Under the hard stare of Ultra Magnus' 'loving' guidance, Autobot troop Number 12 sloshed through their practice in the cold Oregon downpour. If there was a constant in the universe, it was Oregon's summer storms and Ultra Magnus' over-bearing mannerisms as he stomped alongside his troops, keeping perfect time to their rhythm. They marched in the early hours of three A.M., first marching then jogging all around Fort Max (all forty miles). The idea was to maintain uniformity in spite of Fort Max'S traffic. You were not permitted to turn your head-
"WHATCHA LOOKIN' AT THERE, GREASE SPOT?! THINKING ABOUT YOUR VACATION?!"
"Sir! No, Sir!" The former Paratron dithered.
Magnus lowered his tone slightly and stared even more intently at the trembling bot. "What's that, girlie cakes? Did I just hear you volunteer to give Fort Max a LUBE JOB? I'm a Decepticon, see, and I'm gonna come right at you and separate your head from your shoulders-and keep your headpiece AND FRAME IT FOR MY NEXT GIRLFRIEND! GIVE ME TWO HUNDRED TWENTY-SECOND TRANSFORMATIONS ON THE SPOT THERE, GLOP! THE REST OF YOU TEEEEN HUT! TO THE RIIIIIGHT FLANK! PRESEEEENT ARMS!"
And he made his way through the ranks, examining each bot at random. They were a good squad, but even a good squad could use practice. He made them wait, standing steadfast while Tripcord finished his work. They all went together or not at all; a lesson Magnus did his best to instill into their flickering processors. War demanded teamwork and unlike Decepticons, Autobots were easily distracted.
The day drifted on to a bleak cold sunset. Rain tapered to a slow mist but returned later as the next squad of trainees marched to Magnus' tireless vocal synthesizers. Finally, the practice runs ended and Magnus took the rest of the day (all 5 hours of it) off for paperwork and a couple hours' rest. It was a good week. No surprises, no intergalactic events, no one got shot or insulted . . . things at Fort Max had fallen to a nice bit of quiet. Magnus paused in his paperwork long enough to glance out his window, peering into the night. He was glad things were quiet.
The late night, usually punctuated by a quieter city, blazed to life as sirens brayed through the air.
City security scrambled to clear a setting for a runaway shuttle, ready to crash at any second. Humans and Autobots alike dashed back and forth in berserk patterns. Traffic controllers raced to line three courtyards with runway lights and flags, praying the shuttle would have enough reverse thrust to keep from crashing into any nearby buildings.
Lights flashed in desperation and even down the hall near Rusti's quarters, EDC officials scrambled under emergency protocols.
A rumble of thunder echoed through the walls in her bedroom. And Rusti moaned miserably. She had a lousy day not many hours ago and now this noise threatened to keep her from much needed rest. The girl rolled and sat up. Her eyes blinked at the flashing lights outside the window. Shouts from two cadets outside her room echoed orders to their comrades en arms.
Something serious? She should stay in her room. Rusti slid out of bed anyway. She dragged on her slippers and robe and peered out the window. A shuttle dropped straight from the air and hit Max's metal flooring. It slid for several yards, skidding across the center of the EDC courtyard. Techs and maintenance personnel rushed madly back and forth struggling to contain a plasma fire following the shuttle.
Who was in the shuttle? What caused it to land?
The little girl ventured out, cautious to stay well out of everyone's way. She paused a moment and wondered if in fact she shouldn't put on her exosuite. She didn't think she'd need it. Rusti slipped back in her room, however, and picked up Fluffy Duffy; a recent birthday present from a certain City Commander. She clutched it tightly and carefully made her way down the hall while EDC officers in uniform dashed from one end of the hall to the other, shouting either at each other or into their comlines.
"I gotta 29-3 breach in the cafeteria!" A colonel shouted from one end of the hall. "LET'S MOVE IT PEOPLE!" And by his command, the hallway burst into a frenzy of activity, men and women alike raced, arming themselves with shields and laser rifles.
Not one of them paid Rusti any mind. Her own heart raced; something was very wrong. She hated that feeling! It usually meant something either very bad had already happened, or was going to happen. She made her way outside, finding the pace outside even busier than inside.
Bright light from laser fire shot from a line of Autobot and EDC troops at the cafeteria. The shuttle, sitting lop-sided in the courtyard started to make a terrible screeching sound and a collective shout rang from the techs who tried to put out the pretty plasma fire.
The whole shuttle started to glow and Rusti knew what that meant. She gasped and ran behind a huge cement platter and crouched just as the shuttle exploded. The sound hurt her ears and Rusti held them fast, hoping that was the end of it. She bowed over, the stench of warping metal and fusion gasses smoked the area with a sharp bitter scent.
The noise died away as fast as it boomed and after a moment, the Oregon summer breeze came back and the little girl peeked around the platter. Three injured Autobots twitched and moaned from their injuries, their bodies melted by the plasma fire. Two EDC officers were killed and more emergency crews rushed to contain the situation.
The walls of the cafeteria snapped, the metal breaking as though pressured from the inside. Someone landed in front of the building; Ultra Magnus instantly shouted orders aiming at human and Autobot alike, taking in no excuses whatsoever.
The cafeteria walls cracked, the pressure punched out the thick, unbreakable transparent titanium windows. A long thick tentacle snapped out and slapped one EDC official to her death. The Autobots shot at it, succeeding in slicing the tentacle in two pieces. Bravely, they advanced toward the cafeteria, but the pieces that lay like dead things on the ground wriggled and sprouted like plants and in the next minute, they grew legs and the tops of their bodies flourished and sprouted more tentacles, one of which seized Magnus and threatened to pull his head off.
Blaster came into the courtyard and pumped out a horrendously loud sonic blast, forcing the beast to release Magnus. They turned and attacked Blaster, drowning his sound with their bodies.
<<It'll be alright, Lady-Friend. Optimus will take care of you, now.>>
The voice carried over only in her head, but Rusti heard it more loudly than any of Blaster's sonic blares. She swallowed air and ran from the scene.
Medical was a good mile from EDC. It buzzed with bodies sprinting back and forth, voices charged to be heard over one another while a few more bodies were carried in. Families and friends of survivors and victims waited impatiently and fearfully in the waiting room and lobby. Not one of them took notice of a little ten year-old girl in robe and slippers, clutching her Fluffy Duffy. They stood and sat, mostly ignoring the TV while it displayed Star Trek: *Who Cries for Andonis?*
One woman quietly sobbed into her husband's shoulder, his own face plastered with worry. Another woman stared blankly at the TV, her eyes swollen from tears, her cheeks flushed. Her whole countenance solid with shock.
The engines of another ship roared over Medical and Rusti's heart pounded. Optimus had been away to Germany to settle a dispute between City Commander Gryph and her security officers. Perhaps that was him now.
She padded outside and watched through the darkness as Max extended a ramp from Topside to allow the shuttle to land under emergency conditions. The city vibrated with people rushing to assistance and in the distance, Rusti could hear something roar. Then from the Topside, Skyfire zoomed down and dropped several passengers right on the spot of urgency.
From the same general direction, First Aid arrived, greeted by his protege, Trinket from Metroplex.
"What's the situation?" First Aid's voice carried over as he greeted Trinket.
"They brought Rodimus in from the damaged shuttle. I-I don't think it looks good. All his relays . . . they've been rewired. His hydraulics are all nonfunctional . . ."
"That's impossible. Not even a Decepticon is capable of doing all that . . ."
The two made their way into the building, leaving Rusti worried sick.
Another explosion rumbled from the fight a mile away. Rusti swallowed hard, her stomach did flip-flops and she broke out in a cold sweat. Her mind reeled with the possibility that Rodimus would die.
The north-western side of the cafeteria crumbled and a huge thing, dark of hide and tentacles slapping and snaking about, snarled and spat a foul-smelling poison at its attackers. Slingshot and Blurr attacked it from the north-by-northwest side while Magnus organized three troops to surround the beast and keep it from the personnel buildings as much as possible.
Optimus arrived with Skyfire and he and Magnus directed a charge into the center of the creature.
"What happened?" Prime asked through their interpersonal communicators.
"Not sure." The City Commander shouted honestly. "Rodimus called in, half conscious. Said all three of his crew members and two ambassadors were dead and the same entity had drained the ship's power and was slowly attaching itself to his body. The ship crashed and now this."
A luminescence emitted from the topmost part of the towering creature. It grumbled again and the luminescence revealed the prints of victims devoured by the monstrosity. A few people drew back in horror, recognizing the faces of three Autobots and a few other creatures they did not know.
And through his interpersonal communicator, Magnus overheard Optimus swear in words even the City Commander would not utter to another soul.
"Magnus!" Prime growled.
"I know it!" Magnus snarled in return. They both knew what it was. "Aerialbots!" Magnus shouted a little too loudly over the interpersonal comlines: "Transform, Phase Two!"
"Skyfire!" Prime called, "take position delta-nine, keep a steady fire on it, but DO NOT FEED THE CENTER OF THE BEAST! Throttlebots, lay down an electro-net along grid position alpha three, four, five and beta one and two!"
Between their coordinated efforts, Magnus directed his people to distract the beast. Superion pummeled the creature, hacking off tentacles as fast as they grew back. Skyfire kept it off balance by a suppressing fire, shifting constantly between laser frequencies. The small Throttlebots zig-zagged in front, dodging lasers and tentacles alike as they laid an electro-grid on the ground. Prime and Magnus took out new-growth tentacles as they fell, instantly sprouting into new creatures.
"C-Commander, Sir!?" Searchlight called, "Done, sir!"
With a silent glance from Ultra Magnus, Optimus fired at the net, causing it to short. It came to life with an eerie red glow. It sprung right up and wrapped itself tightly about the freakish beast.
The monster screamed and roared in protest as the electro- net sizzled its fleshy body, melting skin and cartilage.
All the other Autobots kissed the ground and Optimus and Magnus aimed at the center of the creature and fired a single power-draining shot from their weapons. The power overload proved more than what the creature could devour and it shriveled like a salted slug, leaving the smouldering dead husk of a body behind.
Several minutes later, EDC officers and Autobots pulled themselves up from the ground, wondering what the hell they just fought. But seeing they won, several people cheered while others started the clean-up process.
Magnus and Optimus merely exchanged wary glances.
Time for a staff meeting.
<<Rrrussstiii.>> the still soft voice rang like a sad song in her mind. The girl stirred from her cramped position in the chair. The waiting room was still terribly silent, the TV now playing the early morning news. The ten year-old unfolded her huddled form and found Optimus not far from her. The girl's heart pounded.
Oh, oh she dared not ask! But it was too late. Rusti already knew that answer! She shook her head, somehow hoping her denial would do away with the awful truth. She backed from his approach her head shaking harder until she burst out of the waiting room, fearing the oncoming tears that choked her straight to her soul. The little girl ran out to a patio overlooking the basketball court and from there, the football field. She could feel Optimus coming up behind her, his steps quiet over the smooth metal surface.
"He's not!" She couldn't keep the sob out of her voice. "He's not dead!"
"No." Optimus softly returned. "They're doing everything they can to save him."
She turned to him, tears smeared her face. Rusti practically shook with fear and grief. "He can't die, Optimus! Roddi can't go away! I don't want him to die!"
Prime knelt before his 'Baby Bird' and offered his hand. Usually she would wrap herself in it, but she slapped it away, unspeakably angry.
"HE'S NOT GOING TO DIE!!" All the energy it took to shout left with her words and she crumpled, fearful and distressed. "I don't want him to die. He's supposed to stay and take care of us!" She wept, unable to hold it back. She allowed Optimus to gently gather her shaking form and carry her back inside.
Rusti gripped the Fluffy Duffy tightly as Optimus slowly made his way toward the elevator and two stories up. Roddi was a part of their little family, so to speak. She just couldn't picture her life without him. Optimus couldn't either. Rusti knew he relied on Roddi more than she ever would.
He stopped before the door to a short hall. A sign above the door's arch clearly forbade entry by all except First Aid and three assistants. Across the way, Optimus sat against the wall and lowered Rusti to the floor beside him. She sat with her back propped against the wall just below the huge window. The beautiful summer morning sky brought neither of them any comfort. Optimus was very quiet, his straight, stern posture belied his own grief. He was, after all, the leader and leaders didn't do things like little girls.
But she felt his sadness like a boulder resting on a pebble for support. And the girl decided she would be strong.
Rusti drew several deep breaths and decided if they could just talk maybe she could stop crying for a few moments. She swallowed hard, her lungs gasping for air so that she thought her own heart would burst. But little by little, Rusti managed to bring herself under some control.
"If-if Roddi were to die, would he go to Heaven, Optimus?" Darn it if her voice didn't crack! She sounded like such a baby! She swallowed again and tried once more. "If he dies, will we see him again?"
"We will see him again, Rusti. Yes."
Optimus was amazingly confident! Not one hint of sadness touched his voice. He stared straight ahead, his optics not once leaving the doors.
"Will we see him in Heaven?"
Now Prime gazed at her, kindness animated his features. He expertly, so very gently, ran a finger over Rusti's tiny cheek, wiping a tear. Then he set his finger under her chin. She shuddered from emotional overload, but her eyes remained fixed on him.
"All Primus' Chosen have a special place, Rusti. Rodimus will be going to a far more wonderful place than here. He will be happier than anyone."
"But will we see him again? Will we see him there?"
"Yes." Optimus withdrew his hand. "The Matrix is far more than what it appears to be; it's a gateway that leads to many other things."
"Will I go when I die? Will I see Roddi again?" She still shook, but not as badly.
Optimus never answered the question. Magnus appeared from the other hall and Prime silently left her to talk with him. Rusti curled up against the bulkhead, shuddering from grief.
"How is he?" Magnus asked, keeping his tones cautiously quiet. He was aware of the little girl who huddled on the floor. Prime glanced at his feet a moment then gazed at the City Commander. "Situation?" He asked instead.
Magnus stared at Prime now, his own face emotionless. "Optimus. How's Rodimus?" He asked directly.
Prime hesitated then: "It's too early to tell yet."
Magnus nodded. He said nothing more, but he could clearly see the anxiety in Prime's optics. "I inspected what was left of the shuttle." He reported.
It attained Prime's attention and he met Magnus' gaze.
"It's exactly what you and I thought:"
"The Cyberwraith." Prime answered almost inaudibly.
Magnus nodded. "It has no physical form now. It'll be harder to track until It can find a new body."
Optimus drew a deep breath and sighed heavily. He knew what had to be done, but he didn't want to leave Roddi and Rusti behind. He crossed his arms, resolute. "Very well. I'll need to recharge and reset my rifle-"
"I can't let you come." Magnus interrupted suddenly. Optimus gave him a startled look. "It knows you, Prime. It knows your sequence. Obviously it knows Roddi's too. If you came, if you followed me, you'd only be endangering the mission."
"Ultra Magnus, you and I are the only ones who can recognize it in any shape."
"I'm not denying that it will be a difficult task." Magnus objected with a wave of his hand. "But . . . it will not recognize . . . a Decepticon as readily as it would an Autobot. Remember, fusion verses fission."
Magnus' logic was flawless; Optimus had to admit he could not argue. He glanced back at Rusti, still crouched against the wall. She should be in bed. But neither of them would sleep now. Reluctantly Optimus nodded. "However," he jumped. "I can't let you go alone."
"Oh no!" Magnus objected, raising his voice just slightly. "Don't you go raising a double standard on me! Whenever you and Rodimus leave, I have to fight program and shell to get you two to take someone. And now you're doing the same to me? That's not exactly fair, Prime."
Optimus gazed at him, stoic. "When Roddi and I leave, it's to escape. There' s a big difference."
It was a joke and had Magnus been anyone else, he might have been infuriated. Optimus' voice was so level, so serious it could easily be taken the wrong way. Magnus tried to think as fast as he could to invent a come-back. But nothing came to mind. He frowned.
Optimus knew he won the argument and a slight smile crossed his face. "Take Steeljaw with you. At least he won't argue with your methods."
Magnus threw him a smile and silently departed.
Prime watched him leave then turned to Rusti.
Rusti stirred sleepily as Optimus carefully picked her up. For a moment, the girl thought her eyes spotted an angel posted at the door. The angel stood taller than Prime. Crowned with long golden hair and bright large eyes, the creature leaned against the wall, dressed in translucent clothing-a loose shirt and pant outfit, comfortably complimented with a long-sleeved over coat. Rusti assumed it was an angel, even if it didn't have wings.
<<You can't let him die.>> she begged the guardian figure. <<Who will take care of me and Optimus?>>
But she never got her answer. Optimus carried her sleeping form away. They will simply have to wait.
Ultra Magnus took the very next shuttle back to Cybertron. His work would require a piece of special equipment hidden in the headquarters of an abandoned Decepticon city.
Outback and Sunstreaker maneuvered the shuttle through the warpgate just past Jupiter. Magnus brooded over the battle and wondered how much damage Rodimus sustained. Usually, the wraith didn't waist much time devouring its victims. But Roddi managed to stay alive long enough to crash the shuttle. Optimus felt responsible for this happenstance, but it wasn't anybody's fault. How the Cyberwraith escaped its original prison was still a mystery.
Three hours later, the shuttle landed, rousing Magnus out of recharge. He stood, not quite awake, and gathered his personal gear. Steeljaw remained at Fort Max, as per the City Commander's instructions. Where he was going on Cybertron, would not allow for any mistakes.
Besides, there was only one other Autobot with whom he would share this secret:
"Hey, Ultra-man! What's happening?"
Magnus' whole countenance lighted up. "Hello, Jazz." He greeted. "Did you receive my transmission?"
"A letter from you is like gettin a box of candy straight from home!"
"Heh!" The smile never left Magnus' face. He laid a large hand across his old friend's shoulders and the two slowly departed landing bay. "I wouldn't go that far."
Jazz led him to the topmost building in New Iaacon. The cityscape stretched below them, shimmering with Cybertron's own manufactured light. The population passed on land and in air all around them, buildings peeked round about one another, the scenery reached back as far as the optic could perceive. Not even the largest fortress-city on Earth could match the majesty of Cybertron's cityscapes. Valleys of barren, unmarred areas reminded Magnus how much he missed his home world. It was along those valleys he used to just 'jam'. There was nothing like the feel of cold pure oxygen flowing over your sensors as you raced across the metal flooring. No buildings, no traffic for gigimeters around. Earth had that in some places, but it was just stretches of highway, usually desert highways. But they were dusty and full of insects. And that was bad. To Magnus, insects were as bad as a Human eating meat and having to pry out the pieces from between their teeth.
Jazz stared long and hard out the north side of the building. He was all talk until they reached this room. Now he was dead silent.
Something obviously disturbed him.
"What's wrong, Jazz?" Magnus asked quietly.
Jazz remained silent for a moment longer; another bad sign. He sighed hard and slowly turned toward his friend, arms crossed. "Mags, it's been sixteen years and four months since Prime last visited Cybertron. You remember that, don'cha? Right after the 'Cons took a one-way ticket right outa sight."
"Yes." Magnus answered carefully. "So?"
"So, what's the problem? Think Cybertron's got cooties 'r something?"
Magnus stared aimlessly for another long moment. He recalled the months prior to the Rebirth. Optimus had repeatedly collapsed without reason. During one meeting, he even blacked out and Magnus had tried to revive him with five alien ambassadors clamoring for answers.
The Decepticons attacking Metroplex without apparent reason seemed an everyday occurrence until Prime found out about the Key to that . . . chamber under Generator C. And then Optimus went to Vector Sigma for answers. Magnus watched as his friend withered in spirit. Something happened to him during that visit. Something had upset Optimus to the point of utter silence. He was shocked and Magnus was willing to bet that it had to do with something more than just the birth of the Head/Targetmasters.
Even after the success of Cybertron's revival, the apparent demise of the Decepticons, something seemed very much out of place. And whatever it was, Optimus was not willing to share it with anybody and Jazz's question would most likely go unanswered.
"You know, I still think what I thunk before."
What's that, Jazz?
"That V-Sigma's been tainted somehow. That them Quint'sons somehow tampered wi' it jus' b'fore they left Cybertron, waaay in the beginning. An' I think Op's seen stuff that shouldn't oughta be seen, and he's just keepin' it all to hisself just 'cuz it'd upset everyone else. After all, you know he still blames himself."
Magnus looked very grim. "I know. I wish he would see the other side of that; that he didn't start anything. A lot of slaves were freed. Wheeljack would have been executed hadn't Prime stepped up to challenge Megatron. A lot of races would have gone extinct. No one would have tried to oppose the Robo Smasher, either."
"What did he see, Mags? What did he see that made him close up tighter than a mechana-clam?"
Magnus solemnly shook his head. "I don't know. He just doesn't want to ever come back to Cybertron. He considers Earth his home, now."
Jazz did not reply. He turned away, staring out the window, staring out past all the buildings and the traffic. He liked his position; City Commander of Fort Sonix in Australia. But he still regarded Cybertron his home. He would always miss it and the City Commander silently vowed to come home one day.
He pulled himself away from the view and his thoughts and turned to Magnus. "So, Mags, m'man, what's up that you come t' see me here?"
"Jazz," Magnus started slowly, "The Cyberwraith's on the loose. I've come to collect an artifact and capture it."