duocon got the upper hand. He hauled Prime up by his neck.
Cyclonus shifted the charge on his weapon and fired into the giant's optic. With an irritated roar, the Duocon tossed Optimus aside and stomped for his new opponent.
Cyclonus tried to fire again, but the gun was slower to recharge. The Duocon aimed for a roundhouse kick. Cyclonus dropped the gun, hit the ground, leapt back and kicked the Duocon in one smooth motion. The 'con growled and drew his own weapon from subspace.
Galvatron rammed the Decepticon from the back, forcing the Duocon to stumble. Cyclonus rolled aside, leapt just three feet off the ground to transform and he shot up in a vertical lift. He made the tightest loop Galvatron had ever seen and transformed to robot mode, crashing feet-first into the Duocon's upper back.
The Duocon met dirt face-first and Optimus swiftly changed his weapon's setting and shot two conjunction points along the Duocon's back.
The two Decepticons fell asunder and sat upon their knees. Galvatron grabbed Capper, his face stern. "Who is your leader?"
"D'tron," Capper barely squeaked.
Tapps made a backward shoulder roll and produced a small pistol. He shot Capper in the back of the neck, aimed for Cyclonus, missed and shot again at Galvatron. Tapps scampered but did not get further than six steps before a powerful fist cracked the entire right side of his face. He tried to roll with the impact but, a forceful kick slammed him into the rock and a foot pinned him there, slowly crushing his chest. Finally looking at his attacker, Tapps met Optimus' optics and flared his own.
"Get your filthy foot off me, you half-baked waste extractor!" He oofed and bled fluids when Cyclonus punched him in the same wounded area.
"That is NOT how you speak to your superiors! Do NOT speak until spoken to."
His foot still holding the punk, Optimus now pointed his rifle dead center at Tapp's forehead. "Who's your commanding officer?"
"Who wants to know?" Tapps spat oil. But it did not get further than his chest plate.
Galvatron joined them, rubbing a grazed left shoulder. "This one's a feisty little lugnut. Who's your commanding officer?"
Tapps only glared at Optimus Prime and for a moment, the Autobot felt the pain in Tapps' face. Optimus struggled to control his damaged empathic shields. He did not feel sorry for the Decepticon aberration, but sensed the opponent's physical pain. More intensely, he felt the resentment and hate generating from the Duocon.
Galvatron leaned over, one arm resting just above the 'lugnut's' head. "I will not ask you a third time, Decepticon. Who is your leader?"
Tapps finally turned to Galvatron's direction, his face a demonic visage. "Decetron, leader of the Decepticons. Happy now? Do you want my ID number and meta-DNA, too?"
Optimus' optics darkened. "Mouthy, this one."
Galvatron turned to Prime, "That's it. This is the same group that attacked you on Mars."
"Then they're also affiliated with the Quintessons." Cyclonus recharged his rifle and double-checked the settings. "And with them, the Inoux." he added.
Galvatron propped his elbow against the rock and leaned head-to-hand slightly slumping. "How come you're never invited to the good parties, Optimus?"
Optimus' optics narrowed. "Cuz they don't like me." and with that, he blew Tapps' head clear off.
Galvatron and Cyclonus caught each other's surprised expressions. This clearly was the 'business side' of the Autobot leader rarely seen. Optimus was not in the mood to take prisoners.
Galvatron watched as the 'lugnut's' body slumped to the ground. Cyclonus put his weapon away and with a leap, he shifted forms and took off northward.
Optimus never saw it coming; the attacker phased out of nowhere, and bulleted straight into the Autobot's middle.
Galvatron turned too late. A nightmare on two legs bulldozed him then leapt away, giving Galvatron only enough time to get up on all fours. But the Decepticon never got enough time to retrieve his weapon before his attacker sacked him with a powerful tail.
Prime caught his opponent round the neck but it phased out with a snicker then reappeared behind and kicked him hard in the right side. Again, Optimus' reflexes were not as fast as his here-and-gone assailant.
There was the shadow, then a horrific kick to the knee joint.
Strike to the right temple.
Kick to the chin.
The blows were precise, well-controlled and the last blow threw Prime on his back. The Autobot lay still, gathering his senses. He stretched his scanners to their limits. Galvatron was not having much luck with his attacker either and bled badly from his right leg.
Then the image of Prime's attacker; a cocky grin plastered his face. "Bet you didn't see me, did you, Autobot? What the Pitt are you doing all the way out here? Did you know your pathetic leader just had his aft singed?"
"Is that so?" Prime growled.
The grey, white and orange Con shrugged then disappeared. He should not have spoken. He should not have appeared. Optimus felt the very ground about him. He took consensus of the air.
Wait for it.
Sweet patience, come.
There, slowed a thousand times over. The air molecules betrayed the Decepticon's presence, betrayed his physical form, his body heat, his energy signature.
With unbelievable speed, Optimus lashed out, swept the Decepticon off his feet then punched him once in the face.
The second the attacker thunked to the ground, Prime spotted Galvatron's would-be assassin. The horrific sight of the thing shocked the rationality out of the Autobot leader and he froze.
The attacker resembled one of Rodimus' demented sculptures. Its great open jaw glistened with acid-laden teeth. A body not dissimilar to a biped dinosaur swept from its distorted head in a design found only in nightmares. It roared as it and Galvatron wrestled for ascendancy. The 'nightmare' extended arms and claws, slicing upon impact.
Galvatron elbowed its lower jaw to avoid deadly twenty-four inched teeth. The freak hissed, laughing, hoping to break Galvatron's concentration. But Galvatron kept all reactions under control. In spite of the terrible wound to his right leg, the former Decepticon leader fought as though he felt no pain.
The 'dinocon' swept one deadly claw at Galvatron's chest. Galvatron dodged; the moment of imbalance. The dinocon kicked his legs out and Galvatron landed hard on his back. He slammed his head atop a rock and winced as his sensors jumbled. That was the moment the first thunder slapped the air with a resounding crack, signaling an oncoming ion storm.
The terrible renting sound of thunder saved Galvatron's life. His freakish attacker hesitated, fiery red optics flared wide with fright.
Galvatron produced his weapon and blew a hole through the creature's overdeveloped nose and jaw. It tumbled off, landing in an awkward position next to Galvatron's arm.
Lightning flashed across the atmosphere and gave birth to a disc of energy. It sped past Optimus and slammed into the nearby hillside. Spidery electricity sizzled along the rock, leaving scorch marks on the sandstone. Seconds later, thunder cracked the air.
Cyclonus circumvented the battle field along the south-by-southwestern side. The great Virus he and his companions spotted from three miles no longer stood there.
How could a monster of such a size disappear-and why? Evidence of its existence punctured the ground or lay about in forms of several grey carcasses.
Cyclonus dropped cold as a missile steered for his starboard. It boomeranged, looping for his signature. Cyclonus dropped again, transformed, blew the missile with his gun, dove backwards and shifted back.
Just before Cyclonus pulled himself out of an inverted drop, a Decepticon flier challenged him by flying overhead close enough to singe paint.
At this point, Cyclonus was too close to the battle below to give chase. He dropped further, transformed to robot mode and hand-sprung his landing. Cyclonus found himself standing between a badly injured Kup and a Pretender without its shell. It sported oversized optics duo hooks for arms. "Play," it invited.
Before he answered, Cyclonus spotted movement reflecting off the pretender's glossy optic; Rodimus Prime. A robot of unfamiliar bearing encroached upon him wearing an unknown symbol.
Cyclonus kicked the Pretender away and with point-blank accuracy, shot Roddi's adversary. He missed his target: the optics. The Pretender jumped him.
Cyclonus heard the first indication of the storm. Anything he planned to do, he needed to do it immediately. The Pretender hovered over him and opened its maw for a bite. Cyclonus fed it four shots from his weapon then rolled aside. The same flier attacking him before returned, skimming the ground at too close a range. He sliced the heads off two of his own comrades before accelerating into the sky.
The stupid alien Decepticon jet returned for Cyclonus. Cyclonus jumped, grabbed the flier's wings and allowed the jet to drag him two, then three thousand feet above the battlefield.
"HEY!" the alien Decepticon objected, "No vertical mating allowed!!"
Cyclonus glared. "If you prefer Autobots, I'll be happy to make the arrangements." And he dropped off, nosedived and shifted. Cyclonus looped up, racing past his adversary, then looped over his head. Cyclonus dropped belly-up, waiting for the loud-mouth to follow.
'Loudmouth' did not comply. Cyclonus fired from behind. But to his annoyance, Loudmouth only dropped twenty feet shy of hitting two Duocons engaged in a fight with Sludge. Cyclonus fired again and this time, Loudmouth smoked a nice billowing cloud. Now the mouthy Decepticon had enough respect to recognize a challenge when he had one.
But it proved short-lived. Cyclonus dropped his nose and plunged in a screaming nose dive. In unbelievable grace, the Decepticon lieutenant pulled up just enough to tip up so that his wing hovered along the ground at a hair-splitting eighteen-inch razorplane. He flew, tipped between Blaster and two Pretenders, his wind knocking them aside. Loudmouth, however, did not have near the precise control or the grace-nor could he pull straight up from the ground at a three-foot clearance. Loudmouth crashed and showered several soldiers with his debris.
Chaotic unpredictability ravaged the battlefield throughout the afternoon and into the early evening. The Cratian stagnant air stank with smoldering, damaged bodies and the clouds above- already brown from a history of planetary holocaust-darkened to a sinister, somber red. They hung as if to rain upon the soiled battleground. But Repugnus, who was more aware of his surroundings than most, doubted the clouds were burdened with sweet clean water. In fact, the obnoxious Monsterbot half expected the filthy clouds to spit poisoned blood upon Decepticon and Autobot alike
Even he did not relish that idea.
The first din of thunder went largely unheard by the fighting masses. The battlefield floor that once boasted of hard rocky dirt clods now surged with metal shards and drowned under pools of poisonous Transformer life-fluids. The valley floor, once relatively even now groaned with the impact of body slams, the scars of laser weapons and disembowelment by rockets and bombs. Even the second crack of thunder Optimus and Galvatron heard came and dissolved, ignored by the greater part of both armies who considered the thunder just another deafening bomb. Even the first strikes of lightning discs remained unnoticed as they slammed into the southernmost areas of the battlefield.
It wasn't until Rodimus tumbled into the crevice with Decetron did anyone realize the battle began to shift; and not in favor of one side or the other. Particulon Lectrolyte caught the first sign-literally in the face. A white disc sliced his head in two. His fellow 'con nearby, Pretender Halogen, realized what was happening and sent communication within the troops; playtime was over.
Splinter, head of staff, would have none of it. Decetron did not call for a retreat. That was Splinter's final say before he turned to face the next Autobot opponent. He startled when his optics met Optimus Prime. The surprise caught him completely off guard, giving Prime all the advantage. Splinter's body fell, smoldering from point-blank laser fire as three globules of electricity rolled along the plane like miniature white-hot suns, tumbling along the ground. Robots dodged and ducked.
As the lightning descended upon the field, thunder blistered the evening air with the clang of a million screams. Lightning discs sawed their way along the ground and ignited the pools of mechanical fluids. Two robots shrieked as their bodies caught ablaze with super-heated plasma fire. Deadly smoke fogged the field, blinding most sensors. Thunder erupted so that it shook the ground and stoked the fires. Decepticons took off in haphazard disarray as they fled the battlefield. Many Autobots dropped their opponents, fleeing for life. The booming storm cracked rocks and ruptured Transformer body shells. Blow after blow in light and sound, the storm razed across the valley until the waxing daylight faded.
When the storm finally settled, the battlefield lay leveled; not smooth of surface but of anything standing.
Galvatron trembled and shuddered. His visual receptors took in only the barest of shapes through a field of static. His audios remained offline. He could not determine the extent of injury to his leg. He smelled smoke. Burning fuel, smoldering fluids and melting metal combined in a noxious, poisonous smog that hugged the ground. Galvatron hoped the wind, if any, steered the smog from the refugee camp.
He ordered himself up. Get up. He rose on trembling, weak arms. Galvatron managed to get his left leg under his weight so that he could stand but his strength did not last. He landed back in soft dirt as the first drop of rain plipped against his metal exterior. It was cool; it felt good. Unfortunately it dried as soon as it hit him. Galvatron groaned. It was not a fresh water rain, but saltwater.
What a crappy little planet.
Pt 4: Battle on the Frostbite
EARTH DATE: 2042
PLACE: Desert of Skulls: Cratis
The Frostbite's doors blew to atoms. Civilians scattered as the ship rattled. The scream of laser rifles echoed as the enemy pounded the Frostbite's exterior. The ship gently rocked, tossing people off their balance. Autobots and Humans grasped railings and support beams. They smacked the hard floor or clutched each other in terror. Spoilsport joined EDC officers as they powered weapons, drew deep breaths and prepared to die for the women and children.
"On the count of three," Spoilsport whispered. "One, two, three-ROLL!"
The four warriors launched into the ship's entryway, guns firing in short, controlled bursts while the attackers ripped into the Frostbite, tearing the bulkhead asunder. They blew the plank apart and ripped out lighting, shorting circuitry. The assailants boarded the vessel with heavy, graceless footing. Black smoke and bad lighting confused visuals. Laser weapons and unfamiliar voices peppered the moment with chaos.
Spoilsport tossed a flare into the entryway. It burst a near-blinding light and illuminated the shape and color of-oh Primus, whatever the thing was! It topped Magnus' height by two heads. a faceplate hid partial features and icky green optics scanned the entryway, sweeping side to side. It spoke an unknown dialect before sending a surge of energy into the emergency protective shielding at the right side. The surge sparked a bright plasma fire that waved straight up the ship's hull.
"What IS that thing?!" Captain Eastman changed the settings on his weapon. "It's huge! It'll take more than us puny Humans to knock that thing down!"
"Its size-coming up!" from atop the Frostbite, Targetmaster Pointblank swung down from the hatch frame and kicked the Decepticon in the back of its head. The Autobot rescuer landed and fired at two other 'Cons bashing the ship before engaging hand-to-hand with a third Decepticon sailing in from the air. Pointblank and Spoilsport ducked as an ally joined the fight: Bumblebee revved up in automode, shifted in mid-leap over their heads and took a 'con down. But then the Decepticon split in half. The upper portion formed a 'copter, the lower body reconfigured into a hovercraft. Spoilsport tried to shoot the 'copter, which had very little room to fly, but it was Captain Eastman who bagged the game. Unfortunately, when the 'copter took the hit, it smashed the flooring, blowing a hole into the metal plates.
"Bumblebee!" Pointblank called, "Get that-" He was ambushed mid-warning. The weight of his Decepticon attacker smothered Pointblank into the Frostbite's metal flooring. The Targetmaster lost hold of his partner/weapon Peacemaker and struggled for ground. The Decepticon bellowed and pounded into Pointblank's face. The assailant retracted his right hand and produced energo-knife with which he carved long slices into Pointblank's chest. Peacemaker shifted to robotic form and fired several shots into hydraulic lines to distract their opponent. The ship's hydraulics blew, searing the attacker's optic sensors. The alien Decepticon tumbled backward, kicking and screaming over his lost visuals. Peacemaker transformed back to weapon mode and floated above his partner. "You good there, PB?" he asked.
With his attacker distracted by pain, Pointblank managed to stand on shaking limbs. "Yeah, I'll live."
"Good." The second the Decepticon attempted to get to his feet, Peacemaker blew the monster's head off.
Down the left-hand corridor, EDC officers exchanged fire with two other Decepticon invaders. How the 'Cons managed past the ship's entryway was anyone's guess. Pointblank joined their fight and charged the 'con closest to the front line. He dodged a wide strike by his opponent and caught the Decepticon's head in the crook of his arm.
"No good, Autobot!" the invader hissed and struggled, "All you can do is lie down and die!"
Peacemaker's incident with the hydraulics flooded the floor with slick lubricants, negating any form of traction. Pointblank released the Decepticon. The attacker jumped and caught his hands on the upper buttress grippers. Pointblank rammed his head into the con's middle, breaking the grip. He hauled the Decepticon up and tossed him off the ship.
But the Decepticon wasn't finished. He pointed his dark red arm toward Pointblank and caught the Targetmaster with hook-and-line, dragging the Autobot outside to join him in a free-fall wrestling match. Once he had the Autobot pinned to the ground, the Decepticon raised his hand and split it open, revealing an energo-axe. Pointblank's opponent grinned ugly just half a second.
The Decepticon fell over, fried by electro-static shot. Pointblank sat up and stared at his partner with gratitude. Peacemaker transformed and landed next to their fallen foe. "What the hell are you waiting for?" He dashed back into the ship. Pointblank followed and found their assistance in the fight was not necessary. Bumblebee and Spoilsport dragged their opponent's bodies toward the Frostbite's entrance.
The ground boomed and vibrated following a huge shockwave. All the Autobot shuttles slightly swayed and the Frostbite creaked softly on her moors.
"What was THAT?" Bumblebee hugged the hatch post as the ship stabilized. His optics swept the area for impending trouble.
"Don't know." Pointblank pushed himself from the damaged bulkhead. "Help me get the Frostbite's shields back online."
"Is that even possible?" Bumblebee stepped over the gap in the floor made by the Duocon helicopter. Spoilsport moved ahead of Pointblank and Bumblebee. He pried open hidden hatchways along the bulkheads and flooring to check on civilians safely hidden therein.
Shawndra clutched the youngest boy tightly as he started crying. "What-or who-were they?"
"Duocons," Bumblebee answered from a damaged control panel. "And you can bet there'll be more of them."
Shawndria rocked back and forth patting the baby's back, trying to comfort the child although she silently wept herself. A few other people emerged, most with children in their arms.
"Anyone seen Arcana or Duros?" Peacemaker called. He helped three women and half a dozen children out of a cramped space.
One civilian pointed toward the left corridor, "I saw Arcana headed that direction last-but that was before the attack."
Spoilsport managed to rip off a partly-melted panel on a control board and flinched when hot wires snapped in the cooler air. "I think he went looking for Witwicky's girl-ouch!"
Bumblebee tugged at damaged panel flooring where another hatch held other survivors. He fell to his knees. "Ohh . . . Primus." His breath heaved and he bowed over.
Concerned, Pointblank joined him and upon seeing Bumblebee's findings, bowed his head at the tragic sight. Three women, a man and two children lay dead, their bodies burned by acid, their skin charred by heat of laser weapons. Peacemaker took a tattered blanket from one of the dead women in the hatch and covered the children's faces.
"Uhm . . . well . . . let's . . . let's lay them aside for right now. Take care of the others first."
Distant thunder echoed angrily across the plane. Everyone in the shuttle froze. They knew that sound; the first gong of Cratis' hellish ion storms.
Bumblebee turned to Pointblank. "Hurry. It's coming."
* * *
Rusti expected a mammoth Decepticon to stomp the hatchway and blast everything in sight. Instead, two little Decepticons and a mechanical bird materialized from the smoke.
Rusti recognized only one.
"Merc, Laserbeak! Hey, check this out!" Rumble leered at Arcana. "We got us'selves a couple of meatheads! Come 'ere, you two. I wanna pop 'yer squishy brains like zits on a borgobor!"
Merc, a Decepticon with an alien animal transform, stepped in behind his pal. A blood-red visor scanned the room, spotting Duros, Arcanna and the girl. He gave Rusti a quizzical look. Her armor was different from the Headmasters and confused Merc. He craned his neck. "How come they got fleshies here, Rums? Eh? How come?"
"Cuz they're Autobots, you oafless brain. An' the little wench is mine!" Rumble leapt, landing between Rusti and Arcana. He whipped about and knocked the Humanoid Headmaster a good six yards. Rusti ducked when the mech's hand came back to slap her too. She scampered away, madly dashing for the door as her heart pounded in her chest.
"Hey! I didn't say you could leave!" Rumble aimed for the wall, ran up the sloping buttress and catapulted into the air. He landed with a mean smile, blocking her escape.
Rusti ducked Rumble's second attempt to slap her. The alien in her hands whimpered.
"Hold STILL, you freaking' broad!"
Arcana fired his weapon at Rumble but missed Rumble hit metal plating but kept his target in view. Rusti glanced back at the Headmaster doctor.
"Go!" he shouted, "Run!" She hesitated. There was no place safe enough. The Decepticons compromised the Frostbite's shields and down the hall, Rusti heard the whine and boom of laser fire, the clang of metal against metal and victims' death screams.
Rumble scampered like a cat, taking aim for the girl when Duros intervened. The Headmaster Interface lunged the Decepticon and whacked him hard with an energy blade smashing in the left side of Rumble's face. The Decepticon staggered back until he lost his balance and fell. He shrieked, enraged, and pounded the floor with feet and arms like child in a tantrum.
Duros waited for another attack. He flipped his weapon once, twice, indicating he was ready for a round two. He mistakenly glanced in Rusti's direction and did not see the wrathful Decepticon scramble to his feet. Rumble flew at Duros and punched the Headmaster senseless. Duros slammed into the bulkhead, fully unconscious. One down. Rumble immediately turned to shoot Arcana but missed
Arcana would have retaliated, but Merc distracted him for a third round. Meanwhile, Laserbeak circled above and took cheap shots at the Headmaster doctor as he and Rumble wrestled and wrangled along the floor.
Rumble leered at Rusti. His broken lip components twitched at the left side. A slender appendage connecting his left audio to the cranial chamber blew out, leaking a thick, steamy sickly-yellow goo. The rest of his damaged face disintegrated, eaten away by Duros' energy weapon. His visage that once reflected a mean-spirited, contemptible attitude now decomposed into a mechanical monstrosity.
"Alright, squishy," Rumble snarled, "time for round two." He charged for Rusti. She swiftly set the alien 'baby' on the floor and greeted the freakish punk with a lucky, well-placed leap-kick.
Rumble flipped backward and landed chest-down. With a battle cry, he lunged up from the ground with all his might, moving so fast, Rusti almost did not have time to dodge. She squeaked, hugging the nearest buttress. Rumble crashed into the wall, but bounced off again and swiped the air, attempting to grab her. She dropped hard and rolled.
Not the best of tactics. Now she was on the ground and open for attack. Rumble drew his weapon and trained it at different parts of her body. "Ooh, squishy on a hotplate. I heard 'dis recipe's good. Lemme see: between the ears, between the boobs or between the legs?"
Arcana dodged a shot from Laserbeak then back-flipped to avoid a swing from Merc's laser bayonet. The doctor snapped out a pair of armor-piercing throwing stars from subspace. One missed and sunk into the Frostbite's bulkhead, the other made a nice slice into Merc's right shoulder. Lazerbeak fired again, cawing, and grappled Arcana's helm. The Headmaster grabbed the vulture's feet and the damn thing pecked a nice hole through Arcana's right shoulder. The armor held, but barely.
Laserbeak lifted him toward the ship's ceiling while Merc entertained a few really bad shots-except the last one which grazed Arcana's left thigh.
Laserbeak tried to drop Arcana as it squawked and squealed at an ear-blowing pitch. Arcana considered an attempt at climbing on top of the damned cassette bird, but decided against it when Laserbeak descended toward Merc to give him a clearer shot at their opponent. Arcana waited until the bird was just fifteen feet from the ground and he dropped with a roll. Laserbeak rounded back, firing time after time, forcing Arcana to roll along the floor like a humanoid barrel.
A high-pitched whistle sounded above Laserbeak's screeches. The vulture and Merc turned simultaneously, meeting Duros' aim. The Headmaster now swayed, slightly woozy, but at least he could rejoin the fight. Merc dodged first, then the bird, giving Arcana enough time to spring back to his feet. Duros made target practice of the bird while Arcana chased Merc with his gun. At the last, the doctor tackled the Decepticon, slammed Merc's head against the floor then kicked him out the 'makeshift door' in the ship's hull.
Undeterred, Merc shifted to animal form and darted back for the Frostbite.
Duros cracked open a panel in the wall next to the tear in the hull. He yanked out wiring and pried apart internal components hidden inside the walls of all Transformers ships. He found the control panel and worked as quickly as he could while the Decepticon raced ever nearer. Then at the last, Duros punched a special control center, allowing the ship to shift its wall structure. At first the transformation caught half the Decepticon's body inside the ship, the other half outside. The gears whirred hard, pressing tighter and tighter, squeezing Merc's writhing form. He screamed until his front half sparked, spurted and dropped to the floor like a dead fish.
Laserbeak swung back for another go-around and hit Duros in the right hip just as Merc's upper body smacked the floor. Duros hissed four-letter words and tried to shoot the bird with his left hand. He missed three times before his armor warned of diminishing power.
Arcana took his turn targeting the vulture. He missed, too as the skilled flier swept down, ascended, circled and dive-bombed, mocking their efforts. Tired of the little game of tag, Laserbeak sailed down the corridor toward Rumble. Arcana chased after, stopping now, a few feet later and once again to get a good aim at the flying menace. Laserbeak cawed, jeering Arcana's vain attempt at a kill.
Just a bit further down the corridor, Arcana spotted Rumble, his weapon trained on Rusti. Arcana ditched the idea of a 'robotoid turkey shoot' and aimed for Rumble. Even if he was too far for his shot to make a difference, Arcana fired at the Decepticon, distracting him enough to let the girl escape. Annoyed at the near misses from poor aim, Rumble snarled in Arcana's direction and Rusti kicked up, sending Rumble's gun flying through the air. She rolled to her feet and dashed to the darker end of the corridor. In spite of Arcana's verbal threats and weak shots, Rumble chased her down like a desperate carnivore. He propelled his metal body over her head, landed deftly and slapped her so hard Rusti hit the bulkhead. Were it not for her exosuit, Rusti would have suffered a far worse head injury than the ugly cut across her right brow.
"Now, this is more like it!" Rumble gloated, gun in hand, "just me and a fleshy."
Laserbeak circled overhead. Piercing screeches called for bloodshed. Arcana shot at the vulture, this time catching a wing on fire. Then the doctor turned and shot at Rumble, slicing into the Decepticon's right shoulder. Laserbeak dove for Arcana, claws extended, ready to shred and render. Rumble also charged, determined to eliminate further interference. In fact, Rumble got to Arcana first so that Laserbeak could only hover above, wings aloft, thrusters on standby. Rumble delivered a right cross followed by an uppercut. Arcana answered the uppercut with a knee to Rumble's middle. He tried to swipe the 'con off his feet but Rumble's balance was too well established. Arcana elbowed the wounded face and used his armor's precious energy to fire a blinding pinpoint laser into Rumble's optic sensors. Bored with someone else's fight, Laserbeak took his turn, digging his claws into Arcana's shoulders. Rumble took advantage of that to punch Arcana in the bowels until something hit him from behind. He turned and found Rusti standing behind him, blood streaming down her face and blotching her armor. Laserbeak dropped Arcana and soared toward the girl. But Rumble wasn't about to allow the bird more than one kill.
He leapt between the vulture and the girl. "No way, you substandard aluminum egg-layer! This is MY kill! Back off!"
Rusti stole the moment. She tucked the alien under her right arm and bolted.
"Hey! GET BACK HERE!"
The sudden and horrific impact of Rumble's metal foot against all the ribs on her left side made a sickening crunch. Rusti crumbled beside the wall. Pain shot straight to the pit of her stomach. She could not breathe. Her eyes stared into nothing. Her arms went lax, she lost the baby alien. The shock of the moment allowed her enough mental capacity to realize Rumble was going to pick her apart. She had nothing but the exosuit.
Rumble savagely removed her helmet and hauled Rusti up by her hair. His gruesome, distorted face sickened her. "Now where was we? Oh, yeah! I was gonna pop yer head like ripe zit!"
Tears wrought by pain and frustration soaked her face. Rusti finally came up with one option: she planted her hand on the Decepticon's chest and through the suit, exerted an electrical charge. The surge snapped more cables, tubes and components about his head. The shock obstructed the redirected power conduits in his chassis. Rumble screamed, echoed by the damn vulture
The second Rumble released her Rusti pointed a finger at Laserbeak and shot a powerful burst through its optics. Laserbeak's brain casing blew. His head shattered, spewing metal and fluids. The rest of his body smashed into a buttress corner and gushed a dense cloud of smoke.
With squalling anger, Rumble shot back up and a sharp, hot dagger pierced Rusti just above her left breast. Screaming, she dropped to the floor like a rag doll. Her skin, muscles and insides burned, disabling her from further action. Rumble towered over her crumpled form, much like her father; leering and contemptible.
"I was gonna be nice," static garbled, clogged and vibrated Rumble's voice with drowned tempos. "Now I'm gonna just splatter you like so much mud and crap under my feet. Yer gonna be my human doormat!"
Rusti could not object. She lost track of the alien baby. She could not protect it. She could not save herself.
Rumble tumbled away, head, legs and arms locked in Dr. Arcana's body spear. They wrestled and Arcana slammed the punk against one bulkhead. Rumble levered himself and shoved the Headmaster against an adjoining buttress and tried to punch him.
"Rusti," Arcana called as he tried to hold the Decepticon back, "Run!"
But she could only lie there helpless. Blood flowed down her neck. It saturated her under the exosuit. Pain choked her breath and tears drenched her face. Her veins boiled and sweat soaked her underclothes.
Rumble threw Arcana against a ribbed buttress but rather than fall to the floor, Arcana remained steadfast kicking Rumble in the face as hard as he could.
Rumble's face snapped another circuit, this time blowing the left optic. The mean little Decepticon staggered drunkenly. Rumble was half blind and bullheaded enough to ignore a damaged telemeter. "Don't think I can't kill you, stupid . . . protoplasmic waste receptacle! I'll shove . . . shove it up . . ."
Rumble stumbled again, unable to keep his balance. It was just enough to give Arcana the only shot he needed.
The Decepticon's blown and amputated head rotated on the floor like a lopsided top winding down from the spin. The freakish sight was too much for Rusti and she wept in spite of her agony.
"Come on, Miss Rusti," Arcana said kindly. "Let's get you back with the others."
"I . . . I . . ." breathing in hurt. Breathing out was worse. She looked away as the Headmaster doctor knelt before her and carefully examined her wounds.
"Oh, yeah, I see what you mean. Alright. Let's um-" he glanced left to right and frowned at the mangled Decepticon corpse. "Stay here." He disappeared down the hall.
Rusti kept her breathing light and shallow, daring not to move. She feared for her little alien friend, though she felt nothing; neither the alien in her arms, nor her own extremities.
Arcana returned and Rusti prayed he would not make her stand. He hunched and touched her blood-soaked hair. "Miss Rusti," he said softly, "can you lie straight for me? Just try to slowly straighten your arms and legs."
The attempt was the wrong thing to do and it was the last thing she remembered.
Pt. 5: Resuscitation
The Valley of Skulls lay desolate; devoid of sound or movement. Neither insects nor animals crawled along the contaminated, filthy, blood drenched ground. No birds hovered along the sky, welcoming early morning light. Saltwater rain sprinkled the valley, adding misery to suffering. While the water doused many fires, it did nothing to relieve the heat or the stench accompanying the low-lying smog. Even morning luminescence failed to improve conditions on the battlefield; it only revealed the extent of damage and number of wounded and casualties.
Optimus lay quietly where he fell next to the deformed remains of a beast Pretender. The Pretender shell aimed an acid bath at Prime. But it missed the Autobot leader and disintegrated its own robotic Core personality. When the storm hit, the acid attracted a sphere of electricity, completing the Pretender's destruction. Nothing remained of the shell now; only the skeleton of the robotic beast itself.
Encouraged by the morning light, Optimus propped himself on his arms and surveyed the lifeless battlefield. Neither he nor Galvatron made it far into the battle lines. The Autobot leader hoped to crash Decetron's personal party. Some plans just never work at all, he mused.
"F'get it." Galvatron groaned nearby. "I already tried to see. Nothing but a mess out there. Just call the fragging janitorial service."
Optimus did not reply at first. Galvatron was right; most sensors were offline; useless. He heard Galvatron only through interpersonal comlines. "How's your leg?"
"Needs an oil change."
Prime did not answer the joke. He struggled to see through static. How many survived? How many wounded? How many would they have to bury?
Optimus shifted visual light spectrum focus to see anything through the poisonous smog and smoldering plasma fires. Finally the night vision kicked in. It gave him no color detail. But at least he now saw shapes and forms. He forced himself on his knees and shuddered from energy overload. The lightning that fried the Pretender gave Prime a bit of an electric short. Automatic repair systems and rerouting procedures kicked in. He'd be stiff and sore for a while, but that was nothing compared to what the storm did to his attacker.
Galvatron groaned. "I suppose we should get out of bed, find something to do."
Prime managed to his feet first. Morning burned off more shadows; shapes became bodies. "Stay here. I'll be right back."
"No you won't." Galvatron argued. "You'll find yourself some nice young girl, settle down and forget about your pal."
Optimus took two steps then he realized why his companion was cracking such bad jokes. "Are you in pain, Galvatron?"
"I thrive on the stuff and if you'll help me up, I promise to stop making smart remarks."
The Autobot leader obliged his friend and allowed Galvatron to lean on him long enough to attain balance. He said nothing and did not move. Galvatron shuddered, not from cold, but from system overrides reroutes and re-acclimatization procedures. In four minutes, the Decepticon was able to clear his sensory inputs and walk. But he was in no condition to fight for another few hours.
Optimus marveled at the technology that constructed Cyclonus' and Galvatron's bodies. They were tough, adaptable and more capable of self-repair than anything made from Cybertron.
He realized Galvatron ruefully smiled at him and the Autobot leader dropped his optics. "It will take hours to days to sift through this."
Galvatron laid a kind hand on Prime's shoulder and patted him encouragingly. He took the first several, rain-drenched steps across the charred and ruined land.
Optimus followed him, carefully inspecting bodies and scanning for pressure-triggered weapons. Most of the fires relaxed into smoldering mounds. There was one area, however, where the carcass of some great Decepticon melted under the colorful light of plasma fire. Optimus decided to let it burn. It was not spreading and he had other matters of greater importance.
Convoy was the first living thing, though critically damaged, Optimus and Galvatron found. She lay half buried under two Decepticon chassis. The 'cons were fried, the greater part of their bodies naught but lumps of metal. It took some doing, but they managed to pry the bodies off the Fort Horizon city commander. Optimus checked her carefully. She was not so badly damaged that she could not be transported. But neither he nor Galvatron had a medical transport. And upon scanning the disastrous area, Optimus decided it was too treacherous to drive her across the plane.
Prime switched communication frequencies: "This is Optimus Prime. If there are any able-bodied Autobots, please respond on the ten-Q frequency only. Do NOT answer on any other communication frequency."
"Optimus Prime?" That was Trinket's voice.
In twenty minutes, six Autobots gathered onto the field. None of them were unaffected by the battle, but they were far better off than their fellows. Optimus counted his blessings as First Aid, Trinket and Perceptor approached the debris field.
Trinket raced ahead and attended Convoy. First Aid contacted his assistants while Perceptor scanned the field. He pointed to three approaching Autobots before spotting another injured some yards away.
Optimus sent First Aid and Perceptor back to camp to prepare spaces for incoming wounded. He assigned Pointblank and Sideswipe to search and rescue.
Then Bumblebee found his way to the field.
Optimus had to take a second look.
He had to take a third look, staring as though trying to get his optics to change the figure's shape and size.
Sideswipe smiled in spite of his exhaustion and pain. "We all had to do that, too."
"That can't be-"
"Yeah, it is."
Bumblebee stood between Sideswipe and Spoilsport, projecting a grin of uncertainty. "Uh, hi, Optimus. You got something for me to do?" The little Autobot found himself swept off the filthy ground into a tight embrace and for a moment, The Bee thought his body would look like a crushed soda can. Prime released him, but remained on his knees before the Bug.
Bumblebee took great delight in seeing Optimus Prime's whole countenance lit with the moment. "Ah ... I guess I sorta fell into it." he shrugged when Sideswipe softly moaned over the bad pun.
"It is you, isn't it, Bumblebee?" Optimus felt silly asking, but he could not help himself.
Titanium called over the comline: "Optimus? We've located . . . we found Grimlock."
Neither Optimus nor Galvatron doubted that Grimlock and the brute he fought made the colossal fissure in the ground. Nonetheless, they were amazed at the canyon's size and depth.
Prime waited at the top with Galvatron while Swoop, Pointblank and Sideswipe descended to the bottom. They organized a lift but found Grimlock's physical state in greater need than what a simple lift offered. Prime's optics drifted toward the eastern side of the crevice. Roddi was somewhere in that direction.
Prime wanted to leave to investigate but he needed to see the extent of Grimlock's injuries.
The heart-wrenching sight silenced everyone. They watched with sad faces as Grimlock's broken form emerged from the darkened crevice. The chains tugged and jerked as they lifted the oversized flat on which he lay. He bled; every precious drop a reminder of the terrible and costly battle.
Sludge, Swoop and Slag faced the moment as bravely as they could. But Swoop's childlike personality demonstrated how they all felt. He sank to his knees, heaving mournful sighs. The Pteranadon finally hid his face in his hands and whimpered.
Trinket connected the Dinobot leader to portable life support while Titanium secured the stretcher onto a make-shift, super-sized antigrav flat. Trinket stepped back, standing beside Prime as they watched Titanium's careful attention.
"He's . . ." she glanced at the Dinobots and lowered her voice. "He's not good, Optimus. We don't even have the facility to properly repair him. We may have to keep him in stasis."
Optimus turned partly to her. "Do whatever you think is necessary to save his life, Trinket." he looked to the dejected Dinobots. "For their sake."
As the Dinobots followed Titanium back to camp, Physix and Dogfight lowered into the crevice to search for Rodimus Prime. Optimus joined them and traveled along the crevice's uneven flooring, using only night vision. Almost as if he knew exactly where to go, Optimus bee-lined for the easternmost part of the crevice. He and Physix scrambled over boulder and craggy hill. They squeezed between jagged walls and pushed through stone-blocked pathways.
A commotion of voices erupted; shouting from the lip above. Optimus knew it was a fight over his Decepticon companions and a fight was inevitable. But troop discipline would have to wait. Rodimus needed him now.
Physix shadowed Prime just a few feet and called in for assistance the moment Optimus found Roddi half buried under rocks, dirt and debris.
Rodimus lay face down, his systems almost entirely offline. Optimus could not decide if he should dig Rodimus out or wait. He touched Roddi's cold form, just brushed the shoulder line then traced the side of his friend's helm. Tell-tale signs of hell etched Roddi's face in deep scratches.
Optimus brushed gravel and large rocks from Rodimus' right hand. "He is badly injured," he inadvertently said to Galvatron over internal comlines.
"You have more problems than a seriously injured co-worker, Prime."
Optimus tore his attention from Rodimus to Physix.
The Autobot wrecker from Ft. Sagittarius read Optimus' expression as fearful impatience. "What's keeping that lift?!" the wrecker croaked over the comline. He turned to Prime. "I'm sorry, sir."
Optimus turned to their other operator: "Dogfight, get a stretcher down here." He patched into the comline, hoping to contact Trinket.
First Aid tried to answer Prime's call, but his replies drowned under the shouting bouts between several Autobots. Optimus overheard Strike Back, Sideswipe and Blaster then two of them broke out in a wrestling match.
"Strike Back!" Prime snarled through the comlines. "What the HELL is going on up there!?"
"You tell ME!" Strike Back answered in like tones. "Who invited the Decepticons?"
"That is NOT your concern. Get First Aid down here with a lift for Rodimus Prime, mister or you'll be dealing with more than a few words from me!"
The fighting and arguing stopped and First Aid descended with Dogfight.
"Careful," Optimus warned quietly. "I don't know the extent of his injuries." He, Aid and Physix gently dug Roddi out of his premature grave. They slid the top portion of the stretcher under Rodimus' lifeless body then gently laid him on the lift. First Aid tucked a protective dark sheet over Rodimus. He heaved a great sigh.
"It's starting to rain again, Prime."
Optimus stared sternly at the medic. "First Aid, I need my senior staff up and operation as soon as possible."
The Protectobot nodded. "I read you. But we're low on hands and supplies."
"I brought supplies. Physix, you and Dogfight are in charge of assisting First Aid; even if it means bodyguard protection. He's your boss, now."
The snapping of a new argument started up and Optimus dimmed his optics in dire displeasure.
Prime searched for Galvatron the second he climbed out the crevice. In pouring saltwater rain, on a battlefield crowded with Autobots in need of help, Blaster, Strike Back, Colt, Sideswipe, Delta and Bumblebee all stood around Galvatron, arguing. The Decepticon sat calmly in the middle, examining a piece of Decepticon body part. Blaster and Strike Back bickered as the rain increased, washing more pain into wounds and irritating short fuses. The other four stood nearby, ready to add their opinion to the heating argument.
Prime crossed his arms and bore holes into each of his officers except Bumblebee. Salty rain seeped into sensitive and damaged areas along Prime's body. It burned and sizzled his exostructure, worsening his mood. Strike Back and Blaster returned Prime's annoyed expression while Sideswipe only looked annoyed-confused. Delta glared ugly. Galvatron pretended nothing was happening.
"What is going on?" Optimus growled.
"Him!" Strike Back and Blaster answered simultaneously. Strike Back pointed to Galvatron. Blaster pointed to Cyclonus who sat behind Colt and Bumblebee, hands bound behind his back.
"We demand an explanation." Strike Back spat. "We hear nothing from you. No communications, no word of your whereabouts or condition. Then all of a sudden, here you are, taking over, acting like you've been here all along-and you bring the enemy!"
"I owe you nothing, Strike Back." Prime's voice dipped dangerously. Even Galvatron took notice. "They're with me. That's all you need to know. Blaster, I want status reports from all ships. Bumblebee, I need recon from the eastern side. Strike Back, I need supplies and personnel reports. Colt: status on staff, weapons and medical. Sideswipe, search and rescue, south."
"WAIT A MINUTE!" Strike Back shouted. "You're telling us what to do when you have no information on what's been going on??"
"You are assigned to get me information, Strike Back."
"No! This is preposterous! How do we know we can even trust you? Here you've hopping planet to planet with criminals and you expect us to just snap-to? That pretty much makes you a traitor in my data tablet, pal!"
Optimus's optics narrowed even darker. He was aware Galvatron stared at him expectantly. "Blaster?"
"Uh . . . sir?"
"Are you in concurrence with Strike Back?"
Blaster glanced from Strike Back to Optimus and back. At first he could not make his mind but then he realized that he honestly knew better. "Well, uh, Galvatron has cruised the block with us before. And if it weren't for him, we'd all be red and dead by the Hate Plague. It's just not . . . I guess not."
Strike Back glared hotly at Blaster. "Whose side are you on?" But Blaster neither answered him nor look him in the optic.
Optimus Prime's extended and unusual silence made the other Autobots nervous. Galvatron watched the drama, withholding judgment. Among Decepticons, such accusations were not tolerated; insubordination was controlled by elimination. If Prime tolerated such blatant behavior, casually dismissing it as just a tantrum, then he deserved the poor respect he received right this moment.
But Optimus was only cooling off. His optics lit back and he glanced from Sideswipe to Strike Back. "Strike Back, you are under arrest for insubordination. You will go with Sideswipe to the Alvarez where you will be confined until further notice."
Galvatron took that as a cue to stand while Bumblebee unlocked Cyclonus' cuffs. Optimus stared at Sideswipe until the Autobot warrior got the hint and quietly suggested to Strike Back that he do as told. After another moment's hesitation, Strike Back complied, but his expression was not a forgiving one. Optimus did not return the backward glance shot his way. His optics narrowed again and Bumblebee departed, knowing it was time to get to work.
Galvatron waited until Blaster and Colt faded from the group before surveying the debris field. "What would you like us to do, Prime?"
"I cannot ask you to do anything."
"We're not your guests. You need whomever can stand and move on their own. You also have next to no one who can survey the area from the sky. Clearly you need us. Now what do you need?"
By early afternoon, all of forty-six hands were available to Optimus. He hated working with skeleton crews; it meant the next seventy-six point seventeen hours no one would be able to rest.
Of twenty Autobot ships, one, the Speedster, was the most heavily damaged. Optimus counted that as either blind luck or a huge blessing. It could have been far, far worse.
Prime examined the Speedster with Searchlight and Pong while trinket sent him operations reports ship-by-ship.
Cyclonus sent an all-clear along the fifty-mile radius before descending to assist search and rescue.
Pong's head peeked up from the Speedster's lower engine room-or what was left of it. "All la breaking systems yet togedder. Save 'em all?"
"Yes," Optimus answered over Trinket's chatter. He tuned in to the Autobot mechanic while fishing for a micron wrench. "Trinket, which ship did you say the comms were down?"
"The Confiscator, currently assigned strictly to weapons repair." she paused. "The stupid ion storms keep wrecking havoc-"
"Which direction do the storms come?"
"South. Sometimes southwest, Optimus."
Prime unbolted a half-melted panel along the Speedster's port wing and disengaged an allocation tracking device. "I want a parameter-wide force field set up along that direction. We'll never get off this rock . . . " he sliced out two navigational corrections boards: ". . . if we can't keep the ships from damage."
"Aye, Sir. But . . . that will take a while-"
"Just get started on it, Trinket."
Redial approached, digipad in hand. "Sir, I have reports from the Alvarez-what's that for?" the communications officer from Fort Zenith stared at the Speedster's allocation tracking device.
"The Alvarez?" Prime asked in turn. "That's not one of our ships."
"Oh, uh, we were given three new ships while we were on -uh-in uh, Centaurus . . . sir." Redial stammered since he could not recall the exact name of the planet. "The Alvarez, the Cold Refractor and the Thermosphere were gifts. But um, we lost the Thermosphere."
Prime nodded to himself at that remark. Gain three, lose one; story of his life.
Redial returned to his report: "Oh, um, there's three damaged stasis chambers, starboard engine offline and damage along rudimentary ignition systems-oh, ummm . . . might not be worth mentioning, but it's been infected with some sort of robotic version of ah . . . lice or mosquitos or something."
"Yeah. We don't know what they are, but fifty Autobots are infected. Nasty things."
Optimus put that detail in the back of his head. Pest control would have to wait. "What is the fuel load on the Alvarez, Redial?"
"Uhhh . . ." Redial scanned the pad, "says ninety-two percent." he handed the digipad and watched his commander scroll up and down the report until movement behind Prime caused the communications officer to gasp.
Prime turned as Searchlight tugged at Autobot Mirror's nonfunctional form. Without a word, Optimus leapt over refuse and debris and ripped away a fallen bulkhead so Searchlight could drag the femme away. Optimus helped lay her dark, charred form alongside those parts salvaged off the destroyed vessel.
"I know there were others." Searchlight choked up. "Comp, Echo, Compact, Gamut, Sparkus and Graphite . . . but they're not here. I haven't seen Graphite since we left-"
"Searchlight," Optimus said quietly, "where is the morgue?"
"Couldn't go there," the little Autobot quivered. "The Spiral Star . . . you know . . . "
Prime was about to call Doublecross to assist Searchlight in removing Mirror's body when Pong called his attention.
"Apology, Sr. Clockwise, methinks . . ."
Searchlight shuddered. "Just two? A cruiser with two hundred and thirty Autobots and organics we can only find TWO people?!"
"Assist Searchlight and Pong. Take Mirror and Clockwise to the Spiral Star."
"But Optimus, I'm not a-" Redial swallowed the rest of his words at Prime's sharp stare. "Yes, sir."
He watched them prepare a makeshift stretcher while Galvatron stepped up, a digipad in hand, a scowl on his expression. "Parameter is still clean. More wreckage a hundred and fifty miles at the south end."
"You were studying that Decepticon chassis rather intently this morning, Galvatron."
The Decepticon waited until Searchlight and Pong were out of audio-range. "That's why I wanted to take parameter expedition, Prime. I needed to be certain."
"The alloy. I've checked every wrecked body out there and not one of them has ever set foot on Cybertron."
Optimus stared, befuddled. "But?"
"But they're still Decepticon."
"How's that . . . how's that possible? The Paratrons here haven't been on Cybertron for millions of years, but they still read Cybertronian."
"Yes, but their ancestors were still Autobots. These things utilize Decepticon life force frequencies, but their physic reads non-Cybertronian, a completely different system of alloys and integration techniques between subspace nanite technology and fuel systems."
Optimus reached for a conclusion: "Decepticon, but not Cybertronian Decepticon?"
First Aid's voice came frantically over the com: "what am I supposed to do with these people? I'm trying to save Rodimus, Magnus and Grimlock and now I have to be funeral director, too?"
Optimus realized his absence from the Autobots was more a vacation; a much needed, long over-due vacation. With a quick word to the frantic Autobot medic, Prime shifted and sped across camp.
Medbay bustled in chaos. Some Autobots sat or stood about, attempting self repairs. Children cried. Adults complained and demanded while First Aid argued with Searchlight.
Prime came directly between them and looked Searchlight in the optic. "What are you doing?"
"We need a place-"
"Not among the living, Searchlight." Op read distress in the Autobot scout's optics. It was so obvious that the dead did not belong in medbay. But Paratrons thought only in terms of the person. Prime followed Searchlight and Pong to an area bordered by large rocks. Several small mounds already lay at the far corner with makeshift crosses at the front. A ragged, naked doll lay atop one mound, reminding Optimus of his occasional visits to a graveyard that no longer existed.
Searchlight and Pong lay Mirror's chassis to one side then looked to their somber leader. "Uhhh . . . Optimus Prime . . . shouldn't we have a funeral?"
Prime shook his head and at first their faces reflected horror and confusion, then anger. Searchlight stood, optics flaring.
"She deserves one! They all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity! We can't just dump them-"
"Searchlight," Optimus intervened, "there is nothing you can do for them and even if the dead could speak, do you really think they'd want you to spend valuable time mourning their absence rather than repairing the ships and leaving Cratis?"
Searchlight stared at Mirror's burnt form. He grievously shook his head.
"There are children at the Racing Beast who need someone to take care of them so their guardians can assist in other areas. Maybe you'd not mind . . . putting band aids on their cuts and scratches and get their minds off the battle."
Searchlight stared at Mirror's corpse one last time then nodded. "Yeah. I can do that." He left Mirror where she lay, transformed and coasted through crowds, between ships.
"Pong," Prime called. "We have a force filed to put up."
Just as he said it, Prime watched as Peacemaker and Delta arrived carrying Spectrum between them. Worse still came Blaster. Rewind lay limp and grey between his hands.
Unable to take in the images of the dead, Pong transformed to cycle mode and shot away. Knowing Blaster as he did, Prime said nothing and did not look the communications officer in the optics. He laid a hand on Blaster's shoulder in passing, knowing any words at all could set Blaster into a rage
Afternoon sank into early evening. Prime assigned Blaster, Pong and Imp to servellance so Bumblebee and Cyclonus could assist prepping the south-section ships for the force field.
There was one problem: . . .no, there were several problems: one or two for each ship.
The Mozart refused to link with the other ships.
The Armored Crest had seventeen all-trans boards fried beyond recognition.
The Hannibal's Mark took a great deal of damage during the battle. And of course, the Frostbite's extensive damage required patchwork materials that could be graciously provided by the Speedster.
Trinket cussed modestly over the comlines until Prime was able to come to her assistance. They pulled apart the navigation controls and checked each interface system before attempting force field protocols.
"Uhh . . . Optimus Prime?" Imp's voice carried the sound of fear.
Lying on his back, Prime balanced a delicate oscillating instrument. From one end of communications, Trinket's language deteriorated in frustration. Imp's fear was drowned out by several loud four-letter words. "Trinket!" Prime called. "Stand by. What is it Imp?"
"That . . . that storm? Another one is coming in." pause. "Yeah . . . I see disc lightening at the horizon."
"Fifty, maybe sixty clicks."
Never a dull moment, Prime thought. "Imp, get everyone on the periphery back to camp. Trinket, less swearing and move faster, please."
Static set in, making communications difficult and many EDC workers complained about 'shock treatment' they received upon traveling from one vessel to another.
Galvatron rejoined Prime at the Confiscator as he and Redial reconfigured the force field stabilizers. The Decepticon, who endured insults and dirty looks the past several hours, set a crate of scavenged parts next to Prime. He glanced at Redial who glowered at him with contempt. "You're going to have a hole in the force field." he said ever so quietly.
Prime looked to him with weary optics. "We've been here for ten minutes."
Galvatron nodded left, silently inviting the Autobot leader to discuss the situation in private.
They took up a more isolated corner of the bridge and Redial watched them, angry over Galvatron's obvious control of his leader. The Paratron's optics dropped to the plasma welder in his hand. He'd love to shove this straight into Galvatron's processor and listen as the 'pinx' screamed. Redial wanted to watch this Decepticon abomination suffer the worst of fates.
Galvatron was the reason Redial lost his beloved home, his friends and way of life.
Prime slipped into the Confiscator's corner and slumped just slightly. Galvatron made sure to shield him from Redial's view and read exhaustion on his friend's face. "There is a large gap between the Interrogator and the Sagittarian Mozart. It's too broad for the force field. How's Rodimus?"
"Still with me. But wavering." Prime covered his face and tried to shut out the horrible sensations radiating from Roddi. He needed to be there. He needed to be here. "It's too late to move the Hannibal's Mark next to the Interrogator-"
"I have an idea," Galvatron broke in. "It'll be easy to set up. But clean up will be a longer process-"
"Out with it. The storm will be here in under an hour."
"The wings. Eighteen of your ships have wings. We can remove those and use them to link the force field without endangering the ships."
Prime stared, astounded at the brilliance and simplicity of the plan. "Like posts for a fence."
Prime stepped around Galvatron, a hand on the Decepticon's shoulder. "Redial, get a hold of Grotesque. We're going to do something different."
Everyone capable of moving and utilizing a tool took up a job. One crew dismantled the ship's wings. The Dinobots and Monsterbots carried and planted the wings. Another group stabilized the 'fence' while two groups attended the ships.
Nightbeat raced into camp from watch just as the first thunder growled low and long. The wind followed, coming in as a deceiving ocean breeze.
The Saber's Claw was the last ship to go. The parameter fence was ready and all other ships stood by to activate.
Blaster and Wavelength worked as fast as they could but the Saber's comline was fried during the battle between Grimlock and Lux.
Everyone in camp felt restless as the area's magnetic fields built up a super-charge. At any moment, they knew the storm would unleash a terrible and costly rage.
"It ain't goin', Prime." Blaster announced, frustrated. "These boards 'r singing the black n' blues."
"Why aren't the replacements from the Crested Moon working?"
Wavelength poked his head up from under the flooring and shut off the soldering iron. "All the connection r' in a row. Sweet duckies, Sir. But uh, just no juice."
Optimus' head pounded. The last several moments caught him swinging between the present and the agony Roddi experienced-
That cold descent into self-hatred.
He turned from them, from the moment. Void hissed between realities. The approaching storm muttered profanities.
Optimus felt himself slip. He was on a ship, but he did not know which one. He was in a room, but did not know what room. He was a leader, but did not remember of what people.
He was an Autobot-
That was someone far away. Instinctively Prime wanted to answer. It stopped him from slipping further.
A shadow stood before him.
"Commander, someone told me . . ."
Roddi was dying. He would follow.
" . . . the Saber's Claw . . ."
He would bury Rodimus and follow soon after.
"I think I can do it if you'll let me try."
He'd bury Rodimus here . . . wherever here might be. I'm sorry, Roddi! Oh, such great sadness! Did he not promise Roddi their future would not be like the one from which he came?
Forgive me for closing you off! Forgive me for shutting you out!
Galvatron gripped him about the arms and suddenly Optimus was back on the Saber's Claw, among his people. Something exploded outside.
"What?" Prime searched Galvatron's bright red optics then slumped.
"Yes! Do it!" Galvatron ordered in Prime's stead.
Cloudstreaker had not felt well since Sideswipe found her and brought her to medbay. No one could attend her since she was not in a life-threatening condition. She waded through her aches and pains, waiting. But upon hearing about power problems and the force field on the Saber's Claw, she knew she could still contribute to everyone else's safety.
She did not expect Optimus to stare through her as she spoke. Nor did she ever think she'd see him cry. Cloudstreaker was even more surprised when Galvatron rushed past her and caught Prime as he slowly sank to his knees.
But she did not hesitate when the Decepticon said she could give her idea a shot. Cloudstreaker dashed outside and opened her subspace conduits as far as they could go. She drained power from the Covenant then redirected power flow through the Claw.
Blaster yahooed and hit the circuit breaker.
Outside, Crossy, Titanium and Jazz watched as three discs of electricity whizzed through the air. The lightening sizzled and snapped before a high-pitched whine ended in a click-snap. The discs headed for a wing-post and died in a brilliance of light. Jazz and Crossy flinched.
Another disc of light hit and it too fizzled harmlessly against on invisible barrier.
"IT WORKS!" Jazz declared. Crossy jumped up and down, shouting joyously. She was joined by refugees all over the camp as lightening and dreadful winds beat against the force field.
The terrible storm now made a fabulous sound and light show.
Optimus sat against the wall, exhausted, but clear-headed as long as Galvatron remained and kept him focused.
"I don't want Roddi to leave me," he confessed mournfully.
"I don't want him to leave you, either." Galvatron agreed. "He's probably the sane one between you."
Prime tried to make sense of what was going on outside the ship. Weren't they in danger a while ago? "It's quiet," he muttered.
"Yes. The force field is holding."
Prime's optics dimmed.
Galvatron half-turned and tried to remember the communication officer's name. "Erm . . . Blaster."
"Yeah," came his cold reply.
"We need a medic here."
"I'm a little busy, Galvatron in case you've not noticed."
Galvatron tried not to be angry. His optics drifted back to the other communications officer as the Autobot climbed out the underdeck. Wavelength patched into the Dancing Siren. "Hey, Trinket? Can someone come out here to the Saber? Optimus is down." The younger Autobot knelt next to Prime and scrunched his face. He glanced at Galvatron. "Static," he explained. "Yeah, hey, Optimus needs someone-Okay . . . um, I don't know." Wavelength gazed at his leader, cringed, shook his head and met Galvatron's optics. "They wanna know his electropulse." Wavelength shrugged.
Galvatron shook his head, wandering why they couldn't send someone over. He laid two fingers along the back of Prime's neck and counted.
"Yeah," Wavelength answered the call, "Galvatron is taking it now."
"Twenty-four, twelve, ninety-two."
"Uh, twenty-four, twelve, ninety-two. Yeah. Oh, Primus. Is he okay?" Wavelength met the Decepticon's expectant gaze. "They said Rodimus flat-lined a couple moments ago."
At first Galvatron did not make the connection then he realized: "They're bound by the Matrix."
Wavelength only nodded.
Galvatron thought back to his Old Self and recalled the two times he had the Matrix in his possession. It scared the living slag out of him. And yet . . . yet he was ever so aware of it; a comforting presence, a living thing that breathed on him something pure. The Matrix was a light that brought to his mind something even Megatron never knew.
That moment, there, next to Optimus and Wavelength, Galvatron realized the Matrix and the Music were of similar substance. They were not one and the same, but similar. Happiness wrought of integrity and honor embodied in light.
Galvatron traced the edge of Prime's helm along the left side. The light within the Matrix was dying and with it, Optimus and Rodimus.
They waited forty long moments before Trinket arrived. She quickly scanned her commanding officer who did nothing more than stare at Galvatron.
"Optimus," she called, "Do you remember or know what caused the fit?"
He did not so much as look at her. Frustrated, Trinket set her hand at the back of her neck and popped weary joints. She turned to Galvatron, her expression trained neutral. "Did he do this before?"
"We were in Concentric City the last time he blacked out."
She scowled. "Well . . . I'm not getting any readings. I can give him a ration of stronger energon-"
"That's it?" Galvatron stared at her with disgust. "Feed him and put him to bed? He needs better analysis, better care-"
"There is nothing I can do for him! It's Virus-related and we don't have the technology to deal with it! And I have to get back to Ultra Magnus or we can lose him, too!"
Galvatron hung his head, frustrated. "I'll . . . come get the energon."
Trinket stood. "No. I'll send someone over. You might get killed between here and over there." she stepped out, leaving Galvatron to brainstorm for answers on his own.
The laughter of a little girl at play carried with the wind. She ran along green grass on a cool April day. Friendly clouds whisked across the sun at their own risk.
Optimus remembered the digipad in his hand. Schematics ran though a logic processor while he waited and watched the little girl. She just discovered the magic of bugs.
"Look!" she called as a caterpillar wiggled its fuzziness over her fingers.
Optimus was inclined to laugh. She was a caterpillar on his finger, too. But it was her laughter that tickled him most.
The digipad softly bleeped, indicating the schematics passed and Optimus could forward them to the next phase. This particular project was the Vertical Horizon, one of fifty star cruisers that would be assigned to each Autobot city.
Rusti settled next to a nearby tree. "He needs a house," she declared in her tiny voice.
"Are you going to build it for him?"
Optimus could not contain his smile as she started gathering rocks, leaves and sticks. "Are you going to charge him rent?"
"Are you going to make him popcorn for dinner?"
She stopped, thrown off by his illogical question. Her little face scrunched in confusion. "Opt'mus, you can't have popcorn for dinner!" she thought quickly. "He can have peas."
"Peas?" Prime tapped new instructions into the pad. "You don't like peas. How come you make him eat them?"
"Cause . . . b'cause. B'cause." the wrestling of leaves caught the girl's attention and she turned away as Rodimus trudged up from the valley.
Rusti paid no attention while the two Primes talked quietly. Through a shallow pile of old leaves, she found a little bird, shaking and panting. The girl instinctively knew the bird was fragile and had to be handled with great care. She very gently scooped her hands under it and tried to walk slowly. Maybe Optimus could help him find his home.
"Opt'mus!" she called "I found a baby bird! I think it got lost." she came twenty feet and watched the Senior Prime bow over in grief.
"Hey, Lady-friend!" Roddi cheerfully called. "Did you find something?"
He wasn't fooling her. "The baby bird, Roddi," she answered. "Is Opt'mus okay?"
"He's okay, Rusti. How about you and me go take a walk?"
Her heart went out to Optimus. She wanted to make him better. Maybe the fluttering little bird in her hands could make magic and make Optimus feel better.
No, Rusti decided, that was her job. "Here, Roddi. You have to find his home." She put the tiny creature into Roddi's outstretched reach then headed for Optimus. Her little hands laid on his foot and she searched for his optics. "Don't cry. The bird's okay."
"It's not the bird, Rusti," Prime answered simply.
"What is it? Did someone hurt you?" She watched as one Prime looked to the other as though asking permission. She knew it was serious and trusted Optimus not to lie to her.
Still, he hesitated then answered, "somebody died, Rusti. Someone I loved very much.
She did not understand death. She only knew it made him very sad. She pressed herself close to him in an effort to hug. "Don't cry, Opt'mus." she said softly. "I will take care of you."
That was the moment he fell in love with her.
Optimus woke to morning light. Blaster slept sitting in his chair while Wavelength quietly spoke to someone on the Cold Refractor.
To his left, Galvatron sat propped against the wall. His arms crossed and locked, his optics dark in slumber. Prime half-rolled to sit up and spotted Galvatron's wounded leg, now well healed. His movements woke the Decepticon, red optics dimmed on.
At first, Prime was sharply reminded of the power behind the creature-being called Decepticon. The Autobot's Cybertronian cousins were every bit as intimidating as Autobots were approachable. The mere presence of the Decepticon demanded both fear and respect; living weapons.
But Prime himself was purged of fear of them megania ago. "The storm?" he asked quietly.
"Passed hours ago."Galvatron reported in the same tone. "Rodimus?"
"Stable, but weak."
"Perhaps you should like to visit him."
The Autobot leader sat up and took on a mental consensus of his surroundings. He measured the state of being among his people and to his relief, it seemed most of them took time to rest during the night. "I think I will," he agreed, "but there's something else I need to do first."
Quasar was injured but not to the point of disability. She took care of lightly-injured Autobots who needed repairs or replacements that did not require tedious work or surgery. Though her mobility was limited to a slow walk, it did not hamper her swiftly-calculating mind. The nanosecond Optimus found her, the femme swept up a scanner and took a reading.
"Nice to see you, too," Prime greeted.
She looked pensive. "I have a right to be worried-"
"I need your help." he handed her the allocation tracking device.
She eyed it then him, skeptical. "Alright."
"I need it reversed."
It only took her four seconds. "A signal repulser rather than a frequency jammer?"
"Right. It should cover our tracks as we leave Cratis."
"Thank you." He turned to leave when she called after:
"Thank YOU!" Prime turned back and she smiled. "For coming home to us alive."
"Consider thanking Galvatron."
The next morning brought better moods and greater activity. Able-bodied names on the duty roster expanded by three hundred percent. Optimus ordered all hands to concentrate on ship repair and preparing for departure protocols. He assigned those techs who could be spared by First Aid (both of them) to prep all ships for hyperdrive installation.
That meant Quasar, Wavelength, Galvatron and himself. But Optimus could not join the other three anytime soon; he was needed everywhere else.
The best news Optimus had that day was the Sagittarian Mozart was almost ready for hyperdrive installation. All they needed was to re-weld a few bulkheads, treat the outside scanners with a special chemical coating and load her with supplies. Prime assigned Doublecross to the unwanted job of chemical coating. The liquid graphite emulsifier was important as it kept ships entering or leaving planetary orbit from exposure to harmful radiation and microscopic particles. Such particles and radiation often pummeled a ship's exterior, leaving it vulnerable to damage. Most Autobots could not properly control the emulsifier and lay a solid, even coat. Optimus knew Doublecross had an unusual skill in dealing with emulsifiers, since she aided in emulsifying the decks and walls of Fortress Sonix upon its near-completion. Jazz bragged about her work for six days.
He started to leave the Mozart when Bumblebee handed him the latest casualties list. He thanked the little fellow with a heart warming smile and reassigned The Bee to parameter watch.
Optimus took six steps toward the Spiral Star when he abruptly pause, turned about face and watched as Crossy painted the Mozart's name with a small paint brush holding only two hairs.
The Autobot leader approached for a closer exam and watched for three more minutes, confused. "Doublecross, what are you doing?"
"I've completed the scanner assignment, sir. So I thought . . . you know . . . I'd start a little bit on the assignment Ultra Magnus gave me a couple weeks ago before I apply the emulsifier. Cuz paint doesn't stay well on, um, the stuff."
He watched her for another moment and a half, visibly perplexed. "What did you do to irritate Ultra Magnus so badly?"
She visibly cringed and Optimus sensed it was something the femme Monsterbot swore she'd never do again.
As he analyzed personnel data given him by Blaster and Colt, the Autobot leader reached the Spiral Star. He read the casualties list. Forty-eight humans and thirty-five Autobots perished. Those were lives that could not be replaced.
Stay objective, he told himself, don't give any reason for Void to resurface. The list was a sad one. Autobots, Humans, friends and allies; more than just soldiers and families. More than just officers and professionals; they were all his people.
Dr. Zornoy greeted Prime at the Spiral Star's entrance. He gave Prime a long list of grievances and requests for medicines and cleansers. Optimus listened as Zornoy counted off the over-use of packaged emergency rations. The doctor added complaints regarding the lack of proper fluids for the children and the plague of alien head lice battled on the Trench Driver. Zornoy mourned over depression and exhaustion suffered by all his patients. He detailed the plague of nightmares several adults and most children endured; the nightmare almost always consisting of a science lab where people were experimented upon.
Finally, Zornoy told Prime of the first ion storm they encountered and what it did to Jasmine Goodwin.
"What sort of effects, Dr. Zornoy?" Prime asked quietly.
The extra terrestrial doctor frowned before leading Optimus to the Spiral Star's quarantine section. Zornoy used a personal access code to open three doors before he and Prime traversed the short corridor to a series of cells with energy bars. One to the right contained a lady who drew pictures and equations along every square inch of her cell, even the table and chair assigned to her.
The next cell utilized a grid-bar designed to block out sound-and with good reason. The woman therein screamed and bucked against her restraints.
Prime took another look at the lady in Cell A then the one in Cell B.
"Yes," Zornoy confirmed. "They're the same person but split."
"The ion storm did this? I've never heard of something like this happening."
Zornoy shrugged. "This is the universe, Optimus Prime. No one writes the rules, we're all just observers."
The Autobot leader knelt before Cell A and watched the quiet Jasmine work on whatever project her fragmented mind demanded. Optimus observed her rather than her work. "Why are you screaming in the next room?"
Jasmine sighed. "She sees the invisible. She sees the Alternate realities. She dreams along ley lines and hears the psychic and the empathic."
"Have you tried to talk to her?"
"She can't be helped. She exists elsewhere."
"We might be able to get you help on Yolthanis III."
Jasmine now tore her concentration from her present spot on the wall and approached him, pen held at the ready as though she were going to write on the prison bars. "There are a calculated eleven universes or realities according to math. But I tell you that there are even more than that. I tell you that there are parallel realities and time fractures and alternate realities and sometimes . . . sometimes one reality becomes another when history has gone too far wrong. You weren't supposed to be here. You weren't supposed to come back at all. This whole reality was set up to correct a mistake."
Optimus peered more closely at her. "What mistake?"
Jasmine glanced at Zornoy then back to the Autobot. "The girl."
The alien doctor scoffed. "Not again. Jasmine, you say this, then you change your mind."
"I don't change my mind. I say different things according to different times. If you listen long enough, you will hear me scream of death by cancer. Death by broken heart. Death by destruction of the Matrix-"
Zornoy cut her off: "-and yesterday you proclaimed a universe where all Transformers were half-beast and half-creature."
"The Fuzors exist!" Jasmine insisted. "But they'll never be here!"
"Why is that?" Optimus asked.
She locked him in sight: "The death of a god. The birth of an abomination. And a planet-creature who has adopted orphaned children. The Beasts and Fuzors can never exist here. But they do exist."
"Uh-huh." Zornoy turned to leave. "We get this sci-fi story all too often. We're departing, Jasmine. Bid your company good-bye."
Optimus wanted to hear more. He vaguely recalled the time bubble Magnus and Rodimus said they were trapped in almost two years ago. He rose and headed for the door but Jasmine's voice stopped him one additional moment:
"Optimus! Optimus! Do not listen to the song of Zh'Xn! It will kill you. Listen to me, don't listen to it! It calls, but not for you!"
Prime did not know what to say. With a wave and a smile, Dr. Zornoy led the Autobot leader out the door. "We don't expect her to live much longer. And I don't think there is a technology of any kind that can put Ms. Humpty Dumpty together again."
Optimus ran Jasmine's words through his mind. Most of it did sound made up. Some of it made sense.
Void hissed its defiance and Optimus firmly held his own against it.
NOT CONTROLLABLE. NOT ALWAYS FOREVER.
Optimus felt it lick him inside. His systems shut down then instantly kicked back in. He shuddered from a nonexistent sense of cold and he outwardly flinched.
"I'm sorry, Optimus Prime. You're rather silent. Are you alright?"
"Just a bit tired," he brushed off. "Doctor Zornoy . . . how's Rusti?" He felt selfish asking for something that had little to nothing to do with their survival. Optimus laid a hand on his chest. Maybe her life was not important to the overall scheme of things. But she was important to him. And terrifying enough, he realized he did not want to know the truth; did not want to know that she was not well, but knew it anyway.
Zornoy turned away, the expression was all Optimus needed. "She's in a medical-induced coma right now. We have her on a plasma drip. She and six others. The attack on the Frostbite was neither brief nor pleasant. At least the attackers all ended dead." Zornoy finally looked back at Prime. "We need water. Not the limited supply we brought with us, not the crap from the ground here. Good water."
Optimus nodded, saddened that his heart was with someone he could not be with, that his duty lay with the Autobots. His fist clenched and unclenched with conflicting emotions. "Please keep me informed on her condition, Doctor."
Zornoy tossed him a weary smile. "You know I shall."
From there, Optimus visited Kup who attained consciousness just an hour before. The cranky old hen fussed with his care giver who insisted she tend to someone worse off then himself. "Well, of all the fuse-blown, logic-stripping audacity. Optimus Prime, I presume."
Apogee handed Kup a flagon of cordial and stepped away with a welcoming smile. The Autobot leader sat in her place with a hand on Kup's injured shoulder. "Hello, Kup. I'm glad to see you up and alive."
But Kup did not share his gratitude. Pain dimmed the old warrior's optics. "Roddi, Prime. He's had an awful time. Not that I don't think he can't handle it. He's resilient, bounces back like a ballobot. But it's been really tough on him."
"As you say, Kup, he'll rebound. And when he does, no doubt he'll kick my aft over the idea of going to Mars."
"Nah. That'll be Rusti's job. What's left of you might be divided between Roddi and Magnus-" Kup's optics quite suddenly shot wide then flared hot. "What the lug-crankin', shaft jammin' Pitt are you doing here?"
Prime turned and greeted Galvatron with a neutral expression. Galvatron flashed a grin at the 'old coot' then dropped it just as quickly. Prime stood as he approached. "Seems there's a problem with a . . . " he wanted to say flesh creature but chose his wording with care: " . . . male Human."
"I am not listening-"
"-you never do, stupid filter-headed femme."
"That was a low-blow, Daniel-"
"SHUT UP, SIDESWIPE! Nobody asked you-"
"Don't you walk away from me, Arcee, you have no right to turn your back -"
"Fuck off, Daniel-"
"No! You come do me first, you dilapidated catalytic converter-just open your mouth long enough for me to hose it down!"
"Say what you like, you recessive genetic defect, I am NOT going to rejoin you. Stay out of my-"
"What is going on here?" Optimus heard their three voices three ships away and it seemed people went out of their way to pass by and see what was going on. Daniel glowered the ugliest expression toward him. Prime read pain and rage in Arcee's face while Sideswipe tried to keep his expression non-committal. He stood between them, one foot closer to Daniel.
Witwicky squinted his eyes. "Oh, look, Daddy Prime is here, Arcee, come to take you home and protect you."
Prime only glanced at him then looked to Sideswipe for answers.
Sideswipe stared at the silent, neutral face of Galvatron. "Daniel was asking Arcee to . . . take up the Headmaster process again."
"I see. And what was your answer, Arcee?"
She opened her mouth to speak but Daniel answered for her: "She knows it's the best thing that's ever happened to her but she's afraid everyone thinks of her a freak-"
"I did not ask you to speak for her, Daniel Albert Witwicky." Optimus growled.
"Oooh! All three names! Did you hear that one, Arcee? You must have blabbed it off to someone. Why didn't you just have dog tags made for me? Where's the leash-"
"DANIEL!" Prime's voice firmed and the little man crossed his arms and sulked.
Arcee stared at the Human ass. "I told Daniel I chose not to; I wanted nothing more to do with him-"
"You said a lot more than that, Arcee. The word 'zit' fell from your lips. I'm amazed you even know-"
Prime squatted in front of Daniel and flashed his optics. "Speak out of turn one more time, Daniel, and I'll put you in isolation." His calm voice only elicited another ugly expression. He straightened: "Arcee, I'm assigning you to the Spiral Star to assist First Aid."
"Daniel, maintenance . . . on the Alvarez."
Witwicky's face dropped. "WHAT?"
Optimus knew Daniel heard him, but chose to repeat anyway: "Maintenance. On the Alvarez."
"But that's an Autobot quarters ship-and it's infected!"
Prime gazed at Sideswipe. "Get Daniel some equipment, would you?"
Witwicky snorted. "And what if I say no? What're you going to do, Prime? Step on me? Huh? Your High-And-Mightyship doesn't have the guts to carry out threats."
A hand flattened the ground around Daniel and he found himself standing between a thumb and forefinger. Prime came inches to swatting him like a fly. "Don't push me, Daniel. Don't test my patience." He tapped his head. "The chip isn't working. And if I don't do something, you'd better start worrying about Rodimus. I left his leash at home."
That got Witwicky's attention. It meant that whatever action Rodimus chose to take with him, Optimus would not get in the way to protect. The Human jerk passed his gaze from Prime to Galvatron and silently made his way to the Alvarez. He flipped the bird at Arcee, however and continued on his way.
"Optimus?" Arcee's voice came small, a bit on the fearful side. Prime straightened and gazed at her. It really was her entirely and he wanted to tell her how good it was to see the femme as herself again. "How's Ultra Magnus?"
"That, Arcee, is a very good question."
Magnus reposed on a two-slab flat barely large enough to accommodate his size. Two other flats occupied by wounded Autobots stood a few yards off. Dim lighting cast grey shadows in the quiet room. The only movement came from a femme sitting beside Magnus. Optimus glanced twice before recognizing Cloudstreaker. Her optics lit softly upon spotting him. Prime warned her to stay quiet with a finger to his face plate.
She followed him out the room and closed the door. "Jazz said I could take a break for two hours. I thought I'd check to see if Ultra Magnus was okay."
Optimus brushed a bit of soil off the side of her helm and gave her a pleased smile. "Galvatron told me what you did, Cloudstreaker. You're very brave and I'd like to thank you for such quick thinking."
She flushed and cast her optics to the floor. "I'm glad I can help."
"How's Ultra Magnus?"
"They um . . . they're still waiting for results."
"They've had to replace his retraction instuds and . . . and had to flush the ventral fuel lines. They won't come out and say it, but I'm worried he might've been poisoned."
Exhaustion and concern for Magnus weighed heavy on Cloudstreaker's face. Optimus wondered when she rested last. It seemed cruel to send her away, but the femme drained her energy to protect the camp. "Get some rest, Cloudstreaker. I'll have someone inform know if there's any change." He followed her wishful optics as they stared at the door as if she could see through it. "He'll make it," Prime added. "I am certain Ultra Magnus isn't done bossing us around."
She forced a light smile and reluctantly walked away. Prime watched until she disappeared then entered the quiet room and sat beside the city commander. "Don't make a liar out of me, Magnus," he muttered.
Optimus stayed with the Major-General through the afternoon. Reports drifted piecemeal from the Confiscator and the Saber's Claw: both were refit with their wings and ready for hyperdrive installation. Prime worried, however, that another storm might hit before they could escape Cratis. He debated about removing the camp shields before contacting the shield crew and rescinding the order to refit the ship's wings. They simply could not afford to lie vulnerable to another ion storm.
Progress was slow, but at least they moved forward in spite of the senior staff. Except Jazz, all were laid up, recovering.
Because most of the other fliers were down (including Cloudstreaker), Cyclonus, Fireflight and Dogfight took on twelve-hour shift patrol runs around the camp's parameter. Galvatron and Jazz (who kept his complaints about the 'Cons to himself) handled supplies and several landing gear repairs. They sent Prime meticulous, detailed updates every thirty to forty minutes without fail.
"You're spoiling me," Prime communicated to Galvatron.
"Is that so?" Galvatron and Fort Draco's second-in-command, Spectrum, followed the extended hydriodic lines along the Trench Driver for reported leaks.
"If everyone were as efficient as you, I'd have no need for digipads."
Spectrum looked up when Galvatron half-laughed. "You'd be bored, Prime," he answered smoothly. "But that's fine. I'll let you bask in my greatness. After all, when your senior staff return to work, they'll force you to put me down."
Optimus fell sadly quiet. "I won't let that happen," he vowed.
Galvatron shut off a valve, shrugged outwardly and began disconnecting an outer pipe. "I'm not concerned. If I die, I die." He got no response and paused in his work long enough to realize he meant more to the Autobot leader than a casual acquaintance. Galvatron caught Spectrum staring at him. Suspicion crossed the Autobot's optics.
Galvatron shrugged off the fear. "Confession time, Optimus," he said aloud. He scanned the inner pipe and exchanged it for a new one. "I often toyed with the idea of reprogramming you."
"Why didn't you?"
Galvatron smiled because he hated his former self. "I did, remember?"
"Not clearly," Prime answered slowly.
"You made a mess of things, though." Galvatron sensed Prime's smile as he tightened the new pipe.
"Are you saying you'd make a better Autobot than I a Decepticon?"
Galvatron's mood lightened and he paused before reconnecting another set of hydraulic lines. "I don't know. Lemme ask around."
Optimus covered his face with his hand and shook his head.
"Do you think I'd make a better Autobot than Prime as a Decepticon?"
Spectrum stared at Galvatron, unsure how to answer. He felt incredibly awkward in light of Galvatron's humor.
The Decepticon grinned. "Well, Prime, it seems I haven't been an Autobot long enough for the report card to come in. Guess I'd better keep working."
"Heh." Optimus sensed Spectrum's consternation. "They'll warm up to you."
The digipad in Prime's hand switched screens as First Aid submitted an update on Grimlock's condition. Optimus read it then laid a hand on Magnus' arm. "Galvatron, I need to visit Grimlock."
Grimlock's body floated in a transparent titanium cell of polymers liquid. At the other end of the same room lay Snarl, his body coiled by tubes and computer support systems. The Autobot leader took a moment to read Snarl's tablet. He was not as badly damaged as Grimlock, but he was not going to recover any time soon, either.
Loss of the Dinobots would take a toll on the rest of the camp because they handled all the heavy-duty jobs; jobs only a few other Autobots could take. Optimus approached Grimlock. He took care to acknowledge the other three Dinobots. They wore battered marks, slices, gashes and serious dents. Prime figured none of the remaining Dinobots wished to leave Grimlock's side, no matter how much pain they were in. Prime laid a hand on the glass containing the Dinobot leader. Grimlock's optics remained dark, unaware of his situation or surroundings. Even damaged, torn and broken, the Dinobot leader looked imposing, his frame bespoke of power wrought of raw determination. From what little Optimus learned of the battle, it was probably one of Grimlock's best moments.
He turned to Slag, Sludge and Swoop. None of them shared words with him. Their faces said everything.
Optimus could not afford the other Dinobots to linger in depression. He needed to get their minds off Grimlock's and Snarl's situation, but nothing appropriate came to him. He departed, laying a kind hand on Sludge's shoulder as he left the room in silence.
Pt 7: Consequences
At two P.M. Earth time, the explosion shot off in the lower decks of the Gabriel Genesis. Autobots and EDC officers scrambled like ants caught in a fire. They raced in and out, rescuing people, equipment and as many rations as they could.
Doublecross, Grotesque and Sureshot hit the flames and yanked emergency levers before the plasma fire ate the new fuel lines. They extinguished both fire and smoke by venting all oxygen from the Genesis.
Optimus wanted nothing more than to lose his temper over the moment. There was no reason for anything to blow on the ship and had there been a bomb (as he privately suspected) the Genesis should have detected it.
As the emergency died down, Optimus sent Bumblebee, Siren and Imp with a droid scout to investigate.
Optimus anticipated some Autobots would instantly point fingers at Galvatron and Cyclonus. But the two Decepticons were with other Autobots at all times and that very fact would certainly eliminate them as suspects. But it also meant they either had bombs planted by Decepticons during the battle, or there was a traitor in the camp.
The good thing was the ship's drive system was largely undamaged. But some of their energon supply was lost in the explosion. Bumblebee's report also stated the Gabriel Genesis was incapable of life support during space travel until internal hydraulics and air filtration systems were fixed. And they had no way of purchasing a new filter system.
If that was the worst bit of news Optimus received for the day, he might have considered it a descent day.
That wasn't the sort of fortune the Autobots have had. Delta found an explosive in a wall compartment on the Armored Crest. Physix found another in auxiliary control on the Crested Moon. Jazz ran into two of them on the landing gear on the Hannibal's Mark
Optimus ordered all activity to cease. Those few Autobot and EDC officers off duty were confined to the Dancing Siren and the Razor Lady for safety while the Autobot leader handpicked ten people to comb the entire camp.
But even that did not bode smoothly enough.
It was EDC officer Vazquez who called Prime's attention to the fight at the Confiscator. Sideswipe and Repugnus started with a name-calling contest that reached the point of vulgarity.
"What's going on?" Prime demanded without preamble.
Sideswipe's optics were bright-hot. "This THING that we have allowed loose in the camp!"
Repugnus, in robot mode, shrugged. "I was looking for entertainment," the Monsterbot grunted. "He was cheap."
Sideswipe cried out and leapt toward the Monsterbot, but Optimus intercepted, pushing the warrior back. "Return to your previous post, Sideswipe! Enough of this, both of you!"
Sideswipe glared. "Monsterbot freaks and Decepticon pinx. A one-way ticket to the Pitt."
Optimus stood almost nose-to-nose with Sideswipe. "One more word out of you, mister, and you'll be sitting next to Strike Back. Do I make myself clear?"
"Transparent . . . sir." Sideswipe wisely turned and stomped off. Prime turned to the Monsterbot.
"I do not need your help to make things difficult, Repugnus. Am I clear on that?"
"Like glass. Gotta mention, though it ain't entirely his fault. Not that I hadn't been makin' sport a' him. But Side's is pissed like a sorian puppy. 'N fact, he's just blowing brain matter cuz his twit-uh-twin's in the 'firmary with bandaids and bad medicine."
Optimus stared a moment, realizing what the Monsterbot was implying. "I'll look into it, Repugnus, thank you. How's the sweep going on the Confiscator?"
"Nearly done. So far clean as a babe in water. By another way, while you're at it, you might wanna know that there's a lotta radioactive crap on the battlefield. Might need a clean up crew so the squishies don't get sick."
One more thing Optimus forgot to put on his list. One more thing to think about. He did not have enough people, Autobots, EDC or citizens, to head that way and clean things up. "Well . . . seems you just made a new job for yourself, then. Take Crossy with you." Optimus turned away then swung back around, an idea suddenly struck: "Get the Dinobots out there, Repugnus, would you? It's doing them no good to worry over Grimlock."
"What? You askin' me to play Dino-sitter? This isn't Romper Room and I ain't a Sunday school teacher."
"Oh." Optimus nodded. "I'm sorry, Repugnus. I did not realize it was that difficult. I'll ask Rusti when she gets out of bed."
"I didn't say I'd not do it," the Monsterbot replied almost instantly. "I just said I ain't a Sunday school teacher."
"I don't expect you to teach them to read and write; just keep them occupied while Grimlock is down, that's all."
"Occupied, eh?" Repugnus shifted from robot to Monster mode and smiled wickedly. "Where's their leashes?"
Perceptor caught Prime on his way back to the Spiral Star. Not only did the Autobot leader want to visit Sunstreaker, but he sensed something through the Matrix and needed to spend time with Rodimus. As usual, however, Perceptor rattled endlessly in Prime's audios about each component necessary to fix the Gabriel Genesis. He was unaware that just ten minutes ago, Blaster reported communications between the Genesis, the Vertical Horizon and the Interrogator was sabotaged so that all frequencies 'leaked' into one another and could be picked up with something as simple as an Earth shortwave transmitter. It meant that ship-to-ship communications could not be used on Cratis.
Sabotage was a common tactic employed by Decepticon raiders and invaders. But why communications only? The explosives were certainly of their adversary's nature, but causing communications to 'bleed' made no sense.
Perceptor yammered so that he failed to see Galvatron quietly approach, wiping fluids off his hands and arms. ". . . in response to several semi-conductor boards and the anti-protonic interfaces. The conductivity of their interaction would reiterate the necessitation of their-"
"Stop." Prime held a hand in front of Perceptor and turned to Galvatron. "Why do you think the Decepticons would sabotage ship-to-ship communications?"
Galvatron's blank expression twisted into confusion, matching Prime's. "Sabotaging communications?"
"Yes. No jammed frequencies, no bugs or other listening devices. They just changed the interfaces so that all frequencies are interchangeable."
"There's no reason for that. Destroying communication is a better tactic than fragmenting frequencies. And that would take a long . . ." Galvatron stared hard at Prime, his visage winced in realization, "Oh . . . Prime . . . that would entail an expert such as Soundwave or Blaster to bleed frequencies."
"Exactly. And the ships' shields were active except for the-"
"Frostbite." they chorused.
The two paused half a moment until First Aid called Prime on the interpersonal com and Prime's optics darkened. "Go ahead, First Aid," he answered internally.
"Optimus, Ambient has been poisoned."
Prime gazed at Galvatron. "I have to go. But I need to stay. And Rodimus-"
"I'll handle the Frostbite and look into this little side note."
Prime shook his head. "I can't ask you-"
"You're understaffed. Jazz is handling rations and supplies now. Most all your experts are tending the ships and the heavyweights are cleaning up the mess outside." Galvatron snatched Prime's digipad. "Besides, don't you think I have the credentials for this job? I do have some experience."
Prime was forced to agree. "Perceptor, you're to assist Galvatron."
"That's an order, Perceptor."
The Autobot scientist looked like a child left with a babysitter. His sad, uncertain gaze dragged from Prime to Galvatron. He scowled, liking the situation with the Decepticons less all the time; especially since they had more the Autobot leader's attention than he. Galvatron gave him the same 'toothy' smile he once gave GoBot Painter.
Perceptor looked very nervous.
Optimus traveled the rampway to the Siren's second level and passed several rooms before finding Ambient.
First Aid double checked a feed with his assistant before guiding Optimus out the room. The doctor glanced over his shoulder, fearful of eavesdropping.
"Aid?" Prime asked quietly.
The medic switched to an internal comline. "She insists it was no one on the battlefield, Prime. She started feeling ill just last night."
"Slow poison perhaps?"
"No, not that slow."
Prime's optics flashed his annoyance. "Keep the strictest of tabs on her. If anyone else is affected, I want to know about it immediately. How are Rodimus and Sunstreaker?"
First Aid cast his optics elsewhere.
Sunstreaker's pain radiated from his room like a typhoon. No sooner did Optimus Prime step off the turbo lift than it slammed square in his face. He hit the wall and crumbled, smothered by a powerful cocktail of hate, anger, distress, depression and self-loathing.
The Autobot leader lay there, struggling against thoughts that were not his own. He swam through a tar pit of memories from the battle as they played hell with his processor. Optimus relived Sunny's fight with a Pretender. It slipped out its shell and charged him from two sides. It slashed and slugged him from one side while the shell disjointed his left arm.
Sunny killed it. Yes, he killed it dead. But not before it shattered half the plating on his face; not before it severed a nice chunk from his leg. Now he could no longer transform.
The storm came. Oh, painful storm! The sounds, the lights and then the bolt that hit his left side.
Sideswipe's voice came distantly, worried, fearful. Sunny could not answer. His body crashed along the ground. His mind crashed into darkness. His internals crashed and sizzled under plasma fire. His amitoid systems collapsed. His sensors fell into basic mode.
Optimus tried to reduce the trauma to a tolerant level. But his rational therum shields failed to absorb Sunstreaker's emotional terminal shock.
What's wrong with me? Control over his senses fluctuated. Optimus was rarely overwhelmed but whatever afflicted Sunstreaker caused such shock that his emotions splattered the environment like blood.
Optimus pushed himself up and pushed himself forward and pushed himself to take the punishing distress. He dared closer to Sunstreaker's room. Memories violently penetrated his thoughts and disrupted his concentration. Optimus almost forgot why he was there. He steadied himself against the nearby wall. Depression raked into him and fed on his inner fortitude. He bled inside.
It's not me, he insisted. Not me! Not me! Some leader! Keep moving! Determination trained by centuries of survival tactics gave Prime the strength necessary to wade against Sunstreaker's emotional assaults.
Once in the room, Optimus kept a respectful distance. He firmly, consciously divided himself from Sunny's decomposed state of mind. It was a difficult task; just getting to the room exhausted him, left him open to Sunny's depression. Optimus had to remind himself several times he had not failed the Autobots before addressing the injured Autobot warrior.
"Sunstreaker," Optimus called gently. The Lambro-Autobot lay in pieces along the sterilized surface of a medbay table. Plasma fire ate eighty-five percent of his exostructure. His disfigured face twitched with damaged sensors.
Sunny tried to look elsewhere when Prime entered. His movements jerked and spasmed. The crisped fingers on his right hand twitched. "Didn't want . . . not believe . . ." his reverberated voice sounded like he talked through a tin can.
Optimus was not about to mention the price he paid to see Sunny. "I tried to get here sooner. I am sorry."
Sunny's right optic flared and swung from Prime to a corner and back. "Lousy fight. Lousy ambush. A lousy deal. Sideswipe's angry."
Prime forced himself to approach the wreckage. How much damage he caused himself, he did not know. Prime gazed into Sunstreaker's optics. Something felt off-kilter. Not just out of place or out of sorts, but incorrect. "What can I do to help, Sunstreaker?"
"No." His right hand went limp then flexed.
"Would you like me to talk to Sideswipe?"
"I know. I know you don't want to believe what happened. We can work through this."
Sunny moaned, low, mournful. His left foretoe trembled. "The wall . . . not so nice. The wall . . . reminded me."
Optimus took up a chair and settled near the table. He struggled through Sunny's agony to decipher what the Autobot warrior tried to say. Optimus perceived all of Sideswipe's downed pretenses; his facade lay in the dust and ashes of a body now torn by an enemy long since retreated.
Optimus searched Sunny's optics and kept his voice even and low, "Streaker . . . why would the wall speak to you? What did it say?"
"Reminded. Old Cybertron. Not good. Not that life-" and the warrior, the once proud, over-confident, dedicated soldier broke into another mournful wail.
Out of habit, Prime considered laying a hand on some area along the platform of scattered body parts and medical life support equipment. The melted exostructure of burned extremities left little room for a caring touch. Streaker's face crumbled from ionic overload. Even his helm half lay in a box of mechanical fluids necessary to keep his meta processor from overheating.
"Sunstreaker," Optimus said gently, "That entire incident was over seven million years ago. Old Cybertron doesn't even exist. The Cave was destroyed during the Brickmaker Rebellion. Our present has nothing to do with that point in history. Do you not think you're better off now than when you worked for The Cave?"
"The wall," Streaker insisted. "The wall said it was unreality."
Optimus struggled through Sunstreaker's agony, seeking answers to his soldier's despondency. Why was Sunny concerned about his past? Optimus would not discount Sunny's and Sideswipe's history before he met them. Forced to do maintenance at a young age, they were tortured and abused by the owner of prestigious entertainment facility. The vile and depraved owner enslaved and starved the two brothers and tortured their sister to death.
The incident made headlines across Cybertron. Sunny and Sides were not the Cave's only victims. Authorities discovered a basement filled floor to ceiling with the bodies of hundreds of Autobot newlings worked to the point of termination.
Optimus found himself wearing down. He struggled to find something to say to bring Sunstreaker out of depression. "Sunny, why would the wall remind you of something like that? Is it saying that you-"
"It's not true."
"Look." and Sunny wailed again, helpless to express his demoralized state any other way. "It said. It said."
"Sunstreaker, that does not change the fact that you are safe among people who care about you. You do not need to worry about your condition. We are not judging you by how you look. This is temporary."
"More," Streaker insisted, "they go. We go. We com. They come. They go. We go. We come. They come. We do. They do. They do. They do-"
"I know it's frustrating. I know. We all grow tired of fighting Decepticons or Quintessons." The truth bit into him and held him there. It would be so easy to just give up. Optimus cast his optics to the floor and reminded himself again and again it was not him that felt this way. Sunny needed to shut down. He needed to rest.
Sunstreaker's optics flared hot and his detached, useless hand wiggled its fingers; a twitching spider with no control over its limbs.
Prime reached forward and caressed the arch above Sunny's left optic. "Shhh . . . " He projected solace through the touch and thankfully enough, something more than just his sympathy reached for Sunny. That shred of strength helped long enough to cause Sunstreaker to settle down.
Emotional relief flooded his damaged meta processor. Sunny gasped like someone who plunged into cold water. His optics dimmed, his hands calmed. First Aid slipped in bearing a tray covered by a cloth. Prime paid him no mind as he silently bade Sunny to sleep, to rest a while and forget where he was, forget the battle; forget everything but summertime in Fort Max.
Gradually Sunstreaker's twitching ceased. His optics dimmed and the life monitor beside him slowed to a restful rhythm.
First Aid silently set his tray atop a nearby counter and gazed from the sleeping Autobot to their leader. It was not the first time the medic witnessed this unusual talent. Optimus did it more than once for Bluestreak who suffered nightmares all his life. "We're doing as much as we can for him, Prime, but-"
"I know, First Aid. Can you tell me what happened to him?"
"I'm afraid not. We've managed to keep him from shut down. I've considered submitting him to medical stasis. But we don't have anymore equipment. What we have is currently occupied-unless you want us to take Rodimus-"
"Absolutely not." Prime bit his words just then. Had Roddi been there, he would have insisted they use his equipment for Sunstreaker. Optimus stared at the wounded Autobot, worried and guilty. He hated choosing one person over another. He hoped he was not sacrificing Sunstreaker to save Rodimus.
The Autobot medic changed power filters on Sunstreaker and looked pained. "I'll have someone come back to check on him in half an hour. But . . . how are you?"
Optimus tapped Sunstreaker's table with two fingers. Telling First Aid the truth would land him right back in bed. "I'm fine, First Aid," he lied. Optimus knew he'd pay dearly for it later. But at this point, he simply could not afford to do anything less than take care of his people. That also meant visiting Roddi and Optimus suspected THAT visit would land him in medbay.
Prime allotted himself a short break before attending Roddi. Galvatron and Jazz assured him they had everything in hand.
"But 'r you sure you doan want me t' check in on Roddi instead?" Jazz asked. "You don't sound like it's something you otta do right now, Prime. Leastways, not somethin' you got the juice for."
"This really isn't something you can do, Jazz," Prime answered solemnly. Jazz signed off after muttering something about carrying Optimus out on an antigrav flat.
It was close to eleven P.M. Earth Pacific Standard. Those tasks that did not require immediate attention were postponed for the following day. Those Autobots on duty who absolutely had to rest were given five hours to recharge. Optimus was grateful to Jazz and Galvatron; he did not need to worry overmuch about the camp's activity while tending Rodimus. There was no telling how long the visit would take.
So why was he now reluctant to take that first step into the corridor? A powerful sense of dread settled over his shoulders and the Autobot leader regarded his reservations with concern. Certainly the visit with Sunstreaker left him tired.
He was not going to allow himself to admit just how tired he was; Rodimus was far too important. But something was wrong. And something else had gone wrong during his visit with the injured Autobot.
Optimus stood at the entry arch leading into the next corridor, leading to Roddi's room. He knew if Sunstreaker's distress threw him into a wave of uncontrolled emotions, Rodimus would do far more. Prime forced the first step past the archway threshold.
Self-loathing intersected head-on. It hit him hard enough that it brutally forced Optimus to his knees.
All his life, Roddi's only purpose was to care for the Autobots. But the Viral insanity turned him into a traitor to his own cause, his own beliefs. That forefront expression lay split and swollen like an open infection. Rodimus could not forgive himself. Optimus could not forgive himself. Murder was never acceptable, especially of a Prime.
Roddi counted his sins; those who died at his command, those who died at his hands. He tallied up the names and their histories, setting them in his soul like a haunted box of poisoned candy. And he was forced to eat that candy one piece at a time, mull over it, mourn over it. Never forget.
Responsibility ate into him; a toxin force-fed by his appointed occupation.
No one ever asks to be Prime, Optimus rationalized. It's like being born a king; the child cannot say no, only learn everything taught from balancing a national budget to protocol, to table manners and ability to speak more than one language. And it's not that they choose to be Prime, but that Prime chose them. It's not that they want to do it, but that they can.
I know this, the Autobot leader told himself, I know because I too tried to walk out on it.
But one never simply walks from the job; not short of assassination.
Would we not have been better as a species to have just died off? Would there not be peace?
Roddi's voice intervened along that point: "Isn't that what the Paratrons think? Isn't that what they say?"
Optimus fought for emotional control. He searched his own history for rationales to balance the guilt and grief. So many people died in the name of freedom.
Why must this even be an issue? Why mourn for those who believed in what they died for? After all, did he regret running in the line of fire?
Did he ever wish he had not risked life and limb so that someone else could live to see the next day?
Not for a microsecond.
Naturally he was Prime; it was his duty to put his life on the line. But just because no one else held his office did not exclude them from the same convictions. Why should he be so distinct?
Yet . . . yet, yet, yet, he was guilty of murder. He was guilty of chaos and destruction wrought by such means as only he could conjure atrocities. His actions were not justified by the Matrix, but magnified.
Magnus should have . . . and did not. Why? Why did he not assassinate Optimus and Rodimus? Would it have not been logical to eliminate a dire threat rather than tempt fate and hope the incident never happened again?
Should Optimus not go either to Jazz or Galvatron right now and order them to end it for him? What of Rodimus?
What of Rodimus, indeed.
Had he not been through this line of thought before?
That wasn't the point!!
He was guilty. Face your guilt! Take your medicine! Wallow on the floor and beg for mercy. Count the lives wasted. Recall the names lost. Recite their history and mourn their sacrifice.
And add Sun to it.
It took Optimus a moment before he noticed the mistake in conclusion.
Pause. Uncertainty came to him.
Add Sun to it.
Still on his knees in the corridor, several doors away from Roddi, Optimus' thoughts cleared in light of the strange thought.
"The sun?" he said aloud. "What?"
Void's faceless visage dropped upside down in front of Prime's. Optimus skittered off his knees, disgusted and horrified simultaneously. He lifted his optics toward the ceiling, finding the rest of the Virus hanging upside down like an alien spider.
"Damn you!" Prime hissed.
SSSSUUNNNN. SSSSSS . . . NNNNNN. . . .SPACE CONFUSING. CONFUSING. TRICKY DECEPTION. Void came closer. It walked along the ceiling, tapping against metal plates and sent surges down Prime's infastructural rod. Nothing that large should have that ability.
TRICKY, Void insisted.
"Not my problem," Prime answered finally.
REGRET FOUND YOU . . . OPTIMUS PRIME. EASILY INFILTRATED. REGRET LIFE. ALL ELSE DIES. REGRET LIFE. ALL CHANGES COME. REGRET ANOTHER DEATH. REGRET INABILITY. REGRET INSTABILITY. REGRET LOST HOME. REGRET FIVE MILLION YEARS. PRIME REGRETS.
Optimus seethed with dire self recrimination. He lowered his guard so that the Virus found a way to manipulate him, to turn his internal war against himself.
Still angry over his weakness, Optimus narrowed his optics at the Virus and could not decide if he wanted to tell it off or give it the silent treatment.
He opted for the second solution. Void hated being ignored, but at least the Virus never attacked because it could not get answers. Prime picked himself up and gave the Virus a wide berth round the corridor. He pressed forward, heavy-hearted, disgusted and seething at the same time. This wasn't the right frame of mind with which he should visit Roddi. After all, whatever he was going through echoed through the Matrix.
EXPLAIN SUN. Void insisted.
Optimus paused and laid a hand on the wall to steady himself. Not for the sake of the annoying Virus, but because of a flash-memory; something about a motorcycle, a doll and a baby. But Optimus could not quite catch it all. Roddi slipped from one bad memory to a memory-nightmare then shot back; his memories and emotions tangled with Optimus'.
A bad combination.
EXPLAIN SUN. TALK SUN.
Prime finally turned to the Virus, annoyed. "Your logic is irrational. Go away!" He pushed onward while his mind swung from contentment to disgust to rage and spiraled into loneliness.
Void tapped alongside the Autobot leader, Its head tilted in Optimus' direction. Its long square tail snaked in and curled back. SSSSSUUUUUNNNN. SSSSUUUUNNN.
Prime's optics flared, "Get LOST!" he stood at the doorway to Roddi's room and felt like a diver, unsure if he had enough oxygen in his blood.
Void clacked its teeth, staring at the uncooperative host. Finally it chose to leave, its body spread out, shifted into a flat, two-dimensional image and slipped into the crevice floor panels.
Intense depression soaked into Optimus' mind so that he sank at the doorpost, unable to enter the room. He tried to see Roddi lying on his flat, but the room stood too dark for normal vision. Certainly Optimus could have shifted to other frequencies . . . but why bother?
He allowed the darkness to swallow his sight and take hold of his mind; it reflected his own morale. Don't leave me, he silently begged. But how could he ask such a thing? Roddi had a right to decide for himself. If he wanted to die, Optimus was not entitled to stop him.
Go down fighting. Die an honorable death. The Autobots were finished, anyway. History repeated itself. He failed to prevent it.
Overwhelmed, Optimus lay on the floor, shuddering with tears. Roddi relived the same fate as those he led in the parallel universe. He struggled to keep things together as they came apart underneath him. Certainly things weren't perfect on Earth, but it was a place and time that Roddi believed gave him a second chance. But exile here, on Cratis, shoved him into the same abusive reality from which he once recovered.
It was cruel.
Roddi lay in somber dark; the silence foretold of a death not yet taken place. His life signs fluctuated between active and near-death. Agony turned his color pallid.
Optimus lay on the floor, now inside the dark, silent room. How much fighting does it take to chose between living and giving up? Optimus never considered it; he simply learned how to find a reason and moved on.
He kicked the 'con off, punched his hand into the 'con's vulnerable chassis and ruthlessly yanked out circuits, wires, spurting lines. Roddi reveled in the shower of life fluids as they painted his arm.
Void clacked its teeth with excitement. More! More! "IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT, DECETRON?!" Roddi-Void used a voice not his own. Roddi's laser core channeled poisons throughout his system. They eked into his mind and he laughed while his soul vomited toxins. He screamed with all his might: "I CAN GIVE IT TO YOU!!"
"Rodimus," Optimus weakly whispered. He'd been in situations where everything seemed so bleak that he did not even think he'd live to see the next day. He tried to reach for his friend, his partner, his vyrestix; the other part of himself.
But Roddi's spark might as well be light years away. Optimus felt nothing and everything from him. Did he have any strength, any at all, with which he could push himself off the floor? Anything, any shred would be helpful. He searched, but Optimus only found more despair.
Rodimus assaulted Decetron. The Decepticon leader's weapon fired and missed. Rodimus felt the discharged heat. He tried to scrape Decetron's optics off his face. Rodimus felt light, as though he were floating in the air. It felt good. It felt really good and he laughed. He laughed as he brought his enemy down.
A monster's dark maw opened for them and Rodimus was swallowed whole.
Oh what a fitting end! There, see? There was a way to die and take one's enemy with you! See? Rodimus knew he finally lost himself to the Virus; the damned thing ate him alive. But at least Decetron went with him. Here you go, you bastard, now you know MY pain. Now you know what it's like to be fed upon! Enjoy your last minute!
Nothing more. No consciousness, no memories. Roddi knew he still lived. But he did whatever it took to deny it. If he were still alive, he'd have to add Decetron's murder to the list.
Optimus knew Decetron wasn't dead. The Autobots did not find his body-and the clean-up crew headed by Repugnus searched the canyon for several hours. No results. Decetron roamed free. Survival mocked Roddi's efforts to take him to the Pitt.
That failure was bluntly inexcusable and Rodimus did not think himself worthy of forgiveness.
Roddi's death would leave a terrible emptiness in him, something Prime did not think even Rusti could fill.
The Autobot leader forced himself on his back. He lay a while, staring at the ceiling, all but invisible in the darkness. Where were they to go from this point? How were they ever going to deal with the Virus if they could not find a way to control it? Weakly he sat up, arms about his knees. The answer just wasn't as simple as creating a new blocking chip; he and Roddi needed to come up with their own mental defenses.
Easier said than done when Rodimus and he were distracted with responsibility for so many people. Many of those weren't even Autobots, and not all of them were of adult age.
"I wish I knew what to do, Roddi," Prime mourned out loud. "We do no one any good if we cannot save ourselves. But I don't have any answers. If we can't reach Mechlatex, if we can't get there . . . I do not know what else is to be done."
Optimus forced himself up, but it was a slow, cumbersome move. He staggered and steadied himself at the foot end of Roddi's flat. So much effort just to get up and now Prime realized he had to make as much an effort to remain standing.
Optimus conceded he could do nothing for Roddi. He did not know what went through his head when he decided to see his friend. The Senior Prime did not know why he expected to fix whatever transgressions troubled Roddi. Optimus considered Roddi's problems his problems, too. But the truth stripped his perceptions; he had no solutions.
That slice of unfair realization drained the senior Prime further and if he felt this exhausted facing the disconcerted reality, how was Roddi dealing with it?
He was not.
And Roddi's despair slowly dragged Optimus toward a part of his conscious self he knew he did not want to go. There lay a deadness in his spark; a vacancy where Void frolicked in depraved mirth.
Lie down and cease to exist.
And if not, then just lie down.
No more work.
No more worry.
"Roddi," Optimus' soft deep voice sounded loud in the silence. "Rodimus, I'm going to rest. I need to rest. I'll not be long. I will come back." he reached and gently stroked the V-area at Roddi's neck; the one area left undamaged.
Prime turned just slightly when Darkness and Void seeped through the crevices from the room's bleakest corner. Prime faced it, sensing a pleased smile across its faceless countenance. Optimus stood squarely between it and Rodimus.
Void breathed upon the Senior Prime; a warm, scentless breath bespeaking of surrealism. TRICKY DECEPTION. CONFUSION.
"I already told you, I am not concerned about your problems." Optimus answered. "Leave Rodimus be."
CONFUSION. THE SPACE HELD. THE . . . SPACE, CONFUSING.
It dawned on Optimus that Void was trying to communicate something it had no vocabulary for. It stepped closer and Prime wanted to withdraw but he refused to leave Roddi.
Void came face to face and barred its deadly teeth. Optimus prepared for pain. He laid a hand on Roddi's injured arm.
Void hesitated then slowly retracted its teeth. Its Autobot prey watched while the Virus backed off, its pinpoint legs tapped the metal flooring. It hissed. SAME . . . NOT APPEALING. SAME AS THAT. DISRUPTIVE.
"What are you talking about?" Prime was not asking
Void directly. He could not understand its behavior. The Virus was unpredictable, no longer just feeding; it acknowledged environment.
Void's face lashed out. Its teeth snapped with a metal clang and came breath-close to taking a chunk off Prime's chest. Prime flinched slightly, too exhausted to exert a stronger reaction.
Void slowly retracted its head, slow as a snail. It hissed and left Optimus wondering if that wasn't laughter. The Virus slipped into the dark, it relapsed from physical form.
Optimus found a chair and all but collapsed. What the Pitt were they going to do about that thing? How could they control it until they reached Mechlatex?
No answer came; nothing to simplify the situation.
Prime struggled against sleep. He hoped for signs of even the shallowest hint that Roddi was coming back from his subconscious journey.
Optimus sat and Roddi lay. The silent world between them stood still; an eye in the hurricane of time.
At one point Trinket entered to check Roddi's vitals. Distantly Optimus heard her voice but he did not think she spoke to him. She moved as if her form phased; a blurred image in the progression of time.
Optimus was vaguely aware she scanned him. Her voice bounced in his head. He heard but did not comprehend. She was naught more than a shadow life form to him right now.
Rodimus sat up as if he pretended to be injured. His optics made a liar of the smile he forced on. The Autobot leader was in a lot of pain.
Optimus figured he dreamed, asleep at Roddi's side. Yes, sleep; dreams and twisted visions, nightmares so real. Rodimus could not be sitting up. But there he sat, staring accusingly. His damaged optics stared at and through Optimus. His cracked armor seeped fluids.
"I danced with the devil and lost."
"I know," Optimus replied.
"Where is the sanity and fairness of it? I've already lived one life where all the Autobots perished."
"There is no fairness to it, Roddi."
His gaze drifted. The room faded, lost to the evils of a waking dream. Optimus watched his co-bearer, his vyrestix. I wasn't supposed to come back, he thought. How did Averas Dalur ever manage to bring me back to life?
Roddi's voice countered Optimus' question: "Why didn't you ask him when you had the chance?"
I don't know. I was confused. The only thing that kept me going was the urgency of the moment. The plague, you, everyone else."
Rodimus shifted so that he sat on his hands and knees. A soft red glow illuminated his body. "What if I chose to stay here, away from the madness, away from the pain? Would you follow me?"
Optimus did not answer right away. He studied Rodimus and the situation from as many angles as he could conjure.
The inhibitor chip was broken.
Void grew braver, smarter and more powerful.
The Autobots were running for their lives.
The Earth was now Quintesson territory.
Rusti . . .
Prime supposed Galvatron would kick his aft for giving up.
Magnus, however, might take it all under the guise of jurisprudence. Most likely he would not tolerate another 'episode' such as they suffered two years ago.
"Let me ask you this, Rodimus," Prime returned carefully, "what would the Optimus Prime of your parallel universe say or do?"
Rodimus' face turned ugly with rage. "You are NOT him. There is not one ounce of kindness or communication that I do not have to take from you. You give nothing freely."
The same old argument. Prime wanted to say something, but he had no defense. He rose from the chair and straddled the table before Roddi, staring him in the face. "I don't know what to tell you-"
With a feral growl, Rodimus attacked him. They crashed on the floor in a clamor and wrestled until Roddi pinned him at the shoulder, his feet over Prime's thighs.
"What is the matter with you?! You're all closed off, acting as if you'd rather turn your back on everything and everyone! Magnus can't talk to you anymore! Jazz used to be one of your most trusted people and me, I am your equal and you shut me out! And then Rusti-good Primus, a Human child-you open up to her as if-"
"Rusti doesn't hurt," Prime snarled. He rolled, flipping Rodimus to the floor. And Rodimus would have jumped up, but he wasn't quite fast enough. They wrestled again, pushing for domination.
Optimus got the upper hand this time, his palms flat on Roddi's spoiler, knees on Prime's arms. "You and everyone else demand everything from me. My time, my attention, my approval, my guidance, my council, my opinion, my strength-my LIFE! When does it stop? The only thing Rusti has asked of me is to share an afternoon with her over tea cups and stuffed animals."
Optimus released Rodimus with a jerk and sat hard on the floor. "I did not even have to decide what kind of tea we had." he oxidated heavily, struggling for self control.
Rodimus sat up. His cold optics did not waver. "What old wounds still fester with the infection of regret and self loathing? I look in the mirror and see someone who should have never survived his own people. I am all that is left of a whole species. And sometimes I hate myself for it. But you . . . you fear they see a dead mech among them; a walking corpse. How close am I to the mark? Do you hate me for Hot Rod's death? Do you still mourn for him?"
Optimus hesitated, measuring his answer against the moment. Clarity of thought was not exactly a part of the moment. He could not tell whether the moment with Rodimus was real, or that they were connecting on another level-or Primus forbid-the moment was Viral-induced.
Optimus Prime stared at Rodimus Prime. He tried to read into every nuance, every squared inch of the Autobot leader's physical language. But even Rodimus' optics failed to reveal the truth about their state of mind. "How can I trust you with an answer so personal when I cannot trust the solidity of the moment? Am I speaking with Rodimus or am I dancing to the bedlam music produced by an alien life form?
"You will dance. Then you will die. That is the way of things." Roddi's face held no expression. His optics turned down; their light drowned.
"Why do you ask me questions for which I have no answers? Or why do you ask me of things I will privilege to no one at all? You keep demanding things of me that I either do not have or could not surrender. You said you looked into the mirror. At least you looked it's more than what I can do. I am afraid that if I looked, there would be nothing more than a shadow-image."
Prime leaned forward to whisper in Roddi's audio: "I know that all you ever experienced in your other life was death. And if death is all we have left, then we are obligated to take the Virus with us."
Roddi smiled but his optics did not. "You're assuming the Virus is not deathless. You assume it is a creature of limited feats and abilities. But you failed to understand that it feeds and grows like a suckling from its progenitor's breast. It learns. And as it learns, it splits a new personality-type. They all study you. They can mimic and reflect. They can copy and parrot so that eventually you will think your mind is yours but in truth, the Virus is what's thinking for you."
Optimus turned, annoyed. "Your mind game is ineffectual. You may know much. You watch but only to entrap, obfuscate and confuse. But your life span is not that of a Transformer. And you may speak with Roddi's voice, but I know the difference. And on my vyrestix's behalf, I will educate you about your own machinations. Your activities will eventuate in the death of the Matrix. And the Matrix will take you with it. Sparkless, soulless you will completely cease to exist. Perhaps it would be prudent to leave the Matrix before you lose what life you have right now."
Void-Rodimus slapped the floor and hissed inward. "Now who's playing games?"
Optimus flashed his optics. "Now there's a new aspect for you, Void. You can dish it, but you won't take your own medicine. But what I can't understand is how you can switch between personalities-when you seem animalistic at one point, then sentient at another. Do you have a mind, or don't you?"
Roddi got to his knees, laid his hands on either side of Optimus' helm, and drew their faces close. He whispered, "Now where's the fun in understanding? Every bit you give; that much more I own. I have your personality. I took the rationality. I stole the volition. I take you're history, your sense of time and reality. I take your pleasure, drink your suffering. The sweetest of things."
Optimus trembled under Rodimus' light grip. Small electrical currently traveled either side of his head. They weren't painful but they indicated the extent of Void's present control over Rodimus.
Optimus' optics dimmed with grief. The awkward and confusing conversation did not come entirely from Rodimus. Void used his vocabulary, his paradigm, even his deepest thoughts. But the Virus still did not understand the relationship between people, causes and conditions. "Roddi," Prime whispered. "If you choose to go, if you decide to die, I promise I will keep going as long as I can. If you want to go, I will not be angry. I will not be angry."
No movement. No sound. Optimus only guessed the struggle between Rodimus and Void.
I could die right here.
I am a life form, free to choose.
YOU CHOSE NOT YOUR BEGINNING. YOU, NO CHOICE FOR END.
You cannot say.
Yes. I could.
Void hissed. SHOULD. CANNOT.
But Void did not understand why it won.
It broke Roddi's heart and he slowly lowered his hands from Optimus' face. He turned away entirely, his demeanor now downcast. "No, he moaned, weary and ashamed, "You'd .. . you'd die of a broken heart."
Wasn't that what Jasmine Goodwin said?
Time relapsed. The game ended. Void won the round, but not in the logic paradigm. It won only because it mimicked something it heard, but heard wrong. Yes, Roddi could have died, but shouldn't. Void unknowingly reversed the words, speaking a greater truth: Rodimus should die, but can't by principle.
Optimus did not know at what point he retook the chair. He did not remember getting off the floor.
And maybe he never left the chair.
And maybe Roddi never woke to start with.
Optimus watched Rodimus lie down. His form colors dimmed and his optics fell to a normal color.
A high-pitched alarm sounded.
Optimus sat up, drowsy, weak and confused.
The doors hissed apart and First Aid and Trinket ran in. Overhead lights shot on, blinding and confusing Prime even more.
First Aid glanced in his direction and spoke but Optimus did not hear it. His optics drifted from the medic to Rodimus. Trinket opened Roddi's chestplate and inserted . . .
Powerful, sturdy arms wrapped about the Senior Prime and dragged him from Roddi. Optimus did not resist. Through optics beset with static, he watched First Aid, Trinket and two aids move and speak over one another.
Roddi's body jumped with a jolt. Prime felt nothing. The world revolved like a fuzzy dream. Void returned, sliding from a crevice in the floor, two-dimensional and wispy. It stood beside Optimus and watched First Aid struggle to keep Rodimus alive.
Prime glanced at the Virus, still aware of someone else's arms around his upper body. "Why are you willing to kill Rodimus first? Why did you choose to take him before me?"
Void hissed. A long black tongue slipped between its teeth. It curled slowly before slinking back. "DEATH CONSIDERED INCONSIDERATE. THIS ONE TOO SWEET FOR WASTE."
Void faced Prime and expanded its form. It tilted its faceless head one way then another. THAT HAS DIMINISHED."
"What has diminished? You're not making sense."
The Virus lifted its head; its neck stretched above Optimus Prime. He did not see as Void stared at Titanium. Completely oblivious to Void's presence or face-to-face scrutiny, Titanium watched First Aid and Trinket reroute Roddi's systemic temperature rectifiers.
Optimus despaired. Had Void lost interest in him? Was it seeking new and fresh prey? Helplessness weighed heavily on Prime's spark. His depression regained Void's attention and the Virus' head lowered, facing Prime's optics.
"If you allow Rodimus to stay alive, I will do whatever you wish. I will give you whatever you want."
It hissed, "YOU GIVE NOTHING . . . OPTIMUS PRIME. I TAKE."
Void licked him alongside the face and Prime lost all his
strength. His knees collapsed, forcing Titanium to lower him. The
moment Optimus touched the floor Void sank its teeth into his
neck and Optimus blacked out.
Pt 8: Morning Side
" . . . had to sedate First Aid. He said he kept yelling for you to move away. Trinket said both you and Rodimus looked like you were awake and aware. Titanium was asked to pull you away. I wanted to help, but they don't consider me trustworthy yet."
The Autobot leader finally focused on Galvatron sitting beside him. Doublecross stood behind the Decepticon; her weapon drawn and charged.
"First Aid swears you're to have only chaperoned visits with Rodimus from now on."
Prime rolled his head to the right, contacting Galvatron's optics. "How long . . . how long was I with Rodimus?"
The Decepticon hesitated. "Erm . . . four days, Prime. Trinket stepped in twice a day. She complained you never responded to a word she said."
"Twice a day? I only saw her once."
Galvatron slowly leaned over and touched Prime's helm along the left side. "You have burn marks on your chest plate and along the side of your head. There are deep puncture wounds along your neck."
Prime tried not to wince in front of Doublecross. "I . . . had a strange conversation with the Virus."
Galvatron looked dubious but said nothing. He settled back, arms crossed. "Does the Virus make it a habit to allow itself to be seen?"
"Not a habit, but it does happen on occasion."
"Do you recall anything it said to you, Prime?"
Optimus reflected but his mind was on Rodimus. "The Virus is not entirely intelligent, Galvatron. It's aware of me and Roddi. It's also aware of Rusti. But it does not seem interested in anyone else . . . at least until . . . was that Titanium, you said, that helped me?"
"It stared at Titanium. And I tried to draw its attention back to me. That's when Void . . ." Optimus could not finish. He turned away then turned back. "Rodimus?"
"Still fighting but improving. He had a systemic temperate influx. It uh, sent him into a neural crash."
Prime stared at moment, distressed. "Void wasn't lying when it said it had nothing to do with Rodimus dying."
"What did it say?"
"It -I can't give you exact syntax. It's worse than broken Autobot because it understands only most-"
"Prime," Galvatron interjected, "Optimus, the very fact the Virus communicates at all means it's not just a virus. What do you know about it?"
"Not much. Nothing that "Roddi and I haven't been able to deduce ourselves. It uses limited vocabulary. And sometimes it accesses our vocabulary, but its language is choppy. And it does not seem to be aware of its surroundings. It can be in the Matrix or outside it and behave the same way." Prime's demeanor changed upon realizing a memory. "There was one very unusual thing, Galvatron. Something it's never done before. It was going to attack me, then hesitated, saying something about it being disrupted. I don't understand. It was unusual for the Virus to withdraw an attack."
"Sounds like it sensed something from or about you, Prime."
Optimus sat up. Exhaustion bent his frame. "It's unpredictable. Maddening. It can be intelligent but then purely instinctive-as if it were a multi-faceted creature that is not quite in cohesion."
Galvatron narrowed his optics. "Like different parts of a program that is not quite put together?"
"That might be advantageous, Prime. If we can find a way to rebuff it or contain it before it realizes all aspects of its own existence, we might be able to purge it."
"There is a drawback: I don't know how much of Rodimus it has taken over."
"What of yourself?"
Optimus could not answer that.
Galvatron thought it through. He sat in his chair, one leg crossed over the other, his head bowed. The Decepticon sat still as a dead summer breeze. Only his optics indicated his mind at work as they dimmed, lit and flashed from time to time.
Doublecross kept her mouth shut and simply watched. Silence dominated the room. Optimus dozed and startled, fighting much needed sleep. Two hours slipped away before Optimus Prime about succumbed to shutdown.
Galvatron stirred and lifted his head. "Could there be a possibility, however remote, that the Virus may graft itself as a permanent part of your personality?"
Prime's shoulders dropped just slightly. That was not a possibility he wanted to discuss, especially in front of Crossy. "I honestly had not thought about it."
Optimus considered Void's behavior. Somehow it acted more logical, more calculating yet not like himself or Roddi at all. Maybe it changed because of the original inhibitor chips first designed by Cody Greydon. Void was certainly capable of adapting. Optimus wondered how far it was willing to take things, to what level and over what period of time.
It was spooky that now the Virus acknowledged the existence of other people. Yet it had never targeted them until recently.
Optimus was not blind to the evils of the decisions that lay ahead of them. As events and situations worsened, Optimus foresaw himself facing one of two decisions: kill Rodimus, destroy the Matrix and commit suicide or he could allow the situation to reach the point where Magnus would be forced to kill them.
Either way, it meant genocide for his people.
But Galvatron's question brought his attention to a potential crisis: one with life-long results and that brought Optimus back to his original consideration: repair the Matrix or die from infection and take the Virus-and the Matrix-with him.
Galvatron stood and pushed his chair away. "Get rest. We've made progress on three other ships."
"I'm . . . I need to see Rusti."
Galvatron's glare switched from Prime to Doublecross. "He does this all the time, doesn't he?" The Decepticon watched her nod with a shrug. His optics shot back to Prime. "You stay in one place today or I'll inform someone of your gross self-negligence."
Prime forced a weary smile. His concern was for Roddi, though he suspected Rusti was not in such good health, either.
Dr. Zornoy warned Optimus to stay quiet when he entered Rusti's little room. She lay in a dimly lit corner of the Spiral Star, isolated from the hustle and chaos down the corridor. Rusti rested as comfortably as they could make her. They kept her on a drip feed of glucose, pain killers and a light sedative. She also required a slow, fresh infusion of blood. Her wounded shoulder craved redressing several times a day. The sonic blade Rumble stabbed her with introduced an anticoagulant.
Zornoy could not deduce what chemicals laced the Decepticon blade. Nor could he or Arcana conclude what the same blade might do to Transformer physiology. Zornoy and Arcana also debated whether or not to bind her left side. The crushed ribs were not exactly life-threatening, but eventually, the bone fragments would complicate matters.
In spite of her shallow breath, Rusti seemed at peace, easing Prime's anxiety. He stepped back out and knelt before Zornoy. "What happened?"
"Knife stab in the chest. Five shattered ribs. Concussion. According to Arcana, she was slapped around pretty hard. Whatever suit she was wearing saved her life. Not perfectly, but good enough. At least the concussion she sustained was fairly mild and she's more or less over that." Zornoy noticed pain and sadness in the Autobot's optics and took on a more positive approach: "I think she'll pull though fine. But it'll be a while. I have six to nine patients in critical condition and only two working organic refabricators."
It took a moment for all the information to sink in. Optimus decided if Dr. Zornoy believed his love would be alright, he would cling to that hope, too. He returned to Rusti's room and settled on the floor close to her bedside. The quiet calmed him and the Autobot leader realized this was exactly what he needed. He felt guilty, however. There were so many responsibilities, so much needing to be done. But everyone from Arcee to Dr. Zornoy assured Optimus Prime things would be fine for at least six hours. With a last look to the girl he missed so much, Prime lay down and allowed his mind to dream.
Then somewhere, somehow, an image and a voice harnessed it. Sights and sounds of memories, thoughts and impressions drained into the tight control of once source.
And SHE greeted Rusti with a warm, motherly smile.
"Tell me if that isn't better."
Rusti stood in the center of an alien garden. Plants made of minerals, crystals and metal sprouted and blossomed from every corner. A tiny stream tinkled from the left. It tumbled into a quiet pond bordered by red crystal. The young woman found herself dressed in her own favorite outfit of a ruffled white blouse and blue jeans.
Weird, but cool.
"Is the setting indecorous and uncomfortable for you?"
Rusti gazed back. The lady was not quite Human. "Uh. I-I was just trying to figure out if this was real or not. I was on a ship and uh-"
"It is real, Rusti."
"But this, this can't be my body. I got attacked by a Decepticon." she laid a hand on the ribs Rumble crushed and found not so much as a bruise. She ruffled past her white blouse until the lady laid a hand on her. Their eyes met and Rusti froze, confused.
"Rusti, reality is based on perception. Action and reaction are the elements with which we exist in an environment. I have acted by touch, you have reacted by looking at me. You really are here."
"Okay." Rusti accepted. "And where is-" The answer slammed into her so fast her blood pressure dropped. "No." she lost her breath. "I am NOT. I cannot be in the Matrix!"
The lady smiled brightly.
Rusti was not impressed. "Don't you have an Autobot leader to pick on?"
Part of the metal ground rose then panned into a curved shape on which the lady sat. She set one leg over the other, her eyes-her grey eyes-never left Rusti. You are dying. That sweet Doctor Zornoy doesn't know it yet."
Rusti's cheeks flushed before her body turned cold. She unconsciously took a step back and lost her balance. She dropped into a "chair' and stared at the feminine persona of the Matrix. "Oh." Rusti tore her eyes away and stared at a tiny metal bug. "I'm dying? I thought that . . . Um." The thought died away and what replaced it was a thought for Optimus. "Oh! I won't get to see Optimus again, will I? Can you tell me if he'll be okay?
"If you die?" the Matrix's face turned serious. "No. Neither Rodimus nor he."
"But I can't stop from dying!" Rusti leaned over, distraught. You brought me here to tell me this? Are you crazy?"
"Rusti," she too leaned forward, hands clasped. "I came to help."
Exasperated, Rusti wanted to tune her out. But the lady insisted on being heard: she touched Rusti's knee but the girl could not look her in the eye.
"Rusti, why do you fear me?"
Now she met face-on. "Do I look like a Prime to you? I know what you're capable of doing. I know your power and I know you can channel it through me. But I am a Human and in spite of my age, I still just feel like a little girl! Don't you think that's dangerous? And . . . and-"
"And yet," the Matrix added, "I reside within you. Why . . . in your terms, does it freak you out?"
Just the way the Matrix spoke unsettled Rusti so that she stared, dumbfounded. "Uh, Humans are-we're sort of a 'loner-species'. Uh-" Rusti wanted to tag a pronoun for the Matrix at the end of her sentence when she realized there was no name to use. Her face distorted with confusion. "Uh, things living in us, well, for the most part, that's like parasites, tumors, microscopic bugs that crawl-"
"But you also carry offspring." the lady countered.
Rusti lined her lips. "Uh," (name? Name?) "Matrix, that's different. That's what we call propagation, not carrying an alien intellect in your head-"
"Yet there are religions among your kind that believe they are indwelt by their god. Why would I be any different? You do not think for me, Rusti. I do not think for you."
Again Rusti struggled for a pronoun. "Geeze, do you have a name or something or do you just go by 'Matrix'?"
She remained ever serious. "The Matrix is the name of the physical object through which I manifest myself and my power. And it fascinates me that you require a name when most Autobots never think that I might have one."
"It's not their fault. They don't perceive you as a personality-and why did you come to me?"
She stared at Rusti, silent and calm.
Rusti squirmed under the Matrix's scrutiny. "What is your name?" she repeatedi n quieter tones.
"Pyrazhak That Chamronsyn."
Rusti lost all expression. "I will never be able to pronounced that."
The lady laughed softly and Rusti wondered if she was where Optimus got his laughter. "The Wanakian Ambassador once said the very same thing!"
Rusti half-smiled but upon hearing "Wanakian Ambassador', the smile died, replaced by amazement. "You know Koontah?"
"Certainly. And I knew you the day you first came to us, to the Living City."
"Fort Max-er-Fortress Maximus?"
"I have another name for him, but yes."
Before she could answer or think of an answer, an electric shock coursed through Rusti's head and everything blacked out.
A voice, musical, sweet and familiar, called to her. Rusti opened her eyes and found her naked feet planted on springy green grass. A broad, clean river flowed soundlessly before her. A bridge of delicate gold stretched over the quiet water. Tall decorative lamp posts stood dutifully at either end. At the other side of the bridge great trees stretched up and out. Sequoia, elm, white oak and weeping fir blocked all visual clues as to what else may lay at the other side.
Rusti gazed to the right then the left. No trees nor other land marks resided on her side of the river. And when she turned completely around, a black expanse faced her as long and tall as her eye could see. It meant the only way was forward.
She touched the rail and realized the bridge glowed from within. She stared, amazed, then stepped forward. Everything felt real, comfortable, as if she had come home to a home she had longed for all her life.
Turning toward her goal, Rusti spotted a familiar figure and she ran to embrace her grandmother.
Carly hugged her closely, saying nothing at first. Rusti felt her grandmother's life force radiate strong as blinding light. Her face glowed with a supernatural radiance the likes Rusti had never seen. Carly cupped her hands about her granddaughter's face and stared into Rusti's soul.
"It just isn't time for you to be here yet, Sugar."
Carly kissed her brow. "I love you. And I'm waiting for you. But it's not your time. Your work isn't finished."
Rusti glanced back to the mammoth black wall. But now a immense valley stretched miles and miles into a shrouding white-grey mist. "But, where is the wall, how do I find my way back?" She gazed at her grandmother who stared at the tundra.
Carly said nothing before gazing at her progeny."I can't help you, Sugar. I'm sorry. You will have to find your way back."
"I will help her," Pyrazhak That Chamronsyn's voice came from Rusti's end of the bridge.
The young woman greeted her with confusion. The Matrix persona did not look feminine now, but a figure of blue fire. A crown of hematite sat upon the brow and topaz eyes welcomed Rusti with ease.
Carly laid a hand on Rusti's shoulder and the young woman gave her all her attention. "Hon, you can either try to cross the valley on your own and hope to find your way back or you can accept help from Pyrazhak That Chamronsyn. But there is a price for assistance: you may not be entirely yourself for a while. You will be two people."
Rusti cast her gaze upon the extensive Valley. She could be lost for weeks, months, maybe years. Making her choice, she hugged Carly one last time and refused to say good-bye. She hoped to see Carly again someday. Rusti stood before the fiery persona and gathered her courage.
"Please help me," she asked. "I know I will get lost."
"You will never be lost again."
Rusti came to life pushing her way through dreams. Her eyes opened and her first reaction was to draw a deep breath but that came at an incredible price. Pain struck her entire left side. LIE STILL.
A great shape moved amid the shadows. A gentle, dear voice filled the air: "There are approximately fifty-two point seven freckles on the back of your left hand, twenty-three on the right and one hundred seven point two across your nose and cheeks."
Tears burned her dry eyes and nose.
"Oh no," Prime moaned softly, "I thought coming here would make you smile. It's Rodimus' idea, wasn't it? He told you to cry to make me feel guilty."
"Optimus!" Rusti's voice squeaked with tears. "Please tell me you're here for real! Please don't be another illusion! Ohmigod I miss you so much!" she laid her right hand over her face. Crying hurt. Breathing hurt. Living hurt.
He neared his face to her so she could touch him. Rusti controlled her tears and breathed shallow. She emotionally embraced his presence; strong but gentle.
It really was him.
She tried to swallow with a dry mouth. "When Strike Back caught up with us in the Dancing Siren, we were with Ambassador Koontah. I thought-I hoped you'd be on the Siren. But you weren't. And Roddi's been awful sick and we've-I just want to go home. Where were you?"
Prime found an oversized tissue and handed it to her. He did not want to talk. She needed her strength before he told her everything. I love you, he thought to himself. How could he consider suicide and leave her? How could he have thought about going to Mechlatex alone?
Certainly he was not thinking how she might feel about it. "I don't know where to begin to tell you-I want you to get well."
Rusti roved her eyes to the nearby wall and her frame moved just the wrong way and the wound in her chest screamed. Rusti winced and stopped breathing a moment. All the pain began to frustrate her. "Optimus," she growled, "I want you to admit to me that going to Mars was a bad idea."
Prime thought about Galvatron and bowed his head fractionally. "Going to Mars was a bad idea."
She dismissed his words, reading his body language. "What happened on Mars, Optimus?"
"A great deal more than I can tell in ten minutes."
She could not study him closely in the dim light. They kept all sleeping quarters dark to preserve energy and it frustrated Rusti that she could not see her love very clearly. She forced a shallow but exasperated sigh. "You'll tell me later, won't you?"
"That and so much more. I'm glad to be here, to finally be with you again."
That caused her to smile and Optimus Prime held that image. She was in pain and like he, exhausted. But she smiled. "Rusti," he said, "I found a report that said you threw a tantrum and jumped into the campfire. What were you thinking?"
She had to stop and think. Rusti could not remember when the event happened. Then it dawned on her: "oh, yeah." she grimaced. "I-this planet sux, Optimus-"
"I mean the air STINKS-"
"You're evading the-"
"The electric storms suck-"
"-and everyone is pissed all the time."
"-and yes, I know this is a miserable place."
"Then why the hell did you-WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!" she winced again, moving when her wounded chest told her not to.
"About the Quintessons." Prime answered immediately "There are airborne parasites on Cratis that eat Quintessons for lunch and the electromagnetic fields disrupt their brainwave patterns."
"That's not what I heard. Magnus and the Dinobots had to rescue Titanium and one of the ships in a canyon and they found a laboratory. And yes, I did throw a tantrum and Dr. Arcana had to drag me away-kicking and screaming-and sedate me."
Prime stared at her, taken back. "They sedated you? Really? Heh."
"It's NOT funny," she snarled.
"Yes it is-"
"I love you," she quickly added.
Optimus' lasercore surged. "Say it again," he whispered.
"I love you," she repeated in a whisper and she said it again. He neared her just to be close. She kissed him with dry lips. But Optimus felt the sensation all over.
"I love you, Rusti. I wish I could say it better. Three words never seem enough to express how I feel."
She sensed his weariness and lightly smiled. Rusti was sorry she could not show him how much she loved him. She was sorry she could never love him with her entire body. That was something she'd have to deal with later.
Rusti winced, having remembered something. She slapped her forehead."Oh no!"
"What's wrong, Rusti?"
"Post cards! Mom asked me to send her postcards from Australia and I completely . . ." the girl's eyes shot wide and all color drained from her face. "Ohmigod! I don't even know if she's still alive!" she choked-which stabbed her broken ribs and their pain hit her in the gut, forcing her to grieve lightly, painting shallow. "Dammit"
"Rusti, your mother's alive . . . and so is Dezi."
Her jaw fell "Dezi?!"
Prime nodded. "At the time we left Earth. She and Netty were still alive and with an underground resistance."
"Dezi!" Suddenly Rusti was able to breathe better. But then she realized what he really said: "Waitaminute, Optimus, who's 'we'? And how was it that you ended up on Earth?"
"Sh! Not now! Dr. Zornoy will be very upset if I excite you any further. Get some rest."
She shook her head. "How can you expect me to sleep when all I want to do is spend time with you? I almost lost you! And . . . and we almost didn't make here. If it weren't for Ambassador Koontah, you very well might never have found us."
Prime sat up with a slight smile. "I would have found you, Rusti. Believe me. The Quintessons caught us off guard, but not entirely unprepared. All those nights and weekends when I sat and work while you slept are paying off now."
"You knew the Quintessons were going to do this?"
"No. It's just a contingency plan. We were to regroup here and return." Prime now looked distant and he stared silently a moment. "We had no idea the Quintessons would ally themselves with the Inoux."
She choked with tears again and looked elsewhere. "I almost lost you . . .and you almost did not come back to me."
"No, I would have found you, Sweetheart."
She shook her head. "Optimus, the universe is vast, even for an Autobot leader. We could have ended up a million light years away."
"Did you really think the ring on your finger was an ordinary ring?"
Her brows squished. "My ring?"
Prime set a finger under her lifeless left hand. It felt good to touch her again. "It's made of my own metal. I would have found you no matter where you ended up."
She smiled, both impressed and excited. The ring she wore was far more valuable than she thought. She rubbed her thumb over the smooth surface of his hand. Rusti now realized that in a way he had been with her all along. Taking comfort in that, she relaxed and finally allowed sleep to settle over her. "Optimus, I was just wondering one more thing-and then I promise to sleep."
"At this point, anything."
"There was a baby alien on the Frostbite. I found him at the time the battle started. I don't know where he is and I was wondering if you'd look for him."
"What alien baby, Rusti?"
"Just a baby. I actually don't know if it's animal or people. It had . . . um, a funny-shaped head with horns and it squeaked. And you know, not sure why, Optimus, but I felt like I might have seen it before. I just don't remember where. No species lives on more than one planet, do they, Optimus?" she yawned. "Can't see the same species existing at two different locations-or envision something before discovering it exists, can you?"
"I cannot discount anything, Rusti. The further you travel in space and the more places you visit, the less likely for anything to be impossible."
She batted her eyes. "I was hoping for a yes-or-no answer, Optimus."
Prime leaned again, "I missed you, Rusti."
She touched the smooth warm surface of his helm and bit back more tears. "Me, too." she whispered. Her eyes climbed and traced the lines of his face and helm until she found herself staring at his optics. Rusti wished she could kiss him there. And there. And there.
Things were bad enough at the moment, but it was really unfair that she was reminded how she'd never get to express how she really felt about him. She'd always be in his world, but never part of it.
Rusti closed her stinging, dry eyes and Prime sat silently with her until she fell to sleep.
As Optimus and Rodimus recovered, Magnus finally reactivated.
The first two days took him in and out of repair bay. First Aid and Perceptor worked tirelessly to replace two ventral fuel lines and six transformation components before the city commander could so much as stand. The next two days Magnus underwent readjustments and realignments. That was by far more painful than replacement of damaged parts. But ever determined, the Major-General faced his pain and dared himself to keep going.
Magnus limped about the control room/turned physical therapy. He gripped the support rails on either side a large makeshift treadmill and took three steps before he growled and hissed three consecutive, non-repeatable words.
Perceptor monitored his progress and made a minor adjustments at Magnus' knee joint and right hip. "Frankly, Ultra Magnus, your insinuation on recalibration along the cylindrical pulleys and quarterstaff cable systems fails to include the isolated damage along the Gemini buffers between the third and forth parallels-Good morning, Prime. I assume you've been given permission to leave, haven't you? First Aid informed me you and Rodimus are on strict medical orders to remain-"
"Ggaaahhhhhh!" Magnus roared over the scientist's long winded hail. "Perceptor, get that fragging piece of shit out of my knee before I do something uncomfortable with your digipad!"
Perceptor quickly unlatched a measuring rod from the back of Magnus' right knee. He frowned at it then at Magnus. The rod, now well bent, will need to be replaced . . . again.
"Hello, Magnus," Prime greeted. "It's nice to see you up and around."
"Up, yes." Magnus snarled. "Around, not yet. And you'd better hope, Prime, you can give me a fucking good explanation regarding the two Decepticons in our camp."
"Later," Prime brushed. "We're going to-"
Magnus pounded the rail support at his right. He drilled holes into the Autobot leader with his optics. "Later!? We got our afts kicked across the fucking cosmos and you just brush it off?!"
"Galvatron and Cyclonus are fugitives. They left the Decepticons and were it not for them, I would not be standing here."
"So you just let them run loose all over the camp. That's just fragging great, Prime. Rodimus will enjoy writing graffiti all over your dismembered chassis."
"Magnus, except for Jazz, the entire senior staff is laid up. I am an Autobot leader, not a magician."
Magnus held the Autobot leader with optics burning bright with pain and frustration. "I suppose we can discuss it later," he growled.
Prime returned the Major-General's glare with sympathy. Magnus' pain did not nothing good for his mood. And he pushed himself almost to the breaking point to get back on his feet as fast as possible. Nothing anyone would say could convince Magnus to ease up on himself. Optimus believed somewhere deep down, there was still something left of the Decepticon Magnus used to be.
Don't let up, don't lie down and never give in.
"I've decided to hold a funeral, Ultra Magnus. We've lost . . . " Optimus could not finish it. They've lost a total of forty lives on Cratis and several more along the way. "Also, Rusti said you and the Dinobots rescued Titanium and one of the ships from a canyon and found some kind of science lab."
"Yes," Magnus' entire demeanor changed. "I think it might even be where the Pretenders were created."
"Where is your report?"
"On the Vertical Horizon But if you'll give me a couple more hours, I'll walk over and get it."
"No," Prime objected. "I can find it." Then he realized Magnus' reason for volunteering; motivation to get walking again. Optimus thought of a better motivation: "Magnus," he said, tone light, "I-uh-I've assigned Daniel Witwicky to maintenance on the Alvarez. I had to break up a fight between him and Arcee earlier and if-uh-if you have time, maybe you'd not mind . . . checking in on him; see how he's progressing."
Magnus' face turned up. "I'll check my appointment calender."
Prime understood necessity behind the funeral, but resources and time was tight.
Nearly everyone who could spare a moment attended the funeral-even Galvatron and Cyclonus who stood at a respectful distance.
Two hundred and sixteen names were added to the plaque marking the burial site. Rather than the stones that made the original sixty-by-fifty graveyard, Colt, Hard Tak and Slingshot took scrap metal from the Speedster and with a bit of work, polished it and etched in the names of those who did not make it to Cratis.
Optimus was not happy they made the plaque without authorization but he understood why. The Paratrons still did not understand the purpose behind the chain of command but at least Slingshot knew better and tot he Aerialbot's credit, he apologized for not clearing the project with anyone first.
The Autobot leader examined the assembly of refugees. The 'smaller folk' were allowed to stand closer. That usually consisted of Humans and Humanoids. Some of the ladies present made flowers out of scraps of material and laid them over the graves of children. There was no wood close enough to fashion crosses at each grave, so Colt and Hard Tak painted stones in white and wrote names across them.
"The people represented here are not at this graveyard," Optimus began simply. "Whoever they were still resides with us. No one is isolated from anyone else. Each of us is a rock, tossed into a pond and our influence, our ideas and hopes, all collide with someone else's. Intelligent life always seeks and influences intelligent life. No matter where we go from here, the lives of each of these people we remember today, comes with us. They're not with us physically, but who and what they were will never be forgotten.'
'And to that we vow," Optimus added, "we shall remember."
All the Autobots, all EDC staff and a few citizens softly repeated the vow.
Several moments of awkward silence befell the crowd. One then a few at a time they dispelled to return to duty. Others lingered, adding private words to lost friends.
Blaster sat on his knees, staring at the mound under which Rewind now lay. Pong sat nearby, his optics on Mirror's grave. Delta stood behind him until most everyone else left.
Optimus received a digipad report from Trinket and frowned at Springer's present condition. The ships were nearly completely repaired now thanks to the shields protecting the camp from energy storms. But repairing a ship was easier than a person. Autobots, mechanical or not, were still far more complex. And the warp drives still needed to be installed.
Delta slowly approached the Autobot leader, her hands behind her back in a non-assuming pose. "Hello, Optimus," she said softly. "It's nice to have you back."
Optimus believed her initial intentions in a simple greeting and gave her a smile. "Thank you, Delta. I missed everyone too."
She nodded. "What's, uh, what's with the two 'red-optics' over there?"
He gazed when she nodded to ward Galvatron and Cyclonus. They quietly spoke in their own language until Galvatron laughed. Optimus wished he knew what was so funny. He already missed their companionship. "They're friends of mine, Delta. And don't worry. They won't bite."
"Wh . . . " she smiled, disbelieving. "That is Galvatron, Optimus Prime. He is responsible for the destruction of my homeworld."
Prime studied her before looking to the Decepticon fugitives. It did not seem like it was Galvatron's nature to do anything of the sort. But Optimus was neither blind nor ignorant. Nor was he callous toward the Paratrons. They had a right to be angry. After all, Galvatron even tried to destroy Cybertron at one point.
But that was directed entirely by Vector Sigma and Optimus, even then, did not hold Galvatron responsible. He sighed heavily. "Sometimes, Delta sometimes people change. It's rare and seldom permanent. But people can change. And as much as you might not like it, it is within my nature to give someone the benefit of a doubt."
She gave him a peasant smile. "Of course."
He returned the smile cordially and read communications reports from Bumblebee.
A warm, gentle hand ran across the small of his back. Optimus stopped reading, surprised by the foreign touch. He looked at Delta's mischievous smile but did not return it.
"I remember," she said smoothly, "You once said Elita used to surprise you like this."
Prime withdrew. The femme had some audacity approaching him now, especially since he broke off their relationship almost twenty-six years ago.
She advanced again, sympathy in her optics. But Prime held his hand out to keep her at a distance. "I love Rusti," he said quietly. "Besides, our relationship did not work before-"
She scoffed. "She is a child! What could she possibly offer you that a-and she's human on top of that! What is with you? Are you so afraid of a real femme?"
"Not at all."
"Then name one attribute, one thing she can do that I cannot."
"She can deal with the Virus."
Delta flinched, amazed.
That was the moment Galvatron came to the rescue. "There's something you need to see, Prime," he said quietly. Then he turned to Delta who still stared. "Sorry. I need to borrow your leader for a moment." and he ushered Optimus away. "Sorry for disrupting your opportunity to play house, Prime," Galvatron grinned. "But this is something you really need to see."
They crossed the camp and passed the Confiscator to meet Repugnus standing in robot mode.
Repugnus grinned smugly. "Lots of rocks in the field. we put 'em to good use."
Prime's optics drifted from the Monsterbot's devious brand of smiling to the debris field.
Decepticon body parts dotted from one end to another. Heads, hands, broken torsos, legs, wings, anything that resembled a shape rose from the soil like potted plants.
Optimus saw the perverse humor in it all but could not decide whether he should be upset over the repulsive use of corpses or enjoy Repugnus' creative approach.
Sideswipe and Physix joined Prime and Galvatron a moment later.
"This is stupid," Sideswipe snipped. "How gross can you be?"
"Gross 'nuff t' make you change yer color scheme, purdy-bot." Repugnus sneered. "Don't worry, though. The best part's comin'."
Inclined to laugh, Optimus suppressed his reaction to a half smile. "There's more, Repugnus?"
"Half-ass jobs 'r for amateurs. Luckily the Dino-critters know how t' plant 'nd know what a ball is." as he ended his reply, Swoop circled above and dropped in a rough landing. In his hands he cradled the heads of two Decepticon Pretenders; one of which Galvatron recognized.
The Decepticon cringed, remembering how he killed a Sweep and laughed as the head bounced down the hall.
Repugnus took the heads and made a loud whistle-call. At his beckoning, Slag and Sludge came racing from around a nearby pile of debris. The Monsterbot turned to Prime, propping the heads. He handed one to Slag who smiled. Repugnus produced a club constructed from someone's arm, complete with swinging hand. "We call this 'Dinobot Pinball."
"Dinobot Pinball," Galvatron repeated.
Repugnus set his Decepticon head on the ground and glanced at some target in the field. He intentionally wiggled his aft and swung the arm-club like a golf club, the hand acted like the hammer. The head yelped and soared into the sky. It hit another head which also yelped and its optics lit up. A board spring launched the 'headball' back into the air. It came close to landing when a bodyless leg kicked it up again.
"Yipe!" the headball cried. A board shot up, indicating Repugnus had scored four hundred points.
The headball landed atop a mound, teetered then rolled until it passed under a torso-which lit up and shot the ball to yet another destination.
Back and forth, up then down, the headball yelped, barked and squeaked as it hit targets and sometimes the targets also howled.
Slag took his turn at it. His headball disappeared then the next second, something exploded and the head sailed back and dropped into a mechanized series of pulleys and springs. The headball squealed as it rolled and dropped, rolled, shot away, came back, rolled, shot away then flew to return to Slag's feet.
Repugnus glanced at his audience with a smirk. "Slag likes t' toss stuff outta bounds. We hadta rig a c'ntraption t' git it back." the Monsterbot offered a toothy grin as he spun the headball between his hands, expecting a response.
Prime's optics drifted from the Monsterbot to the game field. He wanted Repugnus to keep the Dinobots busy, not demented. He said nothing as Sideswipe snidely voiced his disapproval. Then Optimus spotted a blind area. He pointed ten-thirty of their position. "You missed an area out that way, Repugnus," he said simply.
Repugnus shifted to Monster mode. "Not a problem. Consider it done. Come on, Fido. We still got holes t' dig."
Slag shifted also. "Me, Slag like digging holes. Big holes, small holes, potholes . . ."
Physix and Sideswipe stared at their leader, their jaws down. Sideswipe took on spokesbot: "I can't believe you're encouraging him! This . . . this is abominable"
Galvatron crossed his arms. "It is disturbing, but certainly creative."
"NO ONE ASKED YOUR OPINION, Decepticon factory REJECT!"
"Sideswipe!" Prime rumbled. "Not one more word."
The Autobot warrior steamed, Maybe you've forgotten whose side you're leading, Prime. In case you need to be reminded, that's Galvatron and THAT-" he pointed to the outfield, "-is offensive!" Sideswipe stomped off, cursing. Physix glanced from the field to Prime.
"I don't understand why you're not upset over this obscene display, Prime."
Optimus met Physix's optics. "As . . . undesirable as the field looks, Repugnus didn't make it so much a game. That was for the Dinobots. What he did was set up an early warning system. Anyone who crosses the field will get a nasty surprise."
Now understanding, Physix nodded.
Cloudstreaker approached and handed Prime a digipad she gazed past Physix to the debris field and cringed. "Is anyone assigned to clean-up, sir?" she asked Prime.
"Yes," Optimus answered, "Repugnus is still working on it. And according to this, the Mozart and the Armored Crest are both ready for hyperdrive fit?"
"Yes, sir. Quasar double-checked before sending me here. Jazz said to let you know Ultra Magnus is on his feet, sir." she smiled.
"Thank you, Cloudstreaker."
Rodimus woke to a delightful, dimly-lit room. Hushed voices spoke from a distance. At first Roddi ignored them, figuring he was barely alive and should not think about anything but getting well.
When he heard Optimus' name, it dragged the Autobot leader further from his groggy state of mind. He had the strangest dreams and they shot through his head all at once.
Something about the Virus and Optimus begging for Roddi's life.
Waitaminute. Was . . . was it possible that Optimus had finally caught up with them? That'd be great if it were true. Roddi thought it'd be nice to take a couple days off and let Optimus handle all the yahoos, the ships and the fragging storms.
But staying down was not in Rodimus' restless nature. Sleep, dammit!
He powered down, hoping to slip back into unconsciousness. Garbled noises dragged him back and a vision of Void licking Optimus forced Roddi's optics to kindle. As painful as it was, he pushed himself up. His off-line chronometer failed to tell him the day and time. But judging by the light sneaking through the door seam, Rodimus guessed he was either deep inside one of the ships or daylight filtered in.
I will drink your suffering like the sweetest of things.
"Optimus?" Roddi called to no one. He said that to Optimus. The Autobot leader moaned then growled and yanked off seven sensor nodes. If that was the best First Aid could do to keep tabs on him, the Autobot medic had another thought coming. Rodimus refused to be contained.
Where was Magnus? What was going on? Who's in charge? What day was it and how long had he been out?
Rodimus pinched off an energon feed and switched off monitors and scanners. He was fine.
No, really. He was just fine, even if he still looked battered and scratched, cut and suffered some fragmentation. What mattered was that he was up and moving.
Roddi limped but managed to sneak out his room with no intervention. He heard bits and pieces of news and gossip about Kup and his slowly-improved condition.
Rodimus was greatly relived to hear that. Other conversations he tuned into consisted of Air Raid's damaged optics and how Trinket would have to jury-rig something for the Aerialbot until something better could be done.
Grimlock did not sound good. He was to remain in stasis.
He almost ran into Neon as she carried a box of materials in the opposite direction. "I did not know First Aid released you so soon. Are you alright?"
"Just great. Where's Ultra Magnus?" Roddi plastered a ridiculous smile over his face.
"Umm, supervising. On the Alvarez."
"Yeah. He can't do very much still. So he's supervising clean-up."
Roddi tilted his head just so, confused. "Why would a clean-up job require supervision?"
"Well, you know, the bugs."
Rodimus remembered the energon leeches someone brought on board the Alvarez because they failed to adhere to decontamination protocols. As a result, the nasty things spread and the Alvarez had to be quarantined. "Okay." Roddi drawled, "Soooo, Uh, so who's got 'KP' duty?"
Neon rebalanced the box in her arms and started down the hall, "Daniel Witwicky."
Judging by the temperature and humidity in the camp, Rodimus figured it was about late morning. Not many Autobots or Humans were up working-at least that he saw. He did notice, however, across the camp the Confiscator's wings were missing. No, there they are: standing vertically some distance outside camp.
What the heck?
Rodimus thought about journeying to the other side of the camp to ask about the wings, why they were removed and standing like monoliths around the ships. But it required more much energy to approach the Confiscator than the Alvarez. He'd ask later.
Turning south, Rodimus also discovered the Speedster was now a pile of damaged parts slowly smoldering under a controlled plasma burn.
"Magnus has been busy," Rodimus muttered. He ambled past the Gabriel Genesis -also missing her wings. He approached the Crested Moon, the other ship used as sleeping quarters for the Autobots. He passed the port-side (again minus the wing) and spotted Doublecross painting the ship's name with a brush holding only two hairs.
Roddi watched her a long moment, confused and amused at the same time. "Crossy, what did you do to piss Magnus off so badly?"
The femme Monsterbot lowered her brush with a huff and looked to the sky, her shoulders dropping, exasperated.
Rodimus held his hands out, grinning, "never mind-ha! I don't wanna know."
He arrived at the Alvarez, exhausted and doubting the wisdom of leaving medbay at all let along without authorization.
But then, Roddi knew Optimus did that more often than not and what was good for one Prime, doubtless, was just fine for the other.
Rodimus rounded the Alvarez to her starboard and plank. Tempra and Peacemaker pushed two cars of parts and tools into the ship while Rodimus paused and gave the Autobot cruiser a once-over.
Then he spotted him.
Daniel sat propped against the ship's landing gear. He gulped water and wiped his scrubby face of grime. At first Rodimus didn't want to talk to the little slime bug. He supposed somewhere in his spark he was still angry (to put it nicely) about Dan-o's treatment of Rusti.
Roddi knew better, however. He was not in the position to dislike anyone; he was in command. It's important to set a descent example.
Still, he was willing to make a semi-worthy exception in Daniel's case. He approached the scowling Human and crouched. "Dan-o!" he greeted with annoying cheerfulness. "What's hanging?"
"Before you decide to boss me around, Rodimus, I'm just taking a break." Witwiky's face was ugly.
"Hmm hmm. I can see that. Magnus is in the Alvarez, I suppose."
"Pfff." Daniel rolled his eyes. "His Glory and Majesty, Lord Maggots awaits my return with broomstick in hand." Daniel glowered and shrugged his shoulders and Rodimus believed if he were a smoker, Witwicky would be on this third cigarette by now.
The Autobot leader tossed him a weak smile and rose to depart.
"You know, Rodimus," Daniel called. He waited for Prime to turn back. "Something just occurred to me."
"You mean you were actually thinking?" Roddi could not resist the cut.
Daniel seemed not to have heard. He took another swig of water. "You know, I used to really hate you. I mean, between you and Prime, you're the poster child for assholes anonymous. The cure-all for whatever ails the galaxy."
Daniel pinned Roddi with his small dark eyes and Rodimus read the unblemished hate therein. He smiled casual. "By Primus, Dan-o, I'm praying fervently there might be a for-real point to your yammering. Otherwise, I did have a nice day. Thank you for wasting it."
"You see," Witwicky continued, unabashed, "I realized that while I hate you, Rodimus, I found that I don't hate you nearly as much as I hate Optimus Prime. Not because he's got a quieter way of doing things-we both know Optimus can be far more manipulative and underhanded. But I don't hate you quite as much because my daughter is not in love with you. Just thought you'd like to know."
It was meant to hurt and in a way it did. Roddi loved and adored Rusti. It was hard to experience feedback through the Matrix when she and Optimus kissed. Still, Roddi would not begrudge the relationship. She breathed life into his friend; life Roddi could not have given himself. Rusti was life for both of them, really, Rodimus never cared for a baby before. Certainly Hot Rod had wonderful times with Daniel as a child but frankly, that was another life ago.
And while Daniel's statement stung, Rodimus was not going to let Mr. Jackass win this round of wit.
"Well, now, Dan-o, we can't have that!" Roddi grinned. "You should never hate Op more than me. After all, I'm the PR guy between us. Op is the diplomatic stiff. I just make it look good. So . . . you know, I could turn it into a threesome."
Daniel's cocky, gotchya expression dropped to disbelief.
Roddi had him. "Yeah!" he pushed. "I'll find a way for Optimus to fall madly in love with me! We'll have bouts of shameless passionate lovemaking! We'll take photos! Post 'em on the Internet, email them to your wife! Rusti's crazy for both of us; she'll love the idea! Oh! We might even make it a foursome if you're ever lonely enough-"
"You're a fucking sick bastard, Rodimus." Daniel about jumped to his feet. He certainly stomped off, huffing and muttering.
Rodimus grinned in spite of the scratches on his face. Maybe the wife thing was a bit much. But Daniel got the idea.
Rodimus boarded the Alvarez and casually greeted Autobot and Human alike. He carefully stepped along the corridor as Skipper, Trixy and Slingshot used fire retardant to purge the ship of robotic parasites. Behind them a crew of Humans used push brooms to sweep up the nasty things.
Roddi found Magnus right where Magnus would be: on the bridge, sorting, categorizing, enumerating and commanding. Tall colorful mountains of digipads surrounded him like a forest of neatly-stacked, organized trees. He sat in a comfortable chair, adjusted close enough to the floor so he could reach the stacks with ease.
"REDIAL!" he shouted needlessly into his personal comlink. "Where are those damned service reports? I don't-did I ask you what Blaster was doing?"
Rodimus stepped aside as Blue entered bearing another collection of pads.
Magnus received them and did a double take. "Blue? Why the Pitt aren't these pre-alphabetized?"
"This is not going to work! I want this stuff organized according to rank, name and color!"
She about argued but relented, apparently knowing better than to argue with the Major-General. "Aye, sir."
"REDIAL!" Magnus snarled again, "what's holding up-don't you give me lip, buster or you'll be cleaning engine parts!"
The best thing about Ultra Magnus as disciplinarian was that when Optimus or Roddi gave an order, the Autobots were happy to carry it out simply because it wasn't Magnus doing the ordering. Roddi stepped off the entry dias. "Heya, Mags."
Ultra Magnus had to look twice before he realized who joined him. "Rodimus! But aren't you supposed to be in medbay?" Roddi shrugged. Magnus moaned. "You know, you and Prime will be the death of me." Magnus arranged a stack of mis-matched digipads according to color and size.
Roddi leaned against a nearby consol. "Please tell me he's here."
"Who?" Magnus read annoyance on Prime's face. "Oh, yeah. Optimus' here. Been here for a week and a half, now-Redial! You have ten minutes!"
Magnus sifted through a stack of silver and red pads. "That's right."
"I've been out for a week?"
"No. We've been out for a week. He sat with you for four days. Slept two. Thank you, Blue. Set them there." Magnus slipped his optics from the stack to Roddi. "You really should get more rest, Rodimus."
Rodimus frowned. "What's with all the pads, Mags?"
"Uuuh . . . I've been asked to go through logs for discrepancies."
"Discrepancies? What discrepancies? We have discrepancies?"
Magnus pieced out a white digipad, scribbled across it and handed it to Rodimus.
Prime gazed at it and went cold. Magnus scribbled the word SABOTAGE across the top. He erased it and handed it back as Redial raced in.
"Blaster wouldn't give me the other three." Redial all but dropped his stack of digipads and tried to race out but Magnus would not have it.
"Nah-uh! You get me those pads, buster."
"Did I not just give you a DIRECT ORDER?! Do you have glitch mice in your processor? You're pissing me off, Redial. Get me those pads!"
With a pleading look to Rodimus, Redial fled the ship.
Rodimus crouched close to Magnus. "How are you hoping to find anything Magnus? We don't know how many pads we have."
Fort Max's city commander/drill sergeant gave Rodimus a small smile. "What do you think I do with my spare time, Roddi?"
Rodimus withdrew, all but horrified. Look up the word 'meticulous' in the dictionary and he'd find Magnus' mug shot next to it. Prime shook his head. "I'm not dealing with this. I'm off to find Op."
"Uh . . .you might want to wait until you've had a bit more rest before you do that, Rodimus."
"Whoa. That's a bit suspicious. What's going on?"
Magnus paused in his work: "uummm . . ."
But Ultra Magnus shrugged and diverted attention elsewhere. Rodimus grabbed him by the left audio array.
"Ggaaaahhhh!" Magnus dropped the two pads in his hands.
Roddi tugged him close, his voice stern: "Magnus, what's going on?"
Pt 9: Symptoms
The evening before Rodimus woke, the Autobots added the Interrogator and the Cold Refractor to their list of readied ships. Optimus left logistics and supplies to Jazz and Gryph (when she had the energy) while he, Quasar and Blaster worked through the night to ready the Saber's Claw for hyperdrive installation.
Galvatron, Perceptor and Wavelength worked on the Crested Moon. For several hours, the pace and the work ran smoothly. Optimus bugged First Aid for updates on Roddi's condition until two A.M. Earth Pacific standard (very late for Cratis which had 29-hour days) Optimus and Redial finished rerouting the drive line system on the Armored Crest when the Autobot leader took a five minute break. He peered through the view screen into a dismally dark world.
"Driveline system operational at ninety-eight percent proficiency, Optimus." Redial reported. "Shall I fit the inter-coding system?"
Prime stared at Redial, emotionless. I'm sorry, he thought. No one was supposed to make this journey except me. As tired as he felt, The Autobot leader knew the Autobots were far more exhausted, even homesick. "First Aid," he called.
"No change, Optimus," the medic answered automatically.
"I was going to suggest you get some rest." he sensed surprise at the other end of the comline.
He sensed resentment from Redial.
He sensed worry from the Dinobots.
He sensed despair from Kup and pain from Springer.
Arcee sat huddled in a dark corner on the Covenant, angry and hurt.
The view screen in front flashed, nearly blinding him. Redial seemed not to notice.
First Aid's voice came back. "Did you hear me?"
"No," Optimus answered internally.
"If I power down now, I'll be down for six hours. Maybe more-"
Optimus interrupted aloud: "First Aid, I can't afford you to collapse due to exhaustion. Get some rest then send Trinket off for . . . ressst . . ." His words trailed off when the view screen plunged black. "Redial, are you doing anything to the viewer?"
"No. Why-" the communications officer turned and cut his question off when the view screen displayed a horrifying distorted version of Megatron. His robotic form took on the shape of a square metallic bug, his mouth, an infestation of hideous over-developed teeth. He walked on four arms and flickered a black, split tongue. Around him lay bones, skulls and a steaming pool of boiling acid.
Redial dropped his equipment and fled the Crest's bridge.
First Aid's voice once again dragged Optimus' attention from the viewer. "Prime, please . . . just answer . . ."
"I'm sorry," Optimus replied. "Get some rest, First Aid. That's an order." He heard the medic moan, frustrated. The distorted alien version of Megatron continued until the flaring red optics turned toward him. 'Megatron' hissed.
"Stop it," Prime whispered. "You're not frightening anyone."
Megatron's face folded into Void's head. The head twisted and pushed itself through the viewer. FEAR PRESENT. ABUNDANT. EVERYTHING.
It spoke of all the Autobots, the Humans, the energy of despair and hopelessness. Optimus could not look the thing in the face.
"Then you no longer need me. You have all the others. And you don't need Rodimus." Prime now gazed upon the eyeless monster, projecting courage and a bit of smugness.
The Virus said nothing. It brought a leg out the view screen, now displaying the world outside once again. ENTERTAINING. NOT EDIBLE.
Optimus darkened his optics. "I am unaffected in accordance to your lust." he did not realize he was using Void's syntax. "Your dislogic is ineffectual."
Void hissed and lunged, knocking Prime off his feet. The crashed in the middle of the bridge and rolled one way then another until the Autobot twisted round and grabbed the Virus by its neck.
A bad move.
Optimus pinned the Virus to the floor but he did not account for the monster's tail. Void securely wound its long square tail round Prime's legs.
One needle-thin, spidery black leg savagely sank into the Autobot's right hip. Another pierced him under the arm. Optimus took control of his pain and converted it into energy. He elbowed Void's right leg, giving him just enough room and a few seconds necessary to call a tool from subspace. Void hissed and Prime shoved the tool between its deadly teeth.
That did not last long; the Virus absorbed the tool and violently impaled a third leg through Optimus' left leg. The captive Autobot finally succumbed to the torment, incapable of diffusing or transfusing it elsewhere. But defiant, Optimus still sought a way to escape or fight.
Void finished what it started with a final skew into Prime's left shoulder. Hemotricity flowed from Prime's wounds. It ran freely over the physical Virus and dripped along the floor. Optimus Prime surrendered to Void's life-robbing embrace. Faceless Darkness licked him along his faceplate and purred.
For Optimus, it was like being embraced by a spider; the damned abomination owned him.
"Is there anyone onboard the Armored Crest or are they all taking a nap? HELLO! Pfft! Armored Crest, this is the Hannibal's Mark . . . Optimus Prime, do we have a fragging communication-frag it all, I'm coming over."
Blaster's voice dragged Optimus out the black chasm of unconsciousness. He forced himself on his back and stared at the ceiling. His mind drifted until the thought of Rusti gave him enough strength to realize he should not be where he was; lying on the floor.
Weakly he struggled to sit up but failed. "Galvatron . . ." he heard the Decepticon patch in.
"Did you say something, Prime?"
" . . . what . . . what's the time?"
Galvatron hesitated and switched to his internal communicator. "Are you alright?"
Pause. "There's . . . a poem coming through. I heard it . . . I think."
He did not know Galvatron softly cursed. He did not know Wavelength hailed Trinket. A moment later he heard two sets of footfalls. There was Blaster's voice: harsh, irritated, snappy.
There was Galvatron's voice: strong, commanding, authoritative.
Optimus managed to sit up but his sensors registered mostly static. Someone gripped his left shoulder and he winced weakly with pain. Then there was Galvatron. Prime lifted his right hand and touched the Decepticon's face.
"The devil came for me."
He tried to steal your life.
That may or may not have been Galvatron speaking. The voice was there, the words were not.
"I miss Rusti. Roddi will be so angry." Galvatron wrapped an arm about him and Optimus felt the warmth of his body, the strength of his power core.
He hoped that when he and Roddi died, Galvatron would consider taking care of the Autobots; a surrogate leader.
But that was ridiculous! Galvatron was a Decepticon! Optimus weakly laid his hand on Galvatron's chest. He and Rodimus were going to die and their people would follow.
"Rusti won't die," he muttered softly. Optimus was not aware of the argument between Galvatron and Blaster at the moment. Tears fell over his face plate and rolled cold down his chest.
Vaguely Optimus reached for Roddi who still slept on the Spiral Star. He should sleep, too. After all, he worked several days straight. Sleep might let him feel better.
Sleep, Roddi, he thought. I love . . .
Galvatron just finished the realignment along the communications array when he checked his chronometer.
Five A.M. no telling what that meant on Cratis-and not that he cared, really. The longer they stayed, the less he liked it. He really sympathized with the Autobots who had been here for an estimated total of two months. Little wonder they were all cranky.
Of course, they were less than enthused having to cooperate with him and many did not hesitate to express their feelings toward him. While the Autobots knew better than to start a fight, snarls and glares shot his way like silent arrows. Galvatron either took them lightly or ignored them entirely. He did not, however, hesitate to defend Cyclonus.
Wavelength was a bit different: more accepting and willing to listen. Galvatron hoped through at least one Autobot, he'd find an ally.
Prime's voice weakly filtered through the Armored Crest's comlines. Galvatron turned to Wavelength while Perceptor calibrated rate factors unique to the Crested Moon.
"Did you hear that?" he asked the Autobot.
"Vaguely. Might be a resounding ghost signal. We get those from time to time."
The Decepticon lifted his chin to speak ship-to-ship: "Did you say something, Prime?"
Wavelength watched the Decepticon as Galvatron bowed his head. The very next moment, Galvatron bolted off the ship and suspecting the worst, Wavelength called for help.
Blaster blocked Galvatron's way into the Armored Crest. "Don't think so, gruesome and greasy. I might not be allowed to punch your face in, but I don't have to be cooperative, either."
"I have no interest in arguing with you about this, Autobot," Galvatron growled. "I might not have a cannon, but I can still kick your aft any time I choose to do so. Now let me the slagging frag in before I give you double vision."
At first Blaster was not going to give in. No matter what Optimus thought or believed, this was a Decepticon. He deserved nothing but judgement and death.
But Blaster wasn't stupid. He knew Galvatron was very capable of rearranging his body. Reluctantly, he stepped aside.
Galvatron rushed in and found Prime on the floor, struggling to stay conscious. Galvatron dropped beside him. Optimus bled from inexplicable wounds. He softly spoke but Galvatron only heard "Roddi" and 'angry'. He drew Prime close as Blaster opened an emergency compartment and produced a thermal cover until Trinket arrived.
Galvatron stared hard at Blaster. "Has this happened before? Does the Virus do this frequently?"
"Yes, but it was two years ago. The Virus-thingy physically attacked Rodimus Prime, too."
"Just before the war with your planetary cousins."
Galvatron stared, sifting through his memory banks for names and ideas. "Have they made attempts to find a specialist?"
"Negative. It's infected the Matrix. How 'r we supposed to fix that?"
Galvatron frowned as Trinket came in with an antigrav stretcher. "Please help me, Blaster," he requested politely.
Blaster flinched upon hearing his name from the lip components of an old enemy. But he complied, helping Galvatron lift the Autobot leader off the floor. They laid Prime on the flat and tucked the cover over his wounds to keep them clear of Cratian dust. As Trinket left with Optimus, Galvatron turned to Blaster with crossed arms.
"In order to aid the Matrix, perhaps it would be a good idea to know more about it."
"Can't," Blaster quickly answered. "Don't got access to Cybertronian records-"
"I know what you're capable of, Blaster and if your leaders mean anything to you, you will research until your antennae fry."
The communications officer, usually cool and laid back, snorted with flaring optics, "How am I supposed to do that on a planet stuck in the middle of no-place? Or hasn't it hit you yet that we're hundreds of light years from Cybertron?"
Galvatron's own optics flashed and he growled. "Just three words for you, Autobot: make it happen."
Galvatron could not stand to remain on the Armored Crest. He was miffed with Autobots who did nothing or next to nothing to aid their leader. What was the matter with those idiots? Galvatron knew Optimus was not alone on the bridge. Who was with him and why didn't he or she stay there and try to help out?
Fuming outside the Crest, Galvatron leaned against its outer hull. He glared at anyone dumb or irritating enough to stare. Were they all so afraid of the Virus that they went out of their way to avoid helping their leaders? Maybe it was that the Autobots were so accustomed to someone else solving their problems they assumed Rodimus and Optimus could deal with the crisis on their own. Their problem, no one else's.
Bad policy. But then, Galvatron digressed, the Decepticons were very much the same way, but for other reasons. He who dies leaves his post for the next-in-line. Galvatron wanted to change that. He wanted to make things completely different for the Decepticons. But when he recalled the kind of jerks he worked and fought with, he remembered they were not exactly prize-winning material. Cutthroats, scavengers, opportunists, miscreants and blood-thirsty murderers.
Galvatron tuned into the one frequency he and Cyclonus shared. "Where is the support necessary to take care of their leaders? Why don't they have better care for the ones who protect and guide them?"
"You never had one, Mighty One," came Cyclonus' low-toned voice.
"I had-I have you."
The Decepticon flier fell silent. Galvatron could tell the coordinates Cyclonus flew; six thousand feet in the air; just high enough to get readings from the smog hovering above the debris field.
Galvatron banged his head against the hull, frustrated. "Don't the Autobots understand the Virus is destroying the Matrix? Why hasn't anyone looked into finding a solution?"
"The only ones to answer that, Galvatron, are the two Primes. Perhaps Ultra Magnus. But it also occurs to me that they have been so busy struggling to deal with the Virus they may not have had time to investigate its origin or weakness."
The former Decepticon leader stared at the dirty sky, his mind on everything but the planet and its crappy environment. "Perhaps, Cyclonus, you and I are the support system." Cyclonus could offer no answer and Galvatron was not looking for one. He decided to find out how Optimus fared. And if he was daring enough, he'd find out about Rodimus if First Aid was willing to talk to him.
Galvatron boarded the Spiral Star and passed through the first level waiting room. He aimed for the turbo lift to the next level when some poor soul screamed three rooms down. Profanity the likes of which the Decepticon heard only from Ultra Magnus issued from the mech's vocal unit; vociferous and foul.
"You people are fucking homicidal masochists!"
"I'm sorry, Mister Witwicky," a female voice calmly answered, "the lice won't come off any other way."
"Don't give me that, bitch! Just give me something for the goddamned pain!"
"Mr. Witwicky, you call me that one more time and I"ll leave them on you!"
Galvatron took three steps back and ran into an Aerialbot. Slingshot looked like he had been dragged through a laser gallery at a fair. The Decepticon gave the poor fellow a once-over then offered an apologetic smile.
Daniel screamed again, louder than before. Slingshot cringed. "Not as bad as that."
"Some sort of Cratian robo-lice outbreak on the Alvarez. Seems Repugnus had it in for Sunstreaker and Sideswipe and planted a nest of the bugs in their bunks. Daniel found it while cleaning. Apparently-"
Slingshot winced at yet another of Witwicky's bone-cracking screams. "-uh, they got through his support suit and under his skin."
As the Aerialbot gave the low-down, Dr. Zornoy flew in and rifled past the curtains that gave Witwicky a small measure of privacy. "Aye, not so good there, Mr. Woe-to-you."
"This is not funny," Daniel snarled in return. "A blood-sucking bug on my dick is NOT A LAUGHING MATTER!" And Daniel proceeded to scream again. This time the attending nurse joined him, horrified. She flew out the room, hands covering her face. She ran down the hall into the 'ladies room'.
Dr. Zornoy sounded more like a scientist on a safari, "Oh just look at that! They reproduce asexually! Not so good. We'll have to find another way to get them off you. Hold still, Mr. Witwicky. This might hurt just a little."
Galvatron smiled lightly and turned back to Slingshot. "Where do you think they might have Optimus Prime?"
Once on the central deck, Galvatron instinctively seemed to know where they put Optimus Prime. He traversed corridors not used by most Autobot staff to avoid potential fights. He found what he believed to be the room and waited until First Aid or another doctor emerged. Galvatron leaned against the bulkhead and waited patiently.
"No," came First Aid's voice down the hall, "I did not authorize for Rodimus Prime-I understand your concern, Ultra Magnus, but I am the medic, not their babysitter. Where is he now?" The medic came six yards from Galvatron when the doors to Prime's room hissed open.
Optimus stepped out the room and met Galvatron's surprised expression. The Autobot looked awful. What-and why-was he up and around already?
First Aid arrived and stopped dead cold.
"I feel much better," Optimus declared.
"No you're not," Galvatron and First Aid countered simultaneously.
Prime ignored Galvatron who noticed a figure stomping his way down the hall. Optimus pinned First Aid with 'casual authority'. "Aren't you supposed to be off duty for a while?"
"Yes," First Aid answered with his usual soft voice. "But for some reason I can't seem to get either of my leaders to do the same."
"Could not sleep." Prime's optics jumped from the medic to his friend. "I keep waking as if there was something I needed to do."
Galvatron nodded toward the approaching mech. "Maybe that's the reason."
Rodimus stomped toward them. First Aid groaned with a hand alongside his face. He shook his head.
"I had to come see this for myself," Rodimus snarled.
Ignoring the other Prime's foul mood, Optimus smiled slightly. "Hello, Rodimus, it's good to see you up."
"Don't you patronize me. And what the PITT is HE doing here?!"
"Bullshit. You'd better have a really good reason as to why I should not execute him right here."
"I invited him and Cyclonus. That makes them my guests. And they've been nothing but helpful."
Rodimus' optics flared a hot blue. "Why is that supposed to be a good reason?"
"We're short-handed and they have experience. Besides, you and Magnus have been incapacitated."
"They? How many Decepticons did you bring?!"
"Just two: Galvatron and Cyclonus-"
"OH! If you want to eliminate all the Autobots, you have to make sure it's done right, right? So you bring us the two who are at the top of the intergalactic most wanted list. Nice job, Op! Hey, I have a great idea! Why don't you give them some really nice weapons while you're at it?"
Galvatron and Prime both stared at Rodimus, guilty as charged. Roddi's optics narrowed. "I hear a court martial calling. How about I arrange for one right now?"
Galvatron disconcerted. "If you're attempting to be sarcastic, it's not working very well. If you're attempting to overreact, shouldn't we do this in private? The kids will hear us."
Rodimus snapped around. "You stay OUT of this! THIS IS ENTIRELY your fault and I am not to hear ONE MORE WORD out of you!"
Galvatron stared in disbelief. "Wow. You know, hostility really isn't your forte, Rodimus. Not that it ever has been. But you're not very good at throwing your temper."
Rodimus stepped in to give Galvatron a swift right-cross and a kick to the knees. But since he was not at full-power capacity, Roddi was a good deal slower than he otherwise should have been.
Galvatron stepped back and caught the punch with his hand.
First Aid retracted his right arm and a laser shot into Rodimus' neck. The Autobot leader collapsed without warning and 'Aid pointed his left finger at Galvatron: "You! Take a hike!" he pointed to Optimus. "You! Get BACK to bed before I give you more than one dose!"
Optimus thought First Aid was going to short himself with frustration. "If I promise to sleep, can I rest with Rusti?"
Neither Galvatron nor Prime knew a pacifist like First Aid could ever look so pissed. First Aid's visor flashed and radiated. His chin was tucked in as though he were ready to head-butt the first person to disobey him: "You'd better be dreaming, Optimus. Because I'll be monitoring your aft-and are YOU STILL HERE?" he glared at Galvatron.
"I-I was just wishing them good-night."
First Aid hissed inward and the Decepticon fled in one
direction, Optimus in the other.
Rest actually sounded good to Optimus. Just that momentary reaction from Rodimus meant it was going to take a while (a long while) for him to get accustomed to Galvatron-if he ever got that far.
The weary Autobot leader lowered to hand and knees the moment he stepped into Rusti's room. He normally would have checked her progress, read the charts and found something to ask Zornoy. But Optimus deiced to obey First Aid only because he could sleep next to someone he loved. Optimus hoped that by sleeping next to her, the nightmares might not be so prevalent.
As she slept, Rusti sensed everything around her; people, events, situations and the activity of all non-sapient machines. She was aware of all activity in the ship, outside the ship, and around the camp. The ground temperature hovered around eighty-seven point two degrees Fahrenheit. 'Morning shift' prepped for work. They took inventory and caught up on each other's bad dreams. The night crew checked into their quarters. Everyone assigned to the Armored Crest delayed rest while they scoured the vessel for bugs. The Armored Crest laughed to itself. The three bugs Pong found near his flat were already dead, carried from the Alvarez by Dogfight who forgot to wipe his feet.
The air temperature stagnated at an even ninety-eight degrees. Autobots tolerated it fine, but the Humans hated it and they complained incessantly. But there was little to be done except to leave the planet.
The Virus waited and debated, talking to itself. It did not know what it was doing-and it did. It played its mind games between the two Primes feeding upon energies produced by their imbalanced processors.
At least at this point 'she' understood what was happening. From this point forward, events and situations may reveal themselves in a mass of confusion. Now Pyrazhak shared the girl's mind for a while. At least here resided peace while the Virus raged elsewhere within the confines of the Matrix. It was certainly a brilliant idea, but a risky one. Pyrazhak could not afford to intermingle with the girl's consciousness for too long a time. Rusti was very self-aware and had wonderful insight. But she was limited in capacity. Sifting through massive amounts of information and assimilating more everyday would certainly cause an overload.
Dangerous but necessary.
The positive side of the situation is that it allowed 'him' to openly communicate even to those who could not Hear at all. It will be tricky to resist the temptation to completely take over.
Balance must be maintained. Balance to stabilize the girl, balance to stay alive until a solution was found.
There, outside. Another ion storm hit the shields. She smiled. Optimus knew it was better to leave the shields intact rather than taking them down. Pyrazhak watched the storm pounds and dissipate against the camp's shields. It was beautiful to listen to the frazzled light as it smashed to specks, zapping and screeching. It was beautiful because the Autobots were safe.
Somewhere along the metal plates, scanning equipment and life support systems, Rusti heard the Spiral Star chatter endlessly.
Don't be silly. Ships don't talk. And she wondered if she only dreamed of the ion storm. And what of the dead bugs found on the Armored Crest?
Wait. Think back.
No, that was a dream. That was supposed to just be a dream. But she clearly remembered the bridge and the intricate designs; designs as found in the Baroque French cathedrals. And she remembered the valley expanse she was going to travel.
Rusti blinked in the dark. Did . . . did she have a death experience of some kind? Wasn't there a lady?
What was blue fire?
The Spiral Star complained about someone hitting a door control. That wasn't nice. There was no need to hit the ship; Spiral Star was always willing to open doors for people. There's never a need to get upset. But the offender spewed several unfriendly words and Spiral Star hoped the rude individual left soon.
Rusti listened further as the ship submitted to a shield scan. All was good, all was clear. The ship spoke with a language not heard by Humans or Autobots. In fact, Rusti was sure she was the only person capable of hearing the ships actually communicate to themselves.
Spiral Star complained of cut lines and kept wondering when they were going to be repaired. It was also annoyed by one Paratron worker who kept using bleach on the floors. Then the ship laughed when someone came aboard covered with small metallic insects. It was funny, but there was also the danger of contamination.
Rusti's left handed fingers moved and stretched languidly. A smooth metal surface met her sense of touch and she did not need to see what-or who-it was.
"Did I wake you, Rusti?"
"No, the Spiral Star did." she paused a moment. "How long have you been here?
"Six hours, twenty-two minutes. I managed to sleep five point three of that."
A knowing smile touched Rusti's lips. "You got into trouble with First Aid, huh?"
"What makes you say that?"
"Cuz you sound so guilty. Did he threaten you with an inch of your life, or attempt to tie you down?
"Neither. Galvatron and Rodimus started a fight. We're lucky Magnus could get-"
"Stop. Wait. Okay, somewhere in there I heard the word 'Galvatron," she interrupted. "Is that right? Please tell me I was hearing things."
"Ohmigod. Optimus! I'll end up scraping microbial specks of you off the pavement. I'll bet Rodimus and Magnus both have gone ballistic over him." again, Rusti paused. "Waaaaait a minute. How many strays did you bring with you?
"Two? Two Decepticons?"
Now Rusti attempted optical contact. "Did you want your ring back? You might need all the metal you can keep on hand."
"Ha, ha." Optimus answered sarcastically. "No. I'm sure they'll leave something of me, Rusti; just enough for data processing."
He paused. "Paperwork," he agreed.
She tried a deep breath and pain reminded her why she lay in bed, wrapped with bandages and IV's. She felt neither energetic nor glamourous at the moment. Optimus lay quiet a long moment. She sensed a heavy weariness about him. Then Rusti frowned when the Spiral Star stared to natter on about cut links. She rolled her eyes in the dark.
"There was a rumor that you killed Laserbeak."
"Might have. And aren't you supposed to be sleeping?"
Again the Autobot leader paused. "I missed you. I missed your voice. I missed your laughter."
Rusti thought it sweet he'd say that but his words made her sad and she did not know why. She shifted her weight just enough for her body to sharply declare the girl's mortality and pent-up frustration. Distress choked her with tears. She looked away, embarrassed and ashamed.
"Rusti?" Optimus whispered.
All she could do was shake her head, unable to vocalize.
"Did I say something wrong?"
Rusti squeezed her eyes tight, struggling to control herself. She wanted to sit up and could not. "I love you," she mourned. "But I feel soooo inadequate. If something were to happen to you, I could never help. And I feel so . . . pathetic because . . . because I'm just a piece of skin. And compared to your life span, I have the longevity of a fly. And I'm sorry, Optimus. Maybe the marriage vow was wrong. Because in -I don't know-in sixty years, I'll be dead." she paused to let herself breathe. Her voice cracked. "And I won't be around to take care of you anymore." she sobbed heavily and when Prime handed her a tissue, she grabbed his hand and held him close."
Optimus laid his other hand over her head. "If I were concerned about how much time I had with you, Sweetheart, I might have done things differently. But all that's important to me is having the time and opportunity to make you happy. All I care about is the time we have."
Prime set his finger under her hand again. "You could be dead tomorrow. But all that's important to me is where we are right now." he dropped his words, swallowed by sadness and her quiet weeping. "Besides," his voice lowered close to a whisper," I very well may die before you do. I don't know how much longer Roddi and I have. We might live out the year or survive another ten."
He withdrew, moving in a silent, graceful manner.
She managed to quit crying for the moment but the tears came back. "Are you sure this is what you want?" she shuddered with a shallow sigh. "Cause I'll be honest with you, Optimus, we could never have sex."
She did not see the look of disbelief on his face. He hesitated. "I'm talking to the same girl who protected me from being assassinated by Ultra Magnus. I'm here with the same young lady who kept me company during the long dry days that I'd sit alone in my office. And I am placing my faith and trust in the same young woman who told me that I belonged to her while we stood on the Nemesis." Optimus dared a smile. "And she is the same young girl who chaperoned me to a party.'
'That isn't just love, that's devotion. And I'll be honest, Rusti, sex isn't devotion. Relationships require integrity and it is a rare and magnificent thing to find someone with enough integrity to love you in spite of your strengths and your faults. So . . . I gave you a ring to symbolize my devotion to you. I do not care how long you might live. The point is, this is my promise to you."
Rusti's tears stopped but left her tired. She studied his face in what little light illuminated the room. "I didn't get you a ring," she said simply.
"Heh . . . we can think of something later."
Magnus just completed a sign-and-date marathon on all ship log entries when First Aid contacted him. Ultra Magnus was enjoying a solid eight-hour period of blissful silence. All dynamental ducks were in a row. Most repairs were near completion.
And there came not one complaint about the Decepticons.
So it came as something of a surprise when First Aid contacted Magnus as early as six-thirty.
"I have a missing patient."
"Mm." Magnus grunted. He straightened a pile of digipads. "Optimus or Rodimus?"
"Did he rest?"
"Well ... I did not give him a choice, Ultra Magnus."
Magnus paused, perplexed. "What's that again?"
"I gave Rodimus a sedative last night."
"And I went to check on him at the door lock records his departure just six minutes ago."
"He can walk under his own power?"
First Aid gave an exasperated sigh. "Yes."
"Hm. Well, Fist Aid, you should know by now that once an injured Prime is able to talk, they do just that. They can't help it; it's in their programming. But if it's any consolation, I'll keep an optic out for him. Hi, Rodimus!"
Magnus cut communication with First Aid with no apology. He watched Roddi pace about the bridge of the Vertical Horizon the digipad in Magnus' hand flashed to alert him to a survey report form Cyclonus.
The Major-General begrudgingly had to admit he liked the way Cyclonus made his reports; succinct yet detailed right to the second. He used parameter measures coupled with environmental readings. Reading Cyclonus' recon report was like being there.
"Have you done anything about our Decepticon 'guests?" Rodimus asked.
Not one hint of play come through is voice. Roddi was tired and cranky; not in the mood for cracking jokes.
"No," magnus answered.
"Because they're not doing anything wrong. And yes, I've kept an optic on them all night.-"
Rodimus leaned over the navigational consol, his optics flared, "You have two Decepticons roaming freely and you've done NOTHING?"
"They haven't done anything, Rodimus. Cyclonus has been submitting recon reports every twenty-one point four minutes. Galvatron is cleaning landing gear with Grotesque and Hardhead -and Jazz is supervising. Everything is fine."
"Everything is NOT FINE!" Rodimus all but leapt over the consol and kicked the pad out of Magnus' hands.
Rodimus shot a finger toward the bridge doors. "All they need is a single moment-MAYBE not even that to carry out their little job."
"I'm not happy about it either, Rodimus. But Optimus Prime seems to think they're trustworthy-"
"So you just lolly-gag and let them go and do as they please?"
Magnus glared as he retrieved the pad. "Don't think that just because I do what I'm told I go off and ignore protocol, Rodimus. This is me you're talking to, not Strike Back."
"The point is, Ultra Magnus, you're still doing EXACTLY what Optimus Prime wants you to do rather than following your own convictions! Whose side are you on?"
Blaster stepped in as if on cue bearing two digipads, replacement equipment and a box of tools. Magnus pointed to the communications officer: "THEIRS!" he snarled. "Now if you'll excuse me, Rodimus, I still have things to do. If you're really irritable, then for fragging's sake take it to your partner! I'M BUSY!"
With one glance at Blaster, Roddi did just that. Blaster handed the pads and tools to Magnus. "Oh man. He sizzling his rationality circuits. You think there's gonna be a boxing match between them?
Magnus ignored Blaster until the question came up. The Major-General's optics lost their light. "Oh crap. Blaster, we need an update on all shields and power levels."
"All the ships?"
Magnus glared. "No. On all the little kids that have no earlobes. YES, ALL SHIPS! MOVE!"
Blaster bolted and Magnus started to wonder if Roddi's temper was finally rubbing onto him.
Rodimus knew going to back to the Spiral Star and picking a fight with Optimus meant another sedative from a frustrated First Aid.
Rodimus decided to just lie low and pick no fights until later-that included Galvatron. As he climbed to the top of the Racing Beast, Roddi thought how it might be a good idea to be mature enough to hear all sides of the story. He could even be smart enough to trust Optimus' judgement.
That was a cramp in his style, he decided. It was Optimus' idea to rendevous here on Cratis.
You really need to teach him a lesson, another voice suggested. After all, Op is an Autobot leader, a servant. What right does he have to put the Autobots in such dangerous and dire predicaments?
Roddi could not answer the question. He lay flat on the star cruiser's rooftop and stared at the ugly grey-brown sky.
Now that he thought of it, this was the first time he'd been able to just lie quiet and take a mental and emotional consensus of the Autobots. This was the first time things felt peaceful.
As his mind drifted aimlessly, another question crept into him: something that hadn't nagged him except in some dream long since forgotten: what exactly happened on the battlefield?
Roddi remembered anger. There was also an overwhelming sense of blood lust. He actually envisioned himself feeding on his opponents.
Yes. But wasn't there something more than that? Did he not also rip someone's core right out their chest and demand a match?
What evils would he have to atone for? Rodimus realized just how tired he was of the guilt and filth.
My spark is being used, raped and devoured by something I cannot control. What madness possessed Optimus to think the Virus could be purged on some inaccessible planet?
Light flickered at his feet and at first, Roddi paid it no attention-that was until the face of a single-faced, oblong-headed Quintesson faded in from nowhere.
Rodimus sat up and glanced right to left to make sure he was alone. He clambered onto his knees and reached for the apparition. To his relief, that's all it was. But it stared at him with steady eyes, studying him. And when the Autobot leader moved, the Quintesson's face moved with him. Then the face blanked out, broadened, stretched and Sunstreaker's visage replace the Quintesson's countenance, but not its body.
Yuck. Rodimus winced but refused to be intimidated. "Void, knock it off. I'm in no mood for your games."
"Sssssss . . . ssssssuuunnnnnnnn. EXPLAIN SUN."
"I'm not answering!"Roddi ignored the Virus when it stretched its neck like a ribbon and peered round the Autobot's right side.
"Hey!" Roddi yelled, "Knock it off! No one knows!"
The Virus did leave but now Rodimus worried that it headed for Optimus. The least I could have done was lie, he thought miserably. Not that it would have affected the Virus; Void knew when Roddi lied.
Roddi lingered atop the Beast, unable to decide what to do. Sunstreaker's face plastered on a Quint's body was disturbing.
Autobot footfalls several feet below distracted Rodimus momentarily. Arcee, right? Sounded like her. Couldn't be anyone else. She had a narrow gait and did not swing her arms like so many other Autobots.
Another set of footprints crunched the ground, much smaller, but heavy.
Rodimus narrowed his optics, enjoying his private guessing game. He was willing to bet the little footfalls were either Dr. Arcana's. or Daniel's.
"Well look who hasn't tried to commit suicide."
Daniel. Rodimus frowned.
"What? Not so much as a greeting for me, Arcee? That guilty conscious will get the best of you."
Arcee's footsteps moved along at four paces before Daniel opened his mouth again.
"Hey! Are you seriously going to be that rude to me?"
"I have nothing to say to you, Daniel."
"No. Of course not. Nothing apologetic, right? That's alright. You just haven't realized that no one else really wants anything to do with you, Arcee. You've been contaminated."
"What are you talking about?" she snarled.
"Think about it. Springer dumped you. And you know Magnus has better things to do than to be distracted by an Autobot who allowed herself to be used and controlled by a Human for years. Almost three decades, really. You're an Outsider now, Arcee. No matter where you go or who you're with. Everyone will know you as the Human's Autobot toy."
"I'm not listening, Daniel-"
"But you already have. My DNA will always be found somewhere in your body . . . you stimulated me, Arcee-"
"STOP IT!" she screamed. "How can you say things like that?!"
"You know they're true."
Rodimus heard enough. He slid down the Beast's starboard wing frame-connect and approached them. The moment she saw Roddi, Arcee bolted ten feet, transformed and raced away.
Rodimus did not bother to drop to one knee for a closer look. "Dan-o!" he greeted with disingenuous cheer. "Tell me something, does being an asshole come naturally to you, or do you actually work at it?"
"Okay. Well, bit of advice, Dan-o: keep your hands and your mouth to yourself, okay?"
Witwicky rolled his eyes and started walking away. "Whatever."
If there was a time that Rodimus wanted to step on someone . . .
Darkness swirled in a universe of black so terrible and so deep no shape held it. Like a black hole or a gravity well, it swallowed everything: the universe, the galaxies, star clusters, solar systems, continents, people, ideas and existence.
This was the soul and spark of absolute evil; the end of life. Not emotion, thought, imagination or sapience of any sort escaped the rotating arms of the spiraling darkness.
If this spiraling Darkness devoured Life, how could it exist itself?
Optimus sat at the horizon of the spiraling darkness. A Faceless thing that consumed, growing moment by moment, ever so slowly, encroached across the microcosm that was the Matrix. He watched it rotate, darkness within Dark; anti-life.
It unnerved him to think Faceless Darkness began to learn. It now had a vocabulary. It knew the difference between the two Primes. It asked questions.
Did animals ask questions? And if so, was it beyond physical needs? Mulling it over, Optimus decided that indeed, animal life forms had enough self-consciousness to ask questions beyond the moment.
It meant Void was not animal and not a microbe and not sentient. What was it? And how did it start?
Come to think of it, Optimus never thought to ask its origins. The question never quite made it to his mind, not when he was so occupied with denying its existence.
Optimus' optics narrowed. "I liked you better when you were nothing more than a program," he said aloud.
The Swirling Darkness stopped churning and the center of it rose and reformed itself into Void's faceless head. It grew and lifted its legs from the no-space. Void was so much larger than when Optimus first encountered it. Was there a limit to its size? Was there a limit to how much it could devour of the Matrix? Even empty, the Matrix's presence pulsated. Not visible, it was still there, still aware.
Understanding anything about the Matrix meant accepting the fact that just because a thing cannot be seen, does not mean it was not real.
Void's facelessness scrutinized Optimus Prime. AT A TIME. BECOME YOU.
It licked his right arm and the Autobot lost resistance. He wondered how long it would before he lost his self-consciousness to Void. He wondered if, by accessing the Matrix, Void would find a way to . . .
The thought of her falling victim to the monster grieved him to his core. But he could not decide if Rusti was safer near him or far away.
Unfortunately, this just wasn't the time to consider that notion. Optimus rose, managing to stay quiet. He did not want to leave her. But he was, after all, responsible for everyone else. Wishing her sweet dreams, he left the room in silence.
His internal chronometer told him it was close to two PM in Oregon. He wondered if Oregon was even still habitable.
Making his way down the hall, Optimus Prime almost passed room 117 when something caused him to pause and beckon him inside.
He tentatively opened the door and peered inside. Trinket greeted him with a finger to her lip components, signaling him to stay quiet. She linked into the internal comlines:
"He's finally settled down."
Prime gazed at the berth and recognized Springer. He approached the sleeping wrecker then silently looked to the Autobot medic.
"He was sliced in half, Optimus," she explained over the com. "We thought he was dead-and should have died. I think we should change his name to 'Nails'. His attacker missed his core by inches."
"How are his life signs, Trinket?"
She smiled sadly before reaching for a digipad. "Stronger than yours, unfortunately. I expect him to be awake and complaining of boredom in two to three days."
Optimus returned her smile lightly. "I'll be sure to send him a video game." Her smile broadened and he left, glad to get a least one fraction of good news.
Then Prime thought of Sunstreaker and decided to take a detour before heading toward the Sagittarian Mozart.
Optimus was not surprised to find Sideswipe keeping vigil over his injured brother. The Lambro twin did not greet his leader, however, with more than a momentary glance. Sideswipe sat backwards in his chair, arms and chin draped over the seat's back.
Prime picked up Sunny's chart and flinched just a bit when he felt a rebound from Roddi through the Matrix.
First a confrontation with Daniel, then one with an irate Strike Back.
[[He doesn't think it was fair of you to incarcerate him.]] Rodimus expressed directly.
[[I'm tired of being his parent, Rodimus.]] Prime returned. [[tell Strike back if he wants to attend today's . . . discussion, he can start out by apologizing to you.]]
Optimus knew Rodimus knew what he meant. It was time to put all the chips on the board to exorcize demons and discuss where the Autobots should do and go next. [[The Mozart. It's got the best-]]
[[yeah, I know. Magnus ordered the furniture-]]
A serpent of bitter dark slipped from Rodimus to Optimus and the Senior Prime winced, feeling the bite of Viral poison nip at his core. Optimus stared at Sunstreaker's chart, neither reading nor paying attention to Sideswipe's mournful words.
Two Autobot leaders walking on the line . . .
Rodimus stood outside Strike Back's cell as the city commander carried on about the unfairness of life in general, their situation specifically, and the two Primes in particular. But Roddi's mind had fallen to the same chasm of darkness. He stood at the horizon of the Viral black hole and stared at the mouth of non-existence.
Now I lay me down to sleep.
No god heard; my spark did weep.
Teeth, claws and poison tugged at Optimus' laser core. It tugged; sharp, biting. It tugged; trying to tear his innards out.
The inhibitor chip was broken.
Primus remained ever silent.
Cratis moaned in fear and the Matrix roused in impatient ire.
Without the help of wind, dirty clouds skittered along the sky. Cyclonus and Dogfight landed to watch as the Cratian sun peeked through holes in the brown sky.
On a far off valley the ground churned as though it were cookie dough kneaded by an invisible hand.
Two Autobot leaders walking on the line
they teetered and danced without a mind
they begged and prayed
their people be saved . . .
Optimus remembered Primus' throne room. He remembered the argument between Primus and another.
And once again Primus turned his back.
There was . . .
There was a card game.
Itty bitty cards.
It was with Rusti.
Itty bitt cards and they had colors on them.
Yes, it was a memory game and it was Optimus' turn.
He had a yellow card. A card as yellow as the sun.
And there . . . she was singing, wasn't she? That's what content little girls do.
She poured for him a cup of tea.
Not real tea. Autobots don't drink tea, but Rusti explained to him that wasn't the point.
Void hissed. WHAT POINT HAVING WHEN NON-EXISTENT?
You're not supposed to ask those kinds of questions.
She was humming and set plastic fruit on his plate while he held the yellow card.
An old man and his thumb.
Void hissed at the jumble of Swiss-cheese logic.
The dog's bone.
Void hissed. It hated the yellow card. It spat at the tea.
It hated because it did not understand.
Tea that was not real and a yellow card and the man's thumb.
Sideswipe asked Optimus if everything was okay because the Autobot leader picked up Sunstreaker's chart and stared at it for twenty minutes.
Then the warrior almost freaked when Optimus spoke a child's rhyme.
And the moment tumbled from bad to worse when Optimus softly began to sing. Not because Sideswipe never heard Optimus sing, but because faces pushed their way out of every solid surface around him-even down from the ceiling where a pair of lightless eyes stared at him in freakish curiosity.
This old man . . . he played one
. . . nick-knack patty whack
. . . the doggy broke his bones.
Then Optimus laughed. "It's not the man's thumb, Roddi," he said out loud.
Sideswipe stared, mortified. "Prime . . . Roddi's not here."
"Of course he is, Sideswipe. And it wasn't the man's thumb at all, but my own."
[[Why does it have to be yours?]]
Prime shrugged. "We can use yours, Rodimus. You know, it doesn't matter to me."
"What's a patty-whack?"
Strike Back stepped from the cell's entrance, his expression the same as Sideswipe's. Rodimus looked through him, not at him and Rodimus had almost no color in his optics.
"No," Prime corrected. "Listen, it's a counting song:
The old man
who played one
he played nick-knack on . . .your thumb
with a nick-knack, patty-whack
the doggy broke his bone
the old man went rolling home.
Rodimus thought it carefully through. "The patty-whack might be a weapon if the dog used it to break the old man's bones."
That did not sound right at all. Why would someone at the age of six sing about a dog breaking bones?
Prime's optics now focused on the digipad in his hands. Sunstreaker's name glared from the top. All his stats lined down the screen like dutiful soldiers.
But the numbers were ugly.
"I'm so sorry, Sunstreaker," Prime said softly. "I will see what we can do."
All he picked up was radiated anger.
Prime turned his attention to Sideswipe who now stood at the other end of the room. The look on his face told Prime the situation was worsening. Void was attacking more frequently, more intensely.
Were it not for that memory . . . the yellow card-it dawned on him why the yellow card was so important; it was the one card in the set that did not have a match. The game Rusti had was defective.
We made it a brother card for it a few days later, Prime thought.
He returned the chart to its place at Sunstreaker's berth and gave Sideswipe one more gaze. "I'm sorry, Sideswipe." he said gently.
Sideswipe watched his leader depart through the doors before sliding to the floor in wordless despair.
Pt 10: Staff Meeting
Crossy greeted several members of the senior staff as she finished the detail on the Sagittarian Mozart. She forced a smile when Magnus arrived. He limped slightly and his finish displayed terrible blows dealt him during the battle.
But he still never missed a thing. "Not so bad, Crossy," he approved.
Her smile strengthened. Does this mean I'm almost done, sir?"
"Magnus glanced at the Armored Crest then turned toward the Frostbite.
She did not.
The Frostbite's entire exterior needed work. Magnus produced three digipads from subspace. "Nope. Sorry, soldier. A job worth doing . . ."
"Is worth doing well," she grumped.
Optimus sat at one end of the table while Roddi occupied the other.
Magnus, Jazz, Gryph, Strike Back and Titanium took up the middle. Quasar and Perceptor sat on either side of Rodimus while Trinket and Brainstorm sat next to Optimus.
As EDC staff took their places, Magnus leaned across the conference table and glared at Strike Back. "Do us all a favor," the Major-General said, "keep your mouth shut."
Strike Back glanced at Titanium to see if he was tuned into the semi-private conversation. "Or what?" he dared.
Magnus glowered in such a way as to say 'you should not have to ask.'
Rodimus stood from his end of the table. "Is everyone here? No? Good. Let's go home-" he cut himself off the second Galvatron and Cyclonus stepped into the room. Roddi's optics flared. The two Decepticons took up space against the wall behind Prime while Grotesque kept a watchful optic on them.
It now occurred to Rodimus that Galvatron looked very different from what he remembered-oh-the cannon. Galvatron no longer sported that garish copper cannon. Weaponless or not, Rodimus was not about to let go either of his grudge or his guard.
Void hissed in his right ear.
Blue quickly stepped into the meeting room and proffered two digipads for Optimus. He glanced at them then pointed to Roddi. As Blue made her way round the table, Rodimus noted a quick exchange of glances between Galvatron and Prime and felt less than easy.
UNREQUIRED TWO PRIMES
"Hush," Rodimus admonished Void's suggestion.
TRAITOR PRIME. FIRST: GIRL. NOW INVADERS.
"Eh?" Perceptor asked next to him.
Rodimus gave him a sheepish grin. "Nothing."
Blue displayed the same pads she offered to Optimus. Recon schedules set for the day blinked in three lines. Rodimus quickly glanced over the shifts and personnel and nodded his approval.
Optimus pushed against the back of his seat. He detected animosity, anger, rage, doubt, mistrust and from one source, loathing. But he could not pinpoint anything and for a moment, he could look no one in the optics. Second by second, however, he regained his poise and ordered his reactions and emotions under complete control.
Void mocked him.
NEVER LAST ENOUGH. THEY HATE.
Prime tilted his head to the right as inconspicuously as possible and dimmed his optics. Later, he firmly told it.
The Virus hissed its defiance. NOT LONG.
Prime pretended to look to Grotesque, but what he really did was reach for the strength of someone's character. With that reassurance, Optimus diverted his attention to Magnus. "I'd like to start by thanking Ultra Magnus for keeping everything updated from ship status reports to supplies and rations. I'm sorry you could not do it from the Spiral Star, Ultra Magnus."
Being around Rodimus for so many months non-stop, Ultra Magnus almost forgot about Optimus' tendency toward formality. Magnus realized if anyone ever tried to put a Human suit of any kind on Roddi, he'd die of 'formalized strangulation' and the Major-General allowed himself a slight smile. "The task was understandably necessary, Prime. And it got me off the Spiral Star's medical rations."
Magnus was instantly scrutinized by both Primes. "What?" he asked defensively.
"Nothing," they said in stereo. Neither Prime wanted to blurt out their amazement that Magnus cracked an unintentional joke.
Strike Back slammed his fist on the table, rudely disrupting the moment. He stood and pointed at Optimus Prime: "That's it. You're evading the real issue here! How dare you contaminate us with these rust-plagued pinx?" Strike Back firmly ignored Magnus' acidic glare.
"I'll apologize for nothing," Prime answer sternly "were it not for Galvatron and Cyclonus, I would never have made it here."
"Great!" Strike Back blurted. "You brought them here, assuming we'd consider they'd be cute enough to adopt. I don't like strays-they're dirty and carry diseases."
Galvatron grunted over that one. The Autobots erupted in a commotion of comments and opinions until Titanium slammed the table and stood, pointing at the Decepticons. "Those two should be immediately tried and executed and YOU!"-here he pointed at Prime-"should be locked up!"
Jazz jumped, "Hey! Chill out!"
Prime took it in stride, "It's alright, Jazz. Everyone is on edge."
Strike Back slumped, "Strange, you don't look it." he muttered.
Prime heard him but chose not to acknowledge. "Galvatron and Cyclonus are here as my guests. Were it not for them, I would have not escaped Mars. I would be a captive of the Inoux . . . and most likely dead. I owe them sanctuary."
Titanic and Magnus took to their feet simultaneously. "This is outrageous!' Magnus spat first. "Twenty-five years ago you would not have hesitated to put any Decepticon in prison. Now you let them run freely around the camp? Armed? All they have to do is make a call and Decetron and those lunatics he calls an army will be here-and it won't take much to wipe us out."
"Magnus is right!" Titanium added "what makes you think no Autobot here would not be glad to vaporize them?
Optimus remained calm: "Galvatron and Cyclonus have no more affiliation with Decetron than I. And in case you have not noticed, Galvatron no longer wields a cannon. And neither of them have said or done a single thing to rouse anyone's ire or suspicion. Even you made a comment on Cyclonus' recon reports."
Magnus used both fists to pound the table, "THAT'S NOT THE GOD-DAMNED POINT!"
Kup stood: "they're a danger to everyone here-"
Jazz: "They's Decepticons!"
Strike Back: "I can't believe you'd betray us like this!"
Convoy: "They're a danger to our Human friends."
Strike Back: "Never mind, I'll deal with it!" He leapt over Jazz, weapon in hand set to vaporize two Decepticons he despised more than anything else. But he did not count on Prime's own speed and strength and before he felt the blow, Strike Back lay on the floor, armor dented. He examined the area of pain and realized Prime struck him-HIM to defend a pair of WORTHLESS Decepticons.
The Autobots had been betrayed.
The room fell silent with shock and someone applauded. Galvatron approached the table, still clapping hands until he had everyone attention. "My! What a wonderful group of chivalrous noble people we have here!" the Decepticon grinned at Strike Back. "Please, don't bother getting up. I'm quite comfortable with your hostile, judgmental behavior. It seems the tables have turned at the last. I feared I would have to protect your leader from mobs of rogue Decepticons but it is Optimus Prime who is forced to protect me from hostile Autobots. I find it mildly amusing only because the lot of you are ignoring the more pressing and obvious problem."
The former Decepticon leader stared first at Magnus then at Rodimus. "We're not your enemies," he said firmly. "And the lot of you disgust me with your sore lack of respect for your leaders."
EDC officer Buell Molleson stood from her seat, pointing at Galvatron: "You should speak so, Galvatron. Respect means nothing to you. How do you answer to your crimes? Murder, genocide, enslavement, terrorism-the list is longer than my life span. How can you stand there pointing fingers at us when you are a monster? Do you deny your faulty reputation?"
"No," Galvatron replied instantly. "I'm guilty of everything you said and worse. I don't deserve any kind of leniency-and I don't ask for it." Galvatron took a step back and gazed at his companion. "But I do ask it for Cyclonus."
"Ooooh! My aren't we noble!"
"Give me a break!"
"No Decepticon deserves it!"
"This is ridiculous!"
"Do you think we're stupid?"
Optimus stood, palms flat on the table, "I am not asking anyone here to placate to Galvatron and Cyclonus. I am not asking you to be friends. But I am asking you to give them a benefit of a doubt."
Rodimus locked icy optics with Prime. He said nothing and did not move until now, watching others voice his opinion. "After all the crap we've been through you come to us and DARE to ask us to trust your new friends?" the sneer on Roddi's face turned deadly and he rose from the table. "Do you know how much devastation he's caused? Who do you think you are to give refuge to CRIMINALS?!" Rodimus passed Cloudstreaker. Liquid darkness lined the edges of his optics. "Isn't it enough we're against the Quintessons and some species of alien we've never encountered before? Isn't it enough that we've lost people, homes, cities-OUR WAY OF LIFE?!
Optimus could not move. For him, the room and all occupants faded from reality; it was just he and Rodimus. And Roddi's voice drowned with Viral fury. It hissed as he spoke and it goaded Optimus:
NOT EVEN YOUR RODIMUS. NOT EVEN A REAL PRIME. BLASPHEME.
But somewhere else, Optimus heard someone call him back.
Void snorted. MINE
Optimus' mind turned hazy. "I am indebted to Galvatron and Cyclonus," he insisted.
Rodimus attacked with a blur of motion. Optimus reacted with a punch hard enough to send anyone else against the ship's bulkhead. But Rodimus only stumbled back three steps.
He made it look like he was going for a spear but in the middle of his move, Rodimus swung up and around to deliver a shot from his heel to the side of Optimus' helm as Rodimus rounded to his feet, Optimus fell and caught Roddi's hands so that he landed on his chest and chin. Rodimus rolled and whacked Optimus with the side of his hand, catching Optimus just below the silver piece below his chest, above the grill.
The strike stunned Optimus long enough for Roddi to pin him down.
MINE. EVERYTHING. ALL. THE MIND. THE SOUL. THE SPARK. THE MATRIX. GIVE TO ME.
With a burst of power, Optimus rolled him off and would have attacked had something else not held him back. Prime growled and struggled.
Rodimus sprang for an attack, also, but he too could get no further. He snarled and struggled, even hissed Optimus' name with a voice not his own.
The moment Rodimus leapt to attack Optimus, all Autobots jumped out of their chairs. The two slammed into the table then Rodimus kicked Optimus.
Galvatron studied all the other Autobots, all of whom were stunned into inaction.
The punch Optimus delivered had to hurt but Rodimus acted like he did not even feel it. And the second Optimus kicked his partner off, Galvatron intervened by grabbing the Senior Prime from behind, securing him from under the shoulder struts.
Magnus took that opportunity and leapt clear over the conference table and grabbed Rodimus and dragged him back a few feet. Both Autobot leaders still tried to get at each other, struggling and growling.
Galvatron looked to Magnus. "This problem, Magnus, is by far a greater threat to the Autobots than me and Cyclonus."
Magnus glowered. "We don't need your help, Galvatron."
"Oh no?" Galvatron suddenly released Optimus who charged blindly for Rodimus. Titanium jumped to restrain the Autobot leader.
One kick to the mandible. One back-handed strike and Titanium was lifted like a bail of hay and dropped to the table.
Galvatron caught the enraged Autobot leader again, "Prime," he whispered, "it's talking to you."
At once, Optimus' resistance failed and he wilted, surrendering to Galvatron's grip.
Cloudstreaker cried out as the Virus rose up from the table's metal surface, tugging its legs through the molecules.
Rodimus also relented against Magnus and gazed at the four-legged monster. It hissed at Optimus and acted as though it were sniffing for something. Its hideous head arched to Prime's face then moved up to stare at Galvatron.
Void whispered then retracted its long neck. It tapped toward Cloudstreaker and gazed left to right until it zeroed on her.
"Go away!" she whispered.
WHAT SPACE. CONFUSING.
Cloudstreaker could not look at the thing. "I don't know what you're talking about!"
TRICKY DECEPTION. WHAT SPACE . . . CONFUSING?
Then she realized what it was talking about. She looked at it square-on.
Rodimus slumped weakly against Magnus. "Don't tell it anything."
Cloudstreaker picked up her courage and dared to bluff: "Go away," she hoarsely whispered. She saw her reflection upon the Virus' dark surface. "Go away or I'll send you back!"
Void hesitated before hissing at her. It folded its form into a two-dimensional shape and slipped into a line break in the floor.
Stunned silence cloaked the room until Rodimus pushed himself to his feet.
Gryph spoke for everyone: "What the Pitt was that all about?"
Rodimus nailed Cloudstreaker with his optics, "I'd like to know, too."
Trinket crawled out from under the table, digipad in hand. "I don't know what it was talking about but at least this time I was able to get some readings."
Perceptor turned to Cloudstreaker. "This is a disturbing new development, Cloudstreaker. According to Optimus and Rodimus, the Matrix Virus has almost never shown interest in anyone else. And it certainly has never asked a question."
All optics lay on the Autobot femme and she felt both self-conscious and out of place. She could not look at any of them. "I . . It was during the battle the lighting storm came and-I mean-something brought it-and I opened a subspace field and-"
both Primes stared at her, astounded. Rodimus glanced from her to Trinket and back. "You locked it into subspace? How?"
Cloudstreaker felt horrible. "I can't remember. I-I fell unconscious and I can't seem to remember what I did."
Trinket broke in, nodding to herself, "It did not seem to like you very much, Galvatron. I noticed how you confused it."
Galvatron sent her a debonaire smile, "I've always had a certain knack with alien life forms they cannot help but to submit to me."
Rodimus took up his chair and several others followed suit. "She said 'confuse', not charm, Galvatron. And you have the charm of a cinder block."
"Well, you're not my type anyway, Rodimus. I prefer the strong, silent sort and you can't keep your trap closed long enough to keep the flies out."
"If me and my flies annoy you so much, Galvatron, then I'd welcome you to find some other place to lurk: like the nearest water treatment plant. I hear they're always looking for volunteers to take a dip."
"I'll do the jokes around here, Roller-boy. Fried Autobot processor is not something these fine folk need to smell at the moment."
Magnus shot Galvatron a dirty look. "If the two of you are done, I'd like to suggest we accomplish something before First Aid comes flying in to give everyone a check up."
Trinket clicked off her digipad and reclined in her chair. "seems to me that Galvatron and Cyclonus have a vested interest in this, Rodimus. I'd like them to stay so I can analyze the Virus' reaction. I might discover something valuable."
Chairs were brought back to the table and everyone settled down. All optics rested on Rodimus who slumped in his chair like a rag doll. He mused, spun lazily from side to side. His optics studied the ceiling until he could not take the silence.
"ALRIGHT!" Prime exploded. "He can stay, for cryin' out loud! I'm not the bad guy here! And I refuse to be pegged as one." Rodimus leaned over, his face hard, optics narrow and bright. "But if we're going to let a pair of Decepti-goons loose, there'd better be some rules."
"Very well," Optimus agreed. "Rules."
RULES FOR GALVATRON AND CYCLONUS WHILE WITH THE AUTOBOTS:
"-Excuse me?" Rodimus broke in. "Eh, who's supposed to be the chaperon? Why don't we keep this simple and lock them up?"
Optimus eyed him, irritated. "I'd rather have their help than assign someone to watch them sit. I think Ultra Magnus has appreciated their help this far."
Reluctantly, Magnus nodded.
Roddi grunted and waved it off. "Whatever. But that doesn't answer my question."
Optimus had no immediate answer. A few choices shot through his head; none of them really fit the bill: Magnus, Jazz, himself . . . they all had to be elsewhere and while Prime was sure he could trust several people NOT to blow Galvatron and Cyclonus to kingdom come, he feared they'd not treat the Decepticons fairly. They needed someone more . . . neutral.
"We'll get to that in a moment," the Senior Prime pressed on:
Again Rodimus interjected. "Huh? What's that? You're making rules for the Autobots?"
"Is that a problem?" Prime tested.
"Well, it's just that . . . we were here first and they're . . ."
"Your guests," Rodimus corrected.
"I want their safety guaranteed." Prime countered.
Convoy leaned forward. "Are you suggesting the Autobots can't be trusted with . . . with your friends?"
Prime stared her squarely in the face, "Galvatron and Cyclonus saw to it I got here safely. How can I treat them any differently?"
Confusion clouded Convoy's expression. She shook her head and sat back, mulling over the situation.
"Duh." Rodimus snarled.
"Hey!" Rodimus jumped again. "What happens if those two break the rules?"
"Then we'd have a riot and they'd be executed before I can stop it from happening." Prime said it so matter-of-fact that Rodimus took it well and settled again. "We still don't have a chaperon." Roddi paused then shot Prime a sharp glance. "And NO, it's NOT going to be me. I have better things to do than to play babysitter!" He shot a glare at Galvatron.
Optimus wordlessly glanced person to person, senior staff, Autobot, EDC, and Headmaster alike. But everyone either perused everyone else or found some spot in the room of greater interest.
Somehow Optimus Prime was not surprised. Attitudes wrought from ages-long racial memories bred deep mistrust and resentment; too great to be overridden with forgiveness in a single day. After all, Optimus himself did not trust his companions so readily.
Galvatron finally pushed himself from a dark corner in the room. "I have a small suggestion."
It was all Titanium and Magnus could do to keep Rodimus from tearing into the former Decepticon leader.
A distant scream summoned Rusti from slumber. At first she thought it was a siren; fire, ambulance or police.
Wait. Not her room. Where on Fort Max was she?
Lights reading her life signs indicated medical equipment surrounded her.
Oh. Right. The Spiral Star.
The moment that occurred to her, Rusti heard the ship converse with itself again. Then, surprisingly, it communicated with the Dancing Siren. First Aid made a personnel exchange to give his assistants a six-hour break. That meant the offending Paratron and his bleach were reassigned.
A 'volunteer-nurse' stepped into Rust's room with a digipad connected to a tray. Even in poor lighting, Rusti perceived the alien woman's weariness. But upon eye contact, the 'nurse' lit up.
"Oh look at you here, Sweet One! Finally up and back to reality!"
Rusti managed a trembling smile.
"How are you, Deary?"
The female alien's voice indicated she was a little closer to Netty's age which meant Rusti would have to be civil with her words: "Um, okay, I guess. I can't move my left arm very well."
"The doctor's put a restrainer on it for a while. We're still waiting for the doom-a-flitchy to patch you up." from the tray, the assistant produced a thermometer and stuck it into Rusti's ear.
"How long do I have to wait? I'm dying of chronic boredom here."
"Are you, now?" her voice sharpened. "Well, I wish we could put you to work, helping out with little Abry Foster's broken back. Or mayhaps you'd like to change catheters while six patients recover from damaged skulls. There's also ol' feisty Mrs. Laura Carter who's waiting while the regenerator rebuilds her liver, her gall bladder and her left ear."
Rusti smiled ruefully. "I wish I could. But I can't walk, can't use my left arm or speak more than one language."
The nurse turned to sarcasm: "Oooh! Aren't we the smarty pants?" Rusti suspected the alien nurse was from Fort Sagittarius. She took Rusti's blood pressure from the other side. "How's about we give you the ship's specs and you can study the workings of the Spiral Star? Of course, it'll be written in Autobot."
Roddi's influence found its way to her mouth: "Does it come with pornography?"
The nurse exited, speechlessly mortified.
That was also the extent of her visitors. Rusti lay alone in near-dark, listening to anything that reached her ears. The Spiral Star chattered on about nothing. This person came, those people left. Trash accumulated in this waste room, there were too many people on the bridge.
Boredom ate its way into her skull. Two to three hours passed. She slept and ate one light meal.
Food! What would she not be willing to trade for a good steak dinner or pizza! McDonald's would be the essence of Heaven. Bongo & Jacks made THE best shakes in Central City. Rusti would take their icky greasy fried fish even if the fries were cold.
Thoughts of home brought tears to her eyes. Everyone was homesick and questions of returning to Earth popped up like Mexican jumping beans; sudden and frequent.
Rusti drifted to sleep then woke again. The door to her room stood slightly ajar. Light, noises and conversations drifted in but nothing sounded stimulating. Even bad TV would be salvation. Rusti now considered taking the nurse's offer regarding the Spiral Star's tech specs. At least she'd see what areas the ship reported on.
No, Rusti did not read Autobot. Her ability to speak it was an offset freak of nature. Transformers spoke in complicating, overlapping sentences. In a sense, they spoke a three-dimensional language that utilized action, reason and logic on one level while expressing emotion, reason and action on a second level. The two levels, verbalized in words, were coupled with frames of mathematics on another level of communication. Misinterpretation of communication was rare among Transformers unless something was not received.
"Spiral," Rusti moaned out loud, "the least you could do is play some music for me."
The Autobot star cruiser silently requested an explanation.
"Music," Rusti repeated. "As in tunes, sounds or-"
she cut herself off when the door shut, casting the room into near-dark. A figure emerged from the door and approached her. The shadowy substance had a head but no visible face. It had arms and legs but it moved more like an apparition and out of synchronized reality because its motion blurred.
Rusti stared, dumbfounded. It was not Void-at least that she could tell. But the scene made her terribly uneasy.
The apparition came right to her bedside and because it was transparent, Rusti told herself it was either a ghost, an illusion or a dream; it could not harm her.
Now a face turned to her. The skin of what might have been a healthy young alien female appeared thin and grey. Her sunken eyes were hollowed out by horror. Scars lined down her cheeks, ending with electrode patch marks. Her swollen lips bore needle holes not dissimilar from what Rusti had during her captivity with the Quintessons. But this girl's lips were split and morbidly infected.
The apparition moved her mouth but no sound came. Rusti wanted to recoil but could not move. She squeezed her eyes tight, hoping she'd wake and find Optimus sleeping beside her.
She dared a peek.
The apparition still stood there, speaking without talking.
"Stop it!" Rusti ordered. "Go away. Leave me alone!"
It still spoke; wordless, bodiless, lifeless.
"I SAID GO AWAY!" She moved. Pain shot from pierced chest and broken bone to her gut. Rusti hissed inward. She spat profanity, angry and frustrated. Breathing made it worse.
Calm down, breathe shallow. Tears fell into her hair and down her neck.
In the naked light I saw . . .
The deathly pale scream.
In the naked light I saw
things that shouldn't be . . .
I am contaminated.
I am contaminated
Rusti struggled to control her reaction. "Stop," she begged in a whisper. "Just go away."
I am contaminated.
Rusti looked away and laid her right hand along her face. She struggled to control herself, struggled to not see or hear the ghastly illusion.
Her door, not closed as she thought, made way for more light and outside noise. The illusion disappeared as stronger light chased out the dark.
Dr. Zornoy entered, a portable, circular machine rolled in behind him. The room's lights flicked to life, blinding her momentarily. "Good morning, young lady. How you be-oh, not feeling well, are we?"
Rusti could not answer him.
"Mm. A bit of breakfast might be in order, then, possibly?" Zornoy paused then smiled "Yes, breakfast is better."
Rusti said nothing, vaguely listening as he called an assistant to bring something to eat. Zornoy examined the gash in her left shoulder. "No infection," he surmised. "Is good. Your sadness: not so good. Come now, Miz Witwicky, tell an old alien what has stolen your smile."
She choked as frustration bubbled up. "I just want the stupid illusions and dreams to stop."
Zornoy nodded. "Hallucinations? Dr. Arcana tells me you're Matrix-sensitive. Too much Witwicky blood in your veins, eh?" that earned him a slight smile. "Ah. So, now, are you willing to tell me, or shall I make a series of stoo-pid guesses while you eat?"
She tried to read him to decide whether or not to speak the truth. Rusti decided to trust him: "Some times I can hear the ship speak. Sometimes I envision someone warning me against something.
"What kind of warning?"
She did not get to answer him before one of Zornoy's volunteer-nurses brought in a tray.
"Hmmm . . . powdered eggs with oatmeal and Pop Tarts. Do I get one?" Zornoy aimed for the tray but the lady swept it out of his reach and onto Rusti's lap.
"Not this time, Doctor."
Powdered eggs. Rusti stared at her plate and decided the menu really wasn't all that bad. At least it was food. She scooped eggs onto the Pop Tart and the first bite told her she was hungrier than she thought.
"Aye . . . she's already having the eggs." Zornoy observed sadly. "I guess I'll have to attend another early-morning patient for the next opportunity."
Rusti arched her brows, uncertain whether or not the alien doctor was joking.
The assistant eyed him with admonishment. "I think Miss Witwicky would prefer you fix her first."
"See?" Zornoy threw his hands up. "Always being pushed around by the staff. And if it's not the staff, it's one of the Primes. Yes, yes, come in, Optimus Prime I know you're laughing at my ghastly inability to talk my patients out of their eggs. Yes. Sad."
Rusti grinned as the Autobot stepped in [[is this guy for real? Powdered eggs and all?]]
[[Very much so.]]
Rusti paused before spooning oatmeal to examine her love. "That's a face I never tire of seeing." she said out loud. "What time is it, Optimus?"
"Eight-twenty A.M. Pacific standard. But I don't know what time it is here. I never bothered to adjust my chronometer."
Zornoy loudly and impatiently sighed.
Rusti took the hint and worked on her breakfast. Optimus settled on his knees before her so as to say out of the doctor's way. Zornoy tended his machine and the extension.
Rusti," Prime said quietly, "I need to ask a favor of you."
She froze in the middle of a mouthful, staring suspiciously. Her eyes now caught scruff marks along the left side of his helm where Rodimus kicked him. There were slight dents along the underside of his shoulders where he struggled against Galvatron's grip.
Rusti sipped a small cup of juice. "You . . . weren't fighting with Roddi, were you?"
The Autobot leader squirmed so slightly Zornoy and his lady assistant did not notice. But knowing his body language as she did, Rusti scrutinized him.
"Well . . . technically it wasn't a fight. Not a real fight, anyway."
"Uh-huh." Rusti dabbed the corner of her mouth with a moist towelette. "So define real fight, Optimus."
"It was a skirmish-not the same thing. In a real fight, we'd be bleeding."
Rusti ran her tongue along her teeth. Her eyes did not leave him. She pushed her plate away and drained her juice. "Okay. Well, you guys are not allowed to fight anymore." she caught his ever-so-slight smile. "Period!" she insisted.
It was a mostly-promise. Under the circumstances, Rusti knew it was the best he could offer.
Zornoy leaned across the girl and tugged on a crevice in the wall beside her. A hidden compartment opened upward and a flat bar of metal slid out. The bar lowered just enough for her to reach. "Here we go, now. Miz Witwicky. Hands on the bar. Stay still. It'll be warm."
Rusti tried to stretch. Pain sliced up her left back side and tore into surrounding nerves. She cried out and froze. Then she made the mistake of attempting to move her left hand around to support the area of pain. That pulled on the wound in her chest. Her whole body screamed for her to be still. She sobbed, agonized by painful bites and stabs.
"Aye, must take it all slowly there, Miz Not-So-Good." Zornoy cranked the bed up as far as it sat then laid a long hand over Rusti's upper back. "Yeah. Now slow."
She tried gain, this time with her eyes on her love before her.
"Yes!" Zornoy approved, "Now lean to your right."
Sitting up and grasping the bar was difficult enough. Rusti did not think she could stretch the left side. "THIS HURTS!" she gasped and panted shallow.
[[I am so sorry, Sweetheart.]] Optimus offered his hand as tears ran down her face. Rusti took hold of his fingers, held her breath and obeyed.
"No, no. don't hold your breath. This must be accurate."
She breathed shallow while Zornoy set a three-piece sheet of metal against her side. He removed it.
"Aye, she has a shorter area. Let me make an adjustment here. Miz Witwicky. You'll need to swipe the gown from the side there."
As Zornoy adjusted the size of the panels, the assistant rounded him and folded the top away from the young woman's side. Rusti squeezed her eyes and tried to swallow the pain. It cut off her ability to breathe.
"You need to keep breathing, Rusti." the alien assistant softly ordered.
[[I wish I could help.]] Optimus said inwardly.
[[You're here. How could I want more?]] She cried out as Zornoy secured the panels against the deep injury.
"Okay. Okay. Almost there."
His promise did not stay her tears or help her breathe. Her whole body tensed and she gripped Prime's hand as tightly as she could.
The machine made an initial grinding noise as it scanned the damaged bone matter. Then a cold laser bit a long slice into the girl's side along the ribs and an infusion of nanites invaded her body.
Rusti's breathing stopped and she winced as a mixture of heat, pressure and a tickling sensation bubbled deep under her skin.
"Stay there still now, Zornoy ordered. "Takes a bit."
Cold and warm followed the gentle prickling as her nerves were put to sleep while the nanites rushed to set, mend and seal her broken bones. They cauterized damaged blood vessels. And repaired the knife wound.
Rusti released her breath and weariness blanketed over her like a slow, soft breeze.
"Stay awake, Sweetheart."
Optimus' quiet voice roused her from dozing. She did not see the surprised look from Zornoy or his assistant.
"Candice, I'll need that-yes, most thank you. Almost completed Miz Witwicky. Then you'll have to promise me you'll do no acrobatics, swimming, dancing or fighting for three to four days."
"Okay," Rusti replied without thinking. She dozed until Optimus touched her hair. She forced sleepy eyes to climb.
"You are so beautiful." He said it very softly and said it half through their link.
Rusti wearily smiled. [[I missed you. And before you leave, you'd better let me kiss you.]]
"You'll make it difficult for me to leave you, Rusti."
"You're already in trouble. You might as well make up for it."
"Will you take a raincheck?"
"No." Rusti saw him wince.
"Okay. I have a favor to ask of you, then."
That woke her up. "Huh?"
"Well, it's complicating and, and it's very important."
She stared at him, her face pale with leftover pain but more alert. "I-I forgot-how are the Dinobots? How's Grimlock?"
"Repugnus is taking care of the Dinobots."
"It's about Galvatron and Cyclonus."
Zornoy shut off the machine and Rusti's skin moved with the flow of activity. She scrunched her face in disgust. The sensation tickled but it was nasty at the same time. She gazed under her arm as blood poured from her wound. Silver and black fluids followed and she looked away.
"Gross! What is that?"
"Eh, the nanites finished their work. They've all retired. See that? Yeah. That's good. They took that infection with them. Your friend and mine, Dr. Arcana, he'll like that. Yeah, I should take a photograph all for bragging purposes."
To her delight, Rusti was finally able to take a deep breath. The pain dissipated, replaced by weariness. "I hope the next Decepticon I encounter goes through this instead of me!"
Zornoy tossed medicated rags into a bag and packed up the machine. "Yes and yes. But no time soon. You're not released yet."
"Okay," Rusti accepted. "When can I escape?"
"Tomorrow. No lifting. No jumping no swimming. No running. No sweeping. No mopping no dancing. No fighting. And no leaving until I say."
He clicked the machine closed. "And you," he said to Optimus, "be nice to her-keep her safe."
Optimus and Rusti waited until Zornoy left and Rusti struck up the conversation again. "Ohmigod. All I can think about is you! Come here"
Optimus obeyed, smiling as he hovered over her. Rusti's lips touched the rim of his faceplate. She laid her warm hands on his helm as she trailed kisses over his exostructure. With a final embrace she released him. Prime settled back on his knees. "I wish I could stay and spend the day with you."
"I would be terminally boring right now, Optimus." Rusti confessed. "I sleep, I eat. Sometimes I manage to pee. Oh, yeah, and I get to listen to the Spiral Star complain."
"Yeah. It's not happy."
Prime shifted off his knees. There was a million things he needed to attend but if he could find a way to cheat-an excuse to spend just another minute with her, he'd certainly take the advantage. "What's it saying?"
She gave him a ten-day rundown in five minutes and struggled with some of the ship's unusual vocabulary.
"Yes. Cut. Not torn or damaged."
"Does the Spiral Star know who?"
She listened in as the ship babbled on communicating with a hundred and twenty-six people at once. Rusti shook her head. "It says 'Communications ... sub transducer kappa-nu relays disrupted-" she made a queasy face and frowned.
"What is it, Rusti?" a smile touched Prime's voice.
"Oh, starships have a habit of giving me information I'd rather not have." Prime laughed at her and she flushed but kept listening. "Communications ... interlink twenty-five. Cross link forty. Oh! There's a signature scalpel with a frequency-dammit." she waited while Spiral Star dropped the topic to whine about someone kicking its landing gear. "I'm sorry, Optimus star cruisers tend to think in the moment only. And the Spiral Star has a very short attention span."
Prime smiled. "What about the ship's computer? Would it know?"
"No. That's not how the ships work. They have an underlying personality that's separate from the knowledge part that's the CPU. Oh, there we go." Rusti waited a moment, listening carefully. "Signature scalpel frequency of tetra tri-audio ninety-six point zero seven on . . . forty-three point nine cyberwats."
Optimus stared at her. "That's a very specific laser scalpel."
She listened in for any further information other than a communiqué between a cranky First Aid and a crankier Rodimus Prime. Rusti heard the Spiral Star relay to her the first three unrepeatable words and tuned it out. "Okay, you were saying something about Galvatron and Cyclonus?"
"I need a chaperon and Galvatron suggested you."
"Eh?" Rusti gave Prime an 'Orphan-Anne' blank expression.
"Well, I'm positive once the Autobots realize Galvatron and Cyclonus are not here to dismantle them, vaporize . . .or give them cooties, you won't need to keep an optic on them. But for now-"
"You're asking me to babysit two Decepticons?"
"It was Galvatron's idea."
"No, Optimus! Have you lost your head?! The Autobots will put me in a bird cage and form a lynch mob. They'll disencumber Cyclonus, dangle Galvatron by his innards and burn you at the stake."
Prime stared at a distance. "Oh." he was silent for about seven seconds. "Rusti," he looked back at her, "can I have your baby?"
She about swallowed air. Rusti's jaw dropped as far as it would go. "Wh-what?" she almost found no words. "NO! Optimus, you really have lost your head! It doesn't work that way. You-you're a BOY!"
He grinned. "So is that a 'no'?"
"Yes, it's a 'no'! Someone has to find a way to keep your head from falling off and I don't think-why can't Magnus do it? I'm not even an Autobot!"
"I know," Prime agreed, "that's why Galvatron's suggestion makes sense. You're neutral."
She squared him with an irritated look "AND BED-RIDDEN."
He nodded, understanding her irritability. "It's just that uh-without someone to chaperon-and ensure their safety, I'd have to lock them up. And I don't want to do that; not when they've been so considerate of me."
Rusti sighed, tired and frustrated. "Let me think it over a couple of hours, Optimus."
* * *
Pt 10: New Dance
BAM. BAM. BAM
BAM. BAM. BAM
"Ultra Magnus, get your rust-encrusted aft out of recharge RIGHT NOW!"
"I'M UP!" Magnus rolled off the flat and stomped the floor as though to put holes in it. "For ONCE, just ONCE let me kick Prim's aft. It's all I want in life." Magnus opened the door and prepared to give Optimus Prime the worst snarl he could muster.
But no one was on the other side.
"This isn't funny!" Magnus shouted to no one. "Rodimus? No one is laughing! I'm sick and tired of you pulling this kind of crap on me!"
No one answered. No one was around to answer. Magnus' optics flared and he stomped off the Alvarez. He ignored greetings by Neon, Gort and Grotesque and stomped into the Dancing Siren.
He found Optimus in the engine room with Perceptor calibrating equipment for the hyperdrive installation. Perceptor saw the look on the city commander's face and sheepishly backed off.
"Thought you were resting, Magnus, " Prime said absently.
You called me out of sleep. Banging on my door and ordering me up. Now what's the deal?"
Optimus looked up, perplexed before meeting Magnus' fury. "I haven't called you, Ultra magnus. I've been working with-"
"Rodimus?" Magnus was determined to pin blame on someone.
"No. Roddi's working with Doublecross and Quasar on the Frostbite.
Magnus got square in Prime's face: "Someone screamed my name, banged on my door and ORDERED me out of sleep!"
"I believe you, Ultra Magnus, but it wasn't me."
"It was your voice. Or maybe your little conny friends pulled a trick."
Perceptor butt in at this point: "Not likely." His voice came a bit too cheerful for Magnus' liking. "Both Galvatron and Cyclonus have been confined to incarceration until someone volunteers to police them about the camp."
Optimus picked up an digipad. "I can look into it if you'd like, Magnus."
"Don't PATRONIZE me, Prime!" Magnus growled. Optimus shrugged. Was that a win? Did Magnus just win the moment? He calmed down because no one was willing to argue. Magnus mulled over it and decided it might have been a bad dream. He watched Prime for a moment. "What are you working on?"
"Why? Need something to do?" the Autobot leader reached for another pad. "Here."
Magnus received the pad. The screen lit with a description of a tool. "What's this?"
"It's the tool Rusti said that Spiral Star blamed for sabotaging its communications lines."
Magnus lost all anger and gazed at Prime. He switched to a private internal comlink. "She said what?"
"The Spiral Star," Prime answered on the link. "She said the shop described that-"
"Since when is Rusti able to communicate with star cruisers?"
"I don't know." Prime shrugged outwardly.
"Do you expect to find the tool?"
"No. I hope we can."
Perceptor let out a yelp of joy. "That's got it, Prime!"
The warp drive shot to life, lighting the engineering section in a rainbow of blue, ultraviolet and green. Optimus swept up another pad and jotted his signature on it. "Good work, Perceptor. That's six ships now. Contact Redial. See if the Cold Refractor is ready for its fit yet."
Magnus turned to leave when Prime's hand gripped his arm. For a split nanosecond, Magnus thought Prime's hand painfully icy, the color degraded to a dead-blue. He refrained from wincing and looked to the Autobot leader.
"We don't have enough supplies for all the ships. I did not know how many were with you and Rodimus.
Magnus paused. "What are you saying?"
"Someone needs to go back to Concentric City for the rest of the equipment."
"Did you want me to find someone?"
Optimus thought it over while ship's crew mopped up the room around them. "We need someone who can communicate on an unknown frequency."
Magnus thought hard. "Uhh . . . I'll check the duty roster." Magnus watched Prime's demeanor shift to weariness and withdrawal. The Major-General inwardly cursed the Virus and frowned. "Maybe you should get some rest, Prime," he suggested. "I'll let you know if I find something."
Optimus nodded. "I need to visit Sunstreaker."
Rodimus traveled along the power lines and fuel conduits within the Frostbite. The ship was salvageable but it took three shifts of workers six days to map out the damage and another three days to remove the damaged pieces before repairs. But before they could restore the Frostbite's basic power, all the lines had to be checked-not by computer readouts, but by hand.
Rodimus took on the assignment himself because it required concentration and forced him to keep his mind on something other than the two Decepticon prisoners.
Rodimus could not decide which was more irritating: the fact that Galvatron made fun of his temper, or that neither Decepticon protested when they had to be locked up.
Just thinking about Galvatron was enough to raise Rodimus' fuel pressure and he lost his spot.
He crawled back sixteen loops and started over, tracing the power lines along the side of the engine vaults. One hair line crack, one bent line meant the Frostbite could blow her engines upon ignition.
A shape flashed before Roddi's optics and he startled. "What the-?"
He waited two beats before contacting Wavelength on the bridge. "Is there a power surge I don't know about?"
"Uhh, we don't have power, Rodimus. The Frostbite's offline." Wavelength replied.
Roddi waited another beat then resumed his trace.
Wavelength patched in again: "They are, however, working on shield fluctuation problems in the other ship."
"No," Roddi objected. "I'm not sure what I didn't see."
He said nothing more and Wavelength shrugged it off and continued testing the navigation panel. He double-checked the starboard sensors and found a blocked link.
Quasar entered with two metal boxes in her arms and a digipad dangled form a cord at her neck. "A little sleuthing goes a long way," she said cheerfully. "I found more twenty-four Y-chips and sixteen clasps and the three point gage wire you were looking for."
Wavelength smirked. "Hope that wasn't Blaster's. He said he found some, too. Said he'd play the worm song to anyone who abducted his supplies."
"Nah. I got this from the Racing Beast. Redial had an extra stash of stuff he didn't report to Ultra Magnus."
"Ooooh. . ." Wavelength shook his head and refit the template on the board. "Redial lives dangerously."
Quasar laughed and set the boxes down. She started work on the weapons consol, unscrewing and unlatching the security plating.
Wavelength plucked up a roll of electric tape when he thought the navigation consol now looked strange. But he could not figure out why. When he glance at helm, it dawned on him that navigation was shorter.
Wavelength pushed the chair back and his optics shot bright with shock. "Q-Quasar! Lookit this! Primus!"
Quasar stepped down to the navigation and gasped. The underside of the consol melted like wax. "Hurry! We have to save something!"
They worked as fast as their bodies allowed. They unlatched security panels, removed valuable boards, rescued hard-to-find components, readouts and gages before the entire consol melted into a puddle of ooze.
The two Autobots cautiously stepped back, clutching prized
equipment in their arms. As they stared, a head rose from the
melted metal. A mouth yawned open. A hand lifted and made half an
attempt to stand but it merely sank back and the puddle
Rodimus found no flaws along fuel lines and conduits leading from the Frostbite's powercore to the engines. But he did find a panel ajar leading to the helm and communications channels. It was slightly bent and poorly welded.
"What the hell . . .?" Roddi pried it open and found one board damaged in selective areas.
" . . . Roddi . . ."
He paused because the voice was faint.
"Op, did you say something?"
"No," Prime came back. "I'm on my way to visit Sunstreaker."
"But you just called my name."
"It was not me, Rodimus."
"Your voice," Roddi argued.
Optimus' irritation came back, "I am not playing this game, Rodimus. You and Magnus need to find someone else to pick on. It's not amusing."
"What?" Rodimus asked defensively. "I didn't do anything."
"Pffp. Okay. Not that I've even spoken to Magnus since yesterday. . . " Optimus' irritation mounted through the Matrix and Rodimus decided to let Prime have his mood. He could call the Senior Prime on it later.
Optimus touched the door to Sunstreaker's room. An image flashed through his head and left so fast Optimus had no idea what it might have been.
He entered the room and found it disconcerting. Sunstreaker lay on a longer table, his body now more assembled than it was several days ago. First Aid, Perceptor and Trinket slowly reassembled the poor Autobot but it took a lot of time because parts were not always available right away.
Sadly enough, Optimus knew many of those parts came from the deceased. Worse than that, Sunstreaker's damage meant he'd never look quite the way he did-at least until they returned to Earth.
A shadow stirred but Prime did not need to guess who it was. "Hello, Sideswipe," he greeted quietly.
Optimus did not need one. He knew what Sideswipe was going through. The brothers were painfully close. They did everything together. They were closer, in fact, than many Earthen married couples Optimus knew. What troubled Prime, however, was that if one twin died, chances were not too remote the other would too.
Optimus inwardly expressed his concern to Rodimus who was equally as concerned.
Then Roddi signaled he had to take care of a 'Daniel problem'.
never a dull moment, Optimus thought sadly. He drew up a chair and sat at Sunstreaker's side. He examined the frail, wiry form of a robot who was once so proud of his looks and style. To have this done to anyone else would only be a matter of time and determination. But to Sunstreaker, it was worse than death.
"I know you can hear me," Optimus started quietly. "Sunstreaker, I want you to get well. Everything is temporary. Especially the bad times." Prime flinched, feeling a backlash from Roddi. The argument between he and Daniel was fairly intense.
Optimus' optics drifted from the beleaguered wounded Sunstreaker and wondered why he had felt so sensitive of late. He stretched forth his senses to take in the general mood of the entire camp.
A disturbing quiet settled over the Autobots.
Sunstreaker's clipped and mangled metallic voice interrupted Optimus' thoughts: "Not same. Not return same."
The sound Sunstreaker made could not be interpreted by Human ears. He 'spoke' pure Basic Autobot and was completely incapable of communicating on other lines or links.
Prime sensed Sideswipe's distress.
"It will take time," Optimus was not going to lie to 'Streaker. But he tried to retain a sense of optimism. "And as soon as we can, Sunstreaker, we'll be going to a very beautiful planet. I know you don't know Yolthanis III, but I'm certain you'll enjoy it."
Optimus had to turn away from Sunny when Rodimus relayed something Daniel said to him. Regaining his composure, Optimus turned back to Sunstreaker.
"Not stay. Miss Earth. miss . . . home."
"We will get back-"
The image he saw before flashed through Prime's mind again and this time he caught it like a snapshot.
The Cyberwraith clawed at its prison like an angry animal and the image that assailed Optimus Prime was of the Cyberwraith spitting poison at Sunstreaker. The poison leaked into his spark and drowned him with doubt, confusion and despondency.
Prime looked to Sideswipe. The Lambro twin languished in the same dark corner he confined himself to two and a half weeks ago. Light did not grace Sideswipe's armor. No cheer danced in his dim blue optics. He sat, knees up, head upon folded arms. A mask of grief lay across his countenance like a disease.
Prime laid a hand on Sunstreaker's non-functional, skeletal right arm. "Sunstreaker." pause. "Sun-Sunny? You have to will yourself better. Sideswipe needs you."
Only a vague, pitiful sound answered Optimus' plea. It was not good. But then, it wasn't bad, either and to be honest with himself, the Autobot leader did not know what to make of it. He could not think of what to say that would drag Sunstreaker out of his absolute despondency.
They needed to get him into a new body as soon as possible-except that it simply wasn't possible. It would take weeks to months to do that.
Perhaps it was a kinder thing to put Streaker into a forced stasis until they could get him help.
But First Aid only solemnly shook his head when Optimus asked about the stasis. The medic came in to check on the twins himself and wordlessly invited Prime outside the room to discuss the matter.
"I already have too many Autobots in stasis: the Spiral Star and the Dancing Siren can only take on eight each. The frustrating thing is, Prime, Spiral Star is currently supporting twelve and the Siren is holding fourteen. The Racing Beast has four and it wasn't designed for Autobot casualties. I've been trying to get Sunstreaker to realize it's only temporary. But it's like he's eating himself up." First Aid shrugged. "It's frustrating and I can't afford the time to help him-or Sideswipe. Grimlock, Springer, Air Raid, Sky Dive, Snarl . . . Blue . . . they all need round-the-clock care."
Optimus felt terrible for Fist Aid and felt worse, now that he added to the medic's frustration. Prime nodded and turned to leave when First Aid whipped out his scanner.
The Autobot leader turned back, half amused. "Picking up habits from Trinket, First Aid?"
"She has the right idea; we need to keep tabs on the two of you. And by the way, Prime, she's working on the readouts she took during the meeting."
"You expect her to find something useful?"
"No. But I'm willing to wager you have."
Prime gave him a puzzled look and would have asked the doctor for an explanation when 'Aid's scanner went mad.
First Aid glanced from the scanner to Prime and back. "That's not you. That's Sunstreaker!"
They ran to Sunstreaker's room where Sideswipe wailed in trauma and helplessness. They found a creature of Magnus' height, with two reptilian heads and abnormally long body poised over Sunstreaker, hissing and speaking in a foreign dialect.
Before First Aid could object, Prime hauled out his weapon from subspace, changed the setting and shot it.
The alien fell from Sunstreaker's bed and shattered into millions of metal fragments.
First Aid rushed to check 'Streaker while Prime helped his brother to his feet and laid him on a nearby counter.
"Magnus?" Prime called, rather than answering First Aid.
"What?" Aid and Magnus chorused. First Aid ordered a stretcher for Sideswipe.
Aid tilted his head, perplexed. "That's not possible. Ultra Magnus-"
"It's a Matrix memory, First Aid. And it knows how to manipulate mater and organize it into a shape."
"That's just not possible. Memories do not come to life. They're signatures, not life forms . . ." as he said it, First Aid lifted his head, seeing something beyond his leader.
Optimus slowly turned. A sensation of frosted death fell over him. But it was not the wraith that met him, but Void. In shadow, with no solid form, the Virus' triangular head lowered and stared deeply into Prime. Its teeth opened and clasped as though it spoke, but Void made no noise. It stared, transfixed at the Autobot leader.
"First Aid," Prime said quietly. "Get them out of here. Take Sunstreaker-"
SUS . . . Void hissed, still staring like a snake, wound tight for an attack. SUSSS . . . KRRR. SSSSSUUUU . . . SUUUUNNNNN. . . . SSSSUNNN . . . Void lifted its head beyond Optimus and cast an eyeless gaze at First Aid. Its neck stretched from the shadows, a ribbon of darkness. It paused before First Aid.
Optimus' energy drained. He reached for Roddi but felt only the vortex.
Void lifted its head from First Aid and stretched toward Sunstreaker.
SSS. SSSS. SSSUUUUNNN.
Optimus sank to his knees. Elsewhere, by the Interrogator, Rodimus fainted.
Void stared at Sunstreaker and shifted its position, staring at the Autobot at several angles.
First Aid watched, horrified and mesmerized, trying to figure out why the strange behavior. As he watched, pieces of left-over parts and metal scrap jiggled and trembled. The next instant, the two-headed wraith rebuilt itself. A scream issued forth. Void hissed at it and spit some form of chemical, partially melting the wraith's chest.
The wraith slipped back, shifted into a two-headed serpent and aimed for Sunstreaker.
But Void intercepted, ramming its head against the monster. The wraith recoiled and raised its metal body above the doorway.
Void's tapered needle-point legs stepped from the shadows and lines in the room and secured its jaws around one head. The memory-wraith snapped back, dragging Void down and the two wrestled. The wraith's body clinked and tinkled with millions of metal parts while the Virus hissed. They fought outside the room, thwacking against the walls, slapping the floor, slamming one another this way, that.
First Aid checked Sunstreaker but worry for Optimus and Sideswipe made him indecisive. He checked Sunny for immediate life signs then Sideswipe and finally Optimus. While Sideswipe was aware enough to acknowledge First Aid, neither Sunstreaker nor Optimus Prime were responsive.
The wraith thunked, crashed and at one point, rocked the entire star cruiser and in so doing, knocked First Aid off his feet. He recovered, finding Optimus Prime still on his knees, his expression empty. But he bled from under his chest plate.
First Aid crawled to Prime and tried to contact Trinket first then Perceptor and finally Ultra Magnus.
"We've been trying to establish contact!" Magnus snapped. "What's going on?"
"Optimus . . . Oh, Primus, how's Rodimus Prime? Ultra Magnus, you must find Rodimus-"
The wall caved in, torn asunder, and Void screamed in shrill, irritated tones. The wraith fell to pieces then shot back together. First Aid fell from the impacting force, Optimus fell with him, frozen and heedless of events.
'Aid cringed and cried out when Void's legs came all too close to impaling him. The medic camped hands bout his helm when the Virus emitted another shrill sound, loud and long so that the metal pieces holding the wraith as a physical form, cracked and splintered. All glass in the room shattered. All non-reinforced metal cracked under the sonic attack and air filters disintegrated.
"Well, aren't you a pain in the aft?" Galvatron turned the corner and shot Void. First Aid tried to sit up to warn the Decepticon his weapon would do no good. But neither the Protectobot's voice nor his hydrolics obeyed his commands.
Void screeched its objection to Galvatron's attack and abandoned the memory-wraith for its new opponent. Galvatron shot it square in the chest three time before shifting laser frequencies and fired again.
All that did was irritate the Matrix Virus and it stomped the floor like a mad horse; in fact, it reared.
Galvatron changed his tactics and firepower. He drew energy straight from his own spark and directed it through his displacement repolarizor.
Void wailed pitifully. A hole formed in its chest, burning slowly, the edges lit with blue flames. The Virus staggered and with one glance at Sunstreaker, it hissed and slipped into a seam in the floor.
Magnus followed Colt in and behind them came Apogee and Titanium.
Galvatron put his weapon immediately away and went directly for the Autobot leader while Apogee checked First Aid.
Magnus ordered Silverbolt, Dogfight, Strike Back and Jazz on parameter watch. All nonessential personnel were ordered to their designated cruisers.
The Major-General knelt beside Galvatron as he used Apogee's scanner on the Autobot leader. "He was just visiting Sunstreaker. I don't understand what happened."
"I don't either, Magnus. And exactly how do you plan to keep the other Autobots locked up in their quarters?"
Magnus watched as another medical assistant ran in with two antigrav flats; one for First Aid, the other for Optimus. "Well, they can either listen to me now, or they can listen to me later. Most of them know better than to want to listen to me later."
Galvatron smiled, approving before he noticed Optimus came to. "Hello, Prime," he purred.
"What was . . . what was . . . it fought over Sun ... Streaker. Roddi."
"Hush." Galvatron ordered firmly. "Or Magnus will ground you until you're twenty-five. And no TV for a week." That earned him a grin from Magnus.
But the smiled did not last. A frantic call came to Magnus from Bumblebee about Daniel. Magnus growled in frustration.
"Nothing." the Major-General snarled. "Dan Witwicky; a BIG nothing."
Optimus raised his hand as though to grasp something. Galvatron clasped it. "I could handle the 'boy'. You probably should stay with these two just in case."
"Just in case what?"
"Just in case." Galvatron repeated. He met the city commander's optics expectantly, knowing he was right.
Magnus fidgeted, struggling to figure the best way through a dangerous, sticky moment. "Go." he agreed at the last. "But don't kill anything." Galvatron left and Magnus wondered how Rodimus would take to his decision.
Maybe he should start working on his last will.
Spending time listening to idle chatter on the Autobot frequency gave Galvatron some idea as to what was going on regarding Witwicky. The Decepticon thought it strange that one human could be so much trouble.
"Wasn't he the son of Spike Witwicky?" he asked Cyclonus over their own comlines.
"Yes," Cyclonus confirmed. "A child who wasn't quite bright enough to realize the Autobot he was with was a reckless, negligent ignoramus."
That made Galvatron pause before leaving the Spiral Star. It was not often Cyclonus tagged insult to anyone. He spotted a flexible rubber seal lying on the floor. It was a bit small for his fingers, but it would be very useful. "Who are you talking about?"
"An Autobot wanna-be named Wheelie. But I've not seen him our entire journey."
Galvatron did not have any trouble finding Daniel. The shouting and insults he traded with a crowd carried across the refugee camp.
A hundred and fifty paces before approaching the congregation, Galvatron snapped the rubber sealant and hit Daniel directly on the rear.
Daniel felt that clear through his armor and he yelped before swearing a long line of filthy words.
Duros stared at Witwicky in disgust.
Galvatron grinned. "Hello there. Am I interrupting anything?
Daniel turned to him, eyes hot with antagonism.
"Did you just hit me, you two-faced malfunctioning waste disposal unit?"
Galvatron scrunched down on his haunches and smiled as the crowd around Daniel and Duros thinned. "Maybe," the Decepticon taunted.
"Oh!" Daniel sneered. "I suppose Rodimus felt he couldn't control his temper anymore and sent you to 'deal' with me."
"Actually, no. Simply that Rodimus had more interesting matters to attend than to stand here and yawn himself into oblivion listening to your pathetic attempts at a decent insult. And if I were you, Daniel Witwicky, I'd stick with the Dick-and-Jane level of vocabulary; it's more your speed."
Daniel nodded, his face a rock of sarcasm. "Oh, that's funny. Yeah, you're right up there with Rodipuss Prime."
Galvatron turned to Duros. "What is going on?"
"He wanted to see his daughter and Rodimus already told him no visitation rights. He lost them when he struck her."
"I DIDN'T HIT HER! HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU ASSHOLES?! Look, if you're dying for a reason to kick my ass, I suggest you take it up with Arcee."
Galvatron gave him a repulsive, confused expression. "What has Arcee-"
"EVERYTHING!" Daniel exploded. "She betrayed me, the little pink whore. Has she pleasured you yet, Galvatron? She'll find a way. The little water stain!"
"Ha!" Galvatron stood. "What a repulsive little objection you've turned out to be, Daniel Witwicky. Tell me, is being an aft part of your genetic code, or do you have to work at it?"
Galvatron did not need a translator to interpret the hand signal Daniel gave him. The former Headmaster's face said it all.
Galvatron nodded. "Hmmhmm. So what has Arcee and your lowlife attitude got to do with visiting Rusti?"
That set Daniel into another explosive tirade of physical gestures, false allegations and words Galvatron had never thought to hear from anyone but the Predicons. He and Duros watched as Daniel stomped the ground, indignant and emotional like an undisciplined three year-old.
Galvatron crossed his arms. "This is ridiculous."
"Your retarded statement is ridiculous!" Daniel spat. "Who are you to judge me by my actions?! You're a fucking Decepticon scraplet, useless even for spare parts! How desperate was Optimus Prime when he found you?"
"Well, I supposed you could say that he was like an orphan, really."
"Oh, really? What. You plan to adopt him? Do you plan to marry him, too?"
"The Autobots can not help themselves if they're annoyingly tolerant of excrement like you, Daniel." Galvatron hauled out his gun. "But Decepticons are less than inclined to endure abuse, verbal or otherwise."
Daniel's ugly face got uglier as he stared at the barrel. "You wouldn't dare. Rodimus would so be all over you!"
Galvatron laughed and pulled the trigger.
Rodimus checked the Frostbite's systems from stern to engine three times just before Magnus called him.
Then Quasar called him.
No sooner did she say his name than Duros called him.
"Everyone take a number and get in line," Roddi said dryly. "Mags, you first."
"I just saw a ghost cross the hallway on the Saber's Claw. And I can't contact Optimus Prime.
That confirmed it. Rodimus paused to decide what to do. He swept up a digipad and typed in orders for several ships to raise their shields and remain so until further notice.
Quasar called again. The navigation consol was what? Roddi smacked his forehead with the digipad. "Gryph," he called, "I have a job for you."
"Uhhhh ..." She did not know how to tell him what she saw on the wall. "Okay."
Roddi thumbed in the situation to Gryph via digipad and told the former Fort Horizon city commander what she could do to replace the part-
Duros called again: "Seriously, Rodimus, I need someone to-"
Roddi twisted his face with disbelief. "Is that Daniel I hear in the background?"
"He's demanding to see his daughter."
Rodimus thought he could spit and he thunked his head instead. "I'm coming!" He thunked his head several more times. Oh for the want of a little pest control! Rodimus descended the line shaft and re-rechecked lines at a glance.
who can I shoot?
Three and four
I'm Rodimus, hear me roar
Five then six
Daniel, king of pricks
I'll make him Virus bait.
here we go again!
Rodimus transformed to car mode. He wanted to smash out the Frostbite's hull but restrained himself long enough to reach the plank. He poured on the speed, zipped across camp, and missed Doublecross by three narrow inches.
He arrived at the Vertical Horizon, drifted to a stop and rained dust on Daniel and Duros. The two rolled along the ground, locked for domination.
Nasty Cratian dirt pissed both men off and they split up. Daniel jumped with a roar, Duros merely objectionable. The second Witwicky's eyes contacted Duros, he charged headlong, heedless of an Autobot's presence.
But Rodimus stepped in and Daniel plowed into Prime's metal leg, making a nasty crunching noise.
He oofed and stumbled backward until he landed butt-first. Now his eyes climbed up . . . up.
Rodimus gave him an innocent expression. "Oh, hi, Dan-o. didn't see you there."
"Thank you, Daniel. Now why don't you be a good little jerk and go play with some dung beetles while the adults tend to their jobs?"
"I want to see Resonna."
"NOW! DO YOU HEAR ME? YOU HAVE NO RIGHT-"
"Neither do you. You lost that privilege. Besides, she's not in the Vertical Horizon-oh, didn't I mention you were supposed to stay away from Arcee, too? Can't you play nice with anybody, Dan-o?"
"Goddamn you, Rodimus, you self-righteous prick! I'm her father and I have a right to demand-"
Roddi's mind slipped from the moment. No, he thought, stay focused! Stay with the event-The little paper wasp buzzed and demanded . . .
He did not care about the wasp or the nest it built on the tree shading the gravestone.
Roddi knelt before the stone while flashes of memories not his own played through his mind.
Yes, the Virus hit.
Yes, they found a cure.
But they could not cure the broken relationship.
Was he supposed to be remorseful over Optimus' death?
Rodimus supposed as much. The Autobots expected him to grovel for forgiveness. They kept saying how they understood it was an accident.
It was a load of used oil. At least, as far as Roddi himself was concerned. He murdered Optimus after the Virus was gone, but Ratchet insisted that was not so.
After all, Roddi in his right mind would never murder another Autobot; especially Optimus Prime.
Oh yeah? Says who? Why did the Autobots cast him in the light of sweetness and sinlessness? Why was he expected to be blameless and pure of heart?
It was a load of crap.
Just like it was with Galvatron.
No, Galvatron was dead.
No, Galvatron never existed.
No . . .
No . . .
"Stop this!" Roddi hissed at the Virus.
MY CHOICE. SEEK CONFUSION. IRRITATES; YOU LOSE.
Roddi winced at the sight of the Vertical Horizon standing between he and the not-so-scenic desert plane.
They weren't on Earth. They found no cure. Roddi was co-leader. He felt the Matrix softly vibrate in his chest. A sense of injustice and cruelty assailed him. No one ever asked or begged to be the Autobot leader. He felt like the one child who did not move while classmates and peers stepped away to volunteer him for an unwanted assignment.
But this was worse than an unwanted assignment; it was a life-long condemnation.
Distantly Roddi heard voices; one calm, collected. The other came venomous, angry, loud. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Roddi was cognizant of what was happening to him. But locked in Viral influence, Rodimus could not shake his mind free of the skewed and distorted perception.
I'm going to black out, he thought I'm going to fall flat and prove through my weakness that I am not the right choice for leadership status.
Roddi heard a commotion several yards away. He heard Magnus in truck mode jamming down the middle of camp. He heard screams and cries.
And then someone caught him as he tumbled, falling through space, falling through time. He could not make out his rescuer's face. He perceived soft silver of color. Amethyst along the helm. Jewels for optics. Weakly, Roddi lifted to touch the jewels.
"Tell Optimus . . . please tell him . . . that I'm sorry. No, *I* am sorry. The other Roddi wasn't but I am."
"He knows, Rodimus," The voice followed him into darkness, a deep, leveled voice, familiar, but not something to which Roddi was accustomed.
"Tell him because he really needs to know . . . I love him."
Magnus could not have been more delighted to get the 'seek-and-nail' assignment. He relished this one because it demanded all his organizational skills. The instant Prime handed him the first pad, Magnus poured through it like a dog hunting through land, air and sea for that one scent.
Better still, the Major-General had the opportunity to use his personal, ultimate secret weapon: his own electronic trap door. All the datapads, logs and ship computers were install with private access codes for the senior staff. But only the two Primes and Magnus himself had trap doors that no other city commander knew about.
It was Magnus' own idea; one that he considered his 'electric child'.
Rodimus whole-heartedly agreed to it. They did, however, heavily debate about Jazz. Roddi thought it unfair they left Jazz out of their trio of command-conspirators. But Magnus insisted the fewer, the better and won. He took his idea-and his luck-one step further and suggested they included all assignment logs and medical journals kept on the Spiral Star and all EDC logs located on the Sunset Kummya.
Magnus knew Roddi and Optimus did not like the idea of keeping secrets from the rest of the senior staff. But they understood the necessity of a backed-up security system. After the first Viral incident, Magnus pushed his trap door policy one step further; just in case the Virus took control of the two Primes.
Magnus did not like to do anything behind the backs of two people he trusted with his life. After all, it wasn't just lives he had to protect, but their society.
Magnus wondered if Rodimus thought of a contingency plan in case both he and Optimus ended completely incompetent to lead.
Of course, Magnus digressed, Rodimus did tell everyone else that they needed to come up with their own plans.
But the Major-General found no comfort in it.
Returning to Earth was not an option.
Going to Cybertron was not an option.
However, one thought struck Magnus hard: they had Galvatron.
Ultra Magnus half-smiled, thinking about Cyclonus' deliciously-detailed recon reports. In fact. Both Decepticons carefully blended themselves in. They did not complain, they did not seek special treatment or make demands of any sort. Not that Magnus was willing to let his guard down for a micron, but he did feel oddly at ease around the two.
Wasn't it Ambassador Koontah who suggested to Roddi to find allies of their own strength and calabur?
And what better allies than Decepticons? After all, they shared the Autobot's history with the Quintessons.
In spite of his meganiums-old prejudice, Magnus dared consider giving Cyclonus and Galvatron just a slice of trust; just enough to so that if they blew it, he could nail their murderous carcasses to the nearest event horizon and watch the black hole suck them in.
The digipad in his hands blinked, indicating it found the
tool Rusti described. Magnus traced its present whereabouts on
the Trench Driver and who currently used it: Cloudstreaker.
Between the Hannibal's Mark and the Trench Driver, the Driver had the stronger, more adaptable scanners-one reason why Rodimus directed the Dinobots to set it just outside camp.
The Driver also had better weapons array and larger spaces for tool storage.
Magnus found Cloudstreaker working with Hardhead, realigning the controls for warpdrive. She lay partially under helm control while Hardhead read off a check list, testing circuits for shorts.
Rodimus spat a few swear words regarding a complaint about Daniel. Magnus inwardly grunted, glad that Roddi took it upon himself to deal with the troublesome dissident.
"It's just not fair," Roddi commented to Magnus privately.
"That I'm so large and he's not. Just once, just once I'd love to have the opportunity to shrink to his level so I could beat the crap out of him."
Magnus could not suppress his smile. "He doesn't think so, Roddi. I think he enjoys your devoted attention."
"You're not helping."
Magnus accidently smirked, though it was light. He caught Hardhead's attention and the Headmaster started to scramble to his feet.
"As you were," Magnus dismissed. "He scrunched down as Cloustreaker slid from the consol's underside. She had drops of lubricant smeared along her left cheek and Magnus thought it was cute. He could not get rid of his smile. "Um, I'm . . . I'm looking for a specific tool, Cloudstreaker and according to the logs, you're the last to have it."
She looked confused. "My data tablets, commander?"
"No. A specific laser scalpel."
She flinched. "Delta said she didn't need it today."
"You borrowed it from Delta?" Magnus hauled out his digipad and made a note then tracked Delta's whereabouts.
"Aye, sir." Cloudy answered simply. She twisted round and dragged it from a mound of other tools and supplies. She disconnected an adaptor and handed it to him.
Magnus laid the tool on his pad, scanned it in, added the serial number and took a reading on its exact signature. He handed it back to her with an apologetic smile. Thank you, Cloudstreaker. That's all I needed. However, if you pass it on to anyone other than Delta, let me know."
Jazz signaled on Magnus' private comm. "Heya. Missy here says she'd like t' yak at ol' Galvatron 'nd Cyc."
"What?" Magnus twisted his features as he disembarked from the Driver.
"Rusti says she'd like to yak at Galvatron. I told her she had t' have either yer permission 'r Roddi's an' Roddi's not answering his com."
Magnus grunted and set his digipad into subspace. "I'm on my way."
The Gabriel Genesis was used mainly for rations and extra supplies. Magnus had his reservations about putting Galvatron and Cyclonus in the Genesis brig. But frankly, it was the lesser of several bad ideas: one other choice would have been the Horizon which served as resting quarters for one-fourth of the Autobot refugee population.
Ultra Magnus arrived to end an argument between Rusti and Strike Back. The Major-General scowled. Now what? He thought. "What's this about?"
"Nothing drastic," Rusti answered first. "I just want to hear their side of things."
Strike Back shook his head. "No. This impressionable young lady does not need to listen to Decepticon propaganda."
"I am NOT impressionable!" Rusti objected.
"You aren't old enough to make that decision," the Fort Zenith city commander argued. "You've not lived long enough to understand what Decepticons are capable of."
Rusti glared. "Geeze, Strike Back chill out!"
"All right, all right!" Magnus interrupted. "This is not going to cause the galaxy to implode. She can talk to Galvatron. I just don't want her inside the cell."
Strike Back shook his head, optics dark with annoyance. "Unbelievable. You're taking a security risk, Magnus."
Ultra Magnus stared the other city commander down. In the greater scheme of things, it was Magnus who was in charge. Strike Back read that deadpan expression and walked away.
The moment turned awkward. Rusti lost track of what she wanted to ask and say to the two strangers. She stared at the floor, at the ceiling, at the opposite wall.
"Oops!" Jazz declared. "I just gotta call from the Alvarez. Seems they's got installation difficulties." He gave Magnus an uncertain expression.
"Go on, Jazz," Magnus assured, "We'll be just fine here." Magnus waved Jazz good-bye and wondered if he should stay and supervise or leave the girl to some privacy. Certainly he should not leave her alone. Not that he didn't trust Galvatron and Cyclonus, necessarily, he just . . . didn't trust Galvatron and Cyclonus.
Rusti felt torn between adult curiosity and childish wonder. She paced in front of the cell twice and half expected Galvatron to lash out in a tantrum. But all the Decepticons did was watch her like a pair of cats half amused by a moving bug.
With a great sigh, the girl finally remembered what she wanted to say. "Okay. Optimus told me you two came here with him and that someone needed to keep an eye on you. I'm guessing you already know you're on the galactic shit list. So my question is what possessed you to come here? Don't you realize the Autobots are drooling for a chance to put you down like a pair of mad dogs?"
Galvatron wanted to move closer. It was difficult to see the girl between glowing energy bars. Besides, Magnus loomed nearby, probably itching for an excuse to blow him into the next war. "We didn't pressure or brainwash Optimus into-"
"I'm not talking about Optimus," Rusti snapped.
"Sorry." Galvatron took a step back toward Cyclonus. The girl, though small, had a strange way of making her point.
"So what's your story, Galvatron?" Rusti reworded.
Galvatron stole a glance at Cyclonus then frowned at the girl. "If I approach the energy bars, will your gargoyle there shoot me?"
Rusti grinned broadly but resisted the inclination to read Magnus' expression. "No. You can come closer." Galvatron approached and knelt. His height and build were not all that dissimilar from Optimus Prime. But his expression spoke of wary caution.
"I'm afraid, erm, Rusti Witwicky, that even if I tell you the truth, you will not believe me."
Rusti stared at him, befuddled. "You're saying that your answer for being here is stronger than fiction?"
She glanced at an unimpressed and impassive Ultra Magnus. "Are you saying that because you don't think Magnus would believe you, or are you saying that I am incapable of believing something outside my own experience?"
Galvatron gave her a puzzled look. Clearly she was raised by Autobots; she spoke like one. "Erm." he glanced at Cyclonus who shrugged. "Yes," Galvatron scowled. "To both questions."
Rusti stared into his radiant red optics for a moment and silently asked the ship if it knew if Galvatron was honest. The Gabriel Genesis suggested it detected neither deception nor antagonism from either Galvatron or Cyclonus. She stepped aside and glanced from Magnus to Galvatron, hoping Ultra Magnus was listening and could take an objective viewpoint during her brief interrogation.
To the surprise for both Galvatron and Ultra Magnus, Rusti sat on the floor, hands in her lap. "Okay, if I promise to listen and not judge, will you tell me about it?"
Galvatron inclined his head, confused. "Uhh . . ."
"I am inexperienced, Galvatron. But I'm not stupid. And if it's important enough for you to warn me your story is weird, then I am obligated to listen because that's exactly what Optimus would do. I trust Optimus Prime. Sometimes he's been off-kilter. Sometimes he's not been himself. But he's always been straight forward with me and if he trusts you enough to bring you here, then obviously I need to be open-minded enough to hear you out."
That made perfect sense with Ultra Magnus. In fact, he took a seat on the floor next to her, hands in lap. "Me too," he added.
Surprised, Galvatron smiled gratefully and Cyclonus joined the group while the Decepticon leader told them everything from Skorponok's coup to Galvatron's assassination, his benefactor and choice to accept the second chance given him to set things right.
"I do not, however," he injected, "for a single micron, claim innocence. Cyclonus and I both know what we're guilty of." he stared at Magnus, expecting the Major-General to concur and add what punishment he'd like to hand to Galvatron.
But Magnus already agreed to Rusti's condition of impartiality and he was not going to go back on his word. Besides, just as she said, Rusti had little to no experience. But she had good insight and Magnus knew he could trust her judgement.
Galvatron spoke about conditions on Earth, the underground and how the Quintessons were using Humans and Autobots alike to build a gigantic time window; big enough to move a vast army through. He talked about Optimus' battle with tatlic and how he tried to talk Cyclonus into leaving he and Prime, that Galvatron was willing to stay with the Autobot leader, no matter the consequences.
"We almost lost him on Monicus," Galvatron added. "If it hadn't been for the ladies-"
The Gabriel Genesis shuddered under them and all four stared at the floor. Rusti jumped to her feet first when she recognized faces in the metal. "We have to get out of here!"
Magnus hesitated. He could not decide whether or not to leave the Decepticons in the brig. But when a hand stretched from the wall grasping at nothing, Magnus made his mind and jumped, releasing the prisoners. "Out of the ship. NOW!" They ran as Magnus patched into the Genesis' intercom. "This is Ultra Magnus. All personnel abandon ship. I repeat, all personnel abandon ship! This is not a drill!"
The Major-General heard a faint whine behind them and he paused for a glance.
The flooring along the hallway rose like a wave of water, rolling for them. The metal panels opened dark maws and all spoke though nothing was heard. Magnus swung about, swept Rusti up and transformed. Cyclonus copied and Galvatron hopped on, lying flat as they sped up the next level and out the ship. All staff, civilians and officers, raced off the Genesis' plank and ran a good fifty yards.
Magnus transformed and set the girl at his feet. He watched with everyone else as the ship twisted and arched, now taking on an animalistic shape. A mouth replaced the Genesis' stern. It yawned and creaked. It moaned as its body stretched. The landing gear morphed into legs with claws that sank into the ground. Then it returned to its normal state except for the resonance of a shadow. It waved along the exterior skin several times like a chameleon shifting its colors at high speed.
But after another moment, it stopped too. The ship was once again solid, just a piece of equipment or so Magnus hoped. Galvatron stared in unmoving disbelief. "Now I see why my story is not so far-fetched." he said quietly. "Was that the Virus?"
"A symptom, yes."
Rusti almost swallowed air. "We gotta find Optimus and Roddi. They could be in trouble."
Magnus knew she was right, but he did not know if anything could be done to help them as they sunk further under Viral control.
Someone screamed amid the Genesis personnel. "There!" she cried. "They're coming from the Vertical Horizon!"
As if practiced, all bodies turned about face to the south. An assembly of figures made of rocks rose from the ground and approached the crowd.
Cyclonus fired first.
" . . . "
Magnus flinched and shifted comline frequencies. Someone on the Spiral Star struggled to get through.
Two Autobots fired at the 'rock figures' which staggered toward the group, unstable as zombies. Magnus tried to contact the Spiral Star again with no result. "Siren!" Magnus shouted, "you and Granit get the women and children to safety! Cyclonus, take the left side. Faren, two o'clock, central-B!"
Rusti took a final glance back as the Autobots and a few EDC officers battled the rock figures. It occurred to her how eerily similar they looked to another life form she encountered many years ago. But they could not possibly be anything like the Cyberwraith.
Magnus tried to get through to the Spiral Star before turning to Galvatron who shot four rock people in a row. Two of them came back together and one of them attacked Nightbeat, pummeling his armor. "Galvatron," Magnus called between shots, "One of us needs to find out what's happening on the Spiral Star. I can't get through-"
The ground broke before them and six Autobots fell into the trench. A huge mud monster rose. Its head yawned and came for Magnus and Galvatron.
Gryph shifted into a gryphon and shot through the enemy, forcing it to shower dirt and rocks upon the Autobots.
"I'll go," Galvatron volunteered.
TWO DAYS LATER:
a sense of urgency tugged at Roddi's head. He sat up and a headache slammed into him from the topside down.
"Ah, pleasant afternoon, Rodimus," Perceptor greeted cheerfully. "Nice to have you fully conscious."
"What happened?" Roddi assessed the room, It didn't look anything like the Dancing Siren or the Spiral Star.
"We . . . couldn't put you in the Dancing Siren or the Spiral Star. So Galvatron suggested the Trench Dr-"
"Whoa! Waitaminute! What was that?"
"What was what?"
"You said Galvatron."
"Yes. I did."
"So . . . when did he start calling the shots? I thought he was locked up." Roddi stared the scientist down, expecting a detailed account.
"Uh . . ."
The nanosecond Magnus' name escaped Perceptor's vox box, Rodimus charged off the Trench Driver.
Magnus spotted Roddi racing his way and he hurriedly signed Quasar's datapad before dismissing her; she did not need to hear their exchange.
"Mags!" Roddi greeted in a well-rehearsed cheerful manner.
"Here we go," Magnus muttered. He forced a smile upon greeting Roddi.
"One word for you," Rodimus Prime said when close enough, "Galvatron."
"Yes." Magnus replied simply.
Rodimus expected more but did not get it. "Okay. Since when did we allow criminals to walk freely among us and make policy?"
I know it's difficult for you to deal with Galvatron, Rodimus. But you know, sometimes people change and it's not always for the worse."
"Magnus, this isn't some two-bit bank robber or loan shark. This is Galvatron. AKA Formerly Megatron the same bolthead who left you in pieces on Junkion. This is the same aft-express who sided with the Quintessons back in 2006, the very same jerk who destroyed an entire planet populated by a species who communicated by music. You do remember him, don't you?"
"I haven't forgotten, Rodimus. But in his defense, you've changed, too."
Roddi's optics flashed. "You're really making this difficult, Magnus. You simply can't be siding with him!"
Magnus' temper started to shorten. "I'm not siding with ANYONE, alright? I needed help. Jazz was trapped on the Alvarez. Convoy was too far out on patrol. Titanium was up to his shoulder struts in rock monsters. I could not contact anyone on the Spiral Star. So I made a choice; I asked for help. And then I sent him off to deal with Daniel while I helped First Aid into a ready room. Optimus Prime was unconscious. You were catatonic. What was I supposed to do?"
Rodimus lined his lip components in confusion. "What did Daniel have to do with anything?"
Rodimus heard footfalls behind and swung about to stand next to Magnus. He glowered at Galvatron.
"Did someone mention Daniel?"
Magnus glared at Roddi. "Rodimus was just asking how your um . . . conversation went with Daniel Witwicky. Weren't you, Roddi?"
Rodimus crossed his arms defensively. "Sure. Among other things."
"Ah." Galvatron was not fooled. He grinned audio to audio. "Yes, I recall the conversation quite vividly. It was . . . bombastic. Uncivil. Barbaric. Naturally I allowed Daniel to have the last word."
Rodimus and Magnus shared confused expressions. But it was Magnus who spoke: "You mean you lost the argument to Daniel Witwicky?"
Galvatron laughed, sending surges throughout the Autobots' systems. It wasn't the stupid maniacal laughter of a mad mech. Nor was it the cackle of a megalomaniac. This was a deep, clean laughter and it did not sound like it should come from a person both Magnus and Rodimus knew over twenty years before. "No. I mean I allowed Daniel Witwicky to have the last word so I can laugh at him. Especially knowing that he'll wake on the Racing Beast with the headache from Torments." Galvatron gazed at the brown sky, optics thoughtful. "Wish I could be an Insecticon on that wall. Hmmm. As I recall, Humans tend to regurgitate with meta-processor overloads. Wish I could feel sorry for him. But I'm sure the feeling will pass."
Roddi's optics narrowed. "Did . . . No. You did not. You did not shoot him."
Magnus dropped his jaw.
Roddi hotly pointed at Galvatron: "Humans are off limits to you!" then he pointed to Magnus, "and you allowed that to happen."
"I gave you my reasons. I'm not going to repeat them." Magnus dimmed his optics, a sure sign of growing anger."
"Yeah, yeah. The point still stands."
Galvatron grinned again. "You're jealous because you did not think to do it yourself, Rodimus Prime. I don't know which is squishier; the puny flesh creature, or you."
Rodimus snarled, "This is not-you are not funny. This is not funny."
"No, it's hilarious." Galvatron smoothly countered. "you simply do not have a sense of humor."
Roddi's optics narrowed. "I have a sense of humor. I just don't think there's anything humorous about you."
"Oh." Galvatron returned with sarcasm. "Wish I could help, but the level of sophistication involves-"
"STOP!" Magnus ordered, "both of you! There is too much to be done for you to just stand here!"
Rodimus turned his snarl on Magnus. "Then lock up Optimus' pet hamster and hand me the duty roster." Rodimus took Magnus' digipad but did not read it before he spotted Optimus touring the camp, Arcee at his side. Roddi whacked the digipad against Magnus' midriff. "Never mind," he growled. "I have something better to do. And lock him up! Roddi stomped off.
Galvatron lay an arm across his forehead, feigning melodrama: "woe to me. Always the jailbird, never the jailer."
Magnus growled, "stop it."
Just like Roddi, Optimus did not ask permission to leave medical. Four star cruisers still required hyperdrive adjustments. Optimus contained his delight with a dose of caution. They needed supplies to finish the Sagittarian Mozart. The Saber's Claw lacked an extra set of Zeta-silver charging boosters (for retro-thrusters). The Interrogator had to have its drive conjunction rewelded. And the Razor Lady simply needed pest control. With any measure of luck, they could leave Cratis from a few days to a week.
Knowing better than to walk out the front plank, Optimus exited the ship by way of the back hatch. He paused a moment, considering how many times he managed to sneak out of medbay before Ratchet noticed his absence. Unlike First Aid, however, Ratchet always managed to get someone to help him haul Optimus back to medical.
Ratchet was a crotchety, demanding medic, but the best there was. Optimus was never more grateful when the doctor agreed to accompany him on that last mission from Cybertron. Of course, Ratchet made a fuss over it because of Teletran-which he and Wheeljack built out of stolen Decepticon parts. But never did Optimus have a better computer system-and never could he have asked for a better medical and science team.
He recalled even before meeting Ratchet there was Quinary, the CMO for the Council of Elders. She was direct, honest and stubborn. More than once Quinary reminded Optimus how she watched Sentinel Prime die. She was not going to watch Optimus go the same route.
She died years later of a lab accident, or so he was told.
Prime turned under the Spiral Star's port side wing and found Arcee huddled near the landing gear. She tightly clutched a digipad like a little girl her lost dolly. Bowed over, the femme rocked once then again, softly mourning.
He silently approached and knelt respectively before her. "Arcee," he said in a gentle tone.
She straightened a little but could not lift her optics to meet him. "He won't leave me alone. It doesn't matter where I go, what I do. He finds a way."
Optimus gently took the digipad and Arcee covered her face.
Your rejection has cost me my soul. I bleed. I guess that's what you want. Perhaps I should finish the job. Maybe you'll feel better when I'm gone. You leave me to bleed. You leave me to die.
Remember that I will die hating you and I hope you live a long life filled with remorse and solitude. You will pay for doing this to me. You're a traitor and no one will ever trust you again.
I will see to it that you will be found guilty of reprehensible crimes. I know what you did to me. I know what you wanted to do to Brian. I know what you did to Resonna.
Bitch. I hate what you did to my family. You ruined my son's life. You brainwashed my daughter so that she believes she's in love with a robot.
You're a social whore. No one wants you now, Arcee. I might forgive you.
On the other hand, I might not live long enough. I don't know.
You did this to me. You wanted the separation. You wanted me dead. I hope you're happy right now. Because you won't be happy later on.
I'll make sure of that.
Optimus stared intently at her. "Daniel wrote this, didn't he?" he waited a moment but she still did not speak, did not look up. "Arcee."
"Yes. But please . . . I, I-"
"You're not at fault. This is a lie, Arcee and I want you to put it out of your head." he forced her to look him in the optic. "He is manipulating you. I want you to know that I have nothing but admiration and confidence in you. Whatever he says, Rodimus and I say he's wrong."
Arcee finally looked at her commander. Optimus didn't just say 'I', he said he and Rodimus. No matter what Daniel said in the letter, her commanders trusted and admired her. Arcee slowly came out of despondency and allowed Optimus to help her to her feet.
"Now, I'm still behind on current events, Arcee. Perhaps you would not mind telling me what's happened in my absence."
"Didn't you read Magnus' reports?"
"Not all of them."
She strolled beside him as they toured the grounds, simply passing the ships one at a time. Arcee did not know what made her think Optimus walked more slowly than usual. Nor did she understand why she thought his colors seemed a little off. But she humored him and started back when they managed to escape Earth.
Arcee told him of their little venture with some strange monster that had taken the space station at Gate O9-A and their close call between the defenders at Centaurus and the Quintessons that nearly fried them. She also informed him of the Centaurian ambassador's 'bill' for a new space station.
"Heh. Sounds like something he'd say. How many cruisers? Three? Did he say where he bought them, Arcee?"
"No. He simply told Rodimus to put it on your tab."
Optimus paused and glanced about the refugee camp. Something touched his senses just at the borders; just enough to get his attention.
"Optimus?" Arcee chirped. "What is it?"
"The ship . . . " Prime approached the Gabriel Genesis as a group of women carried out packs of rations for the children on the Razor Lady. Prime touched the outer hull. Something happened to the ship, but he could not quite read it.
"There you are!"
Arcee saw an eerie glow cross Roddi's face. Sudden fear struck her and she peered into Optimus' optics and found the same thing. The femme slowly backed away. Her laser core vibrated strongly. Optimus did not notice the distance she put between them.
Optimus smiled as Rodimus stomped his way. "Good morning, Rodimus."
Arcee turned, transformed and raced off.
"Don't you 'good-morning' me, Mister!"
"Are you aware that Galvatron shot Daniel?"
"He didn't miss, did he?" Some small part of Optimus wondered why he said that. It made little sense to make fun of a situation that could have gone very wrong. The rest of him, however, thought the incident amusing. Images of smeared human remains lying on the ground like scruff marks entertained Void-Optimus.
Indignant, Rodimus fumed. He considered slapping the life out of the Senior Prime. His optics narrowed; a crazed animal prepared to strike. "There was an agreement, was there not, that neither he nor Cyclonus were to be around Humans. We agreed upon a rule that weapons were forbidden. Period. Both directives have been broken."
Optimus honestly struggled to understand why Rodimus was so put-out by the whole ordeal. Why was he so mad? Everyone had weapons here. And being around Humans was inevitable. After all, Optimus himself was constantly surrounded by the Little People. They were cute. He swiftly glanced about the ground, looking for the Little People but did not see any at the moment. Optimus was sure they were around. Maybe they were hiding. Cute little things! They were shy!
Maybe the argument between he and Roddi frightened them. He faced Rodimus with a light expression: "Shouldn't we discuss this someplace private?"
"Awe, afraid our potential argument will upset the children?"
"They still do not need to watch us argue."
"It concerns Decepticons YOU BROUGHT TO US, SO WE'RE DOING IT OUT HERE ANYWAY! I have a right and a responsibility NOT to trust anything wearing the war crest. In case you've forgotten, Prime, Autobot season never closes."
"I don't understand why you don't trust my judgment."
"Ha! Two words: MATRIX VIRUS."
"Is that what's put you in a bad mood? Or have you just lost your objectivity?"
"Objectivity has NOTHING to do with it!" Rodimus shouted. "While you were passing through Wonderland with Laughing Boy and Mr. Spock, we've had our ASSES HANDED to us on a platinum platter-more than once. And the fact that you have the blatant AUDACITY to bring us two decompiled rejects only proves your poor judgment and incompetence as a leader."
Void hissed distorted thoughts. Why was it so important that Optimus listened and valued what Rodimus said, anyway? He was . . . punk. Dislogic. Incorrect calculations. Prime grew less aware of their argument and more cognizant of changes in the air, changes in the ground. He spoke, but was not with his own words or his own voice.
Negative. He said nothing. Void said it all. Void was smarter than he, anyways. "As I recall, Roddi-Doo-Dah, it was YOUR brilliant idea for us to take on separate lives. 'Oh for the good of everybody else', you said. You and I were both aware the Quintessons planned an attack. Maybe you knew the Quints would hit Zenith before we could finish the shields and battle procedures. Maybe you were hoping I'd die on Mars."
"HA!" Roddi countered, "While we're on the subject of extermination, let's push it a step further and order a triple execution; two Decepticon criminals and an Autobot traitor." Rodimus' optics dipped into a disturbing dark blue.
"You'd better make sure you kill to terminate at that point," Optimus voice dipped even further. "And try not to miss; I might jump bodies!" Optimus charged like a raving beast. A scream came from him like Roddi hadn't heard before. They smashed the ground and rolled until Rodimus took control. He pounded Optimus's head against the Genesis' landing gear until Optimus thwacked Roddi so hard, the Autobot leader flew through the air. His landing left a good track sixteen yards long.
Like the god of vengeance, Rodimus merely rebounded and trained in for another shot. Optimus slammed him with the same strike that often scrambled Megatron's equilibrium circuits. But that was one strike Rodimus knew well and he flew with the momentum, hand springing back. He slid gracefully in the dirt, transformed and floored his acceleration.
Missing Optimus entirely, the Autobot leader smashed into the Gabriel Genesis, leaving a nice Roddi-mark in the side. He dug his tires deep into Cratian soil and jammed for his Viral opponent with a jet of dust.
Optimus waited as Roddi barreled through the camp for him. He kept his timing perfect and when Rodimus was just in range, he sprang against Roddi's hood, twisted round and caught the top of Rodimus' trailer.
"Nice move!" Rodimus congratulated. "Now survive this one!" With a hard pan to the right, Rodimus ruthlessly spun and drifted so that his weight tipped and he and Optimus rolled; he over the top.
Optimus grunted with the crushing weight, his body sank into the ground.
Rodimus made the mistake, however, of getting up too soon. He transformed and stood swift and well-balanced. He did not intend for Optimus to hitch himself up at the same time. The second Optimus landed on his feet, his right foot contacted Rodimus' chin and Prime flew hard and fast. He collided with the Saber's Claw across the camp. But he shot back and again tangled with Optimus. They tumbled head over foretoes until Optimus got the pin. Rodimus snarled ugly and landed him a powerful right cross. Optimus not only rolled off, but slid back. The second he stood, Roddi dished him the very same kick to the chin.
Optimus landed hard face-down and rather than getting up again, shifted to truck mode minus the trailer. He swerved, whisking dirt and stones in a curved shower.
Rodimus stood in a haze. He thought he was reliving a dream. The heavy stagnant air forced him to stand a moment while he watched Optimus race out the camp faster than he'd ever seen his friend move.
"Here, Roddi, Roddi, Roddi." Optimus baited over their comlinks. His disturbing voice dared Rodimus to come outside the camp.
Old memories washed over him; memories of things Rodimus tried to bury deep so that he could never access them. But Void, treacherous and cruel, did whatever was necessary to keep them fighting. "Can Optimus come out to play?"
The answer was always the same: Of course! Rodimus grinned and transformed, spinning rocks and dirt at the Gabriel Genesis before chasing Optimus out the valley east of the camp. Mostly untouched by the three week-old battle, the fresh terrain offered many natural obstacles the two Primes could not see in their Viral haze. Old holes left by animals, huge stones and an occasional ancient tree stump rattled and jolted their vehicle modes until they came to a dry riverbed. Their hot engines revved in an unannounced race. Optimus edged forward, then Rodimus. Rodimus' mode paced just half a car faster until Optimus floored it and they remained nose-to-nose for seven minutes. Roddi growled and pushed until he finally left his playmate in the dust-so to say.
He laughed. Old timer. Last year's model. Outdated. Expired. Previously-owned. He laughed. The last one was the best. Optimus kept coming for him and as high as Rodimus was with his fuel lines running high and hot, he dared the Senior Prime to just keep coming. He cupped his hands, inviting.
Just like Optimus, Rodimus had his moments of bad decisions. Optimus came at him so fast, Rodimus did not know he was hit until he lay flat on his back, partially buried, his adversary on top.
Optimus bled from under his face plate and bled from under his helm. He bled from under his chest plate and at the hips. He oxidated, his body so overheated Rodimus, the ground and the stones around them rose in temperature.
Roddi felt his exostructure peel and he struggled. The image of a fly straining against the grip of a praying mantis flashed through his mind. For the first time, Rodimus was truly afraid. He tried to gain leverage with his knees, but Optimus sat on top of his thighs, hands clasped painfully tight round Roddi's wrists.
"Here, Roddi, Roddi, Roddi."
No! That was not-he did NOT-could NOT have seen that! Rodimus struggled, fear weakened in face of a nightmare that would not end.
A searing vice bit and tore into his right shoulder. Pain shot through his systems, shock followed, disbelief, unreality.
Rodimus finally managed to transfer the agony into strength and he delivered as hard a head-butt as he could to obtain room and momentum to flee. Now released from Optimus' grip, Rodimus rolled, his shoulder blazing in pain.
He did not get far before Optimus-Void grabbed him at the ankles and pulled him back-caught in a Viral web. Caught by one of the most powerful Autobots in their present society. Caught-
Rodimus tried not to see it-he certainly could not believe his optics-Optimus bit him! More than that, Optimus tore a chunk out of his shoulder.
Roddi managed to slip a leg from his opponent's grip and kicked the Senior Prime off. Rodimus bounced to his feet. He transformed and raced off. He did not know or care where he went, he just needed distance to think, to come to terms what he saw. He saw it, he did not see it.
No. He saw it; he did not want to remember seeing it. It was not real! It was not real! But his damaged, bleeding, aching shoulder assured him he saw it.
His alt mode hit a rock and tipped. Roddi transformed as Optimus came barreling after him again in speeds faster than he should be able to move.
Rodimus suddenly laughed and it caused the other Prime to skid to a stop and transform. Rodimus kept laughing.
Optimus stomped over laser-scarred ground. Dust and ashes billowed about his heavy footfalls. "Explain non-logic. Actions of inconsistences . . . incongruent with attempted mind games.
"Awe! You're upset cuz you don't get it? Go ask the Girl. Better yet, ask the Decepticon."
"We have no words for the Son of Zh'Xn. The policies cannot be trusted."
Rodimus stood, staring down an Optimus so possessed by the Virus, his colors drowned toward the dark. His violet optics swished with black that waved along the bottom ridges.
For a long, clear moment, Rodimus realized what was happening. He raced inwardly to take advantage of Void's confusion. He raced for greater non-logic. No more nursery rhymes. No gimmicks. He believed the Virus tried to circumvent the non-logic by shifting tactics. "You cannot control the both of us at the same time. You cannot win this way."
Optimus stared, his optics resembled a dead mech's expression and Roddi kept his face straight, hiding his revulsion.
"SSSSSSUUUUNNN." Void-Optimus hissed. "SSSSUUUUNN."
Heat caused by Void gradually left Roddi and his systems cooled. "What are you saying? Sun-what? Are you calling me a son-of-a-bitch? New one for you, isn't it, Precious?" a grin spread over his face until Rodimus realized how creepy the moment really was. He was talking to Optimus who had become so infected with the Virus he was almost mentally a part of it.
Or maybe that it had become a permanent part of him.
So why did Roddi himself snap out of it this time?
Down deep, something told him he liked the feel of the Virus inside him.
It was a lie and one the Virus tried to convince him as truth. "No, no. I'm not falling for that. Not this time. Maybe never again."
Neither the right thing to say nor the right time to say it. Optimus practically bulldozed him into the ground.
As Prime's huge hands squeezed Rodimus' neck, the Autobot leader wondered exactly what triggered the Virus to pit them against one another all the time. Did it find pleasure in the fight? Did it enjoy watching them tear each other apart?
Roddi thought about his shoulder. Then he thought about the awful vision he had earlier; the gravestone, the tree the lack of regret.
"Optimus," he whispered. Fuel supply and hemotricity slowly drained from his meta processor. "Optimus . . . you vowed to protect life . . ." Roddi struggled for air to keep his systems cool. "Op . . . I am a life form. Not the Virus. Listen to me . . . it's lying to you."
The Virus let go of Roddi's neck and he choked and coughed up blocked fluids. But Prime's body pinned him so that Rodimus could not get up.
Prime bent over, faceplate next to audio receptor. "Is there places to hide?"
Void mocked him. The answer was no. No place to run. No place to hide.
"Not without a fight. Don't think I don't know you're fighting Optimus for control."
Optimus' faceplate split in a gruesome display of jagged metal teeth.
Rodimus could not hide his horror. But isn't that exactly what Void wanted? Was it, in fact, feeding off his emotions by using Optimus to invoke them? Roddi considered it in spite of the awful vision before him. And then he hoped nothing tongue-like came out of that maw. Rodimus struggled to control the urge to cringe at the thought.
Think of Galvatron. Yeah. That's enough to bring anyone's emotions under some semblance of control. At least until he got pissed over that situation again. Rodimus calmed even under Optimus' weight on his thorax. "Come on, Void, you parasitic shithead. EITHER EAT ME OR LEAVE!!"
Void-Optimus hissed and the next one-tenth of a second, he was gone.
It took another three seconds for Roddi to register that Optimus was no longer sitting on him. He sat partly up on his elbow, glancing about the desert, bewildered. No sign of Optimus. But Roddi felt Void everywhere; the air, the ground, the camp . . . the Gabriel Genesis and the watching crowd.
Why would Magnus allow them to watch? Roddi felt horribly exposed. "Go away," he was too tired and too pained to raise his voice. Fluids dripped from his injured right shoulder. He felt light-headed from the strangulation and now depressed that Optimus had fallen so far under Viral control.
Rodimus dropped his optics ground-ward. Should he and Optimus even leave the planet? No matter where they went, they took their 'pet' with them.
Roddi lifted his optics, meeting the rude, staring crowd. He clambered awkwardly to his feet and staggered a good yard or more. "What's the MATTER with you people?!" he demanded. "TAKE A HIKE!" The closer he came to the Autobots and Humans, the more clearly their faces became.
Haunted visages of individuals who were not a part of the refugee group stood before him. The Humans all had skeletal faces, holes worn into skin-toned skulls. Likewise, the Autobots had light grey optics, their expression neutral. They weren't even looking at Roddi.
Now Rodimus recognized a couple of them: Aero. Zoic. Marine . . . Autobots who died two years ago when Void first appeared publicly.
Optimus' teeth appeared from nowhere and Rodimus screamed and fell backward. He heard nothing until the teeth were right there.
Roddi lay still, forced to take in filthy, smelly Cratian air. Then he got mad. "Goddam it!" Roddi struggled against soft ash to stand and slipped. "Void! You shithead!!"
He tried to get up again and now saw his ...'co-victim'. Roddi sat on his knees, a sigh heaved from his chest. "Op," he said in a sad voice. "Op, don't worry about the crowd, they're just memories."
Optimus lay partly on his left side, facing downward. His optics stared into nothing. His fingers slowly clawed at the dirt. He neither moved nor spoke.
Roddi sat still, waiting. Was the Virus done? Did it have its fill? Was that damned thing ever fully satisfied? "Op . . . please let me know that I'm speaking to the real Optimus Prime."
Roddi hated moments like this.
The Autobot leader patched into Magnus' comline. "Mags . . ." his voice quavered, he trembled. "is everything okay? Is everyone-"
"We're fine, Rodimus. Are you okay, do you need help?"
"Eh . . . I'll live. Unfortunately, so will that thing." Roddi waited. His sensors tracked Optimus' life signs. "Optimus. I'm not sure what's wrong."
"Don't move," Magnus came back hastily. "Let me get out there-"
"NO!" Rodimus objected. "You stay put until I know it's safe. If necessary, I want you to be ready to kill us."
Magnus frowned and shook his head but said nothing.
Rodimus crawled but stayed careful with his injured right shoulder. He scanned Optimus' temperature. It was almost normal. He checked for color abnormalities and checked Prime's optics. Everything seemed okay. Rodimus noticed some bleeding along Optimus' cylindrical endostructual stabilizers and tears along his friend's back. There was no reason for them to be there, unless Rodimus himself made them. He slowly, cautiously examined Prime's faceplate especially along the middle.
Not one line or crease existed to prove what
Void did through the Autobot leader.
The fact that Optimus lay absolutely still and silent bothered Roddi. Not that Rodimus thought Optimus was seriously injured, but that he had withdrawn.
Oh please, please, please, Roddi thought, don't make me go against another emotional wall! He searched the dirty brown sky. "I can't go through this again," he said out loud. "Optimus, you have to talk to me."
The silence tormented him as much as the Matrix-memories and having remembered them, Roddi glanced toward the ship.
But they were gone.
And the day was fading.
"Mags?" Roddi finally called.
"Yes! Are you okay?"
"Depends on your definition. Get someone out here, will ya? Op . . . Optimus has had a meltdown, maybe a crash." Roddi ignored Magnus's sign-off and in spite of the agony it cost him, he laid on his side to face Optimus. He watched as his vyrestix stared into nothing. Optimus was awake, aware, but unable to communicate. Rodimus wished he knew what to say to make things better, if not all right. He took Optimus' hand and held it. He wondered what was to become of them and where they were to go from here.
Vaguely Roddi heard the Autobot medic team as they arrived. Magnus and First Aid shouted orders that Roddi could no longer make out. They were here to take him and Optimus back to the camp. 'Aid's assistants separated his hand from Optimus'. Forgive me, Roddi thought sadly, I should know how to fix this. I can't.
All Humans/organics spent the night on the Cold Refractor. It was not one of Rusti's more favored ships. The Refractor was once a business vessel that was used largely as a roving motel for business conventions.
But that was not the only reason for her dislike. She wanted to be out there. She wanted to know what was going on. She could not communicate with either Roddi or Optimus and sensation she picked up conflicted itself.
It was the Virus.
It was not.
She kept thinking of it over and over-and remembered how someone mentioned the Virus could take memories and give them physical form.
How? The damned thing was just a parasite!
And yet it spoke.
And yet is understood the concept of mind games.
And yet it understood the difference between Optimus and Rodimus, other Autobots and apparently Decepticons. Although Rusti did not know how well Void recognized Galvatron, if at all.
She sat with everyone else in conference Room Number Two. They all waited impatiently, hungry for news. Everyone asked one another what it was exactly they saw outside.
Some speculated it was an alien intelligence trying to communicate and that Magnus and his Decepticon thugs haphazardly shot the alien before anyone could communicate with them.
Others thought the rock-creatures might have been some new form of Decepticon.
A couple of people were closer to the mark: something Virus-inspired.
Sitting at the double doors, Rusti thought how she'd love to tie Void to the ceiling and rip its legs off one at a time. Does that hurt? She'd ask, does this?
They never did find the baby alien on the Frostbite and Rusti began to doubt whether it existed at all. She missed its little squeak.
One of the 'head mothers' from the Razor Lady approached Rusti with several metal boxes in her arms. "Have you had anything to eat?"
Rusti tried to recall the last time she ate. She shook her head and the lady dropped a box in her hands before attending someone else.
One thing was certain about the whole refugee-thing: Rusti knew she'd not have to concern herself over dieting anytime soon. She opened the box. Dried fruit. Whole wheat crackers with crunchy peanut butter. A small container offered dried creamed soup. Three other packets contained water, juice and V8-Fusion. Cheese and a small bar of chocolate also hugged the edges. A good portion of rope-jerky rounded the box, intended for the rest of the day. The box itself was to be either picked up by a collector or dropped off at the Frostbite.
Rusti ate quietly while children and adults conversed or fussed over portions or taste. It did not matter how much or how good or bad the food was; it was food. One guy had the audacity to ask for some 'real' food. He was told he got what was available. But obviously it wasn't enough for him and he raised his voice and an argument ensued.
Rusti rolled her eyes. He could have lost his life or ended up a slave or maybe Inoux lunch or worse.
As she removed one of four packets of dried fruit, Rusti found an education brochure about depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. Just for entertainment purposes, she unfolded the colorful brochure done in a comic book style.
Dorky, but cleaver.
She read it just to stave off her boredom. There was a private detective, a 'damsel in distress', someone's pet cat, a rock star and a waitress and her pet ferret involved.
Rusti almost laughed. This had to be Roddi's conception.
At the end of the brochure/comic, symptoms were listed and carefully explained. And to Rusti's dismay, Optimus and Rodimus fit each description of depression.
She also had a few symptoms. But the girl figured there was probably not one person in the camp that did not suffer from something. She just wondered what kept the two Primes going.
Pillows and blankets were passed around to encourage people-especially children-to relax while they waited for word.
Rusti quickly ate the rest of the meal and pocketed the dried fruit and jerky for later. If they closed the Cold Refractor, she'd not get the chance to sneak out later.
Handing the meal box to a collector, she made a beeline out the conference room-or would have had EDC officer Terrika Vazquez not caught her. "Na-uh. No one leaves."
"I have to go."
"Absolutely not. Orders are for everyone to stay put until further notice."
Rusti did not know how to explain her drive to see Roddi and Optimus. It was something she had to do. She relaxed in Vazquez's grip and started walking back. She took five steps and inwardly listened to the Cold Refractor. The ship was sound and in good condition.
Request permission to disembark, she asked it. The ship had a personality, but Rusti was not sure if it would listen to her. Please, please, please! I really need help!
STATE NATURE OF EMERGENCY.
Rusti, her back to Officer Vazquez, smiled mischievously.
In spite of years of training, Vazquez still did not see it coming. Without warning or authorization, the conference room doors swished open. Rusti dashed for them. Vazquez attempted to stop her with a simple hold but she did not account for Rusti's own training playing with Dinobots. She slipped under Vazquez and rolled to her feet, running.
Vazquez turned to chase but the doors clanged shut. She pounded the doors. "Open this thing NOW!"
Rusti slipped off the Refractor with a formalized thank you to the ship's computer/personality. She disembarked as a small procession ushered the Autobot leaders on board the Dancing Siren. Evening shadows deepened across the camp and Rusti knew this was as good a time as any to cut across the grounds.
She made a hasty five hundred-yard dash but got no further than two hundred eighty when someone's metal foot landed in front of her.
Rusti slid in her tracks skinning her elbows and scraping her shoes. Her eyes were met by a set of street-light red optics.
"Ah. Night watch. My favorite occupation. All the wildlife I could ask for. Everyone's quiet-asleep and if I'm extra lucky, I'll even encounter someone sneaking around."
In spite of pained elbows, Rusti stood and brushed her ragged jeans. "I'm not sneaking," she countered matter of fact.
"Oh. My mistake. You were merely dodging make- believe subterranean bombs or cracks in the ground so you'd not break anyone's back."
She stoutly remained unfazed by his humor. "I need to get to the Dancing Siren to check on Roddi and Optimus."
"Oh. I see. You don't trust the current collection of Autobot medics to do their job, ergo, you feel the necessity to supervise them."
"Your sarcasm is noted, Galvatron. What do you want?"
"Oh! Did I say I wanted something?"
"You're a Decepticon. Never do something unless it's profitable."
"Oooh! Ouch!" Galvatron winced playfully.
"Reputation is everything."
"No one warned me about yours. I'm at a disadvantage-"
"Yes. I'd like an advocate."
"No. Not Prime's judiciary, straight-faced disciplinarian. Don't misunderstand me . . . erm, Miss Rusti. I respect Ultra Magnus. But he doesn't have enough pull."
"He's the city commander, third in command. It doesn't get better than that."
"Even Magnus cannot keep us out of the brig forever. Decepticons do not fare well in cages, Miss Rusti."
"I understand. And I know you guys haven't done anything but help out."
"Is that so?"
"Yeah. You're not quite worthy of most of the local gossip."
Galvatron got all the way on his thorax, head propped by his hands, attention rapt on the girl. He looked like a little kid, staring at the TV on Saturday morning. "Is that so? Do tell me what they say!"
"The Dancing Siren."
"Won't be enough. What's the gossip?"
He sat up and leaned over. "Look, no one will take me or Cyclonus for what we are, no matter how good we've been. Magnus will sooner or later buckle under pressure-Rodimus will kick his aft and he knows it. I need someone who knows how to talk to these guys and considering how Optimus feels about you, I figure Rodimus might be willing to lend in an audio receptor."
Rusti scrunched her face. "All that just to get me on the Dancing Siren?"
"Put the rest on my tab."
"I was raised by Rodimus Prime. You might live to regret that offer."
Galvatron leaned further over and whispered, "I was a speck of dust once. Nothing frightens me."
Rusti smooshed her brows, confused. She could not tell if Galvatron was truthful, using a metaphor or pulling her leg. She finally glanced away, shaking her head. "Alright. Okay." she stared into his bright optics. "I'll discuss the matter at length with Magnus and maybe between us we can cook up something."
"You won't regret it." he promised.
"Galvatron, you had better stick to that cuz if you don't, you will."
He caught that. At first, the very first nactoseconds, the Decepticon was not sure he saw it, but decided he did: he saw her eyes go straight blue for just half the second. Just enough to make him realize why Optimus thought so much-and mooned so pitifully-and Galvatron decided not to follow that thought; it was bad enough Cyclonus reminded him of the lady he loved just once.
That was a wound that would never close.
Galvatron escorted her safely and inconspicuously across the camp. They were met once by Fire Flight who stopped Galvatron long enough to ask when he reported to Magnus last.
"Twenty moments ago. I am reporting again right now."
Satisfied, the Aerialbot departed and Galvatron led Rusti forward.
She did not need to ask anyone for directions the moment they stepped onto the Siren. Galvatron followed the girl who listened to the ship as it communicated across a broad range of frequencies.
Galvatron waited outside the door when the girl slipped in.
First Aid worked diligently on Roddi's shoulder. The femme quietly mentioned how Roddi's line of consciousness faded in and out.
First Aid mourned sadly as he aligned a torn transformation component. "I just don't know what to do for them. They're both dying and all I can do is watch."
Rusti found herself a small dark corner and settled in, hoping she'd remain undetected. The Dancing Siren promised not to alert her presence to the Autobot medic as long as she made mention of its three main requests. But its requests would have to wait until either Roddi or Optimus woke.
That was not for several long, laborious hours.
"I am so sorry to drag you though this. I wanted so much better for you no matter how much it hurt me. I am so sorry."
Rusti wok with a cramp in her neck and backside. But seeing Optimus awake, conscious and looking at her made the misery worth while. She stood and cracked joints and pained muscles. "I don't regret it-except that I'm too darn short."
He rolled half over and dangled his hand, fingers twitching. She took that as an invitation and grasped his hand. He lifted her and resumed his former position. [[I always miss you.]] he sent.
She tenderly kissed his left audio and rubbed away a bit of an oil spot at the cleft of his helm. He lay there, staring at her, nothing more to say.
"Please don't regret this," she whispered. "Did you not think that if it's not what I wanted, I would have still accepted?" she watched as a silent gleam washed from the top portion of his optic and silently bled across his old factory, over his face plate.
"What have I done? Is Roddi . . . is Rodimus . . . I did something but I can't remember."
Rusti glanced across the room where Roddi now rested, his body pinned by braces and straps to keep him from moving while a fluid line slowly replenished what he lost in the fight.
Rusti heard the Siren pass on from First Aid that Roddi had torn his shoulder further by lying on it. She gazed back to her love. "You know Roddi. He's feisty. He'll stay alive just to make sure he can find another way to annoy you." she watched as more silken fluid streamed over Optimus' face. She realized now it was a tear. She stripped her shirt and blotted the trail dry.
"I can't remember, Rusti. I know there was an argument. I didn't want to argue. But . . . but it was like sliding down someone's throat. I felt suffocated."
She tried to wring her shirt out but the fluid was an odd mixture of oils and water; it did not wring well. "I was not told anything, My Love. They said nothing. But then . . . they don't know about us. So, I get nothing."
Another tear cascaded across his face. Rusti wiped it, too, then kissed the edge of his faceplate. "I wish I could save you." she said sadly. "How could I possibly save you when I don't know where to begin?"
Drowning in depression, Optimus did not have an answer for her. His fingers moved slightly as though he wanted to move but they were the only part of his body that attempted the feat. "I love you, Rusti." his voice came soft and sad. "I think . . . I think First Aid is coming. Maybe if we're naughty, I could pretend to still be unconscious and he'd leave us alone for a while longer."
She grinned and slipped the oily shirt back on.
First Aid peeked in and took a glance at Optimus' chart first then checked on Rodimus. He made several adjustments to the pins and straps then the feed before turning back to Optimus. There he spotted Rusti and dipped his chin, tilting his head slightly left.
He was not excited to see her. "How long have you been here, Miss Witwicky?"
"A few hours." Rusti did not think it wise to give him an exact answer.
First Aid replaced the digipad on the wall and examined the monitors. "Well, I don't expect things to change for either of them for a while." Rusti suspected the medic was trying to be diplomatic; trying to hint that her presence was not necessary. "He's most likely not even aware of you."
Rusti could not -dared not- answer that. It seemed to her she was more aware of Optimus and Roddi than the rest of the Autobots. Besides, she was not going to leave just because Fist Aid thought her presence was useless. "What of Roddi?" she asked, keeping her voice down.
First Aid could not answer her. He turned away and silently departed.
Rusti sighed, eaten by guilt. "he's not happy. Should I apologize?"
[[the truth of it is, I do not care. I don't want a stale room filled with dead silence and neither does Roddi. We get enough of that from the Matrix. First Aid does not understand and there is nothing you can say that will help.]]
"A stale room? Weren't you the one who designed most of the ships?" Rusti took a better gaze at the room. It really was not stale. The room was designed to shift and adjust at anyone's whim. Rusti believed even Skyfire could fit in such a room.
"Only the preliminary ideas, Rusti," Prime answered. He slowly started to drift back to sleep. "I did not think posters and paintings were essential."
Rusti watched his optics dim, grateful he felt comfortable in her presence. She checked Roddi again who remained motionless in reinforced unconsciousness. She could tell he suffered through nightmares, the kind that would not allow him to wake.
What were the Autobots going to do about it all?
She leaned over and pressed her lips to Optimus' helm. "Well, Love," she whispered, "if I had the materials, I'd do a painting for you. I guess you'll just have to wait."
[[I have you. I don't need a painting.]]
Optimus left Rusti soundly sleeping in the room. He covered her and asked Apogee as she passed to see to it Rusti remained undisturbed. He did not have medical leave and Prime knew First Aid's patience was wearing thin.
So rather than find a completely secluded area away from the camp, the Autobot leader merely climbed atop the Dancing Siren and sat there. Now he could technically say he never left medbay; just moved to another part of the ship. It would not keep him from being in trouble; it'd just make Rodimus crack up.
That was good because they did not have much to laugh about right now.
Prioritize, Optimus told himself. They needed a plan of action, a way to deal with Void, a way off Cratis . . but his attention drifted like the dust devils across the debris field to the south.
Why did they not plan better? Why didn't they build more ships? Why didn't they post more warning satellites? Why wasn't he more careful?
Not very good at leading. Not very Primeful of him.
Why, why, why was he brought back?
Quiet feet did not tap quietly enough as they approached.
Optimus could not look Roddi in the optic. He wondered if he bit off more than a shoulder. Maybe next time it would be more.
"Excuse me," Roddi's quiet tenor voice filtered through the stale air. "Is the dimensional pocket next to you taken?"
Optimus shook his head, but did not speak.
Roddi plopped down and sat with his friend back-to-back. He stared out the north-eastern side, scanning the plains and the horizon. Rodimus half expected Optimus to pull away or come up with some lame excuse to leave. But Prime simply sat there, allowing Roddi to lean against his back.
Together they sat in silence. They watched the refugee camp come to life. They observed everyone work and handle children or equipment with measured tact and patience.
No one tired to contact them and all that took was a single glance from ultra Magnus on the ground. Optimus watched as the Major-General shook his head, speak to someone and walk off.
Rodimus did not need to know Magnus was there to know he spotted them. The camp's general mood lifted just a bit, especially when Slag and Sludge allowed themselves to be harnessed to a makeshift wagon loaded with kids.
Searchlight sat at the reigns while Repugnus rigged the harness about the two Dinobots. Roddi watched with a smile. He dared believe Pugnus' mischief would get the better of him and the little ride would turn into a race.
He was right and there went Strike Back and Gryph, trailing after the wayward Dinobots to bring chaos under control.
Still, both Primes remained silent and motionless through the remainder of the afternoon and into the evening.
At the last, night covered the world in darkness. Lights from the ships, firebrands and parameter watches dotted the camp's three-mile radius.
Rodimus switched visual settings and watched a bit of Cratis' alien wildlife rise from unmarked holes outside the parameter. He decided to break the silence between them: "Op?"
Long pause then: "Hm."
"Magnus is going to kick our afts. You know that, right?"
Roddi sighed. He was tired, edgy and sick of Cratis. "Op?"
"This whole thing . . . it's really frustrating."
Pause. "Everything, Roddi?"
Pause. "I feel so . . . inept."
"Like you failed at every turn?"
"As though everything you did completely backfired?"
"As though you don't deserve to be a Prime?"
"I didn't ask for this position."
"Don't we get a refund due to lack of interest and satisfaction?"
"I think I tried that . . . a long time ago."
Rodimus realized right then they were talking. Not about the Autobots, not about business or routine issues. Just talking. He shifted from behind Optimus to sit next to him. Quiet, he told himself. Maybe, just maybe Op will say something voluntarily.
But Rodimus noticed how the Senior Prime tried to look at him without looking at him. Just say it! Roddi screamed in his mind. Whatever's on your mind, just say it! Roddi kept his gaze on Fireflight who reported to Gryph and exchanged information and digipads.
Fifteen moments passed and Prime still said nothing. Rodimus figured wherever they might have gone in conversation simply would not take place. Deflated, he bowed over and doubted there would come a time when he did not have to force something out of Prime.
It was simply unfair. Rodimus thought about getting up to leave when Optimus moved, turning toward him, optics downcast.
"Roddi," he almost did not speak. "I've been trying to find some . . . worthy, elaborate words. But nothing seems good enough."
The edge of Rodimus' helm tingled as Optimus gently traced it. His hand dropped back. Rodimus could only stare, astonished.
"Noting I could say could ever take back what I've done and all I can do from here is say how incredibly sorry I am. I did not fight hard enough. I did not stop it in time. I did not keep guard. I am so sorry. Not just for attacking you, but for not being more alert. I wasn't there when you needed . . . I completely failed you."
Rodimus choked. "No you didn't!" he took Optimus' hands and tried to make optical contact. "I would not even be here hadn't you been there for me. "Op . . Op!' he stared intently into his vyretix's face.
Prime finally looked at him. "I'm staying."
"I think I can convince the Virus all it needs is me. You can leave the Matrix-"
Rodimus vigorously shook his head. "No."
"And you go on-"
"-to Yolthanis III for help-"
"No! I'm not leaving you-"
"you're not winning this argument. I'm staying too. Magnus can take-"
"-you can't stay-"
"-cause then Rusti will want to stay-" Optimus was not going to lose the argument, no matter what Roddi said.
"-and he can babysit them or do whatever else Magnus does-"
"-then if she stays, Galvatron will insist-"
"-And Primus knows I'd rather not know-"
"-Naturally Cyclonus will too-"
"-cuz he's the only reason I'm glad to be a Prime."
"-and then everyone else will get jealous and want to stay too."
They stared at one another a long time, neither willing to budge.
They stared until Roddi looked confused. "Did ... did you mention Galvatron in there somewhere?"
Prime sighed, exasperated. "I just drew a-"
"Oh my god. I am fucking jealous! You-"
"-like him more than me!"
"-because I know what he would say." Prime heard Roddi's argument and stared at him in surprise. "Roddi!" he berated gently with a smile.
"Pfff!" Rodimus cracked in laughter.
Optimus joined him but then his heart sank and he shook his head. "Roddi I'm so . . . so sorry!" the tears came back and the Senior Prime started to shift away but Rodimus rolled to his knees and caught him in his arms.
"Stop!" he begged softly. Rodimus rocked back and held his grieving friend close as Optimus repeated his name over and over.
They sat there a long time. Rodimus did not bother keeping track of time. Optimus fell asleep, apparently not concerned about the time, either. The day drifted back toward evening by the time Optimus roused from shutdown.
Rodimus had stolen a bit of rest himself and stirred when the Senior Prime attempt to sit up. Both of them moved slowly, their optics scoured the camp then the sky. They both tuned into communication frequencies. But Roddi was the only who contacted Blaster for updates.
Optimus stood and stretched his sensors. Roddi followed him a moment later. "Blaster says everything's good 'cept that Dan-o's been verbally abusive toward anyone who comes near him."
Optimus gazed at his partner. "Should we put him in isolation?"
"Will it shut him up?"
"Not likely but we won't have to deal with him for short while-unless you think it'll make matters worse."
Roddi frowned and shook his head. "Op, he's been abusive toward everyone. He can't-or won't- shut his mouth. He's gotten worse since he and Arcee broke up."
"Mm. Let's lock him up for a while, then, Roddi. There's enough crazies in camp. We don't need competition."
"Primus! Op, are you feeling alright? You just cracked a joke!"
Optimus gave him a sidelong glance and Roddi held up his hands in defense of the glare. "Heh, I know, I shouldn't push my luck."
Magnus' voice came from the top hatch behind them. "I will." the two Primes turned simultaneously, bearing the same expectant expression. Magnus tried to ignore the double scowl. "If you two leaders are done brooding, there's a few things we need to discuss."
PT 11: EXODUS
On board the Cold Refractor Optimus examined personnel reports while Rodimus glanced over the logistics report. They traded reports before Ultra Magnus set another report-field analysis-at the table.
"Well, this isn't happy," Roddi quipped. "How long have we been out of psy-neon diodes?"
"And the negative tri-sars?"
"How low is our water supply, Ultra Magnus?" Optimus asked.
"We're using filtered stuff from the ground. But Dr. Zornoy says even with the filter systems, people are sick because it's loaded with foreign materials."
Rodimus rubbed his forehead. "It's not actually minerals. It's toxins. The desert here sits on the ruins of a vast city that once thrived here."
"I know," Optimus replied. "I was there once. But that was five meganiums ago. Anything radioactive should have long since dissipated."
Magnus took back a digipad. "It's not radioactivity that's tainted the water, Optimus. It's just the elements. The soil is salty. The underground streams are acidic. The air . . . well, you get the picture."
"Which brings us right back before our, uh, fight, Roddi. Someone must go back to Concentric City for supplies. We need liquid graphite for the landing gear on all ships. We need water and hydro-lithium. But I do not want to send anyone out who communicates on regular frequencies.
Magnus turned in his chair. "What about Ambience or Wavelength? Or maybe Blaster and the Cassettes?"
Optimus shook his head. "Any Autobot frequencies can easily be picked up by our enemies, Ultra Magnus."
Titanium, silent until now, swung toward the three of them, "The Decepticons already know we're here," he pointed.
Rodimus scratched a note onto his digipad, but did not look at the city commander. "Op is talking about the Quints and the Inoux."
"Right," Optimus agreed.
They sat quiet a moment. Gryph fingered a pointer in front of her. Titanium stared at nothing.
Magnus brightened. "Cyclonus and Galvatron communicate along Decepticon frequencies."
Roddi shook his head and did not brood over the mention of Galvatron's name. "They'd still have to contact us over the frequencies."
Strike back softly growled. "We could just send them to town and leave them, you know."
Both Primes answered him simultaneously: "Not now, Strike Back."
He also earned a glare from Ultra Magnus.
Optimus leaned toward the Major-General, "where are Galvatron and Cyclonus?"
Magnus looked suspiciously guilty. "Uh . . ."
Optimus squatted next to him as Roddi followed at a more leisurely pace. To the right, the north field stretched, welcoming the playful skirmish between three Dinobots, Cyclonus, Colt, Repugnus, Doublecross and Bumblebee.
A sharp, shrill whistle forced all the Autobots to freeze in their tracks and a girl's voice called over the comlines.
"Repugnus!" Rusti called, "foul on the fourth! No swear words in front of Swoop!"
Galvatron grinned like a masochist. "We are learning the finer points of Dinobot football."
Prime and Rodimus looked from Galvatron to Rusti to Repugnus who also grinned, displaying nasty jagged teeth.
Even though he knew Repugnus was capable of handling things if the situation got out of control, Rodimus was still not exactly delighted that Galvatron and Cyclonus were outside the camp and around Rusti. "You've been here all this time?" Roddi surprised himself because his voice sounded calm.
Galvatron shook his head. "I'm on an official time-out for elbowing Doublecross outside the thirty-five yard line."
Rodimus crossed his arms. "Don't you mean inside; with more than just an elbow? I'm surprised you didn't just haul out your gun and shoot her into submission, Galvatron."
"What would be the point of that? Besides, Slag was coming at me even though it was Bumblebee who had the ball." Galvatron flinched when Rusti shouted over the comlines. She called Repugnus out on another foul.
Optimus and Rodimus heard it over the lines, too and watched, bewildered as Repugnus joined Galvatron at the 'bench', giggling and snorting. "Got 'em at the hot pass on the two-forty."
Galvatron giggled and the two high-fived.
Rodimus interjected, "am I missing something here?"
"No," Optimus followed, "I'm missing it, too."
Repugnus shifted from monster to robot form. "Too late in the game to add you guys. 'Sides, you've got an unfair advantage."
Galvatron turned to him. "They do?"
"Sure. They make better wall flowers then Dinobots."
"Hah! Truth never spoken better! You should have seen the wanted poster we found of Prime. Nice mug shot."
"No kidding? Photograph or drawing?"
"Hey!" Roddi called. He pointed at Galvatron. "You know, you're not EVEN supposed to be out of your cage. It was already agreed that you and Mr. Spock aren't to be out except on a leash, Laughing Boy."
Pugnus looked puzzled, gazing from Roddi to Galvatron. "'Laughing Boy'?"
Galvatron cast him a wry smile. "We're working on Roddi's vocabulary but it's a long and difficult process."
Rodimus moved toward the Decepticon: "Hey!" but Optimus held him back.
"He's not hurting anything, Roddi-"
"My life's reputation is at stake here and I will not let this Howdy-Doody reincarnate go around cracking bad jokes; that's my job."
"Which is why mine are better," Galvatron added smoothly.
"You're both amateurs." Repugnus capped.
Galvatron turned to him. "Do you offer lessons?"
"Hadn't thought of it."
"Stop it!" Optimus and Roddi chorused.
Rodimus calmed. "Alright." he turned to Prime. "This is entirely your fault. Not Mags' and not Repugnus . . . es . .. Yours. Fix it or someone's head will fly-and it won't be Galvatron's-at the start."
"He is not doing anything wrong-"
"We went over this point before. I will NOT be upstaged by an upstart. I will not have a Decepticon running around like a stray."
Optimus looked at Repugnus and the Monsterbot caught a familiar gleam in the Senior Prime's optic. He knew that look and the Monsterbot squirmed.
"Roddi, we could just turn Galvatron and Cyclonus to Repugnus' custody-"
"Uh-uh," Repugnus objected.
"NO!" Roddi said at the same time.
"I do Dinobots," Repugnus added, "Not conny-boys." he turned to Galvatron. "No offense. You're just not my species-type."
Something small but hard struck Roddi's forearm then Optimus' shoulder. Turning in the direction of the projectiles, they watched as Rusti stomped toward them, peeling off her helmet. Her bound red hair hung limp, drenched in sweat.
She looked somewhat pissed.
"What are you doing?" her voice came direct and hard, irresistible to answer.
Galvatron opened his mouth: "they're here to debate who gets to date me."
She turned to him, eyes vivid blue. "Galvatron."
"Not another word. You're on a time-out."
Repugnus protruded his lower lip. "Ooh. Tisk, tisk."
Roddi and Optimus stared, dumbfounded.
Rusti punctuated her demand by setting her fists on hips. "Well?"
Roddi: "uhh . . . uh, I was just wondering how come those two are so willing to obey you when neither of them will do what we tell them to do. I don't get-"
"Roddi!" Rusti growled between her teeth, "You're evading the question!"
Optimus half turned toward Rodimus and laid a hand on his vyrestix's shoulder. He was about to speak when Rusti simply blew.
"Optimus! KEEP YOUR HANDS TO YOURSELF! RODIMUS, NOT ANOTHER WORD OUT OF YOU! YOU TWO ARE NOT ALLOWED TO HAVE ONE MORE ARGUMENT! IS THAT CLEAR?!"
Roddi looked to Optimus "I don't think I've ever seen her so spitting mad before."
Optimus was baffled by the change of eye color on the girl. It concerned him. "Rusti, we-Roddi and I were-ah-discussing what to do about Galvatron and Cyclonus."
She stopped yelling, but the young woman's voice kept the acidic snarl: "you weren't disCUSSING it. You were headed for another goddamned fight and I'm SICK of you two fighting!"
Her voice changed just enough to send surges down the two Primes' central infastructural rod.
Rusti replaced her helmet. "From here forward I'm their chaperon. THAT is NOT open to discussion!"
She pivoted her foot, turned about face and began marching back to the players.
Optimus and Rodimus stared after her, wordless and vacant of expression.
Roddi recovered first. "I-I don't think that was entirely her that was talking."
"I don't think so, either." Optimus concurred.
"In fact," Roddi continued, "I don't think it was her that was even angry."
"I don't think so, either."
Rodimus flinched, "Op! Rusti doesn't communicate on the Autobot frequency! I don't know why I didn't think of it before!"
They looked at one another and Optimus took it upon himself to call her back.
Rusti watched as Crossy slammed into Slag and all but ran him over when Optimus called. Crossy shifted from robot to Monster mode and flew for the finish line but Swoop angled down, grabbed her about the necks and tugged.
The two fliers crashed into hard-baked dirt leaving a short trench behind. Rusti called time-out at the fifteen yard-line. "Sludge, scrape Bumblebee off the ground, will you? I'll be right back." she returned to the central sidelines and glanced at Galvatron and Repugnus. "You guys can go back once the left side gets the ball."
"That'll be a while," Galvatron grunted.
"They're still trying to figure out who the ball is," Repugnus added.
Rusti ignored him, immune to such bad cracks. She removed her helmet once again, her mood now lighter, her eyes grey again. "I'm sorry," she said without preamble, "You guys cannot play until the next game.
"Rusti," Optimus started, "we were wondering if you'd run a short errand for us."
"We need you to go shopping again," Roddi added.
She glanced from Prime to Prime. "Uh ..."
Optimus reiterated: "you're the only one who can communicate to us without using Autobot frequencies."
Rodimus vigorously nodded.
Rusti blinked. "Guys, why are you sending me? I speak only three languages: Autobot, American English and foul language. Besides, to the natives, I'd look pretty funny. And I don't know my way around the city."
"Cyclonus, Titanium and Bumblebee will go with you," Optimus had not asked any of them, but he knew all three would be willing to go.
Rusti mulled it over. She was uncomfortable with the idea of going to an alien city. But she also took into account that Roddi and Optimus were right: she could communicate in a way that would keep other ears from listening in.
"Umm . . . okay," she agreed.
Rusti had only seen Titanium on occasion. Usually the city commander kept along the lines of heavy duty work and weapons repair; jobs done through the course of the night shift when tools and vehicles required maintenance. Too add to that, Rusti had seen Titanium only in robot mode. At the moment, the huge city commander, who topped Ultra Magnus by a good two feet, pounded the ground in an alien animal mode next to Bumblebee while Cyclonus hovered above them.
Rusti could not keep her eyes off Titanium's animal form. He looked like some crazy fictional beast, part buffalo, part dinosaur with a heavy shell covering his back and horns that wrapped about his head on three sides. Rusti imagined a rhinoceros would be terrified of Titanium.
She peeled her eyes off Fort Sagittarius' commander and gave the shopping list another once-over. Liquid graphite, negative trisars (with one percent texide.) And beta-zinc strips with no aluminum. Rodimus was pretty specific on the strips.
"Bumblebee," the girl glanced from the pocket digipad to the dashboard, "what's with the strips? What the heck are they used for?"
"Uh, I dunno, Rusti. Lemme ask Titanium."
The Bee fell silent for a moment then came back with "Nope, Tite says he doesn't know, either."
"What about Cyclonus?"
"What about him?"
Rusti smiled in surprise," ask him if he knows."
"Uhh . . ."
"You're not afraid of him are you?" "Rusti tried not to laugh.
Rusti let slip a short laugh. "Okay. Patch me though. I'll ask him."
"For the ships." Cyclonus' cold, deep voice came through Bumblebee's comlink. "Beta-zinc controls chronological components between navigation and central alpha warp drives."
Six hours later, they landed not far from the centralized hospitalities of Concentric city. Rusti stepped from Bumblebee just before the Autobot transformed and scanned the city. Cyclonus landed so quietly Rusti almost did not hear him. Stealth mode? Or was Cyclonus just that good?
"What's on the list?" Cyclonus cast his gaze on the right, seeking road signs and pathways. He thought it a foolish ploy for Prime to dawdle in Concentric City but thinking on it now, Cyclonus was grateful; he pretty much knew his way around. They had very little time. At this moment, the Autobots were busy breaking camp, preparing to leave Cratis.
"Liquid graphite." Rusti announced. "I don't suppose there's a Radio Shack on Cratis, is there?"
Titanium glanced over his shoulder. "Of course! Right over there!"
The girl, the Decepticon and Bumblebee looked from Titanium to the large store. While the language in which the store's name was written was alien, the colors, displays and brand name were all the same.
Rusti blinked, completely baffled.
Cyclonus broke the moment and pointed northward toward a collection of sky scrapers. Street advertisements, flashing lights and blinking words declared goods and services in three different languages. "Most electronics and service and repair shops Galvatron, Optimus Prime and I attended lie at the north end of town. I suggest we start there."
Rusti advanced across the street, binding her hair. Traffic stopped for her but honked at Bumblebee when he crossed. Cyclonus glared so that even cars, several blocks away, paused in their tracks.
The extent of alien life forms astounded Rusti until she realized that not one building or sign around her was scripted in English. She stopped walking and took a better look. She now felt like a small child, lost in a very big place. "I am completely out of my element," she said to herself.
"This way," Cyclonus took a right and down the row of specialty shops, boutiques and cafes.
They passed a book shop, a winery, a furniture story, an insurance agency and a beauty salon before encountering an old, abandoned shop next to which stood a locksmith.
Cyclonus paused, "I'll remain here to keep an optic on the streets."
Titanium glared. "Don't try pulling any fast ones, Decepticon. You're still under scrutiny."
Rusti intervened, "Hey! Someone's gonna have to speak to . . . whatever owns the shop. And Cyclonus is right, we need someone else to watch our backs."
Bumblebee had to turn away to conceal a smirk while Titanium shifted his glare from the Decepticon to his 'nanny'. He reluctantly pushed the door and stepped into the shop. Rusti followed with a shake of her head, wondering why she had been so bossy lately.
The alien shop owner was not as bizarre looking as Rusti expected. 'She' was heavy-set. Her welcoming smile displayed two rows of metal teeth. Her violet eyes blinked behind a set of thick glasses. Brown hair twisted up atop her head in a fluffy crown and a nice denim shirt offset her red-brown skin.
Keys and locks dangled from wall and shelf in every inch of the shop. Three different machines squatted against the back wall while other shelves stood burdened with boxes, tubes and casings. The smell of metal and oil hung in the air.
Rusti liked the smell. Her eyes darted this way, that while Titanium tried to speak with the shop owner.
Rusti paid them little to no attention. She knew she was along only as the communications link and knew it was better to leave things to the Autobot commander. As Titanium chattered on, Rusti drifted through the shop, spying on different objects and items, careful as not to touch anything. She felt like a toddler and could not hold her head back far enough to see items on several very high shelves.
She encountered one shelf lined with objects dangling from hooks. Most of them hung vertically. Others objects squatted and as she passed them, they turned toward her.
Rusti froze, turned left and gave the objects a closer exam.
They did not move.
She tilted her head. "Come on," she beckoned. "I know you're alive."
Titanium and Bumblebee and the shop keeper burst into laughter and the shop owner's voice boomed with excitement. Rusti figured she was telling a story.
The girl lifted a finger and lined the smooth surface on one metal object.
It jiggled as though ticklish.
Rusti looked at it very closely so that she saw the reflection of her own eyes upon its silvery surface. She mentally tried to reach for it, not taking notice how her eyes shifted toward blue again.
"What's your name?" she asked in a hoarse whisper. "Don't be afraid, Little One." Rusti stared until the object's surface folded out, forming an alien face. Usually this would have caused her to startle, but Rusti felt nothing but fascination and familiarity.
"I am minute. We travel to help."
"Yes," Rusti's voice dipped with a slight echo. "I sense your signature. But you are not children of Vector Sigma, not of Primus."
"We are of Vector Theta."
"You speak of Vector Sigma, the Younger."
"Yes," Rusti answered. "She knew and she did not. "If you please," she continued as politely as possible, "were there others? Is there only the brothers?"
"Primacron sold several Vectors prior to his encounter with the Filthy One of Abomination. And whence came you, One of Life?"
Rusti heard Bumblebee call for her. But she could not break the communication. "I was from a Garden."
"Ah! Garden of the Kings, mayhaps?"
"I actually do not recall. I was sent and I came to a world of metal and breathed upon the life forms appointed to me.
Spidery-thin legs threaded out the lines of a slim dark shadow along the shelf support struts. Rusti narrowed her eyes, angry.
The alien AI object sighed. "Yes, we've been aware of the Faceless Darkness for many nights, now."
"Then I ask your forgiveness, Minute. Part of me is infected." Rusti slowly reached for a nearby hammer as a tiny version of Void stalked the shelves like a cat hunting for prey.
Unfortunately, it spotted her as she picked up the hammer. Rusti tightened her grip on the tool as the mini Virus bravely came to the edge of the shelf.
"THHHHH. THHHH." it hissed like a snake.
"You are not supposed to be here," the young lady growled with a voice again not quite her own.
"She's right," Minute agreed. "You'd best depart. Find someone's computer to nibble on."
Void tapped around the alien robotic tool and rubbed its face against Minute's stationary form.
"Stop it!" Rusti whispered harshly. She did not want to cause a panic.
"SSSS . . . SSSUUUNNN. THHHH. I THAT VOID AND DESOLATE. VOID. DESOLATE." The miniature Virus bared its teeth at Rusti.
She did not think twice. The hammer came down and Mini Void crunched under the impact; its center popped like a ripe zit.
Rusti jumped back and dropped the contaminated hammer. "Eewe!" she instantly searched her person for nasty Void bits. She found nothing and rechecked her hands.
"Wow!" Minute cringed at the Virus' remains. "That's one alien creature I've never seen."
"It's a Virus. I am partly infected."
"Oh, that is sad. I am sorry. Can your keepers do nothing?"
"No. They suffer." Rusti watched as black blood dripped from shelf to floor. She winced when Void's long squared tail snaked up in protest of her deed.
"Rusti?" Bumblebee's voice called from the front of the store. "Is everything okay there?"
"Uh, yeah." she called back. She eyed Minute and the robotic
AI tool winked at her. "Um, I just smashed a really nasty brain-sucking cockroach."
They shopped three other places then discovered a warehouse crammed with everything they needed. A family of Bionoids, attracted to Cyclonus, offered him gifts and repeatedly told him how honored they were of his visit. Titanium tried to ignore it, searching for hydro-lithium fluids and psi-neon diodes with lithium carbide stems.
Rusti gazed at the row of brightly lit monitors offering virtual-reality games. Headsets dangled above her begging for attention. Two monitors over a trio of alien males competed at a car race. A streak of mischief hit the girl and she stepped behind, watching the road and each of their three-dimensional cars. Every now and again the cars passed a road sign or a bird would fly overhead.
One of the taller alien boys chattered excitedly, even vocalized a sense of bossiness. The little one whined, perhaps because the other two were better at the game than he.
Then the taller alien dropped a bomb from his virtual car and blew apart the little guy.
The little alien 'boy' squeaked in horror then cried. He verbalized his unhappiness and the Taller laughed and jeered.
Rusti rolled her eyes. Bullies seemed to be a commonality in the universe. The two older 'boys' continued the game without the little one. She contacted the little one's eyes and wished she could tell him to keep watching. Instead, she attended the video game as the 'boys' now turned to a windy road and another stupid bird flew into the background. Rusti stared at the bird, marking its colors, then the lines then the pixels.
Easy access. And since the players busied themselves with the road, they did not notice the bird above froze. Rusti enlarged it and made it 'grow' fangs from its beak.
She made it even better by plastering a Decepticon symbol on it. That's fun.
Now the aliens' cars traveled along a dirt road. Every so often a road sign popped up.
Rusti waited just at the right moment and the cars were forced to stand still for a mass transit vehicle crossing their path. She made the bird swoop down and leave nasty droppings on both cars.
The two boys gaped, amazed.
The Little One also voiced approval and Rusti caught his eyes gain. She winked at him while the bird droppings ate into the cars like acid, even smoldering.
The mass transit passed and the two cars zipped along the road.
A road sign appeared again. It sprouted eyes, fangs and claws and attacked one car, tearing it to shreds. Then it turned to the screen and tried to claw the players.
The boys cried and dashed out the store.
The Little One peeped at Rusti.
"Sorry, fella," she answered. "I'm not from around here." she turned around and almost smacked into Cyclonus's leg. "Whoa! How do you do that? I always know when the Autobots are around-"
I was about to ask you the same question," Cyclonus stared at the game now frozen and waiting for a new player.
"What, that?" Rusti thumbed toward the consol. "Pfff. Just goofing off."
"Hm hmm." he agreed.
A slender black shape appeared from their right and slipped out of sight.
Chills shot down Rusti's spine and she tapped the floor as quickly and quietly as she could, peering round the corner.
She looked to Cyclonus whose optics scoured their surroundings. "Did you -you didn't just see-"
She realized he was using more than optical sensors. She watched the somber Decepticon until he frowned. Rusti did not think they were just 'seeing things', not both of them. But if Cyclonus chose not to discuss it just yet, she'd keep her mouth shut, too. No sense in calling a false alarm.
They visited an ancient shop filled floor to ceiling with vials, jars and crystals of every shape and size possible. Powders, liquids, solids-even living and dead insects crowded shelving space. Rusti even found a vial stuffed with eyeballs. Cyclonus spoke to a two-headed masculine individual that flickered two black tongues. A set of mean ram's horns curled round the merchant's thick, boney ears.
"What's this place?" Rusti quietly asked Bumblebee.
"I'd guess it's a supplement shop. Didn't you say two items on the list was Cybertonium and gallum?"
"Ummmm, You mean they're Transformer . . . vitamins?"
Titanium passed them in two long strides. "Something of that nature." he came to the front counter while the ram-horned shop keeper gave Cyclonus some sort of dissertation. Cyclonus turned to his Autobot counterpart. "He has what we need in quantities we're asking for."
"Good. That's good." Titanium answered a bit coldly. "What about selenium?"
"He has it, but not enough."
Titanium shrugged. "Take what he has. Let's get out of here. I thought I spotted something down the street just now."
They left the shop and loaded the 'groceries' into Titanium's subspace pockets. He snarled and snorted at by passers as Bumblebee transformed and opened the door for Rusti. Rusti did not notice, however. The world fell dark before her eyes. She glanced skyscraper to building. Bumblebee said something, but she could not acknowledge him. She felt two types of dark. The world shifted to the night and distantly the girl heard Void hiss. Not at her, however. Rusti's heart raced.
She reached for Optimus and Roddi: [[The lights are going out.]] People moved slowly. One alien with a hairless cranium glanced in her direction. He 'knew' but the matter did not concern him. The sound of traffic lessened.
[[Tell them to head back to camp now, Rusti.]] Roddi came back.
Rusti batted her eyes and startled again when Bumblebee's face appeared too close to hers.
"Are you okay? You're not saying anything."
She would have answered The Bee but her eyes glued fixedly to the side of a department store across the street. Attempting to say something, the young woman caught air at the back of her throat and turned pale.
Bumblebee followed her gaze. "What on Primus' mind is THAT??"
Cyclonus and Titanium followed Rusti's stare simultaneously. Creeping alongside the six-story department store a black Destroy Class Inoux perched. It examined a group of aliens huddled together, among them stood two Bionoids and an Ag Al Arnoth.
Cyclonus shooed his companions against the wall and looked to Titanium. "Take the girl. Return to camp. The small one and I will divert the Inoux's attention."
"Hey!" Bumblebee objected, "I'm not that small!"
Titanium stared at the Destroyer. The city commander was too big to transform there on the sidewalk without causing a distraction. He dashed onto the street amid traffic, causing two vehicles to screech in their path. He shifted and looked at the girl. "Do NOT waste time!"
There wasn't any time to waste-or to use. Two Destroyer Class Inoux leapt from atop the building above. They landed between Titanium and the other three. With incredible reflexes, Cyclonus shot at it three times before casting his optics on Bumblebee.
Bumblebee transformed and was about to call for Rusti when a tall, lethal Assassin Class landed between Bumblebee, Cyclonus and Rusti.
The girl screamed and ducked when the Assassin shot at her, leaving a smouldering crater in the sidewalk.
Cyclonus gave it a roundhouse kick but the Inoux caught his swing and flipped the Decepticon clear into blocked traffic. The Destroyer squealed in a sort of battle cry and spat out a stream of acid. Cyclonus, Titanium and three vehicle owners abandoned the spot aimed just as the acid made contact, burning blacktop metal and plastic. Horrible fumes smogged the street.
Cyclonus and Titanium found themselves face to face. "You must get back to the Autobots." Cyclonus insisted. "They need the supplies."
"What about you? Bumblebee? The girl?"
"I will handle it. Go!"
The Assassin tackled Cyclonus and tried to slice him along the side. Cyclonus elbowed the Inoux and caught the creature's head in the crook of his arm. Cyclonus pulled with all he was worth, hoping to snap the Inoux's head.
The first Destroyer leapt from the cross street. In two bounds, it was in front of Bumblebee.
"Duck!" Rusti screamed with all her might.
Bumblebee did so just as the deadly pincers snapped out from nowhere, colliding in a terrible clang. The Destroyer butt its faceless head against The Bee. Bumblebee soared down the street. He bounced off the roof of one vehicle, rolled off the flat bed of a nearby truck then dropped onto asphalt.
Titanium broke into a hard run and scooped Bumblebee with his horns. He dodged an oncoming Destroyer Class and two large trucks.
"What about Cyclonus and Rusti?" Bumblebee called clinging to Titanium for all his worth.
"We will have to trust the Decepticon to his word."
The same Destroyer who kicked Bumblebee down the street inched toward Rusti, snapping in a language she could not guess.
Trembling, the girl forced herself to stand. The destroyer opened its pincers then charged for her. Rusti waited, hoping the Inoux would open its mouth.
Gleaming silver teeth unclasped from a maw as it spread like a shark for prey. Rusti held her breath, pointed her finger and sent a powerful bolt of energy into the monster's throat. But it was not enough. The very next minute, Rusti was jumbled, twisted, turned upside down and finally settled in a seat in Cyclonus' jet mode. She stared at the city through a tinted front shield. Rusti squealed as a safety harness secured her to the seat.
"Wha-what's . . . ohmigod."
She saw three flying Inoux headed straight for them.
Cyclonus dipped in a cold drop and tipped his wing so that the wing ran between automobiles stuck in the traffic jam.
Rusti turned pallid.
They flew right under the oncoming Inoux and shot up. But the Inoux would not surrender their kill so easily. They flipped upside down and pressed after the Decepticon flier.
"How did they find us?" Rusti cringed when Cyclonus dived again and she swallowed an air bubble.
"The Inoux are not limited to a single location. And chances are we have been ratted out by Swindle or Decetron."
"Who?" Rusti did not get her answer. She held her breath when Cyclonus pulled a tight loop and came behind the Inoux fliers. He shot one and flew through the explosion as the Inoux flier crashed into a nearby building.
"LOOK OUT!" Rusti cried. Two other fliers fired at the Decepticon. Cyclonus cut his engines and dropped like a rock.
Rusti lost her stomach back on the town's surface. Cyclonus found an entryway into Concentric city's underground realm. They narrowly slipped between two great barges and a giant mechanoid as it wiped and polished the side of one ship.
The Inoux, nearly as fast as Cyclonus, would not let up. They barreled after, rolling to avoid one incident, ducking to doge another.
Rusti could not make up her mind if she wanted to shut her eyes or watch the world zip by like a mad dream passing in ultra-fast-forward. "Why don't we head back to camp?"
Cyclonus dropped, touched the water under them then abruptly lifted again to avoid fire. "Negative. It would lead the Inoux to them."
"But you can't fly like this forever!" she squealed and slammed her eyes tight when Cyclonus looped up, tilted to the right and passed between two underground buildings.
Cyclonus shot up again, twisted twice on the up-swing then dropped again, this time surprising the Inoux fliers from the right and shot both through the neck.
"YES!" Rusti rejoiced.
"Do not celebrate. There are six others above us."
Rusti tangled fingers through her curly hair and tried to hold back tears.
Cyclonus slowly, quietly landed on the underground river and cut power.
"What are you doing?"
She repeated in a whisper: "What are you doing?"
"Cat and mouse." Cyclonus' voice came low and quiet. Rusti understood and relaxed. They would be there for a while.
Rusti dozed after twenty minutes of dead silence. The sudden rush of adrenaline and the cool, clean atmosphere inside Cyclonus lulled her into a crash. For a while she thought she swam in a comfortable darkness. Then her mind shut down entirely.
A soft glow and a quiet whine of an engine starting roused the girl from an uncomfortable sleep. Rusti drew a deep breath and yawned as quietly as she dared.
Cyclonus shot off like a snapped rubber band. Rusti had no idea anything could take off so fast. She was pushed into her seat, unable to so much as move her arms up. The Decepticon jet raced along river's darkness and blew out the entryway, dragging a wash of water behind him. In a clean forty-five degree angle, Cyclonus flew straight out of Concentric City's limits and was five miles into the atmosphere before scanners alarmed him to unwanted tail-gaiters
"They're more patient than I thought."
"Does this mean we're going back?" Rusti spotted an Inoux flier rising from the starboard.
"No." Cyclonus left a hot trail as he approached greater altitudes in a matter of seconds. He trimmed his wings back, cut off unnecessary functions and shot off-planet.
Rusti thought she'd hyperventilate until her host flooded the compartment with more oxygen. Her head cleared but Rusti decided she was not going to go shopping ever again. Flashing bright light blinded her before Rusti realized Cyclonus just fired weapons.
The Decepticon grunted and electricity played across his screen. Two Inoux fliers came straight for them, their mouths wide open, throats alight with plasma energy.
Rusti could not breathe. "Aren't we going to get out of here?"
"Cyclonus!" she hit the unmarked dash.
A clicking, snapping sound filled the cockpit and Rusti winced when a flat, monotone voice filtered across the Autobot communication frequencies. "Surrender. Quick unpained death to you. Inoux grant not second warning."
They were hit and alone in space.