AUTHOR'S NOTE: WARNING! STRONG LANGUAGE AND VIOLENCE (you know, the good stuff). Parents not wanting their children exposed should read the story first.
This story is the second version of the same story written back in 1996. It takes place about 33 years after the G1 episode *Rebirth*. While the words have been, for the most part, rearranged, the story has not. However, readers of the first version might be delighted to know this version is longer and answers questions that might have stemmed from *Devil's Dance.*
Much thanx and luv goes to Jayd who taught me how to play solitaire!
Goodness to you on your journey and may the Matrix remember you.
Earth Date: Late March 2038
Rusti sat at her bed half listening to Silicon Crosshatch, a Neo Flash group-one of several pieces of music Rodimus dreaded to hear. Neo Flash was notorious for its 'twelve-inchers' (extra long versions), few words and heavy instrumentals such as saxophone, didgeridoo, the synthesizer and electrical instruments, particularly the keyboard and some guitar. She liked Silicon Crosshatch for their heavy use of the synthesizer and keyboard, but loved Fresh Infusion for Togward Kadrin's voice.
Into the autumn water I cast my wishes.
The pains I bear are the ripples along its surface.
They freeze in time like the color in your eyes.
The blood of my soul remains frozen even in summer
I pray for the fireplaces in the winter.
I pray for the healing of the rain.
I search your soul for an answer
but you are lost just like me.
You take my hand-at least I am not alone.
But the pain is still mine-you can't take it from me, I
can't give it away.
Let the Autumn water wash me clean of pain.
Let me hear the rain.
Forsake the summer nights,
embrace the Autumn.
I need the rain.
Rusti hit the repeat button on her stereo and raised the volume as though trying to drown her soul into the melody. She closed her eyes a moment, feeling not just the music, but the words, repeating them as though they were sacred. The song moved on and once again she cast her eyes upon her scrap book. A page filled with photographs and scribbled notes displayed a part of her life she no longer remembered. The whole scrap book was like that. All the photographs she could not identify, all the hand-written letters she had gathered, even an old dirty book cover spanning a two-page space resided in the book. Every attempt she made to remember odds and ends, even fragments failed. Eighteen months worth of memories fled from her like snowflakes drifting in a warm wind.
The accident last November cost her not just personal memories, but a set back in school and Rusti had to retake four classes. Ironically, one such class was psychology.
The song ended and started to play again.
Rusti rearranged a set of newspaper clippings and news printouts from the Internet. Next to that page she had already pasted bits of fabric from the nightgown she wore just after the accident.
A dull pain hit her breast bone and Rusti stopped breathing a moment. She bowed over and tried to fight it off. Her eyes watered and her shoulder muscles contracted hard. Her ears rang then a moment later, the attack abated. No one knew what it was. Doctor Cynyr insisted it was her imagination and there was nothing he could do for a hypochondriac.
Rusti suspected she knew, but did not know who to tell, or how to prove it.
She turned the page and fingered a photograph of Rodimus. He had been gone for four months now. He didn't even do so much as tell her good-bye. He just left. Whatever exchange of words he and Optimus had, at least Optimus was able to talk him out of self-destruct. Roddi was going to just let himself bleed to death. Rusti did not know what horrible things he did to rub his own conscious to the point of self-destruction, but it must have been one of the worst skeletons he would have to bear.
Much of the events last October/November were not open to discussion and she dared never to ask Optimus. His emotional and mental condition deteriorated to the point where he almost could not do his job any longer. He did not sleep and tended to berate himself more than usual. It was as if he expected to be punished at every opportunity.
She often felt his physical pain. That's where the attack came from. But no one wanted to believe it and Rusti chose not to discuss it further.
The demented pleasure reflected in Rodimus' smile would have frightened a demon. The long cold blade in his hand seemed to have a life of its own. Buried deep in Optimus' body, it twisted metal, sliced lines and spilled precious fluids over Rodimus' hand. He thought he could bathe in the sweet warm blood.
Pain tore into Optimus' body. He struggled against ungiving bonds. He jerked at electric chains and shackles clasped tightly round his arms and legs.
Rodimus yanked the knife out and jabbed Prime's right shoulder. What pleasure that was! Metal gave way like so much organic material. He thought he could even feel a bit of infrastructural rod there at the tip of the blade.
He yanked it out, drunk in pleasure from Prime's blood flow. More!! He sliced into Prime's left hip. Oh yes, right there!
The vibro blade sunk easily into his chest and sent pain clear down his body. The knife bit deeply into his right hip and quickly switched, now sliding into his thigh.
Blood drained from him like a sacrificial lamb. What a pitiful thing he now became. Please make it stop! The blade came down on him again and Prime shuddered from the attack, strictly ordering himself to remain silent. Rodimus! Rodimus, why? Why?
Darkness took Rodimus' mind. Wrapped in the confines of madness, he drank in its wickedness, tossing his sanity to the solar winds.
It was the fault of the Quints. They committed unspeakable evils.
It was the Hate Plague. See that? All the little glowing red wounds marred his metallic skin. Infection festered over his body as though he were a walking corpse.
It was gross.
No, wait! No, the Hate Plague took place several years ago. That's right. The Matrix cured the galaxy of the pan-dimensional virus. Yes, that was . . . oh Primus on High.
Oh Primus, no.
Not Vector Sigma. Not some root program.
It was a dirty truth. He longed to deny the cruel reality!
Bitter memories flickered across his processors like poisoned energon. A virus, near-sentient in character, devoured parts of the Matrix-at least those parts with which Optimus was familiar. The Matrix itself did not know what was going on or why. It asked countless times what it was encountering. It flashed through memories ages and ages ancient for any shred of explanation. But It found no peace.
And Optimus and Rodimus suffered right with it.
What sins did they commit to reflect the Virus' own evils? Optimus did not wish to consider it.
Roddi's vibro blade slashed Prime out of his own brief moment of thought.
DO NOT SCREAM.
Neither of them were actually victims here. Neither could claim innocence.
He was insane. He lost his mind . . . all gone like the autumn leaves in a fierce Oregon winter storm.
And everyone was so sorry for it. All those poor dead people. The Humans, the Autobots . . . all those immigrant aliens who came to Earth for a better life and what did Prime give them? Terror.
In the bowels of a replacement factory on Cybertron, Optimus walked down the dark corridor toward his judgment. He murdered. He committed a breach of absolute trust. Misuse of power, misuse of authority . . . and his prayers remained unanswered.
The audience's whispers traveled about the arena, condemning him. He need no trial. Everyone knew of his guilt. He needed to be recycled because his deeds were too dark to permit him to live.
He stared into the abyss of nonexistence. No forgiveness was granted him. His sins were unforgivable.
Well, he wasn't really the Chosen, anyway. Everyone knew it was Rodimus all along. Right? Optimus was too old, too narrow-minded, too set in tradition to lead the Autobots forward into a new era. There was no logical reason for prolonging his miserable life. He had nothing to live for, anyway. Not really.
Rodimus seemed sorry for it. He said nothing as the two embraced a final time. Then Rodimus abruptly shoved-
Prime shot straight up, shouting to no one present. There was his desk and the silent dark of his office. His monitor lighted just that area where he sat. It waited for instructions. Mounds of digipads sat impatiently for his personal attention.
He involuntarily shut down, most likely without realizing his systems were going offline by themselves.
With some effort, Prime stood and leaned against his desk.
Apathy and depression mounted against him day by day so that even the simplest projects seemed like mountains. He was useless.
He embraced himself as darkness churned inside him, taking his life a little at a time. Nothing was wrong with him physically, or at least that's what First Aid and his assistants kept reminding him. But it did nothing to comfort him. Optimus sometimes swore he was a walking corpse.
A soft bleep called over his personal line. That was unusual, since the line was something he scarcely used unless it was to talk to Rusti from Mars. Prime hesitated to answer. It would most likely be someone who desperately wanted something from him badly enough to call him on this lin. They all wanted his attention. They all wanted his approval or to impress him with something they did or ideas they had. Sometimes they demanded his attention and time just to 'rub elbows' so they could drop his name later.
He accepted the call(-dammit!)
"Yes?" His voice did not reflect his feelings. His privacy was once again invaded. Someone else took his time and for a moment, Optimus felt robbed of much needed privacy.
"Good morning! Uh, that is, is it morning there?"
Prime forced himself to face the huge monitor on the left side of the room. He felt like a bug, meticulously examined under a microscope. The screen was too big, he realized. Everyone on the planet could watch every single moved he made and point out his every mistake. What idiot would allot for such a large screen? He wanted to hide and never be seen again.
The virtual visitor beamed a gentle warmth into the room that melted most of Prime's misgivings about the call. Optimus offered Dr. Paul Gates a slight smile as greeting.
"Paul." How pathetic! He sounded more relieved than glad to see the scientist. He berated himself for displaying such improper emotions.
Doctor Paul Gates, who had never aged a day in over fifty years held up a blue sheet scrawled over with technical drawings of robotic figures and plots for construction. "Got those 'specs you wanted!" Gates' broad smile was outdone only by the gleeful tone of his voice. Then the sheet disappeared and Paul's face turned white, his eyes shot wide. "I'm sorry! It's three in the morning, isn't it? I keep doing that-I've been on Cratis for so long that I can't seem to compensate for space-time between here and Earth." Paul shrugged with a fretting smile, "well, can't seem to do that for any other place, for that matter."
Optimus forced a smile, but he really did not know what to say in response. Paul was a very easy-going person. He was the brilliant scientist without the annoying absent-mindedness. Paul made mistakes but laughed at himself over them. Optimus felt comfortable around him and the distress in his demeanor lessened a little. It was nice to talk with someone who really wasn't looking for anything from him.
The corners of Paul's mouth tightened a little. "I, um . . . there's been a bit of hear-say something about your consideration to negotiate with the Quintessons?"
Prime watched as Paul left his monitor for a table toward the back of his room. The doctor poured himself a cup of coffee, or whatever similar drink they offered organics on Cratis. The Autobot leader waited until Paul settled back in his chair, sipping the hot fluid and dabbed his chin with a napkin. Prime's own expression became impassive. "I have taken time to read over Magnus' and Kup's reports regarding the battle on Pluto this last fall." The rest of his explanation included a serious failure on his part as a leader-as THE Autobot leader. Optimus glanced from the over-sized screen to his desk and wished he were sitting there, talking with Paul through his monitor. "I was not aware we had so many casualties. They were caught by surprise with new technologies . . . I have not been able to finish reading the reports, but it appears the Quintessons owned the Terrocons and had three new Decepticons we've never encountered before. I do not have all the details."
Paul did not mean to interrupt Optimus, but he felt his comment necessary: "Prime, allow me a little advice when negotiating with Quintessons: Don't. I believe it was Ambassador Koontah who said the Quints redefine the phrase 'mendacious larcenist.' You can't trust them any further than my ex-wife. She tried to kill me. They won't be quite that nice with you."
Prime sifted through Paul's words, but the more he considered it, the more his mind was made. The Autobot leader shook his head. "There has been so much destruction already. The Quintesson ambassador, Cleprachaun has offered to negotiate. I . . . I have to give it a try." Now he felt worse than ever. Where was that steadfast warrior side of him? Whatever happened to his resolve? Devoured by Darkness, no doubt. "So I have asked a disinterested third party to intervene on our behalf. I do not personally wish to confront the Quintessons." Prime turned away in shame, "however . . . cowardly that may sound."
Gate's face contorted like a high school student struggling with a calculus test, "uh, you think that a peace agreement with them sounds like a good idea?" The doctor questioned Prime's logic and he was willing to bet he was not the first. He had not talked with either Ultra Magnus or Rodimus, but he believed they might share his concerns. He watched as Prime continued to stare away from the screen. He heard some of the events regarding the virus, though he knew there was more to the story than what went around. News always forgoes all the little details.
It hurt to see Optimus Prime shrunken into a mere shadow of the person he used to be. There was no light in his optics. And Paul swore even Prime's colors were greyed down. But over the televisor, he could not be sure. The scientist scribbled on the back of a piece of scrap paper, scratching out badly-drawn stick figures with ugly faces and writing his ex-wife's name under them. "You know, Optimus," he said after a moment, "I'd like to have a discussion sometime regarding your idea of a good time. I remember that time when you decided to confront Torq III alone and how later you told me you almost became one of his minions. Do you remember that? I didn't think it was as simply accomplished as you made it sound. You need a hobby."
Prime's mood lessened a bit and with the change of mood came a bit of strength. He even felt better about facing the large viewing screen, recalling how Rusti always liked to watch TV on it. A slight smile even made his head tilt down just a little. "I do. I remember later you said you used bobby pins, paperclips and your girlfriend's earrings to reconnect power supply and communications on your computer."
Dr. Gates laughed heartily and his cheeks reddened just a bit. "You would have to bring that one to the forefront, Prime. But I'm willing to bet you couldn't do that with Tele-Tran now, or Max for that matter."
"I don't wear earrings." It wasn't until he already said it that Prime realized he made a joke. It was accidental only because he thought of Rusti who sometimes left her earrings, lipstick or necklace at his desk after doing her homework.
Paul studied Prime's optics. His bright smile faded with the passing moment. Usually if the Autobot leader was making a joke-no matter how subtle, he would usually add some kind of physical gesture with it. But Optimus merely stared at the floor of his office, recently carpeted to cover stains in the metal plates that, strangely enough, would not come clean. Sadness burdened the Autobot so that his frame slumped under the terrible weight of grief and guilt. Paul ached for him. Optimus used to be so enthusiastic when they worked on a project together. Now he did not respond even to the finished specs. "What's wrong, Optimus?"
The Autobot leader dimmed his optics in self disgust. Paul saw through his emotionless facade. Or maybe he was doing a poor job of masking his weariness and apathy. But Paul was someone he knew he could trust. The scientist was personable without being nosey. And often when Prime would reveal classified information to him, Paul always kept it to himself. So once again, Optimus chose to trust him: "I . . . I can't really say," he confessed. "Sometimes I feel confused. Other times I forget things or I get a sense of purposelessness. As if . . . I should have stayed dead.
Paul remained respectfully quiet, watching his friend from a planet four light years from Earth and wishing he were there in person. He wanted to help but at this point, all he had to offer were words. "Is this because of the Matrix?" he asked cautiously, "what about Rodimus? Have you heard from him? Or have you discussed your . . . " careful, he thought, say it carefully, " . . . concerns with Ultra Magnus?"
Prime's strength died from him just then and he had to sit on the floor. His heart hurt. No, not the laser core, his heart. Rodimus was as sore a subject as his garden, as sore a subject as -Primus, no, don't use her pet name. It could cause a breakdown, a neural crash. First Aid warned him several months ago that his neural pathways were breaking down one or two at a time and any amount of emotional overload would push him over the edge and into a crash from which he might not return.
The neural crash could permanently incapacitate him.
Optimus did not want to admit that he had not spoken with his Second on a personal level for several months. Roddi evaded that part of their transactions as much as he. Their conversations were always couched in business and city subjects. It became a tacit rule between them that to ask how the other was feeling was not allowed. Keep it light and shallow and things will be just fine.
"No," he finally answered Paul. "Magnus has been very busy of late. The last thing he needs is another burden. Rodimus is . . . We haven't talked." Prime stared away for a moment. What was the question? Something about Magnus, wasn't it? Why was he talking about Roddi? His optics drifted to his desk whereupon sat three piles of digipads. Just looking at them made him weary. "So much to do," he muttered to himself. No, the question was about the Matrix. That was it. "As for the Matrix . . ." But now he forgot what the direct question was. And rather than guess his answer, Prime decided to worm his way out with a typical answer: "I don't know."
Pathetic. He was sure even Springer could see right through that excuse.
Paul did not reply right away. He sought the Autobot's expression for his answers but found naught but dissatisfaction. Optimus either lied, or simply could not answer the question. But, the scientist reminded himself, depression does that. The mind wonders and forgets. "Prime, have you discussed this with Rodimus . . . your despondency, I mean?"
Prime hesitated, dreading whatever tongue lashing Paul might set against him. "No."
Kindly enough, Paul said nothing. He gave Optimus all the time necessary. Someone had to listen. Optimus bore private pains he felt none needed to know and because of his secrecy, it required more than good intentions to draw that kind of information to light. Paul knew but a few precious reasons for this steadfast defense system and permitted Prime all the emotional privacy he deserved.
But Optimus' mind ever returned to the sinister events in the previous autumn. Two months of torment both within and without and Optimus still could not understand how such a thing happened. The aftermath left a bitter taste in the mouths of supporters, both political and economical. Optimus knew he had much to account for, so much needed answering but he had no answers to give them. He could not explain why or how the national guard unit surrounding Fort Max were destroyed. He could not explain how the walls in Central City swallowed people alive. Nor could he explain why the street lights and sidewalks bled. The Virus displayed a power of the Matrix the likes of which neither Decepticon nor Human had the mental capacity to understand. Optimus understood it, not completely, for the Matrix was a power far greater than he imagined, but he knew in part a bit of its capability. For the Matrix was more than life from death. It was more than purity from contamination.
It was neither god nor supercreature, but it was a power and life of its own terms and now . . . now it was faulty. How does one explain that?
The deeds of the Virus plagued every living thing within its confines and worse than any, it touched its Bearers, leaving great scars of emotional and mental agony.
Optimus dreaded shut down anymore. Evil dreams distressed him, tormenting his memories and sometimes inflicting a greater burden for the next day.
The Virus-wrought insanity burned his mind and shorted his logic and reasoning. But now that storm has passed, abandoning him to wallow in an emotional desert of emptiness. Optimus wanted to crawl into a crack in some distant dried riverbed and lie there until he died.
"Optimus?" Paul's soft voice filtered through the room, rousing the Autobot leader from his dismal self-rebuke.
Gates tried to smile cheerfully, but no amount of light-heartedness from him would filter into the shadowed room of Prime's office. The scientist drew a deep breath, "I know things haven't been easy for you of late. But I feel you must discuss the situation with either Rodimus or Magnus. If you don't get help, it will only grow worse. Depression doesn't go away like a battle wound. It lingers and if left untreated, becomes cancerous. You must do something about it."
Prime's optics dimmed, "I don't think anyone can help me, Paul." His voice fell quiet, shadowed like his office after the sun has set behind the Cascades.
"You can't go on like this," Gates insisted as gently as he could.
"I don't know what to do." Prime thought he was going to smother. He forced himself to stare at Paul.
Those words seemed so final; as though Optimus was going to give up without a fight. Paul noticed how Prime's optics darkened. His great frame slumped slightly like an old man laden with the burden of many rocks upon his back. Paul lightly tapped the desktop with his pen, glided his fingers down its metal surface, flipped the pen and repeated the process several more times as the seconds ticked away between them. Finally he sighed, his breath came heavy as he tried to control the sound of his voice, for the question he was about to ask was of a nature he could not bear to consider himself: "Optimus . . . have you had thoughts of suicide lately?"
Optimus wanted to suppress the answer. He screamed inside. SHUT UP!! DON'T ANSWER THAT!! How could Paul ask such a question?! No! Don't give it away! Don't look as if it were a good idea!
Dammit! But the truth prevailed because of who and what he was. Prime bowed his head in silent shame.
" . . . Yes."
* * *
"Resonna! Wait!" A masculine voice shouted above the milling of a hundred other teenage bodies compressed into a high school hallway.
The object of the voice's attention, a slender sixteen year-old girl with sea grey eyes, spotted a young man of seventeen. She smiled, shaking her finger in reprimand as he approached, squeezing between three and four other people. "Cody, I hate that name. You know that!"
He grinned mischievously, brown eyes catching light of the afternoon spring sun. "I wanted to make sure I got your attention."
She returned his smile, a slight reproach in the corner of her eye. Rusti Witwicky closed her locker door after an exchange of books. "Well, you called me by the wrong name half way around the world, humiliated me in front of millions of people. Now you have to make an excuse for yourself before I leave for home."
Greydon batted his eyes innocently. "Homework. Got time?"
The girl flushed a bit, her eyes darting away. Although she had little to no memory of him, Rusti found she liked Cody. He was very gentlemanly and did not push her into doing anything she felt uncomfortable doing. If they knew one another before her accident, he said nothing of it. Rusti could not help but wonder and more than often she wondered if she should ask. There was that peechee folder in her scrap book. It said nothing of his name, but a few of the drawings across is surface matched the scribbles on a few of his own book covers. Rusti wanted to know, but felt torn between that knowledge and complicating her life with more things she should remember.
One step, one memory at a time, she kept reminding herself. At this point, she was still struggling with the Christmas year before last. She had photos of family and a visit from Jazz, but they were someone else's photos, someone else's memories.
The inter-city bus that served both Central City and Fort Max pulled to a stop in the EDC district which lay at the northern end of Fortress Maximus. Cody and Rusti waited while to EDC officers, three ladies and two other high school students disembarked. Cody automatically took on Rusti's books and she smiled, feeling a bit spoiled by such kindness.
"We haven't spoken in about three days, Rus. How goes it all?" he asked as they made their way down Trans Continent Road toward the cafeteria that served the EDC district and the small band of Head and Target masters.
She shrugged as her eyes scanned one side of the street then the other. Major reconstruction was a continuing process anymore and the girl wondered when everything was going to finally be finished. The city was badly damaged and crews worked in triple shifts. "Well, I still haven't heard from Roddi. I guess most people haven't. Optimus . . ." Here she frowned, "Optimus hasn't been very talkative, either. I mean, since I've been trying so hard to catch up, I really can't find a lot of time to check on him." Now that the thought of him touched her, Rusti felt her chest bleed on the inside. Grief touched her and she directed her eyes and pained expression away from Cody. It was not something he should see. No one would believe her.
"Hmm." Cody's voice trailed her back to the moment at hand, "I hear Optimus is still on the go-ahead with Fortress Zenith's final phase on Mars."
Rusti broke out laughing, "Ohmigod! Last Sunday he was so mad-they still haven't put the doors on! Optimus rattled on about it the rest of the day!" She paused, her voice now lowered with a bit more seriousness, "But with the new defense system still off line, I guess the doors are the last thing they're concerned with."
"Defense system?" Cody echoed.
"Yeah. They can't figure out why the system keeps breaking down like it does. Optimus wants to go back to Mars and oversee the last stages himself. But . . . but I don't think he's really . . ." she paused to look her companion in the eye, searching, perhaps, for a bit of comfort or encouragement. "I don't think he's well, Cody."
"Well, yeah. The Virus. It's still affecting him, I'm sure."
"No, I think there's more to it, though. I've seen him sometimes cold and grey, as though the life were being drained out of him." She stared off into nowhere, now. The memory of his sight filled her heart with sadness, "like a walking corpse that has not been told the soul of the person has already left." She choked a little, her eyes burned and her throat constricted. "I don't know what I would do if he died, Cody." She could not tell him how often she thought she could feel that. Was that empathy, or simply her over-active imagination?
Silly girl, she told herself. Who do you think you are? You're just human, nothing special. You love him. That's all there is to it.
The two of them found the cafeteria fairly empty.
A few people who recognized Rusti offered them a friendly wave while the high school students wove around tables into the kitchen.
Rusti held her breath and hoped the Head/Targetmasters had left a little ice cream for them. But the freezer stared back, empty as a vacated igloo.
Cody was more successful in his search. Rusti thought it must be masculine instincts-he found a fresh chocolate cake in another refrigerator. They helped themselves to good meaty slices and a can of Dr. Pepper for him, a Sprite for her.
The two commandeered a table next to a large window overlooking the inner courtyard where two mothers talked as one burped her newborn and the other kept a third eye on her toddler romping about the grass with a small dog. Rusti spread her homework across her side of the table, whipped out a calculator and tapped her head with a pen while she devoured the cake, nearly heedless of her company for the moment.
Cody watched her, eating a little more thoughtfully, careful not to allow one atom of a crumb to tumble from his fork. "How can you eat like that and stay so thin? I'd be a thousand pounds if I ate like this all the time."
Rusti's eyes nailed him with a generous sparkle, "Dinobot football. Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays." She shrugged and a bit of guilt crossed her face, "or late at night when I can sneak out of bed during the summer."
"Heh!" He grinned broadly then realized what she meant. The girl had a bit of a daring side to her. He knew she was a bit audacious, but- "late at night, Rus? what, eleven, midnight?"
She shook her head and turned a page in her book. "Two, sometimes three."
"A.M.?" He blinked.
She shrugged. "Naughty, I know. But if Optimus were upset about it, he would have said something about it a long time ago. Besides, it irritates my folks. They can't say anything b'cause it's not illegal."
Cody rolled his eyes. "Your folks. You said something about an argument with your mom and Aunt Delphra, but that was before second period when we passed in the hall. You were kinda miffed about it."
Rusti's composure turned dark and the corners of her mouth turned down in displeasure. She devoured another wonderful bite of spongy chocolate cake, but the sudden turn of her mood did not allow her to appreciate its rich sweet flavor. "It's all a load of crap. They are constantly crawling up my backside to get me to leave Fort Max and move back to Central City! And when I ask them the reasons, they clam up tighter than Optimus. I don't know what the big deal is, Cody but I wish they'd leave me alone about it."
She turned her gaze back to the courtyard where the toddler occupied himself by running in a small circle. He laughed and ran around and around and somehow, Rusti knew what that must be like; going nowhere fast, thinking something was being accomplished when all the while the mind is spinning until balance is lost. That's what it felt like whenever she tried to chase down a memory, any memory of the last eighteen months.
"I'm not leaving Optimus here," she softly vowed more to herself than her companion. "No matter what little good I do him, I won't leave him here." She withdrew her stare with a resolute sigh and stabbed the remainder of her cake. "And I don't care what B.S. Delphra tries to cram down my throat. *I* decide whether I want to stay here or not, not the courts. If they make me move, I'll run away again."
"Whoa! Easy, Rusti! The whole world isn't ready to go to war with you." Cody sniggered and downed a bit of his Dr. Pepper. "They know they'd lose in a fair fight."
She grinned, but her eyes did not meet his. Rusti loved how he made her laugh. It made her realize how much more she missed Roddi's incessant teasing. Fort Max was not the same without him. "Sorry, Cody. It just bites at me because my parents seem to think I should be a dumb little girl old enough to do what everyone else is doing." Her own words hurt her. "But I'll never be like the rest of them-"
Cody reached across the table and squeezed her hand then let it go. "Well, I'm glad of that, Rusti. There'd be no Dinobot Football, misplaced drawing books or grapes and vanilla ice cream if you were like the rest of them."
Rusti blushed and stared out the window at the other end of the room. Out that way, south of the EDC District, traffic came and went. Autobots, Humans and aliens all went about their business in spite of the damaged city. The buildings and roadways in Fort Max were rarely quiet, anyway. "I need to be here." she murmured distantly and to herself.
Cody's abrupt question brought her back to the moment and she pinned him with questioning grey eyes. "I . . . I don't know," she answered like one suddenly waking from a dream.
A twinge Touched her and Rusti Listened intently. A coldness settled over the city, like a cloud passing over. She knew Blaster's comm buzzed with static.
One of the Aerialbots reported an unusual electrostatic 'hiccup' in the atmosphere that threw him off course.
Swoop lost his sense of balance for half a second.
Ultra Magnus experienced a moment of unbalance.
Then it passed like the fading ripples in a pond. What it was, or could have been, Rusti could not tell and could not sense any trail that might be traceable by psychics.
"Hmm?" Her mind came back to Cody, blank as a sheet of paper when the writing had been erased.
She shook her head, uncertain if she ought to share that information with him or not. Rusti was very uncomfortable about the things she sensed. She knew not everyone could see or hear the things she did in Autobot city and so kept most of those things to herself unless on some occasion Optimus Prime brought them up himself. It was nice that at least he sensed or thought he could hear distant voices in the walls or get chills in corridors where there is no wind, and no one else was around.
"Rusti," Cody's voice lowered so that only she could hear, "I know when something is bothering you. It's something other than your family. What is it?"
She shrugged and gave sudden interest in her mostly-eaten cake. "You'll laugh."
"No, I won't," Cody promised.
"Yes, you will. It's not for real."
He wasn't going to give up easily. She sighed and decided to go ahead and place a bit of trust for him to pick at: "disturbances in the air. Things that aren't really there, but I can feel them. Things that go on around me without mine being there." Now she stared at him meaningly, as though she could see through him. "Sometimes I hear voices, arguments. But nobody is there. Not ghosts . . . more like . . . psychic projections."
He sat in silence, fingering the empty can of Dr. Pepper. "All over the city? Or just here?"
His question surprised her and Rusti felt better. "I'm not so sure."
"How far do your senses go?"
She shook her head again, her eyes remained glued to him. "I dunno. Never tested it." She blinked at Cody, amazed by his acceptance of things he could not see. He was 'geeky' by the standards of some; a bonafide bookworm. Cody was a cutie and Rusti thought it funny how girls fawned over him like ants on a fresh kill. But strangely enough, he chose to spend his time with her. Rusti could not figure out why. She always scared other guys off. She supposed they didn't like a girl who read at college level or talked about things like time continuum theories.
What she liked most about Cody was that he knew how to have fun. Earlier in the semester in Chem Lab, they exchanged notes behind the teacher's back, drawing nasty pictures of her. During an outside class experiment, Cody and Rusti re-rigged the chemistry set on the teacher's desk. Not that anything deadly happened, but a nasty smelling substance oozed all over Mrs. Aime's desk and she and Cody spent an hour in the principal's office. But when all was said and done, the two still believed the little stunt was worth it.
Cody snapped his books shut and gathered his papers. "Let's go do an experiment." he beckoned.
"On what?" she asked innocently, not moving from her spot.
She batted her eyes, doubtful. "How?"
He thought for half a second. "Well, let's find someplace private, first."
Rusti gazed at him out the corner of her eye, a bit suspicious. If he tried anything 'un-kosher', she decided she could easily introduce him to the cold metal plating of Max's flooring. "Science lab in the R and D Complex? Most of the staff have been on leave until they check and replace some of the wiring."
Cody grinned and swept up her books.
The room they picked stood dead quiet. Unused equipment cluttered counter tops and abandoned notepads lay with unread scribbles dating back to November. Rusti shuddered as a ghost-memory tried to surface and died. The sterilized scent of alcohol and other anti-bacterial and flammable agents caught in the girl's throat and she coughed a time or two and sipped her Sprite to dampen the sudden dryness in her throat.
Light from the outside world lit the room in greys and blues. It was far from cheerful, but Rusti and Cody both supposed the room could have been darker and there was a flashlight handy should the outside light fail too quickly.
Cody helped himself to a tour of the room while Rusti tried to read a notepad. The pad's owner struggled with a mathematical equation and wrote in strange script. A flash of numbers shot through her mind and the girl blinked as though physically hit. She flinched from the tablet and found Cody staring at her. "What?" she smiled sheepishly.
"You saw something, didn't you?" She opened her mouth to deny but he held his hand to cut her off, "Rusti, I know when you see things. I can tell." He glanced about and spotted a somewhat comfortable armchair at a computer consol. "Here, let's start with this."
As a lamb before the sheers, Rusti thought grimly. She sat, a bit nervous as to what Cody had in mind. He slipped under the desk and came out a moment later and turned the computer on. He glanced at her as the monitor flashed on. "Nervous?" he asked. She nodded. "Don't' be. I just want to see if you can transmit."
Her brows raised, "Transmit? You mean telepathy?"
Cody referenced the computer programs until he found the solitaire game. "Sorta," he replied. The boy withdrew from the monitor with a bit of hope in his eyes. "Can you manipulate that with your mind, Rusti?"
"What?" She gazed at him as though he were crazy. "Cody, this is silly. That's a machine!"
He knelt beside her, his face kind, but insisting. "I know it sounds weird. But there is a kind of kinesis that works with machines. It's *very* rare, almost nonexistent. But if you share this . . . mental ability with the two Primes, I'm willing to bet there's more to it. Give it a shot, Rus."
Her eyes drifted from her friend to the computer. The game waited her attention.
Eighteen months of her life gone. Photographs of events that did not exist in her mind jeered at her.
Clear the mind. Look at the game. Three of diamonds goes over the four of clubs. Project. Think. The machine is waiting with its own power and its own language. It does not think for itself. The machine
. . . no *this* machine, is not alive. It is a servant. Ones and zeros. Hexadecimal. Rusti remembered hearing about an alien ambassador that could read binary and hexadecimal. Concentrate, dammit! Move the cards.
Snap! Without the guidance of a mouse or verbal command, the cards moved. A shiver of fear and excitement shot up Rusti's spine and a grin turned her face upward. "Ohmigod," she whispered. It was like discovering how to read.
Five of clubs over six of diamonds. Add that to a seven of clubs and again over an eight of spades.
Pick a card from those empty spaces. An ace of hearts. A duce of spades. A four of clubs. No matches. Fish from the pile at the top of the screen.
No, take it a step further. Go inside the game. Go inside the computer. Change the system. Change the rules.
Display all the cards.
Cody choked back a cry when all the cards turned over at once and even started shuffling by themselves as though done by invisible hands.
THIS PROGRAM HAS COMMITTED AN ILLEGAL ERROR AND WILL NOW SHUT DOWN.
Rusti laughed, clear and sweet and left the poor machine alone. The two students sat in the dim light in silence for a long moment, each lost in thought. Rusti suspected she already knew how to do this, but lost it in the accident. How could she forget this little trick? The girl felt as though she won a private game all her own. She thought she could walk on air for the next week. It wasn't anything like regaining a memory, but a part of her life was brought back to her . . . and she had Cody to thank for that. She wondered if she should kiss him for it.
Cody found a kushball sitting nearby and tumbled it between his hands. Finally he spoke, "Do you know what any Autobot is thinking at any given time?"
"No." Now she could not look him in the eye. "The whole thing is weird. It's just Optimus or Roddi. I don't know if that's natural selection, or if it has something to do with the 'wiring' in my own head." She caught his puzzled gaze and winked to make sure he understood she did not mean literal wiring. He nodded, understanding and Rusti thought hard, struggling to come up with some kind of analogy to explain the relationship between she and the two Primes. An idea came to her and she tried it: "You know how you sorta connect yourself to someone you love deeply?"
He shrugged. "Never loved anyone deeply. 'Cept my mom."
"Well, you've heard of how people who are really close can sometimes sense what's wrong with the other person, right? I mean cases like a mother knowing something's wrong with her child, like a car accident or other kinds of danger?"
"Yeah. I don't know what they classify that as, though. I've heard of it."
"Well . . . that's how this works." Her words trailed as she thought of Optimus and sensed him bending over paperwork, fussing over traffic problems along the Pass. She drew a deep breath and cheered up a bit. "I guess you could call it cross-species empathy, huh?"
Cody set the koosh ball down. The corners of his mouth tightened. "What about the Matrix, Rusti? Don't you think that might have some kind of influence on you?" He held his hand out to stop her from answering the question too soon: "I know what you're already going to say: that you have no relationship with it. I know. We've talked about it before."
Her forehead wrinkled with puzzlement. "We have?"
"Well . . . in a round-about way, I guess you could say." He verbally stumbled around, struggling to cover his own tracks. "Do you remember anything about the Doppelganger War?"
"Yeah. I remember it." She snorted. It was old news, something she'd rather forget.
"Didn't you tell me once that you were sick when you lived with your folks and were not allowed to even visit Fort Max? I mean, I know this is ancient history to you and you'd probably rather not talk about it, but I think you need to think it over more carefully, Rus."
Her whole frame fell downcast as though she were a criminal facing the reality of her guilt for the first time. Why was it so hard to face that fact of her life? Why did she try so hard to hide from it? Was it because it made her feel less than Human? She saw herself as neither Human nor Transformer . . . at least she *looked* like something! But her abilities confused her-oh, was 'ability' even the right word? Stand up to it, girl. Face that mirror or you'll be running from it all your life!
Rusti drew a deep breath and stared into Cody's brown eyes. "I have sensed it on occasion. I . . . I've even communicated with it, though I often can't remember what was said. I can feel it in the walls here in Fort Max. It's like they breathe, you know. I mean, I can tell if the presence is Max or the Matrix, if that sounds crazy. It's like music, almost. I mean, it's not sound-music, but life-music. It's . .." She shook her head. "It's impossible to explain, really.'
'The Matrix isn't some fancy tree ornament you lock up in a box and haul out when a crisis hits. And it's not just a library of someone else's experiences. It's pure life energy with a mind of its own. The Matrix takes on personas. Sometimes I can feel it as a nondescript . . . presence that inhabits the city. Other times it feels like a guardian warrior or even a protective, gentle lady."
Rusti stared into space a moment, her face a blank of utter concentration. She was not even remotely aware of the memories that came to her. They were old, memories of another time in her life when she was very young and listening to one of Roddi's personal tales while sleeping in his arms after a bad dream. "There's even a Root Personality in the Matrix," she added after a moment. "But I've never encountered it. Optimus once spoke of it when he traveled through its corridors looking for an answer to the Hate Plague."
Her words fell away as her mind still wandered somewhere along its own tracks. Cody watched her, half expecting more, half realizing she was finished and was merely lost in thought. He finally sighed and stirred from his standing position. "It must be fascinating encountering something so alien, but something mostly familiar to you."
That brought her out of her daydream and she smiled as though dim clouds of sadness drifted apart and sunshine of happier thoughts touched her. Cody loved that smile and felt a slight tug of envy toward her robotic guardians. How often did they get to see that particular smile?
"Cody, how would you like to encounter something alien to the Human species?"
The boy offered her a lopsided grin. "You're not going to make me drink oil or taste energon, are you?"
THE MUSIC IS ALL AROUND YOU, CHILD.
Cody spun about the room, expecting someone else there. But only he and Rusti occupied the room. "What was that?" He turned back to Rusti and swallowed air. Her eyes radiated with the same blue light shining from the optic sensors of Autobots. He could not even breathe. He mouthed Rusti's name, but no sound escaped his throat. A warm tingling sensation milked down Cody's sternum. He gasped, raising his eyes toward the ceiling. Light and music enveloped him, filled his whole being and he thought he could fly with it.
"Matrix?!" he called out, "is this the Matrix?"
EPSILON OF SEVEN. CHOSEN FOR THIS TASK
Power unlike any he ever felt before poured through Cody's body. He did not know how to describe it. He struggled to keep his mind on the moment or at least long enough to ask another question. But the power-the music, as Rusti described it, kept his mind more on the sensation than on his intellectual understanding.
What did he want to ask? It must have been important, certainly! But his body shivered and his mind left the room, racing across the whole of Fort Max. His inner eye climbed the huge buildings in a matter of seconds. His senses took in the whole of the hundred-mile territory the Autobots purchased in the Cascade range. He breathed in the cool spring air and the cold metal of the city at the same time. He counted the citizens and workers in the city. He felt their life force and their well-being. He touched every blade of grass and every molecule of dirt. He heard every song of every bird and felt the lasercores of every Autobot in or around the city. He heard Ultra Magnus' voice and watched air traffic land on the Upper Level. And he spotted Optimus Prime, pouring through paperwork but before Cody could get a better look, the world imploded and he was back in his own body.
He fell to his knees and gasped for air.
Distantly he heard Rusti calling him. He felt her gentle cool touch. And just as distantly, he heard himself tell her he was okay. But it did not feel like his voice. It was as if his soul still hovered over his form and his body ran on automatic. His ears felt stopped up by water.
"Cody!" Rusti called and held his face, "listen to my voice! Follow my voice. Cody?"
Her words came clearer and then everything was normal again. He breathed in one more time, seeing her with his own physical eyes. He blinked.
"Ohmigod," anxiety filled her voice and Rusti nearly jumped to her feet and dashed out the door except that he caught her hand and brought her down to his level.
"It's okay, Rusti. I'm okay. I'm just not sure what happened, that's all."
Her face fell blank. "What do you mean?"
"You didn't do that? Your eyes changed."
"Do what? What are you talking about?"
He smiled lightly. She was totally unaware of her own physical change. "I heard Music." Panic left her face and Rusti calmed. She understood, at least in part. "Did you do that, Rusti? Did you . . . 'turn' the Music 'on'?"
She remained quiet for a moment. "I Heard his voice first. I used to sleep by it," she answered, meaning Prime, "I was very little and didn't know the difference. And I don't think he knew what was going on until I answered him back one night." Rusti smiled more to herself than Cody, "He freaked."
"I can't imagine Optimus Prime freaking over anything."
She shrugged, not surprised. "I guess it's a side of him not many people see." To herself, Rusti thought how sad that there were many sides of the two Autobot leaders of which most people were unaware. The girl supposed that was both a good and a bad thing.
Light from the doorway filtered into the room, disrupting the cooler light from the windows on the west. The two kids shaded their eyes from the hallway lights and the next second a bald fellow in a white coat and a disapproving frown filled their vision. Rusti batted her watering eyes and shrank from the overwhelming sight of Dr. Cynyr. She braced for the unavoidable lecture and quickly tried to think of an excuse for being in the room.
Dr. Cynyr nailed her with his dark eyes. "Young lady, I don't know how many times you have been warned. Optimus Prime-"
"Um, this is my fault." Cody abruptly interrupted, "We were looking for a quiet place to study chemistry. She didn't like the idea, but I insisted.
The excuse sounded good, but Cynyr remained unimpressed. "Young man," he boomed, "this area is prohibited to civilians. That's why there is a SECURITY LOCK at the front of the DOOR." And once again he nailed Rusti behind his thick glasses.
Cody stood, completely ignoring Dr. Cynyr's ugly expression and helped Rusti to her feet. Rusti thought her heart would beat right out of her. One thing she did not need was a bad report from Cynyr to Optimus. Not that Optimus would pay much attention to it, but her parents would.
They abandoned the room, feeling Cynyr staring after them like a gargoyle perched at the door.
Sleep evaded her, too, no matter how tired she felt. Rusti tried sleeping on her back, on her tummy, with the music on then off. The window was opened and later shut. But even at a quarter to one A.M., her mind bustled with questions and whirred with thoughts that refused to be still. She finally sat up and stared out the window to a world lit by city and traffic lights. Buildings stood as black and white checkered monoliths and an occasional Autobot, Springer, perhaps, passing between the cafeteria and one of five major visitor's buildings.
Rusti struggled to take inventory of her own head. Whatever it was that kept her up now evaded her conscious mind like a mischievous child playing hide-and-seek with her parent.
And speaking of parent, perhaps that was the key-a 'Freudian slip', as they'd call it. Daniel and she had another 'debate' a couple of days ago. He claimed his argument was for her 'own good'. But Rusti viewed his concerns as a means of control. As unfair as that sounded, it seemed every time the girl yielded a little to trust her parents, their concern twisted and proved they were looking out for themselves; they always had to be 'right'. They could never, nor wanted to ever, understand her situation. It was a game she and they played for years.
Aunt Delphra was certainly no help. She had a personal problem with the Autobots. With each year, Delphra's attitude grew uglier until Rusti simply could not stand to be even in the same room with her.
Well, the girl thought to herself, I could either sit here all night, or I could find a way to get sleep. She shed the blankets and hunted about her room in the dark for her robe and slippers. The walk from the EDC complex to Central Command was not far, but far enough to probably wear the bottoms of her slippers. No matter. The walk in the cool April night would do her some good.
Of course, that was a bad assumption on her part. A bitter breeze chilled her skin and she started having second thoughts about going back to her room and snuggling back under the covers.
But upon seeing the lights emanating from the new front courtyard to Central Command, Rusti decided to remain on her path. She had a bedroom here, too and could be just as comfortable as the room in EDC-except her homework was back there.
Both admonishing eyes and wary smiles greeted the girl as she stepped through the lobby. There was a statue that once stood in the lobby but it was removed after the battle between Optimus and Roddi. That was yet another memory that disappeared from Rusti's life. She forced herself to keep focused. Pay no attention to the changes, just keep going.
At least the corridors greeted her with warmer temperatures than the great outside. The elevator climbed in silence and the two bulging-eye aliens who occupied it with her also remained silent. It was eerie being up this time of night and season. Not that Rusti was a stranger to late nights, but she felt everyone's reproachful gaze, whether they knew her or not.
The elevator paused at her level and when the aliens took one direction, she made certain to take another. This was private and she did not want to answer any questions they might have. It was none of their business.
But why did she suddenly feel so paranoid and defensive? Calm down.
His door was closed. Either he was unaware that it was closed, or Optimus needed privacy and did not wish to see anyone, even her.
Of course, he could be in a meeting, too. Rusti thought about asking Max, but didn't know if the city would tell her or not. She held her breath and tried to stretch her senses. Nothing. She quietly knocked, hoping she was not interrupting anything. Optimus seldom reprimanded her bad timing. But more often than not, she was as much a 'victim' of his looks as the next Autobot. It never ceased to amaze her how much he could say without saying anything at all.
No answer came from the other side of the door. Maybe he didn't hear her-but that was less than likely. Optimus could sense her anywhere, hear anything. He even knew when she was sneaking cookies into his office.
Rusti drew a deep breath and dared open the double doors just a crack. She nervously peeked. Was he talking on a private line? Or maybe he was conversing with someone and he just couldn't tell her.
To her relief, neither was the case. Optimus sat at the desk, pouring studiously from one pad to another, comparing information.
The silence of his solitude darkened her heart. She feared leaving him alone, though he was safely concentrating on something for the moment. Rusti laid her hand over her chest and debated whether or not to go back to bed. The gloom of his depression spilled from the room, contaminating her and the girl wished, not for the first time, she could chase away his grief. But she knew only Optimus and Roddi had the power to heal their inner wounds.
Even if she were to return to her room, the dilemma of a sleepless night still threatened to annoy her. Maybe she could just sneak in unnoticed and curl up in her little corner at the far side of his office. Not that she could sneak by him, in all honesty. Rusti knew that he knew when she was in the room, invited or not. She decided to stay and cautiously closed the doors, not once lifting her eyes from the god-like figure looming across the way.
She was like a Barbie doll compared to the rest of the room. Prime's steadfast desk squatted in the large room like a solid monolithic cube, filled with secrets; it was a barrier between he and whomever crossed the threshold and sometimes Rusti was sure he mentally hid behind it.
The televisor hung from the southern wall like an ancient drive-in movie screen. The book shelves between the desk and the window stood like soldiers waiting for orders. To her right hung a huge painting of mountains at sunset and a beautiful lake pouring between them. A garden comprised of flowers and a few strong shapely trees trimmed the painting as though the viewer were there in the world frozen in time. If Optimus knew who the artist was, he never told her.
Rusti stole three steps forward and to the right. Optimus did not move. She debated whether or not to say anything. Maybe he really was unaware of her presence. Her lips lined in decision and she quietly padded toward her corner.
"Isn't it a bit late for you to be up, Rusti?"
She cringed and wanted to laugh at his notice of her and how her heart skipped several beats. She loved his voice and could listen to it for days on end.
Time to act innocent, if that were possible before Optimus. He always 'knew.' "I couldn't sleep." Her mousy voice barely rang through the room and she marveled that he heard her at all. "I thought of you. A-a-and thought I'd come to see what you were doing. Are you mad?"
He leaned away from his work, blue optics staring at her with the 'I-know-your-ulterior-motive' gaze.
She tried the 'innocent smile' routine. It always seemed to work for Rodimus.
Oh, tormenting silence! The great metal god stared at her with an imposing expressionless face. He did not move as though he were trying to decide whether or not to be angry with her. Rusti struggled to keep from biting her lip. It would be a dead give-away. Don't bite the lip!
Optimus finally drew a deep breath, "Well, I could use a break." She won! Now keep a straight face about it. "I suppose I could walk you to the cafeteria-"
"Uh, no thank you." she quickly declined. 'I'm not hungry. Just can't sleep."
"Hmm." He stood, shoving digipads from the edge of the desktop. His optics caught sight of one and he glanced at it with as much interest as Rusti going through her civics workbook.
Now might be a good time to ask a favor, since Optimus obviously felt as drained and restless as she: "Could you . . . tuck me into bed," she dared-and accidentally bit her lip, " . . . and tell me a story?" Damn. That lip-biting probably gave the whole plot away. He'd know in a millisecond that she planned it before coming to the office.
And sure enough, the signal caused him to cross his strong arms across that great chest plate and he gave her that same 'ulterior motive' gaze, as though he could see right through her skin and bones. The game was up. "I thought humans grow out of that sort of thing when they reach a certain age."
Would he ever know how much she loved to hear his voice? Did he ever stop to guess that she never tired of his company? What would work now? The innocent routine clearly was not going to work this time. Rusti also supposed making promises to 'be good', wouldn't work tonight, either. Think, girl!
AND DON'T SMILE!
"I haven't said my prayers."
His gaze deepened. Nope, that didn't work, either. She should have thought her reasons over a bit more carefully. "One story." he agreed.
Her whole face lifted in a smile so big she thought her face would grow wings and fly right off.
Prime returned to his desk and sat back down. "I need to finish this letter. Then we'll go downstairs."
That was a promise. Butterflies flitted about the girl's stomach and it took a few moments for it to subside. She had no idea why she felt the way she did around him.
Rusti waited patiently. Her feet stole across the carpet an inch at a time until she reached the desk, hoping he would finish soon. How does one tell stomach butterflies to settle? Calm down!
Finally he flipped the digipad upside down and turned to her in his chair, arms on knees. "Are we ready?"
She reached for his hand and he lowered both, holding her tiny hands over his fingers and Rusti leaned against his right hand. "It's so quiet in here, Optimus. Don't you like music anymore?"
He remained quiet a moment and she sensed guilt, "I forgot. I'll listen to it tomorrow. You can even make the selection, if you'd like." She was so fragile, like a newly-bloomed flower or rainbows within the dewdrops resting on forest pine needles. His heart ached because he wished-
hush. She was here. This was enough.
And the night was growing old far too quickly.
They traversed the corridors and elevator in silence. Rusti wondered if it were so late she'd never get out of bed in time to catch the bus to school. Not such a good thing. It seems all she did was miss school.
Cold dry air blew through her and voices chanted from the walls. She glanced about, expecting to see someone down the hall behind them. But no one was there.
Light flashed from the sky and glancing out the windows, the girl thought it just might be the night patrol. But there were no EDC planes, business helicopters or Autobots there.
They reached her room and Rusti entered first, disrobing and kicking off her slippers.
-no, she was in a dark place covered in a fine layer of frozen space dust and several Quintessons surrounded her-
" . . . and some lingering remnants of his personality . . ."
" . . . a robotic zombie . . ."
And they tore into her heart and ripped it out and put it back in wrong and oh, how alone she felt!
Breathe! Dammit! Breathe! Where was the light?! Where was home?!
Oxygen came back to Rusti's lungs after a gasp and she laid a hand on her chest. Light fell about her. She was safe and warm and ready for a night's sleep. What the hell was that?
She gazed up at Optimus. He leaned against the doorway, head bowed, hand covering his face. He felt it, too! She shuddered and plucked at the bed covers. "Is it the Virus?" her tiny voice barely touched the quiet and she didn't know if he heard her any clearer here than in his office.
"I-I don't know, Rusti," he answered with a great amount of effort.
Her heart ached for him and she wanted to cry. Be strong. He needed bravery, not tears. She patted the beside and he stumbled to the wall next to her and heavily sat down. Maybe she could talk him into staying the night with her. He used to sit and watch her all night long when she was sick. Certainly he could do it now-so she could keep an eye on him.
Someone needed to.
"I'm sorry, Rusti," Optimus's voice remained quiet and weary. "The story will have to be short tonight."
Her eyes scaled his height and for a moment she thought the whole world consisted only of he and she; as if reality receded. In that same moment, Optimus seemed less like a god and more like a person. Perhaps his weariness tore away the walls, allowing the real person to come through.
She cherished that real person. Rusti smiled, though a tear nearly escaped her eye. "Even a little time is better than none." She watched as his hunched frame lifted a little and his optics lighted.
Rusti snuggled under her covers and waited to hear his sweet baritone voice, drinking it in like warm tea sweetened lightly with honey.
'The weather brought a brief storm to the Hundred Acre Wood. The wind blew harsh, stripping weak leaves from trees and forcing all citizens to shut their homes to the outside. Eeyore slept soundly in his home, for fierce winds and a bit of rain never bothered a donkey. . . .'
'. . . peculiar flitted across his eyes. Eeyore took a step back, blinking to make sure he saw what he thought he saw.
Sure enough, there it was, sitting on one of the flowers. It was a little man . . .
Dammit, pay attention to the story!!
The dust lay over her body like a fine film of plaque over her teeth and the lighting shifted as the monsters entered the temple-like room. She was supposed to be dead. Why was she conscious? What did Daniel suggest? A coma? No. It was no comma. She was -HE was dead.
They sucked her out of the light. But wait! That wasn't possible! There is no reactivation from final termination! It's never EVER happened before!
Rusti laid her hand on her chest. They ripped her laser core out.
" . . . A ROBOTIC ZOMBIE . . . "
'. . .Eeyore, ol' pal, ol' buddy-boy! I was just bouncing round about the trees when I heards ya talking to yourself all by yer lonesomeness. . . '
. . . EVEN TO HIM SELF HE SEEMS. . . ALIVE . . .
He *was* dead. What brought him back?
The timelines slipped like two streams of water conjoining to create a new stream. It was wrong. It was not supposed to happen.
The timelines crossed.
And more voices poured from nowhere. The Virus? Maybe? Her head ached from the though of it.
. . .Indignant, Tigger set his paws on his hips. "Hmph. With a potty-mouth like that, you won't get any which way done nohow."
Eeyore decided to offer his suggestion: "I'm just a donkey myself and flying is far from my field of expertise. But maybe they're only glued on. And it's been my experience that sometimes when glue gets wet, it doesn't act like glue anymore."
Sink into the void. You can't feel anything there. Just let go and fall in. You can sleep there. No more pain. You'll feel nothing ever again. Fall. Fall.
. . . FALL! FALL!!. . .
Rusti shook her head as a dagger of pain pierced her skull just above her left eye.
"What's the matter, Rusti?" Optimus asked softly.
She gazed at him slowly, realizing she lost track of the story. However, the girl knew it was foolish to attempt to lie to someone who could read people just from simple observation. Prime almost seemed telepathic at times and knew when she was bothered by something.
"Would you like me to finish the story another time?" he offered.
She mutely nodded, but wished she could find a way to talk him into staying the night in her room. She feared him leaving her though she could not rationally explain why.
Weariness assailed his expression as he tugged the covers closer about her. "Now I lay me down to sleep." And how sad that sounded! Why did it suddenly sound so familiar? Why did it sound like the first line of a poem? No, no, no arguments now.
"Now I lay me down to sleep." she murmured.
"I pray the Lord my soul to keep."
She sleepily repeated the phrase and fought to keep her eyes open long enough to finish. "And if I die before I wake," She echoed after him, "I pray the Lord my soul to take."
Her mind blurred and all she heard was him repeating the prayer in a variation of his own language: "Klathsthas, guiess."
"Pleeman, trivaine." Rusti answered in Autobot.
Long pause. Her mind slowed and darkness crept toward the borders of her consciousness. "Ordain trev memain." Her family had no idea she could speak the Autobot language. It was a little secret between she and Optimus and Roddi.
"Necheochnot. (pause) P'baldan, Grosh, mieonoin." Sounds about her drowned in the bliss of sleep.
"Amen." Her heart slowed. The lighting in her room returned to its normal state.
"I DON'T WANT TO FIGHT YOU!"
"THEN . . . STOP ME!!!"
He took to his feet and Rusti sensed the movement and the voices, nagging at the fringes of her mind rose and fell and she bled inside her chest.
Her heart stopped. Her breath failed. The light in her soul drowned in a cascade of distant images and faces. Something went horribly wrong on the Mausoleum.
She struggled against the currents of unconsciousness. Breathe!! Pain shot down her back, pressing her to the bed. He was going to leave her room and if he did, he'd not make it to safety-Optimus, don't leave! But the words failed to escape her throat.
One voice cried above the rest of them, clear, without shouting: ONE DECISION MADE IN THE FUTURE AFFECTED THE PAST. WHAT WILL YOU CHOOSE?
She choked on the attack. Get up! Move! But her body did not want to obey. She lifted her arms and managed to push the covers from her chest. Her eyes cleared enough to see him retreating toward the door.
Rusti managed to get off the bed, but she fell to her knees. Her head throbbed so that she had vertigo. In her state of disorientation, she thought she could reach out and touch him.
She drew breath, "Optimus, don't leave!"
He collapsed and she followed him down the same dark road.