*YOU ASKED MY PLANS REGARDING YOUR INDIFFERENCE.*
*I AM GIVEN PERMISSION TO ADOPT YOUR CHILDREN*
*THE EVIL HAS BEEN BEHEADED. THE ONLY EVIL IS YOU.*
*YOU WILL BE IRRELEVANT.*
* * *
The late night air tingled cold about his fur as Ambassador Koontah sat quietly at the huge water fountain in Central Command's innermost courtyard. The footfalls of Humans, aliens and Autobots echoed in his ears like heartbeats. He felt each passing presence and returned greetings as they came to him. Koontah never actually saw the city. His sight, darkened by the blindfold he wore, came from other senses, even that of heat.
But the Wanakian ambassador did not need to see to picture the city around him. He *felt* the towering buildings and the majesty of their architecture. He smelled the clean water and crisp air. The Cascade Mountains were a good deal smaller than the Amber Mountains on his home world of Lunarphyte, but they were no less charming.
His quiet moment ended when a bitter, semi-organic vibration touched his ears. A familiar life force signature wafted across the terrain in raw energy wavelengths. A Quintesson approached. The distinctive smell of flesh and living metal drifted in soured currents. Koontah ordered himself to retain poise and stood as the Quintesson drew near.
Koontah hoped to talk with the Quintessons personally, but did not expect to do so here in Autobot City. A matter needed to be settle and it was important enough that Koontah did not think he could be genteel about it. One step at a time, he told himself.
"Ambassador Koontah," came a drowned, cold voice. "I am honored to meet you face to face."
He was of course, lying. Koontah knew a good lie when he heard one. Nevertheless, manners were of importance here. "Yes, good evening, Ambassador Cleprachaun. A bit late for a casual walk, is it not? Oh, forgive me. I forgot that Quintessons do not need much sleep."
"Unlike lower life forms, we do not require sleep." Cleprachaun corrected. "Merely periods of relaxing is adequate."
"Of course." Koontah decided it was not worth the effort to be upset over the Quintesson's rudeness. He kept his voice light and mannerly. "But I suspect an ulterior motive. Quintessons, as I understand, do not wander aimlessly."
Cleprachaun remained silent a moment as though trying to decide what words to use. Koontah sensed a bit of anxiety from the Quint. "You are correct, Ambassador." Cleprachaun's oily voice murmured through the air again. "I came in hopes of communicating with you on a more . . . intimate level."
The Wanakian ambassador stood a bit straighter. His left ear flickered. "I see."
An uncomfortable silence fell between them. After a moment, Koontah settled back on the ledge of the fountain, hoping Cleprachaun would start the next round. Several soft clicks sounded and Koontah assumed the Quintesson switched faces. Hate, by the feel of it.
"There have been . . . rumors about a colony of archeologists that have recently unearthed an ancient temple. I thought I would ask if you knew anything about it."
That again was not what the Quintesson was here for. Koontah frowned and wondered if the Quintessons did anything other than lie. "Yes, it is true, Ambassador," he quietly confirmed. "It's on Maud'laub, the one planet circling Proxima Centauri. It's under heavy restrictions. The archeologists have already lost ten workers there. Considerations have been made to close the site because some have come to believe the place is cursed."
"Yes, Ambassador. The Quintessons have long since known about myths regarding the ancient temple of Maud'laub. It is said gods were sacrificed there so that Dark Things could enter our reality and feast on life. What is not widely known is what is kept inside that temple. On an alter of blood sits a treasure of power, or so the legend goes. The treasure I speak of is nothing less than the Decepticon Matrix of Power."
Koontah's face turned upward. The lie was so bad, he could not help but laugh. "I suppose the very next thing you plan to tell me is that it's still functional-and for sale!"
"I was." Cleprachaun growled. "Ambassador, it has been meganiums since knowledge of the Decepticon Matrix has been in circulation. Most of the galaxy has forgotten about it. Most beings do not live half as long as the Continuum. It's natural to assume what is considered knowledge today to be passed off as fables and myths tomorrow. I assure you, Ambassador, it exists."
Koontah still could not believe the Quintesson. How many wars and deaths have the Quints started with their lies? The Wanakian ambassador could not tell. But his trust of Cleprachaun did not go much further than his eyesight.
Poise! He admonished himself. Koontah stood again and drew a deep cold breath of late night air. "Whether or not the Decepticon Matrix exists is inconsequential. The fact is, you cannot buy me. I am not ignorant of your history, unlike thousands of other victims. I am also keenly aware your people have been psychically attacking the city since the day you arrived. I strongly suggest you cease the attack. Otherwise you will find yourselves, all of you, kicked into the next Earth Ice Age. How clear do I make myself?"
"Clear enough, Ambassador." Cleprachaun's voice lowered to a soft growl. Koontah could not tell if it was out of embarrassment (not likely) or of resentment. Cleprachaun sneered, "I apologize. However, I expected your viewpoint to be different. You are a formidable opponent. It is rare we take time to change a potential client into a regarded ally."
Koontah stood rigid, "Ambassador," he snarled, "Consider yourself fortunate I have no dealings regarding your punishment. I assure you, what I would do to you would be far less kinder."
Cleprachaun eyed him and switched to his Face of Death. "Is that a threat, Ambassador?"
Koontah lifted his chin slightly as though staring straight into Cleprachaun's soul. "No, Ambassador. I never make threats."
Koontah curtly walked away as Cleprachaun watched him, tentacles snapping irritably. Two other Quints emerged from building shadows and joined their associate by the fountain.
"Disturbing." the first of the two grumbled.
"Indeed." Cleprachaun agreed. "This could jeopardize the plans."
"Your assumption is fallacious." the First countered. "The Project will proceed. The Wanakian ambassador holds no threat to our plans or our cause. It simply means we will resort to less . . . subtle means. The space station is ready. All we need is a catalyst."
The Second Quintesson switched to his Face of Death. "The Project is everything. It is the very key to attaining our goal. We cannot allow anything to stand between us and success. Not even the threats of Ambassador Koontah."
Cleprachaun switched to his Face of Deceit. "As Zeta Abdura just mentioned, he posses no threat either to us or the operation. The ambassador himself said he would not raise a hand against us. We are free to do as we please."
* * *
It wasn't often that Rusti took a good leisurely bubble bath. Some moods required bubbles to make things better. Candlelight flickered with the change of air pressure and caught the girl's attention.
Her mind swirled with a math and history test, of parents and their demands, of troubled times and loss of memory. And in the eye of that emotional storm was the memory of two nights ago when she slept with Optimus.
If there was ever a girl who longed to sleep with a giant teddy bear, Rusti dared believe she broke the world's record. She giggled outwardly, daring to say nothing outside, even if she knew Max would say nothing to another soul. The comparison of Optimus Prime to a teddy bear would remain her thoughts alone.
And then there was Cody. Sweet, loving Cody. Rusti sighed and slipped further under water and bubbles. What a sweetheart! He passed her a note in the hall between classes, asking how she was doing and to call him that night.
He even signed it.
Rusti's heart bubbled with laughter, though again, she remained silent save for the smile on her face. She taped the note to her little book of memories. Of course, it was just a cordial note, nothing absolutely earth-crushing. Cody was most likely just being thoughtful and Rusti was sure he had done the same thing to his other friends.
It would be so cool if he would ask her out on a date. Rusti lifted one leg and pointed her toes toward the showerhead. A date to the VR Park would be perfect!
A grin swept over her face, her eyes lit brightly. She sat up and leaned against the side of the tub, her face partially hidden in a cloud of bubbles. "Maybe a double date would be nifty," she said out loud. "Maybe Jen and that nice guy she knows could go with us, after all, we do have a raincheck on that."
Rusti stood and stretched and let out a squeal, "and Cody can buy me an ice cream cone!" She side stepped and her foot slipped on a bar of soap and down she went, landing in the water, spilling the stuff all over the floor and hitting her head against the shower wall.
MISS WITWICKY, ARE YOU ALRIGHT?
Rusti stared at the opposite wall, her face fixed in annoyance. "I'm fine, Max," she answered with a slight growl. "Just a bit embarrassed." Pay attention, pay attention! It seems all her teachers were shouting that phrase more often now days. Where were her brains? Her mind constantly drifted from one thing to another like some kind of psychopath with an attention deficit. School and parents and the constant search to fill memory gaps consumed all her time and . . . and there was Cody.
Rusti lifted her left hand to haul her lazy body out of the tub when her eyes caught sight of the tiny freckle of a scar on the back of her wrist.
There was something Magnus mentioned a couple months ago, something about a doctor from another dimension that cured her of some illness she had. What was it called? Rusti could not for the life of her remember it.
Optimus was sick for a while, too. Really sick, with something more than just the Matrix Virus.
What was the doctor's name? How did she meet him? Absently, Rusti drained the tub, dried herself off, donned her jammies and searched her messy room for her scrapbook.
Math book, history, psychology (yuk) . . . that darned book had to be around someplace.
Under the bed?
Nope, peeking out the corner of her pillow. The girl squished her face into a question. How the heck was she sleeping with that thing under her pillow? What made her stick it under there? Why would she do something like that?
Rusti shook her head and procured the book, bouncing on her hopelessly rumpled bed. A second thought hit her and the girl swiftly pulled blankets and sheets to the pillow, somewhat straightening the bed so that it looked like half an attempt to clean her room. Of course, that would still be a ruse. Over the last several days she had not so much as lifted a finger to put anything away. At least her dirty clothes went into the hamper, but that was all she was willing to do. Everything else littered the ground.
Rusti stared at her room. She never used to be quite so careless. She remembered how she used to stack her homework on her dresser and she was far more careful about her music collection.
Her shoulders slumped and her face fell to despair. She rested her chin on the edge of the book. What was wrong with her?
Oh, the scar on her wrist. Right. Of course, she should be studying for the tests, but this was more interesting right now. She threw a leg over the bed, the other leg dangled down the side and she flipped through her scrap book, searching for dates and notes, letters and comments.
There. January 11. Magnus made mention that Optimus was not well that day and wondered if it wasn't the Zatra Tatlic flaring up.
"Zatra Tatlic?" she echoed. "Sounds like some kind of bad gourmet dish like . . . caviar or escargot." A daring idea came to her and she reached for pen and paper. But the only paper available was the back of her math study guide. "Max, I was just wondering if you have any idea about the symptoms of Zatra Tatlic."
As she waited, Rusti flipped through the ever-increasing number of pages to her scrap book. She figured soon she'd have to start another one. There was a newspaper clipping on one page with the photograph of a destroyed Central Command and the headline:
UNEXPLAINED EVENT DESTROYS CENTRAL COMMAND
Rusti swallowed hard. She had no recollection of the incident. Magnus assured her she was there. She was the only Human who was. The doctor who examined her found traces of unknown elements in her blood.
What did that mean?
CROSS REFERENCING INFERNO. ZATRA TATLIC. COMPONENTS AFFECTED: THE AMITOID. THE ARTRICAL ZYN. THE TRANSDUCTIVE PORT STABILIZERS, THE INTERNAL THERMAL REGULATOR, THE INTROMETER TEMPERATE INDICATOR, THE SYSTEMIC NOCTURN SLIPS AND THE LATERAL TEMPLOID EXPLATUMS.
Rusti knew the name of only one component. The others sailed over her head. Didn't Max just say he was cross-referencing Inferno? What did that mean?
Her eyes caught sight of the clock at her bed stand and Rusti cringed. "Oh, shit! I gotta get to bed." She put her book up and gathered all her homework into one area. She quickly made her choice of clothes for the next day and went to bed, still pondering over Inferno.
Without a single doubt in her mind, Rusti knew she flunked the math test. Well, it's what she deserved for being lazy.
The girl rested against her locker as the last period bell announced the end of school and the beginning of the weekend. Spring break seemed eons away, even if it was just next month. A vacation would be nice; the longer, the better.
The familiar figure of Cody Greydon approached from the left but she did not greet him right away. Her eyes remained focused on nothing, her mind millions of miles from anything.
"You know," came the boy's kind voice, "when your mind is full and your stomach is empty, there's nothing worse than trying to think."
She offered him a weak smile and realized her head hurt again. "Are you suggesting, Mr. Greydon, sir, that we solve the head problem by means of the stomach?"
He offered he the crook of his arm. "Well, it's always worked for me."
She took his arm and thought how selfish it was of herself to wish it were Optimus who guided her away from school.
They stopped by the cafeteria in the EDC District before retreating to Max's outer city limits. Perched high on a hillside, Rusti pondered about the events taking place at the football stadium. She overheard two officers in the elevator mention something about another meeting with the Quints. No doubt the tentacle slimed-faced jerks would invent more excuses for their antagonism toward the Autobots over the last two decades.
Rusti sensed Rodimus' anxiety. It wasn't that he felt ill-prepared for the meeting, but that Quintesson perjury would win the mediator's favor.
Homework! She remembered the history homework and was grateful the test was delayed until the following Monday. But it meant more material to study for. Still, her wandering mind punished her with confusion and distraction.
Rusti forced her eyes on one page. 1509 A.D. Henry, Prince of Wales succeeds his father as King at age 18. Awful young to be the ruler of a nation, she thought.
How old was Optimus when he took over as leader of the Autobots?
What mischief did the Quints cause at that time, if any? As she stared at the page, all the letters blurred. Rusti resented the idea that the Quintessons were here at all. She actually passed one day before yesterday on her way to the bus. It stopped and stared at her, as though trying to read her inside-out. Rusti returned the stare with a soured expression and boarded the bus. It creeped her out.
Why was Optimus so willing to try and make peace with these bastards? What would it accomplish? The Quints were an older enemy than the Decepticons and certainly the Quints had no intention of making peace! What were they up to and why?
Maybe Optimus was tired of all the fighting, the casualties, the suffering they endured to stay free.
Maybe. And maybe Optimus Prime was buying time.
"You know, Rus, you've been staring at that same page for twenty minutes."
Her eyes lifted from nothing to Cody's face as he sipped his chocolate shake. Her heart felt heavy, her body weary. "I'm not even reading it, Cody." With a great sigh, she groaned and rolled onto fresh soft grass. She stared into the sky as a cloud passively drifted into view then began to diminish in the gentle warmth of the spring sun.
"I guess I don't want to do anything, right now." Her eyes stared into the depths of the sky.
Cody watched her eyes drift aimlessly, staring into the partly cloudy sky. Her curly red hair sprawled over her math book as lively as she.
He dipped an Oreo Double stuffed cookie into a spare glass of milk and crunched. Her silent musings reduced their conversations to little more than sighs and grunts. He missed her enthusiasm and that smile that lit an entire room. But nightmares did that to people, turning them to dark thoughts and gloomy expressions. That dipshit Dr. Cynyr brushed her symptoms off as little more than delusions of a girl that needed Midol.
Cody thought it professionally irresponsible, whether or not Cynyr liked the girl. She wasn't herself. Her mind wandered in lightless thoughts that she shared with him in vague terms. Cody wished he could get inside that head of hers and find out what happened. Aside from the post-traumatic amnesia, Rusti experienced more than just a few mental bruises.
The young man finished his third cookie and drained his milkshake. Time to pick at that head of hers. "It's the Quints, isn't it? I'll bet they've got you riled."
"They're bastards." she grunted.
"I didn't know Quintessons procreated from unmarried mothers. I hope their mommies look better than they do."
Rusti's head lolled to the left. A light flickered in her eye as her face scrunched up in a single question mark. "Huh?" It took the girl a moment to realize that her friend was far from serious and she could not suppress a smile. "Yes. They all look like Ultra Magnus."
Cody's eyes squinted and he shook his head as the girl burst into a fit of laughter. He waited until she settled down, sipping his milk and nabbing another cookie. "How are the talks going, have you heard?"
"Nope. 'Cept rumor has it the visiting ambassador doesn't like the Quintessons. He even shot one of them for talking out of turn."
"Have you seen him? The ambassador, I mean?"
"No. No time. But I hear he's been really good. Too bad he couldn't have been here when the Decepticons were."
Cody shared her sullen silence for a moment, reflecting on Fortress Maximus and history. "That was a long time ago," he whispered. "I mean, long before you and me. Whatever happened to them? To Galvatron?"
Rusti finally sat up and fluffed her hair. She reached for a cookie and dunked it in her milk. "You know, Cody, instead of boring us with history lessons about the development of the government of Spain during the Inquisition, I wish they'd teach more about stuff like the redevelopment of human society after the Autobots arrived. I mean, can you imagine what a shock it must have been at that time period?'
Rusti ate her cookie in three bites and swept up another one. "We're the second generation removed from that time and while it's all recorded, I'll bet it's not like living it first hand."
"It must have been a terrifying time," Cody agreed. "Now, there are no more Decepticons."
Rusti's thoughts drew her away from him again. Wasn't there something she was supposed to do today? It must have been important and now the girl could not remember what it was. She dunked another cookie and thought hard then lifted her cookie and let the thought go. "Well, last anyone heard of the Decepticons was when Cybertron was revitalized. Skorponok shot off into space. Nothing more's been heard from them in about twenty-five years."
"Maybe they all perished. Probably hunted down by bounty hunters or trapped by the gravitational force of a black hole, sucked down and trapped in a hellish prison for all eternity. Or maybe they caught a disease that ate them alive-"
"Disease!" Rusti's sudden response made her friend jump and she leapt to her feet.
"What?" Cody looked as though someone threw a curve ball and nearly smacked him in the eye.
"Disease! THAT'S what I was supposed to look up!" Rusti instantly gathered her things together and stuffed one of three remaining cookies in her mouth. "I godda go do uh ibrary 'nd fid 'omething."
"Eh?" Cody reached and removed the cookie from between the girl's teeth.
Rusti laughed. "I need to go to the library and look up something. Coming?"
His expression remained blank with confusion and he stuffed the cookie back in her mouth. "Yeah."
Cody stood by as he watched Rusti finger through Autobot public logs. She seemed to know what she was looking for, but Cody could not figure out why she chose logs from late last October.
"Here!" she whispered. And with a swift yank, the girl slipped the crystal memory cells into a viewer and activated the logs.
Cody tried the patient route: "Rus, what are you looking for?"
"References to Zatra Tatlic from Ultra Magnus' files. I'm going to cross-reference them with Inferno's termination files."
She finally looked at him, examining his expression with quizzical eyes. But if the girl was going to answer him, he never heard it. The requested data file came up.
EARTH DATE NOVEMBER 2, 2037.
CENTRAL COMMAND IS IN RUINS. RECONSTRUCTION IS ALREADY UNDERWAY AND GROUNDBREAKER REPORTS COMPLETION DATE INSIDE TWO WEEKS. OPTIMUS PRIME IS CURRENTLY UNDERGOING MEDICAL TREATMENT AND OBSERVATION FOLLOWING AN UNUSUAL ORDEAL REGARDING A TIME FRACTURE. I DON'T PRETEND TO UNDERSTAND HOW, BUT AN EVENT OCCURRED THAT CROSSED TWO REALITIES INTO A TEMPORARY WORLD. ONLY A FEW OF US ESCAPED. DURING THIS PERIOD, WE JOINED FORCES WITH PEOPLE AND TRANSFORMERS FROM THE OTHER REALITY. THE DOCTOR AMONG THEM TREATED RUSTI FOR SYMPTOMS OF A DISEASE HE CALLED ZATRA TATLIC. THE CURIOUS POINT WAS THAT DR. SCOTT SAID RUSTI WAS NOT THE ONE WHO ACTUALLY HAD THE VIRUS, BUT OPTIMUS PRIME. A LIST OF SYMPTOMS ARE AVAILABLE AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS REPORT.
Rusti scanned Magnus' report for other information regarding the disease, picking up other facts such as time distortions and monsters mutated by the Fracture itself.
"Here," she whispered.
Cody finally drew a chair and sat beside her, staring at the screen then at the girl. "Rus, what precisely are you looking for? It's pretty evident that you were there-"
"That's not the point." Rusti answered absently. "I'm looking for origin. I asked Max about it last night and he said something about cross-referencing with Inferno. My guess is that Inferno died of the same disease, but the Autobots didn't have any knowledge of the disease at the time and I'm willing to bet I can find out where it came from."
She tapped the keyboard and zipped the mouse from one file to another, glancing through Inferno's file. "There," she whispered again.
Cody leaned in closer, speed-reading the document, glancing at the diagrams and frowning at some text written in Autobot. "Can you read some of that stuff, Rus?"
"No. I'll just have it translated." Rusti didn't bother typing in commands. She poured through the computer, now, as though running on automatic. Cody watched in silent amazement as the girl seemed to unconsciously choose to use her talent to tap into the system. She didn't bother with the mouse and used the keyboard only four times. Her concentration was such that the boy doubted she was aware of him at all.
He silently grinned and shook his head.
"What?" Rusti asked, surprising him.
"You. I'll bet you're really an Autobot in Human skin."
Rusti dropped her research and choked up. For some reason, his words hurt. Was she really that inhuman?
"What?" he asked softly.
She tilted her head just slightly, embarrassed by the tear that ran down her right cheek. "Is that why my family hates me so much?"
Cody opened his mouth, struggling to find a way to apologize. "Rusti, I didn't mean for it to sound-"
Her eyes locked onto him. "Did you know that my Grandpa Witwicky could read Autobot script? My great-grandfather learned Autobot physiology in just a few short months. Does that make me less then Human?"
Cody laid a hand on hers. "Why does it upset you? You have a unique insight into their world, Rusti. You have a connection most people only dream of having. This thing you can do, this ability you have . . . I'd give my life to have it. I'd give my life to be in your shoes just one day. To connect with an alien life form, to see their world, practically through their optics . . . Rusti, that's wonderful! But like any other ability, there are going to be people who resent and fear it. I think the best thing you can do with your talents is to take what you learn here, and translate it to the world. I've seen a bit of your artwork, Rusti. You see wonderful things and . . . and I think you need to share them.
His warm strong hand was on hers. His words sank into her heart. But she still felt sad. A bit of pain crossed the back of her head, slightly blurring her eyesight. Another darned headache on the horizon. Get back to the task at hand. It was important. The girl silently nodded, sniffed and wiped her cheek.
Cody withdrew as she became distant again. But he was sure she heard him. He let the moment go and glued his eyes to the monitor. "Sheol?" he read. "What's that?"
As though answering his question, the computer zipped through other files, searching for dates, times and logs. May 15, 1990 was the date of departure. September 2, 1990, the date of return from Scheol.
Rusti quickly read through the files, picking up names and events. "It looks like Optimus and several other Autobots were trapped in the space bridge at one time and transported to another world. From there they tried to get back either to Earth or Cybertron. But their ship was interceded by pirates and they were taken to another place called Sheol. There the Autobots were forced to fight in a gladiatorial combat. Inferno and Optimus were given energon shots . . . "(1) Rusti stared unblinking at the page. Without touching mouse or keypad, the computer sifted through pages and files, searching for Inferno's death certificate.
The headache started pounding from the back of Rusti's head to her temples. Concentrate! Her clothes became uncomfortably warm.
ZATRA TATLIC. COMPONENTS AFFECTED:
•THE ARTRICAL ZYN
•THE TRANSDUCTIVE PORT STABILIZERS
•THE INTERNAL THERMAL REGULATOR
•THE INTROMETER TEMPERATE INDICATOR
•THE SYSTEMIC NOCTURN SLIPS
•LATERAL TEMPLOID EXPLATUMS
Rusti blinked several times and wiped her cheek, checking for smeared makeup. Now that she thought of that, she absently reached into her backpack and fingered about for her lipstick. "You know, Cody, I have no idea what most of these components are."
He scrunched in a little closer, reading over her shoulder as she applied fresh lipstick. "Um . . . Transductive port stabilizers I believe have something to do with their subspace manipulation. And the systemic nocturn slips have something to do with the infrastructural rod."
She scrutinized him out the corner of her eye and capped her lipstick. "Is that like the backbone?"
"Yup. And lateral temploid explatums . . . " Cody shook his head. "I'm not that good. And artrical zyn, um, I think that has something to do with perception. What's that called?" Cody leaned back in his chair and thought hard. "It's something like you have-well, not exactly . . . what's it called, Rus?"
Her neck and shoulders hurt now and Rusti was ready for two aspirin and a bit of snooze. She also felt sadly distant, as though everyone she knew and loved no longer cared for her. The girl choked and bit back tears. She hoped Cody would stay her friend. Help me, she thought, something's being robbed from me.
"Ah! Life force frequencies. I think the artrical zyn has something to do with perception in the Beta life-force frequencies, the ability to distinguish reality from dreams. You know how you have a dream and wake up, thinking you're still there? That's when the Beta kicks in." Cody paused a moment, staring at the monitor. His brows scrunched, "Rus, it just dawned on me. Some of the symptoms Optimus Prime suffered last fall might not have all been of the Virus. Some of them might have been the Tatlic. And you know . . . well, you know how you said that Rodimus sometimes mirrors Optimus and vice versa? I'll bet Roddi's been feeling some of the same symptoms.'
'And you know something else? If both Optimus Prime and Inferno caught the Zatra Tatlic on Sheol, chances might be that there is a cure there, too." The boy reread the list of affected areas and frowned. "That's a nasty bug." Then he realized how quiet she had fallen and Cody laid a hand on her shoulder, "Rusti?"
She turned to him, face wet with tears. "I'm sorry, Cody. I don't know what's wrong with me."
He shrugged, not bothered by her embarrassment. "It's okay. We can call it a day. I'll walk you back to your quarters."
Rusti couldn't reach her room fast enough. Thankfully Cody guided her back to her quarters there in Central Command rather than in the EDC District. He set her books and backpack just around the door and kindly bade her good-bye. She felt awful leaving him like that. The girl thought she should have at least left him a peck on the cheek. But as she closed the door, Rusti's whole composure collapsed like a watered sand castle. She stripped to her underclothes and collapsed onto her messy bed.
For a while Rusti slept as though she were dead. A while later, she woke, realizing she was dehydrated. Her skin was hot and dry with fever. She crawled off the bed and staggered to her bathroom, scrounging with blurry vision for aspirin and a glass for water. Her body felt as though it were made of rubber, slowly disintegrating.
What day was it? Maybe it didn't matter. What was yesterday? What happened yesterday? Water tasted stale-bitter and Rusti dreaded finishing the glass. She forced herself to gulp it down and cringed.
Back to bed. She didn't lay down, she collapsed and remained absolutely still as her head pounded with a migraine.
She woke again later, finding her windows dark with the onset of night. She rolled over, feeling numb and hoping the headache and fever had left.
"M-Max," she whispered, "what day is it?
SUNDAY NIGHT, APRIL 26, MISS WITWICKY.
She slept all through Sunday? How? How? She did not recall dreams of any kind. She guessed Roddi would have to call the school for her tomorrow. There was no way Rusti would make it to class in this condition. She supposed it would be smarter to get medical help. But the girl could not get back up. Her eyes closed and she fell back to darkness before another thought entered her mind.
* * *
Rusti traveled the bridge from Central Command toward the training grounds. The city lay smouldering. Buildings slumped as though they were of wax, wasting under a desert sun. Human vehicles stood abandoned; some of them crushed. The only light touching the city came through brown and grey clouds.
She hurt head to toe.
What was she doing on the bridge? How did she get here? What brought her to this point?
"Rustii!!!" that was Aunt Missy calling. No, she screamed it and she ran as though the girl were in danger of getting slammed by a train.
Rusti, however, could not respond. Her heart hurt and inside, she felt Someone else's precious soul ached. She watched, grief stricken, as Optimus and Rodimus disappeared from the scene of a devastated city. She closed her eyes as her breathing stopped, interrupted by tears.
Captain Fairborn arrived and Rusti stared at her, weak and sad.
"Optimus hurts." It was barely a whisper.
The anguish of reality wrought more darkness. Then the spark of life vanished. He departed. His life force, his presence, disappeared from Fort Max. Ultra Magnus was left with the challenge of rebuilding both a city and its people. No greater despair could affect an Autobot population than the death of a Prime. Last time Rodimus took over, sparing the Autobots the pain of losing the very character and core of their community.
And in his death, Prime too was alone. Forsaken. The god of his forbears abandoned him to his own fate, wherever that might lead him in a life after death, if such a thing existed. Just like the great battle in 2005, Primus turned his back on the Bearer of the Matrix, the leader of the Autobots.
It crushed Optimus.
Rusti Reached for him but he was not really there. He died, abandoning her to a life bereft of happiness and fulfillment. That was a part of her soul that could never be replaced.
"I loved you." She wept. Tears soaked her hair and the pillow beneath her. "I loved you. How can I convince you to stay alive? You have to live to take care of me." She cried hard, gripping her pillow. "Don't leave me! Who'll take care of me?"
Rusti could not let go of the dream-induced feelings and images. Her heart weighed with emptiness and she cried herself back to sleep.
Rusti roused as the sun peeked into her room, passing curtains and ordering her to come to her senses and take on responsibility. The girl reluctantly, weakly sat up, trembling. What and awful night and a miserable dream! She ran her fingers through wet hair and felt wretched. It was time to hit the shower and shove off to school. But study was pointless; she knew she'd flunk that history test.
The girl clutched her pillow. She wanted to talk to someone, but felt too stupid. Miserably, she flopped back on her bed, drawing the wet pillow over her head.
It was going to be a hell of a day.
Miraculously enough, Rusti managed to get out of bed and ready in time for a bit of breakfast at the EDC cafeteria before catching the bus. Usually 'sleeping beauty' couldn't crawl out of bed and caught the bus just in time.
EDC staff members, personnel, families living at the base and aliens dashed to and fro in a suspicious rush. Rusti felt totally numb. Usually it annoyed her that the Target/Head masters pretty much cleaned up the food trays before she managed a sampling of pancakes or biscuits and gravy. Today she was either half asleep, too numb or too shaken over the bad dream to either notice or care.
Her heavy back pack slipped off her shoulder and dangled over her arm, tipping the breakfast tray. Fortunately nothing spilt but it added to her crankiness. She wished she could flush it down the toilet and go play with the Dinobots.
Someone lifted the bag off Rusti's arm and lapped it back over her shoulder. She greeted Aunt Missy with mixed emotions and forced a thankful smile.
"You're early this morning." Aunt Missy was the morning type who could spring out of bed and into her clothes in nine seconds. Rusti recalled those few times when Aunt Missy babysat her and her siblings. Breakfast was always on time; and all three kids had to be up and bathed by eight o'clock, no matter what cartoon shows were on at the time.
Captain Fairborn swept up a tray. She snatched every kind of food she usually refused to eat and stopped when she encountered the drink section. Coffee was a necessity, but she could not decide between the orange or grapefruit juice.
Rusti stared in confusion. It was not normal for Aunt Missy to stand there and stare. Even the captain's silver hair seemed a bit disheveled. And stranger still, Rusti realized her aunt's jacket was inside out.
Make-up check: Lipstick, yes. Mascara, no. "Thank you, Aunt Missy." Her voice sounded mousier than usual in her own ears.
"Hi, sweetie." the Captain greeted. "How's school?" She finally picked the grapefruit juice and stretched past Rusti to nab a second cinnamon roll.
Rusti stared, a bit more disturbed by her aunt's odd behavior. She also took note how everyone kept rushing around them, coming and going. "Is it just me, or is everyone in a bigger hurry this morning?"
Forborne nailed the girl with her eyes. "You haven't heard? Don't you listen to the news, Rusti? At your age, you should be interested in what's going on around you. The whole city's on alert."
Rusti's breath constricted. Reminders from the dream made her blood run cold. She dreaded asking, "why? What's wrong?"
"Several anti-matter coils have disappeared and three hundred energon cubes turned up missing." Fairborn sighed and bowed her head. Rusti waited, breath held as her stomach twisted in knots.
Don't say it, she thought. She waited, unwilling to let Forborne get away without finishing her story. Fairborn gazed at her sadly. "No one told you yet?"
Rusti's pressure rose in dire dread. She stopped breathing altogether. "Told me what?"
"Optimus Prime is gone. He left a suicide note in his office this morning."
The second-period five-minute bell rang. Students dashed to their classes, fearful of late slips and detention. It did not matter to Rusti. At the snail's pace of her walk, she would be late to math. But the girl could not care less. The world buzzed about her in a frenzied pace while her body pressed forward so slowly, she wasn't sure if she was walking or not. The emptiness in her heart robbed her of strength. The world had come to an end. Nothing was good anymore. Nothing was wonderful. People slammed into her, scoffing hotly, sneering and called her a name or two. She did not hear them. She bowed as tears wet her eyes, leaving cold tracks down her cheeks. She did not even care if her mascara smeared.
The hallways cleared and ground patrols scoured the school for tardies or those trying to play hooky. Detention was the first offense, suspension, the second.
She didn't care. Nothing was good anymore. Rusti's feet stopped at an unfamiliar door, finding herself near the drama department. No, this was all wrong. She was supposed to go to math. Dumb little girl. She leaned against a wall and slid down, sitting on the cold floor, exhausted and in a complete daze. But sitting only made things worse. It meant she'd have to exert even more energy to get up.
Never mind. It didn't matter now. Nothing did. Her world had come to an end.
All the warnings her parents and Delphra gave her all her life pounded in her head. They tried to tell her not to get involved. You need to live a normal life, they'd always tell her. Humans and Autobots don't mix. But . . . but Optimus and Roddi were always there for her.
"Roddi," she whispered. Here she had been so self-absorbed about how she felt of Optimus' disappearance that she did not consider how this would affect Rodimus. The pain in her heart caused her head to ache and she rested her head against the wall. Tears silently streamed into her ears. How could Optimus be so thoughtless, so cruel to just abandon everyone-her-like that? Maybe the regret and guilt drove him over the edge.
She wanted to die, too.
"HE CANNOT LOVE YOU!" Daniel's words bit deeply and truthfully into her. "You think of him as some kind of hero, with noble intentions and goodness . . . he knows nothing of love."
Oh, Primus, how true that all sounds now! She didn't, could not believe him. Her father was an angry little boy, resentful of his fate. His bitterness consumed him and he made sure everyone around him was as miserable as he.
But whatever she believed then, Daniel's horrible words were true now. Optimus was gone. He said not a word to her. Not even a note. Nothing. He had abandoned and betrayed her. But . . . didn't he once say she was important to him?
New tears stung her eyes and she tried in vain to bat them back. They fell, all of them soaking the collar round her neck. Her necklace weighed heavily about her like a chain of enslavement.
A man with long legs and a uniform shirt stepped in front of her, but Rusti did not bother to look. "Ma'am, I'm sorry, but you're supposed to be in class. You will have to be written up for this. Unless you have a pass. Do you have a pass?"
He lied. He abandoned her without a word. She was all cold and empty inside. She had no feelings for anyone or anything. Someone in her life had died.
"I'll have to have your name, Ma'am if you don't have a pass. I need your student ID and name of parent or guardian."
[[Roddi?]] she called. "Roddi." she whispered.
"Roddy?" The hallway patrolman twisted his face in confusion. "Roddy what?"
She Searched, Reaching to him for some measure of comfort. But the air remained silent. It seemed as though communication between she and Rodimus were cut off. But most likely Rodimus was swamped and simply could not answer. She was pretty much on her own. The isolation hurt.
The security officer hunched in front of her. He was at least nineteen. A slim moustache furred his upper lip. His dark eyes stared into her. The silver badge of position gleamed dimly in the corridor light. He frowned with growing impatience. "Ma'am, I recommend you cooperate or you will be suspended for violating school code number 44937D."
She stared blankly into him, through him and past him. The emptiness devoured her, leaving nothing but a body unable to operate. Her soul had been ripped to pieces and no one, absolutely no one, could put it back together. She could not respond.
He scrutinized her, a bit confused. The patrolman pressed a button on his wristwatch, keeping his eyes glued to the unresponsive girl before him. "Uh, this is Route Four calling Nest."
"Nest. What's your P.B.?" the voice came more as a squawk than a sound.
"Uh, I think we have a 67 in Drama. Require assistance."
He remained crouched before her, waiting for help. He fingered the necklace but said nothing.
The necklace was important to her . . . she was important to Optimus Prime.
But he did not love her.
Tears fell at their own will. But Rusti could not outwardly cry. Her eyes froze in place while her heart bled. Her soul felt shattered, lying in pieces and no one was there to pick them up.
The security officer kindly wiped a tear then two from her cheek. He unburdened her arms of the heavy math book and Rusti finally turned her gaze downward. She completely forgot about the math book Its cover bore proof of happier days. Scribbles and drawings marked the brown wrapping up and down. Cody signed his name in seven different styles in one corner and Rusti's half-hearted attempt lined another.
Somehow the girl recalled the pointers Optimus got one Christmas. They were marked as though they were from her. Who would get those, now? Ultra Magnus? Or maybe Roddi would give them to Jazz.
The officer stood away and communicated into his comlink. At least he wasn't shouting at her. Daniel and later Delphra certainly will. They warned her. They told her it was bad. It was all bad.
Did he hate her? Did Optimus leave because he was angry with her? What could she have said or done to keep him home? More tears came.
Someone brushed curly, unruly hair from her shoulder. The touch was enough to rouse her from the growing despair. Rusti rolled her vacant stare to the left.
That was Cody. He said nothing, offering her a grim smile. Silently he helped her to stand and guided her arm across his shoulders, his arm across her back. Rusti followed his prompting like a puppet, neither knowing nor caring where he led her. The back pack was abandoned until the hallway patrolman picked it up and followed them outside.
Someone's words vaguely entered her ears, but Rusti paid them no more mind than the third period bell, calling for class switching.
Someone ordered Cody to take Rusti to the principal's office.
Rusti couldn't care less about the damned principal. She wanted to find Optimus. She needed to find him.
Someone, please, please stop the aching!
They exited the hallway, now jammed with bodies and a billion conversations going on at the same time. Rusti suddenly felt drowsy. A bit of a nap in the sun would not be so bad a thing, wouldn't it? She sat on the bench of Cody's choosing and just stared into nothing.
The sun seemed to seep into the cold dark of her soul and Rusti actually blinked once, then twice. It was like waking groggy and exhausted from a night fraught with horrible dreams.
"Rusti?" His voice was close, but strangely garbled, as though distant, "what's happened? Would you like someone to take you home?"
Home? Yes, because Optimus . . . no. No. She managed to make eye contact. But it was difficult. Cody's brown eyes, thankfully were not like an Autobot's. Rusti didn't think she could handle it if that were the case. She opened her mouth, but honestly could not figure out what she needed to say. It must have been important, certainly.
"I was the baby bird," it really did not matter how tiny her voice sounded. "I . . . " she gripped the necklace as the five-minute bell rang. Around them the ground cleared as all the good students with uncomplicated lives and meaningless destinies, settled into their classes.
They were lucky. Their world had not dissipated. Their meaningless lives were still in tact. Shallow little people, living shallow little lives. Rusti gripped the necklace as she closed her eyes. She would have to request a leave of absence. She simply could not function. Not like this.
She forced herself to her feet as Cody called her.
It didn't matter. It didn't matter what anyone said, needed or wanted. She yanked the necklace off. The pain around her neck could not ease the pain in her heart. Optimus was dead. He didn't love her. Rusti dropped the necklace like so much litter.
Cody called her again but Rusti was emotionally out of reach. Traumatized, she walked in a world now devoid of the school, of the security guards, of the guns they fired, of the ship that hovered over the courtyard.
She would have to change her life, now. She would have to move on. Like a zombi, Rusti walked through a line of fire she honestly did not see or hear. Lasers fired back and forth. No sound, not from Human guards or Quintesson invaders. But Rusti did hear her backpack fall from the bench she and Cody sat on. In her dream-like state, the girl turned, still heedless of the danger she was in.
The backpack tumbled, spilling its contents.
That wasn't right. She had zipped it up.
Distantly the girl thought she heard someone scream at someone else. But to her, it wasn't important. She aimed for her back pack. After all, she could not leave a mess in the middle of the courtyard.
Her lipstick dropped off a sloppy pile of books and notepads and rolled several feet away.
Now, for some reason, the lipstick was important. She liked it. The girl reached for it and realized there was a great deal of noise around her. People were shouting and there was a lot of banging. But it came only by sound. The lipstick was important.
She reached for it and realized a tentacle snaked between she and her possession.
Dimly it dawned on the dazed girl that the tentacle was out of place. Her eyes climbed the extremity until she met the displeased expression of a Quintesson's Face of Deceit.
The Quint crossed another set of tentacles and sighed. "Clearly the new psychic frequency is affecting the Human population in other ways. This may complicate the present situation. But we will leave no loose ends. Take this wretched Autobot sympathizer with the other subjects. We will sort matters on the space station."
She was being abducted. Rusti glanced about for Cody, discovering him unconscious in a Quintesson tractor beam. Swiftly, she opened her lipstick and scribbled it across the ground. Then the outer world fell as dark as her despair.
* * *
The morning for Rodimus began like every other for the past month: a crushing overload in his cerebral circuitry, a foul mood
No sounds, no tracks, not so much as a footprint or a cigarette butt in the EDC sewer system.
Roddi leaned back in Optimus' chair and tossed
the report on the desk in front of him. The slim digipad spun once, landed on
the edge and slipped off. Rodimus didn't bother to recover it.Anger, frustration, fear remorse, and depression had taxed his
patience and his sleep. In fact, the Autobot leader could not remember a night he recharged without suffering from systemic
fragmentation. To make matters worse, he had the same three dreams over and over again: Cybertron had become the new body of
Unicron. The second haunted him with visions of himself drowning in Human and Autobot blood. The third was always of Optimus
Prime feeding off him like a magnetic spider.
The last dream always left Rodimus with cold surges.
For the last three weeks, his life was a walking
misery factory, as if his whole being, body and soul, was out of kilter,
ass backwards. He could not concentrate without accusatory memories raising their ugly heads to remind him of unholy deeds.
Every knife wound inflicted, every plot devised, each thought dark and cruel, every word spoken left him guilt-ridden.
He also kept thinking he heard Rusti scream. He
imagined voices that weren't there. At first the Autobot leader thought
the voices were more a manifestation of the Matrix Virus as before. He learned later such things were also symptoms of
depression. But Rusti screaming . . . he knew what that was about. It was as evil and foul a memory as the fight between he and Optimus Prime.
No, actually it was worse because Rusti was an innocent in this little dance of madness.
Just like right now.
The Autobot leader tried to shake himself of distant whispers that called for help. He felt sick.
Those damnable dreams. Rodimus recalled moving and thinking like a puppet. He couldn't stop.
Take up the sword. Stab him with it. Take up the
gun. Fire it. Run, run as fast as you can. Use all the energy it takes to
kill him. He obeyed the voice and did what he could to rip, tear, shred and maim Optimus. But Prime came back seemingly
ten-fold and kicked the crap out of him.
Rodimus sat up and rubbed his face, purging
his mind of those ghosts. Imagine being killed by someone you loved. All
either of them could do was take that anger, frustration and strife and turn it inward. It ate Optimus Prime inside. It
started on Rodimus. He wanted to abandon everything, walk away from Fort Max, from the Autobots, from the war, and never return.
Stop! Those thoughts would poison him.
-And Optimus tried to kill him then commit suicide
And in the back of Roddi's mind, something didn't add up. He was sure Optimus would not have questioned the reality of the situation regarding the Quintessons. Prime was far too gone. The depression certainly knocked him senseless. It must have for him to try and raise the white flag with the Quint-creeps. What other explanation was there?
Rodimus knew it was only a matter of time before he too succumbed to the suicidal death-wish.
He slammed his fist on the desk.
Dammit, be silent!
"Max, a bit of music, please." Maybe sound would
drive the inner demons into sleep, if but for a few minutes. Roddi drained
the cordial and waited for Kup's and Magnus' report. He had been up since four-thirty. They usually didn't report until eight.
Rodimus took to his feet, unable to sit calmly.
He cursed himself inwardly; he should have known! He should have kept an
extra optic out on Prime!
Roddi stopped fuming for a moment, his hands resting on his hip plates. To be honest, the suicide note bothered him most. Optimus wasn't much for beating around the bush in making a point, but the note was just . . . lame.
He swept up the digipad and sat on the edge of
the desk, propping one foot against its side. He brooded over the message
"SIMPLY CANNOT FUNCTION ANY LONGER. DO NOT LOOK FOR ME. I WILL NOT RETURN."
"Sludge could writer better than this!" Prime
snorted. "Bad English, broken sentences . . . Max, who found this, anyway?
Never mind, I don't think I can care." He tossed the digipad on the desk in disgust. It too slid across the surface and ended in the garbage on the other side.
Optimus Prime did not bother to leave the
Matrix. If he were indeed planning to commit suicide, he would have seen to it
that the Matrix, in spite of its condition, would have ended in Roddi's hands.
The headache pounded and Rodimus Prime wanted to punch someone or something as long as it put an end to his frustration and pain. Folding his arms, Roddi bowed his head and thought back to the night he confronted his older friend. The music chimes added a feeling of disquiet as Optimus told him about his resuscitation, about his feelings over the Rebirth; the loss of purpose.
Sunlight peered through the window behind the
chair and Roddi frowned. It was bright and unwelcome. The spring sun
seemed to mock him and the situation.
At least Cody Greydon's idea worked as far
as controlling the Virus' influence. Roddi was grateful for the young man's
help. He was far smarter than Rodimus once took him for. In fact, Cody was kind of a rare breed among his peers. He was very good to Rusti and did not try to make her remember anything. He had a good head on his shoulders and Rodimus hoped the relationship between Cody and Rusti might come to something more . . . permanent.
And while the new chip helped block a good many
effects of the virus, it only acted like a splint for a broken
infrastructural rod. The injured person in question could move, but the damage remained untreated.
And that led Rodimus' thoughts back to Optimus
and his unusual disappearance. Nobody just disappears into thin air.
Not even Optimus Prime.
His comm bleeped. "Prime." he answered deadpan.
Blaster paused, "Rodimus, we gotta call from Cascade High School."
The communications officer's voice was unusually
solemn. Roddi looked up with a start. Something was terribly wrong.
"What?" he demanded. "Has there been an accident? Is Rusti alright?"
"Hello?" came a lady's voice.
"This is Rodimus Prime, who is this?" Anxiety conquered his moodiness for the moment and the Autobot leader stood, staring at the ceiling.
"Mrs. Pollens, school principal. We tried to get her parents, Mr. Prime, but--"
"Her parents are not reachable, they work out
of town, Mrs. Pollens. I thought we had already cleared this up with the
school. Optimus Prime is her legal guardian."
"Yes. Well, school policy--"
"Mrs. Pollens." Rodimus growled, "What's going on?"
"Ehhuuuum, at approximately ten o'clock, she and another student, were abducted from the school yard. Security tried to-"
"I'll be there in ten minutes!" Rodimus cut the
comm. Terror and anger surged gave him more energy than he had in days.
But Rodimus berated himself severely. What a fool! Rusti HAD tried to get to him earlier -the screams were real! Fool! Idiot! Too many things slipped his mind of late.
Rodimus dashed out Central Command, ignoring
those who greeted him, and the two receptionists who tried to call his
attention. He transformed, practically demolishing the Southeastern Gateway and shot north toward Central City.
Cascade High School was located in the 'cleaner'
side of Central City. The neighborhood was a bit erratic; a Mormon
church stood on one side, a mental health facility on the other. Two mini markets sandwiched the facility and a book store
squatted across it. A large apartment complex stretched on the side of the school parking lot, and a well-supervised
park sat next to the gymnasium.
Rodimus slowed to the gate, meeting security and
trying to keep his temper in check. The man peered in, baffled. "What's
this?" he demanded.
"I'm Rodimus Prime. I'm here about Rusti Witwicky." the Autobot snarled.
The gate keeper nodded with a cautious step back
and raised the bar. Rodimus eased in and transformed. Police vehicles,
S.W.A.T. teams and a few reporters scattered about the grounds, searching for clues or asking for eyewitnesses. Rodimus noticed scorch marks in the main courtyard and the smell of burnt Human flesh wafted faintly in the air.
Teachers, security officers, a few students, and
a forensic team met his optics as Rodimus crossed the taped lines. Rusti's
parents, and her aunt Delphra were held back by two security guards, one of which had drawn his baton.
Toward the middle of the courtyard stood Jax
Tolomsky, checking notes and quietly talking with one of his 'boys.' He
spotted Rodimus and waved for him to approach. Rodimus ignored Netty's whines and pleas and carefully made his way around several people who outlined areas where bodies lay covered.
Prime knelt on one knee, attending Tolomsky.
"Don't look down," the Chief of police warned,
"but there's a necklace lying right next to my foot. I wouldn't let them have
it, figuring it might have radiation or something."
Rodimus nodded silently and waited for Tolomsky
to remove his foot. Then Prime waited to unobtrusively pick up the
Jax was right; the necklace was almost glowing
with radiation. "What have your boys found so far?" Roddi glanced
this way and that, noticing the bodies weren't just shot, but partially vaporized. The smell was almost nauseating.
Tolomsky laid a hand on one of his 'boys'; a
gentleman somewhere in his forties with keen eyes and a digipad in his
hand. "Rodimus, this is Lieutenant Roger Anoki. He's a missing persons specialist, ad infinitum, that sorta thing. Roge, woulda tell him what you've found?"
Lieutenant Anoki glanced at Rusti's parents
first then with a frown, looked to Prime. "Semi-organic acid trails are
everywhere here. There's traces of cold radiation scars in five primary locations. The bodies, as you see, have been partially vaporized and we have something like five or six different DNA samples that prove there were several more people here-and most of them have disappeared via some other, uhh alien or unknown technology. My best guess here is the perpetrator's goal was abduction, not out right murder."
Rodimus darkened his optics at Anoki. "What does that mean? What are you saying?" He looked from Anoki to Tolomski. "Oh Primus," Roddi whispered when it dawned on him; "The Quintessons have come up with new teleportation technology."
No one had an answer for either his
assumption or his mood. Tolomsky watched the Autobot leader until one of his
approached him with a digipad and the chief diverted his attention to the job at hand.
Rodimus brooded over the moment and the incident, wondering what he could have done.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Same old song as Optimus 'sang'.
"Well, isn't this grand?" Delphra's sneering
voice rang above the buzzing of onlookers, crowd control and workers. "The
Autobots adopt a little girl, act like she were some kind of PET then forget to use a leash and collar on her! Tell us, RODIMUS PRIME, did you tag her with one of those 'lost and found' chip implants? Did you make sure she's up to date with all her shots? Did you make an appointment to have her spaded?"
Rodimus shot her a dirty look. Keep the lips
zipped and the optics peeled, he told himself. Concentrate. Besides, he loved
that girl more than that . . . 'woman' ever could. He used to bathe her as a baby, rocked her to sleep when Netty dropped her off for the weekend to party with friends.
"Excuse me, please let me through!" a tall
graceful lady pressed her way between officer and onlooker alike. Rodimus and
Tolomski turned to greet Cody's mom in unison.
Tolomsky softly moaned, indicating a mood of
dreaded reluctance. He abandoned one of his men and approached Miss
Greydon with courtesy and sympathy.
Rodimus watched their interaction and ached for
Cody's mother as she broke down in front of everyone. A teacher beside
her embraced the grieving woman while Tolomski tried to assure her they'd do everything within their power to find and rescue Cody. But Rodimus knew that Jax knew the situation was out of city police hands.
Rodimus approached her, aching more for the two
people he too lost. "I'm very sorry about this, Mrs. Greydon," he said
softly as she kept sobbing. "We're going to do everything we can to bring Cody and Rusti back." But Rodimus himself found no strength in his own words. His only comfort was in the hope that in finding the two kids, they'd also find Optimus Prime.
"What a line of B.S.!" Delphra snapped from the sideline. Rodimus braced for more tongue lashing. "A few months ago you and Prime were trying to KILL each other, not to mention everyone on this PLANET and now you want us to TRUST you with our lives . . . our children?"
Rodimus stood to his full height. "Sorry,
Delphra, I don't have time to engage in a battle of wits with you today. I have
several missing people, three of whom happen to be personally important to me." he started to turn away, hoping to have the last word.
"Three?" Delphra egged on, "oh, you're talking
about Optimus Prime's suspicious disappearance. Rumor says he's
suspected of suicide. well, I hardly see how that's such a bad thing, Rodimus. Optimus Prime is such an old worthless,
powerless bloag, it's a wonder the Autobots don't just use him as a scarecrow in the middle of Fort Max to keep away the Quints!"
Rodimus snapped around, optics flaring with
rising anger, "THAT'S ENOUGH!" He studied her face as she closed her lips.
but her expression burned with bitter anger. He held her eyes until Netty wisely bade her sister to depart from the scene.
Netty's own shameful, fearful gaze did nothing to lessen Roddi's smoldering stare.
Daniel, who had been with the ladies, kept
silent. He watched Delphra's attempt to rouse Rodimus' ire but seemed more
interested in the investigation than his sister-in-law's crass behavior. His silence allowed Rodimus to turn back to the
problem at hand and to Tolomsky who crouched with three other investigators around another discovery on the ground.
A 'Q' was hastily scribble in frost mauve
lipstick. One investigator took a sample while another took photographs from
every angle. The third, a lady, joined them a moment later, holding a tube of lipstick the same color.
"It's Rusti's," Roddi confirmed.
Tolomski nodded. "And 'Q' for Quintesson, maybe?
I know she's a bright kid. Too bad she could not have given us the
coordinates to her destination, too."
Roddi's optics darkened again as an idea slowly
formed. "True," he agreed, "but there might be a way to track ion trails.
They could not have just disappeared without a trace." he paused a moment, staring at the mark left by his Lady Friend. It hurt because the scribble was so bad, it was obviously written in terror.
Okay, stay focused. A job needs to be done.
"Jax, keep me informed. I'll contact you if I
get anything." Rodimus left the scene, ignoring Daniel's attempt to
ask him something. He was not in the mood to deal with the Witwickys. Rodimus felt just as empty now as when he arrived,
but at least he had a bit more hope.
* * *
The second scream roused her from unconsciousness. Rusti moaned as her body complained of bruises, scratches and a cut along the left jaw. At first the world came empty and silent like her present mind. But as her senses awakened, Rusti heard things in a distance; the whirrs and hums of machines, muttering of low, ominous voices and the occasional cry of pain.
She stretched her cramped legs and lifted an arm
off a cold metal floor. It was then that she realized her left arm was
wrapped tightly in cloth and a piece of metal acted as a leveler to keep her wrist from bending.
Rusti did not recall breaking her wrist. She felt about the material until the scream sounded again, voicing a tempo of agony and a melody of loneliness. Rusti understood that loneliness and laid her broken hand over her heart. The sadness of the plight filled her and sympathetically, the girl mentally Reached for the source. Fleeting thoughts of worthlessness assaulted her and Rusti could not stop the tears. She curled into a tight ball, attempting to comfort herself. She could not remember how she got here or what happened before then. She listened hard for other tell-tale signs of her whereabouts. There was a tiny light overhead and to the far left of her. Other than that, the girl assumed she was completely alone.
And what of the scream that roused her? Maybe it was a distant sound; something of her dreams now forgotten.
There! It came again, haunting her nerves and
sending chills down her spine. Goosebumps covered her arms. Her breath
stopped. The scream sounded like that of a tortured animal or person. Its mournful wail faded back into the deadly silence.
Rusti was saddened by its disappearance. Maybe its owner died a slow, agonizing death. But after a moment, Rusti realized the scream was not something she actually heard, but sensed. She puzzled over it, momentarily forgetting her own discomfort and anxiety. where did it come from? If it was not something physical, was it from within herself? Maybe. Maybe. With a deep breath, Rusti tried to silence it-and her own growing anxiety-by ignoring it.
Sleep conquered her for a while. She drifted
between worlds, somewhat aware of her surroundings but more aware of the
noises in her head. She thought she heard her teacher's voices; Mr. Caputo's or her English teacher. But the voices came
drowned, muttering in words she could not recognize. Strange clicking interceded with mumbling and again screams and cries echoed through the lightless world.
The one scream came back to her. Rusti could not keep from weeping and she imagined herself embracing the scream itself.
"Shhh. Shh. You're not alone, now." her
eyes fluttered open, her sight distorted by tears. The fingers of her good hand
grasped cold metal floor and she wondered why she tried to quiet something as abstract as a scream. Nevertheless, the scream hushed in compliance, reducing itself to weeping.
That was not a scream that wept, now, but a
soul. That was someone Rusti contacted empathically. Wake up, girl,
concentrate. Whose soul was it? and who would torture someone to such degree?
Rusti forced herself to sit up, staring into the
bleak darkness, carefully holding her injured hand. She had no idea
she sat in a large cage. The girl hunted with all her senses. She suspected she knew who it was, but hoped she was wrong.
Rusti came close, finding the soul trapped in
darkness. She Reached to Touch it, but the person's mind withered away,
fearful. She resisted the urge to chase after; the soul had no place to go, no place to hide. Rusti slowly approached and
soothed the other Presence with sympathy and kindness.
Wearied from exposure to pain, the soul
surrendered to her persistence. Rusti was right; the soul was as familiar to her
her own. She embraced him, dispelling the terrible loneliness. But even with her love and assurance, she could not erase the depression of worthlessness.
The girl embraced herself and squeezed her eyes
tight. Fight to remain alive for the next moment, the next hour, the
hour after that. "Don't leave," she whispered.
Rusti caught her breath so fast she about choked
on air. She clumsily scooted back with her one hand, wildly darting her
eyes from one dark corner to another.
She swallowed air. "Cody?" her voice sounded too loud and she shifted to whispers: "Cody? Cody?" Cold clammy hands met hers and the girl all but jumped to her knees, wrapping her arms around a familiar person. Cody's strong arms wrapped about her cold form and Rusti choked back a sob. she sat back down, her hands about his flushed cheeks. She could not see his eyes, but searched for them anyway. "Ohmigod! where are we?"
"Calm down, calm down. You should not be moving around like that. They did tests on you and you need to rest."
"What?" Rusti again swallowed air. she gripped her injured arm, finding her heart fluttering with increasing fear.
"I don't know what kind of tests." Cody's voice
remained steady, as though he anticipated her reaction. "You came back
with a sprung or broken wrist. I did what I could."
The Scream shot through the air, sending
poisoned icicles into her chest. Rusti bent clear over until she nearly touched
the metal flooring with her forehead. She thought she was going to have a heart attack. "Oh, gawd." she could not breathe as pain pounded in the back of her neck. She thought her head was going to explode. Visions of faces, distorted and horror-stricken by eerie lighting flashed through her mind. Her limbs felt weak like hot rubber and it took a good deal of resolve to remain sitting on her knees. Quick, shallow breaths kept her from falling to darkness.
Cody's cold hand laid on the back of her neck,
bringing Rusti's mind back to the present. "You can feel it, can't you?"
Rusti trembled, forcing words from her throat, "What?"
"Whatever they're doing to Optimus Prime."
She could not believe Cody had the audacity to put a name to the soul she kept close to her heart. The girl realized she did not want to put a name to the tortured soul. It was like pronouncing a hex on the person she loved. "What?!" she choked again. "No, no!" She wept and Cody held her close. "What are they doing to him?" she sobbed. But she honestly did not want to know. She did not want to believe the Quintessons had taken them. Bastards!
"I don't know, Rus. From what I've seen, it has something to do with the space station." he replied softly.
Rusti swallowed hard, struggling to be brave. But her voice betrayed her. "What station?"
"The space station we're on. The one circling Alpha Centauri."
The shocking news gave her enough strength to
gently pull from Cody's arms. She could just see the outlining features of
his face and the lights of his eyes. "That's . . . impossible. That's four light years away. Even Quintesson technology doesn't have the wherewithal to bring us here in such a short time."
"Apparently, they do, Rus."
Pain pierced her chest again and another scream followed. Rusti realized she was now hearing the screams with her ears as well as her mind. She gripped her chest and wept. They were killing him! "Bastards!" The pain subsided for the moment and her anguish turned to anger. she narrowed her eyes at Cody, gasping. "Why? And what do they want with you?"
In answer to her question, the silhouette of a Quintesson appeared, sending shivers down Cody's back. Rusti could not bear to look; the shadow on the wall before her was enough a horror. And when the Quintesson spoke, Rusti thought she was going to throw up from anxiety.
"He is biologically perfect. You are a loose end."
Rusti privately took comfort knowing she was a nuisance to them.
"The deoxyribonucleic acid specimen we collected from the male proved positive. He contains the correct genetic sequence." The Quintesson was not speaking to them, but to a single-faced companion standing somewhere out of sight.
They were talking about Cody. Anger and fear
roused Rusti's courage and she finally faced the freak in front of their cell.
"What are you talking about?" her mousy voice managed to rise a few octaves above a whisper. Rusti refused to be embarrassed, gluing her eyes on the gloating Quintesson bastard.
The faces shifted to the yellow and blue color
Rusti identified as the Face of Deceit. "We were foolish not to
consider a closer examination on the relationship between the Human species and the electromagnetic influence brought on by the resident Autobot population on Earth. This female exhibits remarkable properties not noted before during our initial examination following the Unicronian War. Apparently, the Human genetic structure is changing due to the infiltration of the Autobot population. We did not anticipate her connection with the Matrix until studies proved the empathy she apparently shares with the current subject."
The frowning single-faced Quint peered in like
one looking at a pair of bugs. Its long tentacles whipped about like
writhing green and white snakes. "She may prove worthy of our interest. Readings indicate a higher consciousness than the male specimen. Her DNA may not be of significant interest, but if the project fails with Optimus Prime, we might try it through her."
The first Quint switched to the orange and blue
face of Judgment: "Seven point two percent probability she has direct
interface with the Autobot Matrix. Her use is minimal; we may test her psychic abilities but the body will be disposed as feed
for other subjects."
The reality of her precarious position sobered Rusti into silence. She remembered, too that Cody said they were on a space station somewhere around Alpha Centauri. There could not possibly be anyway Rodimus could come to their rescue in time. Not all the way out here.
Not without a miracle.
As the two Quintessons silently departed, Rusti
laid her head on Cody's shoulder, shivering. She thought herself bleeding
"It's weird, you know that, Rus?" Cody's voice gently brought her back from sleep.
Rusti forced her mind to return to the moment,
no matter how weary and depressed she felt. "What's that, Cody?' her voice
broke between soft tones and a cracked whisper.
"How the Quintessons treat their creations.
Assuming, of course, the Quints actually are responsible for giving the
Autobots sapient life. you know, most creators, artists or writers or people who have children, treat their 'creations' with
love, adoration and protect them from harm. But the Quintessons treat the Transformers like a little girl playing with another
girl's doll. They have no concern for their 'children' whatsoever. You said the Quintessons created the Transformers.
But they have no more love for their people than a farmer would for his cows or pigs."
Rusti silently nodded, giving the statement some
consideration until an icicle of pain sank through her head. Rusti thought she
was going to vomit. Her body fell limp in Cody's arms as she passed out.
* * *
The last thing he remembered was finding a
silent moment in the garden. Little by little, Prime began to reassemble the
pieces to the garden, the plants and his life. Nothing was going to be the same again. Not for him, for Rodimus, Rusti or their people. How much time he and Roddi had against the Virus was anyone's guess. Optimus considered the situation constantly. He weighed good and bad points but could not come to a conclusion.
He had, of course, considered alternatives to
the present situation. He could simply resign and hand the mantle of his
position to someone with a clearer head. That, naturally, meant Ultra Magnus. The problem with that scenario was it left him even more purposeless than before.
Besides, if he left, Roddi would either do the same, or kick him in the backside for giving up.
Prime knelt before a shattered planter. The life
form therein had long since died, pulled by the roots and tossed like
so much garbage. He did not even remember what plant it was. Staring at the planter, Prime thought of his life like the broken casing and all the soil spilling out on the floor. It occurred to him that like the soil here, his time was growing short. In the end, the Virus would claim his and Roddi's life and perhaps rather than wallow in misery and self pity, he should consider the beginnings of securing the future. What would he leave his people when he and Roddi died? They'd need refuge and protection. They'd need a better direction than what he had given them in the past. They needed a goal to keep moving forward after their leaders died. After all, death should not mean the end of their society.
Perhaps it was time to get back to work on Mars.
Prime's plans, however, were cut short by the sudden appearance of three Quintesson lords and two armed guards. where they came from or how they suddenly appeared without tripping any alarms, or Max knowing about it was information Optimus Prime did not have time to process. Pain sliced through him like hot acid and then the light went out.
Waking was painful. His body hung suspended high
above the floor, clamped tightly by braces and a vice-like machine that
held his head perfectly still. His sensors measured the circumference of a cavernous room, rich with oxygen. Laboratory equipment and cages of every imaginable size lined the walls floor to ceiling. Uneven lighting made it difficult to see some
objects clearly such as those life forms held in cages.
Control boards, monitors, scanners of every sort
and island tables, brightly lit and burdened with chemical beakers, dotted
the landscape. Quintessons came and left every part of the room, muttering to each other in their emotionless, quiet language.
The mechanism to which Prime was connected hummed
and vibrated with activity. He could not guess its purpose, other
than torment and while he knew Quintessons enjoyed torturing others for fun, the Autobot leader guessed he was here for a more sinister purpose. He took inventory of his systems, finding foreign coils snaking in and out of his back. Fluids foreign to his body infiltrated his systemic nocturn slips, causing painful friction. He tried to shut down all unnecessary, involuntary systems, but his internal commands were intercepted by another program currently hacking in from the machine that held him prisoner.
Prime tried to reroute his system commands and found all command codes blocked; systems inaccessible.
He was all theirs: body, mind and Matrix.
A single-faced Quintesson approached, reading a
digipad. Its eyes drifted from the pad to Prime. It moaned and murmured
in its own language and a five-face floated beside it, glancing at the pad once then peering at Prime. It switched from Deceit to Death. "Do not be afraid to speak in Autobot, Naukul. This one deserves to know what we plan to do. The demise of his species is imminent and it pleases me to inform him he will play a part in their annihilation."
Optimus did not want his people to perish. He
often wondered what contribution his people made in the vastness of
space. Were they just play-things for other species, or was there a real purpose to their existence? Why was it so
necessary to stay alive?
The Quintesson lord ran a filthy tentacle across
Prime's face plate. "What's this?" it demanded. "Why are your face
plates wet? Repulsive! You are a machine! Why do you insist on imitating organic creatures?"
A second five-faced Quint approached, staring suspiciously. "Disturbingly fascinating. Certain behavior patterns have been adapted and altered so they can act and apply action similar to that of their Human interactives. Perhaps this would eventuate in the definement of other protocols within their society such as meaningless abstract ideas like celebrating holidays or mourning for the deceased long after death."
But the Autobots were already 'committing such
notions.' The Quintessons did not know everything and obviously, some of
their investigative data was incomplete. But Optimus thought it pointless to correct their oversight. It was far better that the
less the Quints knew of his people, the better things were. Weariness assailed him again. How long were they going to keep this up?
The single-faced Quint adjusted a few controls along the machine surrounding Optimus Prime then silently signaled another pair of Quints at a table island. One of them hit a switch and a searing hot spike lanced through his back.
Optimus nearly lost consciousness. Fluids
spilled down the backs of his legs, dripping blue and grey on the floor. Pain
restricted his coolant systems and he struggled to intake oxygen. Close program and hit delete! If he were that worthless to them as a person, as a creature with a mind and will of his own, why didn't they simply erase him? But, he digressed, the Quintessons knew nothing of mercy. It did not matter whether or not he was suffering.
Optimus tried to move his arms and could not.
The bastards dismantled his hands to connect him to the machine.
Worthlessness filled his soul. He really made a mess of the situation. How incompetent could a leader be, anyway? All he
wanted was to settle matters with the Quintessons. But his efforts only proved he needed to be replaced as leader of the
Something like a soft kiss brushed against his
soul. It was a presence he did not readily recognize and he shied from it,
fearful he would emotionally fall to pieces. "I will die here," he whispered. And for Optimus, it was more a heartfelt wish than
A soft greyness enshrouded him and Prime felt separated from the present reality. The Quintessons impaled the back of his cranium casing with a hot black rod.
The world turned black.