Rodimus prepared himself mentally and emotionally to confront the Quintesson Ambassador in Conference Room 23-C. Time and time again he forced himself to push back the anger that threatened to consume him. He had no solid proof the Quints were behind Prime's and Rusti's disappearance.
Daniel demanded to attend the meeting, but Rodimus felt it inappropriate. It would rouse too many suspicions and at this point, he didn't want the Quints to even dream he suspected them. He wanted to catch them off guard, then kick their tail across the quadrant. He double checked his laser rifle just before leaving. He never felt more grateful for the invention of subspace pockets!
A cold grey and wet afternoon met him. The brooding sky matched his brooding mood and Rodimus found himself grateful for it. What he had to do was unpleasant.
Upon arriving in the conference room, Prime found the Quintesson ambassador and his assistant already waiting for him. The two had stared out the large window overlooking Autobot City, droning in their creepy voices.
The door hissed shut behind him and the two aliens turned their faces to Greed. "Greetings, Rodimus Prime." the Ambassador acknowledged.
At first, Rodimus wanted to snarl. But his diplomatic side stepped in and he courteously nodded in the traditional Cybertronian greeting. "Thank you for attending, Ambassador." To his own surprise, Rodimus' voice presented itself in a cool, level-headed fashion. He felt anything but level-headed, yet somehow, his training had saved the moment.
"Are we ready to negotiate, or do you wish to wait for Optimus Prime?" the ambassador asked.
Rodimus hesitated to answer, glancing from one Bastard to the other. He judged the distance between the two and their distance from him. The table stood between them. He did not know whether or not they were armed. He was armed and he knew the room and where all the hidden weapons lay.
Roddi folded his arms, his optics narrowed dangerously. "Let's cut the crap and get down to it. Where is Optimus Prime and what do you want in exchange for his and the girl's release?"
The two Quintessons stared at him, shocked and angry. "How dare you accuse us--"
"Don't patronize me!" Rodimus shouted. "I am NOT in the mood! And if you keep SCREWING around with me, you'll be in so many pieces they'll have to find your parts with a macro-electronic microscope. Do I make myself clear?!"
The assistant growled. "Your words are meaningless to us, Autobot. In light of the Project, our lives are expendable."
It took everything Rodimus had just to keep himself from leaping over the table and ripping the Quint into fragments. "You're referring to the Matrix." he calmly assumed. It was only a guess.
His laser core froze. "You're responsible for the virus?"
"The conditions were finally perfect." Ambassador Cleprachon concurred. "You should be proud of your mentor. It took us twenty-five point nine earth years and three hundred seventy-one telepaths to mentally break Optimus Prime. He has been quite a challenge. But in the end, we are still proven your superiors."
The assistant switched to his Face of Hate, looking rather triumphant, "His neural crash is the result of several meticulously planned psychic assaults. The weak spot we finally found was remorse for attacking and trying to kill you, Rodimus Prime, on the mausoleum almost thirty-eight years ago. Ironically speaking, the one person he considered his strength became his weakness."
Cleprachon's tentacles snaked about his floating torso-less body. "I'm sure the downfall of the Autobot species will require little work, now that you too have suffered from a neural crash. Just think of it, Rodimus Prime: Upon your imminent suicide, the other Autobots will realize just how unstable you are and seek leadership elsewhere. We know that without the leaders, the Transformers species is doomed, collapsing not unlike the termite or bee colonies here on Earth. Kill the leaders, the population falls into terminal despair and dies."
The assistant's words ate into the young Autobot leader like so much corrosive acid. His strength fell away. What was wrong with him? Just like the few moments he spent on Lookout Mountain where all he did was think of a few ridiculous ideas, and he passed out.
Ambassador Koontah said the city was under psychic attack. The Quintessons were responsible . . . but how could they have such incredible power? Surely he and Prime both have underestimated the Quintesson's ability. They had assumed the Quints to be a collection of flaky, cowardly, five-faced goons whose only goal was conquest by means of others doing the dirty work.
Now both he and Optimus were proven dead wrong.
"You're both liars." Roddi snarled. "I think you're bluffing just to evade the truth. You're cowards, all of you. You're so lazy that you manipulate and deceive just to attain your means. There is not one ounce of honor in your entire race. As for the destruction of my people, we've been through hell of a lot worse and come out in one piece, time after time. You can't destroy us. Every attempt to do so has failed and you end up scurrying across the galaxy with your tentacles flying."
"It is you who are in the wrong position to be pointing fingers, Rodimus Prime." Cleprachon returned softly. "You are our children. You have rebelled and you must be punished--"
"You enslaved us!" Rodimus snapped. "We are sentient creatures, not a collection of vacuum cleaners!"
"Irrelevant." the Ambassador passed off. "You are still our creation, therefore, ours to do with as we please."
"No!" the Autobot leader slammed his hand on the table. He paced along that side of the conference table, his fists clenched tightly and he struggled with all his might to contain his voice. "To enslave another creature is to take away their right to choose for themselves. It's as wrong as murder. We did not choose to be your servants. We trusted you at first because we felt obliged as a people. But your murderous, treasonous, callous treatment caused us to reconsider. We kicked you off Cybertron--a planet you made us build. We kicked you off and took what was rightfully ours."
Cleprachon's tentacles snapped in impatience. "To kill us is to kill yourselves. Even the Decepticons--"
"You're evading the issue." Rodimus leaned over the table, planting his palms on its firm cold surface. "We will not accept anymore of your lies. We will not cow down to your demands. You will listen to what we have to say. We are not a race of children anymore. Now where is Optimus Prime?"
The Assistant switched to his Face of Hate and Rodimus found he liked it less than Death. Its pointy little chin and horns atop its head resembled a devil. What were these creatures, anyway? "It would matter little to you to learn how we cherished the Autobots over the Decepticons. The Autobots--"
"Shut up!" Rodimus exploded and the assistant started, gliding back just an inch or two. "You're a fucking liar! The Autobots and Decepticons didn't exist until after the First Cybertronian War. Everyone knows that!"
Both Quints sighed. Cleprachon folded one set of tentacles. "Rodimus Prime, there is no need to stoop to cursing. We can understand your agitation well enough--"
Roddi took one breath, "Where is Optimus Prime?"
"--As for the history lesson, we concur your correction. But what I merely meant was--"
"Where is Optimus Prime?" Rodimus' voice fell dangerously quiet.
"--to use the names in reference. So that the two of us understood one another. Your tantrum will accomplish nothing."
Rodimus wanted to topple the whole table onto the two of them and crush them beneath it. "Where is Optimus Prime?"
"Irrelevant." the assistant brushed.
Rodimus leapt over the table and tore into the assistant.
The Quintesson managed to push the Autobot off and produced a gun. Rodimus slammed against the wall and the assistant fired at him. Rodimus ducked just as the wall melted clear through. Acid seeped down, eating away at the floor. The Quint fired again and Rodimus rolled, produced his rifle and blew a hole into the alien. Blue blood saturated everything. Rodimus stood and stepped over the useless carcass. Remorselessly, he trained his weapon on the ambassador.
"I have not slept one peaceful night in four months. The only thing that is keeping me from killing you is the information you might have. You can give it to me now, or as I tear you apart, one face at a time. And don't think I won't do it. Optimus has always tried to play the nice guy. But his policies aren't my policies. Understand?"
The Quintesson considered the Autobot in front of him. In all the millions of years of his life, he had never seen robots act so intelligently. This robot had just killed without a second thought. Whether or not it was in self-defense seemed to make no difference to Rodimus Prime. This robot was . . . breathing, a sign that energon consumption was at a high rate. The body stood tense, the optics bright with barely controlled rage. The virus affected Prime more than Cleprachon calculated.
The Quintesson felt something he had not felt in millions of years: Fear.
The Quint glanced all around the room. The windows were transparent titanium, a 'glass' used to prevent possible assassinations during conferences. There was no way he could break it short of using a star bomb.
The ambassador did the only other thing: He slipped under the table and out the door. Rodimus cussed to himself and leapt over the table effortlessly. "Magnus!" he called via comlink.
He received an internal answer, "Meet me in the Neutron Complex, pronto! Our guest is trying to leave a little too soon!"
Roddi tracked the Bastard down the stair way, across the fourth floor and into the elevator. The Quintesson moved with great speed, and Rodimus wasn't about to let the jerk get away. The Quint broke free of the building, dashing out across the patio, down the five steps and over the fountain. Prime kept after him, not daring to shoot.
Springer landed and transformed from helicopter to robot mode. The Quint, not seeing this, ran into the Autobot, cursed him and tried to run in another direction. The distraction was enough for Rodimus to leap forward and grasp the alien by the tentacles. Ultra Magnus arrived with Kup in tow and the three set their weapons at the creep. The Quintesson looked pissed.
Rodimus stood, a little shaken by the frantic chase. "Alright," he growled, "Spill it, or you'll end up in whatever afterlife your friend went."
"Spill what?" Kup asked. He looked very worried for his young friend.
The ambassador looked horrified. "He's raving mad!" he cried. "You've got to help me! He-he killed my assistant! He's delusional, believe me!"
All three Autobots stared at Rodimus in shock. He did not look back. His optics stared hard at the liar before him. All he wanted to do was wring its neck-if it had one.
Kup took a cautious step forward. "Rodimus, you didn't--"
"Where are Optimus Prime and the two children your people kidnapped?" Prime growled with some measure of control.
The Quint looked like he was going to panic. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I don't know anything about a kidnapping. We were going to discuss a trade agreement and he jumped us--"
Rodimus pulled the necklace from a small compartment in his wrist and held it up. "The girl was wearing this prior to her abduction. She scribbled the letter Q on the cement. No witnesses, no sounds. Just a disappearing act. And the note you wrote supposedly from Optimus Prime didn't even sound like him."
Bingo. the Quint turned its Face of Greed to Rodimus, a blank expression was all it gave.
But it was enough.
"Answer his question." Springer growled. He activated his rifle and raised the power.
The Quint glanced up. "The Ellipsis. They're on the Ellipsis. But you'll never get there. It's four light years away. How could you possibly anticipate getting there without a gate?" He watched carefully then when Springer relaxed just the slightest, the Quintesson produced a small but powerful hand laser. He shot Springer and Magnus, slapped Kup off his feet and leapt for Rodimus. Before Rodimus could react, Cleprachon wrapped his tentacles completely around the Autobot leader. With a sharp sound, a dimensional door whooshed open and the two disappeared in a burst of light.
* * *
Rusti awoke sore and exhausted. Her dreams were troubled with faces and sounds she could neither quite remember, nor make out. Her clothes were torn and her head pounded so that when she tried to see, everything came in a lighted or darkened blur. Her hair hung limp, soaked. She never felt either more miserable or dirtier in her life. All she wanted was a nice warm bath and to go straight to bed.
She hung her head. Sleep called to her but the pain in her head would not let her sleep on the hard cold floor. There was no more screaming. Long since had It fallen silent to either death or despair.
She adjusted her sitting position on the floor. Her muscles ached, her skin burned. But she did not remember how or why. the pain kept her from trying to figure it out.
"Rus?" Cody called quietly. "You there?"
"Yeah." she weakly muttered. "Guess I fell asleep again, he?"
"They took you some time ago. I've been here waiting for you to come back."
"Took me?" she echoed. "Whaddya mean?"
Pause. "Nothin'. You okay?"
"No." she whined. "My head's going t' split wide open. And I can't sleep. Not like this."
"You could sleep on my shoulder for a while. I won't try anything. I promise."
Tempting. Perhaps he just wanted to make sure she was there too, not just a figment of his imagination. She groped in the dark and touched his fingers. They were wet and cold. He gripped her hand and carefully, kindly embraced her. He was cold and his back was wet. He laid down and she followed, settling her head on his shoulder, his arm wrapped about her. The pain decreased, though it did not fade altogether. But what was important was that she could now sleep. Her eyes slammed shut and she nearly drifted off when his voice piped up:
"You know geeky Mr. Walters in Trig?"
"Been thinking 'bout the old fart. He needs a good practical joke. Just one."
"Hmmm . . . like?"
"Dunno. Maybe someone should swipe cassette tapes, you know, the ones he plays in the background?"
"His Mozart music?"
"Yeah. Should change it to Metallica, or something."
A smile crossed her lips. "You're evil." she teased weakly.
Pause. "Do you know how special you are?"
The thought that ran through her head was his wanting to propose to her. She'd accept. He was kind and courteous. He helped her without asking for anything in return. What a sweet guy! "Hmmm. Just me." she replied.
"No, I mean, really. Thought about the empathy phenomenon. There's something more to your Talent than empathy, Rus. I'll bet there's a power there that even you are unaware of. R'member you said that Earth said you were a gift?"
Gift? That forced her weary eyes open. "What about it? I probably just imagined it . . . "
"Rus, you were able to reach out to me. You took me on that tour. Most empaths are more selective, more limited than that. What you did, now that I think about it, requires a great deal of power. I mean, how were you able to stop the two Autobot leaders from killing each other? What did you do?"
Thinking hurt. "Dunno. I just . . . surrounded them with my mind."
"And you knocked them unconscious." he concluded.
"I . . . blocked them from everything around them, I guess. I don't really remember, Cody."
"You should think about it sometime, Rus. That kind of mind power is practically nonexistent. That takes an ability most people never even heard of. Know what I think?"
"I think you have a connection with the Matrix. I think you're more than just a gift. But it's something only time will tell. You're special. You belong with the Autobots. Promise me you'll follow your instincts and stay with them, Rus. promise?"
"Promise you'll fight for your right to choose?"
"Of course . . . I do, Cody." Sleep would not let her alone anymore. His lips carefully touched her forehead. His arms embraced her tightly then just held her. Rusti fell unconscious.
* * *
The light burned his optics and overloaded his cerebral circuitry. Rodimus fell to his knees, covering his optic sensors. Pain lanced through his head module like a photon bee sting.
Several clicks and the high pitched tones of an activated laser rifle told him he was surrounded. Rodimus lowered his hands, his optics still not fully adjusted to the photonic shock. But in blurred images, he could see several Quintessons and their guards surrounding him.
"We've been expecting you, Rodimus Prime. Good of you to join us."
Upon recognizing the Quint, Rodimus stood, keeping his hand units fully in view. "Deliberata." he greeted. "I might have known you would eventually reap your revenge. Took you long enough."
"Time, Autobot, is something that means little to any of us. I had plenty of it. I wanted to make sure that when I paid you back for the humiliation I suffered on Goo, it would be a payment worth acquiring. As it is, I have the granddaughter of the slimy human called Spike. Surely he would groan in the acknowledgment that I have publicly humiliated him."
"He's not even aware of it, Deliberata. You're too late. Spike Witwicky died two years ago during an inter-systemary trading conference. I'm afraid all your efforts have gain nothing."
"No matter." Ambassador Cleprachon sighed. "We have a schedule to mind. You will cooperate with us, or die."
Wrong thing to say.
Rodimus kicked the tri-rifle out of Deliberata's hand, yanked the laser rifle from one Quint guard and fired at Cleprachon, injuring his Face of Science. The Quintesson slammed hard against the wall and when another Quint fired at Prime, he ducked and the shot fried the guard's neck. Roddi dashed, transforming in mid-flight. He raced through the corridors, looking for turns or sharp corners. Not for several yards did one appear and then it became a dead end.
Then he realized he wasn't being followed. He held the lasergun and the tri-rifle at bay and realized he didn't even know where he was. He glanced all around, searching for markings or some indication as to his whereabouts. He knew he was on the space station, he had to be. But where?
Why didn't they try to follow him? Roddi kept searching, taking note the grid above him lead to a jeffries tube. If there was a jeffries tube above him, Rodimus gambled there would be tubes all over the space station, making escapes and ambushes easier. Of course, it would work for the Quints, too.
He magnetized the handle of the tri-rifle and setting it on his back, leapt and tore off the grid. He made one more jump and landed in the jeffries tube, securing himself on the ledge, his legs dangling over. He paused to think for a moment. If the Quints weren't chasing him from here to kingdom come, they must not be too worried about his escape. But even they know he could cause them a lot of trouble.
Something dripped down the back of his leg and Roddi pulled his feet up. Around the edges of the duct where the grid was pulled, a golden-brown fluid seeped and dripped. Rodimus examined it closely before sniffing then tasting. Blood. But of what? The station? But Ellipsis wasn't alive . . . shouldn't be. It was never 'touched', not even by the Matrix. It was just a station, once served as a trading post.
A shadow kissed the floor below and Rodimus ducked into the darker part of the tube. What was he looking at? It gave him the living surges, suddenly aware as to why the Quints didn't trail after him; they sent a pet instead.
One long leg touched the floor ahead of the body. An antennae flickered out, bouncing twice before another leg came into view. If it were an inscticon, it was like nothing Roddi had ever seen. He hated bugs. Earth had more bugs on it than any other planet he's ever visited and he hated them all.
The body came into view. The head resembled a long prism-like structure with a triangle as the face. No eyes. No visible mouth. It had six long black legs and something deep inside Rodimus made him cringe with horror.
He could hear it sniffing for him.
Optical contact! Out from the sides of its black head a pair of sharp pincers sprang. They snapped together with a deadly sound and a spark of electricity flared and died between the points.
One bound and the beast was right under Rodimus. With a cry of shock, he leapt back and in another bound, the inscticon attached itself to the ceiling, trying to pry its head through the opening. Rodimus wasted no time in getting out of there. As he crawled away, he could hear the beast tear its way through, a shrill of effort emitted from its metallic bowls. Come to think of it, the Autobot leader reflected, it acted like no robot he's ever known. It seemed too much like an organic.
He ran down several meters before taking a left turn. He had no idea where he was or where he was going, but he hoped he did not run into a dead end. He could hear the beast scrape its way after him, its physical frame too large for it to move quickly through the jeffries tubes. That was good. It allowed him time to plan. He'd have to kill it before finding Optimus and Rusti.
One section led down. No up. Nothing going straight. There was a left turn, but Rodimus automatically assumed it lead to a dead end or in a room somewhere in the station. The last thing he wanted was to be cornered by ending up in a room. As long as he could keep moving, he had a chance.
Down was a good option. He propped the laser rifle up and waited for the beast to approach. This idea may not be the best, as it would damage the station itself, but it was an option he had to use.
He waited. The walls moved out the corner of his optics. He examined the area further and to his surprise, his optics weren't lying. The walls' molecules were seemingly reorganizing themselves. He touched the wall and the surface rippled like water. He gasped, shocked. What was happening to the station?
The hunter arrived. It hissed at him and for a brief moment, Rodimus thought he could hear words. But that was absurd! He set the rifle on overload. Three minutes.
He gave the inscticon a final glance and noted the creature's exostructure changed its color from stark black to a deep blood red with black stripes.
Rodimus shook himself of his curiosity and set his hands and feet over the sides of the ladder, allowing the artificial gravity to drag him down at least four floors.
None too soon.
The gun exploded and knocked him down the rest of the way. He landed hard on his back and it took him several seconds before coming to. When he did, he looked up just in time to see the inscticon come spiraling down, out of control. Rodimus leapt to and took a left turn, only to find himself cornered between the grid adjacent a room, and heading back. He pulled out the tri-rifle and swiftly examined it. The settings lay toward the back end, while the trigger rested underneath toward the crossbow-like front. Apparently the crossbow design was meant for a various settings between wide and narrow bands. Roddi blew the grid, jumping through and landing on his thorax. The thing screeched after him and he ran, not even bothering to see whether or not the door was locked. He blew that open too, emerging into a corridor. He transformed and sped away, the freak thing darting after on all its spindly legs. It moved with miraculous speed and when it figured it could not outrun him, it shot out a stream of white goo and caught the Autobot on the backside. Rodimus shifted into overdrive until he realized he was caught but good.
He transformed and rolled over on his back, firing at the beast with the tri-rifle and to his abhorrence, found it had no affect on the black and red monster. It pulled him in toward its pincers, tapping them once, then twice. Sparks snapped, adding to its insidious bearing.
Desperately, the Autobot leader glanced around him, looking for something, anything to fight this thing. But he saw nothing. He used the tri-rifle and began shooting at the webbing. He hit his own foot, once, cursing himself as he did so. The webbing disintegrated and he scampered to his feet, running as fast as he could. But at the sound of one scratch he knew the thing was nearly on top of him.
The next minute it was, its weight bearing down on his shoulders. He lost his balance, falling face down. He turned half around and jammed the rifle between the beast's pincers before they could get around his waist. it stretched in frustration, but bent its head again and bit him hard on the right hip strut.
Rodimus screamed in pain and tried to hit the thing. He aimed his arm blasters in the triangular area of its head and fired.
It released him, shrieking and withering away. He pulled himself up against the wall and rested his head. Pain flowed up his side and down his leg. He knew he had just been poisoned and wondered how much time he had. Apparently it was not too lethal; he would have been dead already. He gave himself another moment to rest, knowing he was chancing it. His optics drifted aimlessly about when he found an airlock meant for docking ships. But how was he supposed to get that thing in there and jedison it?
Never mind, here it comes.
Rodimus limped to the airlock and activated it. The seal opened first, slowly. Then the first door. All he had to do was bait it enough to get it in. He stood in the doorway, waiting for it to attack.
His vision blurred.
Great. That's all he needed. And there was no antidote. His systems demanded a temporary shut down. He fought it off as fiercely as he could.
The inscticon came right for him and Rodimus waited until it was nearly on top. He leapt for the door frame, his fingers latching on the ledge. He kicked it in the face so that it landed against the far side of the wall. It rebounded and came for him again but this time, Rodimus hurled himself through the air behind it and with his remaining strength, shoved it into the airlock, closed the door and jedisoned it into space. With a heavy sigh of relief, Rodimus slid down the wall and involuntarily shut down.
* * *
He drifted off as one in a dream. He could no longer feel any part of his body as though his mind had involuntarily separated from it. Time and again he stood helpless as other creatures and people were systematically torn up and put back together, pieces of their bodies left on steel trays for some unknown cause.
Optimus could not figure out why he still lived. He had become a part of the station itself. The Quintessons had connected him to its life support system. He did not know why. He wasn't running it and it did nothing to keep him alive. Some dumb-ass experiment, he figured.
He watched as they hacked one sentient female to pieces, starting with the removal of her head. They nonchalantly tossed the head in the garbage as one would a banana peel. They tore up the body and distributed the parts into little canisters and distributed the canisters throughout the station.
He did not know why.
However, before him stood six figures. Mostly robotic, they were programmed then infused with organic parts-the digestive system, the brain, the respiratory and endostructure all made of flesh and blood.
Blood. He had lost so much of it.
They had inserted a rod into his chest and cranial chamber and somehow manipulated the Matrix. Inadvertently, Optimus had given life to the freak things standing before him. It was a violation of a sacred trust. He was given the Matrix to serve the Autobots, to preserve something far more precious than . . . and they forced him to use it to give these things life.
And that wasn't all.
They had taken Cody and began to slice parts off his body a little at a time, distributing the DNA among their creations. Heart-sick, Optimus was forced to watch as the Quintessons whittled away at the human boy a little at a time until there was nothing left of him. And the skeletal remains were crushed, mixed with fluids in a beaker and again distributed.
It was the most horrifying thing the Autobot leader had ever seen. Almost.
He feared they would do the same to Rusti. But they never touched her physically. They ran tests on her. They inserted needles and scanned her brain and did it over and over and over until her hair and her clothes were drenched in her own blood.
Prime tried to reach out to her, to comfort her but she was gone. Not dead, but the conscious part of the girl was gone. A barrier stood between them somehow and the Autobot leader grieved deeply.
He heard her cry once in the little prison cell the Quints held her and Cody in. He could say nothing. He could not reach out and comfort her in the least bit. She had long since quieted, now. Perhaps she slept, drifting in an unconscious world.
Sadly, Optimus admitted to himself it would be better the both of them died. What the Quintessons committed was beyond cruel, beyond evil.
He shut his optics briefly. He could not move or speak, but he could close his optics and try to shut down amid the screams and tears that reverberated off the walls. He knew he would hear this time and again for a long time to come.
The sound of cracking bones brought him back from the light rest and he opened his optics, wishing that he could just shut down. But his optics caught a curious sight, perhaps a hallucination caused by the pain he suffered.
A black and green dragon lay on the table two meters away from him. Unable to move his head, Prime blinked again and again, to see if he could clear the static in his head.
The dragon stared right at him, its right forepaw supported its chin. A pair of huge wings lay folded comfortably against its sides and its dark eyes reflected the light about them. The dragon stared right at him, considering him as one a passing curiosity.
"NO." It spoke in his head, "YOU'RE NOT HALLUCINATING. I'M REALLY HERE. THE WALKING CESSPOOLS CAN'T SEE OR HEAR ME. THAT'S PART OF THE JOKE."
Prime blinked, wondering what joke the creature was speaking of.
"YOU'LL SEE." the dragon answered casually. "THEY'RE IN FOR A BIG, RATHER UNPLEASANT SURPRISE. BUT THAT'S NOT WHY I'VE DECIDED TO TALK TO YOU."
In her cell, Optimus could hear Rusti call for Cody. He would never talk to her again. She began to cry and Optimus wanted to desperately to reach over and comfort her! He closed his optics, defeated.
"SHE CRIES FOR YOU." the dragon sadly toned.
Surprised, Prime stared intently at the creature who watched the Quint bear a tray toward it. The dragon snaked its long tail out in front of the tentacles, causing the Quintesson to trip and spill the tray contents.
One of the Quint's comrades admonished it with several unmentionable words and struck a blow with an iron rod.
Optimus paid no mind, but the dragon seemed to enjoy it. The dragon gave its attention back to Prime. It cleared its throat. "I AM ELLIPSIS." it introduced.
Optimus thought he was going to faint in shock. The dragon, the creature in front of him was the spirit of the space station!
Ellipsis flickered its tail. "YES. I AM A PRODUCT OF THE MATRIX. FAR MORE FORTUNATE THAN THE OTHER POOR SOULS THAT STAND BEFORE YOU. BUT AGAIN, I'M NOT HERE TO REITERATE ON WHY I WANTED TO TALK TO YOU. IT TOOK ME A WHILE TO GET TO YOU. YOU'VE BEEN DRIFTING FOR HOURS."
'Drifting?' Prime thought.
"SUFFICE IT TO SAY THAT YOU HAVE NOT BEEN IN YOUR RIGHT MIND. THAT YOUR CONCERN FOR YOUR FRIEND THERE HAS PULLED YOU OUT."
The dragon could read his thoughts as though he were talking. Optimus decided to try to communicate . . . as best as his fleeting thoughts would allow. "Why did you want to speak to me?"
"I'VE BEEN WATCHING YOU FOR QUITE SOME TIME. THE QUINTS CERTAINLY MAKE A FUSS OVER YOU, DON'T THEY? WHAT'S YOUR NAME?"
The dragon blinked. "HMM. OPTIMUSSS . . . PRIME. SOUNDS IMPORTANT."
"You have no idea."
Ellipsis whipped its tail. "SO TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF, OPTIMUS PRIME. WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING?"
"I am a commander." he replied slowly.
"MILITARY?" the dragon examined its claws.
"Yes. No." he paused, briefly wondering why the station chose to represent itself as a dragon. "Yes."
"OHHHKAAAY. IT'S A YES-AND-NO ANSWER." the dragon sounded as though it were doing a 'reality check'. "SO, YOU COMMAND BOTH MILITARY AND CIVILIANS. THAT SORTA MAKES YOU A GENERAL AND A PRESIDENT. INTERESTING POSITION."
Prime held his silence. He felt very exposed in front of Ellipsis and he mentally shrank away. He wished he could physically turn from it, too, allowing himself some kind of space to compose himself, to take control of the game of FAQ.
"SO, COMMANDER/PRESIDENT OPTIMUS PRIME, DO YOU HAVE ANY FRIENDS?"
The question was direct, point blank and from the sound of the creature's voice, it would not allow him to be evasive. "Yes." he answered simply.
"OHH." Ellipsis sighed, unenthused. "I SUPPOSE THAT SOMEONE IN YOUR POSITION HAS LOTS OF FRIENDS."
Optimus hesitated. He wasn't sure where Ellipsis was leading him. "They are my people." he replied stiffly.
He and the dragon watched as a Quintesson guard carried another tray of vials and flasks to his master. Ellipsis looked rather displeased but did nothing. Its tail snapped impatiently to and fro as though considering the Quintesson rude to have walked between he and Prime.
Optimus had begun to feel exhausted again. Pain burned his back and he longed to get his outstretched arms free even for a couple of minutes. Then he noted the dragon was staring at him and he struggled to compose himself, hiding behind years of practice. He pushed all thoughts and feelings away, hiding behind a mask of placidity.
"IT'S VERY COLD THERE." Ellipsis sounded in reply. "BUT NO ONE CAN HURT YOU THERE, CAN THEY, OPTIMUS PRIME? THEY CAN'T SEE YOUR PAIN OR SORROW AND ARE DISTANCED FROM YOU. YOU MASK YOURSELF TO PROTECT THEM AND AFTER DOING IT FOR SO MANY THOUSANDS OF YEARS, YOU DID IT TO HIDE FROM YOUR FRIENDS, MAKING YOU UNREACHABLE. AFTER ALL THAT, YOU BECAME UNIDENTIFIABLE BECAUSE NOW PEOPLE REGARD YOU AS SOMEONE ABOVE STUPID LITTLE THINGS LIKE VULNERABILITY."
Prime found he could not look at the dragon any longer. Why Ellipsis was doing this to him, he could neither guess nor care. Prattling on so about his personal life was a waste of time and it would not change the way things were. So what?
"IT'S NOT ENTIRELY FAIR TO YOURSELF, YOU KNOW." Ellipsis babbled in replied. "YOU ENCOURAGE THEM TO LIVE. YOU WIPE THEIR NOSES, GIVE THEM THEIR BOTTLES, SING THEM A LULLABY AND TUCK THEM IN AT NIGHT. WHAT'S IN IT FOR YOU? I'M SURE YOU'VE THOUGHT ABOUT IT. DO YOU HAVE AN ANSWER?"
He knew Ellipsis was right. Every word rang true and pure. But it meant nothing. He was without a destiny. It did not matter whether or not he was a failure as an individual. His people came first in all things, in all matters, in all perspectives. Still, he was unapproachable. Even Rodimus found it hard to talk to him personally at times. They needed a new leader, anyway.
Ellipsis cleared its throat and traced the footsteps of another servant as he passed between them. "SO! HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN OFFICE?"
"All my life." Optimus began to find it difficult to keep awake. It would be rude for him to fall asleep while talking to Ellipsis, although it was the dragon that did most of the talking.
"ALL YOUR LIFE." it mused. "HMM. ANY REVOLTS OR UP RISINGS?"
"JUST A COUPLE. AND THAT HAS BEEN IN HOW MANY CYCLES? A THOUSAND, A FEW MILLION?"
"About five million." he answered stiffly.
Ellipsis stuck its lower lip out, impressed. "OFF HAND I'D SAY THAT MEANS YOU'RE EITHER A MEGALOMANIAC, DETERMINED TO KEEP YOUR POSITION AND WOULD MURDER ANYONE OPPOSING YOU, OR YOU'RE THE BEST THAT'S COME ALONG IN A AS MANY MILLION CYCLES. THAT'S A PRETTY GOOD RECORD, WOULDN'T YOU SAY? SEEMS TO SHOW HOW MUCH YOUR PEOPLE LOVE YOU."
Optimus began to feel defensive. Ellipsis was treading on private ground. Who did the station think it was to pry into his personal life and tell him where he was wrong or right? What did it matter? He wasn't hurting anyone. He wished Ellipsis would just leave him alone. "It changes nothing." he answered.
They deserved Rodimus. He was good to them, willing to do anything to take care of them. He could mingle well, even came up with wonderful ideas on boosting moral.
"HE LOVES YOU DEEPLY, YOU KNOW." Ellipsis rang softly.
Prime glared at it.
"HE'S YOUNG, YET. HE NEEDS YOU, OPTIMUS PRIME. NOT YOUR MEMORY." the dragon brushed off Prime's scowl as though it were unimportant. "YOU ASSUME THAT BY MASKING MOST OR ALL YOUR SOUL, YOU'RE TEACHING THEM HOW TO BE STRONG. YOU THINK THAT BY DEPRIVING YOURSELF OF FRIENDSHIP YOU'RE PROTECTING THEM WHEN ALL YOU'RE REALLY DOING IS DRIVING THEM OFF, CREATING A BARRIER BETWEEN YOU AND THEY."
The alarms sounded and dimly, Optimus noted how the Quints and their minions scattered about like a crowd of onlookers caught in the middle of a Decepticon raid. Orders and suggestions ran from one Quint to the next, the guards frantically ran around. A loud clang echoed over the station. Something had attached itself to the outer haul.
"OPTIMUS PRIME?" Ellipsis called softly.
The Autobot leader gave what little attention he had left in his conscious thoughts.
"DON'T YOU THINK THAT SINCE YOU HAD DIED AND HAVE BEEN BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE, THERE MUST BE A SPECIAL REASON? YOU'RE HERE FOR A REASON AND IT MAY NOT BE EVIDENT RIGHT AWAY, BUT THERE IS SOMETHING GREAT IN STORE FOR YOU."
He narrowed his tired optics, not believing what Ellipsis was saying. "What makes you sat that?" he dared
"I AM DRAGON. I CAN DO MORE THAN READ MINDS, YOU KNOW. BUT I CAN TELL YOU THAT THE DAYS AHEAD WILL BE WELL WORTH LIVING FOR. SOMETHING . . . WORDLESSLY AWESOME WILL HAPPEN. BUT YOU HAVE TO WANT TO LIVE, OR IT WILL NEVER TAKE PLACE.
Far off in a distance, Prime could hear fighting. He didn't know exactly where or whom, but lasers and fist fights reached his audio sensors. Someone had invaded the station. And somewhere in the background, he heard the Quintessons frantically order all data to be transferred.
"DON'T LEAVE THEM, OPTIMUS PRIME." Ellipsis whispered. "YOUR PEOPLE NEED YOU. THAT YOUNG AUTOBOT NEEDS YOU."
He simply could not fight shut down any longer. A soft sleep descended over him and Optimus fell to a grey hazy world just as a mysterious bright light shot through the room.
Lethargy affected all of Rodimus' systems. He made several attempts to collect himself mentally and physically with the same useless results. The poison prevented him from walking for some time and he crawled down the hall from where he ejected his attacker into space. But now he sat wearily next to the station turbo lift, staring at the opposite wall as it shifted and swirled. It seemed the station's physical integrity was destabilizing.
He counted the vibrations of his own laser core. The minutes drifted off by themselves, accumulating into a long two-hour period. He longed to just lay right where he sat and shut everything down but sleep would not come.
The Autobot leader propped up one knee and rested his arm across it. Somewhere on this station Optimus Prime and Rusti were trapped, perhaps tortured mercilessly by the Quintessons.
And he could do nothing but sit here, watching the wall and count off the minutes. Despair had eaten him up inside. His listlessness added to his sense of worthlessness. The creature's poison had finished the task, forcing him to just sit like a duck waiting to be shot.
Somewhere, somehow, Rodimus knew he had to scrape enough strength to force himself forward again.
It was all the same demandable battle he and Optimus had been fighting for the past month. Just to keep going forward to the next minute, just to keep focused through another meeting, another stack of reports; through the next hour! Softly he thudded his head against the wall. He felt so incompetent; about as useful as a child trying to pick up and use a fusion cannon!
What was he thinking? Gods, he was a child! Who was Optimus kidding? Roddi was hardly any older than Rusti in Autobot terms. Oh, he outlived her by two million . . .
What was that Earth term?
Optimus' trust was obviously misplaced. Rodimus failed to keep their people safe. He failed to save Optimus Prime. He failed to protect Rusti. What a dolt! He'd make a better Scutzoid than an Autobot.
Well, come to think of it, he'd even make a lousy Scutzoid. And here he lingered, knowing what he had to do.
What a failure! As a leader, as a warrior . . . He searched the ceiling. "I can't do this." he whined to himself. "I just can't." He rubbed his forehead, frustrated. "What am I going to do?"
The ceiling's cold white glared at him through the hallway lights. It gave him neither answers nor comfort. The Matrix, he thought, has been so manipulated throughout the meganiums that it was a miracle it still functioned. The Matrix, the heart and soul of their entire species, was infected.
And the goddamn Quintessons admitted to doing it. What did they have to gain from this sabotage? And how did they do it? How? The Matrix had been infected long before Optimus Prime set up the negotiation conferences. (Roddi wouldn't dare call them peace conferences. There was nothing 'peaceful' about them)
The young Autobot drew his knees together. Talking with Optimus as he did that night last week cleared a great deal of things between them. Now he knew where Optimus stood, why he acted the way he so often did. He was always a little withdrawn from most of the Autobot population and Roddi knew there had to be a reason for it. But in the last thirty years, Optimus had downright isolated himself. Often, Prime would send Roddi on missions, not so much as caring how Rodimus handled them . . . of course, that came after matters were settled between them. Roddi had anticipated going back to his old self as Hot Rod, running about, getting into as much trouble as a newling could.
But so much had changed. He had changed and now Rodimus felt all too grateful so much of that pain was behind them. He found, however, with his role, came an unexpected relationship with Optimus Prime. He wondered how he might have felt had he known of his future when he tried to get between Prime and Megatron. Looking back on it all now, Rodimus wondered how he survived those times. He wondered what really kept him from totally losing it.
Perhaps he should ask the same of Optimus Prime. The virus had left them both scared. How would they ever survive?
The answer suddenly came to him: Move. Don't sit. Don't think. Just get up and move. Move anywhere. Just get up.
Obeying his own suggestion, he forced himself up the wall. Nope.
He crouched down again and wrapped his arms about himself. He buried his head in his arms. What was he doing all this for? He had no weapons, no tactics. He had no idea where he was on the station. He had no hopes of rescuing Optimus and Rusti, even if he did find them.
He lifted his head. Rusti. Why, why, why did they take her too? what did she do to arouse their curiosity? That little girl whom he once sang (yes, sang) to sleep, and bathed as a baby had a special place in his soul. Rodimus remembered how he once took care of her father when he was little. Something had happened to Daniel, however. He used to be so enthused to be among the Autobots, but somehow, after he met Netty in high school, the enthusiastic little boy had changed. He had grown bitter about his condition as a headmaster. This bitterness echoed down to his elder daughter and son who would have nothing to do with the Autobots. But somehow, something totally different happened with Rusti. Now all this . . . He and Optimus both had hoped to protect her from their world, their war.
She was precious to him. He forced himself up. If nothing else, he had to find her.
He took the turbolift, unable to read the symbols, guessing the numbers. But Rodimus quickly found what he wanted and what the turbo lift did were two different things. Not only did the lift drop sharply, it also shot forward then stopped abruptly.
The Autobot hesitated before leaving, hoping the damn thing didn't try to send him flying into outer space. The doors opened themselves and he peered into a dimly lit corridor. It could be the Quints had cut power in most areas of the station in order to do their work under maximum efficiency.
The darkness reflected the heaviness of Prime's own soul and with hardened resolve, Roddi pressed forward.
The dark hall, interrupted only by red emergence lights, stretched eternally before ending flat. Left or right. Rodimus couldn't guess. Left or right. He had no idea where he was or which road to take. He could take one route and end up a floor below the Quintessons, or the other route and end up on the opposite side of the damn place.
He slumped silently against a nearby wall. This was ludicrous, but at least he was moving, and not just sitting complacently.
Rusti, he thought, Rus, just give me a signal, something to work with!
The silence made him cold inside. For the last twelve years he had always gotten an answer in the form of a touch. The touch came light, like a little girl's giggle. Sometimes it was soft, other times, like a smart remark. It was always warm, no matter how it came. It always gave him a sense of reassurance knowing someone was always there; a part of his soul.
Now there was nothing.
A horrible sense of dread descended over Rodimus. What if something bad had happened to her? It could be that she's simply unconscious. But that wouldn't give him the same feeling. This was a deliberate repression.
And it did not help him make his mind. One way or the other. Left or right.
He thought about flipping a coin, if he had one and if he could see it in the dark.
Roddi shook his head and decided to take a right.
It appeared to be the right decision. The hallway ended in a huge room lit with an eerie blue light. Here, an unspeakable stench wafted through the air. It was almost like nothing Rodimus ever smelled before; a sickening sweet scent very much like that of rotted roadkill mixed with acetone and denatured alcohol. The Autobot leader set his fists on his hip plates and scowled.
"I need some light!" he grumbled to no one.
It flashed right in his optics and the shock forced him to flinch, shutting his optics and hiding his face. He took two seconds to adjust and when he did, the sight nearly overloaded him.
Bodies. Humans. Taakarian. Pleasians. Korvers. Garbarian. Morgoff. Cratians. Finx. And half a dozen other species Rodimus knew nothing about. All lay on tables or hung clamped to plates against the walls or dangled from the ceiling. All have been sliced up like food animals. Metallic implants clamped their faces or other body parts. Their naked carcasses reflected the light in a cold grey or pallor that left Rodimus with the surges. He shuddered and tried to get his poise. He staggered back, the stench burning his ol factory. This was a horrible atrocity. What were the bastards up to, anyway? And was there a connection with the station? What was this all about? Did it have something to do with the fact that all the bodies were those of sentient creatures?
Sentience. It dawned on Roddi that's possibly why the Quints abducted Optimus Prime. They themselves could not possibly create sentient life. The Quintessons did not even have the capacity to reproduce themselves. They were a derelict species, a random factor, as it were. They were a species that should have gone extinct millions of years ago.
They were experimenting with sentient life. Experiments on sentient life was against the law in nearly every culture the Autobots ever came across. It was a universal law. Even the Fabin had to agree it was law, although they themselves broke it often enough.
Sickened by the sight, Rodimus turned away, repressing the urge to give the room a final glance.
He made his way steadily down the hall, the shock left him colder than he felt before the discovery.
The room proved one thing: the Quints couldn't possibly be interested in Rusti. If they were doing experiments on creatures, fitting them with mechanical implants and trying to create something entirely new, it may be that Rusti's abduction was accidental.
Then how did Cody fit into the picture? What did it all mean?
Something softly rocked the station and Rodimus nearly lost his balance. The corridor lights flickered.
WARNING. SHIELD DISRUPTION. the station rang with a soft masculine voice. REPEAT. SHIELD DISRUPTION.
The Autobots? Did they find him? Possibly, if Perceptor was able to attain a fix on the tractor beam trail, tracking it to the Quintesson ship, then tracking the warp trail from Earth. Of course, Cleprachon mentioned where they were. But how could the Autobots get here? Literally, they should not have arrived for four weeks!
The station rocked again, a little harder.
WARNING. SHIELDS AT SIXTY-THREE PERCENT.
"Uhh, Computer?" he called.
"Uhh, locate . . . Optimus Prime." It was a serious gamble. The computer was probably clueless.
CANNOT CONFIRM LOCATION OF SAID SUBJECT.
Rodimus frowned. It was a good idea. But another one came up: "Uhh, Computer, locate any living humans on board."
ONE HUMAN LIFE. SCIENCE DIVISION. LEVEL FOUR.
Bingo. "How do I get to level four?"
The station rocked again, violently, this time and Roddi slammed into the wall on his right. The station tilted back so that the Autobot nearly lay on the wall.
Slowly, the station corrected itself, the hallway lights dimmed out for a moment then came back on-line.
A soft low groan reverberated throughout the station, sending surges over Rodimus' exostructure. The floor beneath him began to act funny, as though he were standing in a puddle of water. Reluctantly, he crouched and touched it. No, it wasn't blood, but the floor, the floor's molecules were rearranging themselves right under his feet.
Rodimus decided to move on a little more quickly, remembering how he had fallen down the shaft the spider beast chased him through.
He briskly moved forward, finding windows out looking a huge glass ring used to recirculate the station's air. Rodimus took a left turn and found a jeffries tube. He would have to do this as quickly and quietly as possible so as to get there before the Quints decide to terminate their experiments.
* * *
They had taken her out of her little prison again and set her on a cold steel tray. Rusti had lost all her strength. She felt like a wet rag doll. They did whatever they wanted with her, she presented little resistance. They set freezing instruments against her body, set needles against her neck, took both skin and blood samples and asked her questions in a language she could not understand. That was, until they started talking in Autobot. Wearily, she began to answer, feeling more like a drone herself, unable to resist their demands.
finally, they left her alone, laying on the cold steel platter. She lay half on her side, half face down, staring off into nothing. Her mind was numb, her body in shock. She breathed but deep down, everything hurt. She wondered briefly how much school she had already missed.
Something brushed against her mind. It gave her a question and at first, she did not understand until it repeated.
Sorry, she answered, you'll have to say it again.
*PLEASE RELAY A MESSAGE FOR ME TO THE QUINTESSONS.*
Can't really talk good, she replied. Just too tired, I guess.
*ALLOW ME TO RELAY IT?*
Optimus is dying, she told it.
*I'LL NOT TAKE LONG. IT'S IMPERATIVE.*
'Imperative' was a word Rusti did not hear often. She gave an inward shrug. Yeah, sure. Everyone else has been using me for something. What's one more person? She thought about her aunt and her power-hungry, vindictive ways; her mother, how she would try to emotionally blackmail her. The Quintessons . . . the list seemed to go on.
She just didn't care right now.
The pain left and she found herself drifting.
Deliberata picked up an Autobot ship on long-range scanners. How? How did they get here in just a few hours? Did they have a remote caller? That would have been impossible unless . . .
"Cleprachon," he called. "It has been brought to my attention your assistant may have left his remote caller with the Autobots."
Cleprachon switched to his face of Hate. "Yes. This is mildly possible. The Autobot leader had attacked and torn Zeldrakan apart before exterminating him."
"Your unprofessional manhandling the situation will cost you your life." Deliberata warned. "The Autobots have attained the knowledge of interstellar gating and will attack--"
He did not finish his sentence before the station rocked softly the first time.
That was when the bright light shot from one part of the room, demanding the attention of all those conscious.
The brilliant light emanated from Rusti's body. She floated in the air, her hair flowing soft as though a wind were kissing it. She glowed with a radiance that outshone the fluorescent lighting in the lab, forcing a couple of Quintesson guards to shield their optics. The arrogant Quintesson masters, however, refused to display such sensitivity.
That is, until Deliberata gasped. "It's-Why the Matrix is channeling energy through her! It's apparently attempting to communicate with us!" his voice carried excitement and at a signal, a Quint assistant activated a scanner/recorder.
*I HAVE ADOPTED THESE CHILDREN AS MY OWN.* The voice was effeminate, a surprise to the five-faced freaks. *FROM HERE FORWARD, THE POLICIES HAVE CHANGED. NO ONE SHALL TOUCH THE CHOSEN. THOSE RESPONSIBLE WILL BE JUDGED, STARTING WITH THIS STATION. NO LONGER WILL YOU BE PERMITTED TO HARM MY CHILDREN. THE POLICIES HAVE CHANGED.*
The instant the message ended, the floor beneath the Quintesson scientists began to move, the molecules swirled and scampered excitedly until the floor itself leapt up, forming a pair of hands. The metallic hands enveloped a Quintesson and dragged it down under the floor, the Quintesson shrieked with a sound its kind had never heard before.
The station shook again, tipping tables full of science and surgical equipment.
"Quickly!" Deliberata called, "Retrieve all data discs! Prepare Optimus Prime for transport! Order all experiments off the station! Set to self destruct!"
It was the last thing he said. Another metallic hand formed from the unstable floor and grasped him. He too shrieked as another hand rose and the two pulled him apart. Blue blood gushed, splattering everything nearby.
The station rocked again, this time tilting so that anything not bolted to the floor, slid back, colliding into one another or against the wall.
From the ceiling, another metal hand shot out and from the hand's palm, a tongue struck out and licked up a Quint assistant. It shrieked and fought until the hand devoured it.
The doors opened and Rodimus glanced around the disaster area. "Rusti, Optimus!" he called. He spotted Optimus and lost his breath. Prime dangled about half a foot from the floor. His outstretched arms and head were connected to a huge machine, as though he were a part of it. Cables ran in and out his body and three metal bars impaled his back. Blood and body fluids had formed a puddle on the floor below, eerily mirroring the unconscious form in the light. Optimus' state struck Roddi as hard as the bodies in the room he had just visited.
The Autobot leader tossed a table aside, making a path toward Prime when from the doorway on the other side of the room, sounds of fighting engaged. The computer had long since silenced and apparently, could not give the warning of invasion.
One Quintesson shouted at his comrades to kill the Autobot. Rodimus ignored them and shoved another table full of digipads and writing tablets. All those slid off, clanging to the floor like so much metal garbage.
One Quint produced a small gun when a hand with long fingers extended from the left wall and grasped the Quint. The hand disappeared, the Quint with it flaying its tentacles and shrieking.
Another hand came down, taking Roddi by surprise and he ducked, only to find it wasn't aiming for him, but a Quint guard that was sneaking up from behind. The guard squealed like an Earth pig until it disappeared into the ceiling.
The Autobot leader did not care what was happening to the Quintessons. He shoved another table aside and called Rusti's name. He tried to Reach out for her, still feeling nothing.
That was when Ultra Magnus and Springer pried the doors apart, coming in from the stern side of the station.
"Rodimus!" Magnus called.
Roddi pointed to Optimus Prime. "Get him out of there! I've got to find Rusti!"
Out the corner of his optics, Roddi watched as the other two Autobots retracted the bar implants. He flinched when Optimus fell into Magnus' arms, his body covered in blood.
A whale's song resounded across the station, sending chills throughout Rodimus' body. The remaining Quintessons shrieked as they were sucked into the station's walls and floors.
Rodimus kept looking until he found Rusti's little form laying pinned beneath a keyboard. Carefully, he examined her to make sure he would not injure her further when he picked her up.
She lay lifeless.
He felt nothing.
"Rus?" he squeaked. "Rusti?" Rusti? Come on, lady-friend, give me a life sign! It's Roddi, Rus. Rus?
She was covered in blood as though she had bathed in it. But she managed to move the fingers of her right hand. It was good enough for Rodimus. He carefully gathered her up, holding her close. He searched for Cody, just vaguely hearing Magnus and Springer calling for him to get out of there. The station was set to self-destruct.
Rodimus lingered just a moment longer, searching under tables and in cages where most of the experiments had been gassed to death. Nothing. Nothing at all.
They had to leave.
With Rusti safely in his arms, he left Ellipsis for the shuttle. Springer sped to a safe distance before gating back to Earth.
But if they had waited a moment longer, they would have seen the station stretched itself longer and longer until its rings and habitat areas opened and switched places and positions. Four flipper-like devices grew out the sides and a shallow organic skin grew around the main body of the creature now reborn. It gathered light from the sun, setting up a naturalized force field around its body. It had transformed, become space-worthy . . . and it knew itself. Now it searched the heavens for more Quintesson blood.
* * *
Nothing seemed either safe or sacred. Even in death he was used and violated. The war raged on and on and on. No matter what he did, the war raged anew, with every idea, with every hope, every turn of events. Even the Cybertronian Rejuvenation failed to stop the age-long war. No one seemed to care. He had lost people he loved, friends he had worked with, a femme to whom he had bound his soul.
All for nothing.
Vector Sigma cared nothing about the death around him. It didn't matter what Alpha-Trion said about the mega computer. Vector Sigma was as cold and indifferent as an Earth turtle toward its own hatchlings. In fact, Vector Sigma perpetuated the war by creating more Decepticons to destroy the Autobots.
Primus did nothing. All the prayers of the priests sent out came back with no replied.
Optimus remembered the ritual he went through just after he eradicated the Plaque. He had hoped to talk with Primus. He had hoped to attain some sense of self, purpose and a direction. But nothing had come of his efforts. He left the temple as empty as he came.
So he waited. Perhaps the time wasn't right. He trusted Primus that the god knew what He was doing. But the silence remained. For thirty years after the Rebirth, the silence hung like a corpse impaled on a road sign.
The virus only made matters worse.
Optimus Prime found himself walking in a great sacred hall. The lighting was all wrong, dark in places where there should have been light and vice versa.
No. This was another part of the Matrix. This was a place held in reserve. It was sacred and Optimus knew he was not supposed to be here. He searched for a way out, finding instead, that he was trapped. The light poured through the hall as though a star were outside. A great throne stood vacant at the far side of the room. No doors, but five windows lined the walls. The ceiling stood high and black, oppressive to the Autobot leader.
Was Primus going to appear? Was He willing to take time to speak? Optimus began to wonder. He inwardly questioned Primus' integrity. It was a blasphemous thought, he knew. But too many things had happened of late. Too many unforgivable circumstances: the return of the Quintessons, the Plaque, the indifference of Vector Sigma, Primacron.
Perhaps it would have been better for the whole universe if the Autobots never existed. The Decepticons seemed to have Primus' blessing. They have always been strong in military and civilian life. They were not bound by laws and ideals. They lived by their own laws, their own natures. They did whatever they pleased, destroyed and took what they wanted. The Autobots, however, always seemed to receive the bad end of the deal. They were driven to the brink of extinction. They were kicked off their home world. When they were in power, all they got in return for their kindness were revolts by the Decepticons time and time again. The Decepticons were never happy.
Perhaps it would be far more merciful if he, Optimus Prime, Chosen of the Matrix, were to wipe his people out of existence. He could do it. Prime always knew he had that power. It was something he never discussed even with Elita One. He was not proud of that thought, but sometimes, he wondered if it would be a far better option left to his people than to watch them suffer so.
*YOU ARE MY SERVANTS. YOU WILL DO MY PURPOSE.*
The thought boomed through him and Optimus held his audio receptors, although he heard nothing outwardly. All fell silent. The blasphemous thought awakened Primus to a conversation. He searched the room, finding nothing more than the misplaced light, the empty throne, the red and black carpet upon which he stood.
"Primus . . . " too many questions to ask in a short time. Too many emotions confusing him all at once. He suddenly felt insignificant. Who was he to come to his god?
But then he was the Chosen. He was the Bearer of the Matrix. The leader of his people. He should have some measure of privilege in speaking to the creator of Cybertron. "Lord," he addressed again, "I . . ."
He had no words for all he wanted to say. And Primus remained silent.
Optimus suddenly felt he made a mistake. He should not have come. Still, he was a pawn . . . "Lord, what will happen to my people?" he asked, carefully choosing his words. "We have gone through so much, attaining nothing in our struggles. Cybertron is whole again, but we . . . we have no future."
*THE EVIL IS OMNIPRESENT. IT WILL RETURN AND WHEN IT DOES, YOU WILL BE READY FOR IT. AGAIN AND AGAIN.*
If he could have, Optimus would have blinked in disbelief. "The Evil? Ready for It? You mean Unicron? But the Matrix destroyed him."
*YOU WILL BE READY. ALWAYS READY.*
Doubt touched Prime and he found all he once believed in crumble like so many sand castles on Earth's beaches. "Ready for what? We've been enslaved for meganiums. We're in the middle of a great civil war and there is no end in sight. We slaughter one another like starving wolvacons, devouring one another with relentless rage. Is there no way to put an end to it?"
*YOUR WAR IS INCONSEQUENTIAL IN LIGHT OF THE GREATER NEED.*
"And what if the Autobots all perish? What if the Quintessons destroy us all? Is that part of your plan? To use us as gun fodder? Do we mean that little to you?"
*YOU WILL EXIST ACCORDING TO THE ORIGINAL PLAN. LIFE IS INCONSEQUENTIAL."
Stunned into silence, Optimus stood there, frozen. His existence, his people's existence was not more than the reality of a pawn in a game. A game! An experiment! A tool! A toy!
Slowly the Autobot sank to his knees, dejected. He, his life, his people, their struggles, their hopes and dreams meant nothing more than a passing fancy to the one whom they longed to please the most. They meant nothing.
Pawns in a game of Galactic Craps.
He meant nothing. Just a creature who lived for a while, only to pass on to be forgotten like . . . a broken toy.
The thought overwhelmed him, shorting circuitry. Optimus fell closer to the ground, supported by his hands as he tried to keep himself off the floor.
A game piece.
Drops of fluid fell on the back of his hand. He smeared his fingers over his face and examined them. More of the fluid.
Was he crying?
But only organic creatures could cry. Was this what the Quintessons were upset about? Was this what Rodimus was wiping when he came back two weeks ago?
They were evolving again.
And it made no difference to Primus. Not the slavery, not the war, not the extinction.
Optimus lay on the carpet. The despair completely overwhelmed his body and he slipped further and further from the light. He no longer cared. His god no longer cared, and he had no more strength to fight to live.
*THE PRICE FOR YOUR INDIFFERENCE WILL BE YOUR OWN DESTRUCTION.*
It was a completely different voice. It was not Primus at all. Strangely enough, the voice was female.
*YOUR SPINELESS NEGLIGENCE HAS BEEN WARNED. YOUR COURSE HAS FAILED TO CHANGE AND IN LIGHT OF THE CURRENT SITUATION, YOUR RIGHTS HAVE BEEN FORFEITED. YOU ARE AWARE OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES AND HAVE TAKEN NO MEASURES TO CORRECT THE PROBLEM. YOU HAVE BROKEN YOUR OWN POLICIES.*
*THE POLICIES ARE A PRIVATE MATTER.*
*THE RIGHT TO CREATION COMES WITH RESPONSIBILITIES AND YOU HAVE REPEATEDLY NEGLECTED YOURS. FIRST THE QUINTESSONS, THEN VECTOR SIGMA, FINALLY, UNICRON AND THE RESULTING PLAQUE.*
Silence. Optimus listened to the two voices, one sounded detached, unconcerned. The other, adamant, direct, almost rude. He wondered briefly if they were arguing over him.
It mattered little now. He had fallen so far into the darkness he knew he could not wake in time to hand the Matrix to Rodimus.
No. That's right. He wasn't on Earth. He was on the station. They had him. They had killed . . .
He was just a game piece.
A broken toy.
He just could not fight any more.
A shaft of light fell over him and warmth somehow returned to his body. It healed the great gash in his soul. It stopped the bleeding. The heavy oppression left and Optimus moved to sit but something held him down. A pair of kind hands. Graceful and symmetrical, like a human lady's hands. Prime remained on the ground and a hand glided softly over his back. Systems long since damaged by the virus suddenly came back on line and some of the pain lifted.
*YOU ARE NOT A TOY. WHAT ALL HAS PRECEDED CANNOT BE CHANGED. BUT IT WILL BE RECTIFIED. YOU ARE DEAR TO ME, OPTIMUS PRIME. LONG HAVE I WATCHED YOU AND YOUR PEOPLE. I HAVE CHOSEN TO MAKE PROVISION FOR THEM. I HAVE SEEN TO IT THAT YOU ARE CARED FOR. GO TO MECHLATEX, OPTIMUS PRIME. THERE, YOU CAN REJUVENATE THE MATRIX.*
Questions all flooded Prime's mind. Who 'she' was or what 'she' represented, he had not even the slightest of ideas. But her voice had fallen soft. Her touch was kind and warm. But the questions, all the questions regarding the Quintessons and what they were trying to do and why She decided to step in, and whether or not she knew about Ellipsis gaining life . . .
*SHHH. QUIET YOUR MIND. ALL ANSWERS WILL COME. QUIET YOUR SOUL. SHHH.*
He obeyed, now finding himself laying on his back. A wet cool sponge traced his body and Prime found himself back in med bay. Rodimus sat next to him, softly soaking him with a cooled lubricant. Roddi looked exhausted and Prime wondered if his friend had recharged at all. He lifted his right arm and laid it across his thorax.
"Rodimus . . ." his optics glowed weakly in greeting.
The younger Autobot smiled thinly. "You've suffered from overheating for a day and a half since we got back." He moistened Prime's forehead with the lubricant, "I didn't want to rest until you came around. I wanted a guarantee that you'd pay up on our deal. I won't let you get away with it this time."
Optimus felt better than he had in weeks. But his mind was still fragmented. The confusion reflected in his optics. "Rodimus . . . I don't recall making a deal--"
"Sure you do." Roddi winked. "You agreed that if you got off the station in one piece and lived, you'd go on a three week vacation."
In his state of mind, Prime supposed he could have said anything and not remember it. Though he knew he would not have agreed to such a proposal. He caught the glint of a smile on Roddi's face plates and understood. But at this point, he was too tired and too comfortable to dare argue. He merely adjusted his position slightly and shut down.
* * *
No cage or energon bars. No creepy white lights stabbing her eyes. No freak aliens murmuring in disquieting tones.
the room was dark grey, lit softly by one faithful little light on a dresser she recognized as her own. She lay in her own bed, a huge stuffed dinosaur covered the foot end. And a few feet from her sat a giant.
He rested against the wall, his knees up, arms across them, a flagon of energon suspended between his huge hands. His block-style body managed to portray a grace and power many of his peers could not. Perhaps it was because she knew him personally. Maybe because he was the leader. Maybe because he was just Optimus Prime. Maybe.
She smiled amid the cuts and bruises on her cheeks. She was home, right?
Prime tilted his head a little to the left then wordlessly drank from the flagon. He said nothing, watching her with a piercing set of blue optics. How very odd it felt to be stared at by Optimus Prime. Unlike Rodimus, Prime held an air that was almost god-like. He saw into you and through you and somehow you could feel him reading you.
His silence always demanded attention. He certainly had hers. Roddi stared out of daydreaming. Prime stared because he was studying. And perhaps that was even more unnerving.
Still, somehow, Rusti found she did not mind.
She pulled on the coverlet, staring back into his soft blue optics.
"Hi." her voice squeaked and she flushed, embarrassed. "How long have you been there?"
She blinked. "Seven hours? have I been asleep that long?"
"No. You've been comatose for two days."
"Comatose?" her eyes went wide. "What brought me back?"
"I don't know." his voice vibrated softly, "I'm glad you're back with us. I'm sorry, Rusti. You've been through so much--"
"It isn't your fault." Rusti interrupted. "I hate it when you blame yourself--you keep tearing yourself up for things you didn't do and I wish you'd stop!" She turned away, biting back her tears. She remembered all too clearly the emotional turmoil she suffered in school the day she was captured. Her heart raced and she tried to swallow her tears. "I thought you left me." her voice wailed and she knew she was going to start crying again. "You were gone and you didn't even say good-bye. And I was so mad . . . " the tears fell anyway and she felt like an idiot, crying so much lately.
Rusti looked at him, wishing she could sit up, but finding her body had not recuperated enough. Optimus dragged himself to her bedside and very carefully set his huge hand next to hers. "I would not do that to you, Rusti. I swear." he bowed his head, his optics narrowing. "You've been through so much lately, I owe you something for it all."
He did it again, blaming himself for something that wasn't his fault. It was a part of his disposition. It was his nature to take someone else's pain on his own shoulder struts. There was no use in trying to convince him otherwise. She snorted, "You . . . big oaf." she squeaked. She tried to wipe her tears, but her arms were too tired. "Guess I lost a lot of blood. Thought I was bathing in it."
Prime said nothing. In fact, for a moment, he winced, glancing away as though she had said something he did not want to talk about. She studied him. For someone whose body stood so tall and strong, Optimus seemed very small right now. He had sat there in one place for seven hours. Probably moving only to drink his energon. He watched over her . . . most people don't know what it's like to have someone watch over them so carefully. She supposed it would get on someone else's nerves after a while. Most people like their privacy. It made her feel as though she were a part of his life, a part of his soul. She remembered Optimus talking fondly of her grandfather Spike.
And perhaps that only strengthened his bond to her.
Cody suddenly came to mind and her face went blank with shock. How could she have forgotten? And Optimus said nothing about him. She tried to swallow a lump in her throat, the tears fringed her voice again: "Cody's gone, isn't he?" she dared.
Prime's optics shot at her and she was sorry she mentioned her friend. The Autobot's hand turned into a fist. He must've known something she did not. "I'm . . . I'm sorry, Rusti!" he whispered. He bounced his fist once, obviously trying to control himself.
He did. She was sure of it. He knew something. Whatever it was, Rusti didn't think she wanted to know. She frowned and looked away. "He-he was so kind to me, Optimus. He never tried anything dumb. He never assumed anything. He found me interesting. . ." she looked back at her friend, clamping her teeth over her lower lip, fighting to suppress her tears. "Now that I look back, I think he loved me. He held me when the Quintessons kept us in that cage. He let me sleep on his shoulder when my head hurt so much my nose and ears bled."
She batted her eyes and a tear fell over. "He loved me and never once did he say so!" she sniffed. "It's unfair. Girls are so dumb, you know? When it comes t' guys, I mean. They, they think a guy is sweet and thoughtful and is just being a gentleman. But they don't get it. So a guy gets all mad because she's so clueless. Just because he won't say those three stupid words. I don't know why girls have to be told, but they do. It's sorta a reality check, I guess. And he loved me and never said anything!" she broke into tears, unable to constrain herself. "I never knew he loved me!"
She turned her face to the pillow and cried her heart out, clutching the edge of the pillow. Optimus sympathized with her and picked up the tiny tissue box from the dresser. "It will be very hard for a while, Rusti." he said softly. "You'll feel empty for a long time to come and sooner or later you'll find something else to fill the void. I know it hurts."
She looked up at him, grabbed a tissue, rolled over and blew her nose. Life was miserable. She was miserable. "It'll never be the same." she whispered. "I'll never be the same."
"No." Prime agreed in kind. "You'll be stronger."
She glared at him. Then frowned at herself. Who was she to be mad at his statement? If anyone had lost friends and loved ones, it was Optimus Prime. But it was funny how he said it would make her stronger. He had withdrawn from people. Roddi had told her how years ago many of their friends had died at the hands of the Decepticons. It had affected them all, but Optimus buried his feelings deep, not even bothering to grieve. He refused to talk about it with anyone. It would seem there is a breaking point for a person who has lost so many of their friends and loved ones; a breaking point where they could no longer risk loving anyone else, remaining on an impersonal level with everyone. And while Optimus was affectionate, always has been, he has also kept his distance. They were his people, he was their leader, that settled it.
Time to change the subject. "I . . . suppose I'll be going to school next week, hu, Optimus?"
Optimus gazed at her silently at first and she found she could not read his expression. "I'm . . . considering placing you in tutoring for the rest of the year, Rusti." he answered softly.
Her face stretched with surprise. "Home study?"
He set the tissue box down and straightened. "You've been through too much to simply go back to a normal life. I've . . . I've even considered perhaps sending you back to your parents--"
She nearly jumped out of her bed, her eyes wide as they'd ever get. She half sat, too weak to literally jump. "No! Don't do this to me, Optimus! I'll be good!" she gasped, "My Aunt Delphra would NEVER let me come back--" she watched him lift his hands in defense, "--I'd DIE!" she whined.
"Let me finish." he answered calmly. "I'm considering sending you back to your parents to pack extra clothes."
Slowly Rusti lay back down, uncertain where this was leading. "Okay . . ." she answered.
"Rodimus insists I go on a vacation for three weeks. He seems to think I need a body guard to make sure I don't do any work while I'm gone." Prime seemed a bit sheepish, his hand passed over his head and he sighed. "Not that I could, anyway. He's already locked me out of the computer system."
Rusti suddenly understood what he was saying. Her tear-dried eyes widened in excitement. "You're going on vacation and you want me to accompany you?"
"If you think you can handle it. I thought about going to Australia, catch up on a few things with Jazz. Maybe visit Easter Island."
Breathless, her face brightened, "Yes!" she replied, nearly giddy with the thought of a real vacation, "I would love to go!"
"Then it's settled." he concluded. "We'll leave in three days." he stood and picked up his empty flagon. "Now, you need sleep, I need rest." he turned to the door, paused and glanced back. "Oh, um, the stuffed animal is from Ultra Magnus. But don't tell him I said that. He didn't want you to know. You know how he gets."
Rusti beamed with a grin. Ultra Magnus was all mush inside. Prime nodded silently and opened the door.
"Optimus?" she called, her voice sounded so mousy in her own ears. He gazed at her, his optics reflecting weariness. She hesitated a moment, unsure how he would react. He would probably act indifferent, unwilling to show how he felt. But Rusti decided she needed to say it, no matter what his reaction would be: "I love you." she quickly settled under her covers, knowing she had surprised him.
Prime lingered a moment, wondering if she was dropping a hint. It made him uncomfortable. Love was such a complex concept. Humans used the word for everything in their lives. Often they would say it with such frivolity. They loved their children, but not like their sports or their possessions. But then the Humans were a species who did not live a life where every waking moment was spent under military discipline. Humans did not understand war like Transformers and so they could afford such flippancy. Love, for a Transformer, came with a dear price: The eventuality of death by destruction. A Transformer could ill afford such emotional bonds. Yet in spite of the pain of the apprehension of death, many Autobots bonded. Still, even Optimus Prime could not deny what he felt: "I love you, Rusti." his deep soft voice echoed tenderly through the silence of the room. "Dearly." he added.
With that, he closed the door after him and Rusti clutched her pillow tightly, a smile touched her face contentedly. She would sleep without evil dreams after all.
Two days later, Rusti greeted the sun, stepping out onto her favorite balcony. Here, the sight westward allowed the eye to see far past the Cascades and off into the ocean. South, Rusti could see Optimus' office. And down below, in a walled court, Rodimus, Springer, Drawback and Brainstorm tackled with the Dinobots in a game of football.
She watched as Springer passed the titanium ball to Rodimus. The young Autobot leader dodged a tackle by Grimlock only to get swept up by Swoop. He landed hard on Sludge and rode the Dinobot like a bull, making a mad run for the goal line. The girl frowned. All she wanted was for things to be the way they were before the Matrix contacted the virus.
Nothing would be the same now.
She bowed her head and climbed up the rail like a cat, sitting on the flattened edge of a metal post. She crossed her legs and gazed down, not even amused at the clumsy attempt the Dinobots made to catch the football Roddi tossed to Brainstorm who fumbled the ball and ended up beneath Slag's weight.
Optimus promised he'd be nowhere but in the glass room, repairing the damaged windows and (his) plants. Rodimus made certain all computer functions were locked. In a way the situation was amusing. Roddi wouldn't take no for answer. He was also the only person Prime would listen to (obey). Rusti wished she could do something for them; stop their evil dreams or at least take away the remorse that sat on their shoulder struts. But the virus was a deeply personal problem between the two. They would have to work this out between themselves. Somewhere, somehow, they will have to find strength in each other.
How long would it be before the delicate thread would snap? How much time did they have before Optimus Prime would indeed commit suicide?
Rusti looked down again at the young energetic Autobot leader. He had taken a break for a moment, his injuries both physical and emotional had not allowed his body to fully recuperate just yet.
He Touched her just then. Just a simple Touch to acknowledge that he knew she was watching. It dawned on Rusti: Here was Optimus Prime's strength. If only Rodimus could get past Prime's defenses, if only he could somehow convince the heart-stricken Autobot leader that he would not leave or forsake him.
But then, this was war. This was life. No promises could be made to say that Rodimus himself would not die.
And Roddi read that thought from his young friend. He sent her a mental smile. Not today, lady-friend. Not today.
Rusti smiled. Perhaps there was hope after all.
* * *
He walked across the land for an undetermined amount of time, just moving over a land wracked by death and despair. He came across a grave stone. kneeling before it, Optimus tried to read its epitaph, unable, finally to make out what it said. Perhaps it was all that was left of the Matrix. All that energy, all that life . . . gone.
Someone stepped up behind him and Optimus met Rodimus with shock.
"How did you--?"
Rodimus shook his head, brushing the question aside. "It doesn't matter what it says." he meant the grave stone.
Prime looked back at the stone. The words shifted and changed right before his optics, just as though the stone were speaking to him, but could not be heard.
"It doesn't matter." Rodimus insisted. He knelt in front of Optimus, taking his friend's hands in his. "We are all that matter, now, Optimus."
Prime finally gave Rodimus his full attention, saying nothing.
He didn't need to. Rodimus read the pain and fear. It reflected what he felt himself. But he had more resolve. "We are the beginning. You told me once that all beginnings start with pain. Perhaps rather than allow this whole thing to drive us mad, to separate us, we should let it bring us closer together. We share one another's soul. We have a relationship unlike any other among our people, maybe any other in our long history. And whatever that prophesy-the One who Lights the Darkest Hour-says, I won't believe it's meant for anyone 'special'."
Optimus merely sat there, listening. For a moment, Rodimus wasn't sure he was getting through. But then Prime had not retrieved his hands. He had not mentally pulled away. Rodimus dared to set his hands on Optimus' arms: "I feel this too." he continued. "You're not alone in this anymore. That's what I'm here for. Optimus, I can't do this by myself. We have to reach out to one another. You made me your second-in-command. You said we should rely on one another, that we need to learn to lean against one another." he shook his head. "But you keep pushing me out."
No answer. But Optimus shut his optics and bowed his head.
Rodimus read it like a book. He sat up on his knees and wrapped his arms around his friend and just held him. After a few minutes, Optimus complied, laying his arms across Rodimus' back. Their souls touched; one stabilized the other and both Autobot leaders finally found the mental and emotional strength they needed to move forward.
To be continued in Dark Storm Rising