Saturday? Sunday? What day was it? Rusti slowly lifted her eyes to welcome a world fraught with darkened skies and clouds brooding in their water-weight. She groaned and rolled over, staring aimlessly out her window. Yup. Rain clouds. Lots of them.

What day was it? Did she have to go to school? Oh, Primus, most likely. Her eyes drifted to her dresser and from there to her bathroom door and right toward her closet and right again toward the front door and from there to her desk and vanity and to the photographs on the wall and the phone.

A red light silently flashed at her, calling her attention to messages waiting her response. Maybe Cody left her a message-maybe he called to remind her it was another school day and she was supposed to get out of bed and get dressed.

The girl reluctantly rolled out of bed, scratched her leg, kicked her shoe (ow) and nabbed her phone. She plopped back into bed and realized she needed a shower and a few other amenities. Sometimes it sucked being a girl. Rusti hit the replay button on the handset and lay back on the pillow to listen.


That was Cody and she *did* have to go to school today. Roddi would blow it off, call the school and let them know she was on death's bed. And being the charmer that he was, he could get away with it. Rusti, on the other hand, couldn't lie to the devil. Of course, missing school also meant lectures from several people, including, but not limited to, her Aunt Missy. But as lousy as she felt, Rusti figured if she just stayed in bed all day, her slothful behavior might be forgiven.

Next message:


Rusti rolled her eyes. It was Mom.


That, in all honesty, was not a request. They expected her to be there. She inwardly groaned and flipped the blankets back over her cold legs.


Rusti wished she had enough nerve and physical will power to slam the phone against the other wall. Her mom was still upset over the ugly argument Rusti and Delphra had two months before-an argument that included breaking a few things. Rusti had no idea her aunt had such a vile temper. Either that, or Delphra had gotten worse over the years.

Netty's voice drifted out of Rusti's mind as she kept on about being nice and pleasant-like her sister- and how good it will be with the family in a couple of days. Rusti did not bother listening to the rest of the message. It was like walking on ground glass on a hot summer's day and Netty's voice was never the most pleasant.

Rusti rolled over on her tummy, allowing the phone to drop wherever gravity pulled it. Maybe she'd be lucky and have a major test in school those two days.


Rusti stirred later, finding herself chilled and without her blankets. She rolled about, prying her eyes open and tugged the fallen blankets back around her. Her cramping stomach refused to let up and the girl debated whether or not to get out of bed and find something good to eat.

What time was it anyway? Or did she honestly care?

A familiar tapping sounded at the door and Rusti groaned, imagining herself an unholy mess; this 'thing' that had no makeup on, disheveled hair and an attitude that would land her on someone's shit list.

"Max, can't you just tell them I ceased to exist as of eight o'clock last night?"

"I heard that!" It was Roddi's voice and Rusti automatically yanked the blankets over her face. She heard the doors hiss open and did not have to look to know that Roddi's ever-cheerful face peeked in between them. A broad, irritating smile crossed his lip components and his optics probably held a twinkle of mischief.

"Good morning, Your Most Highness! Or shall I call it 'afternoon? School called to request your audience and golly, I had to tell them that you were on your death bed."

"Must have been difficult," Rusti muttered.

"Well, considering the disaster your room is in, the fact that you're not so much as watching TV or have eaten anything all day, I'd call that as close to death as a sixteen year-old gets without becoming street pizza."

"Not funny."

Roddi leaned against the door frame, arms crossed. "I'll let you slide this one out, Lady Friend, since I don't know what it's like to have cramps and chills. But I would recommend you see the doc if you need to. Got me?"

Rusti did not want to do anything. "Yeah," she promised. Something struck a cord in her head and she flipped the sheets off her face, "Roddi, how's Optimus this morning? Is he okay?"

Rodimus' smile faded a bit, "I think he just needs rest, Lady Friend. Whatcha askin' for?"

"Well . . . just that yesterday I had the weirdest thing happen to me. I was in class and had . . . I dunno, something like a dizzy spell or other and . . ." Suddenly the words would not come to her. She sighed frustrated, and played with her nails. "I dunno. I don't know how to explain it."

Roddi waited for more, but clearly the girl was not feeling well enough to say anything further. He let up from the door way. "Well, when it comes to mind, just let me know, okay?"

She mutely nodded and realized how much hungrier she was now. "Mom said she, Dad and Delphra will be coming up for some kind of conference. What's it all about?"

"Oh . . . just a bit of meeting with the Quintessons, that's all."

Her jaw dropped and Rusti hauled herself up. "What?! You're going to go through with it? Roddi!"

He held his hands out to defend himself, "it's alright! Everything's being set up. Not a problem. That ambassador is coming. I don't want you to fuss, okay? We'll be just fine."

Rusti did not argue, but she stared, eyes filled with suspicion. She didn't like the idea of him going out there with those freaks. But duty was duty.

Rusti was better the next day. She wished it were Saturday instead just so she could have had a three-day vacation. But that's how her life worked.

She disembarked from the bus and waved back at Jen who lightly ran up to her, her face glowing.

"Guess what?" she asked, barely able to keep the secret to herself.

Rusti shrugged and shook her head. "Your dad got a life?"

"Almost as good." and Jen winked. "You know that guy I keep looking at in the cafeteria?"


"He's asked me out."


Jen exaggerated her nod. "Yup. And he wants to go to the VR Park tomorrow."

"Ohmigod!" Rusti embraced her friend, 'that is so awesome!"

"I know! I don't even know what I'm going to wear!"

"Don't wear a dress! He'll probably ask you to play laser tag with him."

Jen giggled and squeezed the books in her arms. "Oh! Ohmigod, Rusti!"

"What?" Rusti's grin broadened.

"Maybe you could get Cody to take you too! We could do a double date!"

Rusti's eyes sparkled at the idea then her whole form slumped, shoulders fell. "I can't."


"My marvelous parents are going to be at that conference at Fort Max and they want me to be there."

"You mean they can't just let you go off and be happy for once?"

"It's worse than that, Jen. My Aunt Delphra will be with them."

"Oh, geeze, that's a bomb. I'm sorry, Rusti."

"Me too."

From one class to the next Rusti struggled to think of some brilliant way to excuse herself for one Saturday night with Cody and Jan. But she knew for every excuse she'd conjure, her family would think of a billion more to counter it. With Dezi gone to college, life with family became more centered around her. The real problem was that Brian had more or less rejected the family and spent most all his time with questionable company-that is when he was not in jail.

Cody flipped through one of several books researching the bio-engineering of Transformer physiology. He sighed loudly, half muttering as his eyes caught one pertinent passage then another. Rusti sat across the table from him in the library. She smiled, glad she asked for a private room. Cody was unintentionally noisy.

The girl sipped her soda and struggled with the book report for English. She liked to read, but hated the books school teachers made her read. They were either dull or lame.

"Transformer life is carbon-based, not silicon," Cody read out loud. "I got that. Silicon is just sand or glass. But honestly, Rusti, none of these books really say much about bio-mechanical DNA. Lookit, this book skips on and says how the exostructure is made of metals and carbonic elements." He lifted his eyes to her, "I'm sorry, Rus, but . . . duh! I already know stuff like how the surface 'skin', is a neural network of sensors bonded to the metal. I mean, that's pretty much fifth grade material, right?"

She nodded, not really knowing what the boy was after. Rusti wondered how she was going to get a descent grade on this paper. If the book was so bad that she could not finish reading it, chances were the report would not make her teacher happy, either.

Cody stood from the table to stretch and replaced the one book in his hands upon the shelf. He rested his forehead against the row of books, thinking hard. "I already know the metallic structure of a Transformer are alloys braided at the subatomic level" He privately wished he could dissect a Transformer to really understand its inner workings. In addition to the complicated life forms of the sentient robots themselves, there was the connection between the Autobot leaders and their Matrix of Leadership.

Think, think, think. Maybe what he was looking for had nothing to do with the physical manifestation at all.

His eyes drifted to Rusti, who kept pouring over the essay. What was it about her that about drove him nuts sometimes? She had this face that seemed almost elfin in shape. She had this smile that sparked of innocence. Maybe it was that unlike other girls, Rusti was a more real person. She didn't try to be something she wasn't and Cody liked that in a girl. Certainly she had other interesting qualities; she was very smart. She was able to do things that amazed him. But there was something more to her. What did his grandmother once call it? An old soul? Maybe that was it. Rusti seemed far more mature than many girls her age. Autobot influence seemed to expect her to act more mature than society at large expected. And she was enthusiastic and took joy in simple pleasures.

That was rare. It didn't take much to make Rusti happy and Cody loved that more than anything. He wondered when he could kiss her again. And the thought made his heart swell. Maybe his mother thought he was too young to marry, but Cody was definitely in love and given a choice, he'd marry her.

The young man laughed inwardly. Later, later! He told himself. Back to the problem at hand! He pushed himself from the bookshelf, "Okay, Rus, how about you explain some of the inner workings of an Autobot." Her grey eyes shot up the moment he mentioned her name. It was some wonder why she was not asked out on dates by other guys. Perhaps it was that she was too strange for most of them. There was nothing shallow about the girl and maybe most guys couldn't deal with someone who could think circles around them.

She sipped her soda again, "like what?"

Cody grunted and shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe like their respiratory system. Or their components. . . . their brains, if they have any. Just something that will give me better insight than these so-called expertly-written books."

She rested her chin on her hand, eyes sliding to the left in thought. "Well . . . the spark is an immaterial force wrought into existence either by Vector Sigma or the Matrix. But you already know that." She watched him nod. "They use carbon-based crystallized micromemory chips. And if you're looking for bio-mechanical DNA, they used electromagnetic energy signatures imprinted in the liquid lenses of the optic sensors-at least, that's one of three places that I'm aware of. Cranial components are composed of semi-organic substance that is infused with metal alloys and semi-conductive electro-chemical reactions." she batted her eyes and he grinned.

"You do and you clean it up."

She laughed. "It's what I learned."

"In those terms?"

"It's as simple as I can make it."

"Okay. Somewhere around there you mentioned micromemory. what is that?"

"Well, since the Transformers aren't 'flesh creatures', their brains aren't just a lump of grey matter. They have components, micromemory sitting in crystallized form--"

"Infused with metal alloys." he repeated.

"Yeah. Sorta."

"So you're saying they're using microchips."

She winced. "No. Not like a computer. It's living metal fused with organic crystalline structures. Their brains, or CPU's, as most people understand it, can grow and die off just like our brain cells."

His face went blank. "Ohhh . . . now we're getting somewhere." he pulled up a chair and sat across her. "Living metal can be manipulated by electro-chemical impulses using low frequency light or sound." he paused a moment, leaning on the back legs of the chair, his hands laced behind his head. His

dark eyes stared at the ceiling. "What frequency did you say the Matrix is on?"

"Gamma." she replied quietly. "But, Cody, you can't just turn the Matrix on and off. It's a living thing with a will and intent of its own."

"I don't have to turn anything on or off. But I can construct and implant a chip emitting low-wave frequencies that would alter or block the signals the Matrix is sending to Prime's meta-processors. It won't be a cure, by any stretch. But it would be a temporary means of help." Cody raised his brows, searching for a response from her.

Rusti's mouth hung open for several long moments, both amazed and proud, "You're a genius."

He stood and invited her to do the same, "Well, come, my lass! Take me to your professor!"

* * *

Perceptor, First Aid and Trinket from Fortress Draco in Germany intently listened to Cody's humble idea. The young man was grateful Rusti agreed to go with him. He was no scientist but felt confident his suggestion was worth mentioning.

Perceptor mused a moment while the other two physicians looked to him for a remark. "Your theory, although highly over-simplified has verification possibilities," Perceptor agreed. "We could instigate a trajectory path through the cranial neural net and establish the correct frequencies for our attempt. However, we will require the assistance of a sample of the correct frequencies in order to modulate the proper adjustments."

Rusti and Cody's gave the Autobot's top scientist a blank look. An awkward silence followed Perceptor's comment until First Aid scrawled a diagram across a digipad and presented it to the students.

"I believe what Perceptor is trying to say is that we need a clear reading of the Matrix's frequency in order to adapt the experimental chips with the correct anti-frequencies. And I think Cody's idea is nothing short of remarkable."

Cody's heart swelled as he noticed Rusti's eyes sparkled toward him. He shrugged as though the Autobot's compliments were more than necessary, "Mom always said I'd get a brill idea now and again. When do we start?"

"We can not" Perceptor flatly replied. "Optimus and Rodimus are both unavailable. No one's heard anything from them all afternoon."

Rusti's expression twisted in surprise and annoyance, "You mean no one has bothered to keep tabs on them?" She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and struggled to keep from calling them idiots. After the disastrous results of last fall's events, the Autobots should know better than to take the calm for granted. "What of Ultra Magnus? Does he know?"

Trinket shook her head, "he's been in conference for the past two days."

Rusti frowned. "I guess we'll have to wait, Cody."

Her friend tightened his lips in a set decision. "You know, we could use you."

Rusti shot him a puzzled look then cast her gaze at the three Autobots. "Me?" She shook her head. "Sorry, wrong lab rat. I don't do mazes."

Cody broke into a grin, "come on, Rus. All we'd be doing is taking a reading."

Rusti lifted a finger and tilted her head downward so as to star at him from the tops of her eyes. "Don't think so, Cody. I am not a child of the Matrix. You'd have better luck with someone who is."

First Aid shook his head, "I'd hate to get into a friendly argument, Miss Rusti, but he's right. All your records indicate there is a relationship. And all we need is frequency reading. No blood will be drawn."

What was she afraid of, anyway? The girl shrugged and glanced about the room. "Okay. Where do I lie?"

Doubt kept her silent while the two Autobot physicians taped electrodes to her head and hands. She almost asked if they were going to put one over her heart, too, but decided not to be silly about it.

What was she supposed to do? She waited while they fired up the computers and the graph readings. Trinket remarked about how tense Rusti seemed at the moment and bade her to relax.

Cody smiled at her from the computer consol next to the femme. "Do it just like you showed me in the R&D complex the other day, Rus. Like you were playing cards with the computer."

Rusti wasn't so sure. "Where do you want me to go?" The three Autobots and her friend looked at her simultaneously and the girl suddenly felt self-conscious. "Never mind," she added. "I'll . . . go for a hike."

She stretched her senses across the room, taking note the energy signatures radiating from First Aid, Perceptor, Trinket and Cody. She found it remarkable how different Cody's signature was from the other three and realized she never really read Human signatures before.

Deep breath and Rusti concentrated on the room around her. The walls breathed, aware of every person and object between them. Life energy flowed within the walls and outward, touching all things, connecting to all Autobots, aliens and Humans, finding a satisfied feeling of belonging.

That was Max. He was happy to be who and what he was. He was important to everyone around him, whether they acknowledged him or not. He was healthier now than he had been even two months ago.

Rusti expanded her awareness further outward, searching and exploring.

Trinket and First Aid monitored the girl's life signs while Perceptor kept track of all her mental readings, comparing them to earlier readings from the two Autobot leaders.

Trinket gasped as one reading jumped from a low level to a near-off-the-screen magnitude. "Primus! What is she doing? I've never seen anything like this from a Human!"

"My guess," Aid answered, "is she is near a theta-alpha state of consciousness."

"In so short a time? Is this normal for her?"

First Aid switched windows on his monitor then flashed back to the first screen. "According to Dr. Andersen's readings, yes."

Cody watched as the readings fluctuated a moment, then stabilized then expanded again. "Was, was Rusti in an accident that caused her to gain her abilities or was she born with them?"

"We honestly don't know," Aid answered without meeting the young man's eyes. "Optimus Prime has expressibly forbidden any tests to be conducted on her."

"Aid, her blood pressure is starting to rise," Trinket warned. They glanced at the girl and Cody saw she started sweating.

The buildings and streets vibrated with life. But Rusti discovered damage lying under the metal plating. Deep gashes resided in lines and conduits. And once, just once, she thought she spotted a flash of light on a wall. Was that a reflection from another source, or was it something more? She recalled news reports of people who claimed to have seen 'movies' playing on the building walls of Fort Max. There were trace symptoms of the Matrix Virus, but they were dismally minimum compared to before. How could it be that something so terrible just go dormant like that did? What quelled its surging power?

A black spider skittered just out of her sight. Rusti raced to investigate, using Max's own systems to guide her. She traced three energy lines and 'jumped' to four others, finding the spider was constantly just out of read. Then the four energy lines abruptly ended with no caps or indications of other jump points.

That wasn't right. All lines needed to start and end somewhere, but these lines ended at no place.

What was going on?

The girl puzzled over it a moment longer and realized she lost complete track of the alien spider. With a frown, Rusti decided the unusual energy lines were no big deal. After all, she did not pretend to know everything about Transformer physiology. She started to withdraw from Max's outside walls when something hissed at her.

Her senses darted from corner to corner of her consciousness, seeking the source of the strange sound. THAT was not supposed to be here! She listened to the walls and tasted the air. She registered those pinpoints of light representing Transformer sparks and the colors representing organic life force. Then her vision of the world, the city and all things in it, melted like wax, slowly reorganizing into a series of structures graphed out like complex computer readings, signifying only points of edges or those things where power input/output peaked.

Something snaked along the graph, a shadow there between the lighted lines and squares. Rusti struggled to make sense of the shape but it flitted from space to structure. The hissing sounded again, as if it were words understood only in a series of soft snarls and whispers.

Then the graphs that outlined shapes of buildings, people and objects melted downward, spiraling into a computer simulation of a vortex. Rusti backed away, realizing the intent was to drag her down. She felt the tugging force, struggling to swallow her down.

She backed off, but could not run. Her heart beat faster, now that she realized whatever it was, became acutely aware of her presence. A long needle-thin leg rose up from the spiraling, expanding black hole.

"No!" she sounded so mousy in her ears. She backed off and at the other side of the black hole another shape struggled to penetrate the graph wall. Tentacles scraped against the virtual wall and from the other side, Rusti heard voices muttering dark things. That meant if she didn't pull away now, she would be trapped, dragged down the hole that led to whatever black prison the voices planned for her.

Rusti started to run, but the graph did not indicate distance, either that or the black hole expanded as swiftly as she ran.


She caught her breath with a start and light shot into her eyes and the very next minute she was back in med lab, Cody next to her, Trinket leaning over her with an anxious expression. The girl swallowed air and felt the bubble painfully travel down her throat.

Cody's hands were tight on her upper arms, his face drawn with anxiety. ". . . you okay!?"

She was out of breath. "Yeah . . ."

"Are you alright?"

"I -what happened?"

Perceptor turned from his readings, "it appears an interfacing transmission commenced prior to recognition of your present surroundings. An interference spike shot up on your readings. Are you functioning adequately?"

"Um . . ." Rusti could not stop trembling. "Yes. I . . . I guess it just knocked me silly."

Perceptor eyed her skeptically, "Has this phenomenon transpired before?"


Trinket took further physical readings and compared notes from her scanner to a pad in her other hand. "Your body temperature is slightly high, Rusti. Just lie back and rest a moment."

"We got it, Miss Rusti," First Aid's voice rang light with satisfaction. "You're very good at this. Have you considered applying for professional guinea pig?

Rusti gratefully took a tissue from Trinket and wiped sweat from the back of her neck. "Professional guinea pig? Nnnnno. Don't think so."

Cody gave her a second one when she sat up. The girl smiled wearily and dabbed at her face, hoping her make up did not smear. She plucked the electrodes one at a time. "I do, however, need something to eat. Are you guys in the habit of starving your pets?"

Perceptor's optics flashed with excitement. "The readings from the test and its variables suggest a plethora of data. I have never seen such energy, such voluminous information."

Cody turned to her. "What happened?"

"I-I'm not sure. It was like a bad dream. I've not seen anything like that. At least, that I can recall. Usually I can feel Max or see things. But there was a shadow, or an image of one . . ." the girl winced, realizing her jumbled words conveyed nothing to her friend. She shook her head and fell silent.

Perceptor, Trinket and First Aid examined their separate readings and correlated the data, trying to make patterns and sense out of the lines and marks. Cody watched them, too, his eyes stared at the far off monitor without blinking. The girl wondered if he was actually reading. She didn't understand a thing, couldn't make sense out of all the weird read-outs or the vocabulary the doctors and scientist rolled out in seconds.

They were a species of imitating machines; not really living things.

Rusti flinched. Where did that come from? She scanned the room, expecting someone to be there, someone whose thoughts she might have picked up on. Her eyes drifted to Perceptor and she Reached out to see if his presence might have triggered the monolog.

No. Perceptor's world was narrowed down into the computer in front of him. First Aid's concentration was also on the readouts as he struggled to conjure theories and ideas. Trinket was clearly worried about something, but that was as far as Rusti could tell.

Cody beside her was also concentrating on the data. His eyes darted back and forth as he read lines and equations.

So it was no one in this room. Rusti's senses stretched out, lightly touching walls, swiftly passing this or that person and detected one large, powerful presence, bent on an errand. But it was not Optimus.

Optimus? When was the last time she contacted he or Roddi? Why didn't she think of them before?

That was it. Something was wrong. But did she dare say anything to interrupt everyone here?

She Reached out for Optimus.

No response. Usually there would be a Trace back to her; something to indicate his acknowledgment of her. But there came nothing. Rusti shook her head and tried again, sending her thoughts toward his garden.


She batted her eyes.


There was no destiny to follow, no great choices to make or paths of their own to pursue.

What? Her face twisted into puzzlement. What the heck was that?

Okay, think rationally. Rusti rolled her eyes, annoyed with herself. Right, rationalization. That went out with her skipping school the other day. And the crankiness. And the cramps.

" . . . easily bypassing the original signals, absorbing the spikes and translating them into a more benign code that can be reprocessed and later deleted like incongruent environmental static noise."

First Aid nodded in agreement with Perceptor's apparent gibberish. "Sounds good, but what about the negative-beta readings? Certainly those will not be so easily filtered and eradicated."

Cody cleared his throat, "'scuse me, guys," he attained the attention of all three Autobots, "aren't you forgetting that the negative-beta readings are carried through the system by means of tri-polar signals? If you don't modulate those systems, the negative-beta will bypass them like a girl skipping rope. You need to work on a deeper level than systemic polars. You need something that will change its bedding on cue without warning. Otherwise, the spikes will configure a set pattern and change accordingly. This isn't just some written virus. You're dealing with a living thing and life . . . adapts."

First Aid bowed over, hands laced over the back of his head. Perceptor's lip components lined straight.

Rusti gave Cody her attention, admiring his intellect. She leaned close to whisper, "Can you do it?"

He slightly shrugged and tightened the corners of his lips. "Hopefully. We still don't clearly know what we're dealing with. I think the Virus communicates to the Autobot leaders by means of ESP while it attacks them at even greater levels."

The girl stared at him, confused. "What's greater than ESP?"

Before Cody could answer her, the doors swished apart and Ultra Magnus stomped in. "Has anyone seen or heard from either Rodimus or Optimus Prime?"

Everyone gave the city commander a solemn shake of their heads. Rusti's heart pounded. "What's wrong?"

"I can't contact either of them." Magnus stared at the girl a moment longer, "Can you locate them?"

Her brows wrinkled and it made her a bit uncomfortable that everyone in the room except Perceptor stared at her. "Um, you mean contact them or find the area they're in?" Magnus silently nodded. "I don't know. I've never had to do an area-wide scan-"

"You must attempt." Perceptor lowered the digipad he studied and Rusti saw the urgency in his optics. "If these readings are correlating correctly, the situation is deteriorating rapidly. We may be on the verge of another flare up and if I am seeing this correctly, the flare-up most likely will engender a rippling effect. The readings we took from you are starting to align with those of Prime's. The Virus may affect you exponentially."

Her heart froze. "What? What?" Her eyes darted from First Aid to Perceptor and back. First Aid bowed his head. He apparently suspected it. She looked to Cody in hopes he might say something to the contrary. But he too sent his gaze elsewhere. Her thoughts raced back to school and the day she blacked out. "Optimus," she whispered to herself. It was he that she brushed against. The black out was no dream.

"Rusti," Magnus insisted, "can you find them?"

She realized it was time to stop being afraid. The girl drew a deep breath and closed her eyes. She scanned the main buildings first, racing along hallways, and peeking into rooms. "Where were they last seen, Ultra Magnus?" she asked quietly.

"Rodimus Prime was at the summit with the Quintessons, establishing communications with Ambassador Cleprachon earlier this morning. During their break, Ambassador Koontah informed me Rodimus had left in a north-eastern direction. I have not seen or heard from Optimus Prime all day."

Rusti searched for Roddi first.

Nothing. She searched Dinobot Stadium for his signature and encountered a strong alien signature instead. The mind turned and stared back at her and she flitted away, fearful of the sudden acknowledgment. Who or what it was, she dared not guess. She touched all the buildings and rooms in that six-mile radius, hoping her senses were correct.

A dark bird darted at her. It shrieked music, its wings flapped, creating a cloud of poisoned air. The ground shook under its spell-blinding vibrations. The landscape melted away as though an invisible paint brush recreated it with the simplicity of a single stroke. A dry, red-yellow desert spanned across the horizon and a single drop of paint set the sky on fire.

Three great trees stood dead, darkened and twisted like old women disfigured by pain and evil. And nearby stood an ancient gravestone, weathered and cracked.

Rusti choked, struggling to breath through noxious smoke and searing heat. She managed a scream, but the scream was only in her own trapped mind. "Roddi! Roddi!" Her heart pounded, her veins pulsed painfully. Not at the lake, not by the bridge. She checked the roads. No. No. No. Her eyes shot open but she saw nothing. Now she scrambled to escape the hellish desert and the ugly black trees. Get away! Don't read the epitaphs!

She blinked unconscious of tears on her face. Cody carefully took her hands. She was hot to the touch.

Rusti choked again and managed to bring her thoughts to the med lab, but could not pull herself out of the trance. The desert lay at the borders of her conscious mind. "Mag-Magnus," she whispered with effort, "there . . . there . . . cliffs. Hurry, the bird is there!"

"Cliffs?" Magnus glanced at Perceptor for answers but the Autobot scientist had his optics locked on the girl and did not answer. "Rusti, which cliffs? Where?"

She started crying, unable to break free of the desert's mental prison.

It wasn't often anyone broke down and cried in front of the Major-general but Magnus suddenly felt very inadequate and uncomfortable. If the situation weren't so serious, he would have retreated and asked her again later. Her boyfriend comforted her with a back rub and soft words but Magnus knew by experience that she most did not hear a word. Patience, the city commander ordered himself. Wait. Sometimes the girl exhibited enough strength to pull herself out of whatever ailed her.

Finally Rusti pulled herself together enough to whisper something but Magnus was too far away to pick it up. "What did she say?" he asked her friend.

"She said 'Suicide, if that means anything."

"Suicide Cliffs," Magnus gathered. He waited a beat for some response and when Rusti meekly nodded, he dispatched an internal communiqué to Springer.

There was dear Cody, beside her, watching over her. Rusti's lips trembled and she wanted to tell him how kind it was that he sat there with her, holding her hands while she journeyed to places she did not know existed. She lifted tear-moistened eyes to search into his. Her makeup was smeared and she thought herself a frightful sight.

Like the pictures she used to draw for Optimus when she was little. Like the ink markers that smeared over the pages when she spilled her drink over them once.

This next task would be more frightful than searching for Roddi. She knew it instinctively because of the darkness that trapped Optimus. At the edges of her own dreams, she heard screams and saw just the slightest of shadows bordering at reality. The Virus slept uneasily, preparing to wake soon and devour what chaos it created.

Rusti felt her blood slowly heat up. She was a flame in a world of darkness and thereby naked and visible to whatever predator awaited her in the heart of the Autobot Empire.

Someone shouted at her, like some distant call, warning of impending danger. But Rusti could not make out the words. The shout became a scream. Or was that her scream? No. She was not screaming, but someone certainly was.

What? What was that again?

But the voice faded before she could make out whatever words it declared.

Peering down the corridor on the eastern side of Central Command, Rusti studied one figure then another as they traversed, heedless of her mental presence. They walked along a floor littered with flowers and drawings. Those were flowers and drawing she brought as gifts. They lay in soft incandescence of memories. Good memories, something of a power she could not comprehend but knew she created herself. Rusti reached out to touch the painting of flowers and her own hand print. It folded from her, wrinkled as though by an invisible hand then took on the shape of a butterfly and flitted away to rest against the nearby wall.

Office. Check his office. She left the rest of the flowers and papers where they lay and checked his office. The desk stood cold and solid like a rock and chain. The room stood in dim light, dour and emotionless. Business. Except one corner. That was her little place and bright colors and a tea set sat there in patient waiting.

But no Optimus Prime.

Think! Where would he go at this time of day? Maybe an inspection. Maybe a meeting. No, Magnus said he had neither seen nor heard anything. Prime would have at least said something.

There was his computer with the monitor on. That was a bit out of character for him. Optimus' desk was never the neatest place on earth, but he always shut down the monitor before leaving the office. It was just habit, she supposed. Soft light filtered from the dark screen.

No screen saver. Not that computers the Autobot constructed needed any, but Optimus himself sometimes used one just to entertain her when she was little.

Rusti mentally touched a digipad connected to the computer and the screen lit up with waking. A formula written in Autobot scrawled over the screen. She tried to read it, catching only key words and maybe a phrase, but it was pretty meaningless. Something about the Mars project and roads or something like that. Maybe entry points to Fortress Zenith from orbit.

And the file dated four hours old. She turned away and noticed just then how several digipads lay on the floor, toppled carelessly from the top of the desk. Optimus was known for his tantrums on rare occasions and would swipe all the pads from his desk. He apologized once for frightening her once. Rusti could not recall why he was upset that day.

Something wet plipped on her cheek and slowly dribbled down.

Wait a minute. She was here mentally only, not physically. She touched her cheek, smearing the wetness over her face. She stared at her hand and found blue liquid discoloring her fingers. Transformer lifeblood?

She lifted her eyes to the ceiling. A pool of blood stretched over the metal panels, seeping through them as though they were of organic materials.

It came from the upper levels. Rusti mentally scanned the fifth level.

Nothing. There were a few offices where a couple of other officers worked. There was one meeting hall where Kup prepared a future presentation.

The last level further was the garden and Rusti winced, dreading to go up there, though she did not know why.

She passed through the door from the elevator. The atrium felt cold, the windows blowing in cold Oregon spring wind. The plants were black and blue to her mental vision. One to the west glowed in soft white. That was the krethas, one of several alien plants given to Prime by an off-world government not too many months ago. A young morphobot snarled in its restlessness.

[[Optimus?]] she softly called. [[Optimus, Magnus is looking for you.]]

Sounds of dripping liquid came from the left. Maybe just water. Rusti pressed forward, dreading every mental step she took here. Ghosts lived here, or so she thought. The room was cold with emptiness and silence. Maybe it would be more cheerful if Prime considered installing a bird feeder.

A dark hand grasped her and she swallowed a scream. Rusti tried to race back to the med lab and to Cody. But the hand would not let go. She could not catch her breath and her consciousness lapsed for a moment then returned, like a light blinking on then off and on again. Then her form stretched across reality itself, slimmer and slimmer as if she were being pulled into a black hole.

Alarmed, she realized that she was being dragged into a vortex-the very one she managed to escape earlier!

No breath, not even enough to whimper for help. Her form slipped down a hole as though she were being swallowed. She tried to gain a hold along a wall with fingernails that did not exist. She could not breathe! Down, down, down.


The terrible sensation terminated, trapping Rusti in a long hallway constructed of ancient Cybertroid alloys. Power conduits lining the metal walls, floor and ceiling shed minute light, softly illuminating the world around her in a freakish blue color. Age bore down on the metal, rounding it at the corners, greying its otherwise smooth surface.

Frosty damp air touched her and the girl felt exposed. Above her, huge cobwebs like soft silk rope, draped corner to corner. Dust powdered the floor. She held her arms close; someone watched her.

"This isn't any part of the city I know of." she whispered to herself.

At the sound of a soft snap, a small electric charge traveled up a power conduit. She watched it fly until it disappeared past the ceiling.

Where was she? Who brought her here? Rusti did not know if it were safe to even move.

A soft cold voice whispered through the stillness. Its indecipherable verbiage faded like a dream.

She froze. It wasn't familiar, sounding neither like Optimus or Roddi. She waited in hopes of hearing it again. But after several empty seconds, Rusti gathered her courage, "Who-who's there?" she asked, cautious to keep her voice level, "Optimus? Roddi?

Rusti kept turning from wall to corridor back to the other wall in search of clue or evidence to her whereabouts. Finally she reached to touch a wall.

Not there.

She narrowed her eyes. "No way." she said out loud. The touch was *too* familiar. And other voices, other sounds came to her, but those were far more distant than the first and far from creepy.

The Matrix. But how? Who dragged her here? This was hallowed, forbidden ground, or so she believed. She tried to convince herself she was not really here, not conscious and maybe dreaming. But her soul screamed the answer. She was here.

A murmur of thunder rounded the hall and a soft cool breeze touched her. Wait. That wasn't wind. It was someone . . . She opened her mouth to call out again when a whisper reverberated in the dark. Faint. At first. Now it intensified, blasting like a bomb at close range. Clamorous. Rusti fell to her knees, clasping her ears tightly, slamming her eyes shut. She bowed over to protect her insides from bursting.

It was as if an Angel screamed. Thunder, louder than any sound she ever heard, exploded in her face, ran right through her and wrapped itself around and smothered her. It echoed, slicing into the core of her innermost self. She screamed but could not hear herself.

Pain accompanied the sound. Pain touched her then burned her alive. It raked her with poisoned claws and she thought it would tear her to pieces.

Then it tapered to a whisper, trailing off, moving down the corridor, searching somehow for respite. It left her shaking uncontrollably and Rusti could not move for several moments.

Someone called her name and she tried to sit up. No go. Get back to Med Lab! The girl struggled to return to consciousness and the physical world. But Rusti was trapped.

She hugged herself tightly and tried to reassure herself everything was fine. A dream! It had to be! Maybe she was sick and didn't know she had been for quite sometime. Yes, that was it! She was sick and just needed to wake up.

Wake up! Wake up! She opened her eyes.

But the dark, cool corridor had not changed. The strange cobwebs still dangled. The metal panels remained old and the power conduits were yet silent. Something dragged her here and intended to keep her. Was this, could this indeed be the Matrix?

No! She couldn't possibly be there! That was sacred ground, meant only to interface with Autobot leaders. Not even Decepticon leaders were permitted there. Wasn't that right? Or was it that it had simply never been tried before?

Stay calm. This fear was ridiculous. After all, she was here only in her mind. But if that were the case, why was she afraid The Something brought her here to kill her?

Face the fear. Running from it only makes it worse. Rusti forced her self forward on hands and knees. She trembled terribly, her mind reeling from the bloodcurdling scream. She crossed one cold metallic panel after another until she touched one that softly glowed. It did not light the whole corridor, but it lit enough to assure her she was nowhere in or around Fort Max. She saw herself in the floor panel, but the background did not reflect the darkness around her. She lifted her hand to touch the reflection and startled when her reflection's face turned from her and disappeared.

Stunned, she sat there for a moment, questioning whether or not she actually saw something. After a moment, she decided it did not matter.

Rusti crawled a little more before she felt strong enough to stand and continue the journey by foot. The corridor around her started to round off at the corner. A few yards further, the hallway swung in a right-handed direction and ended into a great landscape of hills and sweeping planes. Neither rigid wall, blocky pillar nor door could be seen for possibly miles around. The world above remained dark and dead-still. Drab cold blues and sad greys discolored the metal. It looked as if something drank the life out of whatever land this might have been. Rusti kept walking about, hoping there lay an exit somewhere.

With the expanse of this plain, the girl thought for sure there was a way for her to escape. The Matrix was unimaginably huge and somehow she was bound to find a way to return to the physical world.

Rusti trudged up a soft sloping mound and found it just a bit taller then other parts of the landscape. She did not like this place. Sweeping, curling areas, sloping landscapes and darkness was all that met her saddening gaze.

Except . . . except for one place where a figure stood with arms outstretched. It seemed as though the figure's arms were connected to the sweeping, upturned flooring.

Rusti felt it wise to approach with caution at first. She was a stranger in a holy place. But the closer she came, the more convinced she knew the figure. And two yards later, she knew exactly who that was. For the first time in her life, the girl wished she could transform and speed her way toward him. As it was, she picked up her pace, racing over hills and across pencil-grey flooring. She prayed with each step nothing would keep her from getting to him.

Optimus Prime was barely alive. Now she understood why she had felt nothing from him.

His head hung in shut-down. No light flickered in his optics. Frightened, she laid her hands on his chest plates and waited.

There. She felt the familiar soft vibrations of a laser core. But they were weak. Rusti's heart pounded so that she thought it would burst.

She ordered herself to be brave and stroked his face plate. Oh, cold to the touch! "Optimus?" she whispered. She rested an ear to his chest, struggling to determine his condition. But, foolish girl that she was, she was neither medic nor mechanic. All she could do was find a way to sooth her own fears.

"Optimus, it's Rusti. Optimus?" Her mousy voice pleaded in childish tones in the silence, sounding too loudly. Rusti laid her hands on either side of his head. Carefully she lifted his head and gazed into his darkened optics. No life. She withdrew and found her hand covered in blood.

What the hell?


The voice startled her and Rusti's gaze darted from one side of the alien landscape to another. The deep-throated voice came from everywhere and nowhere. The panels on the ground and sweeping mounds bled in the familiar soft blue fluids.

Her eyes repeated their gaze left to right and back, even behind Optimus' dark unconscious form.

Bubbles of boiling liquid broke the silence and Rusti's head snapped to her left. She wanted to see what made the sound, but did not want to leave Optimus alone. She dared a foot, or two, but kept one hand on him to make sure he did not disappear. Fortunately the sound was not far from her and Prime. Down hill the metal panels liquified and up from them rose a figure lying flat on his back immersed in liquid metal. The liquid dripped off like so much water.

Rusti did not need to see the figure's color to recognize Rodimus.

She was about to leave Optimus for a closer look when the wind returned and with it a multitude of voices. They wept and moaned and the sound of their anguish filled Rusti with a painful emptiness. She slowly dropped to her knees again, clutching her hand at her chest. "Stop," she whispered, "be still . . ."

And she envisioned the desert and the gravestone shifting names, millions of them. She started bleeding inside.

She tried to scream but whatever power held her here had stolen the strength from her voice. Rusti pounded the floor. She lost her voice! She growled deep in her throat until she could hear herself again. She drew a long breath, shut her eyes tight and screamed. The sound of her voice broke the silence, the wind, the moaning and weeping faded.


Again the voice came from everywhere and nowhere. But it was tainted with Optimus' voice. Rusti's body felt like melting rubber and her nerves were shot. How could images and sounds be so physically real if they were only in her mind?


No answer. The girl forced herself back to her feet and with a second glance at Optimus, looked to find Rodimus again. He lay on solid flooring now. His form was darkened cold greys though Rusti could just make out faint reds and orange about his chest, arms and legs.

The darkness hovering over the world lifted from lifeless black to dismal grey. She looked to her own hands to see if it was light that tried to penetrate into the dying or dead world but her own coloring did not indicate light from above. She was in a world so surreal that laws of physics and light guarding the physical world could not be applied.

The Voice came back, again deep and mixed with Optimus Prime's own voice: "I AM. THAT. WHICH IS. VOID. DESOLATE. VOID. DESOLATE."

She startled and stood protectively in front of Prime, glancing left then right. "Optimus, is that you?" She spun about and gazed into his face, half expecting a set of glowing optics and a face plate shadowed by viral influence. But the sad figure before her remained unconscious and helpless. It hurt to see him like this and if she could, Rusti would have ripped the bonds that held him there.

But maybe Optimus was not even in this form. Maybe it was a shadow of what was left of his own dying spark. And that thought hurt her more than the awful place she stood trapped in. Rusti choked with tears, expecting to cry. Instead, she gasped for breath.


Rusti's eyes subconsciously searched the dark sky above her, struggling to translate what the Voice said in an old Autobot dialect. "Conquest . . ." she whispered. "Pieces of the board." She lifted her voice, hoping to be heard, "Is this a game? It's not funny!"


THAT was clearly Optimus' voice. He was here, all around her, caught up in darkness and . . . and *inside* Void and Desolate.

"Optimus!" she called, a little braver than before, "Why are you keeping me here?"

From the borders or joints in the panel flooring, a needle-point appendage connected to a knee joint lifted up and out. The leg of the creature was four times her size. Rusti thought she swallowed air and she stumbled back, landing hard on the ground.

Another sharp appendage forced its way up through the bordering cracks and that was followed by a two-dimensional image which pulled the rest of its spidery form like a ghost through a wall. Then the creature fanned out into a complete three-dimensional form, growing larger until it filled her vision.


She gazed up, up, up.

Its legs tapered to a fine firm point, sharp enough to use as a weapon. A long body shaped like a prism brought the four legs together. At the end protruded a squared tail with a long stinger. The front of the body built upward in a V-shape and an inner thorax sat inside an outer thorax, capped with a chest contrived of heavy armor. No arms or hands or anything resembling them protruded from the chest area.

No face. The head came as a triangle tipped downward and behind that, a long horn tapered outward into a fine flat point. The neck was completely hidden inside the chest.

Rusti felt her heart stop. This was neither Optimus Prime nor any form of the Matrix persona. She was facing the Virus itself.

From behind the Virus, Rodimus weakly stirred and weakly moaned, "Russsti . . . run."

The monster snapped around faster than light. Its triangular head stretched up, its neck allotting for additional length, making the Virus even taller. Rodimus managed to sit up and he rubbed the side of his head. Rusti could tell he was in terrible pain and fatigue. He seemed heedless of the freakish creature impending over him like a cat ready to pounce.

Rusti's voice caught in her throat, her eyes went wide and she was paralyzed with awe and terror.

Rodimus raised his knees and rested one hand on them. Instantly the Virus plunged its head straight into his chest plate. Rodimus screamed, wreathing in shock and pain. The virus' body glowed brightly as it fed on the Autobot leader's life force.

Unable to either cry or scream, Rusti used what adrenaline she had and scampered to her feet. She managed one mournful glance back at Optimus' unmoving form and ran.

The terrible screeching wind came again, chasing her all the way down the ancient dark corridor. All the anguished voices cried after her until she thought she would go mad.

She tried to cover her ears and closed her eyes to block the noise from her mind. But the mistake cost her. She didn't see the floor open in front of her and she fell shrieking so that her throat ached.

She shot up in bed, screaming and weeping; screaming so that she could neither see nor hear Cody or her parents trying to calm her down. Rusti rocked herself on the bed, tightly wrapped her arms about her body and shifted to hide her face in her hands.

Sweat and tears drenched her hair, clothes and bed sheets. It felt like blood. Hysteria would not let her go. She screamed and cried until Dr. Cynyr pressed a hypo into her neck. Her body fell limp, but her eyes were wide with shock. Cody and Daniel laid her down and tried to comfort her trembling.

The doctor gave her another shot and though her body relaxed, her mind whirled in tangled turmoil.

It-it was-no. She had no words for it. She had never seen anything so . . . graphically real. Nothing. Nothing. How could she possibly sleep? How?


* * *


Rusti woke to dimmed lights and a dry fluffy pillow. A giant familiar figure sat at the foot of her bed against the opposite wall. The weak lighting shadowed his rich orange and red colors to soft hues blues and greys. Bright blue optics greeted and a pair of lip components turned upward in a weak, wry smile.

Roddi. Alive and okay.

Vile memories struck her and Rusti's heart sank. She wept again and could not stop. He spoke her name in the same tenor voice that would sing her to sleep at night. But even that bit of sweetness could not comfort her.

Rusti sat up and covered her face, unable to suppress images of the horror she experienced. Shame touched her. She ran from them. How cowardly was that? But in spite of her failure, Roddi sat there, watching over her. She couldn't look at him. In the face of danger, she had run away.

Roddi silently crawled to the bedside, gathered her, blankets and all, and held her close. He or Optimus used to do this when she had nightmares. She laid her head against his warm metal chest plate, grateful, so very grateful to be held. But she did not deserve it and somehow felt she should be punished, not cuddled like a lost and frightened child.

Roddi said nothing. No singing, no humming. He brought the blankets close about her and sat silently. Rusti's tears withered into an occasional shaking. Her breath shuddered until she fell kindly to sleep.


Dawn greeted her in sick bay with a bit of early morning sun before spring clouds tried to take over. Rodimus sat comfortably on the floor next to the window. Daniel/Arcee sat near the door. Roddi sat with his knees propped, a cup of energon rested between his hands. He stared out the window, not once exchanging words with the Headmaster.

Rusti felt lighter. Her body finally stopped its trembling. In fact, her stomach asked for food. Pancakes and bacon and eggs covered in sweet maple syrup sounded yummy. She breathed deeply and stretched carefully.

Both Autobots snapped to her attention and Arcee smiled gracefully, almost glowing. "Hey, sweetheart." Yes. It was definitely Arcee that greeted her.

Rusti smiled sheepishly, knowing what the adults would say to her desire for syrup-covered eggs. "Hi." She did not want to address her father, but knew she'd be admonished for addressing Arcee instead. She turned to Rodimus with one question: "Is, is Optimus . . . " she didn't even want to say it.

"He's okay." Roddi reported.

Relief assailed her. Rusti sighed.

"But they almost lost him. When I flat-lined, so did he. They took him out of ICU just this evening."

"Flat-lined? ICU? Evening?" Rusti echoed. Puzzlement etched worry lines into her brow and out the corner of her eye, the girl watched Arcee frown. She knew it wasn't her, but Daniel who frowned.

Upon reading the interaction between Headmaster and daughter, Rodimus sent his solemn gaze out the window. "We'll tell you later, Kiddo. Right now, rest up. Eat."

An alien nurse peeped with a brief smile toward Rusti. She offered the same smile to Daniel/Arcee. "Mr. Witwicky, there is a communiqué from your wife."

Arcee reluctantly took to her feet. This meant she would have to leave entirely. She glanced at Rusti a last time. "Get lots of sleep, sweetheart. I'll see you tomorrow."

"I will, Arcee. Good-bye." She waited until the Headmaster was out of earshot then turned to Rodimus. "Ultra Magnus was worried, Roddi." her voice sounded so little in her own ears. "Nobody know where you or Optimus were."

His optics flashed. "They said the very last thing you said out loud was where they were to find Prime. After that, you passed out." Roddi fell quiet again, staring out the window to the night-fallen world. He sipped his energon a couple of times before turning back to the girl, "what you did was very dangerous."

She pouted. "I was looking for Optimus. He wasn't in his office so I searched the atrium. It was there that something sucked me in. I tried to get back to the med lab." The distant memory called to her from far away. She tried not to recall too much of it, but she remembered the first part and hoped to never repeat the experience. "I was in the Matrix," she said softly. "I didn't know it looked like that."

"Part of it." Rodimus confirmed. "But it's certainly not supposed to look the way it did to you."

She bowed her head then her brows wrinkled in puzzlement. "How do you know that? The Virus attacked you-" she snapped up, her grey eyes wide. "The chip! Cody's blocking chip! It worked! That's what broke Its hold on me! Ohmigod!"

But Rodimus didn't seem so excited. His gaze drifted from her, "in time." he murmured sadly.

That was not the kind of reaction she thought he'd have. The girl tilted her head slightly, "Wh--isn't it working, Roddi?"

Rodimus sighed wearily and turned wholly to her, setting the cup on the floor. "Your dad will kick my ass for telling you. Optimus Prime tried to commit suicide, Rusti. They found him in the atrium." Roddi shook his head. "I guess something happened and he either could not complete the task or something else intervened, acting like a backlash, knocking him unconscious instead. I really don't know."

Rusti cold not swallow, but she thought she knew. The darkness tried to choke the life from her. It was so overwhelming. "Optimus . . . " She wanted to just stay in that quiet world and hold him. But the real world was never that kind. Rusti blinked, returning from the memory. "I don't think it was the Matrix, Roddi. Um, I blacked out in school day before yesterday. I guess the school didn't call you about it." She added a frown, considering the moron administration probably left a note at her mom's computer. Rusti was going to hear all about it sooner or later-guaranteed.

"Three days ago." the Autobot leader corrected.

She blinked at him. "What?"

"They gave you a sedative. You were hysterical."

Disbelief wrote across her expression. Out for three days? Emotional overload had driven her right to the edge. How did she manage to come back? Rusti laid her hand over her chest. She didn't just see the Virus attack Rodimus, she felt it. She felt death in the screams emanating from the walls of the Matrix. "I saw things . . . I, I knew Optimus was trying to get to me and I held him as long as I could." she hid half her face with one hand, closing her eyes.

Roddi scooted to her bedside. His optics shaded down. "What counts now is that he's alive and you're okay."

Her lips lined hard and she stared at him through her fingers, "That-that Thing, that horrible thing knew me, Roddi. I felt so . . . naked, violated."

Rodimus winced at the ugly word. Optimus said the very same thing. "Get some rest," he finally replied, "I'll check in on you later. I promise."

Rusti frowned. "I don't think I can sleep, Roddi." she choked, "I'm afraid I'll see it again in my dreams." She trembled again, recalling the darkened world and the terrible screams and moans drifting through the air, chasing after her. "I-I can't." her voice tightened.

The Second Prime Reached out for her, hushing her down with his mind. He Kissed her and with a deep breath, cradled her troubled mind. Rusti's back relaxed as her mind calmed. Roddi stayed until she was able to untangle the distress on her own. The girl snuggled under soft covers, comforted that she was not alone in her torment.

Rodimus waited a good thirty minutes. He tucked the covers under and drew her curtains closed before quietly leaving the room.


Rusti woke to whispering voices. They rose and fell in pitch and tone, angry and fearful. The room, dark with drawn curtains, reminded her distantly of the dreadful place she escaped from . . . she ran from.

She ran away.

Her eyes peeled opened and stared at a giant shadow splayed across the wall before her. It stood on four powerful legs. The triangular head immediately reminded her of the virus. She wanted to scream except that she had neither the strength nor the desire to react. She blinked once and it disappeared but the memory haunted her, cold like the tendrils of a lingering evil dream.

Now that the shadow faded, Rusti realized she was surrounded by her family. Her mother sat in a chair against the far wall. Her father sat in a chair near the door and Aunt Delphra lounged near the window where Roddi sat not too long ago. That was sacred space and Rusti actually resented her aunt sitting where someone she loved sat not too long ago. In fact, her whole room was private and not one of the adults had a right to be there, crowding her space, scrutinizing her world with blatant disapproval.

The walls and floor were made of a metal both ancient and sacred.

Rusti blinked back the memory and tried to concentrate on the present moment.

"Resonna?" her father called.

There's that ugly name again. They might as well as call her Flo, Eugenia or Hildegarde. She stared at him with little interest and did not greet him.

He did not smile, either and seemed to have lost whatever he was going to say. Daniel Witwicky turned to his wife, either expecting Netty to say something in turn, or give him something to talk about. But Netty merely started at her youngest daughter. "Um. It's good that you're awake. You missed the conference."

Rusti did not realize her gaze pierced right through him. His attempt to greet her cheerfully and welcome her back to physical reality failed more miserably than she did at story-problems in math. Her brows went up just a bit. "Guess I had better things to do, Dad." Well, she probably should not have said that, but his clumsiness deserved it.

Unrecognizable things dangled in tangled webs from the ceiling. The air hung cold and moist.

Rusti blinked and slightly shook her head of the memory. Who was in charge of her head, anyway? Why was the memory pressing against her like a persistent wind? Her eyes fluttered on their own as if some part of her did not want to believe she lived this moment.

Her mother set her purse on the floor and stood, smoothing out wrinkles from her blouse and skirt. She primped like a prima donna poodle, Rusti thought, afraid to look anything less than perfect. "We've been worried about you, Sweetheart." Her voice rang of lies, but Rusti tried to convince herself otherwise. "You haven't said much in a couple of days."

She nodded and her lips lined hard. "Roddi said I was out for three days." She longed to add a smart remark to the end of that sentence.

Delphra eyed her suspiciously, and Rusti wondered what her aunt was so mad about. Not that it took much to piss Delphra off to begin with. Maybe, the girl thought, she was snoring. Delphra's face beamed hard as though it were carved from stone. Her glare made Rusti uncomfortable. "Had you been home, where you belong, none of this would have occurred."

It had needlepoint feet that could have been easily used as a weapon. It had a triangular face, but no eyes, no mouth, nothing resembling any creature, alien or otherwise. It stood higher than Optimus Prime. Spider-like, its body was shaped like a prism. A tail curled up, armed with a stinger.

Stop! Stop! Rusti shook her head, forgetting her aunt just made a rude comment. What was going on with her head? FORGET ABOUT THE DAMNED EXPERIENCE!

Okay, she told herself, just act normal. Forget Delphra, move on. Her eyes fluttered again and she wondered why she was having such a difficult time controlling her optic nerves. Maybe it was a side effect of Cynar's sedative. She stared at her dad, finding her movements slow and deliberate. "How's everything?" Taking second glance at their expressions, Rusti feared the adults would pounce on her like starving vultures.

Daniel nodded with lined lips. Rusti was glad he was not wearing that creepy helmet. "It's good, Resonna," he answered a bit too cheerfully for his kind of personality. "In fact, your mother, Aunt Delphra and I thought we'd ask to have you stay a couple weeks with us." He paused a moment then added: "Wouldn't you like that?"

No, she would not. And the end of his comment was not really either a request or a question. They were plotting to get her out of Autobot City once and for all. Not going to happen, if Rusti could help it. She was NOT going to leave Optimus.

She stood as high as Optimus and held his bowed head. She gazed into his optics, dark with unconsciousness.

Oh that was so sad! And Rust felt her insides clench with sorrow. Don't cry, dammit! Whatever happens, whatever memory surfaces, DON'T CRY.

Her eyes flitted from her father to her mother and back to Daniel to intentionally keep from acknowledging Delphra was in the same space-time continuum.

Rusti stared at her hands. She Touched him and felt almost nothing. "Optimus tried to kill himself." she murmured weakly. The thought left her sad and empty. How? How could someone so powerful, so great with so much conviction in life, want to commit suicide? Optimus wasn't like that.

Still, she had Touched him and felt-

"Resonna?" Netty smiled tolerantly. "Your father asked a question."

Rusti looked back to her father. "About what?"

"Your coming home for a while. It's not safe for you here at Fort Max."

Delphra's high heels tapped the floor through the carpeting. Her long arms set themselves on her hips in a posture of authority-an authority Rusti refused to recognize. "It's a splendid idea." she agreed with cat-like tones. Rusti stared at her blankly. She hated Delphra's short black hair. "You'll be among your own people for a while. After all, if you hadn't been here, none of this wouldn't have happened. Not this incident and not your amnesia." The bitch had no proof of that and Rusti frowned at her accusation.

"Aunt Delphra's right." Netty agreed. "It would be good for you to get away from the city for a while. Come and stay with us. We'll go shopping and visit the zoo."

No, Rusti thought dourly, the pet store . . . on Netty's lunch break from work.

The Virus plunged its head into Rodimus' chest plate. He wailed and thrashed while the Virus' body glowed, feeding on the Autobot's life force.

She ran away from it. She ran far, far away. She kept running and kept running, abandoning her two dear friends in to a terrible fate. What a horrible ugly thing she had done!

Swallow it. Don't worry about what happened. But her heart would not allow for forgiveness. Optimus' form was cold and lifeless. The least she could have done was find a way to release him from his bonds.

Why didn't she think of that?

Back to reality, here. "Um, no, Mom. Sorry."

"What do you mean 'no?" Netty's face contorted into a mix of puzzlement and disappointment.

Rusti drew her breath, picking up her courage: "no, I don't want to leave Fort Max."

*That* would not go well with her mother, who was instantly offended. But how often had Rusti tried to ask her to go on picnics or see a movie?

Daniel stepped up to the proverbial 'argument plate', "we've already discussed this, Resonna. You're to pack your things and we'll leave as soon as you are well enough."

"Discuss what?" And her eyes batted again, making her look like she was pretending to be a smart-ass. "With whom? Did you talk to Roddi or Optimus?" His aggressive stance only made her more determined not to cooperate. He was not going to push her around. She was, after all, sixteen.

"No," his voice raised a notch, indicating he was losing patience. "We've just agreed to take you home."

"But I've already told you-"


Neither of Rusti's grandparents ever lost their temper like her father. She wondered why it took so little to get him riled. But all his shouting and fit-throwing had little if any affect on her. He frightened her before when she was little. She vowed to never cow to him again. Her eyes narrowed. "I'm NOT going! I'm NOT LEAVING OPTIMUS ALONE!"

Oops. That didn't go well. The last thing she needed to remind them was of her love for the Autobot leader. Now the real argument was about to commence. Rusti braced for verbal impact.

Daniel rubbed his face with his metal gloved hand-the first sign of rage. He closed his eyes then opened them again, "what?" His voice came quieter than it should have, as though he hoped he did not hear her right.

Rusti intentionally slowed her speech: "I. Am. Staying. With Optimus."

"What the hell for?" His eyes narrowed, dark and menacing, his face solidified with a clenched jaw as though he were a god not to be offended.

Sarcasm time, the girl thought, "Oh, I don't know," she nearly sang. "Golly, dad, maybe it's because I care about him?" And she hung her jaw open as though what she said was supposed to be surprising.

Both Netty and Delphra sighed impatiently. Daniel stared at his daughter a moment longer. "I don't know how to get this through your head, Resonna but HE CANNOT LOVE YOU!" Daniel Witwicky shouted so that his own wife shot him a glare, "How many times do we have to go THROUGH THIS WITH YOU? You seem to think of him as some kind of hero, some kind of god-like figure with noble intentions and goodness practically leaking out of his orifices but once again, I'm telling you he knows nothing of love."

"Don't TALK about him like that!" Rusti really should not have shouted in turn. Her voice threatened to crack.

Netty threw up her hands and turned away. Delphra looked more determined than ever. "Excuse me, may I say something here?"

Daniel's anger melted about two degrees and he took one mini step back. Rusti ground her teeth and did not look at the witch. But it did not seem to phase Delphra. She positioned herself in front of the girl so that she was all Rusti could see in front of her. "Young lady," she started with that irritatingly snobby patronizing voice, "What do you plan to do with your life? Here you sit, whining about the life of a machine while your sister is about to finish her second semester at the academy. You will be out of high school soon and no matter how we have tried to encourage you, you have failed to choose a course for your life. And, Resonna, time is running short."

For a moment, Delphra's own shadow seemed to take on the shape of a Quintesson. It was even worse when the Quintesson-shadow turned and looked at her through the eyes of the Face of Hate. Rusti thought her blood would freeze and she diverted her eyes toward one of her music posters.


She abandoned Optimus and Rodimus to what could have been their death. What a horrible ugly child! She was apparently brave enough to keep them from killing each other several months ago and now she ran away from . . . a bug! A BUG!

Of all things to run from! What a stupid, selfish little girl! She ran away because she was scared!

That was cruel and uncaring. Remorse ate into her heart and Rusti tried to focus on the three vulturous adults surrounding her. Regret from within or harassment from without? Not much of a good day.

"I have thought about teaching," Rusti piped to get Delphra out of her face.

"Teaching's a descent job." Daniel nodded approvingly, although he was still hard with anger.

Delphra grunted with more disapproval. "Teaching won't get you very far career-wise."

"So?" Rusti challenged, exasperated. "Not all of us need to make a billion dollars a year to be happy, you know. If I'm happy, what does it matter?"

"Resonna, don't talk to your aunt like that," Netty instantly admonished. Rusti would have stuck her tongue at her mother had Delphra immediately rebounded.

The perfect bitch smiled evenly. "Sweet Cheeks, the only thing that will make you happy is finding a good man and having children."

Rusti could not believe what she just heard. Delphra was certainly in no position to say such things, especially since her own marriage fell to pieces years ago. The girl's nerves itched. Her thoughts scampered back to Optimus and Rodimus and her stomach ached with guilt. She just wanted to be left alone in her misery.

Netty smiled. "Marriage is good, sweetheart. But I think it's important that you plan your future, too. What exactly would you be teaching?"

That was more of a trap than a question, since Rusti's real expertise was in art. But the girl was not going to play this head game by their rules. "Science." She answered a bit coldly.

The three of them stared at her in uneasy silence.

Defiantly the girl squared her shoulders, raised her chin. This would piss them off: "I'll be teaching Transformer physiology." All three stared at her as though she had just rolled off a long sentence of nothing but filthy words.

Delphra reacted first, snorting and turning away in disgust. "I do not believe this!" she swung back around, pointing at the girl, "Is that all you think about?" she snapped. "Don't you think there's life outside all this?" she waved her arms in the air, indicating the city. "There's another world out there

with a good deal more to offer than those tin cans ever thought!"

The Autobots offered her a universe of ideas, history and experiences. What did Earth -or her family for that matter-have to offer against that? The three adults before her had no clue, not one solitary clue as to what was going on in her life. Their narrow viewpoints kept them from seeing more than their jobs or their little lives. Rusti experienced more in her meager childhood than the three of them combined. "I belong here." she calmly, quietly replied. She realized now, too, that what they were doing to her was nothing short of psychological bullying.

Delphra charged the bed, splaying her hands on the soft mattress, "You don't know what you're talking about, girl," she snarled. "Those metal bastards don't hold a candle when it comes to flesh and blood. They're just talking toasters, automobiles with arms and legs. They don't have expressions for love, even a word for it in their vocabulary. All they know how to do is eat and fight. That is their entire existence. And I don't know what it will take to get that through that fluffy cloud of yours you call a brain, but you're being stupid. Those monsters don't love you; they're playing mind games with you, Resonna. Get a grip."

Delphra's face was ugly, her eyes resembled darts and every one hit Rusti like a poison-tipped dagger. Rusti's eyes narrowed dangerously. Delphra had no idea what she was saying. She had no clue. Her entire existence was dedicated to fulfilling her power lust.

Rusti's inner turmoil bordered on rage. How could Delphra say those things when she had never understood the link between Rusti and the two Autobot leaders? Who was she to say the Transformers could not love? Oh, they understood love. They understood it on a level no human could.

Rusti leaned forward to make sure Delphra understood every word and she spoke softly and deliberately, "I have loved more deeply than any man who has ever screwed you."

A roar shouted in her ears and the next minute Rusti's cheek caught on fire, her head spinning slightly. She touched her cheek and looked at her hand. Nothing. Delphra stood. Satisfaction blanketed the vengeful expression. She could not debate Rusti's argument, so she ended it with a slap. Rusti kept her composure, wishing she were strong enough to rampage the bitch Dinobot-style. But she knew violence solved nothing and certainly where her aunt was concerned.

She frowned, not willing to look any of them in the eyes. She didn't see her mother grab Delphra and push her away.

Her father took a step forward, as much surprised at her reaction as he was at Delphra's. "Resonna--"

But Rusti turned from them entirely, laying on her right side toward the window overlooking the western side of Fort Max. "Just go away." she muttered miserably. "I'm tired."

Netty sat on the bedside and laid her hand on her daughter's shoulder. But all it did was make Rusti feel patronized. "I'm sorry, Sweetheart. I'll talk with Aunt Delphra, okay?"

"Yeah. Okay, Mom." She yanked the blankets closer, trying to shield herself from her mother's touch.

Netty kissed her cheek. "I'm sorry, Sweetheart." she whispered. "I'll--I'll talk to you later."

Rusti said nothing and just laid there long after they left. She wished she could vomit and get all the pain out of her guts. What was their problem, anyway? If they were supposedly so supportive of her, why did they insist on hanging around that witch? She sighed. Perhaps she could sleep off all the anger and resentment. She drew a first deep breath. It really was no use in being angry at them. They were what they were. She was who and what she was. But why couldn't they just leave her alone? Was there a problem with that?

Inwardly she rolled her eyes. Why couldn't she have a normal family?


* * *


Stupid little girl, run, run, as fast as you can! Rusti found herself traveling down a long metal hallway. Other than herself, there was not one other soul walked along its metal structures. But the further Rusti walked, the more the metal changed color until all the panels became glass. Now she tried to walk cautiously and thought about taking off her shoes. But the very next step caused the floor to crack.

She froze. It cracked further.

She knew she was going to fall. If she fell, most likely she'd end up tied to a wall like Optimus; a captive of the Virus. Wasn't the blocking chip working? Wasn't it doing any good?

Optimus tried to purge his pain through death. The thought distracted her from her momentary peril. She laid her hand on her chest. How so sad! The Autobots would lose him, a valuable leader.

Oh, that thought hurt worse because she knew what cost she'd personally pay for his death. Rusti sank to her knees in grief, ignoring another series of cracks on the floor.

She ran. Run away little girl! Don't let the big Boogeyman get you! Little coward! Couldn't' even think of someone other than yourself long enough to see if you could undo the clasps that held him. What kind of a coward was she, anyway? Powerless little victim!

Rusti wept in anguish and lifted her face to a dark brooding sky. Her hands slid down her cheeks and above her loomed the Virus. Its pencil-thin legs surrounded her like a cage. Its chest loomed above her like a formidable rock wrought from the forges of hell.

Its head turned down, considering her for a moment before lowering closer and closer. She felt It tug strength from her body. It desired to give her an eternal kiss. She would forever belong to It.

It touched her lips with corner of its maw and Rusti's heart sank into a vortex of darkness. Cold immobilized her heart so that no man, no professional psychologist, could bring her back.

She thought the Virus longed to enter her, possess her, devour her a little at a time. But, at the drowned sound of Optimus' voice, the Virus lifted from her and shattered like crystal.

Rusti shot up, her eyes fluttering away the reality of the dream. What?! What?! Where the hell did that-What a horrible thing!

She wanted to scream but her voice was caught in tears and terror. She swallowed air and coughed and sputtered, finally managing to cry out loud. She wept fitfully, flopping back into her pillow, drenching her hair with tears. She sat up, gripped her pillow tightly and cried into it, squealing in emotional distress.

Help me! Help me! Her mind screamed, but no words surfaced to her throat. Rusti curled up in a tight ball, gripping all the blankets as tightly about her form as she could get them. But she felt no safer.

Go to sleep, she told herself. Go to sleep, it was all a dream and in sleep, there would be darkness and safety. But her mind argued with her rationality. It attacked her in her sleep. No more rest. No more safe sweet sleep. Rusti realized she trembled uncontrollably. No, silly girl, don't just lie there. Get help. Get up and go for help!

Yes, that would go over well, 'excuse me, the boogeyman just tried to kiss me and fill me with darkness, can you help me?

There would be no help. She envisioned herself a walking corpse, incapable of emotion. She would rot from the inside out, shying away from whatever light life gave her. She would waste away until she was no longer even a person.

And just think, it was all because she ran away when she could have saved someone she loved. She deserved to live in pain. She deserved to die a slow death, trapped in the darkness of the Virus' lust.

"Oh God," Rusti managed to cry out, "somebody help me!!"

A spark of light caught her eye and Rusti struggled to make sense of it through hot and cold tears. Light from the dark world outside managed to peek through a fold in her curtains and touched her dresser mirror. Dangling from the top corner there was the necklace Optimus gave her for her tenth birthday. It was like receiving a ring from Prince Charming. A tiny inscription was scrawled along the backside "Noktu", an old expression meaning 'no matter what'.

It was a word of promise.

No matter what? No matter what happened? Rusti's heart and breath quickened and she all but jumped from bed. Grasping the necklace, the girl also snatched up her robe and slippers and left her room.

Without knowing where he was, Rusti made a beeline for Optimus. No one told her Rodimus insisted they put him in his own quarters for privacy. But Rusti made sure no one saw her marching to the elevator and up the next floor. Her heart kept pounding and she hoped by walking fast, she'd be able to calm her nerves.

Her heart beat fiercely, now. Her nerves were so tight the girl was sure she was a candidate for cardiac arrest. Rusti stared at the set of huge doors, feeling more like an insect, now.

She did not deserve to be loved by him. He was so good to her, and she repaid his love by running away. Failure filled her and her lips trembled as tears came back. She could not breathe, could not swallow, could not face him. "I'm sorry." she whispered. "I'm sorry."

Go back to your room and die.

She didn't deserve his promises. Rusti turned away, heartbroken.

"Ruuusssti." That was the softest of whispers.

She felt it more than heard it. She paused, heart pounding so that her chest hurt. She drowned in anxiety and wished she could crawl away and hide.

[[Rusti, talk to me.]]

It was the sweetest thing she heard and felt all day. That voice, his voice, was so compelling. She hesitated. Was it that she imagine it? Was it that she wanted to hear it? She bowed her head, her red hair fell about her face, the curls bounced slightly. She slid her hands into her robe pockets. No one else was around. Who would bother checking the halls at three in the morning, anyway?

Her feet moved as though without her permission and there she was in front of the door again. With a frozen heart and a lump in her throat, she stepped forward and the door opened silently.

Save for equipment LCD lights and a very low light on the other side of the room, all stood dark. The door closed silently behind her. In the dark, Rusti felt very small and unimportant. And for the first time in years, she felt very out-of-place.

The humm of machines filled the silence but they made poor substitution for companionship. She hugged herself, feeling cold. What the hell was she doing here? She had no business being in a place reserved for privacy. She was invading Optimus' privacy.

Stupid little girl. Grow up and take care of yourself! Stop relying on other people!

She turned away, embarrassed and guilt-driven. Tears came back and she choked, racing for the door.

"Don't leave." His soft voice rang as heart-broken as she felt. She couldn't stop crying. Regret filled her and she tried to swallow. Her lips trembled again and she wrapped herself more tightly.

"Rusti . . . " his soft voice filled with compassion. "Don't cry." A pair of true-blue optics lit. They glowed brightly then dimmed to a more comfortable gleam.

Her breath fluttered. She did not know what to do or say. But clearly she should not be here. She failed him, failed his love for her.

His optics glowed again, softly radiating. "Stay and talk to me." he pleaded. "I would be glad of the company."

Rusti bit her lower lip, feeling incompetent, but her arms relaxed a little. "I-I . . I assumed you wanted to be alone." her voice squeaked in her ears. The stupid little girl could talk with nothing more than a squeak.

His head, though unseen save for the light of his optics, tilted slightly, indicating some amusement. "Well, First Aid did forbid anyone to pester me. But I won't say anything, if you don't. If they come asking, you can hide under the cover."

She could not stop the smile. The tears kept falling, but now there was a smile there, too. But regret refused to let her go, "I'm so sorry, Optimus." she squeaked again.

His hand patted the flat. "Come over here, Rusti." he bade. "Come sit with me."

Although she was glad to get off the cold floor, Rusti felt awkward. She expected to have to climb, but Optimus lowered his hand and lifted her. She gathered her robe about and sat down amid the folds of a thin covering. In the dim light, she found he was sitting up, perhaps had been for hours. And perhaps against First Aid's orders.

Her breath trembled again as embarrassment haunted her again. The girl's cheeks were tight with dried tears and she wished she had something with which to blow her nose.

Soundlessly, Prime plucked a thin paper towelette. He handed it to her and her face lifted in half a laugh. It was as thin as a tissue, but twice her size. Wordlessly, she blew her nose and dried her eyes.

"I know . . . I know things have been unfairly difficult for you, Rusti." In spite of the depth of its sadness, his soft voice filled her. She felt better and slowly felt less fearful confronting him.

How did he always know when to say just the right things? Sometimes she'd swear Optimus could read people like a book. He had this astounding gift for nailing the problem on the head. He had a remarkable way of making anyone feel comfortable around him.

She sighed, tears no longer tormented her. But she shivered from emotional overload. She wanted to say something, anything, and could not.

"What can one say when the people he loves are suffering and he can do nothing about it? I owe you so much for what you've been through and . . . can't stop the pain." His soft voice sounded weak, tired.

Rusti suddenly realized just how torn up he was inside. The sense of helplessness, depression and guilt, have taken their toll. For some reason, Optimus blamed himself for everything that happened last fall. And at the last minute, he Reached for her. She held him tightly, and would have done it with her life.

But she ran from the Virus.

"I ran, Optimus." she could not talk above a whisper. "I should have stayed." New tears formed. "I'm so sorry." She blinked and they fell, leaving cold trails over her cheeks and neck.

"There was nothing you could have done, Rusti." he assured her.

"I ran." she insisted. "You were there and so was Roddi and I could have . . . I could have . . . " she sniffed and blew her nose again, but could not look at him.

Prime remained silent for a moment. "So, in a moment of irrationality, you ran off. But now that you are rational, able to think, what do you think you could have done?"

She sniffed again and struggled to thing through a foggy head. The Virus was at least ten times her size. It had awesome speed and agility. It dragged her into the Matrix. She stopped there for a moment: It dragged her into the Matrix. It knew her. She still could not answer Optimus' question.

"Perhaps, Rusti," he spoke ever so gently, ever so softly, "you could have done nothing. You feel badly for abandoning a situation you could not possibly have handled. Think of this: Even if you had the power to fight the Virus, would you have been able to defeat It? Did you enter the Matrix on your own, or were you dragged in?"

She weakly shrugged. "I dunno."

"Most likely not." he answered for her. "The virus is a living entity. We know nothing of Its origin, whether or not It could be destroyed by conventional means or if ESP affects it. It does not fear you. you would have been trapped, just like us. You did the only thing you could have done: you ran. Self defense is not cowardice, Rusti."

She shrugged trembling shoulders, unable to look at him. How could she accept that kind of truth when she felt so awful?

Silence hung in the air like a death knell. She found little comfort in his explanation. She knew he was trying to help her. But the reality of it was that it happened and in spite of what she did not (could not?) do, he was here.

"Rusti." his tranquil voice whispered her name as though an Angel sang it. He said it with such . . . love. But the depth of sadness drowned any peace that might have been there. "Don't punish yourself. Whatever sin you feel you may have committed could not possibly be enough to make me angry. Not when I-" his words died at the moment and the girl's own heart ached for him. " . . . not when my own crimes cannot justify one more moment of my own existence."

Now her tears fell for him. She had no memory of what happened, though she read all the reports, seen the pictures. The extent of his own deeds would haunt him for a long time to come.

"I would not have . . ." Prime had a hard time finishing his sentance because he knew how wrong his attemtped actions were, how many people would be hurt if he departed. " survived my . . . suicide attempt, had I not been rescued by a Baby Bird. You are very important to me." The suicide was supposed to purge the monster from his soul. The failed attempt left him remorseful. But acknowledging she was there for him became more important than his guilt complex. She was precious.

Rusti thought hard about his words. Her parents loved her as an offspring, but she wasn't important. They had their friends, their jobs and Delphra. But she was important to Optimus Prime.

The guilt dissipated and sleep called her from afar. Rusti tried to think of something to say. She wanted to thank him for his kind words, but nothing appropriate came to mind.

His mind just lightly touched hers and the girl found she did not need to say anything at all. He knew. Somehow, Optimus always knew. She laid next to him, nestling close. He covered her with his hand and she fell safely to sleep.