ONE BREATH, TWO
Steve lay on cold floor as though he were dead. No strength allowed him to move though he was conscious and alert. He sensed urgency, but not from within; the link between he and Doctor Kyle Scott had sharpened his own senses to new levels of consciousness.
Not one flicker of light broke through the heavy darkness. Steve did not even know how he came to be where he was. He struggled to think back, but the only memories his mind conjured were tangled threads of some distant dream. Something about power and light and . . . a female? Steve inwardly moaned. Where was Mid in all this? Why hadnít his friend contacted him? A shield stood firmly between them and Steve hoped it was not because Midnight was in trouble and did not want Steve in danger, too. On the other hand, why else would Midnight shield him? He resolved to find his love now and struggled to roll over and get off the floor.
"I know," a familiar voice came from nowhere. "The darkness annoys me, too. Slept enough?"
At first the strong, soft voice startled Parker, but he instantly recovered. "Matt?"
"How . . . um . . ." Steve really didnít know what to ask. Sitting up proved slow since his body did not respond as well as it should. He managed, but sat hunched as though burdened.
"I was searching for Dagger when I staggered over you." Frasierís voice came soft, but undaunted. "At first I thought myself kidnaped and trapped. Then I realized not everything here resembled Cybertron."
"Oh? What do you mean?"
"Such as . . . parts of an airline hanger bay approximately quarter of a mile from here. Or the patchwork of floor panels hovering in mid air. I also encountered moving walls when I found you."
Steve could not tell if Matt was looking at him or not, but in the dark, it did not matter. He searched subspace for an antigrav light. He found one and activated it.
Matt heard the three clicks. "Steve, I would not activate that thing, if I were you."
"It brings unwanted pests."
"Yes. Theyíre about seven to eight feet tall, mostly bone, bad breath and one I crossed utilized four arms."
Steve shut off the antigrav light. "Xenomorph?"
"Unknown. Never saw one before. I had to slice its head off before it finally died. Unfortunately, I made a hole in the floor doing so. They have acidic blood."
As Matt talked, Steve spotted a shape advancing in the darkness. He did not think it was possible to see anything, but there it was, darker than darkness, blacker than the lightless world about them. His fear and curiosity prompted him to force his languid body to move and he did so, slowly, quietly. He stretched with his senses and crawled toward the paper-thin shape.
Matt heard the soft tapping of Steveís exosuit against the cold metal flooring and whispered: "Steve, what are you doing?"
Something warned Parker not to get too close. But he wanted a clearer look. He produced his maglite and lit the world around them. The paper-thin structure turned with a ghastly faceless head and its whole form folded out into a three-dimensional shape. A four-legged spider-like beast stood before the two men. Its triangular head stretched inconceivably toward Steve; its neck still only a two-dimensional structure so that it looked as though the head were held to the body by a long black piece of paper. A mouth gaped open before Parker and two rows of jagged metal teeth gleamed cold but Steve did not think it was his maglite that made them glow.
It hissed in a language Parker never heard before. It was not even remotely familiar. The words themselves sent chills down Steveís back as though they were formed only by evil thoughts and an unquenchable lust. The head withdrew and the form started to fold. It was then that Steve discovered he was weeping as it spoke. The terrible thing spoke straight to his unconscious mind and Steve feared he would dream of its words for a long time to come. His heart raced and he shuddered.
"What do you see?"
Steve forgot Matt was there with him. He had forgotten where he was, how he got there. He fell hard on his knees and Matt swiftly attended him. "Steve! Whatís wrong? Did you see something?"
He could not answer. There he sat, staring into nothing. The maglight lit the area between he and Frasier and it seemed the only means of salvation to Steveís darkened mind. "Thereís things out there, Matt. Things. Donít know. And I donít know where Midnight is. Canít Touch him." He brought his eyes to Frasierís and he calmed.
"You saw something, didnít you? I know that look. I remember how you looked during the conference after you and Kyle returned from Chenobis. You saw something down there; something more than the dog-beasts, didnít you?"
Steveís mouth lined in a slight smile, but he could not bring himself to answer properly. He could not come up with any logical explanation for the shape he saw in the space craft on Chenobis. Not that Matt would disbelieve him, but Steve felt it best to leave the matter alone. His eyes fell to the maglight. They needed to go, but a cloud of reluctance shrouded him. Was it fear? Was it the terror he felt just then? He changed the subject, "how did you find me, Matt? How did you know I was here?"
"I asked all the spiders on the walls," Matt joked. "They didnít know, either. I was at Medbay one moment and someone set emergency protocols in motion. They started evacuating the Organics Division. Dagger tried to phase with me when the lights went out. I heard screaming and went to investigate. The next thing I knew, I was running past several hangers. There was no light until I used an antigrav. Thatís when I encountered that . . . thing you said." Matt stared at Steve, searching for the right word.
"Yes, that was it. I called my suit from subspace just as the thing attacked me. I tossed and shot it. It left a trail of acid along the floor. So I shot its head off."
Steve winced. He remembered far too vividly the number of times the Sentinels encountered Xenomorphs. All of those events took place hundreds of years before their meeting with the Autobots. One instance, the base on Alean was invaded and thirty of their humanoid personnel were ruthlessly killed, six impregnated. Three Sentinels were seriously injured. They finally corralled the creatures and sent them on a one-way trip into an active volcano. And that was when another thought occurred to Steve: "Matt, are we the only ones here?"
"Youíre the only person Iíve encountered, Steve. I tripped over you when I decided not to go forward. This whole place is like a labyrinth from Hell. Thereís a place not far from here where the floor plates are floating in mid air. I seared off a piece of wall and dropped it between the floor and the nearest panel and as far as I know, it never hit bottom."
Steve blinked and stretched his senses. Kyle was somewhere nearby. Where exactly, he could not determine. They had tested their link planet-wide on Cybertron early last year. It didnít matter how far away they were, Kyle and Steve still could sense one another; at least while they were on the same planet. They tried repeatedly to create shields with little to no success. Their link was not like the Sentinel-Humanoid (Tentchi-Dokiah). Rather their link was the result of alien possession. It left them forever changed.
"Dagger." Matt abruptly said, "I know heís here, I just donít know where. I think heís unconscious, offline."
Steve met his eyes, trying to perceive more than what Matt was telling him. "Is he alright? Can you tell?"
"Yes. As far as I know. I just donít know his present location."
Steveís resolve finally gave him enough strength to stand but he found his left shoulder ached uncharacteristically. He tried to rub it through the suit and smiled at his forgetfulness. "I have to find Mid, Matt. I think heís in trouble."
Matt nodded. "And if he is, what do you suppose we can do about it?"
Steve shook his head. "I donít know. Iíll think of something when we get there." He turned to leave, then turned back to Matt. "Where are we, anyway?"
"In a morgue. I already asked the residents here."
A morgue? Steve silently lipped the words and flashed his light from one space to another, all of them marked with names and sealed with the Medbay symbol. He thought about opening the containment units, then thought better of it, imagining what might not be there. He led Matt out of the corridor. Darkness and metal panels met them left to right and tapped under their metal-shod feet. A wall stood firmly behind them and ahead stood a long, long line of five-drawer file cabinets. Steve approached them and laid a hand on one cabinet. "Job applications?" he joked.
"Only for maintenance workers and bug-hunters." Matt opened a drawer and leafed through a series of tightly packed files. "Hmm . . . file on . . ."
Two soft thumps banged the tops of the cabinets before the Tentchi and Matt and Steve looked up simultaneously. The creature loomed in their faces and hissed like a demented cat.
Matt dropped the folder as he and Steve cautiously stepped back. "Someone forgot to feed Rover." He said out the corner of his mouth. Steve simply drew his weapon from subspace and shot haphazardly. He missed the morph but the action gave the men that split-second timing to get away.
They bolted to the right and down a short line of file cabinets. Steve skidded in his tracks when he nearly ran into someone. At first he about screamed at the idiot to leave but realized the person in question was frozen, locked in dimensional stasis. He and Matt routed their way around then ducked when a second morph found them. The two xenomporphs collided and fought one another for a second. The men scrambled, their maglights zipped to and fro like man-made lightning. Then Steve spotted a staircase floating in the air with no rail guard and no supports. He didnít think about asking Matt, he just ran for it and instinctively tapped down. Matt tagged his heels, keeping an extra eye for the morphs.
One morph jumped onto the stairwell and hissed as the Tentchi kept running. There was no wall for the xenomorph to jump to and from, but its supernatural agility allowed it to leap five steps at a time. All three cleared the level and entered another, lit in a soft grey glow.
Steve found he was at least twenty steps from the floor. Matt came two steps behind and Parker decided to just jump. He called his helmet from subspace and leapt.
Matt did the same, hoping Steve knew what he was doing. They leapt into blind darkness and landed in a dreary, silent world bathed in soft grey light. Walls stood dutifully around them, leading to nowhere. But three feet off the floor floated scraps and shards of metal refuse. Matt loudly landed behind Steve and the two ran for whatever cover they could find. If they could jump from a case of stairs, twenty steps up, chances were, itíd be just as easy for the alien to do the same.
But the xenomorph did not attempt the jump. It waited until it was near ten steps before leaping. Steve could hear its clawed feet thunk and scrape the floor under them. He and Matt rounded the labyrinth of walls, turning left and/or right at every opportunity, searching desperately for a place to hide or something that would slow the creature down long enough for them to shoot it. But no opportunities presented themselves.
That is until a dead drop forced the Tentchi to skid in their tracks. Steve threw himself on the ground, but his momentum carried him another three feet. His legs dangled on the edge of the flooring before he managed to stop. Fortunately, Matt saw it and was able to stop sooner. But his action warned the xenomorph behind them and it stopped easily and gracefully in its tracks. It hissed at them.
Steve grinned. "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty. I have a dead end for you."
"Give it a milk bone." Matt suggested.
"I donít have any milk bones."
"Then yank off one of your fingers and use it."
Steve produced his weapon. "I have something better than meat." He fired but missed. Either that or the morph was far smarter than either he or Matt anticipated.
"Itís just an animal, Steve! Just shoot it!"
"Xenos are not just animals, Matt." And he shot at it again. His scanners warned him of oncoming company and Steve shot blindly. The results were effective but not pretty. Both men heard the death-scream of the approaching morph but the distraction allowed the first morph to close on them at a tremendous pace. The Tentchi glanced at one another in silent agreement and they remained steadfast until the very last second when the morph nearly tore into Mattís suit. Matt ducked and Steve kicked the creature in the backside and over the creature went, shrieking as it fell off the brink.
The men peered over the ledge and recalled their helms. Matt batted his eyes. "Well, so much for your new kitty, Steve. You loose more pets that way."
"I donít need pets, Matt. I have you."
They scanned the area, finding the platform they stood upon was completely out of place. There was another floor under them, but no certain way to get down. The stairs they traveled from hung precariously without support or rail, without wall or pillar. Steve flashed his light two and fro, finding an oozing puddle of acid eating away at the floor where he shot the second xenomorph. There were support pillars elsewhere about them, but the pillars served no function. There were two walls that also stood apart, but they also served no purpose.
Steve returned to the stairwell and thought about returning to the other level, but decided against it. Matt approached him with a shake of his head. "Nothing worth writing home about, Steve. Letís get out of here."
"No. Midnightís around here somewhere."
"Steve, we searched this place over and unless heís invisible or so small weíd have to use an electron microscope to find, him, Midnight isnít here."
"No, not here on this platform, Matt. Somewhere down there." Parker paused and again turned his attention to the staircase. "I have a crazy idea."
Steve went to the stairs and tugged at one.
"No way." Matt shook his head.
But it worked. Steve pulled the step out and carried it to the ledge. He knelt, waited a moment then dropped it. The step floated in mid air right where he let go. Parker grinned. "I canít wait to tell Kyle about this." He turned to Matt. "Hurry, get the others."
Matt shook his head, speechless. He obliged his companion and bit by bit the men created their own stair case.
They made it to the lower level, still bathed in a drab grey light. A moderately high temperature stifled the atmosphere and Steve nearly choked when he withdrew his helm. A bloodied stench wafted in the air that smelt raw of reptile.
Matt coughed when he withdrew his helmet, and batted his eyes against the high temperature. "Wh-*hack*-whereís the light coming from, Steve?"
"Donít know." Parker gazed in wonder at the world about them. Light came from nowhere and fell from every direction as though an invisible sun shed an unholy light upon a world locked in silence and death.
Death it must have been, for the very next moment, Steve and Matt encountered two Transformers facing one another, their lip components agape as though locked in conversation before the unnatural event took place. Steve dared remove his right glove and laid his hand on the surface. He felt Matt about to warn not to touch anything, but when nothing happened, the soldier instantly calmed. The Autobotís metal surface generated warmth. Yes, Steve thought, it was generated, not reflective of the air about them. Whatever took place here, left the poor creatures locked in time, completely alive. They were possibly even aware of what was going on around them. But how long they had been frozen like this, Parker could not tell. He patted the Autobot sympathetically.
"Steve!" Matt motioned for Parker to meet him near a wall and Steve turned away and glanced back, now realizing the Autobot he encountered was Fireflight. He sadly shook his head and joined his companion. Matt pointed right and Steve peered round the corner of the wall and discovered a living room standing completely out of place. He glanced at Frasier in stunned silence and the two cautiously made their way in. Chairs and a love seat punctuated the room before a large-screen wall tv, the sort usually found on Cybertron. And upon examining the walls and panels, Steve determined the room was indeed from Cybertron. A food dispenser sat next to an empty table. A sink hung in midair, no counters or cupboards skirted about its nakedness. It was missing some of its own piping.
A front door invited them out and Steve dared try it. It opened just like a regular door, but when he searched the ceiling, he found none. But a light hung as though there was one. He tried the light switch next to the door and sure enough, the light flickered on. He shut it off but not before chills raced down his skin.
Matt passed him out the door then turned back, perplexity written over his face. "What is going on here, Steve? Itís like weíve stepped off the reality train into the Twighlight Zone."
"We most certainly have." Parker followed him out and closed the door behind him. There was no neighborhood, no front lawn, no street lights, but there stood two tall leafy trees. Those were not from Cybertron. Parker recognized them as Earth trees, though he could not figure out why they were here. The soft grey light illuminated three Earth vehicles and another Transformer in the immediate area. A water fountain stood frozen, its water still spraying the air, but neither motion nor noise emanated from it. The funny thought that occurred to Steve was how it seemed that Primus hit the pause button. And he was amused that the thought occurred to him at all.
Half an apartment complex stood near their left. Stairs leading to doors supported a woman holding a child by his hand, the boyís distorted face betrayed his anger. A cat stood stretching its back before the door of the other apartment as the door yawned open and a little girl about raced outside. They were caught living their lives like a three-dimensional photograph.
And in the street before the apartments lay a figure, huddled as though struggling to hide itself from the deathly grey light. Steve needed no second glance. He practically flew from the doorpost between the trees toward the huddled figure.
But Midnight did not move to greet him.
* * *
Rodimus and Voodoo traversed a long hallway, crossing paths with figures suspended in time like cold wax statues caught moving in the middle of a magical night. Rodimus recognized Springer, but not the Human male with whom the Triplechanger walked. There were two other humans Voodoo rounded, their faces set in sniggering laughter, their uniforms clearly indicated they belonged to the EDC of an alternate dimension. Then Rodimus came upon Aerialbot Air Raid and for but a split second, Rodimus thought he spotted movement in shadows. It gave him the surges because it was like blackness against the dark, something seen, but not tangible. He dismissed it as a slight glitch in his optic sensors and silently asked Shan if she felt anything. But all he got from her was a smart remark and he decided to shrug it off.
The hall came to a dead end. To their right stood a doorless room complete with dead computer consoles. A frozen Alternate Kup pointed at an unknown Autobot in a heated argument. Rodimus lingered to see if he recognized anything, or find something useful while Voodoo aimed for the other doorless room. His scanners indicated the room was, in fact, a hanger, a very large one. Judging by its interior, Voodoo guessed it was a hanger designed to accommodate a number of various spacecraft from small rounded shapes to bulky sizes. Anchors and plug-in scanners waited like doctors for a patient. But there were no frozen figures in here. The Sentinel turned and found Rodimus.
"This doesnít seem to belong here, does it?" Rodimus asked quietly.
"The whole place is like a patchwork of mis-matched body parts." Voodoo agreed. "Are we the only living things here?"
"No. Not if you count the xenomorphs."
"And where are they? Kyle says they havenít seen any since that last encounter. Itís like someone rang the dinner bell and they all went home." Voodoo suddenly brightened. His ĎSentinel seekingí sensors kicked in, alarming him as to the whereabouts of their lost companion. "Hey, I know where Dagger is! Come on!" He struggled to transform but pain kept him from his jet mode. He flew in robot form down the long hall and veered left. Rodimus followed, zooming round the frozen figures and following the Sentinel down another long dark hallway. Rodimus nearly crashed into a set of stairs when he transformed and slid in his tracks. Voodoo had already shot upward and landed gracefully.
A lightless world greeted them with dead quiet. Nothing but the staircase met their sensors until Rodimus registered objects about four hundred feet from their position. Voodoo already started climbing the rimless stairwell when the Autobot leader chose to investigate the objects. "Looks like a lunchroom." he reported to his companion.
"You know these steps are just floating in the air? Thereís nothing supporting them at all. And they lead to a floating platform." Voodoo peered over the floor as he approached the top and sure enough, there lay Dagger, unconscious but out of danger. Well, no, the Sentinel digressed, not unconscious. Dagger was just laying there, his fingers moving softly over the steel flooring.
Rodimus picked his way cautiously about the lunchroom, deciding instead that it was a huge cafeteria with no apparent kitchen and no back wall. He approached the wall-less space and found that it was a wall-after a fashion. It moved and swirled as though it were water touched by magic. Against Shanís inner protest, he touched it. His fingers slipped into it and biting cold met them, but not so cold as to cause damage. The wall flowed smoothly about his fingers and Rodimus realized this was a dimensional phenomena. The time flow had destabilized the wall so that it could not remain totally solid.
"Daggerís okay. He says heís just exhausted."
Voodooís report startled Rodimus and he withdrew, remembering they were searching for other comrades. He met Voodoo and Dagger at the bottom of the staircase and lightly smiled at Dagger who returned with a glare. "Not a morning person, eh, Dagger?" he asked in a more cheerful voice.
"I thought I was held prisoner. And whereís Matt?"
"We were looking for Midnight and Steve when we found you." Rodimus turned his gaze to Voodoo. "Can you sense Midnight, Voodoo?"
"Heís not here. And if this is the other end of the level, then Midnight isnít here at all."
Dagger stood apart from them. "Mattís here. But heís not up here. Iím going to go find him."
Voodoo led Dagger and Rodimus back to the main lobby where Kyle, Spellbinder, Kayla and Shan had managed to settle most of the survivors for a few hoursí rest. Voodoo silently knelt before his Tentchi and waited for Kyle to rouse from sleep.
[[Donít have to say anything,]] Kyle mentally sent, [[I know youíre right there.]] His eyes did not open.
[[I just wanted to make sure you hadnít seen the Boogeyman.]]
Voodooís joke sent memory flashes through Kyleís mind, but he could not catch exact things. He chose not to pursue that course. "Everything is okay here." he whispered. "Where will you be going?"
"Dagger seems to know where Matt is. Iím going along for the ride."
Kamrathís baby started fussing and the father tried to hush her back to sleep. Kyle sat up and watched as Kayla offered whatever assistance Kamrath might have needed. "Voodoo," he stated softly, "this place is giving me the creeps. Itís a puzzle wrapped in a riddle."
"What?" [[Whatís that?]]
[[There are people here who are missing body parts, but they have no pain. There are others who are missing articles or pieces of clothing. And then there are others who arenít missing anything at all. Kamrathís wife just died and he was going home to his folks with his baby when this anomaly took place. Vanatta Rawsonís car blew up and she was being treated for minor injuries. She too is missing nothing. Thereís several other people like them and I think it has some significance but I donít know what it is.]]
Voodoo spotted Rodimus and Dagger descending the staircase in the center of the lobby. He beamed warmth toward Kyle and silently rose to join them.
[[Stay out of trouble.]] Doctor Scott warned.
Kyle could feel the tease in those words. He smiled and lay back down, but did not go back to sleep.
Voodoo followed Rodimus past the floor and into a more somber place. Here no light graced the labyrinth of corners and walls. The three Transformers cast their own light and used their own senses to grope their way around the darkness. One wall greeted their left. The rest of the area remained empty. Not one of them spotted so much as a frozen figure until Dagger spotted a series of filing cabinets all arranged in a perfect two-thousand foot line. He jumped down the remaining steps and tapped alongside them for several yards.
"Looks like this place was just for storage." he muttered.
"Itís not from here." Rodimus peered elsewhere, encountering the same morgue Matt and Steve visited not long before. Voodoo scanned their surroundings toward the Ďsouthí and found a huge black wall about forty yards from the cabinets. The great wall stood so black that Voodoo thought he could see his reflection in it. When he stretched to touch, his own reflection did not move with him. He flinched, feeling his laser core vibrate with alarm. It was his reflection but-oh there it goes.
No, wait a minute. Since when did a reflection delay in copying oneself? Voodoo made a separate pose, this time posing like a body builder. Again the reflection did not follow his timing. He waited a moment then it mimicked. "Did you see that?" Voodoo turned to Rodimus.
"The wall. Itís . . . I dunno. Itís not right. Itís supposed to copy me exactly."
"Whatís that smell?" Rodimus didnít mean to ignore Voodoo. He and Dagger rounded the corner and found a nasty puddle of acid slowly eating the metal flooring.
Voodoo decided to abandon his search for logic and scanned the floor. "Xenomorph was here." he reported. "Looks like it might have been a big one."
Rodimus stood and scanned all around them, ignoring the wall. "I donít get it. Why arenít there more of them? I thought xenomorphs come in packs."
"Maybe weíre lucky and there were only a couple." Dagger guessed.
"No." Voodoo countered. "There was a nest there at Medbay. I saw it myself. It just phased in from nowhere."
Dagger frowned. "V, things donít Ďphase iní from nowhere. Someone had to have plant-"
"Sh!" Rodimus cut him off with a hand signal. "Did you hear that?"
"No." the two Sentinels chorused.
"I did." Rodimus treaded with as silent a step as he could manage. Something hissed loudly to his right and before Rodimus could see what it was, Voodoo unceremoniously squashed it like a bug. Rodimus assumed it was a morph attempting to attack him. "Well, that was effective."
"Thank you," Voodoo answered proudly. But the bottom of his foot stung. He smeared it along the floor before extinguishing smouldering metal with lubricant.
"Thereís something up ahead." Dagger declared. He led them quite a ways down an empty hall. There in the darkness stood a lone figure, struggling to move. Rodimus and Voodoo shed light on the figure and both flinched, surprised to face Ultra Magnus.
"Get. These things. Off me." Rodimus realized he was an Alternate Ultra Magnus because the Presence felt different, as though . . . as though he werenít all together . . . Autobot. Rodimus quickly dismissed the feeling. This one was most likely the Magnus belonging to the same world as all the other frozen figures. Dagger shot two Xenomorphs from their perch atop Magnusí shoulders and another from around his neck, distracting Roddyís train of thought.
Rodimus examined the Major-General, taking note how a sheen of blue ice encased only half his body, the upper half remained untouched. His hands moved, but his shoulders would not. "What happened here?"
Magnus struggled to move. "I was inspecting a leak in the um . . . photon generator on the Eastern wall when-" he struggled to move again, "-this force hit me and I hit the generator and-uuurrrg-next thing I know, Iím here and these bugs have been draining my power."
"Theyíre not bugs." Voodoo grunted.
"I think I can free you." Rodimus said after a moment. "But V, you and Dagger will have to move back."
"Is it going to hurt?" Voodoo asked.
"Not you." Rodimus answered. He did not see Magnusí very disconcerted expression. The two Sentinels retreated down the hall and waited.
Rodimus thought about using his laser rifle, but felt it would not provide the kind of power necessary for the task. He decided to use his own arm guns and concentrated on creating a different light frequency, something that might act as a stimulus for the molecules imprisoning Magnus. He shot a golden ray of light and held it steady for several long moments. The molecules started to scramble and emitted a powerful burst of light and a painfully high-pitched sound. The molecules shattered and flared in every which direction. Magnus fell flat on his back and Rodimus stopped firing. He waited until the glow around them died before checking on the Big Guy.
"You alright?" He asked, assisting Magnus to sit.
"Yes. Thank you." Magnus stared at the two strangers as they approached. "Youíre-who are you people?"
"Iím Rodimus Prime. This is Dagger and Voodoo."
"He looks like the real thing." Dagger pointed.
"Of course Iím the real thing!" Magnus answered sharply.
"No," Rodimus interceded. "What he means is you look exactly like our own Ultra Magnus."
Magnus did not know what to say to that. His optics shot from one stranger to the next. Rodimus tried to think of an explanation. "We were hit by an energy ribbon that must have shot us into an alternate dimension-your dimension. Does that help?"
"No." Magnus grunted. "I donít see how an energy ribbon would cause this kind of phenomena. And this isnít my dimension. At least-" here he gazed in three directions, "not the one Iím from. I donít know what this place is."
Voodoo started losing his patience but he forced himself to remain calm. "Maybe something happened in your universe the same time something happened in ours."
Rodimus flinched at Voodooís statement. It made perfect sense, but he wasnít sure if Voodoo himself understood what he just said.
Magnus stood to his full height and gently rubbed an injury on his neck. "Are you three all there is?"
"No." Dagger answered in Roddyís stead. "Our Interfaces are here, too. At least, as far as I know."
Interfaces? Magnus mouthed.
"Yes," Rodimus added, not really willing to take the time to explain. "There are other people besides us. Our companions and some patients and staff from the Cybertronian Medbay Facility are here. But as for your people, youíre the only one weíve found that hasnít been frozen in some kind of time bubble."
"Time bubble?" Magnus asked. "What-"
His question was interrupted when all four heard a THUNK. SCRAP. THUNK. THUNK. Then: RRAAAA-ORRRRRRRGGG! Rodimus, Voodoo and Dagger flashed their lights past Magnus. They saw nothing. Except the floor wavered in a definite shape and it inched toward them with another three THUNKS.
"What in Nine Hells-?" Magnus choked back the rest of his phrase.
"A xenomorph, Iíd think." Voodoo tagged his arm as Rodimus and Dagger already transformed and sped away. Magnus followed their example and transformed as Voodoo dashed down the corridor. Magnus could feel the huge thing tramping after them, its enormous size and weight stomped through the hall like a demon on a rampage. Magnus poured on the speed and the creature still kept up. The four Transformers veered to the right along the dark wall on the other side of the stairwell. It was Dagger who led them right again and down yet another doorless hallway. But it seemed the faster he flew, the longer the hallway became, as if it were dimensionally bewitched.
"Waitaminute!" Rodimus called over their intercoms. "We need to stop and think for a sec."
The four stopped in their tracks as they heard the unwanted guest stomp closer and closer. Rodimus transformed and revved his rifle to its highest setting. "First of all, weíre not Humanoids. Secondly, this thing canít be that big. Thirdly, itís a little outnumbered."
"On the other hand," Voodoo countered as Dagger returned to robotic mode, "We canít see it, we donít know how big it is and we donít know if it can spit acid like the morphs did on Golganenth Seven."
Roddy shot him a look, but refused to run any further. Magnus transformed, glanced behind them and noticed the remainder of the hall wavered as though a sheet of plastic wrap were stretched over the path like a spiderís web.
THUNK, THUNK, THUNK. SCRAP. SWWWAPP, SCREETCH! RRAAAA-ORRRRRRRGGG! Rodimus fired a power-draining shot at the invisible creature aiming for them. The creature balked and color tinted its otherwise invisible exoskeleton. Rodimus stepped back in shock. Voodoo gapped and also stepped back. Dagger cursed profusely and reset his weapon. The creature before them stood close to Magnusí height with a forked tail armed with barbs and a stinger at the end. It looked half-xenomorph and half dragon.
"What did this thing hatch out of," Dagger spat, "a demon?"
"Go up and ask it!" Voodoo snarled, "and while youíre at it, ask it if it has a mate!"
"Donít worry," Rodimus grunted, "Xenomorphs donít come as male/female. Theyíre just . . . reptilian termites."
Voodoo shot him a dirty look. Rodimus missed the joke entirely. However, Voodoo almost swallowed his own wisecrack when behind their predator stomped another beast. This one did not bother with camouflage. In fact, its skin glowed slightly, displaying an impressive array of colors and patterns.
Dagger cussed again and transformed.
"What are you doing?!" Rodimus demanded.
"Iím going to play patty-cake. You three move on."
"Dagger, dammit, youíre NOT going to do this! We leave! NOW!" But Rodimus found he always had to learn the hard way regarding Dagger. He was a lone wolf, not a team player. Well, neither was Voodoo, but at least Voodoo had learned over the years to somewhat agree to Ďassist.í Dagger just did whatever he thought best. He shot off without permission and started firing at ĎXenomorph and Son.í
Voodoo roughly grabbed Rodimus by the shoulder, "We donít have time for this! We have to find Midnight and Steve!"
"I know that!" Rodimus lost his own temper and shoved Voodoo aside.
"Whatís that?" Magnus called loudly when Dagger fired at the first morph with no success.
"Midnight and Steve are two of our companions. We were looking for them when we discovered you."
Magnus quickly reassessed the situation and made a decision. "Tell you what, Iíll cover Dagger, you two go find your friend and meet us back here."
"Weíre not leaving anybody here." Rodimus argued.
Well, there was one constant in the universe, Magnus thought dryly: Rodimusí stubbornness. "You donít really have a choice. You canít rescue anybody with those things on your tailpipe."
"RODIMUS!" Voodoo shouted over one of the screaming monsters, "heís got a POINT! Iím NOT leaving Midnight out there by himself!" and with that, the Sentinel struggled to transform. It proved difficult and painful at best, but Voodooís stubbornness and determination won and although he felt something snap hard within (probably broke), he managed into his alternate mode and shot forward. Rodimus silently regarded Magnus with a mixture of gratitude and reluctance. He didnít want to leave anybody anywhere. He too transformed and bolted down the corridor. Magnus followed their retreat with three shots into the dark, disrupting the flow of whatever was causing the hallway to continue to exist. The bubble wavered and the Autobot and Sentinel passed through before it returned to its over-substantial existence.
Magnus reset his weapon and charged into the fray of battle.
Once Roddy and Voodoo passed the disruption bubble, they discovered the end of the tunnel and transformed. Voodoo landed gracefully beside his companion but carefully hid a painful cringe. He definitely tore or damaged something and he made sure to shield Kyle from the pain. They stared at the floor before them. Large sheets of metal floated in mid air much like the staircase that led them to this level. Voodoo ventured to reach out and touch one, finding it moved much like an antigravity stretcher. He scanned left then right and found the area stretched in a sea of floating panels. To his right ran the corridor that might lead them back to the same hallway where they found Magnus.
Rodimus crossed his arms. "Well, comments? Suggestions?" Not that he really expected anything from Voodoo, but he felt it fair if he gave the Sentinel the opportunity to suggest something.
Voodoo turned to him but pointed his thumb back toward the panels. "I remember how kids of alien traders to Alean used to play hopscotch. I always thought it was an idiotic game."
"Thatís not the kind of comment I was looking for, Voodoo."
The Sentinelís form bent slightly, indignant. "Hey! You asked!"
"I meant something more constructive."
Now Voodoo crossed his arms smartly. "Thatís Kyleís department."
"Well, so much for the comment. How about a suggestion?"
Voodoo didnít think he needed to say anything more. He dared not transform and fly again, not in as much pain as the last attempt caused. The Sentinel leapt upon a panel, steadied himself and jumped to another. He was pleased when Rodimus followed suit after three panels.
Voodoo mentally counted eleven floating panels before they encountered another problem. There was the staircase. And obviously it led to the next level down. But a terrible spacial distortion twisted and danced in an abyss of nothingness. Rodimus caught up with him a second later and they stood silently watching the exotic display of swirling colors and darkness.
Rodimus held his hand toward it. "I can feel the power generated by this thing, canít you?"
Voodoo nodded. "But I think the stairwell is too far for us to jump. I could probably fly us over, but I donít know if Iíd get caught up in the electromagnetic currents or not." He waited two beats to make his own decision then grabbed Rodimus around the waist just before he leapt with an: "Oh, what the hell." And he transformed-surprisingly with less pain-while Roddy tried to find words to match his sudden shock. Of course, he understood why Doctor Scott would get so annoyed by Voodooís spontaneity but moments like this made his knowledge a little more realistic. He quickly adjusted and cringed a time or two when the magnetic waves caused Voodoo to tip dangerously to one side then the other. But they made it to the stairs and Rodimus grasped one as Voodoo landed.
"Well!" Prime announced. "That was fun. Shall we do it again?"
Voodoo silently glared. He hoped he did not damage himself further by Roddyís extra weight. The pain was making him a bit cranky. He tapped his way down the steps, hoping they would not slip out from under him. Rodimus dogged after and they descended for a few minutes until suddenly the stairs disappeared altogether.
"Midnightís definitely here someplace." Voodoo confirmed. Rodimus curtly nodded then advanced into the darkness.
* * *
Midnightís languid form lay in a cold ash color. His body lay partly huddled, as though he were trying to hide from pain. Steve slowly approached his love and hesitated to touch him.
[[ . . . The air hurts me, . . . Steve. It hurts.]]
Steveís heart hurt and for the millionth time, he wished he could gather Midnight into his arms and hold him from all the pain and sorrow the universe inflicted upon them. He swallowed hard but did not discourage his tears from falling. [[What can I do, Mid?]] He carefully caressed Midnightís left arm. Midnightís skin gave far too easily under his touch. Steveís stomach clenched with worry. He withdrew his hand indecisively then decided it was okay to touch his love. Midnight needed to know he was not alone.
Matt was standing some distance from them to give Steve some privacy. He skimmed the immediate area with his eyes and spotted an Aerialbot dangling in the air like a toy plane with no strings. It gave him the eerie sensation of being trapped in a snow globe.
"The Xenomorphs . . . Steve." Mid managed to say out loud, "They came with us."
Steve paled the second Midnight said it; a morph peeked out from the shadows of the apartment building. Matt had already activated his weapon when Steve sidestepped Midís fallen form. He produced his own weapon from subspace. Utilizing the empathy between he and Kyle, Steve stretched out with his senses, touching everything around him; the cold grey-lighted building, Midnightís weakened form, the metal plated flooring, the three frozen figures in the apartment building. Then Steve dared touch the dangerous, unpredictable shadows. Parker pressed forward, sweeping the weapon side to side, straining his senses to listen for a shift in the air, any suspicious molecular movement, anything breathing the wrong way. He felt Frasier not far from him, silently covering those areas Steve himself missed. No words passed between them; Matt had been on so many other Ďbug-huntí missions that he knew in dealing with alien animals, stealth was the best policy.
Whatever hit Steve came so swift and hard it knocked the wind from him and while Steve lost his weapon, he did not lose his balance. He rolled with impact and jumped back to his feet, instantly spot-glancing everywhere around him.
Matt spun about in Parkerís direction and clenched his teeth, determined not to say a single word. He swept his weapon side to side, searching for the perpetratorís form. His heart pounded in his chest.
Steve stretched his senses, searching urgently.
No, not there.
No, not there.
No-wait. The shadow shifted just so slightly and Steve produced a flare gun and fired a wide-spread shot.
The thing struck out, hissing, snapping and drumming the metal ground as it moved. Steve rolled with the strike then used the suiteís own power cells to fire at the creatureís backside as it retreated. Matt fired until he heard it screech. It disappeared into shadows, leaving a trail of sizzling blood behind.
Parker and Frasier cautiously scanned the area. The acid trail gave the creatureís location, but not its form. The men followed it for some distance, taking note how the grey light fell to a lesser degree here. They momentarily lost the trail but Matt kept going, determined.
No trees or sand or anything out of the ordinary stood this side of Midnight. Then just before the Tentchi decided to abandon their pursuit, light called to them. It was not the same aimless grey light coming from nowhere, but a single intense radiance shedding from a definite source above their heads. Matt pressed forward first, sweeping side to side with his gun. Steve glanced over his shoulder toward his love but could not see Midnight through the vale of darkness. He was torn between backing up Matt and going back to his love. He did not sense an immediate danger from Mid, but he did not want to leave his Dokiah alone, either.
"You are now entering the Twighlight Zone. Have a nice day!" Mattís voice carried some distance and Steve automatically followed it. Not more than five steps later, Steve realized why Matt cracked the joke. The fragment of a hospital ward filled that part of the world. Half a nurseís station stood under the flickering light of a dying neon. Papers and digipads lay scattered across the floor as though someone tossed them in every which direction. The hall stood abandoned and dismal. Three gurneys stood empty. A lunch cart displayed an array of uneaten afternoon meals. Nearby, shadows on the wall betrayed the presence of two people. But when Matt and Steve approached the shadows themselves, they found there were no figures, Humanoid or otherwise, casting those shadows. The Tentchi exchanged a doubtful glance. Steve placed his hand on the shadow and his hand, too, darkened as though someone were there, blocking the light. But there was no one projecting the shadows at all. Mattís eyes remained enlarged but he did not retreat. Steve followed him more slowly this time, peeking into one room and finding the bed sunken in, as though someone were occupying it, but no body lay there. The television above the bed was on, but only static hissed across the screen.
Matt took a right turn down the well-lit hallway and found several other shadows lining the walls. But again, no owners were visible. Photographs held figures without faces and empty name plaques under them. It was the windows that finally tested Mattís nerve. A swirling darkness twisted outside them like a hurricane comprised of souls. Matt reached to touch the glass and watched in horror when his reflection was delayed by several seconds. But the more chilling reality came when Matt saw his nose and his mouth as normal, but his eyes had been plucked out. He closed his eyes and spun away, unable to watch. When he opened his eyes, only darkness met them and his breath caught in his throat. He flayed his arms in a panic until his sight suddenly returned. Freaked, he spotted Steve approaching and ran to his companion.
"No, Steve, donít go down that way!"
"The windows . . . they tried to steal my vision!"
There were no windows when Steve gazed down there. Several headless mouths growing from the walls gnawed on limp forms of color with horrible teeth. Steve could not tell what the colored forms were except they were long shapes. The floor beneath wallowed in a pool of soft liquid light. He closed his eyes for a moment and hoped when he looked again, everything would be normal.
But it was not. He took Mattís hand. "Letís just get out of here." They retreated to the nurseís station, tramping on fallen papers, struggling to ignore the three new shadows now cast along the walls and the floor.
"What is this place, Steve?" Matt did not bother hiding the terror in his voice and Parker could sense his anxiety. He stopped in his tracks, causing Frasier to do the same and he exemplified his leadership by taking a deep breath.
"Okay, I need to think for a minute."
"You know what those things are, donít you?" Matt stared at him with a hard expression. "You saw something there that I didnít, didnít you? Just like the morgue back there. Just like Chenobis-Ď
"YES! Matt." Steve shouted before he caught himself. He took a second to control himself, to calm. "I see things from time to time. Why Iím seeing them more frequently here . . . is something Iím trying to understand myself." He paused and glanced all about them; spying the fragment of Medbay, the vale of darkness, considering the home they passed though, the upper level, the morgue and the distressing dreams prior to his waking. Steve shuddered and thought about the female embodiment of the Matrix. No, not female; it just resembled a female. But why? Why would it come to him as something like that? Why did it approach him at all? And was it not above the gender-thing? And it spoke-but now Parker could not clearly recall everything, at least not yet. His mind still swirled with visions and confusion, with empathy regarding his Dokiah and Kyleís own confused state. They were here. This was reality, but it was twisted, like the guts inside a black hole.
Calmed, he now faced his companion again. "Hereís what I think:"
"Okay." Matt braced for the strangest explanation of his life.
"I think that when the energy ribbon hit Cybertron, a similar time phenomena happened here-or at least the here of which this place is a part. I think the two events somehow crossed and twisted, forming a temporal reality that is constantly recreating itself." Steve paused and searched above for a sky or a ceiling but all he saw was a dark mistiness that swirled restlessly.
"And?" Matt pressed. But Parker did not answer right away. "Steve, I know thereís more. What is it?"
Parker shook his head. "I donít have enough information yet, Matt. I think thereís more to it. I think something else is involved here."
"You mean a third party, maybe the party that collected the files we looked at earlier by the morgue?"
"No. Not that. This . . . Thing does not bother with files. At least that I am aware of. No. There is another Darkness here." Just as he finished his answer, a shocking shiver hit Steve down the back and he gulped air. Without a word to Matt he dashed through the dark vale, back to Midnight.
Matt called him again and again, but Steveís heart and mind were on his Dokiah, in danger. He returned to the apartments and slid in his tracks. Xenomorphs covered Midnight head to toe like a clutter of spiders round a single helpless prey. Their bodies were clearly seen, their mottled colors shimmered in radiance. They were feeding off Midnightís energy. At first, Parker stood there, shocked beyond words or movement. That was not normal for xenomorphs. They should not have this ability! Then one Morph turned and hissed at him.
It was not a wise thing to do.
Abandoning all common sense, Parker gave a shout and attacked the hissing Morph. Its whipping tail snapped out but it was not enough to deter Steveís attack. It and he fell from Midnightís body in a somersault of arms, legs and tail. Steve landed on top and the beast whistled in a high-pitched tone but Steve promptly cut it off with a punch to its mouth, shattering several teeth.
"Get off him!" Matt hollered nearby but Steve paid no mind. The monster hissed and snapped, but Steve dared not punch its mouth again. He pinned it to the ground with his foot, balled both fists and struck down at the monsterís nose. Suddenly he was pulled off and pushed away. Matt pinned the monster down by the neck and fired directly into its chest. The creature did not move again and a pool of acid leaked from underneath it.
"Goddamit, Steve, always shoot somebody before you beat them up!" Mattís eyes drifted from Steve to Midnight. "Holy mother of God," he whispered. "Where did they all come from? What are they doing?"
Steve did not answer. His visor fed him images of freaks with twisted bodies. Two of them shouldered double heads. Others had four arms or two and three tails. One morph beheld the world with four eyes.
Steve fired at the savage things, scattering them like a flock of carrion birds. But they came right back. Matt tried to keep his shots above Midnightís body. But all it did was enrage the hunt of xenomorphs and three of them leapt off Midnight, knocking the two men to the ground. Steve did what he could to keep the freak that pinned him from biting off his face. He even turned his weapon upward to shoot, but realized the acid blood would damage the suit.
A burst of light blinded him and with a squawk, the morph was blown off Parker. Steve jumped to his feet to see what happened. His first thought was that Midnight managed to blast the creature off him, but when Steve spotted Rodimus Primeís red chassis, he understood.
Voodoo picked and flicked morphs from atop Midnight as though they were fleas. Those morphs stupid enough to return were vaporized. Matt sat there on the metal floor and just stared at their rescuers. Steve sank to his knees, too grateful for words.
Voodoo grinned while Rodimus carefully examined Midnight. "Youíre welcome," he teased.
Without thinking, Steve blinked at the Sentinel, "How did you find us?"
"Magic." Voodoo automatically answered. "I sensed Midís presence and followed the scent . . . sorta."
"Heís okay. Soís Shan, and Kayla."
"Kayla?" Matt stood and checked his suit for damage. "Is there anyone else thatís here? I mean, are we all-"
"No." Rodimus murmured his answer. He scanned Midnightís electropulse. "Several people from Medbay are here too."
"Thatís not the fun part." Voodoo added, "we found this, uh, alternate-reality Ultra Magnus up there."
"Howís that?" Steve asked. He watched Rodimus carefully examined Midnight for external wounds or punctures.
"Well," Voodoo replied, uncertainty clouding his voice, "he said his name was Ultra Magnus and he *looked* like Magnus-"
"Iíd hate to cut you off, V," Matt abruptly interrupted. "But I suggest we evacuate the area immediately."
The other three followed his visual path. A congregation of xenomorphs approached from the vale of darkness, leaping over one another in anticipation of a bloodfest.
"Crap!" Steve shouted. "Whereíd they come from?"
Without an answer Voodoo moved to take up Midnight but Rodimus stopped him. "You take the other two. We can run faster and if something happens, you can fly them out."
Voodoo understood the logic, but he wasnít about to leave anybody down here. He helped Rodimus carefully collect Midnight off the floor as Steve and Matt readied their weapons to cover Rodimusí escape. Once Rodimus started moving, the other three followed, taking pot shots at their pursuers.
"Back to the house!" Steve shouted into the comline. "Thereís a case of stairs-"
"We know!" Voodoo answered.
Rodimus approached the two trees when a cloud of light shot out from nowhere and struck him hard. He fell to his knees in surprise and bowed over, sheltering Midnight with his own body. Steve and Matt skidded along the metal flooring behind Voodoo as the terrible shapeless cloud of light mutated into a set of yawning jaws. The Tentchi kissed the ground, calling their helmets from subspace as the light passed harmlessly over them and struck the obsessive xenomorphs. Their forms fried in the lightís wake, their screams pierced Parkerís sensors and sent chills down his back and arms.
Then it was over like a sudden storm come and gone. In spite of the protective armor, his skin hurt and his head ached. Steve slowly unfolded his huddled body and examined the area. The xenomorphs lay on the ground, nothing more than piles of dark dust resembling their former shapes.
Matt took to his feet, stepping behind. "What was that?"
"I-I donít know." Steve glanced at his companion before gazing skyward. "Maybe some alternate city defense system."
"Thatís one hell of a security system." Voodoo snorted.
"I donít think it was a security-"
Steve cut Rodimus off with a "What is that?" They all fell quiet, watching and listening until they all heard it; a faint scream followed by a cry for help in the distance.
"A survivor!" Voodoo surmised. His words were followed by the scream of a different voice. The four of them stood there for half a moment, very much indecisive. Steve did not want to leave Midnight alone with anybody. But if Rodimus were to investigate, it would leave he, Matt and Voodoo alone with Midnight. And who knows what else might be there to attack them? Parker sighed heavily, taking on the burden of investigator. Better that he leave Midnight with Voodoo and Rodimus. So without another word, he darted off. Voodoo and Matt called after him, but Steve ignored their pleas.
He cringed when Rodimus ordered him back, but Steve had made his mind. "Go on, Iíll catch up," he called into the comline.
Rodimus vehemently argued, but it did him no good. "Iíll catch up, I promise," Parker insisted. He overheard Voodoo argue with Matt-that Matt was going nowhere. Voodoo would follow Steve himself. But Matt argued about Midnightís condition and that Voodoo was the only one who could fly.
Matt caught up with Steve, a little perturbed that Steve would take such chances alone.
"I know, I know." Steve practically sang. He ignored Mattís grumbling and followed the readings on his scanner.
Parker led Frasier around a maze of half-places; a small grocery store, a parking lot with empty cars and a childís room stood eerily in the darkness with stuffed animals sitting on the bed, staring at the Tentchi. Matt shuddered when his maglite lit the eyes of a teddy bear. It sat there, seeming so innocent, but its eyes flashed with an evil light. Matt glanced up and found Steve already gone.
"Steve?" he called, "Steve, dammit, will you stop taking off like this? Steve?" He raced out and slammed head first into an invisible shield. He floundered around until his maglite found him, rolling from another direction. Frasier picked it up and pressed his hand against the shield. It remained steadfast, but it was neither glass nor plastic. He swung back, flitting his light to and fro, searching for his lost companion. Frasier took another avenue, steadily making his way down a street ally that opened into a wide empty area cornered by three metal walls.
There Steve stood, entranced by a light flickering on one of the large metal walls like a candle in a draft. Matt joined him and stared at Parkerís blank expression, a little worried. The wall, however, stole his attention when a light flashed a scene on the wall as though it were playing a silent movie.
Chills pricked Steveís back and cold lumped the pit of his stomach. The event looked so real, so unreal. A huge room containing one table was crowded wall to wall with aliens of species Steve knew nothing about. At one side sat an elderly Spike and Carly Witwicky. Not far from them sat Rodimus and Optimus Prime and near them sat Ultra Magnus. Other aliens cluttered the table and each talked over one another in a flurry of either excitement or anger.
One alien jumped to his feet and drew a weapon, aiming at another party. Roddi rose, drawing his own weapon, shouting, though Steve heard nothing. Then one alien slammed against Rodimus on the right, causing him to fire. The fight between two other aliens caused his aim to go wild and he shot Spike, evaporating the Humanís body entirely.
The alien next to Carly whisked her up and waved her about like a prize. The alien that sat on the other side of Spike tried to wrest Carly from her captor. The two creatures fought and wrestled until-
Steve turned away before he saw Carly Witwickyís death. His heart ached and his stomach clenched hard. Emotions overrode his thinking for the moment and he almost did not realize the wall fell back to its usual dark self.
Steve narrowed his eyes and dared to touch the wall. It felt just like any other wall on Cybertron. He used his suit to scan it and came up with no anomalies, nothing out of the ordinary.
"What did we just see?" Matt abruptly asked.
Parker shook his head. "Dunno. A ghost-image, perhaps. But itís hard to say. Might be a psychic projection of an actual event."
Another scream demanded their attention and Steve dashed first, leaping over a forest of dusty office furniture and broken living room accessories. The Tentchi rounded an empty plaster wall and traversed a short dimly-lit corridor which chopped off abruptly. The area cleared into another open space, lit from an eerie far-off glow, as though by firelight. Five huddled Humanoid figures stood against a far metal wall, cringing. At their feet lay three dead figures. The first figureís flesh had been chewed straight to the bone. Another lay as fresh kill. The third was currently yanked and masticated by powerful invisible jaws.
"Help us!" a female begged. The monster phased to visibility and it turned toward Matt and Steve and hissed. Repulsed by both its size and shape, Steve took a step back. It was not a morph as he had seen. Its monstrous size carried a pair of forearms that narrowed into a pair of powerful claws. Its jaw dropped below its neck and displayed a set of fangs the length of a manís arm. The rest of its body resembled a spider, truncated at the thorax. Four long legs scratched the surface of the flooring, creating a nerve-rending screech.
"There was an old lady who swallowed a spider, that wriggled and tickled and giggled inside her.-Gotcha! Game end, sister."
Steve and Matt turned and found Rodimus standing behind them. His optics burned bright blue. Gashes and dents marred the surface of his chassis. He looked as if he had crawled from the Pitt. He paid them no mind as he rigged a hand-made crossbow and aimed it at the freakish thing across the room. The morph screamed at him and Steve swore had there been any glass nearby, it would have shattered.
The morph started to charge the Autobot leader and Rodimus fired a vibro-arrow in its direction. But the thing swerved a hard right and retreated. Rodimus swore profusely and gave Steve and Matt a fleeting glance. "Love to chat, gotta fly." And he bolted after it.
It took a few seconds to register in Steveís mind what just happened. What the hell was going on?! Why wasnít Rodimus with Midnight?! Why did he leave Voodoo alone? "Crazy machine!" Steve spat. He hustled after, hoping Matt would just stay put and keep an eye on the survivors. He ran in near-blind darkness, hearing nothing but his own breath. Where did Rodimus disappear to? He encountered a dark wall and part of a floating ceiling. They stood in the middle of nowhere, so out of place like a well in the middle of a desert. Steve took a right turn and the world stretched into a long walkway broken three times by other partitions. He was completely alone, standing in an empty alien world. Parker recalled his helmet and breathed in the heavy humid air. His lungs wheezed with the sudden change in atmosphere. Steveís scanners warned him of massive life form readings to his left. But Steve saw nothing but an abyss of darkness. No flooring, no lighting except the same eerie fiery glow ahead. And no sign of Rodimus Prime.
Steve considered abandoning his pursuit and returning to Matt and the others, but he felt compelled to investigate further. He wanted to kill Rodimus for leaving Midnight alone-not that Voodoo was incapable, or anything. But dammit, werenít they in enough trouble already? Parker decided to advance just a few yards more before turning back. He didnít like leaving anybody, but dammit, if Rodimus was going to play games-
And that was when Steve realized something wasnít right at all. It wasnít like Rodimus to just do things like this on his own. It wasnít like him to leave his friends undefended. That went double for Steve and Midnight.
A caterwaul disrupted Steveís thoughts and several feet stomped and beat the floor so that Parker thought he felt the vibrations.
Steve dropped as the same spider-like morph came skittering his way. It roared and leapt for the edge of the abyss when something else whizzed in Parkerís ears and smacked the alienís backside. As it flew into the darkness, the morphís body exploded. Steve recalled his helmet from subspace and still instinctively covered his head.
Two metal feet softly touched the flooring on either side of him and a heavy sigh followed. "Itís alright. Youíre safe now."
But all Steve could think about was Midnight. He jumped to his feet and snapped back his helm. "What the HELL is wrong with you?! You just took off like that and left Voodoo and Midnight alone? Rodimus! I canít believe you did that!"
Rodimus smiled in his usual easy-going fashion and twirled the crossbow once before attaching it to his backside. "Well, I donít know who youíre talking about, but youíre welcome. Now, who are you?"
The question caught Steve completely by surprise and he
stared, dumbfounded. "Have you fried your logic chips or something? It isnít funny."
Rodimus Prime got down on his hands and knees and stared intently optic-to-eye at Steve. Steve recoiled. Midnight never stared at him in this fashion. It was very intimidating to see the face of someone so big this close. "I used to think I was sane. That was before the dreams started." Prime glanced up and about them, taking in the drear light. His optics narrowed as he frowned. "Iím pretty sure this is nothing but a dream. Iíll wake up tomorrow and spend the day with Rusti or pushing pointers on digipads. Maybe Iíll pull a prank on Mags. Havenít done that in a couple of weeks."
Distantly they heard an insentient scream. It sent chills down Parkerís backside, but Rodimus Prime didnít seem the least bit affected. "In case youíre here to argue about it, I saw It once in the Matrix; black and flat like Earth paper, and I called to It. But someone else gained its attention. Was it you?"
Steve about fainted. The Matrix! He swallowed air and blinked, longing for real light. "Youíre not . . . our Rodimus Prime."
Gracefully, slowly, Prime withdrew, sitting on his knees, staring at the Tentchi. The madness in his expression winded over him and was gone. "I am Rodimus Prime. Whoíre you?"
"A long story." Steve perked with a smile.
"Uhhuh." Rodimusís voice came coolly and he stepped away from Parker. "I donít have time for one of those." He turned and started walking on.
"Waitaminute!" Steve called after, "where Ďre you going?"
"To wherever this stupid dream leads me."
Rodimus did not look back. Steve fought to his feet and ran after the Autobot. They passed several walls and the remains of three very large xenomorphs. Steve gaped at them, assuming this Rodimus Prime was responsible for their deaths. "Youíre not in a dream." he explained. "Weíre trapped in a bubble reality."
Rodimus glanced back, "you know, it makes sense. I go to sleep, I dream. I wake up, I dream. Itís all coming clear, now. Thanks for simplifying it for me."
Steve crossed his arms. "What about the other people we left behind? I have to get back to my friends, but itís not safe enough to do it alone."
Rodimus lightly hit his own head. "Oh! Youíre asking for my help! Well, lemme explain a thing or two to you . . . whatíd you say your name was? Sparky?"
"Steve. Steve Parker, Captain."
Rodimus smirked. "Okay, Sparky, Iím Little John. I lived in a huge city packed with 1.9 million people-thatís Autobots, Paratrons, Humans and aliens. Suddenly, it gets dark, Op tells me thereís trouble and heís gonna shut down the city, see? And then I find myself sucked straight into the ground, I have a fight with this . . . I dunno, a piece of black paper and blamo, here I yam!"
Steve ordered himself not to get perturbed at Primeís attitude. Obviously, he was very confused, just like everyone else. "Okay, letís try this again."
Rodimus narrowed his optics and held his out his hand, fingers spread. "Five seconds, Sparky. Iím a busy bot."
Steve nodded. "My name is Steve Parker, Iím here with my friends and Interface partners. The rest are survivors from the Cybertronian Medbay Facility. Weíre here on accident. I donít think itís a place at all. I think weíre trapped in a dimension without solid foundation. I think the energy ribbon that crossed Cybertron created a time fracture and resulted in a bubble reality."
Rodimus held his hands out in front to ward off the verbal overload. "Okay, wait a minute. You lost me somewhere back there. Wanna rewind that and play again in slow motion? On second thought, no, I think I follow. Youíre saying weíre Here, but Here is not really Here, but somewhere Out There, right?"
Steve only blinked, hoping he understood what Rodimus was trying to understand.
Rodimus relaxed his pose and pointed with one finger. "Okay, there was an emergency. Optimus and I had to shut down Fortress Maximus. I landed unconscious on the floor and woke later in this Wonderland from Hell that comes complete with monsters."
Parker did not know how to answer that. His heart rate suddenly jumped and for a moment, Steve felt his skin burn through the suit. He laid his hand on his chest. The sensations were coming from Midnight and Steve feared for his love. He hoped Midnight was not starting to fade. "I have a friend who needs immediate care. But if that monster is one of several youíve already killed, chances are, even with Matt and me defending them, neither we nor the other survivors will make it back alive."
Roddi wiggled his finger and started back down the path. "Maybe youíd better see this."
Steve lost all expression. He didnít like how Rodimus suddenly became serious. He followed Prime down the walk and to the right. A blinding yellow light burned his eyes until they adjusted. Before him stood a very large, floating construct. In the space of abysmal darkness hung a zig-zagged honeycomb nest. Brittle dark walls secreted from the alien species filled the area before them and therein doctors, nurses, patients and other staff members from Medbay dangled in glowing cocoons.
Steve dared a few steps forward and scanned. His readouts gave him a frightening glimpse of what was to come: the dimensions of the nest itself were unrealistic. The number of life forms therein were undetermined, but Steve could tell just with his eyes and optic scans that he stared at something the size of a large town; stretching 10, maybe 15 miles. But rather than spreading out, the nest extended vertically.
Steve breathed in then breathed out. "What are we going to do? How much time do we have?"
"Not much. Theyíve started building a bridge. Those things Iíve killed I think are merely scouts. These things come in all sizes and shapes."
Parker finally turned to the Alternate Rodimus. "We gotta leave now. We need you to come with us. Thereís nothing else around here for you to do."
"Youíre right." Roddi answered casually. "If Iím to dream of ghosts and little people and funny-looking monsters, I might as well play my role of hero." He started on the road back to the survivors, leaving Steve to linger another moment. To his relief, Parker spotted nothing more. No paper-thin monsters, nothing coming out of the walls eating what might have been Human souls.
He did, however, smile. Roddy was going to freak over this.
They returned finding Matt managed to keep the survivors calm, huddled against the wall. Steve did not feel it wise to discuss the nest in front of the others, spreading more anxiety and panic among them. He waited until Rodimus Prime volunteered to haul the small group of survivors back to Voodoo and Roddy. Steve and Matt sat quietly in the front seat as Rodimus carefully drove through darkness and grim light.
Matt didnít seem to know what to say in answer to Steveís discovery; either of Roddi or the nest. As they approached the ghostlike apartment area, Matt stirred with a deep breath. "You said weíre in a temporal reality, Steve. Doesnít that mean that all this would soon just fade away and weíll be back to our own normal dimensions?"
Steve carefully thought it over, "I donít think I can answer that yet, Matt. I donít know enough about this place to say."
"And why is that?" Roddi asked out of the blue.
"Because itís a bubble reality and just about anything can happen. If things go badly enough, it might cause a fracture within this tiny universe and cause it to loop."
"Loop?" Matt searched for signs of their three robotic companions, but saw nothing.
"Loop." Steve answered, "as in causality loop. It means that events will start to repeat themselves over and over."
"I take it thatís not so good." Rodimus added. "It means weíll get caught in it, doesnít it?"
Steve protruded his lower lip. "Something like that, yeah."
Roddi breaked in front of the two trees outside the house and the passengers cautiously stepped out one by one. Roddi transformed as Steve took account their new companions. A middle-aged man assisted a cranky elderly lady. Two nurses from Level Two Organics wore confused expressions. One male Andorian came with almost nothing but a robe and underwear. Steve sensed their bewilderment and fear and wondered what Matt did to keep them so calm. It was then that Steve realized the Andorian was missing the right eye and antennae. It didnít seem to bother him; he moved around as though he didnít notice his eye was gone. But it gave Steve the willies. That was before he realized one nurse was missing the back of her uniform. Again, she did not seem to notice and somehow the uniform remained on her. The other nurse was missing her left ear and some of her hair.
What did it all mean? Did they come here Ďincompleteí, or was it an affect of the time disturbance? Parkerís eyes shifted to the mid-aged gentleman and noticed he was missing nothing.
Matt sighed heavily. "Well, I donít see anybody. You donít think something happened, do you, Steve?"
His question was answered when Voodoo descended upon them in jet mode then transformed not so gracefully before them. Steve took note how the Sentinel cringed and wondered if something happened to cause him so much pain. Voodoo was usually more graceful than that. "So nice of you to join us, Captain Parker." Voodoo greeted rather icily. "Next floor: Organics Morgue, Personal Files, Floating panels, Two Godzillas, Dagger and Ultra Magnus." The opticless Sentinel paused a moment, staring at the Alternate Rodimus Prime. If he could, Voodoo would have blinked. Instead, he crossed his arms and took an offensive stance. "Iím not seeing this."
"Oops. Sorry, V." Steve muttered. "Voodoo, uhm, this is Rodimus Prime from another reality. Rodimus, this is Voodoo, Sentinel warrior, from my home . . . reality." Steve felt like laughing at his invented nomenclature.
"Damn." Voodoo softly swore. "He looks just like the real thing, doesnít he?"
"I AM the real thing. Now if youíre done gawking at the latest edition to the Cybertronian space zoo, we can leave."
"Oh! Heís good!" Voodoo retaliated, setting his hands on hip plates. "Not as brilliant in form as Roddy, but heís good."
"Ye-e-eah." Parker dragged. "Letís deal with the insult contest later and get everyone out of here, okay?" Steve did not know how much time Midnight had before he would fall into stasis, or how much damage he sustained to begin with. Parker inadvertently clutched his chest. If Midnight were to collapse into stasis, it meant the shields between them would fail and Steve himself would fall into a similar coma.
Matt grinned ear to ear, struggling not to laugh. He tapped up the floating stairwell first. Steve ushered the survivors ahead of him before he eyed Voodoo, hoping the Sentinel would give Roddi room to go ahead.
Matt arrived on the False Upper platform first, scanning for unwanted life forms just as the gentleman arrived. "No roaches up here." Frasier reported. He made room as the old woman and the nurses alighted. The Andorian puffed up next, followed by Steve and Prime.
"They fled when they heard me coming." Voodoo joked.
"Wait." Steve paused and glanced about them. His bright blue eyes shot in every direction, particularly the shadowy walls and the awaiting stairwell.
What?" Voodoo demanded impatiently.
"If it doesnít take us any brains to get up here, how easily could it be for the morphs to follow us?"
Matt growled. "Steve, canít we just think about our deaths later and rejoin Roddy and Mid?"
"He has every right to worry." Rodimus interrupted. "Those things learn fast and if theyíre assembled in a group, they teach each other. Weíll have to invent new ways to attack them, keep them off guard until Pest Control arrives."
"There is no Pest Control." Steve grunted. He led the party back to the stairwell, knowing most of the stairs werenít there anymore. He supposed Voodoo and Rodimus would have to do all the lifting and carrying. Parker turned to Matt. "You and I may have to let the others go first, Matt."
"But I have a wife and kids!" Matt joked.
"Forget the wife. And you can always have more kids."
"What about my dog rover?"
"Your STUFFED TOY is safe at home."
TAP, TAK, TAK, TAP, TAK. The resounding, familiar hiss of approaching xenomorphs caught their attention. Steve drew his weapon and ran it left to right in a steady sweep. "Sounds like the nest heard their doorbell."
"NEST?!" Voodoo startled. "You found THE nest?! MY nest?"
Rodimus tapped him hard on the arm and signaled to get the others up the stairs. Voodoo realized he was making more noise than action and thought about transforming. But the very idea made him wince in remembered pain and he decided to simply carry their guests in his hands and fly up. He aided the survivors first then gave Steve and Matt a hand before hauling Rodimus. But Voodoo was running low on energy and could only carry Prime as far as the stairs started from under the next level. Rodimus didnít question the action. He leapt for the first floating stair and dashed up. He waited for Voodoo to follow and once the Sentinel was safely on the upper level, Prime shot the stairs into fragments while the scout xenomorphs wailed in frustration far below them. Roddy turned to his companions, not meaning to ignore the one nurse who wept in fear. Steve stared into the dark abyss swirling around them.
"Where to now?" Prime asked.
Steve turned to Voodoo with the same question in his eyes. Voodoo pointed right and there floated another case of stairs, this one far shorter than the last two.
Matt grunted, "I feel like Iím lost in some demented video game."
"Go!" Rodimus ordered. Steve and Matt aided the weary survivors as Voodoo fled up and Prime tagged behind for safetyís sake. Voodoo touched the upper level first then held his hand out to Steve as a warning.
"Heard something. Hold back there." The Sentinel advanced cautiously, his scanners set on high. He knew he heard something, but it was already gone before he could identify it. Maybe it was a morph. Maybe something worse. Maybe it was Ďnoiseí from Kyle, but with the shields he carefully held between them, Voodoo didnít think heíd hear much more from his Tentchi than his voice.
No. It wasnít Kyle. Voodoo dared several steps more, paying no attention as Steve and Matt allowed the others up. Rodimus followed suit, making sure he had enough room to act as back up in case Voodoo was ambushed. The darkness seemed to clothe their skins in spite of the red emergency lighting.
"Weíre going to die!" the one nurse wept. "Oh gawd, whatís going to happen to us?"
Steve clamped a hand over her mouth, "Shh!" He waited for something to leap out at them. But nothing called his attention either with his own senses or from the Transformersí sensors. They waited and watched and waited more. Gradually, one step at a time, Voodoo led them back to the file cabinets.
"Oh gawd, no!" the nurse wailed again. "More stairs? We donít have to climb these, too, do we? Do we?"
"Whatís your name?" Voodoo asked directly.
"Haynie. Haynie, would you please shut up?"
Steve shot Voodoo with his burning blue eyes. "Voo-" but he got no further when the cabinets sunk down under extreme weight. From their right, behind the stairwell, a laser sounded, slamming into the cabinets, missing their targets.
The Ďweightí abandoned its invisibility shield and bellowed in the direction of the attack. Steve about swallowed air and yanked Matt to the ground. "Get down!" he shouted to their companions. Most of them obeyed as a stream of concentrated acid spewed from the over-sized xenomorphís mouth. Haynie screamed as the morphís voice blasted. It was matched by Daggerís engines as he tore forward in jet mode. He stopped abruptly spotting Rodimus and Voodoo below him. Rodimus charged the morph as Voodoo stood over their Humanoid companions. Dagger transformed and landed hard. He kicked the morph in the face as it leapt for him. Another laser zapped from the right and Ultra Magnus leapt from almost nowhere, slamming his huge body square into the monsterís middle. The morph screeched and the two slammed the floor, bone and metal scraping metal. Magnus dodged as the morph spewed another stream of acid. He socked a fist into the morphís neck then swiftly side-stepped as Dagger darted from behind and kicked its hind quarters.
The morph hissed and swung around, mouth wide open, steel teeth gleaming wet. Rodimus took advantage of the second and aimed a shot into its throat. The impact knocked the creature off its powerful legs, sprawling like a bug hit once by a rolled news paper.
Another caterwaul sounded above them and the group simultaneously gazed skyward. Another morph radiated soft light from its body. It hung upside down from the metal ceiling, clinging to it with long deadly talons. It jumped from ceiling to stairwell to floor and assaulted Ultra Magnus. He plunged in a painful grunt. Voodoo leapt to his rescue as the other morph assailed him. But Dagger intervened and blocked the first morph from Voodooís path. Dagger groaned as the morph bit deeply into his shoulder. Magnus struggled to get his foot under the glowing creatureís underside with no success. The monster hissed and acted strangely. Rather than end Magnusí life, it pinned him hard and settled on top. It radiated a soft light, somehow causing Magnusís optics to glow. He acted as though he were suffocating.
"Voodoo!" Steve cried. "Itís draining his life force!"
Voodoo slipped his hands under the morphís neck and yanked hard. The monster gurgled and its tail came to life. Voodoo swore profusely when the tail slashed his backside, causing sparks to snap and fly. Rodimus jumped in and the two managed to peel the thing off Magnus. They had to clamp one foot on either of its triple-jointed legs and pin its arms behind its back so that all it could do was threaten; Roddi barely held its powerful tail down by his foot.
"What do we do with it?" Voodoo called above its roar.
Rodimus glanced about them then nodded toward the other direction. "Into the abyss!" They dragged their clawing captive to the brink and heaved it over.
Dagger kept his morph at bay by transforming from under it and taking off. He zipped back and fired at it, trying to be careful so as not to hit anyone else. But Dagger miscalculated the morphís power and swept down too low. The morph lunged on Daggerís backside, nearly causing Dagger to crash.
Steve and Matt collected the survivors and ran toward the morgue. Two seconds later, Dagger collided into the multitude of file cabinets when Roddy landed on top of the creature. The three of them smashed hard in a cascade of limbs, metal fragments and paper. The morph stood first, leaping effortlessly from the ruin to leveled battleground. It roared then aimed another stream of acid at its attackers. The two Transformers rolled out of the way as acid melted cabinets and set paper on fire.
"Hey, Rover! I gotta Scooby Snack for you!" Roddi drew his crossbow as the morph turned to him. It charged and he waited until it opened its mouth to spew acid then he fired. The resulting explosion sent blazing pieces of morph in every direction. Rodimus quickly brushed several fragments off his chassis and ignored the bits of acid that sank through his exostructure. Voodoo approached and watched as the rest of the Morph melted into the floor under it.
"Commendable job." he congratulated. "Messy, but commendable."
Rodimus turned with a wry smile. "Is that a compliment?"
"Pfft! Not you! Iím telling the morph how I liked the way it died!" And Voodoo stomped off.
"Yeah, right." Rodimus did not lose his grin. He set the crossbow back and stepped lightly over Ďmorph bits.í "Is everyone present and accounted . . . for?" Roddi stood face to face with Roddy and stared.
"Whoa." Roddy breathed.
"Weíre in trouble." Roddi answered.
Magnus joined them a moment later. He, Voodoo and Dagger glanced from one Rodimus Prime to the other until Voodoo folded his arms
"And how are we supposed to tell the two of you apart?" Voodoo took notice how Matt stood not far away and watched, but Steve was not to be seen.
"Iím the dirtier between us." Roddi bragged. "You can call me Roddi."
Roddy gave them a thumbs-up. "Works for me."
Dagger groaned. "Gods. I canít handle this."