One Breath, Two

chapter 4

Liquid Time

 

 

Spellbinder watched the other Sentinels, Magnus and the Alternate Rodimus Prime, quietly depart for parameter checks. He hoped they might find food and water and maybe, just maybe, a way out of this dreadful unreality. He sat slumped against the wall opposite the sunken rest area where the survivors, now fewer than before, tried to make the best of a terrible situation. Gatchel yapped orders and encouragement, often with the same breath. The C.M.O. seemed to target those people who were younger than himself and seemingly more physically capable. Dillon and Shadrik Delahoussaye griped and snarled at him. Not that Spellbinder disagreed with their dislike of the doctor, but their help was needed for those people who could not really do much for themselves.

What irritated Spellbinder was how Gatchel glared at him now and again, as though expecting him to jump from where he half-lay and assist in moving furniture or other heavy objects. But between his wound and depleted energy reserves, thanks to the morphs, Spell needed to allow his repair systems time to work.

Matt Frasier returned after tagging the other Transformers. He looked like a puppy left home for the day. The Tentchi met with Spell, intentionally ignoring Gatchelís calls, and leaned against the wall. "How goes it?" he asked in a grumpy voice.

"Iím alright. Iíll live. It was quite the blow and Iíll need patchwork when we get home. When do you think the others will return?"

"I donít know. Soon, I hope." Frasier paused a moment. His eyes darted back and forth noticing how Mrs. Strills tried to comfort Beldoun Tor, while she instructed the one-eyed Andorian how to make a cloth diaper for Kamrathís baby. "Spell, did Kyle ever say why some of these folks are missing bits and pieces?"

"No, not that heís told me. Heís just as confused about it as we are. I daresay none of them seem to be in pain, however."

"Whereís Shan and Kayla?"

"They . . . Ďre running after that girl . . . Rusti." Spellbinder frowned as Gatchel finally approached them, his face a solid fix of frustration.

"Well, weíre all so very glad the two of you are supervising our work, Colonel Frasier. Maybe I could employ your physical assistance, too?"

Matt smirked, "in doing what, Doctor? You seem to be doing just fine." But Gatchel was not amused. Matt pushed himself from the wall. "Youíre right. You need help. Iíll take a couple of people with me and weíll go look for water or something; if any exists."

Gatchel nodded toward Spellbinder. "Maybe your toy whirlybird there can assist you, Colonel. Seems to me he can do things the rest of us arenít able at this point."

"Not really." Spell answered levelly. "My repair systems are working and I need to rest."

"Oh!" Gatchel actually did not seem that surprised. "Offline, are we?" He frowned and walked away. "Iíll go look for the two female Inter. . . whatevers. Maybe *they* can do something."

Matt watched the Doctor tromp off. He wondered how the jerk ever became chief medical officer of Medbayís Organics wing. It was too obvious Gatchel was prejudice against aliens. Maybe when the parties responsible hired him, they forgot to look up his entire background. Or maybe he dazzled them with such brilliance they could not help but hire him as the C.M.O. Nevertheless, Matt knew Steve would lecture him if he beat the jerk off to a pulp-especially in front of the others.

Shan came to first, finding herself and Kayla locked in a world divided by shadow and light-shadow. She boldly stood. Nothing seemed out of place, but it all felt out of place. It was the light; had to be. The light came in different directions, but incorrect directions like the floor from one source, then the wall, shafting in straight bold angles as though from a window. The other light came from nowhere and seemed to go nowhere. In the next room, Shan spotted her maglight laying on the floor.

Oh, that was no room, it was the other side of the wall.

Wall? She spun about. Was it a wall or a gateway? What kind of world was this?

Kayla came to and pushed herself from the smooth grey floor.

"What was that?" she asked in a start. Her eyes rested upon Shan and she calmed. The Kshi felt her soul drifting in a world of black and white, where shadows crept along in tense, sharp edges. The horns curling from atop her head, rounding her cheeks felt strangely cold and tingled. She slowly turned about until she and Shan met gazes. "What dragged us here?"

Shan merely shook her head. She approached the wall from where they entered but found it solid like glass. She pounded it to no avail. "Well, I guess weíll have to wait until someone comes along and finds us here."

"That doesnít mean theyíll be able to free us, Shan." Kayla tried to reach Spellbinder, but found the link cut like a dead phone line. Her eyes drifted across every nook and cranny in their prison, searching for doors or other rooms, but there seemed to be none, and yet, there were no walls to speak of, only angled spaces of light and dark, like standing in a geometric puzzle.

Shan shuddered. "This is unnatural." She explored all crevices and creases around them, as though expecting to find a hidden passageway.

"No," Kayla whispered softly, "this is very natural. We just donít recognize it." Shan threw her a sharp look but said nothing. Kayla passed her hand from light to shadow and back. No temperature change came with either, but something lit and darkened her hand in each case. Her horns tingled as though touched by magic, or, better yet, the fire of life force. She drew a deep breath and wondered how it was they were breathing at all. Surely in such a world there couldnít be any oxygen! But she took another anyway and stretched with her senses, feeling the odd shapes and their colorless planes. She tried to imagine their temperature, but instead of heat or cold, Kayla picked up a heartbeat.

She held her breath. Now THAT was unnatural. She pressed her back against what might be a wall, were it not for the fact that it dipped a few inches down and back up like a finely cut prism. She searched for the heartbeat, watching Shanís movement grow more and more slowly.

Donít keep us here, she thought to no one in particular. We donít belong here. The panel to her left, the farthest end of the room, slid open and a huge maw lined with teeth snapped out. Shan screamed, but Kayla could not hear her. She and Shan ran for the glass window displaying their world and when they pounded on it simultaneously, it gave as though it werenít there at all and they fell out, tumbling on cold metal flooring. Kayla remained where she landed, but Shan instantly leapt to her feet like cat and swept up her maglight. She shined it on the wall, but now it was nothing more than another dark surface. Not so much as a glimmer reflected from it. "What WAS that?" Shan shouted a bit too loudly. But Kayla did not want to answer her suspicions. She did not trust her own thoughts at the moment; not when she knew nothing of the world around them.

"Maybe just a time pocket or something that half-formed." It wasnít what she really thought, but at least it was an answer Shan would be willing to hear.

"Well! Hello, LADIES!"

Shan snapped her head up to greet Dr. Gatchelís unwelcome face. "Doctor Gatchel," she sneered. "Out taking a pee?"

"Everyone is assigned to do something . . . Ms. Shangyn. That is, everyone except the two of you who are so preoccupied with the welfare of a troublesome brat, you seemed to have forgotten there are other people who need your assistance."

Kayla shot him a dirty look, "I am NOT leaving Rusti out here alone!"

"Oh really?" Gatchel challenged. "Well, while youíre skipping about chasing Goldilocks, weíve been trying to survive. Or doesnít that mean anything to you?"

Kayla distantly heard the tap-tap of Rustiís feet as though she had found a stairway. Wordlessly, the Kshi moved to round Gatchel but he side-stepped, preventing her exit. Her eyes locked with his and she dipped her chin down as though to butt his head with hers. "Move aside, Doctor Gatchel. I need to get to her."

"And what if I say no, Miss Kayla? Hmm?"

Kayla was not willing to start a fight. She tried to move around him again but Gatchel blocked her path. Shan butt her way between them, standing just a little shorter than the C.M.O. Her dark blue eyes sparked dangerously. "Trying to pick a fight, Doctor?" she snapped. "I can give you one."

"And is that a threat?"

He didnít even see it coming. Shan hit him so fast, so hard, his whole body crashed, sliding until it pinned against a nearby wall. "No."

Shan followed Kayla into darkness. Instinctively, the ladies called their helms from subspace and searched for life signs. Shan glanced about and started to feel nervous. The walls where they were now, no longer rested on the floor; they floated a good eight inches in the air. A restless cold crept into her and she wondered if they and the frozen people were all that existed on this level. For the survivorsí sake, she hoped as much.

"There you are!" Kaylaís gentle voice came over the comline, but it was not aimed at Shan. The Kshi bee-lined for Rusti, finding her sitting on the fifth step of another stair rail. She knelt before the girl and brushed curly red hair from the girlís eyes. "Sweety, this is not a good thing to do. Letís get back to the camp-"

"Optimus is up there and he needs help!"

Kayla smiled sadly and her eyes drifted down, her eyes attracted to the girlís softly glowing fingernails. "Rusti, we canít do anything for him here-"

"But I need to get to him!" Rustiís voice rang in determination she took two steps.

Kayla grasped her right hand, keeping her from going further. "You canít do anything for him, not really. Letís get back to the camp and tell Rodimus Prime-"

"No! Iím NOT leaving him by himself!" And she scampered up. But she was not fast enough. Shan caught her by the waist and pulled her back down. Rusti kicked and pounded Shanís body until Kayla shot her with a hypo. Rusti looked shocked and the next second, she passed out.

Kyle was up and awake, albeit weak when the ladies returned. Kayla noticed Ultra Magnus, Voodoo and Dagger were gone. Shan laid the girl alongside a sleeping Steve, recalled her helm and sighed.

"Sheís spunky, Iíll give her that. Howís Midnight and Steve?"

"Weaker." Kyle moaned softly.

"And Dagger, Spell and V?"

"Scouting. Voodoo heard you hit Gatchel. Heís still laughing about it."

That sparked a smile across Shanís face and she slightly lifted her chin.

Matt joined them a few moments later, bearing gifts. He handed a bottle of water and a six-inch submarine sandwich to Shan then gave another bottle of water to Kyle. "Donít worry, Shan, I made sure there were no pickles, onions or beef in yours. Theyíre making soup, Kyle. Want some?"

Scott nodded silently, his eyes now focused on Rusti. He frowned and rested his head against the wall behind him. "Did somebody bring goodies with them, Matt? Or did you guys pass by a fast food joint?"

Matt knelt after handing Kayla the same kind of sandwich and water. He produced a bottle of water himself and took a swig before answering Scott. "Nope. The two Delahoussaye boys found half a kitchen not far from here. So far, nobodyís found so much as a hangnail from a xenomorph. Magnus and Daggerís been round the place about three times, now. Theyíve found more anomalies, but no morphs."

Kaylaís face contorted into puzzlement. "Thatís odd, considering Rusti was chased down here by one."

"Could be just a fluke." Shan joined, munching on her sandwich. She didnít realize she was so hungry.

Matt nodded. "What do you say, Kyle? What do you think?"

The corners of Kyleís mouth tightened. "Iím a doctor, Colonel Frasier, not a chronologist. The only person who can explain anything is sound asleep." Kyle drank more water. He was hungry, but not for what the girls were eating. On the other side of Steve, Rusti groaned to life and moved just slightly. Kyle and Kayla shot eyes at one another. "I thought you gave her a tranq."

"I did." Kayla finished her sandwich in two bites and joined Kyle as he languidly crawled over Steve to check on the girl.

{{Should be sleeping, Kyle. You need your strength.}} Parker was not as soundly asleep as Kyle thought.

[[Kyle, what are you doing? Youíre supposed to be sleeping.]] Kyle grinned. Steve and Voodoo did this to him often now. At times, it was like having two nagging mothers. But Kyle took it in stride. He touched the girlís face for her temperature then tested her pulse. He shook his head. Her blood pressure was too high, her fever had shot up again and her heart raced with her breath when she tried to sit up. "Youíll be alright, Rusti." he promised softly.

In the background, he heard Rodimus calling Shan away. Matt followed her to give Kyle space. Rusti weakly gazed at him, her eyes dark and glassy. "Optimus . . . please . . . somebody help him." And her eyes melted into tears. She could not cover her face and had to look elsewhere in embarrassment.

Kyle felt for her, but his own state would not allot for a trip anywhere just yet. "We will help him, I promise. We just canít get to him yet." He brushed tears off her cheeks and finally had to sit down all the way. The antidote had absorbed most of the poison, but it took time to heal. Kyle sighed and produced his medical scanner. He would need to sleep again soon. He examined the girl for several moments. Rusti had strong muscle build-up in her arms and legs; a sure sign of an active, healthy child. But all her life-signs read otherwise. "Rusti?" Kyle softly called. "What was the last thing you remember?"

She shrugged and sniffed. "I dunno." She thought hard for a moment then: "I was in my room and I woke up; it was dark and I saw something . . ." Her eyes stared into nothing as an evil memory touched her. "It was going straight for Optimus. I couldnít stop it. It hissed at me . . . I think. Donít know why it bothered taking the elevator, though. I mean, if it was in the hallway, why didnít it just go through the floors, right?"

"What, Rusti? What just went through the floors?"

"That thing. Itís not really real, is it? Itís just that Iím sick and they said I have mono but it doesnít feel like mononucleosis."

Kyle smiled warmly. "You donít have mono, sweetheart. I can assure you that much." Here Kyle ran his finger over her blue nails. "Mono doesnít turn your nails blue."

The touch caused her to cover her face. "Whatís wrong with me?" she wept, "I feel like something is trying to crawl into my skin, Doctor Scott! I donít know whatís wrong! Iím seeing things and hearing things and Iím freaking out."

Kyle wondered what Other Darkness touched her. Kyle drew a deep breath. "Rusti, would you do me a favor?"

She shrugged.

"I need you to count. But listen carefully. I want you to count one to ten and in between each number, I want you to count to four. For example: One. One two three four. Two. One to three four. Three. One two three four and so on. Can you do that for me?"

She batted her eyes and realized sheíd have to concentrate. "One . . . One, two, three, four, five, six-" she caught herself, and started over, "One. One, two, three, four . . . four . . . two, um, one, two . . ." she became confused. Two follows one, naturally, but he was asking her to recount and resume what she started and recount again. And now she lost her place! "One . . ." naturally two comes after one, everyone knows that, but in this instance, she had to start recounting except that one does not follow one, but two-no, two follows one . . .

And what about all the other numbers?

Her face flushed with frustration. She felt guilty, unable to do what seemed so easy a task.

"Okay, Rusti, hon. Itís okay." Doctor Scott gently squeezed her hands .

Gatchel harumphed from behind Kyle. "Here we go, nosing about this bizarre little girl when there are others who need attention. Doctor Scott, it seems one of our patients is phasing out of sync with the rest of us. Would you kindly come and examine him?"

"Bring the patient here, Doctor. I really canít be moving around." Kyle did not see Steve open his eyes just a little. Amazingly enough, Gatchel did not say anything more. Kyle glanced at Rusti then looked to Kayla. "Iíd like to talk to their Rodimus Prime, Kayla. I think he should know about Rustiís concern for Optimus."

Kayla spoke but Kyle did not hear her. Something touched his own mind; a cold darkness fringed his heart with grief and a burning sensation settled over his skin. Inwardly, the doctor found himself groping for something to ward off the attack. [[Voodoo.]] it was just a whisper. Outwardly, Kyle clutched his chest and struggled against the growing dark of unconsciousness. He felt himself tip, nearly falling into a deep pit of . . . Non-self? Was that a term for it? He wondered thereafter because for a moment, Kyle thought he was losing himself inside someone else. But then Voodoo Touched him, brought him back and he felt himself bound to his Dokiah. He thought he could breathe Voodooís soul into his own; it was his own. Voodoo grieved in fear.

The darkness receded. Kyle opened his eyes and found himself leaning against Kayla, softly gasping for breath. The world about him came dead silent. He heard Kaylaís heartbeat magnified a million times. He hovered over Gatchelís head as the C.M.O. approached a survivor who wept inconsolably. From his viewpoint, Kyle noticed how parts of her hair lay missing; the muscle tissue and bone of her left arm lay exposed to the air, though the patient seemed not to notice. A vacancy replaced the corner of her left eye, giving her the haunted look of one who had been marred by a terrible attack.

"Why, Escara," Kyle heard Gatchel coo, "why are you crying?

"I was told Iím going to be Next," the dark-skinned alien female sniffed. "I heard the Voice. A Devourer."

"How do you know this?"

"My shadow, Doctor Gatchel. My shadow is missing."

Steve brushed his thumb over Kyleís face and Scott blinked several times before realizing he had stopped breathing. Kyle looked into Parkerís eyes and received a warm smile. "Hey." Steve tugged a blanket, drawing it closer to Kyleís shoulders. "Itís about time you came back to us, Kyle."

He lay flat on his back, a small pillow cushioned him from the floor. He weakly gripped Parkerís hands and he gasped for breath. "Steve! Whatís happened to me? I was talking to Rusti and then-"

"Shhhh." Steveís blue eyes glinted in the bright antigrav light. {{You were caught between me and Mid. He had-}} and here Steve paused, bowing his head and Kyle felt the anguish pouring from his friend. He gripped Steveís hands more tightly, but could not find words, meaningless or otherwise, to console his friend. But Steve found his strength again and gathered his resolve, {{Midís had something like a seizure, Kyle. Something is killing him. Itís slow and so far heís been able to hold shields to protect us. But it wonít be much longer. The seizure hit me and filtered on to you.}}

Kyle sighed sadly, "Steve, I need to find out whatís wrong with him."

Parker smiled wryly. "Yes. But you should eat something before doing anything else. ĎK?"

Kyle sat up and found Rusti sleeping next to him. He glanced at Parker and looked for Kayla. He found more survivors around them now, sitting or sleeping away the time. "How is she?"

"Um, sick, I think." Steve slipped aside so Kyle could examine her. The doctor frowned as though perplexed or disapproving. But he said nothing. He rubbed his thumb across Rustiís blue finger tips and passed his scanner over her again.

"Steve,"

"Hmm?"

"Do you think itís possible people can exist without certain elements in their life force?"

At first Steve tried to think of an answer, then he realized what Kyle as asking. "What kind of a question is that?"

"This girl is missing Gamma wave life force and it keeps her out of sync with the polarities of the reality from which she came."

The Alternate Rodimus Prime suddenly popped up from around the wall, bearing a mischievous smile. "Boo! Weíre ba-aack!" he sang. Didnít see any nasties, large or otherwise. Iíll bet the two of you are relieved-Ďspecially that cranky friend of yours over there. He tried to pick a fight with me earlier. I just threatened to step on him." And Roddi shrugged carelessly. He nodded toward the girl, "How my baby bird?"

It took a moment for Kyle to sort through Roddiís excited speech then he realized Prime referred to Rusti: "Oh, I think . . . I donít know."

"You think you donít know?" Roddi echoed. He sat on his knees, staring hard at Scott and Kyle squirmed a little.

Steve cleared his throat. "Kyle means sheís sick and he thinks itís something heís not seen before."

"Well, why didnít you say that to begin with? Iím not that much of an idiot, Doctor."

Gatchelís voice sounded clear and a bit loudly behind them: "Perhaps not, Rodimus Prime, but HE might be." Steve shot him a venomous look while Kyle rolled his eyes. Gatchel gabbed on: "As Iíve taken pains to mention before, it seems there is more a preoccupation with this child than others who also require assistance. Or maybe the lot of you have forgotten we have other matters of importance, such as trying to find a way out of here."

Steve thought about being diplomatic at first, "Not too sure if youíre keeping up with present events, Doctor Gatchel, but Kyle was poisoned not too long ago."

Gatchel snorted. "Then maybe someone else should be in charge. Since itís obvious neither of you are capable of doing much yourselves. Besides, poison doesnít heal, Captain Pecker-"

"Parker."

"-you have to absorb it and pass it through." Gatchel stood behind Kyle and spoke directly into his ear, "Tell me, doctor, what IS it with you and this little creature?"

Kyle could not look him in the eye, but he lowered his gaze, "She seems to be physically out of sync. Her life force is not registering correctly."

Gatchel paused, then: "What does that mean?"

Kyle gave the C.M.O. a sharp look. "She has no gamma wave life force. Technically, she should not be alive. Without gamma, light perception would be impossible. A Human would be color blind, unable to use the sense of taste, the equilibrium would be such that involuntary functions would be useless. Thatís bad enough, but how is it that she has the Zatra Tatlic virus?"

"You canít be serious!" Gatchel snapped.

Steve scrunched his face up in puzzlement. "Zatra what, Kyle?"

"Come on, DOCTOR, Iíve heard some off-base things as a professional, but that has got to be the most ridiculous thing Iíve heard! How could that be even remotely possible?"

Shan joined the group to prevent a fight between the two men. "Whatís that?" Rodimusí Tentchi asked.

"This man is an idiot." Gatchel spat, pointing at Kyle. "I question his rationality. Really, now, Doctor Scott! There is no way in HELL that girl could have Zatra Tatlic!"

Kyle was beginning to lose his patience. "Gatchel, you know what a virus consists of: a package of pure protein and DNA. And DNA consists of molecules that can be broken down into straight mathematical equations. All you need are the right formulas-"

"You are stretching it WAY out of proportion, Doctor Scott. Itís the kind of thing youíd find in science fiction, not in real life!"

"YOUNG MAN," Kyle said sternly, "Iíve been alive LONG ENOUGH, and know my profession WELL ENOUGH to know it IS possible!"

Gatchelís eyes smouldered. "Perhaps it might be possible," he admitted, "for people who are possessed by alien machines."

Gatchel did not see the look on Steveís face. "But," the C.M.O. continued, "sheís a HUMAN child-alternate reality or not! And I question your judgment and your diagnosis." And he stomped off, muttering. Kyle drew a deep breath. If Gatchel had carried the argument just a little further, with one more insult toward the Dokiah, he would have given the C.M.O. a right-cross.

"Kyle?" Shanís firm voice called his attention. His anger melted when their eyes met. "What were you two talking about?"

"Zatra Tatlic is a Transformers virus, Shan. This girl has the organic version of it." Both Steve and Shan stared at him dumbfounded.

"Optimus." Rusti barely whispered. "Please go help him." She started crying again. "Please help him! He needs somebody to help!"

"Okay." Kyle promised. "Weíre going right now. But I want you to promise me youíll get lots of rest until I return."

She couldnít stop crying, no matter how embarrassed she felt. A big girl like her, crying like a five year-old. Shan moved to her and picked up Kyleís blanket, laying it kindly over the girlís shoulders. Steve stood and stretched. He still felt exhausted, but things needed to be done.

He passed Kyle for the labyrinth of lone-standing walls among which Rodimus had lain Midnight. {{Kyle, could you look at Mid, first?}}

{{Of course I will.}} Kyle sounded as dead tired as Steve felt, but at least he was able to function. Steve helped his weary friend to his feet and they rounded huddled groups of tired and hopeless people. They traveled several yards into the dark stillness. They passed six floating walls before approaching Midnightís languid form.

{{Kyle, next time you and Gatchel get into an argument, will you please let me handle it? Youíre a terrible diplomat.}}

"Hitting a C.M.O. is against regulations, Steve."

"Donít you sass me." Parker teased. "You know I would have made it a nice clean strike."

Scottís lips lined as he neared Midnight and found his own partner there, keeping vigil. [[I didnít want to disturb your sleep, Kyle. I wanted you to be well . . . but Midnightís-]]

[[Voodoo, their link ripple hit me, too. Damn I wish I could learn shields!]]

[[You will.]] voodoo promised gently. Kyle frowned and started to scan the dark Sleeper. [[But shields take time. You have to learn how to push thoughts and emotions away from you.]]

Kyle blinked in surprise. He hadnít thought of shields in that sense. He silently projected the need to rest in the park outside the hospital under delicious light. All this darkness oppressed him and Kyle sensed Steve felt the same. He brought his scanner down and stared at its readings. Then customarily, Kyle paced around Midnight. "It would be a hell of a lot easier if Skywolf were here, Steve."

"I could pretend to be Skywolf."

"No, you talk too funny for that."

A brow went up. Kyle actually gave him a come-back? "Thatís a rare event, Kyle. Someone finally gave me a smart remark in turn. Been hanging around Matt too long?"

But the moment faded and Kyle became his usual serious self. "I donít know what to do for him, Steve. Thereís no way we can protect him."

"Whatís that, Kyle?"

But another voice answered in Kyleís stead: "Matrix energy."

All three occupants turned toward the entrance of the little enclave and there stood Rodimus Prime, or rather, the Alternate Rodimus Prime. His face was a mask of solemnity and he stared down at Midnightís motionless dark grey form.

Kyle held out his hand to ward the Autobot off. "Donít come any closer. Youíre making matters worse."

"Tell me, Doctor, why are the Sentinels so . . . sensitive to the energy? Are they allergic to it?"

Steve crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at Roddi. "Thatís not funny."

"But donít you wish it were?"

Kyle missed the joke as he noticed how the Autobotís optic sensors shaded down from blue to a disturbing red. "Rodimus, would you . . . perform a test for me?"

"A driving test? Sorry Doc, already done that. Thatís what Iím here, to let olí Sparky here know me, Mags and Daggs-" and here he lifted his head and shook it, a ridiculous, almost maniacal smile crossed his face. "I kill me sometimes. We went on a field trip and found on the western side of this place is just cold hard wall. The north and eastern Ďwallsí arenít wall at all, but vacant, no-space zones. I tossed a slice of scrap metal out there and . . . zippo. I mean, it ceased to exist."

All fell silent until Kyle and Voodoo turned to Steve. Parker went to Mid and rested his cheek on Midís head.

Voodoo drew closer to his friend. "Steve, you know whatís going on, donít you? I mean, you know stuff like quantum dimensional physics and temporal theory."

Steve reluctantly tore from his love and faced Rodimus Prime. Something nagged him about the Alternate Prime. Either that, or he still felt unnerved by the way Prime seemed unstable. "I think weíre stuck in a dimensional bubble reality. I think I know whatís caused it, but I canít be entirely sure." he paused a moment. "What happened in your reality? Some event must have taken place that caused the two universes to cross and create this bubble."

Rodimus nodded. "A time ripple. Optimus couldnít guess and I didnít think about it until two hours ago. Or at least Iíd imagine theyíd be hours. Weíve been hit by a time ripple before, but itís never done this."

"Okay, that helps. It could be that the moment the time ripple hit your world, the energy nexus crossed Cybertron and the two phenomena opened a temporary worm hole that collapsed in on itself. That being the case, our life forces might have prevented the hole from collapsing entirely and instead, it formed a bubble reality."

"Wait a minute, Steve." Voodoo somehow understood what Parker was saying and it excited him. "How could a life force cause that?"

"A life force IS energy, Voodoo. You canít destroy energy, you can only disperse it."

Kyle nodded in turn. "And Tentchi-Dokiah life force is twice that of most other sentient beings and when those of us who were at the hospital phased . . ."

"It reinforced the structure of the bubble." Parker finished. "And, unfortunately, it brought our little friends with us."

"Because they were phasing in, too, werenít they, Steve?"

And now Voodoo had the full attention of both men. Kyle paled. "Whatís that, Voodoo? What did you say?"

"Thatís what I was trying to tell you earlier, Kyle. I saw a nest on one of the roofs on Medbay and more and more of it was phasing in from nowhere."

Steve and Kyle stared in silent shock.

Then Kyleís eyes drifted toward the Alternate Rodimus and caught him quietly speaking, his optics gazing far into nothing. Rodimus was softly singing to himself. It was not normal behavior; no matter which Rodimus in what universe they were in. Kyle snapped his scanner shut and tried to think. There had to be a connection between Rusti and what was happening to Midnight. Then another thought occurred to him; maybe the connection was Optimus Prime. As weary as Kyle was, he knew sooner or later heíd have to pay a visit to Optimus Prime. "Steve, I need to go upstairs. I promised Rusti someone would help Optimus Prime, if heís really up there."

"Up where?" Parker didnít want to leave Midnight now. He ran his hand up and down Midís soft smooth skin, but didnít like its pliability.

"I donít know." Kyle answered softly.

{{I donít want you going anywhere by yourself, Kyle.}} Steveís fears were split between two people, but he could not take care of both of them.

{{I wonít. I promise. However, I need someone to keep an eye on the girl.}}

{{I can do that}}

Rodimusí voice rang clear in the room: "Why are we just standing around?"

"Weíre not." Kyle answered quickly. "I was just deciding who to ask to accompany me."

"Iíll go." Rodimus volunteered.

"Just you and I?" Kyle blinked.

A wry smirk smeared over Roddiís face. "Youíre not my kind, Doctor Scott. Canít dance with someone whoís about as tall to me as Rustiís Barbie dolls are to her. I donít dance on my knees."

Voodoo grunted. But for some reason, neither Kyle nor Steve found that funny. Kyle drew a deep breath. "Let me inform Kayla and Shan. Excuse me." And he passed Rodimus with Voodoo tagging quietly behind.

The Alternate Second leaned against the floating wall and stared after the retreating doctor. "A rather somber individual, isnít he?"

Steve glanced Kyleís way, just glimpsing the last of Voodooís foot. "Heís got a lot on his mind."

Rodimus pushed himself from the wall and left with a harumph. Steve watched the Autobot stomp away then settled on the floor next to Midnight. There was finally some peace and quiet. Maybe he could concentrate long enough to infiltrate Midís shields and somehow ease his loveís pain. That would be tricky at best. Steve tried to nestle against the folds of Midís opened hand and derive some bit of comfort. "I know youíre fighting, Mid," he said softly. "Just . . . stay with me." Parker feared Mid would fall to stasis and that would seal his fate as far as consciousness went. Parker shuddered, struggling to keep from crying and bowed over. He drew several deep breaths, but the tears came anyway and he quickly wiped them from his face. Steve didnít see the green visor-like optical sensors flare weakly then died down again. But he did feel Mid softly murmur his name.

[[I hope we get out of here before Midnight falls into stasis lock, Kyle.]]

[[Me too, Voodoo. I fear for Steve, though. Heíll start to feel the effects soon, if he hasnít been already-]]

[[You said you suffered from a backlash. Whatís that?]]

[[Midís shields are starting to collapse.]]

That stopped Voodoo cold and he stared as Kyle rejoined the survivors. He was scrutinized by several pained and angry eyes as Shan approached him tugging a middle-aged scaly-skinned alien with her. She put the alien gentleman between her and Kyle and she stared sharply at the weary doctor. "Kyle, this is Trog."

"Oh?" Kyle checked his gear for the trip upstairs and tossed aside his empty laser rifle. It was useless now.

"Yes." The alienís words came with some difficulty, "we saw frightful things. Shadows wobbled without the body or object moving. We saw movies on the walls."

Kyleís brows went up in doubt.

"Show him, Trong," Shan urged.

The alien undid the front of his garment and displayed his chest. The skin phased in and out of existence, displaying and hiding his insides. Rather than flinching, as did those around him, Kyle moved in closer, fascinated by the phenomena. "The shadows did this?" He asked. "When did this happen?"

"Yes," Trog confirmed. "We were moving up the stairs and me and three others and Doctor Gatchel all swallowed by the Dark."

Kyle glanced at Shan as though asking her for an answer. But Shangyn shook her head. "I canít say what it is. But Trong says he and someone else later saw a moving pictures on a wall downstairs."

"Why didnít you say something before?" Kyle undid his chest piece, readjusted it and latched it again.

"Because we were afraid and because Doctor Gatchel said we should not talk about such things-that it could be bad luck."

Kyle produced his scanner and adjusted it for Trogís species. He scanned the alien twice and compared the readings. "Itís not killing you, Trog. I honestly donít know what is going on here, but it will have to wait until I get back, or when Steve returns."

Shan glared at him, "thatís not very reassuring."

Kyle merely shrugged. "Iím sorry. I already promised to see another patient. It doesnít seem to be life-threatening at the moment. When I get back, I want to look at the others, okay?" But Shan kept glaring at him. Scott sighed, too tired to fight. "Steveís having a quiet moment with Midnight, Shan. Iím going with Rodimus-um, *their* Rodimus Prime to find Optimus Prime." He glanced down at Rusti and was pleased to find her asleep. "Watch her for me, okay?"

"I want to come." Shanís voice was quiet, but direct.

Kyle did not realize it, but he gave her a customary look that meant *please donít ask me that*. Shan read it and frowned with a glance in Gatchelís direction. "Alright, Iíll stay. But I donít want any lectures if you return and find Doctor Frankenstein in little fragments."

Kyleís whole face lightened as though a burden were lifted from his shoulders. "That would be Steveís department and heís going to stay and babysit the two of you."

Shan scrunched up her face in a sneer.

Rodimus Prime came from another part of the group. Kyle could not tell if it was Shanís Roddy or the other Rodimus. But the next moment Shan leaned against her Dokiah and Scott smiled.

"You look very tired, Doctor Scott," Rodimus observed. "Are you sure you want to go through this?"

"I did make a promise. Besides, it sounds like I have a patient waiting for me. The-uh-the other Rodimus said heíd go with us."

"Steve?"

"No. He wants to stay with Mid. And Iíd rather heíd get rest, anyway."

"Okay!" The other Rodimus appeared from the shadows, unnerving Kyle. He knelt beside the girl and ever so quietly spoke to her. Rustiís little voice pricked the air with trembling fear and sorrow. But Prime dispelled her distress by covering her with a blanket and set a hot cup of liquid next to her. If Kyle didnít know any better, heíd think they were Interfaced, the way they interacted.

Rodimus glanced up at him. "How is she?" he asked softly.

"Supposed to be under three hundred CCís of tranq. Weíve been giving her tranquilizers to help her sleep. Sheís very sick and not sleeping." The Alternate Rodimus stared at him and Kyle read grief in his expression.

Roddi nodded. "She can be intensely wired at times." He paused a beat. "Are we ready?"

In spite of Daggerís protests, Matt tagged along more to keep Kyle company than to protect him. A short debate and several yards later, Kyle was grateful for Mattís presence regardless of the two tall Autobots that accompanied them. The darkness felt surreal at one point and almost alive on the other. It seemed to close in and made Kyle a bit nervous. He found, too, that he could not look directly at the labyrinth of bulkheads and walls that floated on either side of their path. The walls seemed foreboding, as though they might be more than misplaced barriers, perhaps windows waiting for victims.

"Oh, this must be the stairway!" Mattís cheerful voice filled the air, but it sounded cut off by the dark and Kyle was glad someone spoke because both Primes said nothing. They allowed the Tentchi to step ahead then Rodimus after that and Roddi followed him thereafter. The floating steps and a grim, lightless world weighed heavily on his heart as though they were all on the edge of hell or living in someoneís horrible dream.

Finally Roddiís voice filtered through the quiet, "kinda cold up here." He glanced about and spotted the camp below them, naught but a tiny speck of light. He dared gaze up and thought for sure the floor they were huffing toward floated in the air completely without support.

Kyle reached the doorway first and stepped into a great corridor intensely lit by emergency red lighting. But the door he stepped though was only large enough for he and Matt. He turned and flinched, stepping back when the two Primes simply stepped through the wall.

"How did you do that?" Kyle gasped.

"Do what?" they chorused.

Matt saw it, too. "You just walked through the wall."

"There was no wall there." Rodimus glanced back but Roddi pressed on.

"Come on," he moaned, "Letís not worry about the Outer Limits stuff, okay?"

Kyle lingered a moment longer, wishing Steve were there with them. He trailed after the others, examining the hall with wary eyes and scanners on alert mode.

The small group found the end of the hall and crossed another area comprised of lost mis-matched walls and sand scattered along the ground. Matt shined his maglite in one direction and Kyle winced. He hated the emergency lighting here and Mattís light made the shadows worse. It came too bright in some areas, but disfigured others. Kyle startled when he nearly ran into two ladies at one corner, finding their faces lit so hard they seemed almost demonic.

"Or I just need sleep." he muttered to himself. Kyle was tempted to use the alternate vision filters in his helmet. That would allow him to see more clearly but under the circumstances, he really needed his own eyes.

The group crossed what was half a park. Neither Kyle nor Matt took their eyes off the swings as they moved back and forth on their own. Both Rodimi seemed unaffected by the eerie sight, either that or they ignored it entirely. The swings and the shadows on the ground filled Kyleís heart with dread.

Finally they crossed cold metal flooring, saying nothing about the transit turbo shaft and moving sidewalk. Kyle recognized the platform without reading the plate: MEDBAY LEVEL 3: MECHANICS. But why did the Mechanics section of Medbay end up here? Why not the Organics?

On the other hand, he digressed, he decided he didnít want to know. Doctor Scott wished he had his coat, though the suit was warm, it really did not make him feel very secure. He rushed to keep up with Matt whose maglite zipped to and back as though the man himself were keeping an extra eye out for the Boogeyman.

Another hall yawned open for them, lit harshly by the blood-red light. Kyle shuddered when Roddi let out a sad gasp and ran for the other end.

Optimus Prime lay on the floor amidst his own body fluids. Matt and Kyle examined the Autobotís languid form while Roddi whispered gently to his friend. Rodimus ignored Kyle as the doctor scanned the Autobot leader. Optimus did not move, made no sound and did not respond to any of Roddiís soft calls. He checked Optimusí electropulse, finding a slow, steady vibration, but it was weak.

Kyle skimmed the readings, finding disturbingly low energy and several damaged processors. "What exactly happened just before the time ripple hit?"

Roddi knew the stranger was talking to him. He was in no mood to answer a series of questions but he forced himself to cooperate. "I donít really know. Iíve been out of it the last day or so, myself. Well, we did wake up simultaneously in medical and realized something was about to happen. Optimus came here to shut Max down while I shut things off Topside."

Rodimus Prime glanced up and down the corridor, opened a door and found nothing but cold, swirling space where there should have been a room. He closed it and glanced over his shoulder strut. "Are you saying you two knew what was going to happen?"

Rodimus traced Primeís arm and held his hand. "We . . . felt something was going to happen, we just didnít know exactly what." Roddi paused, checking Optimusí electropulse for the eighth time. "We must get him off the floor."

"I donít think thereís any place to take him." Rodimus opened another door and found the very same thing.

Roddi gently half-lifted Optimus from the floor and hushed him down when Prime shuddered, begging for forgiveness in a soft whimper.

Kyle tried not to be intrusive of this moment and he hoped to handle it as delicately as possible, "Has he been . . . ill lately, Rodimus Prime?"

"Ill?"

"Yes. Depressed or unwell?"

Rodimus hesitated, "yes."

Kyle snapped his scanner off and turned to the Alternate Second. "Iím getting multiple readings. Some of them make sense. Others shouldnít-"

"Just spit it out, doc, donít play ring-around-the-rosies with me."

Kyle blinked. "Iím getting readings of energy depletion, inner leakages that lead to no internal damage and a double consciousness."

Rodimus stared at him, his blue optics blazed cold. "Can you help him?"

"I donít know. Iíll need a more careful examination and a better place to do it."

Roddi merely lowered Optimus to the ground and wiped fluids from the sides of his helm. The touch brought the Autobot leader around and Primeís optics weakly lit and dimmed. He tried to speak, but something blocked his words. Rodimus shook his head and gently caressed his friendís helm with his thumbs. "Donít talk right now." He hoped his words came soft and soothing.

Optimus wanted to turn away, wanted to hide his weakness and shame. Wasnít he supposed to be stronger than this? Whatever happened to the supposed invincible hero? Oh, thatís right. Darkness devoured him. Again Prime struggled to attain strength deep down and managed to grasp a few precious drops of fortitude. "Rod-i-musss, if there is truly a devil . . . he now resides within me."

If Rodimus could, he would have swallowed air. "Donít talk like that." He was surprised his reply came as soft as it did, considering the horror he felt. Devil indeed! Optimus was just sick, thatís all. Some kind of malfunction must have taken place.

Kyle watched Matt as the Colonel crouched and examined mech fluids as though he saw something in them. Scott shook his head and his eyes just bounced off the wall to his right for a split second when he swore he spotted something. He gave it a second glance and his throat constricted when he saw a shadow dancing madly along it. He froze cold, his heart pounded. What the hell was that?

{{Kyle? Whatís wrong}} Steve finally came back to him and now Kyle wondered why they had not contacted each other at this distance while Steve was with the others in the lower levels.

{{Shadows.}} Doctor Scott shuddered when the wall seemed to Ďblinkí black and the shadow repeated all its crazy movements like a movie playing over and over again.

{{Kyle? Whatís wrong}} Steveís voice filled his mind and brought Kyle back to reality. Now that he thought of it, he wondered why they had not contacted each other like this before while Steve was in lower levels.

{{Sha . . . dows . . . I just said that, Steve. I just-}}

and the wall blinked in darkness and the shadow pranced along its smooth surface like a madman dancing along the edge of a cliff side. Kyle held out his hands against it and stepped back, unable to deal with the dark walls and their mutated ghosts.

{{Kyle?}}

{{Shadows on the wall-}} and the next thing Kyle knew he was trapped inside a huge spaceship, buried deep under ground and an endless corridor stretched before him and before he could decide to run along it, a rabid alien dog with an oversized head and teeth as long as a manís arm charged for him. They clamped down and the sound jarred him so that light flashed in his mind-

"Doctor Scott!"

"What?" He snapped about and found himself now standing outside the hall way, near the Mechanics transit. The two Rodimi and Matt were there with him and he stood next to Optimus Prime.

"Are you alright, Doctor?" Roddi asked firmly as Rodimus Prime dragged emergency covers from a small storage compartment in the transport.

"No." Kyle shook with cold, "what happened?"

"I asked you to rescan Optimus Prime, now that weíve taken him out of the hallway. It should be easier for you to see out here, right?"

Kyle glanced at the time on his scanner. It registered ten minutes of time he himself could not account for.

 

* * *

Distant distorted voices roused Steve from a light dream. He opened his eyes and half-listened. The voices repeated the same tempo over and over then overlapped one another in a chorus of endless babble.

Babble? Or was it something else? He took to his feet and tried to pinpoint their location. But there seemed no definite location, they came from his right, then his left then above him.

"Hello?" he whispered. Steve dared remove his metal glove and touched the wall to his right. The surface rippled like water and he withdrew his hand. Was the wall liquidfing? The voices hushed for a moment then in one terrible chorus, they screamed and then all were cut off. He turned to his partner. "Mid, did you hear that?"

[[Circles, looping.]] But it was all Mid would say. Parker frowned. He should have known better than to ask; Midnightís pain caused him to hallucinate.

The willful tapping pattern of Shanís footsteps entered Steveís hearing range and he smiled grimly as she approached. She returned the smile with less assurance like a child entering her fatherís office chamber without consent. "Hi. Howís Midnight?"

"Still with us, for the most part." Steve really wanted to be alone, but he figured he had his time and the others probably needed to be checked on. "Howís everyone out there?"

"Edgy. Theyíre wondering whatís taking Matt and Kyle and the two Rodimuses so long a time. And Gatchelís getting . . ." the corners of her mouth drew tight. "Well, heís getting weird."

Steve stared at her a bit surprised then the red lighting dimmed a moment before resuming its usual intensity. "Whatís that?"

"I donít know. Itís been doing that off and on since the others left. I thought that maybe you might know."

Steve approached the entrance to the enclave and glanced up and down the walkway from the groupís section and up to the darkness where Kyle and Matt left for the other stair well. "Is Voodoo still around?"

"No, heís with Ultra Magnus and Dagger, doing parameter checks. They didnít want anyone else to go anywhere."

"Thatís a good idea." Steve mumbled. He took a final, sorrowful glance at his love and with a burdened sigh, left for the group. Shan tagged his heels, but it did not make him feel any better. An uneasy coldness settled over his shoulders and caused some discomfort in his left arm. They came to Rusti and Kayla first. The Kshi nurse stirred and silently met Parkerís gaze. She forced a welcomed smile and sat up from the wall. Steve crouched before her, cautious as not to wake the girl.

"Howís stuff?" he asked, meaning to sound silly.

Kayla shook her head. "It seems to be getting colder and Rusti keeps crying in her sleep."

Steve nodded and blinked, "Iíll be back in a little bit, Kayla. Iím going to check on our other guests."

"Steve, Steve, did Kyle-"

. . . SHADOWS ON THE WALL . . .MOVING

"-coming back?"

Steve blinked and wondered where the other voice came from. "Iím sorry, Kayla, what was that?"

"When is Kyle coming back?"

"He didnít tell me when. Iíll be right back, alright?" He didnít wait for her unsatisfied nod. He strode through the camp, finding most people either sleeping, sitting and conversing or eating quietly. The air felt funny here, as though something was amiss, something Parker had not noticed before.

SHADOWS . . .

And he took his cue from that. He glanced at the shadows in the glare of the antigrav light and noticed some people didnít even cast shadows. He recalled the fragment of the hospital ward he and Matt explored and how there were shadows when there should not have been.

"Captain Parker! How good of you to grace us with your presence!" Steveís arm was caught by the last man he wanted to face. Gatchel gave him a ridiculous toothy smile, which actually made the C.M.O. look both sinister and stupid at the same time.

"Hmmm. Hello, Doctor Gatchel. Nice of you to keep everything under control."

"Oh, this? Well we have water and food and restroom facilities, what more could people possibly want? Well, that is other than to get home and back to reality but we donít want to give up any hopes, now do we?"

"Um, Doctor Gatchel, if thereís a point to this inane conversation of yours, Iíd like you to let me know when you get around to it so I can set my watch to wake me from sleep."

Gatchel produced a fake chuckle and glanced at his foot. Steve thought it very stereotypical behavior. "You know, Captain Parker, itís always refreshing to remember how you and your ilk like to parade about the rest of us humble Puritans as though you were the universeís gift to sapient beings. But seriously, the fact is, CAPTAIN, Not one of you Ďhalf-thingsí have done much to insure our permanent survival, escaping from this little universe or otherwise. So far all weíve had to go on is a moment-by-moment safety precaution from man-eating creatures, an emergency food supply, a world locked in hell and a witless child. And what do you people keep doing? Take off on little trite expeditions. I think we all deserve some explanation as to what is really going on and if any of you half-gods have come up with a way to get us out of here."

His comments were supported by a few "yeahs" and a couple of Ďamensí from those who heard. Steve glanced at them and reading his intense eyes, they turned away to mind their own business. "I know things are a bit frightening right now. We are presently working on it, Doctor Gatchel. As long as you shut up and stay out of the way, we will get you home one way or another."

Gatchel laughed to himself. His eyes reached upward like a self-righteous prig who had to put up with the low-lifes. "We have approximately thirty patients and medical staff among us. There are provisions, but no power. Thereís a half-mad child among us and a damaged Autobot upstairs and from what Iíve gathered, your . . . partner is also dysfunctional."

Steve crossed his arms, his blue eyes rested cold on Gatchel. "Well, there you have it, Doctor Gatchel. Thank you for conducting this meeting and informing us of our peril."

But Gatchel pressed his initiative, not realizing he was playing a game Steve already knew. "And just what are we to do about it?"

Steve stared at him, then stared past him. His face contorted into a mass of awe and disbelief. Just beyond the rest area where Rusti lay, the wall waved slightly and from it emerged a figure consisting only of a head and a pair of straight, kneeless and footless legs. The head itself was triangular with a pair of horns jutting from the sides. Its face revealed itself only in a scream, frozen as though it were a mask. Before Steve could say anything, however, it disintegrated back into the wall.

"CAPTAIN PARKER." Gatchel called again. "CAN YOU PLEASE COME BACK TO REALITY?"

"Why donít you just shut up?" Shan came up from behind and whacked the idiot C.M.O. on the right arm. Gatchel instantly swung around and backhanded her. Shan fell with surprised impact and Gatchel reached for her again. Steve grabbed him and they struggled for a moment.

"HEY!" Parker called, "Thatís ENOUGH! What the hell do you think youíre doing?"

"Sheís been asking for it ever since we got here!" Gatchel screamed. "Iím going to lay it into that bitch once and for all!"

Steve lunged and pushed the man away. Gatchel stumbled backwards and his movement came strangely slow and mechanical. Steve felt his own body slow all the way down to a stop. Then he could not move. Even his eyes would not blink. He was fully conscious of everything around him, the doctor who almost stumbled over, the nurse who fed a patient soup, the shadows on the floor cast by Shadrik and Dillon. The baby sleeping soundly in her fatherís arms. But everything froze in eerie silence. Then the voices whispered back to him and Steve struggled to make them out, but they overlapped and something told him they were being said backwards. But how could he know that?

Shadows on the walls before his eyes danced without their makers. Then their forms trailed along the floor in long stretched shapes. Then their long dark hands struck against the metal flooring as though it were a prison through which they could not pass. Then they scampered back to the wall and repeated the same process. It was then that Steve realized what he was watching; not shadows of people, but those of xenomorphs struggling to break through. How he was able to see it, he could not guess.

He blinked and there suddenly Kayla stood with a bowl of soup in her hands. She smiled at him. "Hello? Are you hungry?"

Steve stared at her, then the wall. "Kayla . . . Gatchel, I just hit Gatchel."

"Steve, if you donít want the soup, just say so." Impatience sparked her tired eyes and Steve took the bowl, his mind foggy with confusion. He followed her back to the wall where the girl now sat up and stared into space. Her face seemed empty, but her eyes spoke of more than what Parker could describe in a glance. He sat next to her and took about three spoonfuls of clam chowder. Not his favorite, but it was food.

"So! Having fun?" He hoped it would bring the girl out of whatever thoughts might have preoccupied her. But he got no answer. He took several more spoonfuls. "How long has she been like this, Kayla?"

"For a while. About half an hour."

"Ten minutes." Rusti corrected softly.

"Hmm?" Steve leaned over to hear her more clearly.

"Itís been ten minutes. Time skipped."

Steveís eyes shot wide and he brushed her dark red hair away and coaxed her to look him in the eye. "Did I hear you right? You just said time skipped?"

"You were right over there. You were frozen, just like everybody else. But the time passed differently for everybody. I counted ten minutes."

Steve stared at Kayla, his face distorted with puzzlement just as much as hers. "Didnít you just feel anything skipping, Kayla?"

She shrugged, "maybe a moment, everything seemed to slow down a little."

"When did it happen?"

"About half an hour ago. Everything seemed to freeze and that was just after you broke up a fight between Gatchel and Shan."

As Kayla spoke, Steve spotted other shadows on the wall across them. He approached it and stared hard at its cold surface. Kayla joined him a second later and the two watched as the shadows seemed to talk to one another then one shot the other. Kayla gasped and held her hand to her mouth. Then the shadows swirled and repeated the same event. Steve dared touch the wall, this time he left his glove on. The wall surface rippled like water, the images wobbled with it.

Steve produced his maglite and projected it at Kaylaís legs. He started to go round her when she followed his footsteps. "No, no, Kayla. Stay right where you are." He circled her, searching for the shadow she should be casting. But no shadow projected from her body.

Kayla watched, her eyes filled with dread and horror. No shadow. "What does that mean, Steve? Whatís going on?"

Steve shut the light off and thought hard. No shadow. Light was being swallowed into darkness by some force of antimatter or anti-reality or something that-his thoughts were disrupted when her shadow appeared the very next second without help of his maglite. Kayla covered her mouth, stifling a scream. The shadow blinked in then out then in again and the third time around, it moved on its own. Then it changed directions and flitted about in a circle. The whole incident freaked Steve, too but he was thinking of it more in terms of temporal theory rather than the shadow taking on a life of its own. Maybe what they were seeing was not the shadow coming to life, but a delay in time-reaction.

"I think," he said slowly, "that we are witnessing the breaking down of stabilized time here. I think time is slowly disintegrating into something else. Matt and I saw it in the lower levels, too. I had hoped it was only a localized phenomena, but it appears the whole microverse is breaking down into a simplified series of events and if we are unable to escape before it breaks down completely, weíll become a permanent part of it."

"What?"

Now his blue eyes pierced her, "A causality loop, Kayla. This place is about to be trapped in a temporal loop, the events will repeat themselves over and over again and we will never know the difference because our minds will not know the difference. In fact, it very well could be that weíre already caught up in the loop. The thing of it is, I was very much aware of what was going on around me while time froze for me. Thatís almost a good indication because it might mean the loop hasnít started yet; that time is just now starting to break down."

Kayla was about to ask Parker what he meant, but their attention was swept away by Rustiís scream. They rushed back and found her on her feet pounding her fists into the air. At first Steve thought the child was merely hallucinating but then he saw it, too. He leapt to her aid and wrapped his arms about her.

"LET ME GO!!" She screamed at the top of her lungs. "IT WONíT GO AWAY! MAKE IT GO AWAY! GO AWAY! LEAVE ME ALONE!!" She was hysterical and kept kicking and struggling in Parkerís arms. Gatchel leapt over three people and pushed two others down before coming to the rescue. He checked a hypo and swiftly stabbed her with it. She kicked him in the chin and probably would have done it again had Steve not turned her away and set her back on the cushions where she laid earlier.

"LET ME GO! IíM GONNA KILL IT!" She wrestled with him until Steve pinned her down and forced her to look him in the face.

"NOBODYíS GOING TO HARM YOU, RUSTI." he said sternly. "Calm down."

"FREAK WONíT LEAVE ME ALONE! IT WONíT GO AWAY!"

"Okay! Okay! Weíll deal with it!"

And she paused just a moment before breaking into tears, crying loudly. Steve glanced at the figure only he and the girl could see. There it stood, a nightmare in three-dimensional form. Kayla came around the other side and Steve released Rusti into the healerís arms. Gatchel sat up rubbing a sliced and bleeding chin. Steve ignored him, slowly approaching what Rusti named ĎFreakí.

"That little bitch is a case study in resistance to tranquilizers." Gatchel growled. "Captain Parker, I suggest we tie her up." He waited for an answer but received none. "Captain Parker, are you listening to anything I say?"

Steve did not care what the C.M.O. had to say. He reached out and touched something he could only describe as cold blood. Fragments of pictures flashed through his mind so quickly, he had no time to discern what they were; merely flashes of color.

Gatchel lost his patience and gripped Parkerís arm. He did not like the look in the Captainís eyes, though. "CAPTAIN PARKER, I realize your concern for your battered tin can has misguided your judgement, but Iíd appreciate if youíd-gggk!"

Steve wrapped one hand around the doctorís throat, his eyes dangerously calm. "Doctor Gatchel, if I hear one more degrading remark about Midnight coming from your mouth, I will make you swallow your own teeth. Do I make myself clear?" He didnít bother waiting for an answer. He dropped the jerk and resumed with his study. But the image had disappeared and Steve sighed, irritated, tired and worried.

He returned to Rusti and Kayla, ignoring all the stares and whispers behind him. They were smart to just stay put and mind their own business. Steve crawled up and sat in front of Rusti as Kayla slowly rocked her. "Rusti, you gave that image a name. Youíve seen it before, havenít you?"

"It haunts me." Rustiís voice came broken and small. "It wonít leave me alone. It follows me around in school and it screamed and knocked me out. It wonít leave me alone." Tears tumbled down her cheeks, but the tranquilizer kept her from moving. "But I donít know how youíre seeing it. Most people canít." The girl sniffed as Kayla wiped her cheeks and nose.

Steve removed his glove and took her hand, now noticing her blue-tipped fingers. "I guess you could say I have an interesting gift because Iím Interfaced with someone special." Parkerís own words threatened to choke the tears out of him. Fear for Midnight surfaced and Steve stoutly reminded himself they were all alive and there was still hope. He drew courage from that and answered Rustiís question. "Iíve been to places, Rusti, where that image is a natural phenomena. Youíre not going crazy. Youíre not just seeing things. The people on the planet Nekízhabry call it an al-díshoonee. Itís the solidified manifestation of a psychic projection; usually from a damaged psyche. But usually only extremely powerful minds can create these things."

Rusti stared at him, dumbfounded. The shock on her face did not fade for several long seconds until she found her voice. "A psychic projection? Someone is projecting that thing? It belongs to somebody?"

"Thatís right." Steve already noticed a great difference in the stress on the girlís expression.

But Rusti started to quiver. "Then why is it screaming at me? Why am I the only one that can really see it? Why did it hit Codyís car? Whoís it from?" The answer shot into her head as though it had been there all along and she had not bothered to put two and two together. Optimus. She could only lip the name. "Optimus. Itís from Optimus. But why does it scream at me?" the distress came back to her bearing. "Why? What did I do?"

"Maybe," Steve drew carefully, "itís him trying to get help."

Now she understood. All those years Prime silent suffered ended in the formation of a projection for which he was neither conscious of, nor could control. A part of him was violently crying out. No one paid attention. They all just went on about their daily lives, living heedless under the shadow of their leader. Sometimes theyíd crucify his character on the alter of personal conceit. Theyíd slander him behind closed doors because most of the Autobots knew very little about their own leader; how much he worked for them, what he did to keep their society together. Rusti had seen it throughout her life. Had Roddi not been there to soften the blows . . . She remembered the dare she took one Christmas and wondered what else the general Autobot population had to say about their leaders. What the hell did they want, anyway? Optimus already gave them his life. He bled for them, surrendered his privacy, his time, sometimes his patience. He had nothing left for himself. There were moments Rusti believed the Autobot leader just ran on automatic; devoid of emotion, detaching himself even from her.

"Just sit down and be quiet." Steve heard Shanís voice carry all the way from the other end of the group. He stood and found her talking to Gatchel.

"NO I WONíT BE QUIET! YOU PEOPLE HAVE DONE NOTHING BUT DELAYED OUR OWN DEATHS!"

Steve glanced at Kayla. "Iíll be right back." He made his way round the survivors, taking note how weak many of them had become. Their time was very short, now. "Whatís going on?" he asked in a general, quiet voice.

Gatchel spun around and darted glaring eyes at the Tentchi leader. "YOU!" he snarled, "all you . . . PEOPLE." he shot a pointed finger toward Spellbinder who handed three bottle of water to the two boys and Mr. Kamrath for his baby. "Weíre out of water, Captain Parker and I just heard this oversized Tonka Toy mention there isnít anymore!"

Steve forced himself to remain patient and his eyes climbed the height of Spellbinderís body. "Is that true?"

"Iím afraid so. Voodoo and Dagger havenít come back yet and Ultra Magnus said he thought he spotted Ďsignsí."

Naturally, the Sentinel meant xenomorphs and Steve understood. He decided to try and handle the panicking jerk diplomatically, "Doctor Gatchel, Iím aware of your concern. Perhaps youíd like to DO something about it yourself."

"Oh no!" Gatchelís eyes flared with an unnatural light. "Iím willing to bet this whole thing is the fault of you and your Walking Black Microwave Oven playing around with those Gates on Cybertron."

Before he thought it through, Steve struck Gatchel hard enough to toss the doctor several yards away. Survivors moved out of the way, surprised. Gatchel moaned and remained where he lay. Satisfied, but not sorry, Steve turned away and gazed back at Spellbinder. "Are you sure thatís all the water you could find?" he asked quietly.

"Very. Iím sorry for it, Captain. I know what it means."

Parker merely nodded and he could hear someone softly weeping. He had no idea how to get them back; there were no power sources and Midnight was incapable of Gating. They would simply have to wait for Kyle to get back before searching other options.

Someoneís scream drew Parkerís attention and when he turned, he saw Gatchelís body reverse its course from the floor to the air and back in front of him. "nortrebyC no setaG esoht htiw dnuora gniyalp nevO evaworciM kcalB gniklaW ruoy dna uoy fo tluaf eht síti teb ot gnilliw míI"

The phenomena seized Parker with fear and he watched as every one of Gatchelís movements came backwards. Then the doctor froze and that too sent chills through Steveís body. He had never seen anything like this and why was it happening only to Gatchel? Did he cross a Ďpocketí or did a time pocket open right about his location? It was hard to tell.

Vanatta Rawson, one of the few survivors who had nothing missing, approached Parker, her eyes wide open. "What is this, Captain Parker? Whatís going on?" But Steve could only glance at her, just as concerned.

Then Gatchel unfroze: "Iím willing to bet itís the fault of you and your Walking Black Microwave Oven playing around with those Gates on Cybertron!" Then without Steve even touching him, Gatchel Ďoofedí and flew through the air again, landing in the same place and way that he did a few minutes ago. All eyes turned to him, watching to see if the phenomena would repeat itself. But it did not. Gatchel sat up and acted as though nothing happened. "What?!" he snapped with a mouth full of blood. And that verified it. Gatchel had no idea what happened to him. He wiped his mouth and spat out two teeth. He glared a how-dare-you at Steve, but said nothing.

Steve frowned and glanced about the room, searching for shadows. Most people did not have any and Steve wondered if the causality loop was already starting from the non-physical to the physical. If that were the case, heíd have a really good paper to write should they ever get back home.

 

Kyle rounded the corner wall and found Steve sleeping next to the girl. He knelt beside his friend and took Steveís hand.

{{Hey,}} he Called, {{Weíre back.}}

Steve drew a deep breath and rolled over as one Rodimus passed them bearing a large body wrapped in blankets. The other Rodimus followed him and Matt brought up the end of the line.

"You-ah-you guys were gone for quite some time, Kyle." Parker yawned, still exhausted. His skin and bones ached with effort.

"I know. We couldnít decide whether it would be safe to bring Prime down here or not. The stairs are disintegrating. This is it. We canít go anywhere else, now."

Parker sat up and rubbed his neck then raised a brow at the doctor. "Might need to check Gatchel." He didnít see the questioning look on Kyleís face, "I knocked a couple of his teeth out."

Kyle grunted and gazed past Steve to the girl. "Is she really asleep, or is she faking it?"

"Iím faking it." Rusti answered irritably.

Steve frowned in Kyleís stead. "Gatchel gave her a tranq, but it didnít work very well."

"Why did he give her that?" Kyle bounced his eyes about the room, looking for the C.M.O. "Kaylaís already given her-"

"She saw something that terrified her." Parker wearily made eye contact with his friend. "Iíve not seen something like that in a very long time."

"What?"

"An al-díshoonee."

Kyle looked at him incredulously. "No way."

Steve shrugged. "Oh, and weíre out of water." That made Kyle close his eyes a moment and sigh. "Yeah," Parker agreed, "that was my reaction. So! What did you guys bring down?"

"Optimus Prime."

And Captain Parker raised a brow. Both Tentchi turned when Rusti leapt to her feet and pressed her way through the group to the two Rodimi. Kyle sighed and pushed to his feet. "What a handful," he muttered. And he followed the girl at his own pace.

Rodimus laid Optimus in a more secluded corner near the group and the light. He lifted the cloth from over his friendís face and searched Optimusí optics for a sign of consciousness. But to his dismay, Rodimus found nothing. The familiar sound of little feet shod in special metal entered his audios and Rodimus turned to greet his lady-friend. Rusti looked as badly as he felt himself. Usually Rodimus would find some words of meager comfort to offer her, even if he did not take comfort from them himself. But at this moment, Roddi could not think of anything to say. They were trapped with no energy source and according to Ultra Magnusí transmission, there would soon be no water or food, either. Obviously none of them were gods or super creatures. None of them had the ability to break free of the temporal trap. However, and, of course, this was Ďreachingí a bit too far, what about the Matrix? Was it possible It had the power and the ability necessary to help them break free?

Sadly enough, Rodimus honestly did not think so.

[[Itís okay, Roddi. You donít have to say anything.]] Rustiís little voice in his head comforted him, but it also made him grieve that she would be there to suffer right alongside them. Why? Why her? Why didnít she either freeze with other humans and Autobots, or arrive there at all? Rodimus wanted to hold her close, to wrap his arms around her and sense some shred of consolation from the contact. But even that bit of comfort was forbidden him.

[[Iím sorry, Lady Friend.]] he mournfully sent, [[I just donít have anything to offer right at the moment.]]

she sent him a forced smile, knowing. But she said nothing else. Kyle arrived, scanner already in hand. He did not see two survivors, Malchaun Tach and Dillon assist Gatchel in his effort to approach. Gatchel was bowed over in pain, holding his bleeding mouth over a wet cloth. Kyle scanned the Autobot and a sudden thought occurred to him. He turned and scanned Rusti.

Same readings. "Thatís . . . what I thought." he muttered. "But thatís odd."

"Whatís odd?" Rodimus immediately asked.

"Primeís the one with the Zatra Tatlic virus."

"And why is that odd?" Rodimus crossed his arms almost defensively, staring at Prime rather than the doctor.

"First, because heís not displaying any of the symptoms. Secondly, thereís still an unknown factor as to how he got it. Thirdly, Rustiís the one that has all the symptoms." Kyle snapped the scanner shut and stared firmly at Rodimus Prime. "What is going on here?"

"What?"

"I think you know what I mean. The girl. Optimus Prime. Is there a connection you havenít told me about? Are they Interfaced?"

Rodimus drew back in surprise. "Heh . . . uhh . . ." A smirk of confusion followed Roddiís answer, or rather, the lack thereof.

Kyle decided not to be insulted. After all, not every alternate reality had Sentinels and Interface partners. But there was a definite connection between Rusti and Optimus Prime.

Optimus softly moaned. Rusti turned from him, covering her face. She leaned against the nearby bulkhead and wept softly as Kayla came to her with a blanket in hand. Kyle glanced from Prime to her, wondering. He sent a slightly encouraging smile at her, but didnít think his half-attempt would go very far. "Itíll be alright, Sweetheart. Weíll figure something out."

"Itís not that." Rusti sobbed. She was very grateful Miss Kayla wrapped a blanket about her. Not that she was actually cold; not with the exosuit under her clothes, but it was comforting. "Itís something else." But even she was unable to exactly pinpoint the problem. She followed Kaylaís lead and slid to the floor and rested her head against the Kshiís shoulder.

Kyle knelt before them and offered Rusti a tissue. "Whatís that?" he asked softly.

She wiped her face and blew her nose, keeping her eyes down on the ground. She said nothing for a long moment then her whole posture changed; her back straightened. Her chin lifted, but she still could not look directly at him. "Have you ever heard a scream, engulfed in fire and cold?" Her voice came surprisingly level, though quiet. "You canít really hear it. Not really. But I have. It frightens me. I hear it now and again. It comes from the past and maybe can be heard in some distant tomorrow. Sometimes I think it would make me burst from the inside. Other times all I feel is terrible sadness."

Kyle flinched when the girl finally stared at him. From the sea-grey color, her eyes changed to blinding royal blue. They burned as though she were an Autobot herself. Kyle wanted to alert the two Rodimi, but Ultra Magnus approached in long solid strides with Dagger tagging his heels. Steve joined them and they quietly talked with the two Rodimi for the moment. Scott turned back to Rusti and found her eyes had already returned to their normal color. He wiped a tear from her eye, very puzzled. "I donít have an answer for you, Rusti." he said in kind tones.

"No." she whispered. "No one does."

Kyle left the girl with Kayla and approached the small group. It was then he discovered Gatchel anticipated his turn for attention. But Kyle felt he could wait. {{Whatís going on?}} he asked Steve.

{{Magnus says heís found evidence of xenomorphs.}}

{{Oh. Droppings?}}

{{No, wall marks-from outside the walls. Theyíre pressing to get in somehow, but canít make the breech.}} Kyle nodded and listened in on the rest of the conversation.

" . . . to make things more exciting," Dagger continued, "weíve watched Ďhome movies play on walls. Magnus here said that was going on even before this whole incident."

Magnus nodded in concurrence. "Itís been happening all over Fort Max. Thereís been reports of voices without anyone else around. Lights turn on in places where there are no light fixtures."

Steve nodded and folded his arms. "What about the al-díshoonee? Has anyone else-"

"The what?" Rodimus interrupted.

"The al-díshoonee. Itís a psychic manifestation. Has anyone else seen it?" Everyone stared at him as though he were talking of something completely irrelevant. Steve looked cross. "Rustiís seen it. Thatís what frightened her earlier."

Roddi knelt before Parker. The Autobotís optics glowed a cold bright blue. "What did you call it?"

Kyle resisted the temptation to pull his scanner out again. Something about Rodimus really nagged him and he wished for the millionth time Skywolf were there to verify his own suspicions. "An al-díshoonee, Rodimus Prime. You could almost call it a ghost, maybe a psychic footprint, except the person who is projecting it is not dead. Have you seen it?"

Rodimus slowly shook his head then stared straight into nothing. Everyone there waited for him to do or say something, but he did neither for a long moment. Kyle narrowed his eyes and finally produced his scanner. He adjusted it several times until he found a frequency that picked up scant, unidentified wavelengths.

"Heís stuck in a time fracture, just like Gatchel after I punched him." Steve shuddered, dreading the thought they might be caught in a time loop.

"No, it isnít." Kyle refuted.

"No, it isnít." Rodimus Prime agreed. "Little Bo Peep found a Black Sheep and chased it all the way home. It danced and pranced and franced about, till it was stoned. Then she cut its head off, took it to bed and drank it all night long." Rodimus smiled coldly and stared down at Kyle. "Are you a Black Sheep, Doctor? Itís asking you."

Kyle could not move. Something lurked behind those optics. And while he saw nothing, he envisioned something with terrible long legs and a triangular faceless head. It spoke in a Black Tongue and he felt it drawn to him more in curiosity than in blood lust.

Voodoo felt the same coldness, but confusion kept him from intervening. He could not understand what was going on. But Steve knew; heíd seen this sort of behavior among predators. "Stop it." Parker snarled. He stepped between Roddi and Kyle. "I SAID stop it!"

"As you wish, Captain." Roddiís voice came as though something else spoke through it. There was no emotion, not so much as a real apology. "Though, it makes you fair game. I Saw you, you know." Rodimus pulled himself to his feet and departed from the group.

Rodimus was about to ask the question, but it was Magnus who took his turn to kneel before the two Tentchi. "What was that all about?" Horror widened his optics but his training kept him from over reacting to the immediate situation.

Steve would have answered, but he honestly did not know. He looked to Doctor Scott but Kyle was still trying to figure out exactly what the scanner picked up. Just to satisfy his curiosity, Kyle scanned Optimus on the same frequency and received the same result. Then he scanned Magnus and got nothing.

It was frustrating being a doctor at times. He turned away as Shan approached. At least he could tend to Gatchelís . . . whatever the problem was, and take his mind off the moment. He replaced Gatchelís two teeth and used a small laser to heal the damage temporarily. "When we get back home, youíll have to make an appointment with a dentist. I think the roots are torn." He didnít catch the C.M.O.ís sneer. Kyle returned to Kayla and silently offered her to read his findings. She nodded, understanding. Steve came up behind and would have spoken but something flashed, catching all their attention. Kyle looked up first, finding the Alternate Rodimus Prime had returned and sat beside Optimus, brooding.

Another bright light flashed across the area and something flickered from the wall along the other side of the room. All eyes turned in silent astonishment as a Ďmovieí sparked to life. The colors and events flooded the room with light brighter than the antigrav.

A creature stood like a towering abomination. It was a patchwork of robotic body shells sewn haphazardly with four arms and two heads. When it laughed, the terrible sound came doubled in screams of agony and delights from evil spirits haunting its dead parts.

It walked on four legs, a thing that might have been a centaur on another world. A conglomeration of metal and stone encrusted its Ďanimalí half, giving it the appearance of moving, rotting junk. It treaded on muddied ground amid wind sheer, tromping through a village of humanoids. It buried them alive, caring not for child or brave warrior; they all died underfoot, or by poisonous breath when it spit flame from its two heads.

And from the midst of clouds and rain, a valiant, strong robot jumped, vibrosword in hand and it hacked at the abomination.

But the evil instilled in its metallic flesh could not be eliminated by a single brave soul. And the thing reached with all its four arms and wrapped the robotic warrior and its two heads began to devour the warrior.

Rusti covered her eyes and softly whimpered. Roddy turned to Rodimus, feeling Shan quake slightly from his own horror. "What is going on here?"

Rodimus bowed his head, taking some heart that Optimus seemed to rest more quietly now. "I donít know."

Gatchel batted his eyes in disbelief and pointed to the far side of the room. "That wall just played a movie for us and you donít know whatís going on?"

Roddi shot him a sharp glance. "There have been a lot of things happening we canít explain."

"Tyr-ani-cussss," Optimus murmured with great effort. He drew a tiresome breath. "It was . . . supposed to be the first . . . De . . .cep-ti-con multi . . . changer."

Rodimus took Primeís hand in his. "Optimus," he whispered and Roddi wanted to say more, but didnít know what to say at all. He bowed his head, ashamed of his failure.

"ĎBout thir-ty-eight . . . mil-lion years Ďgo," Prime weakly added. ". . . Bífore the Ďssassin-ation of . . . Maximus Prime. Itís . . . another Matrix memory . . . Roddi. Plays over and over in my mind . . . it wonít . . . s-stop."

Doctor Scottís brows scrunched in puzzlement. "The Matrix?" he asked quietly. "Why? How so? How long has this been going on?"

Rodimus shrugged as Primeís optics dimmed down and shut off. "In the last few weeks." he answered quietly.

"Really? And how long has Optimus Prime been this ill?"

"Months."

"Years." Rusti suddenly corrected. She felt millions of eyes stab at her in surprise and she tried not to shrink away in embarrassment. She flushed, nevertheless. "Optimus has been sick for years. Heís just never told anybody."

Kyleís brows scrunched up in concentration. He glanced at Steve as though Parker had the answer he sought. Then he scrutinized Roddi. "You say that . . . movie we just saw is a manifestation of the Matrix? And that this has been going on for a long time? Do you think it has something to do with our present situation?"

"No." Rodimus answer quietly. "Iím sure the Matrix is not responsible for this."

Steve felt the incredible urge to talk about his experience with the Matrix, but somehow forced himself to remain silent about it. "Kyle, what about Midnight? Do you think whatever the Matrix is doing is affecting Mid?"

Kyle did not take his eyes off Rodimus. A nagging feeling tugged at the back of his head. It was Roddiís earlier behavior that seemed to send some kind of message and Scott wondered if he could coax it out of him again. "I think," he answered out loud, "itís very possible. I think the Matrix is affecting everyone here in some way. {{Shall I test him for schizophrenia, Steve?}}

{{You think heís insane?}}

{{Donít you?}} Kyle sensed Voodoo landing just outside the group area. He waited until his Dokiah was within view before plucking up his courage to pick a psychological fight. If something were to happen, he could easily phase with Voodoo. Rodimus, you were quoting poetry earlier. Can you tell me about that?"

Roddi laughed uneasily. "Poetry, Doctor Scott? You must be joking. Iím not a poet.

The Alternate Second seemed to tell the truth, but Kyle was not convinced. Neither was Magnus and the Major-general decided to press the issue. "You were saying something about Bo Peep and you were staring at him for a long moment, Rodimus. Are you sure nothing is wrong?"

Roddiís expression hardened. "Why would I behave like that? Things have been tough. You all know that. AND WHY IS EVERYONE STARING AT ME!? Rodimusís expression remained determined, but his optics belied his claims; they turned dark as though dead.

Kyle turned cold and he and Voodoo glanced at one another, preparing to phase just in case. "My diagnosis is insanity, Rodimus Prime. You and Optimus both are infected with a virus that quite possibly has infected the Matrix. Thatís why Midnight is so sick; not because of the intensity of gamma wave life force, but because the Matrix is tainted." Kyle felt the whole room fall dead still as a shadow crossed Roddiís face. The Ďdemon Rodimusí emerged, proving Kyleís theory.

"Devouring it is the antithesessssss . . . sis . . . of being a god." Rodimus laid on his thorax, his face too close to Kyle for Voodooís comfort.

"And I find it kind of funny,

I find it kind of sad,

The Dreams in Which Iím dying

are the Best Iíve ever had."

Kyleís heart froze in horror when Rodimus opened his mouth far wider than it should be able to. Inside he could see the inner workings of vocal units and the intake valves of air and energon and something else that should not be there at all; something hollow like a second mouth with mechanisms resembling teeth. Fortunately for Rusti, she had her eyes closed as she softly wept in Kaylaís arms. She did not see Rodimus lunge for Kyle, nor did she see Kyle phase out of existence, out of the Primeís reach. Rodimus looked about like a dog sniffing for his lost biscuit. The whole room watched in horror as the animal-like Autobot kept slithering about on his thorax until he encountered Voodooís feet. He slowly traced the Sentinelís form until he once again sat on his knees, his eyes now returned to the usual blue.

Voodooís face turned up in a smirk. "Neat trick, huh?"

Magnusí mouth was already drawn down in awe, but now his optics grew in surprise. "That was you?" he gasped at Voodoo. He was astounded again when Kyle appeared beside Kayla, scanner in hand. Magnus wanted to ask questions, but he had no idea where to start. He glanced from Voodoo to Kyle then back. Then he looked to Steve who winked at him, but said nothing. The City commander stood there for quite some time, his mouth gapped in amazement.

"I donít know how much time you have," Kyle stated gravely.

Magnus stared, waiting for Kyle to say something more. "Until what?"

Scott shrugged. "Until . . . until. Until, um, both the Primes are so steeped in insanity that . . . you may have to assassinate them. Until . . . maybe the Matrix self-destructs. I really havenít seen anything like this before-"

"Self destructs?!!" All eyes turned to Roddi who now seemed more like himself. He acted as though he did not remember the last few minutes. "The Matrix?! Are you kidding? Are you reading that thing right, Doc? You canít be serious!"

"Iím very serious. And Iíd guess itís causing you to black out. And Iím assuming sooner or later youíll end up like Optimus Prime is right now."

Rusti started to panic and from panic, she started hyperventilating. Kyle jumped to Kaylaís side and they laid Rusti on the floor. The girl wept and struggled out from under their hands and they tried to give her a breathing apparatus, but she would not hear their words, their commands, their demands. She wanted the world to be right again. She wanted things to be normal so that *she* could be normal and everything would be the way it should be. No more darkness! No more sickness! Where was the sun? Where was the football field and the Dinobots? Where was Cody and Jenn and didnít she have homework to do yet? She was hungry and thirsty and exhausted.

Sssshhhhhhhhhh.

And all the darkness swallowed her and all the girl could do was lay lifelessly on the cold floor. She couldnít even cry anymore; her tears came in shudders. Something tore into her and ripped out a part of her. It devoured her living tissue like a spider nibbling on a fly, though it was already full from another meal. Then vaguely she felt the warmth of another body, arms that supported her back, a shoulder on which her head rested; a heart that beat comfortingly against her chest. She shuddered, weak and trembling. The night terror lingered in her mind, but at least someone now held her and dragged her back to the present reality. She was not alone after all.

Not alone.

Baby bird. Somebody called her ĎBaby birdí and that felt good. She shuddered again, allowing someone to touch her. The touch was kind, brushing her hair, smoothing her back. Her heart gradually slowed, her nerves slowly settled. She was thirsty and longed for the soothing patter of soft rain.

Baby bird, don't cry

But she could not control her tears. She tried to sniff, but her nose was already stuffed. Her breath came in soft grieving sighs.

Youíre nestled sheltered on high

And she thought of the cliff sides surrounding Autobot City; Suicide Pass and Lookout Mountain. She thought of the spring and the autumn when the world changed colors. There was the sun.

 

Let your dreams safely keep

That was part of a lullaby, wasnít it? Didnít Roddi sing that more than a few times?

For within our souls may you sleep.

Kyle gazed up and found Rodimus gently attending the girl, softly singing. It was the first time Kyle recalled ever hearing Rodimus Prime sing to anybody.

Baby bird sleep tight

let your hopes take flight

your name the stars softly call

Baby bird, youíll never fall

 

Kyle checked Rusti and found her finally fast asleep. He gave the Autobot leader a grim smile. "Youíd make a good mother, Rodimus." he said quietly.

Roddi gave him a wry smile but did not answer.

 

The air tingled and pricked her skin with icy fingernails. Rusti moaned in distressful sleep, once again wishing she were home in bed, sleeping with her worn-out fluffy duffy. Slight jabs of pain thrombed against her chest and the girl rolled on her back. She expected the headache to return. Then something pinched her wrist and she weakly whined, unable to fight it. Then it was over. Slowly Rusti finally opened her eyes, finding Kyle sitting next to her, wrapping a cloth about her wrist.

"I-i-i-iTTT sssshhhhhhoullld helllllllpp, Rrrrrusssstiiiiii."

Now she was awake and she wrinkled her brows in puzzlement. Something warm coursed through her arm and leaked across her chest. It traveled over her body like a soft warm fire. She could even feel her fingers radiate with warmth. Rusti sat up as she watched Doctor Scott replace a hypo and talk in very slow motion. She glanced about the room and for a moment found everyone, everything slowed to a near-frozen state. Then she realized the shadows in the room; everyoneís shadow, every shadow cast from the antigrav light above, kept moving at a regular pace. Then the shadows stopped moving altogether. Then they moved at an amazing rate. The shadows suddenly froze again then started moving backward.

Rusti stood and searched for an explanation.

"Did I hurt you? Iím sorry."

She turned and found Doctor Scott resume in regular time/space motion. He placed the hypo back in a pocket in his suit and smiled up at her. She returned the smile, less certain than he, and sat back down. Her eyes fell on her left wrist, now wrapped with a clean cloth. She wordlessly searched his eyes for explanation.

"Serum for the virus. Iím sure itíll help somehow."

"You had a cure all along?"

"No, not all along. I had to filter impurities and it took a while. I figured now was a good time to give it to you, while things are still quiet."

She looked puzzled but Rusti decided it was best not to ask where it came from. As long as it stopped the pain and the hallucinations, that was good enough for her. "Thank you."

Someone screamed and all eyes shot in the general direction. Rusti swallowed air and backed toward Optimus. At the front of the room, near the blocked entrance/exit, floated a Quintesson. At first its form was naught but a transparent figure, something like a ghost. Its tentacles snaked back and forth, its Face of Greed scanned the room back and forth. It looked so real, so convincing. "All forces are momentarily stationary. We can begin the first phase of our project."

The room faded from a world of dark cold metal to a small dirty asteroid, lit by a nearby planetary mass about the size of Saturn. Its rings sat in a diagonal direction, but the planet itself did not rotate. It came complimented by three moons all in late eclipse, all of irregular shape and smooth composition. More than one Quintesson appeared around the survivors and many of them tried to hide behind boulders that werenít really there or they huddled together in terror.

A brain-shattering maelstrom shot through the atmosphere, causing everyone to cower from the terrible explosion. Light flooded the room as if Heaven opened all its gates and shed every square inch of its glory upon one speck of the universe. And a heartbeat throbbed, counting the seconds . .. Two, Three. Four. Five . . . Ten . . . Twenty.

At first nothing. Then another flash of light, distant, but no less brilliant, flared and died. Dead silence followed and oh, how cold and loud that silence was!

No, thought Rusti, this was not real. None of this was real at all. They were still in the room. It was still deathly dark outside the antigrav light. What they were seeing and experiencing was a Matrix memory. "Itís not real!" she cried out, but her voice was swallowed by the ensuing thunderclap as though God Himself had spoken. The sound rattled bones and three people bled from their ears. Four fainted and even Rusti fell, weakened by the echoes of Quintesson-wrought destruction.

Then the blast. Was it like an atomic bomb? Or maybe a hydrogen bomb? Was it like fire from Heaven? Was it more like the murder of a super creature? Yes, it had to have been like the death of a super creature, for even Unicronís death left marks throughout the galaxy. Rusti thought her skin was being ripped from her body. Her breath was stolen from her and she could see and feel nothing for what felt like hours. It came and came and kept coming and would not let up, like an eternal storm of fire.

Then, a voice. No, several voices. Optimusís voice came first: "IF YOU DO THIS, IF YOU ENSLAVE THE CREATURE, WE WILL ALL PAY FOR IT."

But somehow Rusti knew the Quints could not enslave the planet-sized creature. And she knew it was about to give birth. But the Quints discovered they could not tame it or enslave it. So they chose to destroy it. Optimus tried to stop them but could not; the Autobot Council of Elders felt it bad policy to intervene with Quintesson affairs when the Quints were not attempting to retake Cybertron. The Quints were cowards. They had to be to do things like prey on the weak and helpless.

And just as Optimus warned, rest of the cosmos paid for their arrogance. The death of the planet-creature caused Cybertron to lose its orbit. The shockwave obliterated other planets in the same solar system and the result extended to such galactic proportions that it wiped out all life on the planets of Mars and Venus. Earth was not in the same alignment, thereby, it remained unaffected.

The devastation destroyed Alpha Centauri. Proxima Centauri turned inward, shrank and collapsed into a Brown Dwarf star.

But a twinkling of hope sparked when the Quints opened the Time window in 2007. One moment of their arrogance canceled another moment of arrogance and some of the effects reversed permanently. Alpha Centauri was restored.

The Matrix remembered it all and it grieved for the loss of life, for the loss of balance.

The light died, leaving the room once again bathed by the antigrav light. All occupants; Human, Alien and Transformer alike had no words to convey the terrible shock they suffered. They felt the death of billions of lives. They took into their bodies the brunt of the impact. They heard the sounds and felt the sorrow. Their bodies and minds fell languid with emotional and mental exhaustion and all they could do was sit or lie in deathly-still silence.

Rusti sat with her back against the coverlet protecting Optimus. Her ears rang from the terrible sounds. Her skin and muscles ached as though she had been battered and bruised with a baton. What was that? It had to be more than a mere memory. They all lived it for real; a horrific personal experience. They felt the destruction and learned the history first hand. But how was all that possible? No answer. No answer came to her at all. Spellbinder and Ultra Magnus rose first and began checking on all those who lay still, stricken into shock. A few people murmured in pain. Then the baby started crying and her father tried to comfort her, but he too wept.

Rusti watched as Kayla sadly covered Mrs. Strillís face with a blanket. Dead. It was not real, though! Rusti kept telling herself over and over, the experience wasnít real. There were no Quints here! But something here caused a Matrix memory to solidify to the point of reality.

The old lady near Doctor Gatchel wept loudly. They were all trapped in hell and the words tumbled from her lips between sobs.

Roddiís form shadowed Rusti from the antigrav light and inwardly she shuddered. He smiled, but it failed to lift her spirits. "Are you alright, Lady Friend?"

She nestled close to Optimus, taking a little comfort from the blanket covering his form. "I guess." she whispered. She did not want to say anything about her own despair. There were enough people in the room who voiced her feelings.

Minutes stretched into long hours. They ran out of water. The baby settled, but Rusti could still hear her whimper and imagined Kamrath wept in fear of losing his daughter. Vanatta Rawson, the businesswoman, talked quietly with Shan and they agreed Beldoun Tor had finally given up and died.

No one knew what to do. There were no supplies here, they could not go down, the steps were all destroyed and the snake morph nested below, waiting. Perhaps that was all they could do, too. Wait. Waste away and wait.

Rusti realized she had drifted to sleep. She did not know how long she walked in darkness and silence, but it felt good to actually sleep a little. She felt guilty hugging so closely to Optimus, nestling among the blankets when others had nothing to cling to. But no one paid her any mind.

A few minutes later, Rusti swore she saw the face of a robot pressing through the metal wall from the other side of the room. She was still in shock and most likely it was her imagination.

Black spots pricked the air as though time/space were becoming so insubstantial, the air itself was starting to tear.

Then a commotion started from the same place the Quint appeared a while ago. Magnus shouted at Dagger and Voodoo and they searched for scrap metal to seal a hole they had not seen before. Rusti was too tired to ask what was going on. The next minute, she did not have to. The walls around them began to twist and the faces of xenomorphs pressed against them. At first it looked more like a play of light and shadow. But that was when Rusti realized no one in the room was casting shadows. The floor rose right next to her and she took to her feet, amazed that she could move so fast in spite of her weariness. It wasnít a trick after all. It seemed the floor had become so flimsy that the morphs were trying to tear their way in. But that wasnít the case at all. The shapes kept rising and sinking into the floor until one shape remained and detached itself from the floor. It remained still for several minutes before it changed color. The shape redefined itself and a xenomorph appeared. Its rib cage expanded and reduced as though the thing were breathing.

"Theyíre coming right out of the goddamned floor!" Dagger declared. He shot one but another took its place and another and another, rising like bubbles in a boiling sauce pan. One fully-formed morph dashed amid the group and slashed down two people, devouring one on the spot. Another morph, a far larger one, charged Magnus, smashing two other survivors in its. Shan fired at a two-headed morph as it wriggled its way from the wall. A terrible roar sounded through the room and suddenly-

The impact knocked the wind out of Kyle and jolted him to the bone. He forgot to breathe. Doctor Scott batted his eyes to life just as another sensation hit him; he fell down, down, down. His own form collapsed again as his chest took the brunt of another impact. Irresistibly strong, invisible hands pinned him to the ground. Kyle instinctively struggled to turn but something snapped dangerously close to his head and for a second, Kyle felt hot breath. The smell of blood came with it.

~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~

Kyle lay flat on his back. He batted his eyes at the darkness. His whole body shook uncontrollably. His ears rang loudly. Cold?

No. Not cold. Not the cold he felt a moment again. The air smelled different . . . familiar.

{{Kyle?}}

{{Steve?}}

{{Are you alive?}}

He blinked.

Light shot on and Kyle automatically shrank, hiding his head with his hands.

"Doctor Scott? Are you alright, sir?"

"Kyle?"

That second voice was familiar. Kyle dared look up and found Jill staring back with great concern.

He jolted to his feet and glanced everywhere. Level Two. Organics. Medbay, Section 24. He glanced out the windows and the great city scape of Cybertron greeted him. Three Decepticon fliers zoomed in and out of view. He gripped Jill in a fierce hug. "Youíre real!"

"Kyle!"

And then he was caught up in Kaylaís arms. A dream! It was only a bad dream! Then he realized he still wore his exosuit and the next second, his eyes fell on his right thigh and found the gash left by the giant snake morph. About him stood the two teenage boys, Malchaun Tach and Vannatta Rawson but no one else.

Steve found himself, Kamrath Darwin, his baby girl, Nurse Andersen and the old lady laying along the stairwell from First Level, Organics. They stirred to life as ceiling lights flashed on. Security filed in and people paralyzed by the event slowly took to their feet, both shocked and dazed in silence. Skywolf had already arrived and started handing orders out in multiple sentences. He checked on Midnight first and ordered him into immediate intensive care. Steve was also gently lifted onto an antigrav stretcher but he signaled for them to pause for a second and just spotted Gatchel also being hauled away.

"Wolf, what happened?"

"Power outage from that energy ribbon, Captain. One third of this whole ward ceased to exist for ten minutes until the ribbon cleared Cybertron Weíre getting crazy reports from all across the planet of people missing, or coming back from someplace else, like pockets of parallel realities or something. Weíve been trying to get to you for the last six minutes, but the buildings were insubstantial; they really didnít exist, if you know what I mean."

A cold eerie feeling filled Steveís heart and he was glad when they covered him with a blanket. He would not sleep for at least a week. "Xenomorphs, Wolf. What about the xenomorphs?"

Skywolf shook his head, "We donít know what happened to them, Steve. They were here before the ribbon hit, but thereís not so much as physical evidence they were ever here."

It was several long moments before Steve could breathe again. Then Midnightís shields collapsed and Parker himself fell to unconsciousness.

 

End.

T.L. Arens