Author's note: there is not one shred of violence or foul language in this story. Much gratitude goes to my Bud for life, Jayd Hunter for the Monster, the many nights online and sharing her friendship with me-T.L.





Nothing remained of Cody Greydon's body. The Quintessons successfully robbed his poor mother of every physical evidence that her child existed. She dabbed at tumbling tears as her older brother began the farewell ceremony.

"There is no more a tragic death than a life not yet begun. Cody was a student, a son, a friend. He could have been a worker, a husband, a father. I will miss the boy I knew. I mourn for the man I will never know. I will say, however, that I am fortunate to have known him at all."

Cody's uncle fell silent as the dead breeze. Rusti hugged herself to confine her emotions. She fixed her eyes upon the lonely plaque engraved with friend's name and life-dates. Cody's mother buried her son's baby shoes and his photograph so that she'd have something more than just a bodyless grave. That fact tormented Rusti more so.

Rusti wanted to say something about Cody, but her tears choked her voice and if she tried, she'd not get very far. As if coming to her rescue, Optimus spoke. His tones reflected her own grieving heart. She wished she could take the Autobot leader's hand for some measure of comfort through physical contact.

"Cody died with love in his soul. No death more valiant, more courageous could have been asked of him. Cody Greydon, your memory will not fade, your death was not in vain. We shall remember."

All the Autobots echoed the phrase: 'We shall remember' as they did when they believed Skyfire perished in the cold north decades ago.

Rusti turned away and leaned against his leg, unable to look at the empty grave. She wondered how many more friends would she bury in the coming years.

And would Rodimus and Optimus be among them?

The funeral ended and the crowd parted. Netty coldly kissed Rusti good-bye and reminded the girl for the third time to send postcards from her trip to Australia and not to forget her Aunt Delphra. Rusti silently nodded as Dezi approached too hug her good-bye. The older sister searched Rusti's sad grey eyes and brushed a tear.

"Please take care of yourself. Come home so I can see you again-just don't come home pregnant."

Rusti half-laughed, her dry cheeks drawn tight. Her eyes bounced at the tall Autobot leader standing some yards away, quietly talking with Rodimus. They argued yet again that morning. Roddi locked Optimus out of his own office.

No apologies offered.

They made up . . . well, upon threat of a tantrum, they made up. Rusti was not going to tolerate them parting in a bad mood.

She hugged Dezi one more time. "Thanks for coming to the funeral, Dez."

"He was important to you," Dezi answered in equal tones. "I know it's been really hard. I hope you'll get some counseling eventually, Rusti. Nobody goes through hell and just gets over it in a couple of weeks. I want to make sure you're strong enough to deal with it all."

With another glance at the two Primes, Rusti resolved to be strong. "I have to be, Dez. For them."

Dezi smiled. No mockery. Nothing patronizing or belittling. She knew Rusti would be okay. After all, she was a Witwicky.

The long trip to Fortress Sonix, Australia was like another funeral procession: long and dead quiet. Rusti tried to listen to music, but every time a love song started up, her heart bled. It hurt to think of Cody. Her eyes stung with tears of his memory. She dosed on and off, having long since abandoned her drawing. Nothing was worth drawing anymore. Her jumbled mind refused to do anything more than stare into aimless oblivion.

Optimus Prime offered no conversation. He did not move a single micron since they boarded the shuttle from Oregon. It was maddening sitting across him, watching and hoping he'd say something. But Rusti supposed his head was as full as hers, his heart as heavy and empty.

Their abduction and torture by the Quintessons left them both vacant. Rusti felt out of sync, as if her inner ability to communicate with either Optimus or Roddi were disrupted. Not that it really was, but the emotional connection was strained.

Optimus remained ever withdrawn and somber. Roddi was tense and snapped easily. Their moods made them unapproachable even for her, but Rusti was not going to let it force her away.

She feared, however, it would take a long time to exorcize Cody's ghost from her heart.

The shuttled gently vibrated, swaying just left then right, absorbing air currents as they shifted off the cool ocean waves. The engine sounds resonated through the cabin, luring the Human passengers to a light sleep. Rusti fought it at first. Her hand slipped from her blank drawing page, the pencil lightly rolled on the cushion under her. As the darkness of sleep descended, voices hinged at the edge of her dreams. She never could quite catch the words or put faces to the voices. Rusti believed those noises at the border of her consciousness were memories she lost back in November. She failed time and again to catch the words to put on paper. A year and a half was a long time to lose. Worse yet, it was a traumatic period in history. Rusti still could not believe half the stories she heard and read.

A Twisted landscape of metal met her gaze. Mammoth spire trees of silver, white silver or white gold reached the sky with braided, branchless trunks. Those areas damaged by quake or lightning gaped open, oozing liquid metal, thick like honey but clear in color until solidified. The landscape moaned under her feet and mold raced across the surface as if God took an invisible crayon and etched along the ground. No, actually, she was elsewhere, now. This might be the plane of death Optimus once mentioned.

Optimus! If this were a dream, would she find him here? The world crashed and startled Rusti. Disappointed, she frowned. Vacation at Fort Sonix, Australia or not, she woke to an unwanted reality.

Due to sensitive environmental and scientific concerns at Fort Sonix, the airport was set ten miles from the city. Australia greeted Rusti with hot, dry air as they disembarked. Bright semi-arid sunshine glared in her face as she followed Optimus off the landing strip. Many a 'G'day, Missy' hailed the girl as she passed the gates. Rusti felt out of place. She swore up and down she'd never seen so many good looking men in one location before. They all had mesmerizing smiles and they winked at her until her cheeks were quite hot.

One Aussie kept her rapt attention. He wore wranglers and a tan leather vest-no shirt. His chest looked chiseled, solid and smooth.

Why didn't she bring a camera? Dezi would never believe her.

"Heya, Optimus! There ya be!" Jazz's voice echoed from the other side of the long corridor as Rusti and Prime made their way to the lobby. Optimus offered his hand in warm welcome and Jazz took it with the biggest grin Rusti ever saw on an Autobot. It was good to see a genuine smile.

"Hiya, Prime! Welcome to da Land Down Under!"

"Thank you, Jazz." Prime's weary voice sounded stronger, warmer. "I'm sure you remember Rusti."

"Heck, yeah! But las' time I saw her, she was just li'l bit higher than an alpha circuit. Hey there, Little Lady!"

Rusti forced a smile wrought of embarrassment. She was certain he knew she stared at the 'Aussie Prince'. "H-hi," was all she could say.

Jazz released Prime's hand and turned to go. "C'mon dis way. We made special 'rangements t' 'void the press."

Rusti marveled at Jazz's consideration. The last thing Optimus needed was more flashing lights in his optics or a million people poking microphones in his face plates. They boarded a small convertible much like a land speeder complete with a femme as the driver. Jazz took the front passenger seat while Optimus and Rusti settled in the back. Rusti felt silly in such a large transport vehicle; a doll in a big people's world.

They raced across hot dry desert about fifteen minutes before they encountered lush long grasses and tall extra-terrestrial trees with rich purple trunks. Their leaves rained from branches in deep red and gold fringes.

"Ohmigod!" Rusti squirmed to get a better, longer view, fascinated by their beauty and their height.

Jazz's big smile lit. "Ya like them trees, do ya? Yeah, we hadta special order 'em. After the Plague, the trees here all hadta be burned; contaminated by some kinda mad concoction. The ground was all ruined and a visiting ambassador offered these ta replace 'em."

Optimus knew the story. He helped Jazz with all the financing and would have brought some of the saplings to Fort Max, but the ordarblorn trees could not withstand a cold climate. Five minutes later, the red forest melted away revealing Autobot City Fortress Sonix. Rusti nearly swallowed air. The city's great widespread design rose and fell between land and water, spreading from ocean side beach to the Great Barrier Reef. At the furthest end side of the city rose two buildings like the bow of a great ship, shaped to withstand torrents of wind and rain. Sonix gleamed in the bright Aussie sun like a royal palace.

The transport ended at the security gate and Jazz and Prime transformed to auto mode to complete the twenty mile journey straight to the towering buildings.

Rusti stared and gaped over the wondrous sight of sloping buildings, huge reflective windows and giant colorful murals that welcomed the eye. A greater number and variety of extra-terrestrials lived and worked at Fort Sonix than in Fort Max. they were every bit as fascinating as their surroundings.

"Are you breathing, Rusti?" Prime's voice filtered her back to reality.

"Uhhh . . . huh." but she could not recollect her jaw before Prime and Jazz stopped at the base of the towers. She slid out the door at such a leisurely pace, it amused Prime. He should have brought her here a long time ago.

Jazz transformed, quite pleased with Rusti's reaction. "Heh, looks like the Little Lady's a bit impressed. Come on along you two. I got somethin' BETTER to show ya!"

Jazz's promise of something better distracted the girl enough to peel her gaze from the towers to the two retreating Autobots. "Something better, Jazz?" she echoed. "But, how could . . . I mean . . . wow!"

"I'd say she digs my home-town, Optimus. You doan' suppose she's up fer adoption, do ya?"

Optimus slowly smiled. "She's spoken for, Jazz."

They stepped into a spacious elevator and as the entry door closed, another opened, presenting a spectacular view of the world beyond the city. Rusti gasped and plastered her hands on the window. Her eyes took in the endless ocean. Puffy clouds marked the horizon. Huge sea birds drifted along air currents on huge wings. A pair of dolphins leapt out the water in play. Rusti managed to breathe out. The elevator submerged, one, fifteen, one hundred feet underwater.

Her heart stopped.

At either side of the elevator rose the Great Coral Reef. Animals, fish and plants unlike anything Rusti ever saw captured her attention. Starfish and sponges, things that looked and moved like living rock came and passed from view. Jazz stopped the elevator, killed the lights and waited with an anticipatory grin.

Rusti didn't think she could take it all in: flower-like fish boasted with vibrant colors. Glowing jellyfish danced and dodged a giant lionfish. Even parts of the coral glowed in astro-bright colors. Optimus knelt behind her.

"They are so peaceful, aren't they?" She had no words for the breathless wonder before her.

Jazz invited them to a pre-planned dinner. Apparently Rusti and Prime were not the only current visitors to the city. Several high-ranking EDC officials, Autobot visitors from Fort Horizon, and numerous highly specialized alien scientists currently toured Autobot City, Australia.

All guests occupied a U-shaped area where the taller the guest, the closer to the floor they sat. Cushions and tables were provided for 'smaller folk' while Autobots settled in low-to-the-floor seats.

Rusti sat at the second tier just above Optimus' right shoulder. Jazz's second in-command sat to his left. Headmaster Brainstorm waved to the girl from Jazz's right.

"Dr. Arcana sends his personal salutations, Miss Witwicky," he said cheerfully.

Rusti tried to smile graciously. But grief and weariness made her response weak.

Prime half-turned to his left. Rusti, I'd like you to meet Security Chief Tektonix and next to him, Head of City Operations, Blue."

Again Rusti forced a smile. Blue, the female beside Tektonix, looked-or rather felt-like a Paratron. Tektonix resembled a demolition machine with a rough-hewn exterior and arms that looked like he could pummel a Dinobot into paperclips. Not thinking of manners, the girl leaned forward. "Are you a child of Vector Sigma, Tektonix?"

She did not see the puzzled look in Prime's optics. "Ma'am," Tektonix's graveling voice rumbled softly. "I'm from Sae' Belkus. Border town by the Dead Lands on Cybertron. You know Hotspot, don't you? Ranger-turned Protectobot? I used to be his commander."

Rusti smiled broader, amazed that even among robots, the galaxy could be a small place.

A loud, sharp whistle blared from the entryway. All conversation hushed. The hall's spacious doors opened and two lanky, silver femmes scuttled in. Half way they flipped in three hand springs and landed solidly on their feet. Three sturdy mechs followed, shouting battle cries. They juggled vibro-swords, turned to the femmes as the ladies landed on their feet, palms out, heads down.

The swords buzzed and whirled between the jugglers until all six weapons skillfully landed in a circle in the middle of the room.

One mech, polished white and gun-metal grey, hand- sprung and landed in the center of the ring of swords. The other mechs and femmes stood about him and circled. White-and-Gun Metal sang A cappella in a cold, clear voice.

Rusti immediately thought of Roddi. While the mech's voice was good and strong, he did not have Roddi's smooth tenor sound. The girl smiled at herself. It could be that she was biased and therefore, not really judging the entertainer by his own merits.

The song ended and the dancers whisked away as the seated assembly politely applauded. Another group of femmes and mechs entered the hall. The femmes entered first and speedily visited one table after another, setting plates, silverware and napkins wherever necessary. Then one by one, the mechs entered with trays of covered dishes balanced atop their fingers. They moved quietly, quickly and politely from one party to the next, offering a choice of foods.

Rusti felt awful. She was not hungry but did not wish to offend anyone by turning the dinner down.

She accepted a dish of Thai chicken with noodles, an eggroll and cream cheese wongtongs

Rusti waited until Optimus was served his dish then picked at the chicken, alternating between spicy bites and sips of milk.

Once everyone was served, a tall, slim Autobot entered, stood to the right and clapped his hands to an addicting beat. The hall hushed of conversation as the doors opened yet again and two slender alien females tapped in lightly on the edge of their toes. They dropped their long silken red robes, revealing well-formed bodies clad in light-weight, sparkling dancers outfits.

The door greeter's hands were joined by a drummer. The lights dimmed and sad, beautiful music filled the hall.

Rusti watched and nibbled, hypnotized by the talented dancers. After a few minutes, she noticed how Jazz and Prime exchanged glances from time to time, speaking via internal comlines. She wanted to know what they were saying and for a moment, Rusti envied that Jazz spoke to Optimus in a way she could never hear.

She reminded herself that she did too; she communicated with Optimus on a level Jazz could never reach.

She watched them instead of the dance. Rusti marked the slightest of movements; Jazz tilted his head or gesture with his fingers, communicating without speaking. Optimus answered lifting a shoulder or nodding toward the city commander.

Jazz laid a hand on Prime's shoulder and Rusti turned away, now upset. My Optimus, not yours, she thought.

And she caught that. Why was she suddenly so jealous? The girl stared at the pile of untouched noodles. Maybe she felt jealous because Jazz touched and reached Optimus and she could not. In many ways, Optimus was very much out of her reach. She lived in his world, but could never be a part of it. He was an Autobot.

She was water, minerals and protoplasm on two legs.

Optimus was the leader of an entire species.

Rusti was the teenage daughter of a diplomatic Headmaster.

Optimus Prime was practically a god.

She wasn't even a high school graduate.

Now she wanted to be angry. She wanted to be angry at someone or something. She could be angry at the Quintessons but they was almost intangible. She, a powerless little speck of water, would not be logical to hate something she could never spit at.

But they did abduct her.

They murdered Cody

And they almost murdered Optimus.

That was it. Rusti could not finish dinner and examined her seating for an escape route. Encroaching tears blurred everything around her and swiping her napkin, the girl clanked her silverware.

The noise caught Prime's attention and Rusti tried to hide her tears from him by ducking to see if anything fell.

[[I'm sorry, Rusti,]] he said it so softly in her mind. [[You're extremely tired. I'll ask Jazz-]]

[[I'm fine,]] she lied. [[I'm-]]

[[Upset,]] he finished. [[Please let me help.]]

she heaved in air, struggling with all her energy to control herself. Where was a damn tissue when she needed one?

Like the true gentleman that he was, Optimus handed her a tissue, whispering an apology.

To be honest, she didn't care about his apology. Her embarrassment overrode her envy toward Jazz. Her grief overrode her better sensibilities and robbed her of rationality.

I am such a child, she reprimanded inwardly.

Optimus leaned toward her but did not look at her directly. "Would you like me to escort you to your quarters? Or we could stop at a park someplace for some air."

Her cheeks burned, her hands trembled. Rusti could not decide if Optimus was just trying to be thoughtful or patronizing.

What did she really want?

She finally gained control but it left her exhausted. [[Does my quarters come with a large bathtub? I really want to change my clothes.]]

Prime escorted her to her quarters. They exchanged no words until they reached the doors. She turned but could not look him in the optic.

"Thank you." she sounded pathetic in her own ears. When the Autobot leader knelt before her, she diverted her eyes to the floor.

"Good night, Rusti," he said lightly. "If you need to talk, I'll be there to listen."

Now she looked to him. Tears smeared her vision and ran hot down her cheeks. The girl sniffed. "I don't think I can. I don't know how to say it."

"I know."

Oh, his sweet voice, soothing as a warm blanket, sad as the murmur of a grieving dove.

"I hear it." And Prime lifted his fingers and ran them once along her curly hair.

Rusti nodded with half a smile. But she could muster no more words. She thanked Optimus with a stronger smile when he wished her good night.

She promptly flopped on the bed and cried herself to sleep.

Rusti's mind dragged her out of sleep. She found her pillow soaked, her face wet, her clothes rumpled. Darkness stilled the outside world. Rusti rolled over, unable to decide whether or not to change clothes. Getting up, opening the suit case and rummaging through folded laundry seemed too much an effort.

After lying there staring at a dark ceiling, Rusti realized she'd get no real sleep in her jeans. With a heavy, irritated sigh, she forced herself off the bed and stumbled about. She scolded herself for not changing her clothes earlier.

Her foot contacted an immovable object and she fell forward, landing on her knees on top of the case. Cursing quietly, Rusti realized it might help if the light were on . . .

"Max, lights, please."

No go. she scrunched her face, befuddled. Why wasn't Max-

Wrong city.


"Um. Sonix, lights please." Bright light stung her eyes and she flinched. Rusti covered her face and slowly lowered her hands as her pupils adjusted.

She foraged through the case, hoping she was smart enough to bring jammies. There under her 'splash-grey' jeans she tugged at a light silky night gown and flower-patterned robe. Slipping out of her old clothes and into the fresher ones, Rusti called lights out and bounced back into bed, more than eager to dive into the obscurity of sleep and forget about Cody.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen right away. Pain in her heart brought tears to her eyes. Rusti lay, lightly sniffing. She shifted and stared out the window.

Where was sleep? It fled from her like autumn morning mist. Rusti rolled on her back and stared at the ceiling again. Her mind betrayed her, flashing images from the Quintesson space station. Faces of her tormentors faded in and out her head. All the therapy in the world could not erase the eternity she spent there. She tearfully grieved over the last few hours she spent with Cody.

Why didn't she ever bother to kiss him?

She was a fool.

Rusti sat up, grasped the pillow and clutched it tightly. How could she have been so thoughtless toward him? She wept senselessly for a long time.

When the girl was able to regain her senses enough, she glanced at the clock. It glared 3:30 AM at her, mocking her need to sleep. Rusti finally chose not to take that mental punishment. She released the pillow and decided walking was the best remedy for a tormented and restless mind. she slipped her robe on, abandoned the thought of slippers and left for a private, unguided tour.

Cool humid Aussie air clung to the girl's skin as she snuck out the building to the world lying in sleep.

The stars sparked overhead like fine-point jewels and a hazy moon waxed across the sky, smearing its fine off-white light along a scatter of clouds. Rusti leaned over a banister from a building across her own quarters. The roar of ocean waves called her to play.

Why not? It might be late, but there was no use waiting for sleep.

Rusti followed her instincts, listening to the waves and following moonlight wherever it landed between building and rail. She evaded prying optics and routed her way around wandering workers until her feet contacted soft earth. She kicked off her slippers and took on the joy of massaging sand.

The ocean lay dark and endless, so full of energy Rusti thought she could lose herself to it. What majesty to be so near something so vast! The old moon graced water crests with gentle sparkling highlights. Every crashing wave sighed with fresh air. Rusti felt laughter as ocean sprayed her dry, pale skin. She shuddered under the sensation.


She sat in packed sand, not caring whether or not her gown and robe soaked clear through. The ocean held all her senses; the kind of peace that evaded her for so long. The water kissed her feet with cold rolls, washing over her aching heart.

What a miserably horrible place the world was right now. Unrequited love slapped her hard. She never gave Cody an opportunity to love her! Now she would never know what her life might have been like.

And then there was Optimus.

She loved him too. But how could he honestly return her love? Certainly Optimus Prime could not-and did not-love her the same way she loved him.

Naturally her family thought she loved he and Roddi like surrogate parents. But that wasn't true at all. Rusti had parents, and Prime and Roddi weren't them. She loved Roddi more like a big brother. But Optimus was different. He was like a Greek god, standing atop the world, alone and lonely. He treasured everything she did for him. The flowers, the drawings, everything that seemed so trivial to most people he considered precious.

It meant so much to her that she meant so much to him. That intensified her feelings for him. As long as she could remember, Optimus always treated her not as a child or necessarily as an adult, but as a person, growing, learning, experiencing things for the first time. Age meant almost nothing to Transformers. Level of ability and experience were trademarks of maturity, not age. That was respect and it was certainly more than what she often received at home.

Still, no matter what kind of love she had for Optimus Prime, he could not love her in a romantic fashion. First of all, her life was but a wisp of smoke compared to his. They were millions of years apart.

That reality alone was enough to hurt. She would go through life, married to someone else, still secretly loving him, knowing he'd never respond to her.

Unrequited love was cruel.

A song came to her; something about the answer for things happening for a reason. Rusti tried to ferret out the melody. She struggled to recall the words and somehow get them to conjure the tune:

" . . . to overcome the grieving . . . of life's unruly lessons I'm handed in succession . . . It builds my pain which makes me strong . . . "

Wasn't that what Optimus said? Such cold words for a torn soul! How could he say such a trifle thing when all she felt at this point was pain?

That wasn't FAIR! Cody was her best friend! He was a sweet guy and she never realized until it was too late. How could anything good come of this? How could she grow strong with so much gut-wrenching pain? Rusti swept up the nearest rock and with all her might, threw it into the ocean.

That didn't go far enough. Her arm didn't hurt enough.

She found a bigger rock.

Not good enough.

A third rock. A shell, a piece of driftwood. Handfuls of sand. It was never enough. She fell to her knees, crying her essence onto the sandy beach. Water saturated her hands and legs. She would have plunged her face into its salty substance if she thought it would help.

What bitter discontent she had to suffer! Cody did not deserve to die!

And with that she lay flat on the sand, still crying, unable to breathe. Water rushed over her, its cold ripples deposited sand in her hair, under her nails and night clothes.

She lay there until the cold made her ache. When she finally stood, the sand grated and scratched her skin. Her night clothes clung to her, soggy and raw as she retraced the path back to Sonix.

Traveling from the sandy beach to the city's metal flooring made for freezing, aching feet. Rusti regretted soaking in salt water and lying in sand.

Wait a minute, which building were her quarters in? She could not remember the exact location. She left her room with her head someplace else. She did not make any mental notes along the way. Her eyes darted from building to sign, searching for something familiar.

At three or four in the morning, it would not do well for her to be wandering about, lost until dawn.

Rusti meandered the streets. Cars and Autobots passed by. To her surprise, Fort Sonix was not as busy at night as Fort Max. Most places were closed for the day and no business signs were lit.

Now dry with salt water, her cold skin complained. She wanted to slip into a warm tub then crawl into bed and sleep through the morning.

Where was she?

Rusti sighed, turning this way and that. Her eyes spotted a nearby park then a library until she caught the gleam from a familiar shape, just barely visible against the moonlight.

She almost laughed not so much because finding Optimus Prime perched on a rooftop was funny, but she was relieved to find something familiar. If he was out in this part of the city, chances were her quarters were not far away. Maybe rather than going to bed, she'd join him on the roof. They did not have to talk if he were in one of those moods. But just sitting, staring at the sky with him would be nice.

"Nope," she decided, "not so good. Not in wet, sand-filled jammies." she quietly departed, cringing every time sand grounded beneath her feet. It was a good bet that everyone within a three-mile radius could hear her footfalls. Worse yet sand grated in her armpits and other 'sensitive areas'. Lying in the sand; what a dumb thing to do!

Jazz treated his guests to a private outdoor breakfast. Rusti's mind wandered while Prime and Jazz chattered about news events from other fortress-cities. The girl listened until thoughts of Cody brought her back to her morose state.

Rusti tried to divert her attention elsewhere and lifted her eyes to a bright blue cloudless skyline. Not far from the city a dome floated on the water. It was not there a few minutes before. She stared at it as a waiter refilled her orange juice.

Rusti gasped when a second dome popped up further off. Before she knew it, the girl was on her feet, leaning over the railing, straining for a better view. Jazz enjoyed her discovery.

"That be the ocean lab out that a-way, Miss Rusti. They come up f'r shipments 'nd back down they go. It's all rightly cool." Jazz read Rusti's wide-eyed expression with delight. "We got lotsa cool stuff here, Little Lady. And seein' as how I finagled some time off, I thought I'd invite you two on a walk-about 'round about my town."

Rusti's smile turned from the science domes to Optimus with glee.


Starting with a trip to the city's ocean wildlife restoration facility, they passed through many long corridors. Gigantic tanks filled with magnificent and beautiful creatures surrounded them above and on either side. Jazz explained most animals were either wounded or on the edge of extinction. Scientists, professionals and volunteers tended the creatures round the clock.

Ocean specialist Autobot Coral swam in the tank on Rusti's left and fed a group of rare white manta rays. Jazz, Optimus and Rusti watched the graceful creatures come and go.

"We turn 'em out once they c'n handle 'emselves. But not all 'em can leave."

Rusti could not tear her eyes off the manta ray. She laid a hand on the transparent titanium as one fish neared them. It was huge as a dinosaur. Optimus knelt beside her, staring as it watched them from its watery universe.

"Jazz," Optimus voiced, "didn't you say Sonix recently added new alien sea creatures?"

"You betcha!" Jazz answered cheerfully. "Come on dis way. I'll show ya!"

Optimus rose to go but Rusti lingered, staring sadly at the friendly manta ray. The Autobot sank back beside her, saying nothing.

"It's so sad," Rusti barely spoke. "He's so close but a whole reality away from me. He's on the other side of the glass, in the water. So far away." she swallowed hard. A tear escaped her control.

Optimus leaned just slightly and set a finger against the glass. "He doesn't have the ability to adapt."

His words did not register and Rusti thought it an odd thing to say. She turned to him, laid a grateful hand on his then followed Jazz down the hall.

The city commander led them down stairs into an area called the Black Water Exhibit.

"Dis here's our own pride 'n joy," Jazz grinned then shut out the overhead lights. Rusti gasped and stepped back. The thing in the tank to her right stared at her with several glowing eyes. Its body shimmered with photo-electric colors that waved back and forth along its enormous cone-shaped body. Huge lips parted and closed, revealing a maw netted with flexible teeth. Vast spidery fins leisurely flapped up and down to keep its body off the flooring.

Optimus put his fingertips to the glass and Rusti lost her breath. The sea creature was many times Optimus' size. Actually, she found it funny. "It makes you look little, Optimus."

He smiled. "It's nice not to be bigger than everything else."

"How big is this thing, Jazz? And what is it?

Jazz brightened. "Heh. You couldn't pronounce its real name, Miss Rusti. An' it's almost da size a' Fort Max 'cept it's got a tail tha' we don't see from here."

Optimus stared at its six eyes. "So what did you name it?"


Rusti could not decide if the name was a funny choice or a weird one.

"At least you did not name it Ultra Magnus, Jazz." Optimus muttered.

They visited three 'dark light' laboratories that bred rare species of ancient tube worms for medicinal purposes. From there, Jazz led them into a cavernous hall displaying more enormous tanks. Rusti never saw such an abundance of wildlife. She and Prime stared at fish and giant single-celled animals. Huge sea horses danced along the sandy flooring, searching for tiny crustaceans. Rusti stared at other things that were so alien, she had no means to describe them; animals both beautiful and astoundingly creepy.

She turned from a multi-headed sea worm and found Prime mesmerized by a creature in another tank. She approached slowly to see what fascinated him so. His fingers traced the flat planes of the transparent titanium as a glowing, colorful creature of nondescript form followed his moves. The colors on its roundish body vibrated white, red, burgundy, green and repeated the pattern in rhythmic fashion. Jazz waited a ways off, where a huge sea turtle rose and sank, scrutinizing the city commander.

Rusti leaned closer to Prime, "maybe we could take it home," she whispered.

After a moment, Prime withdrew still staring at the alien sea creature. "Mmm . . . Roddi doesn't like it when I bring pets home."

Prime, Rusti and Jazz strolled along walkway landings between beds of mineral farms stretching acres across. Between the ocean and the unpredictable weather patterns, Fort Sonix proved ideal for raising rare salts, minerals and plants.

Jazz dragged them to his favorite place: a magnificent concert hall stretching three football fields around, with a removable/receding ceiling.

The raked seating offered comfortable, accommodating chairs fit for people of all sizes. Dragons wrapped their bodies around forty-foot poles, shedding light from lanterns dangling from their wings while speakers resided up and down the walls.

Jazz yammered endlessly about the sub-woofers and speakers tucked under the seats and stairs along the floor and benches.

Huge screens stood atop the stage for those seated in the very back. At the moment, the screens displayed murals that disappeared during a performance. Altogether, the hall's capacity reached close to a million people.

As the day wore on, Jazz invited Rusti and Prime to a space observatory. Delighted to see Jupiter, Rusti asked if they could see Cybertron from that point. The attending scientist, Dr. Moorsby, obliged her and in a moment or so, Rusti spotted a tiny silver object. she withdrew with a wide grin.

"I should take you to Cybertron some time." Prime confessed. "I know you've never been there."

She answered him with another grin. It was such a treat to be on a private field trip away from school, nagging family and the fuss everyone made over Optimus Prime. She patted his leg and aimed for the doors. "Only if I can drive, Optimus."

Jazz saved the best part of the tour for the last. along the eastern side of the city, the roads rose to another platform. Here ponds, kept clean by careful maintenance workers, displayed flowers of such unusual beauty, Rusti thought they must have been fake. A few flowers spanned five feet across. Others stood twenty feet high with huge uplifted petals wrapped about one another and a single stamen rising from the middle.

Their blinding bright colors bounced off every surface. Some plants exhibited hollow thorns and others were so poisonous, glass panes stood between them and visitors.

"Where did all these come from?" Rusti stared at something that looked like a Century plant with blossoms like an artichoke. Piercing red stained thick-leafed flowers while giant thorns protruded from salt water.

Jazz stared at them a long moment then the thorned plant moved on its own. "That critter there's from Portor's Asteroid. We grow 'em here cuz Portor don't got the right atmosphere no more."

Prime stared at the deadly flower. [[Would you like me to pick one for you to take home?]]

[[Nope. I'm taking YOU home, instead.]] she followed Jazz, hands and arms rigid, head held high. [[I can plant you in a nice space by my window, give you Miracle Grow from time to time and play Mozart for you at night.]]

It took the Autobot leader a moment then: [[What if I get too big for the window? Will you transplant me elsewhere?]]

Rusti smiled warmly as they settled into a transport. "Of course, Optimus," she said out loud. "I'll always take care of you."

"Eh?" Jazz turned, perplexed.

Rusti flushed and diverted her eyes elsewhere. Optimus slightly cringed. "Uh . . . just a question I asked her, Jazz."

The city commander nodded, though Rusti doubted he honestly understood.

She did not want him to understand.

As much as she enjoyed the breathless city tour, Rusti was happy to be back in her quarters. Optimus said little to nothing more as they parted for the evening. Something deeply troubled him but per his character, he confided in no one. Rusti felt left out but decided to give him space.

She soaked in hot water and bubbles. Walking about the foreign Autobot city was fun and it certainly distracted her from her broken heart. But the day now ended and Cody's ghost visited her, lying cold upon her soul. He was a bitter-sweet memory; poisoned candy.

"Doesn't have the ability to adapt."

Rusti half-immersed her face in water when the quote came back. Her eyes shot open and she thought it an odd thing for Optimus to say. She was sad because she could never touch or hold anything like the sea creatures; she could never live in their world or they in hers.

There was something incredibly unfair about the 'Look-but-don't-touch' fact of life.

So what did adaptability have to do with it?

Was there ever a greater puzzle in her life than Optimus Prime?

And where was he now? She figured the aloof Autobot leader had found a new perch somewhere in town. There was no doubt that Optimus felt as crappy as she.

Unlike herself, however, Optimus kept his pain to himself, attempting to smoother it with time, distraction and denial.

Rusti sometimes wondered if she should write a letter to Dr. Phil.

For some reason, the name of Dr. Phil shifted to Ghirardelli. As in chocolate. Odd how the brain works.


It called her by name and like every good girl, Rusti heeded its beckoning. She rose from the warm bubbly tub and draped on jammies and slippers. Certainly in a city like this, there had to be vending machines.

Of course, Rusti fancied all she had to do was hit the cafeteria. But no. It was more fun to spend her own allowance on something too sinful to resist.

She plucked two dollars from her wallet and made her way out. Evening ocean scented air washed over Rusti. She wandered aimlessly at first then headed toward the library. It was there she spotted several maintenance droids sweeping washing and scrubbing the streets and sidewalks. She stood and stared, fascinated. Multi-arms and fine tools extracted litter, scraped gum and polished signs.

Heavy footfalls distracted her and Rusti greeted Jazz coming from the left. Her eyes returned to the maintenance droids, amazed at their speed and efficiency.

"Hey there, Missy. Didn't know you'd all decide ta come out ta supervise the night shift."

She smiled, eyes glued to the mechaniod show. "We don't have maintenance droids at Fort Max."

"Course not. Magnus' got his own ideas fer maintenance. All them trainees. They gotta have something fer motivation."

She smiled, still watching the droids. Jazz watched with her a moment before stirring the air with his ever-optimistic voice. "Say there, Li'l Missy, do you like water fountains?"

Rusti followed the city commander toward the south-eastern part of Sonix. Living in Fort Max, Rusti had seen her fair share of water fountains; the Paratrons were extremely fond of them and usually bombarded Optimus with requests to build more.

The fountains at Fort Max were famous world-wide; no two were remotely alike. Even Grapple would have been pleased.

Although the fountain at Sonix was no less impressive, Rusti was in no mood to fully appreciate the details. She sat at the ledge and glanced at her reflection bouncing from mirrors distorted by silver-white water.

She remembered a summer night years ago during a party where she sat at a fountain and talked with Optimus. It seemed everything was much simpler then. Her only worries were about Optimus and Roddi and how she was going to stay with them. Now everything was complicated by Quintessons and the Matrix Virus, by her own family pressuring her to find a life outside Autobot society.

Why wasn't she allowed to make her own choices like Dezi?

And what was she going to do about her own future?

Did she even have one?

"Yer all thinkin' on Optimus Prime, ain'tchya?"

Her eyes rested on Jazz who sat on a ledge several heads below her. He sat on a step that brought him eye-level to her; a thoughtful detail by the designers.

Rusti forced a smile. "Not one day goes by when I don't think of him and Roddi, Jazz. I worry for them. I worry about them. I wonder how much longer we'll have them with us."

Jazz sent his gaze elsewhere, his visor stared somberly into the gurgling water far below. "Y'all think they's dying?"

Her face scrunched with inner turmoil and Rusti breathed hard. "Yeah," she finally answered. "They've fallen prey to a Virus that's so alien, First Aid can't classify it as a species remotely like anything in the known universe."

Jazz cringed. "Well, I jes' doan get how somthin' like a Virus coulda gotten as powerful like this one did. I mean, we had ta' dig people outta walls. We had whole buildings melt-melt like they was made a' wax. An' poor ol' Sonix here, he took hisself a powder. We was five days an' no power." The city commander stared into nothing. His trademark cheerful manner disappeared. "Lotta people died."

Rusti swallowed hard. She remembered telling Magnus he was not allowed to kill Optimus or Roddi. Both Autobot leaders expected it, even asked for it.

"But I doan blame Op 'r Roddi," Jazz added quickly. "They'd never do nothin' like this. It ain't in their nature."

Rusti wanted to smile at the remark, but her grief overshadowed her reaction. Awkward silence followed. She watched water tumble from square 'clouds' that rotated and twirled every few minutes. Then a question occurred to her: "How . . . Jazz, how did you get to be a city commander?"

Jazz's dejected expression lightened and he lifted his chin. His visor reflected light and water. "Now that's a tale t' tell." Rusti ran her fingers through the clean water and waited for him to start. "Got time?" he asked.

She nodded, knowing a story was better than lying in bed, haunted by Cody's memory.

"I b'came a city commander cuz I fell away from the Autobots."

Rusti stared amazed. She did not know Autobots could-or would-walk away and certainly not those with the sort of history like Jazz.

"Y'know . . . being a part a something's important. All organizations 'nd systems has ta have a lotta parts. Ev'r body is important t' the team. But if one piece is broken, it's gotta be r'placed and I knew that. I knew it real well.'

'I tried t' stay on top a things after . . . y'know, Optimus died. Ever'body was confused. Things went from bad t' real bad. They doan' cover it in them news casts 'nd papers. Heck, I doan even think they said much t' you in school, or did they? Did they talk about the war in 2005?"

Rusti struggled to recall. She learned about Autobot history on Earth in the eighth grade. At the time she was preoccupied with dinosaurs, dragons and Dinobots, constantly drawing them and inventing species and stories of her own. "They said 2005 was a turning point. There was a lot of political polarization and some countries underwent economic collapse."

"Heh, dey's polarized alright. Well, yeah. Lots of mass confusion. Poor Roddi, he had t' declare martial law on Cybertron an' found there's just too much goin' on. He was constantly going back an' forth b'tween here and our own planet. The 'Cons left all sorts a' presents . . . bombs 'r dead cities. He wanted me t' work as a good-will ambassador so we could get Cybertron's economy goin' again. The Decepticons left it pretty much a dump. The head hanchos took all the energy 'nd resources f'r themselves so th' ever'one else starved inta' stasis. So it was my job t' talk other worlds an people inta investing with us.'

'So we started w' the first galactic Olympics."

Rusti brightened. "I wondered why that was held."

"Yeah, well, it was Roddi's idea. I jes ran with it. . . . so t' speak. Roddi's great fer ideas. Op, too, y'know. But Op's more on the practical side a' things. Had t' be. But Roddi's got flare. We always worked good together."

"But you guys have never been really close, Jazz."

He deeply nodded. "S' true, Missy. Right true. Like I said, though, I fell outta the ranks but that wasn't till after I was kidnapped by them Sweeps."

Rusti's jaw dropped. "I never knew-"

"It weren't public knowledge. I didn't want it to be. Roddi had 'nuff stuff t' tackle. His idea a' foreign relations got the Autobots caught up in a war with 'em Quintessons. That was bad enough when up came ol' Galvatron 'nd his cronies. The Quint'sons sold us out cuz with 'em also came some a' their customers-like the Orbs from Planet Dred. An' then there was this syndicate group tha' financed dis one Quint who 'ducted a number a' people, one 'a them was Mags. Betchya they didn't tell you 'bout that one, either, huh?"


Jazz nodded and fell quiet. His round-about history lesson did not answer Rusti's initial inquiry and she waited another moment before asking her next question. "So . . . how long were you imprisoned by the Sweeps?"

Jazz raised a knee and propped his chin on his fist. "Far too long, Missy. Funny thing was, they weren't out t' kill me. An' they never used me as leverage 'gainst Roddi." the city commander's solemn face reflected the playful water. His visor flashed and dimmed with old scars. "Those were hard years. Old Pinky hisself, Mr. Wannabe-Decepticon-warrior ... he was the meanest. Little wonder Scourge's the main Sweep. Not cuz he's gotta processor t' compute with. Pinky can't figure out how t' flip a switch t' turn on a light. But he knew how t' be mean. I often fancy even Mr. Dark-'n-Gloomy, Cyclonus, didn't like him much."

"How did you escape? Were you on Charr?"

Jazz nodded. "Y'know, Missy, no two planets 'r quite the same. Some o' them's right purdy. Some o' dem's kinda weird. And some o'dem's just ugly. Didn't like Charr. An' no, I got no idea how I escaped."

"You don't remem-I don't get it."

Jazz turned wholly to her, tilting his head just to the right. "I mean, I snoozed on Charr, then woke up in the landing bay at the outpost by Pluto. They did ever'thing but tuned me inside out looking f'r bugs r' bombs r' booby traps 'r viruses. Nuthin'. It's like them Sweeps got tired a' me an' lemme go."

Rusti scrunched her face in puzzlement. "It doesn't sound like it'd be their nature to let anything go, Jazz.

"Yeah, I know. "An' I still don't got an answer."

"you-you don't suppose Cyclonus-I mean, just to spite them . . .?"

Jazz shook his head. "That doan add up, either, does it?"

"No." she broke a beat. "Was that when you . . .you know . . . fell out of touch?"

He fell ever quieter, his soul far away. Jazz grimaced. "Y'know, Missy, I know that yer too young t' know what all happened here. I know yer daddy didn't tell ya much. An I suppose Op 'nd Roddi doan talk much about war."

"No. No, Jazz. Well, Optimus does on rare occasions but it's usually to blame himself. Does he ever tell you anything about Cybertron?"

Jazz shook his head. "I don't talk about it much, either. It's like . . . once Unicron attacked it, home . . . don't feel like home no more. I tried goin' back for a while. But all the Autobots I knew 'r all . . . they're all gone. Sometimes me 'nd Sunstreaker 'nd Sides . . . we'll do a little off-roading. Heck, we even took a trip t' Cybertron once back in '23 but it weren't the same. All the cities, the roads an' valleys . . . all gone."

Her heart ached for him. He left home and found home disappeared. To her relief, Jazz brightened.

"But this is my pad, now. We got life, Missy. Y' know, life needs life. Can't explain it. An' I got da one thing I wanted all my life: my very own rock stadium. Can't beat that!"

"So . . . how did you get Fort Sonix?"

"I tripped an' fell."

She snorted, shaking her head.

"No, seriously. Me 'nd Tex-I mean, Tektonix-we got t' be pen pals. He liked exploration, finding new stuff-living by his own rules. An' I was out on some rock just hanging and he invited me t' go safari with him. Well, Tex, y' know, he ain't no dancer. But he's got his own groove and we planet-hopped a bit till we came back t' Earth fer a couple a days. We was walkin' cross the Aussie desert south a' Ayers Rock. We both liked the place; bright sun, cool nights. Then we hit the beach scene an' I tripped over dis fossil stickin' up. Turned out t' be one a' the largest fish fossils ever known. That sucker was huge an' Tex and me put in a r'qest t' set up a research center.'

'The Rod-man thought it a cool idea. Then Op came along, saw that the center was doin' more than research by then. Heck, we were replacin' extinct species not jus' from Earth, but f'r five other worlds."

Jazz grinned like a little kid. "He says to me: 'How'd you like your own city?' my own city. Not fightin' t' survive, not scroungin' day-t'-day, not showin' off t' them 'Cons. Makin' a difference, Missy."

"So did you name the city?"

"Nah. That's a Roddi-thing."

Rusti shared his grin.

Jazz stood and glanced about. "So! What dragged you out to the streets this time a night?"



"I need some chocolate."

"Well, all ya had t' do was ask. We-"

"I know, Jazz. But I'm guessing I needed more than just something sweet. It's nice here."

He hesitated then: "I uh-I'm glad you brought Optimus here."

She fixed her gaze to the fountain. "I'm just a tag-along, Jazz. Anything to get away from my folks."

Jazz, however was serious, "I don't think Op woulda come by hisself, Miss Rusti. As fer the chocolate, we got some a' them vending thingies couple blocks down at the video store."

"It's open?"

"Course it's open! We got people workin' all the time . . . jes that most a' them 'r in the lower levels. Em scientists y' know. They practically sleep with their work."

She grinned again.

"Well, I gotta split. We gotta shipment comin' in five hours."


"You take care now, Missy. Git some sleep."

She watched him transform and race away. Rusti thought him a sweetheart and loved his contagious enthusiasm. But now she was alone in a city covered by the night.

Leaving the fountain, Rusti treaded along the streets, now mindful of her night clothes as they fluttered in a slight breeze. The city, as large as it was, stood eerily silent. Even if all the workers were below the streets, Rusti figured there should be more activity, more traffic.

A lonely street lamp illuminated the face of a nearby video store; most likely the very one Jazz mentioned. The store indeed was open and nearby in a vestibule cloistered several vending machines.

Rusti crossed the street and half way there, she spotted him upon a nearby rooftop.

Optimus Prime sat at the ledge, facing south toward the ocean horizon. The chocolate call instantly forgotten, Rusti abandoned her nourishment pursuits for a more interesting prey.

She stepped lightly, keeping her breath soft and even. Rusti was glad she did not put on her jeans; they always betrayed her presence. She tried to keep her heart from pounding lest he should hear her. She did not want to sneak up and surprise him, exactly. But Optimus was not keen to company catching him alone. He needed time to organize his thoughts and feelings.

Her heart skip two or three times. Butterflies flitted about her stomach. Keep calm, stay cool; he might pick up on it.

She paused abruptly, realizing he might want the time to himself. It was a sad fact that everyone had someone to turn to for introspection. But Optimus and Roddi had no one. And Rusti didn't think they'd make good counselors for each other, either. They were good with the Autobots, but not always good for one other.

So should she leave Optimus to himself?

The girl shook her head.

Rusti abandoned all caution. She kicked off her slippers, dashed across the metal flooring and kept an eye out for unexpected traffic. She searched the entrance, finding the private shop closed for the night. How the heck did he get up there?

Rusti rolled her eyes. No doubt Optimus was able to control Sonix much the same way he and Roddi did with Max. And the girl suspected there was a way to connect one building to another just by asking. But it would not be so good-or easy-to explain why she was out in the dead of night in naught but her jammies.

Not ready to quit, Rusti circled the antique store. Her eyes darted this way and that in search of a viable solution. At the back end, the store swept downward, possibly because it had a downstairs room. This meant the walls rose at a steady incline with a notch or two marked by previous climbers. This was too simple. Did Prime intentionally pick this building?

Doubtful. Optimus was many things, but he did not have ESP.

Tentatively Rusti set one foot on the wall and bent over to splay her fingers across its cool metal-rough surface. Good traction. She scaled the building at a slow pace, hoping she'd make it to the top before Prime decided to return to his quarters. She nearly slipped twice, reminding herself to go slow. She was climbing a building, not a hill.

Rusti paused at the top, rasping. Pain sharply reminded her of wounds inflicted by Quintessons and their experiments.

Those thoughts faded when she beheld Prime several yards from her. Maybe it was wrong to come. After the incident on the space station Optimus needed his privacy.

Nevertheless, Rusti stole a few steps forward. He did not appear to notice. Soft light fell over his form. Highlights intensified the rich red of his upper body. The night contrasted the same colors with terrible dark, leaving sharp the corners and crevices of his powerful form. Rusti's eyes followed every line from the broad shoulders to his upper arms. She trailed his smooth shapely thorax. Moonlight touched his audio receptors, pinching white highlights from the tips and edges of his dark blue helm.

Oh to see his optics now! Rusti imagined they'd be so beautiful this time of night! and with the moon highlighting his form in such majestic contrast, surely it would bring his optics to a life she'd rarely seen.

She weighed her wants verses his needs and decided his need for privacy was more important than her desire to be with him.

At least he did not hear her approach. She turned to make the long descent back to her own quarters. Maybe she could sleep in peace.

"It's too pleasant a night to sleep inside." Optimus' hushed voice touched her soul and Rusti closed her eyes. There were eight billion humans on the planet and something like five or six thousand Autobots and a smattering of aliens all across the globe and not one of them had the same rich tone!

Her cheeks burned. Sneaking up and sneaking back did not work with Optimus Prime and damn it, she should have known that! Caught in the act, the girl smiled and faced him with chagrin.

Any excuse or argument she might conjure (wimpy, though it would be) would do her no good. The girl joined him at the building's ledge. Their gaze swept from beach and rolling ocean waves to an early morning sky. They listened to rhythmic ocean crashing.

Prime said nothing more after his initial, if subtle invitation for the girl to join him. Rusti did not start any conversation, feeling it better that silence remain. But his repression worried her.

Little by little Rusti eyes tried to close. Coming here was enough a mistake, but intruding on Optimus' moments of peace was a sin she should not have committed. He found no consolation at Fort Max and she was selfish to intrude during their vacation. Guilt haunted her and Rusti wondered when to courteously leave.

"This is a good city." He kept his voice at a whisper.

She was surprised to hear him say something. Rusti poured through her head for an appropriate answer. Keep it simple: "Yes. I love the science facilities."

"Good weather here, too." Prime added just as softly. "Excellent driving conditions."

"Picnic weather." Rusti added.

"Picnic weather," Prime responded with a private smile.

No other words were exchanged and Rusti wondered if the small talk was just to ease the stillness or if Optimus himself was searching for a way to communicate.

"I like the stars here," he said, scanning the sky.

But Rusti could not look at the stars. Cody liked the stars. She wilted, bending over with the burden of a lost love. She felt awful and wanted to engage in the attempted conversation but the girl knew the moment she opened her mouth, the tears would start falling.

Nope. The tears fell anyway.


Now came embarrassment because she could not concealing her tears. And of course, she'd have to start sniffing.

"It hurts." Optimus' voice came more quietly than before. "I know."

"I wish he hadn't died!" The dam in her heart broke and so did the pent-up tears. "He was so kind and I don't know how long I honestly knew him! I-I think he knew me before I lost my memory and he was so kind! I mean, he didn't get mad at me, he didn't push me into anything and nobody in my family's done that! And how often does someone like that come along? And why did I have to lose him? It's not fair!"

Optimus cupped his hand behind her. He did not touch her; he was there for her. Rusti felt the warmth of his large hand and irresistibly snuggled against it.

Warmth in a cold world.

"It always hurts to lose someone. No matter if you were close to them, or just friends. It always means that part of your life is over."

Rusti bowed her head. Her heart ached for him. "I guess you've lost a lot of people you loved. I'll bet that makes it hard to make friends sometimes." she bit her lip after that. Those were thoughts she promised herself she'd not reveal to him. But it was out and she could not take them back.

"Sometimes," he agreed.

They fell to another awkward silence and Rusti wondered if her words sent Prime retreating into himself again.

How many friends had he lost to the war? How many loves vanished when the smoke cleared?

Optimus stared at the sea and then past it. His mind drifted back to Cybertron a million life times ago. The world flowed with power. Sunlight graced the factory-world. Life was good, especially for the naive. He never bothered with the news. His whole world consisted of friends, coworkers, life-long goals and one very special person. Alpha Trion was the hero of the Age and Crystal City was the pride of Cybertron.

But . . . but . . .

His breath left him as he watched life slow to the milisecond. The blast hit her, shattering her frail form.

His heart cried out, but he could not. No words conveyed the scream he needed to utter. Shock gave way to anguish, and that anguish smoldered, flaring into rage and the thirst for vengeance.

While he lay there, sounds of destruction rang distorted in his audios. The cries of fellow workers stabbed into him like hot torches. Aerial . . . Aerial . . . that beautiful spark lay not far from him. A fallen lifeless form. No more laughter. No more teases. No more little kisses. The monsters took her.

And she was the first of many to come.

Little sounds brought Prime back from the unforgiving memory. Rusti's sadness tugged at his heart and Optimus wished he could heal the pain and make her better. Only time could do that.

Yet, if she knew . . .

Don't finish that, he admonished himself.

Don't finish that because no one knows what it could ruin. Lock up those feelings tight and cold. Remain steadfast and objective.

That's right.

"Rusti," he whispered her name, soft as the sighing wind, "when . . . someone I care about dies, I recall everything good they taught me, every good word, precious and personal. When someone becomes sacred to you, they become a permanent part of you. And eventually, someone else comes along to fill that void. All your life you will find that you will lose friends but make new ones. It . . . may not be much a comfort now. But wherever Cody is, I am sure he will never forget you."

Rusti swallowed hard, batting more tears, focusing on the stars. She did not know how to answer that and merely nodded to indicate he had her attention.

A fresh, partly-cloudy morning greeted Rusti as she emerged from sleep. She made her way toward the mess hall, discovering she slept far past nine A.M. The cafeteria stood empty, leaving the best view available. Rusti put her breakfast order in and climbed the steep stairwell to the upper patio overlooking the wide blue-green ocean. She took a seat at an empty table adjacent another occupied by several men and two women. Their badges of rank told Rusti they were EDC executives.

As she waited for breakfast, the girl considered she should have brought her drawing pad and pencils. It was a perfect morning for sketching. Several seagulls and a couple of albatross rose and dived with the gentle wind currents and at first Rusti thought the birds were just flying aimlessly about. Then it occurred to her there was a pattern to their flight. Standing up and peering round the front, she spotted someone far below tossing fish bits. The birds played fetch with amazing accuracy.

The tinkling sound of silverware brought the girl's attention back to her table as a waitress greeted her with a broad smile. "Your breakfast, Young Missy." Rusti felt like laughing inside. She loved the Australian accent and would never tire of it.

She settled to biscuits and gravy, a slice of ham and a small bowl of bananas, grapes and whip cream.

"Now, why dinna I think of that for breakfast?"
Rusti's eyes shot across the way as the EDC officers grinned at her. She returned the smile while unfolding her napkin. "The biscuits and gravy?" she asked.

It was an older gentleman with a low-cut beard that
asked the question. "Nah. The bananas and grapes with
whip cream."

Rusti flushed. "Actually, they're better with vanilla ice cream."

That earned her quiet laughter until someone's panicked shout disrupted the moment. The one gentleman stood and Rusti batted her eyes in surprise of his well-tanned and trimmed form.

"General McMyers! General McMyers!" A pair of feet tapped up the steps and a young man burst through the door, huffing and coughing. In his hand he clutched a digipad.

"Mister Candston, I bloody well hope your dramatics have a good reason."

"Yes, yes, General, sir!" And Mister Candston saluted. "Sir, they found her! They found the Nemesis. She's the one that's leaking radiation-"

"Bloody hell!" swore another EDC officer. He too stood and relived Candston of the digipad. "It's still in one piece, Milston. Says her reactors are bleeding and clean up could take several weeks to a few months."

"Well, let's not just stand around talking about it, let's get her out of there!"

Rusti rushed for her jacket when they invited her and Optimus to join the excavation crew. She watched as General McMyers organized his ship into a tight, well-drilled group of soldiers. McMyers and Jazz exchanged a few quiet words before the general turned to his assistant for course plot. Rusti took in the fresh ocean air as though her life depended on it. Her eyes, however, kept drifting back to Optimus who remained fixed on a large digipad; Jazz and Tektonix at his side.

Rusti liked how the Aussie sun blazed against Cybertronian alloys. The Autobots had a glow about them that Earth metals failed to produce, even when painted and chromed.

But more so than Jazz and his second-in-command,
Optimus had a certain presence about him; potent and kingly. Yet he held an air of approachability. People felt comfortable around him.

Rusti studied his form a bit more closely, her eyes traced the upper portion of his frame. Sunlight glinted against his powerful arms, tracing fine lines and highlighting the chrome finish over the cylindrical endostructual stabilizers. The brightness gave way to equal contrast; giving an eerie and majestic shadowing. It came as no small wonder the same arms that could pound the living crap out of a Decepticon, gently cradled her to sleep at night.

That was just his arms. Rusti's eyes lingered over his chest, admiring its broad perspectives its intense and steadfast shape. She wanted to glide her hands up and down the smooth surface. Rusti even imagined herself finding his electro-pulse.

There! Just under and between the lines, above the grill work. She'd kiss him there. Then she'd kiss him along the top ridge, gliding her lips along that smooth cool surface. She'd move her hands along the red area on either side of the grill as she'd reach up to set her lips over the fold of his face plate.

Then Rusti realized Optimus was staring at her and she flushed and turned away. Her laughter threatened to give her away. What was she thinking? Embarrassed by her own recalcitrance, Rusti tried to find other things of visual interest. The ocean and the warm sun made her feel better than she had in the last several months.

And then there was last night. He set his hand behind her and she felt the warmth of his body. Maybe she also heard his laser core softly vibrate. But it could have been just the ocean waves against the shore. She wanted to spend the whole night there with him, just listening to his voice, snuggling closer to his smooth, warm body. What would she do if she could have been there all over again? Rusti privately entertained that thought until someone at the starboard bow called everyone's attention.

Optimus struggled to pay attention to the details of Jazz's report. The warm Aussie sun beat over his frame nagging him of a need for a new wax job. Jazz yammered on, explaining the when and why of their search for the past six years.

Tektonix, Jazz's Second, proudly pointed to the place on the map. "Dolphin scouting patrols discovered it yesterday afternoon, Commander. Actually, one of them ran into it when the dolphin's sensors failed to pick it up. As you know, the Decepticons used a negative-force frequency system to keep hidden from scanner and satellite detection."

Prime nodded wordlessly. How long had the Decepticons been away? Twenty years? Twenty-five? Twenty-six, since Cybertron's rejuvenation (called the Great Rebirth) in 2012. Optimus thought it odd that today he would be reminded of their existence. For a long time they seemed so far away. He supposed something so sublime as the absence of war was not bound to last; not when everything else in the cosmos changed constantly.

Tektonix rattled a long dissertation about the dolphin patrols and how vital they were to Fort Sonix. Prime half listened as he watched the crew below maintain sensors and contact with the submarine far below.

Optimus' optics settled on a little figure dressed in pegged jeans and a close-fitting spaghetti-string top. Her pale skin soaked up the sun and from where he stood, Prime spotted sparks of copper in Rusti's curly red hair. While Jazz explained the nuances of dolphin-soldier interaction, Optimus Prime privately counted each curl in the girl's hair. He studied each wrinkle on her clothing, how it fit so subtly and finely against her form.

That beautiful creature down there was the one moment of repose in his life. She was shelter from the chaos that daily surrounded him. He did not want to be here between two people, demanding his attention and approval. He wanted to be down there, talking with someone who knew nothing of war or tactics, whose experiences lie in art, cartoons and books, in playing with Dinobots and learning history or science. He wanted to make jokes to hear her laugh or surprise her with abandoned bouts of logic. He wanted to give her his heart because he knew . . . he knew baby birds won't hurt anything. He had so much to tell her, so much to share and their time was always so constricted.

It was completely unfair.

Last night hurt. He wanted to tell Rusti more and could not. He could do nothing to alleviate her pain. And for a moment, just a short, terribly selfish moment, Optimus considered it good he had Rusti to himself again.

Prime severely admonished himself. She loved Cody; she should love Cody. Optimus had no business asking for something for himself; it was not his position. But she was simplistic, open, giving. Rusti never asked anything of him except to spend time with her. Of all the people he knew, only two of them demanded nothing of him-but even Rodimus demanded things; business and responsibility (what an ugly, tiresome word).

The vessels arrived at Point Zero where Computron and Omega Supreme worked fervently removing rock and metal girders supporting and securing the ancient Decepticon headquarters. Crews labored carefully so as to damage as little oceanic sea beds and living rock as possible. Dolphin-and-rider crews bounced in and out of water constantly, checking upper temperature waves against possible high pressure points at sea-level floor. With the massive weight of the two titanic giants, possibilities of tectonic shifts were a dangerously high risk.

Broadside guarded against exostructural damage as Computron removed several steel rods from the Nemesis' westernmost side.

"Eighty-four point nineteen percent probability of stability. Omega, safety factor of removal to first and second girder, ninety-two percent."

"Safety factor considered. Task, perplexing. Enjoyment factor: zero."

Rusti watched from the safety of the Sea Ryder while literally hundreds of people worked. Scientists and specialists toiled tenuously to remove overgrown rock. It took them four solid hours to separate girders and dismantle seven buttresses strategically placed around the ship. The Nemesis was redesigned to withstand underwater earthquakes. Megatron missed nothing.

Finally Omega Supreme and Computron were able to get an even foothold and hoisted the great ship out of its make-shift cradle of rock and metal. But it was no small feat. Several crews had to attach antigrav pods on the ship's underside in order to make it light enough to move it to Broadside's expanded and reinforced deck plates.

Everyone froze in reverence once the Nemesis was secured. Water shed from the legendary ship, revealing war scars and tears on the outer surface. Optimus himself recognized several laser burns on the port bow-lasers he fired himself.

"Holy Primus. I'd forgotten how magna-gigantic that thing was," Jazz finally piped. He turned to Tektonix and requested a radiation reading.

Prime paid them no heed. The bleak ship loomed before him like a bird of death. But it was derelict now, long since neutralized. The Autobots had no use for it. Rodimus and the city commanders would most likely agree to send the Nemesis into the sun for its final destination.

Something touched his left leg and Optimus greeted Rusti, finding her attention absorbed by the great ship. "It's huge," she whispered.

"Yes," he quietly agreed. "It was the Decepticon flagship, one of the deadliest. It was called the City Smasher, the Pitt Monster and Hand of Death. Jazz, what's the radiation level on the bow?"

Jazz relayed the question to his people via internal communication then glanced back at Optimus. "Just two shakes of an ant's tail, Prime. Safe 'nuff fer anyone t' stroll the bridge."

Prime knelt before Rusti and she could tell he felt troubled, but maintained his ever-present poise. "Would you like to step in? You do not have to, if you'd rather wait here."

"What do you hope to find?" To her, the Nemesis resembled a nightmare twisted and depraved.

"I don't know, Rusti." His optics drifted to the metal carcass, relived to find it inoperative.

Rusti was suddenly afraid and she thought it unwise to allow him to go anywhere alone. "I'll come," she answered quickly. "But . . ."

She was cut off when an unfamiliar femme stepped aboard the Sea Ryder and saluted Tektonix before approaching Jazz. "Sir, we have found a number of warheads and munitions caches. We've also attained a record personal items in the midship, sir."

"Dandy work, Velocity!" Jazz gave Tektonix a thumbs-up and he followed Velocity to the gangplank.

Prime turned to Rusti. Neither of them knew what to do. The moment turned awkward until Rusti voluntarily preceded Prime off the Sea Ryder and onto Broadside. The girl's gut clenched tight the second her foot landed on Nemesis. Chill, she told herself, it's just a ship.

No. Not just any ship. A sense of dark brooding emitted from the hull. Rusti imagined hundreds of souls were tortured here. How many lives did this ship claim?

Nemesis gave her the impression of a monster bloated with its fill of death and carnage. The ship, though dead, still whispered boastful things. Rusti winced and briefly wondered why the Decepticons lurked in such dark, sinister housing, or if they made it that way.

Stay calm, keep Optimus within line-of-sight.

Tektonix stayed aboard the Sea Ryder while Velocity led Jazz, Rusti and Prime into the pit of the sinister beast. Salvaging crews removed a number of seals to permit fresh air through the ancient vessel. Lubricant dripped from leaky pipes and hoses. Velocity warned her superiors of underlying areas of fatigued metal. Rusti had to be extra cautious not to touch certain areas where pools of deadly toxins lay waiting for fresh kill. Sounds of fatiguing metal groaned and creaked throughout the vessel. The girl's heart jumped at every unfamiliar sound.

After a seven-minute walk along a dank, smelly corridor, they found the bridge/control center. The viewers were long since sealed shut. Nasty grey-green slime covered the chair where Megatron held court. Most non functional control panels were reshaped into hideous torture devices.

The oppressive atmosphere forced Rusti to hug herself.

Optimus's soft voice rang loud in the deathly silence. "Velocity, does any of this equipment work?"

"No, Commander . . . Well, most of the lights still do. We figured the Decepticons took their power relays and energon cubes with them before they left. They also seemed to have left in a hurry."

Nothing more was asked. Jazz explored in one direction and Prime drifted to another. The Autobot leader ran a finger along one consol, not surprised to find dust particles blanketing the topside. Somehow he thought he should be pleased to see this. The empty ship stood as a monument to Autobot victory. Their enemies were long gone, possibly not to return. But there were ghosts here and they gave him surges.

Something else bothered him; An echo of disturbance. Something he needed to remember and somehow struggled to subconsciously suppress.

Rusti did not think she would find much of interest in a ship filled with robots who cared nothing about living things. But to her surprise, there was a great deal more than a place cluttered with garbage. In fact, there was no garbage anywhere. She quietly traversed the corridor, finding it tight, even by human standards. The ceiling was terribly high, possibly because most Decepticons were able to fly. The corridor rounded into a wide room filled with three tables. A stack of empty, discarded energon cubes squatted in one corner. At another corner, she perceived a cartoon depiction of Optimus and several darts pinned around his face.

A nasty, acrid old smell drifted toward her and Rusti's first thought was to retreat back to Optimus. But her curiosity got the better of her. How could a ship of robots smell like someone's ancient, filthy socks? She peered from one round gigantic table to another until a box came into view. She approached it, cautious so as not to stumble over anything in the dim light.

Sitting on a crate, in a metal chair was the remains of an old man. Two-thirds of his form was clamped in metal like a cyborg from an old science-fiction movie. His right eye had long since sunken in its socket and his lips had dried against his teeth. Tough, leathery skin had shriveled against his bones. His hands lay taut against the cold metal of the chair's arm. Tufts of white hair clung to the deadman's skull, sneaking out from under a metal cap.

She continued to star at the cyborg until it dawned on her what she was looking at: "Ohmigod," she whispered, "Doctor Archeville."

Jazz accidentally hit a metal block protruding from the communications station. Several diodes lit up and a secret panel from the nearby wall slid down, revealing a small storage compartment.

"Hey!" he called, "lookit dis! Looks like someone's diary." He produced several digipads, each scrawled with the name of a Decepticon across the top.

Prime took what was passed his way. RAMJET glared
at the top of his particular pad. He activated it and found a table of contents that included missions succeeded, missions failed. There was a listing of complaints made by Ramjet, including one about Soundwave always staring at him.

"Wha' da heck is all dis?" from the far back, Jazz dragged forth a copper box carefully etched with unknown script. Prime set aside the Ramjet log and watched the city commander undo the lock and latch.

Swathed in a fine silk cloth lay a pair of small, eerie masks.

"Looks like they're made of gold, Jazz."

"Yeah. An' lookit, there's another under 'em." Jazz lowered to his knees and Prime followed, his attention absorbed by the strange private collection. The large mask beneath was made of wood and Optimus wondered what tree was used to make it. The wood was old, well worn and a slight blue hue embellished its color.

"It can't be from Earth." Prime surmised.

"Na-uh. Not if it's from blue trees, anyway."

Dangling on either side of the mask swung strands of black pearls. At the end of each strand tied either a finger bone or a tooth. The top of the mask arched into a hollowed center from which a black opal sat suspended by studs. A single unblinking eye hovered above a screaming mouth.

Space for eyes and nose were hollowed through the wood while a painted mouth was perforated by thread, supposedly to sew the lips shut.

"This is . . . unsettling at best," Optimus stared at the smaller, doll-sized masks.

"Yeah." Jazz rewrapped the masks. "Who'd a-thought ol' Soundwave had a hobby? 'N fact, I''ll bet dis is all Soundwave's stuff," Jazz shuffled through a few other digipads. "Jes' about ever'one's name's listed in here, including ol' Shockwave. 'Cept . . ." and here the city commander shuffled through several others before finishing his sentence: "'Cept them cassette tapes a' his. Nuthin' here 'bout Rumble, Frenzy, Ravage or them vultures. I''ll bet this was all secret stuff. Soundwave was spying on ever'body justa shmooze up ta ol' Megs."

Jazz handed Prime another couple. Two tablets had Starscream's name written across them but Optimus was
less than interested. The Decepticons might as well be dead. He was not holding old information but gravestones.

"Whaddya want me to do wi' 'em, Prime?"

Optimus solemnly shook his head. "They're nothing but ghosts. I think we have enough of those." He turned away as Jazz gave his attention to the pile in the secret compartment. Optimus suddenly felt old, burdened with bad memories. They came so close, so often to losing everything, the mission to protect Cybertron, the new mission to protect Earth; their very lives.

Now it was over and done with. They won . . . sort of. The Autobots won by default. It did not mean the Decepticons would never return.

Prime always thought he adjusted well to peace-time living. He kept busy with new goals and means of attaining them, not so much for himself, but for the Autobot society as a whole; after all, if a people and a society did not expand, it was doomed to perish.

Hence, the necessity for the creation of fortress-


Prime spotted the two-way corridor leading off the bridge. As he recalled, Rusti took off in one direction. He'd try the other, but reminded himself not to go too far. Even as a ghost ship, the Nemesis was still dangerous. He left Jazz with Soundwave's digipads. The corridor he traversed ended in a chartroom where maps of every size and detail stood etched into transparent titanium.

Optimus recognized most solar systems and wondered if others were merely outposts, or actually occupied by Decepticon colonies.

Just out of curiosity, Prime sifted across one chart, then another, looking for the Procyon System. He found Antares and Spica, Castor and Pollux. There were several other systems outside the reach of even this system in feasible timeliness. But after searching more carefully another seven minutes, Optimus found Procyon.

The chart forced him into the reality and gravity of his situation. He slowly settled into the nearest seat and stared into the pane of glass.

Mechlatex's name smeared the chart. Its name, written in Decepticon writ, stared back at Prime like an open impatient grave stone.

Optimus swept his optics elsewhere. Going to Mechlatex was certainly inevitable. And not that the planet was actually hopelessly far away, but that it meant he'd be gone for quite a long time; ten to thirteen years.

The Autobots and Rodimus would be just fine-and, no-Prime would ask no one to travel with him.

However, now, his heart sank. He thought he died just a little upon realization: he'd have to leave Rusti behind.

He envisioned her running . . . chasing . . . screaming . . . just like Elita . . . begging to go. But would it not be kinder to leave her to live out her life should he never return?

Oh, certainly, Rusti would be broken maybe for several years, but at least she'd live on, graduate high school, go to college. She might even find a good husband, have children.

And maybe she'd forgive him.

And maybe she'd forget him.

Optimus cursed his life.

Rodimus tried to reach him just then, but Optimus turned away. This was his problem, his grief.

"Peek-a-boo!" Light giggles followed the sudden burst of words.

It snapped Optimus out of his melancholy and his optics shot to the entryway. Rather than call the girl's name, he stepped up and peered round the door.

No sign of her.

"Peek-a-boo!" she called far down the hallway.

Optimus crossed his arms. "This is serious business, Rusti. Not a playground."

"It's not a base, either, Optimus." she disappeared round another corner.

"This is not the time or the place for games." he did the "Magnus walk"-as coined by Roddi (who's just as guilty of it himself)-that gait registered in deliberate, enumerated steps.

Prime turned left and found the room Rusti peeped out a moment ago. A ghostly vacancy swallowed his sensors.

[[I'm not playing games,]] Rusti said internally. [[I'm playing with you.]]

Tap. Tap.

Optimus turned to face her standing behind him. She offered a strong smile and it forced him to his knees.

"This place is a tomb," she said. "And neither of us has any business being here. Not really."

"What makes you say that?"

"Old dead things, Optimus."

His spirit fell. Was he not old? He was part of this era, the same time in which this vessel was a harbinger of genocide. "Rusti-"

"You don't belong here," she answered his unspoken confession. Rusti laid hands on his right knee. "This thing is a relic of a time that doesn't exist anymore. It's not alive. It's just a shell. You don't belong to that time anymore. You belong to me. And if you don't get me off this crappy fossilized outdated Decepticon version of a George Foreman Grill, I'm gonna tell Roddi and-"

Prime held his hands up defensively. "Okay, okay. We're leaving."

She searched him with her sweet grey eyes and hugged him as best she could.

Close to sunset, Jazz, Velocity and many workers exchanged discoveries and stories. Rusti found it creepy that they found other people much the same predicament as Dr. Archeville. And the girl cringed when Velocity confirmed Rusti's guess about the human; it really was the ancient, deceased scientist.

"Did he die of starvation?" Rusti asked.

"We won't know for sure unless we do an autopsy."

"We ain't doin' no autopsy." Jazz growled. "We're not keeping nothin' off that thing. Not 'less Optimus says we have to."

Prime gazed to the group upon the sound of his name. Rusti frowned, unable to look into the emptiness of his expression. "No, Jazz. We just want the logs ... and Soundwave's material. We don't need to keep 'old dead things'."

Prime's words finalized any further discussion of souvenirs.

Most all the workers cheered their delight upon returning to Fort Sonix. They chattered and welcomed one another, even joking as though a terrible burden or depression lifted from them.

Rusti watched, confused by their behavior. Jazz stepped behind her and watched as someone proposed a party. The girl turned to the Autobot. "Is that wise?"

Jazz frowned reluctantly. "Yeah, it can't do no harm. Though I'd like t' know what possessed 'em all."

"Maybe you should have everyone checked for contaminants."

"Already done, Li'l Missy. Fort Sonix does that the second y' step onta his streets."

Rusti turned entirely to the city commander. "No check points? No detailed scans? But . . . we have to go through all that at Fort Max."

Jazz grinned. "Ol' Mags likes t' make 'em suffer under busy work too, eh? Heh, he's one mean machine."

A grinding, squeaking noise distracted them from further city comparisons and Jazz and Rusti snapped to a north-westerly direction. The crazed, hyper-active crowd had dragged giant speakers into the plaza. To accommodate the amassing crowd, Fort Sonix automatically raised the area, simultaneously lowering buildings and shifted walkways, diverting traffic around the unauthorized party.

Rusti slowly turned from them to Jazz. "Are they allowed to do that?"

"Not normally. 'Scuse me, Missy. I'm gonna have a chat with them instigators."

The crowed swelled as more of Sonix's residents and workers got word of a party. Rusti watched with some amusement as many brought treats and drinks. Tables appeared as fast as the crowd. Chairs arrived by the truckload.

When Rusti found Jazz again, he was laughing with two Autobots and an EDC officer. He even helped them setup the DJ box between six giant speakers.

It was going to be wild and loud and Rusti did not want to stay. Besides, she lost track of Optimus again.

"Excuse me," a masculine voice said behind her. "I'm looking for Commander Jazz."

Before looking to see who it was, Rusti pointed to the speakers.

"Ah, excellent!" It was a Headmaster and he advanced through the milling crowd.

Rusti ran after him. "My turn!" she said above the noise. "I'm looking for Optimus Prime."

"He took off on his own quite the while ago, Young Miss. He's not one for crowds and parties."

"But which direction-" she cut herself off when the Nebulon Headmaster smiled at her. Rusti's brows squished. He gave her the oddest expression: half admonishment, half patronizing and it made her ashamed. In her pursuit of the Autobot leader, she'd be invading his space again.

Rusti returned the Headmaster's smile with some embarrassment. Wrapping her arms about herself, the girl turned away.

The music struck the air with the cataclysm of an exploding planet. It wasn't just plain old music, but the screech of Drive Beat.

Rusti hated Drive Beat. It had no melody or harmony; it was just a horrendous beat accompanied by a screaming singer, sometimes a base guitar was added.

Whatever happened to sane music, anyway? She covered her ears and all but swam through the ocean of dancers. Upon arriving at the other side, Rusti descended three series of steps and found herself at the water fountain she and Jazz visited.


Some young EDC cadet approached her. He wore jeans and the service jacket with a patch: "Syler, J." Rusti stole a careful step back.

"I see dancing's not your thing."

She glanced back, the crowd cheered on the next play. "I think dancing is fine. I just don't like the music."

"It's never the music, but the person you're with. Are you alone, or here with someone?"

"Yes." she answered quickly. "And I can't find him."

"Oh." The cadet did not sound sincere. Rusti's eyes narrowed. Was he looking for a good time or fresh meat? "Well . . . I could help you find him . . .if you'll dance a couple of rounds with me first."

Fresh meat.

Rusti studied him like a nasty bug she once dissected in class: "you couldn't handle me, Mister Syler. I'm into Heavy Metal." and she raced passed him, knowing what a corny answer it was.

Selfish or not, Rusti decided to look for Optimus.

Sonix shifted his shape to accommodate the party. Buildings were not where they should be. Roads and bridges appeared in places different from Rusti's memory.

More annoying than the city rearranging itself was the sound of bad music booming across the lovely night. Rusti liked Jazz and thought him a wonderful city commander. But she questioned his taste of music.

She must have gone at least eight blocks by this point. The party fell from earshot once she passed a strip mall and two grocery stores. She settled on the bench of bus stop and sighed wearily. Unless he was resting in his quarters, Optimus was not out here; at least that she could sense.

Rusti brought her legs up, feet tucked tightly on the seat's edge. She knew Optimus did not need to go on the Nemesis. Dark places were not good things for trouble Autobot leaders.

And why didn't Jazz go look for him?

Oh, yeah, to the Autobots, it was normal for Prime to head out alone. But did any of them stop to just listen?

Actually, listening to Optimus required more than an acute set of audio receptors. Optimus often spoke by saying nothing at all and that usually drove most people out of their mind-and out of his vicinity. Optimus Prime was a very complex individual-had to be in order to be who and what he was. The Autobots respected him, his power and authority. But they did not understand him personally.

All that made Rusti wonder what it was about her that attracted him. She adored the depth of his soul, the richness of his past and experience. Optimus had the uncanny ability for incredible patience. He was also willing to take time to learn new things.

Optimus was the wild stallion on a prairie; undaunting, fierce, deadly, yet guiding and kind to his own.

A familiar sound hummed from the left. Roller approached the cross-street. A broad smile lit her face and Rusti stood at the walkway edge.

"HI!" she sounded silly in her own ears. "I was looking for Optimus-" Roller interrupted with his own brand of electronic sounds. Rusti caught glimpses of his communiqué on a monitor. "Uh, yeah," she answered. "I'd hope you know where he is-"

Roller beeped and toned excitedly.

"Okay! Okay!" she jumped in and snapped on a lap belt as fast as she could; Roller never seemed to get the idea of speeding limits.


Prime knew the moment they entered the city everyone would crowd him, demanding all kinds of news and stories regarding the venture to the Nemesis. But he was far from interested in conversation. His mood hung dismal. He did not enjoy the expedition. Old memories festered, revisiting defeats, sore mistakes and miscalculations.

How many died at the hands of the Decepticons? How long would he carry that pain?

A little forgiveness, a little peace would make his burden easier. The death of any Autobot was inexcusable. He was responsible for each of them in peace and war. Lives were too costly, even in time of social growth. He hoped the Autobots would not fall to complacency just because the Decepticons were hundreds or thousands of light years away.


Inadvertently, Optimus realized he must have driven a good eight miles east of the city, keeping somewhat close to the ocean. His exostructural temperature steadily and uncomfortably rose. Was it emotional stress or the illness? He felt just fine earlier.

Guilt over his unsociable behavior tugged at the Autobot. Lately he just needed space to breathe, think . . . or even indulge in self recrimination-for all the good it did. Prime knew better. Self pity led nowhere and lately, neither did his own questions. He forced himself to admit that he ran. He ran from support. He ran from help. He ran from imaginary blame-sometimes all he could think about was how everything was his fault; his doing.

Sometimes the universe seemed too vast and empty. And other times it was too crowded, too active. But either case, it no longer seemed to have a place for him.

Something disrupted his equilibrium and Optimus swerved hard from the momentary loss of control.

He managed to regain sufficient ability to transform and avoid serious injury. His feet and right knee took the brunt of the force as he skidded to a final stop. Prime remained still long enough for his systems to stabilize.

Finally he re-activated his optics only to have them drawn to the night sky above. He stared in shock as the half moon's color faded to a deep blood red. Prime attempted to adjust his optics, hoping it was a simple malfunction. But nothing worked. The moon continued to darken, the stars faded behind a thickening blood-red haze. This was another Virus flare up-it HAD to be. Memories of a damaged city flashed through his confused mind.

As he stared at the bloodied moon, the light distorted, pushing the moon's shape this way and that until a face emerged from the center. Pale red at first, several lines connected, forming the framework of a face Optimus counted familiar. Then the fine lines faded before the face's features could fully develop.

Clouds skittered across the bloody moon, forming shadows that crawled along the ground below. The Face appeared out the corner of his optics, Prime swore the eyes developed by those shadows were staring at him.

He looked away, suppressing a shudder. His sensors read everything wrong.


He would never truly be alone. The Matrix seemed more like a universe contained. It had its own agendas, its own perspectives.

Optimus could no more understand the Matrix than the Cybertronians who once worshiped it. It spoke through him. It often caused him to do things he himself would not have done.

Prime tried not to look at the crawling shadows. From the cliffside came a huge creature, a great tylan; a black and red-stripped tiger. A rare alien species of wildcat abandoned by alien trespassers long ago. The great beast sat at the edge of the ravine, completely ignoring the Autobot. It cleaned a claw, licked its left whiskers then stared at Prime. To Optimus, the animal's red stripes glowed, its eyes, huge, dark, burned with a vision of flames. Suspended in those flames was the Matrix's core persona. It pierced the Autobot leader with its intense optics, holding him fast within its gaze.


The metallic-edged voice drew Optimus' entire attention. He stared, mesmerized by the cat's eyes. flames leapt at the face. Past those flames, Optimus Prime made out images, faint at first, barely more than sketches across a black canvass. Movement forced the images to fade into clarity, followed by dismal colors.

People, creatures, aliens attacked each other. Their bodies glowed with an infectious alien virus.
Prime almost heard them, their anger, raging out of control. Children, neighbors and strangers, caught up in a storm of blood and hate.

He had been spared this, the aftermath alone was enough to sear his spark with grief. It came as no surprise that within a mere six months, both men responsible for the plague were dead. Dr. Swarford had committed suicide in exile and Dr. Morgan was found murdered in the mental institution where he had been sentenced by the UN Court. Here the scenes of raging brutality and devastation flashed like a fast-moving film before his optics.

Heart-sick, Optimus sank to his knees, his optics dark. He bowed over, burdened by the sight of so much death, so much loss.


The Core Persona did not finish Its sentence, allowing Optimus to watch in silence as the world around him shifted, blurred like a distorted transmission.

Against better judgment, the Autobot leader watched as on-going violence reduced the world and everything in it to rock and Spore-infested ash. The violence and insanity had driven the planet into self-destruction as though wrought by Hell itself.

One-third of the planet's land mass shriveled in flames. City and forest alike crumbled. The oceans bled as the carnage spread beneath the waves. Human and animal life butchered one another to the point of extinction. Sunlight no longer penetrated the suffocating world, only the demonic glow of the raging firestorms dominated the ash-eclipsed skies.

Prime felt his own metallic skin burn while the stench of crisping flesh and rotting corpses choked his intakes. His right hand clenched around the rock and ash beneath him.

Nothing survived.

Nothing remained.


Then it occurred to him: This was just one planet. This same nightmare repeated itself over and over on countless other worlds.

His breath staggered in hard, sharp gasps until: "ENOUGH! Please." His body sank under emotional exhaustion. The nightmare abated replaced by the pale glow of the moon, cold yet comforting. Prime regained his composure. His body drew in clean fresh air as his mental oppression lifted.


One word caught Prime's attention.. "Not . . . permitted." He repeated softly, and his optics narrowed, "By whom?"

The Voice paused:


That stunned him. The Matrix was not referring to Primus. Without question, Primus proved himself less than divine.


But it was Roddi who had the likeness of Primus as the god of Cybertron. The resemblance was historically uncanny. It even left Optimus Prime to doubt his own validity as an Autobot leader. Not that it mattered at this point. Optimus was aware some of his doubt originated from the Virus.

"They will have Rodimus. He is the Chosen."


The Matrix's voice came strong, poignant before softening again,


Optimus stood on trembling legs. His mind raced, haunted cold by the visions. Questions tumbled in his mind like the rolling tide. He understood why he was shown what could have been; but it left him with deeper questions.


Burdened clouds blotted the sky and the heavy scent of rain sweetened the air. Rusti did not care. A little rain wasn't going to stop her.

Five miles became ten then fifteen outside city limits. Roller cleared the thicket of brush and Rusti laid eyes on her destination. In spite of her worry, Rusti's heart skipped at the mere sight of him. He sat motionless, his knees supported his crossed arms and bowed head. He looked worn and alone.

Optimus did not react when he sensed their presence. Roller alerted him of their arrival the moment Rusti asked to be taken to him. Roller slowed as he approached his keeper. Optimus silently acknowledged the scout car.

[[Thank you my little friend]]. Roller beeped low and soft as Rusti climbed out. Her hand trailed along the edge of his fender before he slowly backed up and vanished into subspace. Optimus managed a slight smile.  [[There have been times, Rusti, I would be lost without him.]]

[[You can be difficult to find.]] That just slipped out and Rusti dropped her stare knowing he'd caught it.

" . . . Not for the right person." he softly returned. Optimus lifted his gaze to meet her grateful smile. Rusti's worries abated and she stepped closer as thunder muttered in the distance. Her stare turned toward the thunder, surprised at the speed the storm moved.

Optimus followed her eyes. "Perhaps we should head back. You might get wet." She sent him a wry grin. He was teasing. He knew how much she liked storms.

"I've never seen a storm roll in like this before. I'd rather stay and watch."

Prime didn't have to answer. Returning to Sonix through mud puddles and slippery roads was a small price to pay for a bit of precious time; just he and her. One leg slid to the ground. Lowering his open hand, Prime beckoned her to sit beside him. Rusti complied without a second thought. She affectionately slid her hands over his finger, but flinched and pulled back, startled.

"Ohmigod!" Her eyes shot at him. "Optimus! You're burning up!" His optics fell from her, ashamed. It was his burden, not hers.

"It will pass." he said quietly.

"Pass? What do you-what are you saying? Her words edged with worry. Rusti drew a second's worth of breath and clenched her teeth; do not be angry with him. It's his nature and he can't help it. She let her breath out slowly and ran her hands over his again. He was feverish; unpleasantly warm. "It's the Tatlic, isn't it Optimus. That what's causing this."

"Possibly." He caught himself laying his thumb on her hands. His first instinct was to pull away but he didn't.

"I've just learned to compensate. At least until it can be treated. If it can be." However, walking in the oppressive Australian heat wasn't one of his better ideas. The price of solitude came high, but many times his need for it outweighed the risks. He regarded the girl leaning against his hand. Her eyes closed in contentment. Such a precious sight, a vessel as gentle and beautiful as the soul within it.

Rusti sighed in quite pleasure. Gentle warmth sank into her shoulders and down her chest. A slight shiver gave her goose bumps when a strange and wonderful sensation flowed over her skin.

Without really thinking, Rusti leaned heavily against his palm and tenderly stroked her hands over his.

Rolling clouds clustered across the sky, blanketing the land in shadow. Lightening flashed. Seconds later thunder pounded it's way across the land. No matter how many times Optimus had seen such things, the planet's majesty continued to impress him. Another wave of thunder muttered around them. It resonated from the ground into his body and Prime felt it vibrate within his laser core.

Rusti's faced spread in a smile as lightening lit the sky. She hugged her body to his, anticipating the next surge of thunder. But her eyes snapped open as a single drop caught her ear and slid down her neck. She shivered when another splattered her bare shoulder and ran down her back, teasing. One cold drop after another plunged and thunder shook the atmosphere. She lifted her face and welcomed the cool 'liquid sunshine' as it tumbled in large drops.

Optimus, however, scarcely noticed the rain; his attention devoted to the girl. Pure unhindered joy radiated from her like the burbling brook, freshly refilled. Experiencing her happiness reinvigorated his own discouraged soul. The survival of his people gave him the obligation to continue to function.

Rusti gave him the desire to draw the next breath.

Closing her eyes, Rusti opened her mouth, hoping to catch plunging drops. She laughed as the rain plicked her face; a splat in her eye, another over her nose, more on her cheeks and forehead. One landed on her lower lip. She did not care how silly she might have looked.

Her enthusiasm contaminated Optimus. He lifted his face to the Heavens. He felt the storm's energy surge all around. It gave him a profound sense of refreshment; cool, sweet, clean.

Lightening flashed close by. Thunder cracked as if to split the sky. The shower escalated to a downpour. The pelting rain and lightning proximity brought Optimus out of his euphoric state. As much as Rusti enjoyed the rain, her fragile form could not comfortably withstand much more of it. As the downpour intensified to a torrent, Optimus moved to shelter her. Moving smoothly, his body shifted, turning to hover over her like a protective god. His back and legs took the pounding rain, shielding her from the tempest. The beating rain poured over his back; an ice pack against his overheated exostructure. Prime's optics dimmed in relief, as though Divine hands soothed away his feverish burden.

Soaked to the skin in a naturalized shower, Rusti ran her hands over her face and head, squeezing excess water from her thick, curly hair. Then the rain stopped, though she still heard it. She opened her eyes and her insides fluttered at the sight of his form spanning above her. His optics dimmed as he surrendered to the harsh downpour. The sound of the rain pounding over his exostructure sent chills down Rusti's back. He was so close to her; close enough to touch.

Rusti flushed hard with the sudden thought of him kissing her.

She dropped her stare and did not see his optics flare for half an instant. Rusti had no doubt he sensed her strong, obvious feelings. Her heart leapt into her throat. She could not look at him. How he would react? What would he say? How could she be so careless, wanting something he could not give her?

It was something she had no right to ask of him. Embarrassment overshadowed the moment. Rusti wanted to pretend it didn't happen. Warmth ebbed into her shoulders, down her back, along her skin. She closed her eyes to the wonderful, familiar sensation.

She smiled inwardly. He always surprised her. Rusti managed to gather enough courage to face him. She lifted her eyes in search of his.

Prime's gaze fell on her. His soft words resonated within her. Rusti heard the tones; not the words.

She Reached for his Embrace.

Rather than Touch her mentally, Optimus lowered to her, his hand rounded behind her, his weight resting securely on his elbow.

Rusti raised her arms and glided her hands across his upper chest plate. Rainwater, warmed by the heat of his body, trickled over her hands and down her arms. The sensation sent delicious chills down her back. She shivered, caught in a surreal moment.

Optimus' hand wrapped gently around her back as Rusti reached higher. Her left hand found it's way to his face, and ran along his plate. Her touch came light, timid at first. Then Prime's optics darkened as her hand returned for a bolder caress.

She responded by placing both hands on his countenance. The texture of his metal blurred her reflection. She closed in and pressed her lips along the edge in a lingering kiss. For one moment their physical differences no longer mattered. Rusti felt Optimus' essence envelope the entirety of her being; inside and out.

Optimus could breathe her in. Hold me, he inwardly begged.

The moment suspended until Rusti had to take a deeper breath, her body warm, heart alight, her blood burned.

Optimus mourned the separation. He could not remember the last time he had such contact with someone else; certainly not with such a gentle touch. It was ecstasy he did not deserve.

His optics lifted to the horizon as dawn edged the world in softer blue. "Rusti?"



She fell sad. The beautiful moment came and left, leaving her wanting more. She wanted Optimus to herself. The Autobots did not deserve him. And he did not deserve to be treated with such indifference.

"I'd love to show you something." his voice came gentle as the rain to her ears, comforting her loss for the moment.

Rusti smiled broadly. "Did you learn to draw?"

"Not quite. The sun is about to rise. I thought you'd like to see how I can see sun rise."

Her eyes shot wide. She stepped back as he rose and slowly transformed. It was visibly painful for him to do so, but he did not complain. Rusti rounded the passenger side to get in.

"Wait, Rusti," he called. "How about . . . how about you drive."

She blinked and had to take a second look, her face contorted into extreme puzzlement. "Wha-? No, Optimus, I don't have a license."

"I don't recall anyone requiring a license to drive an Autobot."

She had to blink again. How did he always do that to her? "Well-uh-aren't I too short?"

"I like you short. It makes you cute."

She flushed and raced to the driver's side where he waited for her with an opened door. She settled in the seat and wondered if he minded her wet clothes. She glanced around, looking for controls.

Silly girl, she thought to herself, there is no stick shift. "Um, what do I do?"

"Tell me when to go."

Rusti laughed and held onto the steering wheel that was not there a moment ago. "Okay, but not too fast."


He rolled along the ground at a 'grandma's pace' and neared a tree.

"Optimus, there's a tree."

"You're steering, Rusti."

"Oh." and she turned the wheel left.

And into a ditch.

"Oops. Um . . . " she held her hands aloft, unable to fix the situation.

"Would you like me to increase speed?"

Dangerous question and Rusti knew if she said 'yes', she'd be in for it. She thought about getting out and pulling Optimus out of the ditch but that was pretty unrealistic: one hundred twenty-five pound girl verses a ten-ton Autobot.

No contest.

She laid her forehead against the steering wheel, figuring she sucked at driving. "Yes, if you please."

He laughed.

It was like riding a rocket, jettisoning from the ditch onto a sandy embankment. Prime skidded across the bar, spraying sand and dirt and rocks to the right. Rusti bounced with the impact, screamed and found they were already landed. She hit the dashboard.


"You asked-"


"You're still driving." and he slowly rolled forward again.

She tried to navigate between the sandy bar along the beach and the trees and grass along the bank. How could he manage to drive over such unstable terrain with all his weight?

No time for answers. The pre-dawn sky slowly rose from dark blue to light. Rusti found a lip of rock rising just above the waves between land and ocean and managed to turn the Autobot onto its surface.

"Here," she indicated. "This place."

He slowed to a stop and changed the polarity of his visual screens. Dawn shot across the south eastern horizon like an eclipsed explosion. But Rusti did not see the usual bright-white of the sun. The sunrise came in shocking blues, royal purples, bloodiest of reds and tantalizing highlights. She gasped and choked at the beauty of her own star.

Optimus switched polarities again and the sun turned blood-red, the sky focused in deep green hues while the rest hung in deep set violet.

"This," she whispered, "this is how you see our sun?"

"One of many ways, Babybird. There are no sunrises or sunsets on Cybertron. Not one drop of rain. No sweet breezes to push along the clouds. No Northern Lights."

She rested against his door, saddened that his home was never so sweet, never so beautiful.

What a magnificent creature to be so powerful yet so open-hearted, so sensitive to fall in love with someone not even his own kind.

Rusti did not think she could ever love anyone else.



The final three days of their stay zipped along far too quickly. Optimus seemed to open more around Rusti, spending hours telling her a few of Jazz's exploits both on and off Earth. It did not surprise her to learn that Prime met Jazz in a sleezy slave-trader's tavern along an out-of-the-way trade route. Nor was she surprised to learn that for a while Jazz traveled with Sunstreaker and Sideswipe before meeting Prime.

The day before their return-trip home, news from Mars came in. They found the perfect area for mining titanium and next to it a large vein of emeralds. Fortress Zenith on Mars was close to completion and already the Autobots stationed there found places for mining production.

"It means I need to go and oversee things the first couple of months," Prime explained.

"Please let me come," she begged.

Optimus sighed heavily. "I'd love to, Rusti. But it's just not viable at this time."

He meant what he said. He did not want to go; she could not come.

The ups and downs of being an Autobot leader. But Rusti knew he'd send her a message-everyday if he could get half a moment.

That was a slice of reality that left a bad taste in her mouth; no matter how much he loved her and wanted to be with her, the Autobots always had to come first.


Travel back to Fort Max offered a bitter-sweet feeling for Rusti. She was glad to be back in her own room and glad to be back in a city with which she was more familiar. But it meant Optimus was leaving. Of course he'd come back, but she could not suppress a terrible fear growing within.

The night before Prime's departure stagnated with the passing of minutes. Rusti thought she would drown by her own relentless tears. Her face hurt. Her shoulders and chest ached. None of that compared to the pain in her heart. For the second time, someone she loved was leaving her.

Even though Rusti understood he was coming back, that he wasn't leaving forever, she did not want him to go. What was wrong? Why did she feel as though she might never see him again? Where was her sense of logic and rationality? Neither eased her suffering. She knew she was going to be alone for a very long time and the pending emptiness ate her inside.

Finally overcome by physical and emotional exhaustion, her body withered to heavy, silent heaves. Over and over she tried to tell herself that her fear and sadness were unfounded. Both Optimus and Roddi had been to Mars numerous times. She berated herself for reacting this way; an irrational, over-emotional girl. She slept some, woke, wept, fell asleep and repeated the process far into the night.

Love was torture.

Gradually the heaves softened, her tears dried. She had no more strength to cry. Her aching muscles relaxed as an ebbing warmth drained the tension from her body. Sleep wrapped itself around her and she had no will or strength to fight it.

Rusti later stirred, sensing light shed over her from the partly opened bedroom door. She forced her tear-swollen eyes open. Light from the doorway wasn't the only light in the room. Three candles glowed warmly; one on her night stand, two on her dresser. She didn't recall lighting any candles. It certainly wasn't something she was in the mood for.

Oh, but the door was opened. A sweet, familiar Presence Touched her soul as she cast her eyes to the bedroom entrance, delighted to find him standing there. Optimus hesitated, caught in the act. His fingertips rested along the door's edge.

"May I come in?" He almost whispered, but maintained the subtle strength Rusti had not heard in a long time.

Throwing off the covers, she stumbled toward him wanting only to be swept up and held. He silently dropped to his knees and caught her as she fell against his face. Tears choked her, stole her voice and vision.

Rusti snuggled against his helm. His hands and arms engulfed her much smaller form. Was she dreaming? If so, how cruel the waking! How painful the awaiting reality!

Rusti shuddered as her body calmed. She drank in his warmth and comfort. "I don't want you to leave ..." she mourned. She begged the tears away. She was already exhausted and raw from losing Cody.

His optics dimmed so there came almost no light at all. With a heavy sigh, Optimus lowered himself to look her in the eye. He gently gathered her unkempt hair from her face. "I know," He sounded as despondent, "I don't want to go. But the choice is not mine."

As much as she hated it, he was right. She was being selfish again.

She had him to herself in Australia. Maybe time with him would never be enough.

"However . . ." he continued, "There is one decision I made." The deep tone of his sweet voice overcome her tears. Yet her heart still begged him to take her along. She squeezed her weary eyes shut, reprimanding herself.

"Rusti," he whispered her name as though it were sacred, "if there was any way I could take you without complications . . ."

she stared straight at him, even spotted her ghostly image on his face. How did he seem to read her mind? How? She nestled against his chest plate. Optimus held her close. "I don't know what the future will bring," he added. "You deserve so much more." He lifted her hand and turned it palm-up. From his closed fist, Optimus deposited a small object and closed her fingers over it. "All that I am . . . is yours . . . If you will have me."

Rusti lost her voice. Astonishment fluttered her insides. Her heart skipped when light caught her eyes. A slender, silver band nestled in her hand. It's surface glistened like satin; beautifully simple.

Optimus just proposed to her.


Rusti's alarm clock screeched rudely. The persistent noise dragged her into reluctant consciousness. She absently lobbed her hand over and slapped the sleep button, dying to continue the dream.

Her eyes shot open. Awe no . . . she groaned within. The accursed morning was upon her. Worse still, to her horror, the alarm initially went off over twenty minutes ago.

She panicked and Called out to him.

[[I'm here Rusti.]], came the gentle response. [[You know I'd not leave without saying good-bye]]

Rusti flushed in relief and her nerves settled a little. Oh! The dream! Rusti sprang to the edge of her bed. She cautiously opened her right hand, her heart pounded. There, tightly clenched, sat the silver object, opalescent in the light: alive. Rusti's heart stopped cold.

"It's not. It can't be." She breathed to naught but herself. She sat frozen, astonished. Her stomach flip-flopped. Her mind tangled with excitement and anxiety.

The next second Rusti bolted from her room, glad, for once, to have fallen asleep in her clothes. Rusti raced headlong and barefoot toward Central Command.

Her feet could not move fast enough. Her heart fluttered so that it made her light-headed. Never, ever, ever would she expect anything like this from him! Rusti practically skidded along cold metal flooring. At the next corner she slumped against the wall in Central Command's main hall. She vainly struggled to sort out the tangle of thoughts and feelings.

Another gaze at the priceless object in her hand made her think of Cody: he would have married her.

The thought lingered.

What if.

Rusti loved Cody. But she also loved Optimus. But she loved him in ways that seemed complicated, inexpressible; intangible. But her love for him also hurt. Her life was but a breath compared to his, yet she didn't want anyone else, either.

If he was willing to take the risk, how could she do less? He was her life, and nothing would change that.

Rusti gasped and abruptly stifled a burst of laughter. A prophesy made by a nine year old flashed through her mind: "I'm going to marry him when I grow up."

Of course her Aunt Missy didn't take her seriously.
Such perfect irony and she welcomed it like a child into her arms. Rotating the ring between her fingers, Rusti discovered a tiny Autobot inscription on the inside: Noktu; NK'Karv Ch'i'ive; *You Are My Life*.

Tears smeared her vision as Rusti laid her fingertips on her smiling lips. She kept staring at the ring, yearning to try it on. Wait. Wait. Formality. It's important. Rusti rounded the corner.


Optimus slid his finger along the frame of the photograph before carefully placing it in a personal subspace pocket. Some things were far to precious too lose. He leaned heavily against the edge of his desk and glared at the case containing a few other personal items. For once, why couldn't Strike Back be behind schedule? Why couldn't they have found the titanium later? He did not want leave her!

He sighed hard, reminding his grieving spark it'd would only be a couple of months.

He loved the two precious weeks he spent with her on vacation. But it only made him realize that the more time he spent with her, the more he wanted to-He struck the desk.

This was foolish! He had responsibilities to attend. Things were at a critical phase and he dare not allow unrealistic . . .(say it!) desires . . . to interfere with what needed to be done. He hoped-and a selfish hope it was-that she would wait for him. Not just for the few months he'd be on Mars, but . . . but Mechlatex.

Optimus admitted eventually he'd have to confront her about that issue.

The burden of sadness lifted slightly when Prime sensed a certain someone poke his head around the open doorway.

"Good morning Rodimus," he greeted without looking up. Roddi grinned at the 'knew-you-were-there-all-along' tone in Prime's voice. He stepped into the doorway and quite casually leaned against the threshold.

"Normally I'd just barge right in, but.. heh, the door was open."

Prime looked up from under the rim of his helm with a touch of amusement, "Hmmmhmm."

Roddi peeled himself from the doorway and strode into the office. He watched Optimus resume scanning the last few digipads on his desk, making sure he had not overlooked anything. Roddi crouched at the opposite side of the desk and crossed his arms over the corner so as to look up right at Prime. "Could become a dangerous habit ya know."

Optimus nodded once, just slightly but did not look up. He organized and restacked the digipads. "You barging into my office or my leaving the door open?"

"you . . . smiling."

Prime's optics darted up and caught Roddi's satisfied Cheshire grin. He gazed down, slightly shaking his head, unable to stop the Roddi-induced smile from spreading.

"Ah-ha! See? Ya did it again!" Rodimus pointed at him in mock accusation "told ya it was becoming a habit!"

Prime's great shoulders shook slightly in suppressed laughter. Roddi beamed. It was like tickling Rusti and he relished it. But in case Optimus' good mood was fleeting, Rodimus took care not to push his luck. He stood straight, caught in an uncomfortable silence. They both knew Roddi's next words would not be of fun and laughter. He sighed, hating to ruin the mood. "Mags says the shuttle's ready whenever you are." He and Prime finally started learning to rely on one another. Now they were splitting up again. Rodimus hated the idea. He simply could not shake the feeling that things were about to change ... drastically.

Not necessarily for the better.

Optimus simply nodded, "I assumed as much."

Back to business as usual, Roddi mused grimly. He was about to add a smart remark to lighten the moment when he saw Prime hesitate and turn his gaze toward the doorway. Roddi followed Prime's visual destination as Rusti appeared at the door. Roddi's entire expression lit tenfold. "Yo, Rus!" he piped. "Morning, Lady Friend!"

She smiled bashfully at the new nick-name. "Just didn't want to miss saying good-bye." her mousy voice did not match Roddi's enthused tones.

The fact that Rusti had not taken her eyes off Optimus did not escape Rodimus' notice. One thing about his position: whatever was experienced through the Matrix was shared. Roddi wondered if that little bit of truth hit home with his partner, yet. Judging by the stare, he guessed Optimus was not aware that Roddi knew what happened in Australia. "WELL!" he declared, "Seems I have better things to do. Harassing Mags sounds like one of them!"

With a final glance at Prime, he aimed for the exit and made sure the doors hissed shut.

With her hands buried firmly in her jean pockets, Rusti plastered on a sheepish smile. "May I come in?"

Silly question, since she was already there and the door closed. The moment felt surreal.

Prime's locked expression shifted slightly, yet unsure of what to expect from her. He had-as the humans so accurately put it-taken the plunge. Too late to take it back. Win or loose, the die had been cast.

Lost in the moment, her little voice nearly startled him.

"You umm... forgot something."

He froze as she rounded the desk. She drew her hand from her pocket, her fist closed. Guessing what she handed him, his electropulse stopped. His body turned cold. He should have expected this. He had gone too far, asked too much and unrealistically expected her to understand.

Reluctantly he settled on his knees and lowered his hand. She gently placed the simple silver ring in his palm. His broad shoulders fell in despair. "I-I'm sorry Rusti.. I should never-I should have asked. I was thinking only how I felt. I-"

"No Optimus . . . " Her gentle words cut him off. the corner of her mouth twitched, she batted her eyes as she struggled to suppress a smile. He innocently misunderstood. She raised her left hand, ring finger extended. "This is your job."

It hit him and he caught his breath. His face dropped into his hand instinctively trying to conceal his reaction. With a soft sigh he abandon the futile effort and raised his optics to the ceiling above, trying to gather his composure. He lowered to face her, unbelievably relieved.

His gentle expression made the girl's heart flutter fiercely; her skin flushed. No shred of doubt remained in either his optics or his heart.

His unwavering gaze embraced her. He lightly lifted her hand and smoothly slid the ring onto her finger.

His voice resonated deep and quiet. "For the time that we have . . . in this life. No matter what happens . . . no matter what comes. Know that I love you."

Rusti closed her eyes at the sound of his precious voice. Embarrassed by the welling tears, she dropped her stare and simply wrapped herself in the warmth of his hands.


Jayd Hunter/T.L. Arens

To Be continued in DSR