AUTHOR'S NOTE: Rated 'R' for emotional, physical violence and strong language. *Testament* is written for the grown-up Transformers fan with the intent of a more realistic setting and therefore, a bit more violent. Parents are encouraged to read *Testament* for themselves before reading it to their children. All comments and confusion can be aimed at T.L. Arens: email@example.com
CITY UNDER FIRE
Prime sat at his desk hastily rewriting someone else's sloppy work. He had no idea who originally made the data entries from the Southeastern entrance logs, but he was certainly going to make sure they were done properly from now on. He finished the pad and set it in his 'out' box and swept up another. It was a fix-it bill for a damaged sign post from the city of Klammath Falls. Apparently one of the Autobots rammed into something. Optimus shook his head and entered the funds account number to pay the damage and the billing process with a respective apology. He set that pad in the same place and swept up a third.
The door buzzed but Prime did not bother looking up. "Enter," he answered.
Ultra Magnus stepped in and set three digipads on the desk. He wordlessly turned away, paused then turned back. The room stood disturbingly silent, even for Optimus' office. Perhaps it was because a certain 'Someone' wasn't there and hadn't been for weeks. He watched solemnly as Prime labored over another pad, scrolling down the page, glancing over a list of things, memorized them and signed it with a pointer. Prime set it aside and reached for another when he gave Magnus a second glance.
"Magnus. I didn't realize you were still here."
Magnus stared. He and Prime were relatively close friends once. But over the years, they drifted as Optimus kept more of himself from everyone. It hurt because Magnus thought so much of him and wanted to be included in the Autobot leader's very tight, very small circle of friends . . . if Optimus had any by now. It drove Roddi mad and the Second confided in Magnus his myriad idea to break through that cold wall Optimus had built around himself.
However, the Major-General digressed, Optimus Prime really hadn't been himself since the Hate Plaque. The Quintessons might have the power to bring him back to life, but somehow, they didn't bring back the person he once was.
Magnus forced a grim smile, though he felt far from smiling. "I've doubled the patrols on the roads," he reported. "We've received reports of citizens crashing into railings or cliff sides because of things they think they're seeing crossing the roads at night or twilight."
"Is that so?" Prime reached for another pad. "Tell me, Magnus, have we had other unusual incidents in the city? Any fragments of odd occurrences?"
"People in costume. Things or people out of place?"
Magnus solemnly shook his head. "Not that I've heard, Prime. They say, though, that there's a new designer drug out on the street. They call it 'joys."
Optimus looked completely impassive. "What's it made of?"
"Unknown. I'm sending someone out to investigate this afternoon. But I'm fe-e-e-e-l-l-l-i-n-n-g . . . app-re-h-h-h-ens-s-s . . ."
Darkness clouded Prime's mind. His optics no longer noticed his office, his desk, the digipads or Ultra Magnus. A thick dark fog rolled about him and a face faded in, laughing with an expression as old as his own life span. Three huge eyes dotted the face, eyes that spoke of horror-induced shock.
He blinked and found himself standing before a gift shop window, staring at the reflection of a body not his own. Prime touched fine soft locks of curly red hair and stared into the eyes of a human. He fell into them and drifted back, back.
He lost breath, recalling a dimensional tear and out stepped a tall lanky creature. Its skin glistened in beautiful colors and it looked at him, though it bore no face.
Someone whispered his name.
"It's all wrong," he whispered back. "This isn't supposed to be. This isn't supposed to happen now."
2036. Rusti was fifteen years old.
But the time slipped.
2033. Rusti was twelve years old.
But the time slipped.
2029. Rusti is nine years old. And she was healthy and active and alive.
"Was she supposed to die?" He asked no one.
His hand lost the digipad and it clattered on a pile of other pads, sending four others to the floor.
The sound brought him out of it and he shrank away, ashamed he missed Magnus' words. Like so many other visions, it gave no answers or comfort to his questions.
Just like Vector Sigma.
". . . But I'm feeling apprehensive about the whole thing, Prime. I think we should call in extra back-up on this. There's . . ." Magnus stared at the Autobot leader who stared off into nothing. Optimus didn't seem the least bit interested in what he had to say. But when the digipad tumbled out of his hand and rattled on the desk, Magnus changed his mind and swiftly picked up the fallen pads. By then Prime recovered. He looked away, so obviously ashamed.
"I'm-I'm sorry, Magnus." Prime tried to gather the pads into straight piles. "I must be wearing down. Perhaps I should recharge or simply head into town, find something-"
Magnus laid a hand on Prime's arm to attain some kind of attention. "Prime," he called gently. "It's me."
Optimus locked optics with him. Magnus was a walking wonder in dire situations. For a moment, Prime considered explaining the vision to his old friend. But it was all abstract; based on assumptions, feelings and instincts. That would never be good enough for Magnus.
It was hardly good enough for himself, but Optimus learned over the years to listen to that Inner Voice. It saved his life more than once.
He managed to gather his poise. "Magnus, have everyone keep a sharp optic out. I suspect we're against something we haven't seen yet. Tell them to report anything out of the ordinary; even if it's a dog chewing gum."
Magnus offered Prime a final gentle smile. He caught Prime glancing to an out-of-the-way corner in his office where a beanbag, a shelf and a few toys sat deserted by their present owner. Optimus bowed his head, fingering a digipad. Magnus wanted to say something encouraging but could think of nothing appropriate. He left the office with a sadness he knew Optimus must be sharing at the same moment.
The afternoon fell quiet. The phones died to a roar and Tolomsky finally accomplished a little paperwork. It was a damn shame that fanatic had to kill himself; they could have used some information. But what of the six puppets in the 'present'? Was there a relation? Would Mrs. Jamison know?
Perhaps it was time to find out.
His celphone rang and he plucked it off his desk: "Boss."
"Sir, we have a prank caller on line. I thought you might want to hear it."
"Thanks, Alice. Put it through."
"Hi . . . is-is this Tolomsky?" The man's voice came shaky, fearful.
"Unfortunately. What can I do for you, pal?" Tolomsky had little patience for punks.
"I, I have a warning for you. I-I have seen the twin. And I know of the six."
"What twin? Six what? Are you talking about the puppets? Did you send that thing to us?"
"I-I don't have much time. They're all around the city, you know. I can see them. I know what they look like. It's horrible! I have to tell you that the Watcher has seen enough; that the Killer is prepared. Oh, gawd! Not again! Not again! It's going to strike again!"
And the line cut off. Tolomsky sat there, a pillar of frozen puzzlement. He blinked and punched a series of six numbers and downed the remains of his water. "Hey, Aaron, I want a city-wide sweep, ASAP. No, I don't know what to look for, just have the boys look. I mean, REALLY look. Anything weird, out of the ordinary. Anything at all. Got it? And see if you can't have Streetwise come in a little earlier, okay?"
He was given an affirmative and the Chief wondered if his wife would be willing to make a nice, simple dinner. Soup sounded really good right about now.
Officer Farrington tapped his door and Tolomsky grunted a greeting. She handed him a thick manilla envelope.
"What's this? A series of bad jokes?"
"No, sir. All the people who turned up missing last night."
"What?" He took the folder from her and set it down. He leafed through it, discovering a combination of high school students, children and adults, more presumably, parents. He gave Farrington a puzzled look. 'What's this all about, Marge?"
"A soccer game held at Cascade High last night, sir."
"The city busses . . ."
"A diversionary tactic. How many are missing, Marge?"
"Fifteen, sir. No discriminate age, gender or race. Just people."
Tolomsky rocked back in his chair and stared miserably. No sooner had one event occurred to shake up the city than something else happened. Who was responsible for this? Why haven't they made any demands? What was their purpose?
His celphone rang again. He hoped his boys found something. "Boss." He nearly sang. "Streets!" He greeted. "Heeyyy! Streets! You comin' in today? WHAT THE LIVING HELL!? Are you becoming psychic, too?'
'Mrs Jamison called and asked the same thing. She said she was up all night with night terrors. We got fifteen people missing. I'll be here, waiting for you then, and I'll get in touch with Mrs. Jamison. This whole thing's starting to get personal. Okay, see ya then." And he hung up.
Jamison arrived at the police department just before Streetwise. She wore a long knitted sweater-coat and a skirt-and -blouse outfit. She swept her long dark hair into a braid, the rest of her hair sprung about her face and crown in tight curls. A pair of triangular earrings dotted each ear and two rings wrapped her index and ring finger on each hand. She slung a large hand bag over her left shoulder and clutched a rod in her right hand. Tolomsky left his office to greet her, trying unsuccessfully to shout above the growing noise. He led her into his office and shut the door.
"I'm sorry to drag you back here, Mrs Jamison," he started. "I know this whole thing's been real hard on you. I've got a couple of my guys on the look out for other psychics in town that might be willing to help us. What's with the stick?"
She drilled holes into him with weary eyes. "I haven't slept all night, Mr. Tolomsky. I close my eyes and I see six faces and all of them are laughing at me."
"Oh." He stared at her, bewildered. Then it hit him. "Six? Did you say 'six'? Six faces?"
"Yes. That's exactly what I said."
"Would-would you come-no!" He was so excited, Tolomsky tripped over his own words, "Wait. You wait right here, don't move so much as a millimeter! I'll be right back!"
She waited, her impatience growing with her weariness. Mrs. Jamison gazed over the city from the second story window in Tolomsky's office. It was a fair enough a view, good enough to check any action on the courtyard and three streets around the city block. She took extra note how Tolomsky allowed no furniture or curtains to conceal his windows. A plant bordered each side of the window and the psychic smiled. Tolomsky had a good, strong soul. The city could never have been blessed with a better man for the job.
"Mrs Jamison?" Tolomsky returned bearing an opened package. She turned and her smile died.
"Ohmigod." She whispered. "What under heaven is that?"
"A present from our friendly neighborhood terrorists." He set the package down and lifted the lid to reveal the toy bus full of puppets. Her reaction was very much like his: silent shock. She stared before circling the desk, her hands never once touching or nearing the gift.
"This is so . . . loud. It's shrieking in gibberish."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean . . . there's so much energy here. A great deal of confusion. But it's organized confusion." She paused her pacing and just stared, supporting her chin with her hand. Tolomsky waited with held breath. Perhaps she could unravel everything and they'd drag the perpetrators in by six o'clock and he could sleep peacefully.
"They all have names," She finally deduced.
His mouth dropped. "Names?"
"Hmmhmm." She pointed to the first one, the one with three eyes. "That's the Watcher. She pointed to the next one with a simplified face. "That's the killer." Her hand bounced to the next puppet. "He's known as the Punisher." And the next one: "The Arsonist." And the one after that: "The Thief." And finally: "The Executioner."
Tolomsky grasped a pad and pen and scribbled all the names on it. He tore the sheet and set it under the box. He shook his head. "Man, I dunno what we'd do without you, Mrs. J."
She turned to him. "Chief, I need to visit the puppet museum. The one Blades and Streets went to."
Streets met them at the museum fifteen minutes after a call from Tolomsky. He stared uneasily at the ancient statue of Rrogoche, recalling what Blades told him two days ago. It looked as though it were ready to come to life and walk right out of the Japanese puppet museum. The curator busied herself with another group of visitors, explaining about the sixteenth century puppet and marionette theaters and how one man brought honor and laughter to something believed to have such a dark past.
"What do you mean dark past?" One visitor piped.
"Well, in ancient times, some cults used puppets and masks to represent their union with the gods they worshiped. They used puppets to represent themselves and masks to take on the god's power."
Someone else asked a question, but Streets spotted Mrs Jamison approaching from the next room and his mind shot back to the problem on hand. He greeted her with a cordial smile and she returned it, though a bit more weary. "I've had all weekend to think about what you tried not to tell me Friday, Streetwise." She kept her eyes on a fox puppet, examining it from two angles before moving on to a little female puppet with a ceramic face and blinking eyes.
The moment fell awkward and Streets gazed at the statue. He shrugged. "I guess it's really nothing."
"It must be something. It upset you quite a bit."
He frowned and looked at her again. "I've been told the police department has a copy of it. We could ask Tolomsky. It is a part of the case, I guess."
"Gibberish?" She asked abruptly.
Streets stared at her in shock. "What?"
"It's what you're trying not to say. Something about gibberish."
He nearly swallowed air. "Yes." his voice fell to a whisper. "How'd . . . no, never mind. I don't want to know."
"They wanted me to walk into the cell where the only suspect stayed the night. But I think I'd rather wait. It's probably too active for me to approach yet."
"What do you mean?" Streets asked as Tolomsky joined them from another room.
"Psychic activity is like a fire. If it's a blaze out of control, like some strong emotions, it's too much for me to handle. I can't decipher it because it's too loud. I need to allow the energy to dissipate enough to approach it."
Tolomsky gave the statue a quick glance, but kept his eyes on his companions, "Does that mean you'll be willing to watch that video?" He asked.
Two responses came his way. Jamison gave him a surprised, but curios expression. Streets turned away, disturbed. Tolomsky took both as a yes.
"Yitic, he tisiv lahs. S-s-s-elbort . . . esssskkisss. Doolb ruoy kil liw ew. Doolb ruoy kil liw ew." And it laughed, and repeated: "Doolb ruoy kil liw ew." And the camera closed on its face and the eyes bulged. "Doolb ruoy kil liw ew. Doolb ruoy kil liw ew."
Streets shuddered. The words stretched and moaned and the voice haunted him. But to his amazement, Mrs. Jamison seemed unmoved.
She sipped a cup of herbal tea and pointed to the video. "Chief, could you replay that?"
"Absolutely." And he rewound it. "I hadn't seen anything like this before. It's like some sorta devil language or something."
"Esssskkisss . . ."
"There!" Jamison called. "Stop. Play that again."
"Esssskkisss . . ."
"Esssskkisss . . ."
"Esssskkisss . . ."
"Six." She deciphered.
Both Streets and Tolomsky stared at her in disbelief.
"Are you sure?" Streets asked. "How do you know?"
The two males again stared at one another.
"You mean, intentionally?" Tolomsky asked.
Tolomsky whisked the disk from the machine and excitedly led them upstairs to the new and temporary investigations department. He handed one of his geeky 'kids' the piece.
"Jeff, would you run this backwards?"
"Backwards? You mean can I? Yeah, sure." He slipped the disk in, madly punched the keypad and zipped the mouse a few times. They waited a moment or two and Jeff laughed. "You guys think you're gonna find some kinda of prize in the words or something?"
The process completed before they could give him an answer.
"SIX TROUBLES SHALL VISIT THE CITY. WE WILL LICK YOUR BLOOD. WE WILL LICK YOUR BLOOD. WE WILL LICK YOUR BLOOD." And the puppet drooled.
All four people fell disturbingly silent. Mrs. Jamison hid her hands in her coat pockets. "You were supposed to find this. I think our terrorists are about ready to announce themselves."
Streets shook his head. We don't know what they look like. We don't know how to find them. There's no clues anywhere. It's like they're ghosts walking among the living.
Jamison shook her head. "No. There has to be something more. Something we're overlooking or something we haven't found yet." She noted a light of enthusiasm in Tolomsky's eyes. He enjoyed his work. "Chief, I'd like to visit that room."
Tolomsky led them below ground level. The chief unlocked the room, proving all evidence still lay untouched.
Mrs. Jamison went in after Streets. He scanned up and around the bed, reading the graffiti done in blood. Jamison tried to control the chills running up and down her back. The room stank.
Updegraff and a 'kid' approached. Streets paid no mind while they informed Jax about two families upstairs demanding explanations.
Jamison gasped. "Oh, Chief, could-could you turn the light out for just a second?"
"Well . . . I think there's something in the blood."
Tolomsky obliged and the room fell dark. A moment later the blood began to glow. It was not a bright flourescent greenish-yellow, but a dull lava-red color. And before everyone's eyes, the color changed shapes and a perfect imprint of the former prisoner's face glowed from the puddle. It rose six inches from the ground, forming a complete 3-D image in blood and darkness.
And the prisoner's eerie image smiled.
Tolomsky snapped the light on and laid a heavy hand on Mrs. Jamison. She jumped in a start and turned to him, a little annoyed.
Tolomsky sighed. "I guess we'd better get this analyzed."
Pedestrians, children below school age and young mothers dotted Central City Park. A young woman with dark skin and finely-braided hair of ebony strolled under the shade of several tall 'bottomless' trees. These were a gift to Central City from Beta Centauri. They stretched high, even above Optimus Prime
and sheltered the ground with umbrella-like foliage. Their slender white and tan trunks ran smooth and perfumed the air with a soft milk-and-vanilla scent. A weak sun struggled to filter through the April clouds and cast warmth upon the Oregon ground. But for all its effort, the sun merely peeked through.
The woman smiled, feeling privileged to walk side-by-side with the leader of the Autobots. "I can't believe you found me; if what you say is true."
The gentle Autobot knelt, trying so hard to bring himself at level with her. "I need your help." His soft voice drifted with the gentle breeze, as though his were the voice of a god. "Rodimus and I do not have the same capabilities as Human psychics. We need someone who can think on a completely separate plane, someone who sees with another frequency."
She gave him a sidelong glance. "This isn't exactly playing by the rules, you know."
"That's what's kept us alive."
She nodded. "When and where do I start?"
"At the hospital. another break in happened last night."
"And will you be accompanying me?"
"And what does that mean?"
He couldn't look her in the eye. His fingers twitched and ran along the soft grass carpet. Honesty is the best policy, he told himself. "It means I may or may not come."
The psychic nodded. "She needs you, doesn't she? How did you find out about the incident?"
Optimus could not help but smile inside. The one thing he liked about psychics is he did not have to play guessing games. And if they were really good, he didn't have to say anything. It was refreshing. "I have a good information system, Ashlyn. I know this city, I know people who work here."
"Then why do you need me?"
"Because the people we're up against aren't from here. I don't even think they're human. No one sees anything and yet we have one catastrophe after another. I don't know what's going to happen next and my concern is distracted because-" he was going to say 'I'm frightened for Rusti', but he cut himself off. That was his problem, his life. If Ashlyn could figure it out, all the better. He glanced from her now. Sometimes he wondered if Rusti's very name became far too sacred to be spoken. Was he that attached to her?
The Autobot leader supposed so. He was attached to her grandfather, too. And he missed Spike terribly. He could see so much of him in his little granddaughter. And how proud Spike would be of her, too!
Ashlyn threw her eyes on the ground, carefully concealing a smile. She imagined not many people had seen this side of the Autobot leader. He loved as deeply and fiercely as he fought. What a passionate individual! "Because you have other immediate concerns for the moment." She finished. "I understand. Look, if it's alright with you, I'd like to poke around, look at what's been discovered and visit some of those off-limits places. I'll need a day or two to get a feel of the city."
"Thank you, Ashlyn," Optimus answered softly. "Your help is invaluable." Prime stood to his full height and answered a bleep on his personal intercom. "I must leave." Optimus came back after a moment's pause. "They need verification down town. Something about metallurgy. And I want to see Rusti before then."
The spring breeze rattled the leaves above them and the psychic lifted her dark eyes to him, a smile on her face. "Time to save the world again, Optimus Prime?" She asked.
"Heh. Not that complicated. Not today." She watched him transform, his body folded and exchanged positions. Parts slid in and out of subspace and the trailer appeared from nowhere. Prime pulled out and she watched him disappear over the park bridge.
The corner of Ashlyn's eye caught sight of a pair of male twins. One regarded her coldly and reshouldered a heavy backpack. His eyes connected to hers and Ashlyn found herself sucked into a whirlpool of images, voices, voices, thoughts that came and spoke at random. Twins. Double. Twins. Double.
a demonic puppet with three eyes laughed and an atomic bomb exploded.
It laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.
Two . . .
Heads. . .
One . . .
Mind. . .
"Someone call the paramedics!" The shout brought her out of it and Ashlyn found herself on her back, her head aching.
What under all heaven hit her like that?
Optimus and Roddi made their way through the hospital as quietly as they could. The hospital's long hallway stretched into an eternity of dreaded suffering. An old man slowly made his way down the hall, supported by a walker. A dutiful IV bag followed him. An old lady sat in a wheelchair, her eyes clouded with blindness. She muttered nonsense to herself, aware of nothing. Her hair, a wispy white cloud, gave her an eerie look of living death.
Rodimus hated hospitals. He cringed at the sight of the old lady, so sorry nothing more could be done for her. He wondered what her life was like before this. And then he thought of Rusti and he flinched.
Optimus paused, realizing Rodimus was not walking with him. He turned and watched Roddi study the poor old lady. Optimus felt for his friend. He sense Roddi's fear and dread. They as Autobots would go on living while their human friends grow old and die, withering away like maple leaves in the bitter January winds. He laid a hand on Rodimus' shoulder.
<<I was just thinking of Spike and Carly.>> Roddi mournfully explained. <<They were never given the chance to get that far. I don't know if that's good or bad. And then I think of Rusti.>> He turned and the two continued on their silent journey down the hall, passing a nurse cradling a new-born in her arms.
<<I've always believed there is a special place for our friends in the Matrix, Roddi. I think I will have to tell you about it someday.>>
Rodimus stared at him in surprise. He had forgotten! Optimus did die, and was brought back . . . <<Where did you go?>>
But before Optimus could explain further, they arrived at Rusti's room.
The nurse threw them a dirty look as she left the room. She pushed a linen cart out in front of her. "Don't camp in there." She growled.
Optimus knelt in front of her, trying to be as courteous as possible. "I'm sorry. We were just hoping she was alright."
The heavy-set woman's face softened a little. "If you ask me, she'll be better when someone takes her away from those so-called parents of hers. I never seen a girl get so mad at someone before."
Op and Roddi exchanged glances. Rodimus looked puzzled. "Did they say something to her?"
"Oh, they said enough, believe me. They said everything but called her a liar to her face. Kinda mean. Poor kid. She can't help what she is."
"What do you mean?" Optimus asked innocently.
"Take a look in room 212. You'll see what I mean. Go on! Take a look!"
The two Autobot leaders made their way around a couple of nurses and peeked in the door. The curtains billowed in the night breeze. Nothing was left of the window. The TV sat without a face. Insurance papers hung from clipboards in every corner of the room and glass from the bathroom spilled out, testifying to one little girl's supernatural ability.
Optimus glanced at Roddi. "Did you teach her this?"
Rodimus' mouth gaped then he shut it. "Uht-me?" He caught a smile from his friend and was surprised that Prime had cracked a joke about something quite serious.
Prime looked back at the nurse. "Could you see to it that the hospital bills this to Fort Max? I don't want her parents involved in this."
"Fort Max?" The nurse inquired.
"Yes." Optimus confirmed.
"Well, I guess I could inform the accounting department."
"Good. Can we see Rusti? We won't be long. We just want to make sure she's sleeping okay."
The nurse melted and a smile touched her hardened face. "Sure. But she's tied to the bed, so don't try to free her."
The nurse walked out and Optimus gave Roddi a somewhat surprised glance. They entered as quietly as they dared, both taking either side of the bed.
Optimus drew the blankets closer to her shoulders while Roddi produced a small vase of flowers from subspace and set them on the utility cart. <<Imagine,>> the Second grunted inwardly, <<something this small making a mess that big in the other room.>>
<<Yes. I'm sure it's giving Netty something to consider.>> Optimus agreed. <<I wish I could have been here to see their expressions when the nurse showed them the other room.>>
Rodimus sniggered. <<It must have come as quite a shock. Maybe broadened their minds a little.>>
<<Hmm. Doubtful. Might have put the fear of God in them, as the saying goes.>>
Rusti sighed and slowly opened her eyes. Optimus leaned for a closer look. "Look, Roddi," he whispered. "Shhh! I found a baby bird."
Roddi inclined a little closer too and smiled broadly at Optimus as much as he was at Rusti. "Lookit that! Hi, Baby Bird!"
Rusti wasn't sure what she was seeing. Two god-sized shapes bent over her, their bodies reflecting light from the hallway. Their bright blue optics assured her, however, she was with friends. She tried to scratch her nose but the bonds kept her from doing that. "What 're you guys doing here?" Her tiny voice cracked.
Roddi's face brightened even more. "Was that a peep? Haha, she squeaks when she talks!"
Optimus' optics flared in silent laughter. "We were in the neighborhood, heard the hospital had a new addition in their pet farm and we came to look."
Rusti almost laughed. But her head throbbed too much for her to give a real giggle. She wrinkled her nose, wishing the itch would go away. Optimus kindly ran his finger down the bridge of her nose several times and Rusti smiled broadly, both laughing inside, and grateful he thought of her.
"Can't we adopt her? Take her home?" Roddi begged.
Optimus tried to control himself. "Sshhh! They'll hear you and kick us both out!" and the two of them sniggered.
The nurse peeked in. "Alright you two. There you go waking up the Miss. You'll have to leave, now."
Rodimus gave a mock pout.
But it was Optimus who whined, "But . . . she's cute. Can't we just take her home?"
"Oh no! I'm part of that package. You take the girl, you'll have to take me, too." The nurse raised a brow and set her fists on her hips.
Rodimus grinned while Optimus brushed the little girls' hair around her face and lined her chin with his finger. She missed his kindness and Rusti weakly smiled. "Seems your new nanny doesn't want us to stay the night with you, Rusti." Optimus said softly. "We'll come back and check on you later. Will you wait for us?"
Rusti drew a deep, sleepy breath. "Okay." She softly whispered.
Optimus tried to wrap his mind around her and comfort her but something kept him from doing so. He gave Roddi a puzzled look and glanced back at Rusti. She hadn't lost her abilities; the next room was proof of that. But something most certainly blocked their link.
The two Autobot leaders departed, leaving Rusti to sleep more peacefully than she had in several days.
Roddi later visited a hanger in Upper Level of Fort Max to solve a problem with disappearing shipments.
"This is bullshit!" Autobot Stickler spat in front of Rodimus. The Autobot leader sat on a large metal crate, his chin supported by his knuckles. Rodimus was displeased by what he saw: a huge hanger, usually filled floor to ceiling stood only a third full. Out of a collection of a hundred and twenty-nine crates, only two were accounted for.
Rodimus could see immediately it was an 'inside' job. He didn't need Stickler to explain anything. Someone who had access and knowledge of time shifts and connections could do just about anything. Roddi retained his cool, but knew Stickler was exceedingly nervous. He had a right to be. But Rodimus wasn't going to do anything to him personally. Nope. That was Kup's position. The oldster was going to have a hay-day straightening this department out! Humans as well as Autobots were going to answer for this one.
"Let me get this straight, Stickler," Rodimus started with a cool, collective voice. "These crates were a shipment of certain ionized gasses for laser equipment and/or metallic hydrogen wrapped in antigrav units bound for Delaban. But when Nuru Balkovitch did a property check, she found three cases of Pleiades Semi-solar .19 laser rifles, two cases of Pisces .26 Double-Target Pulsators and one box containing three Antares .105 Screamers?"
"Uhm . . ." The former Paratron Autobot suddenly became more nervous than before. "Yes, sir."
"And what exactly did you do with those shipments?"
"Standard procedure is to notify Ultra Magnus and city security, sir."
"And Kup and Magnus both were notified?"
"Uhm . . . not right away, sir. We . . . we set the weapons aside in the lock-up."
Rodimus bore holes into him. "You . . . set them aside in the lock-up. Stickler, do you know what an Antares Screamer is?"
"Uhm, it's-it's a weapon, sir."
"No. It's mass destruction wrapped in extra-terrestrial metal, held together by means even our science can't explain. An Antares Screamer has the ability to wipe whole cities with a single shot. I want everything checked. I want you to open every single one of these crates. I want them marked, photographed and I want every shred of photo and marking on digipads on my desk in two days."
"Two days?!" Stickler cried out. His eyes climbed over the hanger, despair warped his face plates. The place was big enough to fit Omega Supreme and Superion in a single sitting.
"Two days." Rodimus confirmed. "And no mistakes." He walked away, glancing at Kup who's placid expression promised the job would get done.
"I've never seen anything quite like this before." Of course, that wasn't the first time Perceptor was known to say that. His whole face concentrated on one sample of blood given by the Central City police department.
Optimus sat in the laboratory for three hours, his attention waning while the long-winded scientist babbled on about the properties of Human blood. The only exciting thing to have occurred in those three hours was that the Autobot found some properties in the blood to be 'of foreign nature'.
But Prime could have told him that. Optimus' thoughts drifted from the cluttered lab toward Someone he missed. He tried to Contact her; one occasion of several, really. But each time all he would get was static.
<<I can't Reach her. Can't Talk to her.>>
<<I know. I've been trying too.>>
<<Something's blocking us . . .>>
<<I know. I know.>> pause. <<where are you?>>
<<R and D. You?>>
<<Topside. We got missing shipments. Weapons disguised as merchant goods.>>
<<Tell me about it.>>
"I've got it!" Perceptor cried. "I've got it!"
Optimus merely stared at him, optics narrowed. "What?"
"I-I would prefer a staff meeting, Optimus. If it's alright with you."
"Yes. I think this is important enough. I think the Protectobots should be notified of this immediately."
"Very well, Perceptor. Meet us in Conference room 23 in one hour."
<<What? What's up, Optimus?>>
<<Perceptor seems to have found something.>>
Streetwise tapped three more sentences into his report while people filed into the conference room. Eight EDC officers, Tolomsky and two of his chosen 'boys and girls' and Fort Max staff took their places around the table. Rodimus sat next to Prime and scribbled a note and silently passed it.
FOUND MORE BODIES. NORTH-SIDE OF CENTRAL CITY.
Prime took his turn to scribble. MUTILATED?
YUP. MISSING EYES. ONE WOMAN IS MISSING HER LIVER.
Optimus stared blankly. But no expression touched Roddi's face. He needed rest.
Preceptor set his notes along the table end and checked his slides then handed out a report booklet. "I know all of you are anxious to see what I've discovered." He turned to the wide screen and clicked on the slide projector sitting behind it. The familiar twisted parallel lines of DNA code activated.
"As you all are aware, this symbolizes DNA. Every living creature's body is encoded by its strands. It acts as a computer code. Now, this:" here he changed slides, displaying Human blood cells and what appears to be a sample of alien blood cells. "Is a sample of Human blood. The slide next to it, here, shows the blood sample of an alien species known as the Chapronite."
He changed slides again to show yet another blood sample, similar to the Chapronite blood, but off-color and mixed with Human blood cells. "Here we have a sample of the blood found in the terrorist's cell after he died. The properties are yet undetermined but, the discovery is, that whatever infiltrated the terrorist's body, is A: of extraterrestrial origin and B: has unknown characteristics."
Rodimus stood, one hand on hip plate, a pointer between his fingers. "Perceptor, what you're saying is that whatever that other stuff is, it's not from anything here on Earth. Not some kind of drug?"
"To my knowledge, Rodimus Prime, the properties do not coincide with any narcotic that I am aware. If you speak of the recent narcotic known as 'joys', then I most certainly cannot acknowledge any connection between them. Narcotics are, for most intents and purposes, manufactured. This:" here he pointed to the screen, "Is of natural origin."
Prime leaned forward, laying his arms over one another. "What exactly does that mean, Preceptor? What are we dealing with here?"
"I do not know the answer to that, Prime." Perceptor pretended to straighten a small stack of digipads at the edge of the table. "I only know that if this terrorist's blood is a small sample of what we're dealing with, it's a sure thing we're not just dealing with ordinary Humans. What exactly this DNA has to do with the terrorists is also an unknown. Are they using it for super strength, super endurance, or just ceremonial rites? I don't know."
Blaster contacted Optimus via interpersonal comline while Captain Marissa Fairborn asked another question.
"Prime." Optimus silently answered.
"There's something on the TV I think you might wanna see, Boss." Blaster advised.
Optimus 'hung up' and turned to Perceptor. "Excuse me a moment, Perceptor." he broke between EDC Colonel Rapsech and Tolomsky. He swept a remote device from the center of the table and pressed three buttons. The slide screen disappeared and the wall slid open to reveal a flat glass panel. The 'TV' flicked on and the face of Rodney Kanes appeared.
"Once again," the news reporter stared at the camera, his face a mask of solemnity, "we have brought you coverage of the Dopplegangers. We encourage any vigilantism to remain in silence. The police department has not yet answered our calls-"
And just then Tolomsky's celphone bleeped. He plucked it out of his pocket. "Boss." He grunted. "Yeah, I got it here, Jeff. I'm watchin' it live and free. Thanks. Just, just keep everyone calm. No one is to talk to the reporters until we hold a press conference-what the hell?"
The reporter 'fizzled out' replaced with the Watcher puppet waving hello from the right side of the screen. It walked to the center and cleared its throat.
HELLO, CENTRAL CITY AND FORT MAX! I'M WATCH 'R. I'M HERE TO INTRODUCE YOU TO SOME FRIENDS OF MINE. I KNOW YOU HAVEN'T MET THEM YET. BUT AS OF THIS AFTERNOON, YOU'LL GET TO MEET ONE OR TWO OF THEM!
Another puppet danced out and opened its arms wide and took a bow. He stood straight and Magnus recognized the face on the spot. He nearly leapt out of his seat. The face was a Simple Smile Face with the eyes closed in upper crescent forms.
Mrs. Jamison cried out and hid her face. She shoved the chair out from under her and darted out of the room, screaming. Streets jumped after her but Hotspot beat him to it, silently indicating that he should stay and study this escapade.
I HAVE ANOTHER MESSAGE! Watcher declared: IT IS THE WILL AND DESIRE OF RROGOCHE THAT SORROW SHOULD REIGN ON PLANET EARTH. AND WE, HER DISCIPLES, HAVE DECLARED WAR ON CENTRAL CITY, ITS CITIZENS AND THE AUTOBOTS.
Blades, Streets and Groove all jumped out of their chairs. Blades knocked his over, his optics remained transfixed on the screen, although he knew Optimus eyed him. He trembled in horror.
Watcher stepped close to the screen, his face ugly, dry, dim in color, eyes white as sheets, the dark pupils small. PUT YOUR TOYS AWAY, EVERYBODY, THE DOPPLEGANGERS ARE IN TOWN!
And the very next minute, the reporter's face fizzled back on. Optimus turned to Magnus. "Ultra Magnus, I want you to take six of your best commandos into the city. I suspect our terrorists, these 'Dopplegangers' are waiting for someone to catch them red-handed."
Streets and Blades stood, hands on the table. "Sir," Streets directed. "With your permission-"
"Streetwise, have you found any other information?" Optimus interrupted.
Streetwise's complexion turned downcast. "Nothing that we haven't just now seen, sir." Prime turned silent and Streetwise glanced up to see if Prime was studying him. It turned out that Op and Roddi were silently staring at one another. Roddi's optics narrowed and the two broke optical contact. Rodimus turned to Streets.
"If the terrorists are going to strike again, can you guess where?"
Tolomsky stood. "I'd like to try that one, Rodimus." He intervened. "I don't know if you've gotten Street's report yet, but the Department received a gift from the Dopps; a toy bus filled with six puppets. Two of them were seen just a moment ago. If the Watcher is giving room for the Killer, chances are, that's what's going to take place. I think-and this is only a guess-I think we're looking at the possibility of whole groups of people in danger."
The room fell silent. Tolomsky's words hung heavy as neutronium. Some EDC members fidgeted, shuffled papers, shifted in their seats. Most of the Autobots simply sat there, still as stone.
Optimus broke the tense moment. "I have already taken liberties to hire another psychic. I don't want to leave any part of the city left unchecked. I can guarantee that every Autobot here will give you all the help you need, Chief Tolomsky."
Tolomsky popped another sunflower seed in his mouth. "'preciate it." He smiled.
The conference doors opened and Mrs. Jamison and Hot Spot entered. She looked pale, worn, but at least in control. "I'm going home to get some sleep." She announced. "You guys can pick me up tomorrow at ten A.M. Okay?"
Streets gave her a warm smile. "Need a lift, Mrs. Jamison? Or would you like to walk home?"
The meeting dissolved and Optimus headed straight for his quarters. Tons of work cried for his attention, some of it days overdue. But he was too tired anymore. He ached inside and missed a Laughter. His strength bled from him a little more each day.
"Commander, Sir!" Hotspot's voice trailed after him and Optimus turned as the Protectobot leader dashed after him across the courtyard.
Prime traditionally saluted the Protectobot leader. "Hello, Hotspot. What's the matter?"
"Matter? No matter, sir. No. I was talkin' with Rodimus Prime a night or two ago and he mentioned somethin' 'bout your little Miss having a vision 'bout Morgan Stadium. Thought I might come and ask permission to take Mrs. Jamison there for a look-see."
Optimus flinched in surprise. "Good idea, Hotspot," he praised. "Perhaps I'll even accompany you."
And Rodimus managed to catch Prime just leisurely making his way down the hall, tracing his hand along the walls, not knowing someone was watching his private game.
Optimus stared at his Second for a long silent moment, baffled that Rodimus had been outright abrupt. "What?" Was all he was finally able to say.
"I'm going. That's settled."
"Rodimus!" Prime threw him a crossed expression.
"Look, I've been watching you over the last few days. You're uptight, nervous and exhausted."
"Said the motor to the engine." Prime growled.
Roddi mutely shrugged. "Touche. But, I'm not as tired as you. You fell asleep on your own desk yesterday. We're both worn out." And Optimus drilled holes into Roddi with his optics. Again, Roddi shrugged. "Okay, the deal: you rest now. No working. When I get back, I'll take a snooze.
Optimus' expression remained cold. He actually wanted to go. But he was in no mood to argue. He acquiesced-this time.
The cold April night turned a bit bitter for Mrs. Jamison as she disembarked from Rodimus' body. Streetwise and Hotspot transformed after their leader while Blades, Groove and First Aid more or less checked the parameter of the brightly lit football field.
Mrs. Jamison shook her head and covered her ears.
Rodimus concentrated on their psychic friend. "What's wrong, Mrs Jamison?"
"It's too loud here, Rodimus. I can't hear myself think."
Rodimus glanced all about the vacant stadium, half expecting to see crowds of people and the Central City Centurions hacking it out with the Lunar Colony. But there was no one here but he, she and the Protectobots. "I don't understand."
"There's too much psychic footprints to single anything out. I can feel laughter and disappointment and children shouting and adults tossing their worries and frustrations aside for an afternoon or evening. If what you say is true, and there is someone here, I can't pin point it because of the interference."
This was bad. Rodimus was expecting a certain 'yes' or 'no', but too much noise? "What can we do? What can we do to reduce the noise?"
She looked frustrated and shook her head. "I might be able to work it out if I had another psychic here. We could channel the noise. But other than that, I'm not sure what to do."
Streets stepped up. "That other gal Optimus talked to, she might be able to help."
Rodimus nodded. "Good idea, Streetwise. It's not too late yet; see if you can contact her."
They didn't have to wait long. Ashlyn arrived and drew her coat more closely about her body, folding her arms. "I didn't get the whole story. What are we doing here?"
Rodimus courteously knelt and sensed a slight air of fear from her. "A friend of ours had a nightmare two nights ago. She described this field and a group of people and said she suspects someone might be buried here."
Ashlyn scanned the football field. "I see. I can sense there was a trial here once, wasn't there? Something about an oil field and stolen energon and 'Berger'?" She gazed back. "Not Sean Berger of Berger Industries, is it?"
Rodimus gave her a wry smile. "I don't have first-account details, but yeah, there was a frame-up several years ago and Central City held a trial and found Optimus and the other Autobots guilty.(1) Optimus complied with the exile. He found out later that if he had resisted, instead of following his instincts, Berger would have released a virus killing both Autobots and Decepticons."
Streets stared at his leader in shock. "I didn't know that. Optimus never said anything of the sort! Everyone was so mad at him for making such a dumb decision!"
"Yeah." Rodimus sighed heavily. "He doesn't talk to me, either."
The ladies moved across the field first, walking completely parallel with one another. Rodimus watched while they kept their heads high, their senses stretching to the finest limits of their own life force.
Tolomsky remained behind Streets, crunching on a small supply of pretzels. His eyes shot back and forth across the field, glancing at one seat, then the whole stand. He gazed at the bright white lamps above and the scoreboard standing south of the field. His breath fogged when he sighed in weariness and wished he had coffee.
Mrs Jamison turned from her position in the centerline and produced a small 2-way radio. "I don't sense a damn thing here, Streets. Not a single shred of death."
Tolomsky grunted, disappointed. But he wasn't about to give up. "There's gotta be something we're overlooking."
Rodimus bowed his head and crossed his arms. He was tired and worried that maybe Rusti had been wrong. It was pretty seldom she would have such notions, if at all. But whatever had brought on this vision, strained her terribly.
Roddi's optics narrowed. Maybe that's what was wrong with Optimus. Maybe that's what was wrong with him. Maybe.
Ashlyn returned, hands in her coat pockets, her scarf cuddled close to her neck. "What exactly did your friend say? Maybe it's not the location so much as the event that she saw."
"She said she saw a warehouse out by the football field and heard a lot of chanting. A group of people in costumes stood in a circle around another group of people tied lying on their backs-"
"Wait." Ashlyn held a finger up for attention. She turned away and walked about twenty-five paces east. "Chanting. Here." She stopped at the thirty-count and turned back to the group. "Okay. Okay, is there a warehouse somewhere nearby?"
"Used to be." Tolomsky grunted. "Till they tore it down some years ago."
Both psychics stared at him and the Chief shrugged. "There was a . . ." his face fell dreadful pale, his eyes widened. "They found someone committed an act of cannibalism . . ." He couldn't swallow.
Ashlyn pointed at him, picked up the vibration of his emotion and pointed as she turned clockwise, seeking another vibration just like it. She stopped about north by northwest. "There." She declared. "What's in that direction?"
Tolomsky shuddered. "That's . . . about where the warehouse used to be."
Ashlyn froze, unable to move from that center of energy. She stared in one solid direction for a long moment, not sure where to go from there.
Mrs. Jamison moved toward her, hoping to pick up on the signal and carry it forward. But she moved not more than ten paces when something shot up before her. She gasped, yelped lightly and gazed at her feet. In front of her lay a little bit of barren earth, easily taken for a gopher hole. She about turned to Streets when her eyes spotted at least a hundred people in the stands. "Where did they come from?" She asked her companions.
Rodimus followed her eyes but saw nothing. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"The people in the stands, Rodimus. All those people there."
"There's nobody here but us, Mrs. J." Groove assured her. But he digressed and he and Rodimus glanced at one another.
"Ashlyn?" Rodimus called.
Ashlyn spun about on her heels and pointed south. "There." She called. She pointed south by south west. "There." She spun west. There."
"Ashlyn." Roddi called again.
"She can't hear you." Jamison answered. "She sees only the life force of those murdered here."
"We need time to mark the places." Rodimus replied.
"She's not going anywhere. She can't. She's locked."
Roddi looked back at Tolomsky. "I think you'd better get
someone down here. It looks like Rusti was right."
Hot Spot and Rodimus watched, sick with horror as excavation crews, Groove, Blades and Streetwise dug up body after mutilated body in Central City's Morgan Stadium.
What infuriated Rodimus was the very same piece of land dedicated to a woman who lived to protect life, should be desecrated by religious fanatics. Morgan Stadium was dedicated to Jessica Morgan who risked her life to bring Optimus Prime back from the death throws of a supernova. She died shortly after the Hate Plaque, weakened by shock from injury during the Decepticon assault on Metroplex in 2012. Optimus deeply grieved her loss refused to attend the funeral.
Hot Spot shifted his weight and crossed his arms. "It'll be a mighty cold summer this year, Prime." He spoke softly, as though what he said was testament to what they were watching. "I'd just like to know how she knew."
Someone across the field cussed profusely and Streetwise carefully picked his way around. Rodimus watched while the Protectobot examined the area and talked at length with the Human worker. Finally, Streetwise lifted his optics and opened the internal comline. "Boss, it looks uglier than we thought."
"Lay it on me, Streetwise." Rodimus answered softly.
"Bones, sir. Looks like several bodies were buried here a long time ago. Hard to tell how many."
Rodimus' face turned impassive and he stared away. It seemed that whatever the Dopplegangers did, they had been doing it for quite some time.
The baby wouldn't stop crying. Netty did everything she could think of to quiet the child just long enough to get rest. Dr. Cynyr tried to talk above little Resonna's screaming, giving Netty a high dose of sleeping pills.
That was when Optimus stepped in. He was checking up on Captain Fairborn's status after a battle with the Quintessons just outside Pluto's orbit.
And the baby's crying quieted a little. She held a little arm out toward Prime, her weight distracting her mother and caused the diaper bag to fall off balance from Netty's shoulder. Netty tried to hand the baby to Cynyr, but the doctor rudely withdrew, unwilling to help. She turned to the Autobot leader.
"Would you mind holding her for a moment?"
Optimus lowered his hand and Netty practically dropped Resonna into his huge blue hand.
Resonna stopped crying altogether. She sighed, shivering. Netty stared in mute shock. What did that mean? The poor mother shuddered and dropped the bag.
"Optimus, would, would you mind too much watching the baby for a couple of hours? If I could just get some sleep-"
"Well . . . I really don't know much about babies, Netty." Prime admitted.
"Oh, it's real simple." The mother brushed. "You feed them, change their diapers and pat them to sleep."
"Oh. Ah-huh." Optimus didn't know everything, but he knew there was a lot more to babies than a simple feed-and-change system. However his optics caught the sight of the little girl fast asleep in his hand and that was about all it took.
He did try to send the baby to the EDC complex with one of the officers, but the baby just cried again the moment Lt. Baines took her. Optimus resigned with a patient sigh. He was stuck for the evening.
And he found he would be willing to do it all over again. The baths and the stories, the times he'd catch Roddi softly singing her to sleep, then chuckle sheepishly at Optimus.
Prime sighed in misery as he lay on his flatbed, trying to rest. He missed his baby bird.
Something pierced Optimus clear through and he practically jumped off his flatbed. He shot up with a sharp gasp and laid his hand on his chest.
Something . . . he dashed out his quarters and downstairs into the com room. Blaster turned with a quick choke.
"Man, I was just about ta call you, Prime!"
"What's wrong, Blaster?" He asked directly.
"Three idiots from that group attacked one of the Aerialbots in New York, started another fight. One of the Throttlebots fired and killed one person." For a moment, Blaster read anger in his leader's face and then it passed. Optimus glowered. "Very well. Contact Skyfire and tell him to meet me-"
Another radio transmission squawked though the airwaves just as Roddi stepped in, weary from a long ugly night. Blaster talked with whomever was shouting as Optimus sympathetically turned to his friend.
"Roddi." He said softly.
Rodimus wrapped his arms about himself and stared at the floor, sickened by the bodies they dug up. Optimus laid a hand on his shoulder and the Second didn't know whether to brush Prime off, or fall into his arms. But in front of Blaster and a couple of his aids, Prime did neither.
"Uh, we got a situation out on the highway." Blaster announced. He received weary glances from both Primes and it made him grin.
"What is it?" Optimus asked before thinking about ordering someone to carry Rodimus to his quarters.
"Something about a barrier on the road, blocking traffic." Blaster went silent, listening in again. 'No, make that two, one on either side of I-5 north and south."
"On the Gateside?"
"Well, south on the Gateside bound for Oakland here. But there's one on the I-5 for Yoncalla North-bound in Central City."
"Fine. I'll take Ultra Magnus and check it out."
Blaster turned completely around from his control panel. "But someone's gotta go to New York. Would you like me to send-"
"I'll go to New York." Roddi muttered.
"What?" Blaster asked.
"No you're not." Optimus argued.
"Someone needs to look at the blockades. And someone else needs to go to New York."
Prime shot him a dirty look and Roddi knew he was reneging on a promise. "I can sleep on the way to New York. Honest. Besides, you and Mags have better knowledge of this area, the aliens and so forth."
Prime said nothing, staring in disgust. "I seem to be a bad influence," he muttered and stomped past Rodimus.
Blaster heard it and waited until Optimus was out of the room before turning to Rodimus. "What's eating him?"
"He's worried about Rusti."
The wee morning hours welcomed the light of a terrible awakening for Douglass County's Fort Max and Central City population. All the main roads leading in and out of Central City and Fort Max between Umpqua/Oakland and the road en route to Black Butte and Cottage Grove, Oregon, were cut off.
Great dark shapes, like gods built of smooth metal, sat in the very center of the highways, prohibiting any to pass. Tall, they were, standing fifty feet, if not of greater height. And they remained unmotivated, either by laser fire, or by force of will or other weapon. They remained steadfast, gates leading into, but not out of hell.
EDC, Central City Police, Oregon National Guard, and Fort Max officials did everything they could to remove the extraterrestrial obstacles. From bullets to bombs, flame throwers, rocket launchers and cannon balls, acid of all strengths nothing scratched the surface. Officials came to two conclusions: A.) That the material had to be of unknown technology and B.) Central City and Fort Max were under siege and they had to declare a state of emergency.
Optimus Prime watched from a short distance while construction crews kept hacking away at the invulnerable block of darkness. He heard Magnus slowly stomp up the hill and without looking at his city commander, Prime tilted his head a little.
"They knew precisely what they were doing, Magnus." He said softly. "How in the universe did these things appear? Why didn't anyone report helicopters in the area? Or anyone crossing the roads at night? How could these things just suddenly be there?"
"No one saw a single thing. I have the whole city working double-shifts and still . . . you have to admit, the Dopple-gangers are good. They've thought of everything."
"No." Prime argued. "Not everything. There's still two options open for us."
Magnus nodded. "Air support and the railway."
"Right. And the Chapronite ambassador arrives this afternoon."
The two fell quiet. Magnus stared at the huge block of cold steel. Its reflective surface stood blue and white in the late morning sky. Humans and Autobots milled about its foundation, trying every conceivable means to damage it. Then Magnus stared at Prime and thought how much like the object Optimus seemed just then; unmoveable, unemotional.
And he wondered if there was anything left of the Optimus Prime he once knew.
Prime finally turned to him, his arms falling away as though suddenly burdened. "Ultra Magnus, I have to go to town. Bring the Dinobots out. Set them at post and meet me at the airport."
Magnus threw him a confused look. "The Dinobots, Prime?"
Optimus didn't answer him for a long moment. He gazed at the huge block. "You know what this reminds me of, Magnus?"
The city commander thought it over carefully and finally had to shake his head. But he thought again and set his hands on his hip plates. "The "Present of Peace" principle."
"Right." Optimus praised. "You bring something into a town, something people won't consider dangerous and later on, you spring a trap."
"And what do you think might be in that box?"
The words reminded Optimus of something else . . . something he was supposed to have done and simply forgot. He hated the stone. It reminded him of a coffin. A mausoleum.
A monster in the cold and the dark.
And he was so sorry he could not say anything. No one would either understand nor believe him.
It wasn't so important anyway. Not really. He laid a hand on his old friend's shoulder strut and wondered why Magnus put up with him so well. He silently left, knowing he just didn't have the ability to say anything at all.
It left Ultra Magnus cold and heartsick.
Magnus had to drag the Dinobots out of their football field in order to accomplish his objective. Well, it was more than that, actually. He had to admit that ordering Wheelie to tempt the Dinos out to the windy mountain roads by playing football with them was a bit underhanded.
Hmmmm . . . maybe underhanded was a strong word to use. Devious, scheming, twisted, deceitful . . . deceitful was a good word. He didn't tell Wheelie that the Dinobots, who had played football with Rusti on a regular basis, might confuse the little Autobot AS the football. How Rusti, a fragile human girl, could play such a rough game with the Dinos and not get flattened was a miracle.
Op and Roddi must have had a hand in that or something. At least, Magnus wouldn't put it past them.
"Keep it up, Wheelie!' Magnus cheered on. "You're doing a wonderful job!'
"Wheelie not like football!" The little Autobot complained as he puffed along the closed road. "Not a good career at all!"
"Rrrrrr! Me Grimlock say shut up and run away!"
Sludge transformed into his robot mode and lumbered hard after the little yellow bot. "What did he say?"
Slag merely chuckled and stamped the pavement with his huge rounded body.
Magnus and Hotspot watched from a safe distance as the Dinobots neared the great barricade. Upon arrival, all five Dinobots spotted the city commander and Grimlock shook an angry fist, but Magnus was too far away to hear what he said. Magnus was prepared for this too and had ordered Chase and Getaway to play with the Dinos until further notice. It wasn't necessarily a fair order, but it was the only way to ensure the idiot Dinos would not rebel too quickly and return to their lair.
After everything was in place, Magnus left the reigns to Brainstorm and Chromedome and made his way back. Wheelie caught up with him, a bit scratched and dented. He said nothing to his superior, but Magnus could tell he was pouting.
"I'm sorry, Wheelie." He finally answered. "I know you feel I was unfair. But it was the only way to get the Dinobots out of their comfort zone."
"Sorry, bigger bots try to plea, but they don't get stepped on like me."
"Well, if it's any consolation, you can accompany me to the airport. Optimus Prime is there now waiting for the Chapronite Ambassador to arrive."
"Oh, that's swell! Wheelie will live long enough for another tale to tell!"
"Uhmm . . . yeah."
Other than the shocking story of the great barricade holding the two cities at the mercy of would-be attackers, the population went about their everyday business. Shocking events was nothing new for Central City. They had suffered through Decepticon enslavement, a meteorite invasion, power outages due to Decepticon attacks, horrific storms and other things that would take too long a time to enumerate. These incidents were just another occurrence in the long line of happenstances since the Transformers' awakening in 1984. Even the bombs, the bodies, the bizarre circumstances around the Dopplegangers failed to frighten the populace into something less than living their lives.
For the most part.
Magnus led Wheelie over the Ribbon and across town northbound where the airport and Optimus waited. They came to Franklin Street and stopped at a light. The next street was crossed by the rail tracks and Magnus instantly remembered how Optimus pointed that the airport and the rail way were two systems of transport still leading into and out of the city.
It was indeed a frightening thought. Most people used the rail system; it was very cheap (another 'gift' of Berger Industries) and well-kept.
The light turned and Magnus and Wheelie proceeded forward and crossed the tracks down Lincoln and into the city's university district. They moved with up town traffic, stopping and going, slowing and stopping altogether. They advanced a little bit and someone cut in front of Wheelie. One red light. Two.
Groove honked from across the street and Magnus acknowledged him via interpersonal comline.
"I thought you would be with Streets and Blades."
"Nah." The motorcycle answered. "I had ta switch with Mr. Bright-and-Shiny since I needed more time to work on that disc."
"Sunstreaker?" Magnus clarified.
"Yeah. He was grumpy about it, though. They sent him to the VR Center."
"And what are you doing right now?"
"Nothin. Thought about going to join Springer. He has Upper level duty for a while yet. 'Aid says his shoulder joint still needs rewelding."
A flash of light crossed Magnus' scanners. He quickly searched the area for its origin, but dismissed it when he found nothing. "Well, Prime might need someone at the airport."
"Oh, goodie! I get to watch airplanes take off and land! Whoopee!"
Magnus mentally shook his head. The light turned and he and Wheelie pressed forward, obeying the pressure of crowded cars around them. They drove down five blocks, Groove not far behind them and the road curved right and under another pair of towering overpasses. Railroad arms lowered across the street and the metro train honked, warning of its arrival. Magnus, Wheelie, Groove and about twenty other cars around them waited while one train car after another came and went until-
The heat, the suddenness of the moment and the rush of the explosion tossed a white Honda and two Chevrolets end over end. The shockwave shoved Magnus back and tipped him over on his side. The explosion picked Wheelie up as though he were made of paper and tossed him into the nearby muddy slough. Groove fell on his side and transformed, shielding his head from the terrible heat as his body scraped the blacktop, pushed away by the wave. He tried to figure out what kind of a bomb would make such a tremendous impact.
Magnus transformed and tried to clear his rattled circuitry. He stood, albeit a bit shaky, his knees a little weak. He assessed the situation, still trying to clear his head. Five automobiles lay either on their sides or upside down, every one of them burnt to a crisp. Those two cars sitting at ground zero were melted from the front-ends, their tires now puddles of melted rubber, leaving the rest of the vehicles tipped-up as though bowing to the train. All the nearby plant life burned.
The train lay motionless, a car crossing the streets spilt off the railway, its side gutted and it too lay black and smouldering. Its position dragged six other cars off the track, three more threatened to tip over in like fashion. Survivors panicked inside two train cars away. Someone managed to punch open an emergency window from the back side of one car and people scrambled over each other like drowning rats. Magnus tried in vain to contact Max. He cussed under his breath and struggled to push the heavy train back on the tracks while Groove moved to help the survivors escape their would-be tomb.
"Wheelie?" He radioed.
The little Autobot transformed and pulled himself out of the muck. He looked very misplaced. Something was out of place; "Oh!" He smiled sheepishly and turned his whole body around until his head faced forward.
Magnus ignored him. The train proved heavier than he thought and he kept pushing. His optics scanned the destroyed cars, ascertaining that most of the passengers and drivers were quite dead. People, young and old added to the blood seeping from the cracks and seams of the derailed train. Automobiles lay about like so much roadkill.
Magnus watched as Groove helped a couple of ladies escape their turned-over minivan. The City Commander decided to abandon his attempt to set the damaged train upright. Too many people needed help until better assistance arrived.
Something bit his shoulder and the sudden pinch forced him to stop what he was doing. Magnus examined his shoulder and found a small projectile lodged in it. He wondered where the Human 'toy' came from. He heard no gun fire, no residual echo or high-pitched whine of a pulsar rifle.
He picked at the little doohickey stuck just under the surface of his superstructure, finding it nothing more than a nuisance. If the Humans were trying to attack him, Ultra Magnus was not impressed.
But his picking caused part of it to dig deeper into his arm while the other half exploded in his hand, blowing off the tips of his left thumb and index finger. He stared at his hand, surprised to be attacked in such a manner. It was amusing, really, like a Human trying to blow out one of those trick candles that looked like it was out, but the wick flared again.
Movement caught his optic sensors and Magnus gazed upward. To his right, he observed Groove helping two people assist a third out of his car. To Magnus' left, a human stood atop the blackened overturned train car. An exosuit of alien design encased his body in what looked like the skeleton of some strange animal. The skull of a bull crowned his head as the helmet, the horns arched like Death's arms open to receive new victims.
Ultra Magnus had never fired on a Human, never killed a Human in his entire life. He respected the children of Earth.
But this . . . that is to say, that he and his fellow Autobots always fought with Central City police to control criminals. But this went far beyond his comprehension. Sure there were criminals in every species. But the Dopplegangers had gone beyond mere criminality.
And that issue served only to confuse Magnus further.
Which was why he froze so hard.
A beast made of steel and extra-terrestrial metal roared from behind the buttresses and support beams of the two overpasses. People from the other side of the tracks who still sat huddled within their cars, waiting for help, abandoned their vehicles. Many tripped over their own feet and each other, screaming in uncontrolled reaction. It was the sound, it had to be because even Magnus, who had been fighting all his life, on both sides of the Cybertronian civil war, had never heard a sound quite like it. It screamed from a deep hollow throat. It appeared from under the passes pounding the blacktop with solid steel tires, heavily spiked for traction as though with claws. The vehicle had no cabin to speak of, or as far as Magnus could tell in three seconds. It was encased in the very same material that made the barricades on entrance and exit ways between Central City/Fort Max and the rest of the world. A twin barrel laser cannon sat proudly atop, the rest of the vehicle came with other laser weapons and rocket launchers of several varieties.
The vehicle roared as it sprung up on its back wheels, hauling its over-sized chassis over the fallen train. It came right at Magnus. The City Commander slipped right as the vehicle crashed hard on four crispy automobiles. People scampered in every direction as three police cars arrived.
Groove stood across the street, a swear word soundlessly touched his lip components. The truck was beautiful and ugly at the same time, dark and shapely.
Magnus fired a rocket and it might have had impacted had another monster vehicle not suddenly appeared. The vehicle rounded the other side of the train and blew away three cars, now emptied of Human life. Magnus' rocket slammed nearby the overpass. It tossed Wheelie right back into the ditch from which he climbed.
Magnus leapt as the second truck came for him. He sprung himself over, using the top of the alien vehicle for leverage as it passed under him and he landed behind it, firing at its backside.
The Doppleganger atop the overturned train car laughed behind a face mask and shot two people as they escaped. His laser rifle emitted powerful bursts of burning light, bursts that seared clear though the escapees.
Wheelie pulled himself out again and fired at the Dopp, but he wasn't aiming to kill the Human, just to incapacitate him. The Dopp merely stepped out of the way and shot back at the Autobot. The burst of light slammed square in his face. Without a sound, Wheelie flipped and rolled back into the sewer.
Groove wasn't so hesitant. He produced his weapon from subspace as 'Laughing Jack' shot down three more people. Groove fired and 'Laughing Jack' wasn't laughing anymore.
The second truck ran over cars like a mean-spirited boy tormenting a helpless animal. It aimed a harpoon at the City Commander and Magnus dodged it, but spurting acid splattered all over him. Magnus cried out and fell, his skin on liquid fire. The truck aimed to crush him with its solid steel spiked tires. He rolled out of its way and struggled to control his pain while his outer skin sizzled in his own audios. Magnus stood, shaking, and faced his opponent.
Ultra Magnus stared at the obscene terrorist as he danced victoriously. The Doppleganger tore off his mask and whooped and hollered, laughing until Groove shot him.
Magnus decided he wasn't fighting Humans; but evil taking on Human form. Surely no civilized, compassionate Human could be this cruel, this arrogant as to blaze a warpath destroying his own kind.
Whatever the Dopplegangers were, they were not Human; they had no Human soul.
Something shot straight into Magnus' chest and a set of blades snapped out, slicing and digging into components and circuitry. It cut power lines and hydraulics. It passed through muscle cables and lodged itself into his endoskeleton and yanked. Magnus crashed violently, unable to cry out. The second truck roared and sped away, dragging Magnus down the street, shocking his frame with bouts of raw power. Magnus' body twitched and jerked as electricity overloaded him, threatening to blow him to pieces. He managed to draw his useless gun from subspace. But his arm kept bucking. He forced himself to concentrate in spite of searing agony. He fired a single shot up the tailpipe.
The truck blew out from below and one scantily-clothed Human abandoned the now-useless vessel. He jumped all the way down, not so much as losing balance. He bore a huge weapon in his arms and stared at Magnus who was too weak to move now. His systems all but shut down.
Groove scampered to help the Big Guy as the vehicle dragged Magnus down the street. But the first truck screeched right and fired, slamming Groove's backside. The Protectobot cried out and fell flat. The Police tried to shield him, firing at the truck as its solid metal tires ate up the road and sidewalk, meaning to finish the injured Autobot.
"No!" Grove waved the police off like so many flies. "Save them!" He meant the injured people who stood in the line of fire. Groove's insides smouldered and he coughed twice, his own strength giving way while his life blood flowed over the street. He fired at the truck again, watching while each laser blast simply bounced off the alien vehicle's chassis.
It occurred to Groove he was going to die. The truck shot a harpoon into his chest, frying his circuits with electricity.
Groove briefly wondered if he was going to be a Harley in Heaven.
The Humans climbed atop Magnus, a scenario, it would seem, of Gulliver, conquered by the Lilliputians. Distantly, the City Commander heard the first alien truck roar its battle cry. He heard laser fire and struggle as his mind did, he could not get his body to move.
The Dopp standing on him, convulsed as though in an epileptic seizure. Magnus could not believe his own optic sensors as he watched the Doppleganger contort, his body bulged and heaved and his whole form divided in half, front from back and in seconds, there were two of them, two of the very same person. They jumped off and dividing their gun, they stood on either side of Magnus' arm and shot it clear off.
Fluids poured from the wound and Magnus weakly struggled. But the lance, lodged deep inside him, only pressed against a vital component, threatening to crush it.
The twin terrorists made their way to his left leg and aimed to shoot it too. But a laser from elsewhere spat and missed one of them. Both twins turned and fired at Wheelie, slicing his arm at the shoulder and puncturing a deep wound in his right side. Wheelie fell with a pitiful moan, collapsing and rolling, once again into the ditch.
Then one twin exploded, fragmented like meat in a blender, splattering all around Magnus' knee.
"Get that train up and watch your feet!"
The remaining terrorist proceeded to blow Magnus' leg apart but he too ended mostly vaporized.
Rodimus arrived with a screech of his tires. He transformed and checked Ultra Magnus while First Aid tried to dislodge the lance. Magnus attempted to say something, anything, to warn Rodimus. But his own mind fell dark with exhaustion and pain. Hotspot, Hosehead, Streetwise and finally Blades rushed in, organizing and assisting wounded into ambulances.
"Where's Groove?" Streetwise asked as he watched Hotspot transform and douse burning trees. Blades and Sideswipe opened a car like a tin can and helped emergency crews with other victims.
Rodimus glanced around, finding nothing more than injured and dead Humans, the now-smouldering truck and Ultra Magnus lying in a gathering pool of life blood. All the Autobot leader could do was gaze at Hotspot.
"Blades, keep your scanners peeled for Groove. Get these people out of here, that's got to come first."
Rodimus brushed a little dirt from Magnus' face. "I can't believe they would be this brave, go this far." He stared at the obliterated truck. "Hotspot, you don't think this was what Springer saw when he was attacked, do you? You don't think there might be more of these?"
"Hard to tell, Sir." Spots replied quietly. He rained fire retardant at the train while Sideswipe and Hosehead pushed it back on the tracks.
Hotspot found the puddle of lubricant on the ground where Groove had lain. "Anybody see anything?"
"There was a huge truck, just like that one," an onlooker reported. There was a battle, but I'm afraid your friend's lost. They took off, carried him with them."
Hotspot gazed to First Aid as he loaded three more people in an ambulance. "I'm not getting any signal at all. If Groove is still alive, he's unconscious and unable to contact us."
"Your other friend there in the ditch tried to help, but the terrorists got to him."
First Aid left his place for the moment and scanned the ditch, finding Wheelie, his face destroyed, his naked optics staring up into the sky. The Autobot medic found life still flowed through Wheelie's circuitry.
Roddi remained beside Ultra Magnus while they waited for Skyfire to arrive and transport him home. First Aid did a little emergency welding to keep Magnus' arm from bleeding further. Roddi held his friend's trembling hand, wondering how the Dopps could have attained such technology. They had to have help. And it wouldn't, couldn't be from anywhere on Earth, even if they were assisted by COBRA.
Magnus' optics dimmed on for a moment and he tried to say something: "Two . . . two."
Roddi leaned forward, laying his hand alongside Mag's face plate. "Sshhhh. Later there, Big Guy. Later."
Skyfire arrived, almost dropping right on the blacktop. They kindly loaded Ultra Magnus and carried him off to Fort Max while the others remained to clean up.
The Chapronites were of the most mysterious alien species encountered by any planet. They literally looked like walking stick figures. They produced a cloud of darkness about them that acted as a self-contained environment. Sometimes the cloud changed, reflecting the creature's mood. Chapronites had no heads in the conventional sense. Their tall slender bodies were exceedingly agile. Their voices came in disturbing, hushed tones. Some psychics claim Chapronites held many secrets; 'many darknesses'.
Optimus was very much aware of their 'darknesses'. He felt it as Nok, the Chapronite ambassador, approached with a Scutzoid towing his luggage.
"Welcome, Nok." Prime gave him a Cybertronian greeting.
The tall creature, who stood as tall as Optimus himself, slipped a bracelet round his left hand. He touched what might have been his chest and the bracelet lit up. "Greetings to you. Optimus Prime, Leader of Autobots. Here. We come. Greeting. Just arrived off Centaurus."
"Ahh." Optimus nodded. "And have you met the Ambassador there?"
"Much power that one. Direct."
"Yes." Optimus agreed with a slight smile. He led his guest from the milling crowd and down the third floor. "I understand he was considering a new contract with the Gwadarians."
"Seeking to replace space station. He sends message to you."
"Not forsake original plans. Stay target."
Prime stared at Nok, almost astounded. He considered abandoning the project on Mars. He felt so burdened with responsibilities that Prime was unsure whether or not to continue overseeing the new fortress-city. Fort Zenith was taking longer than he hoped, but with this advise, Optimus decided not to abandon it after all. It would be costly, but perhaps more costly to do otherwise.
"Other considerations." Nok directed. Optimus attended as they stepped onto an escalator leading to the second floor. "Chapronite DNA not what you think. Not connected to Dopplegangers. Insulted by thoughts and rumors. Displeased by rumors."
At first Prime wasn't sure what he was talking about. Then it dawned on him; the conference room, the DNA pattern found in the Doppleganger's blood. "Ambassador, I'm . . . shocked you know. Who told you about that?"
"No. There was no consideration. We found a DNA strand in his blood that resembled Chapronite DNA, but no other conclusions were reached. I don't know who released that information. But I assure you we are not pointing fingers at anyone at this point."
"Not create rumors? Not considering Chapronite guilt?"
"No, Ambassador. I am sorry you heard it. It was not to leave the conference room."
"Good. Chapronites enjoy here. Earth nice place."
Optimus glanced at the Ambassador and could tell the Ambassador was staring at him. It sent surges down Prime's back.
Thunder billowed across the clear blue sky outside and its vibrations shattered the glass windows on the eastern side. Optimus gazed left and watched as fire licked a plane into a cinder. He cussed inwardly and jumped the rest of the escalator.
No sooner had Nok and his assistant walked off the escalator, than it too blew, sending many people plunging to their deaths.
Another plane blew, a great cloud of fire and smoke rose toward the heavens, sending a burnt offering of Human sacrifice.
A third plane entered the roadway and tried to land. Optimus leapt out and jumped two stories down, dashed across the lot toward the remaining plane.
From a nearby hanger a hideous wail sounded. Part . . . alien? Part alien animal? Optimus could not guess. Something ripped through the north-western wall and a huge truck, at least the size of Skyfire, leapt into the air. It shot a missile and blew the third plane. It landed hard, imprinting the ground and cement with solid steel tires.
Prime stepped back from the hot wind, horrified by both the destruction and the vehicle that caused it. The truck roared, its engine anxious. Optimus took on a fighting stance, waiting for the Dopplegangers to make the first move.
The truck advanced in a frenzy of sound and it shot one rocket after another, blowing one standing plane. Two. Three.
Each time they aimed at Prime, missing entirely. Optimus directed several shots at the alien monstrosity and each time, he raised the power on his laser rifle, finding laser fire did nothing to the vehicles' exterior.
A second truck leapt from another hanger as the hanger exploded behind it, framing the strange vehicle in a cloud of bright fire.
It was enough to distract Optimus and the first truck shot him, slicing into his left arm. He fired into the barrel of its rooftop cannon. The top section of the vehicle blew, the rest of it collided with the third plane's wreckage.
The other truck shot a harpoon. Optimus ducked and fired a wide shot. Something bit him behind the right shoulder and he could feel it burrow its way under his skin. Optimus reached round to pull it out but it slipped into him before he could grab it. Another object bit him behind the left leg and again on the left side of his lower back. Mosquito bites, really.
Rather than allowing it to distract him, Optimus gave it no further thought and aimed a shot at the truck. It roared to its back feet like a demonic stallion. Optimus fired a shot at its underside, getting no better a result than when he fired on its upper chassis. It fired three missiles, two zoomed right past Prime, the third swung back around and Optimus spun, meeting it head-on with his fist. It pop-flew and plunged into a communications link-up tower.
The truck shot another harpoon, this time nailing Prime in the right leg. They sped away, yanking him off balance. Optimus slammed on his back and struggled in vain as they dragged him toward another hanger. Prime managed to aim his weapon at the chain and would have fired had they not zapped him with a pulse of electricity. It fried the inside of his leg and he nearly lost his rifle. He concentrated again, straining to ignore the agonizing pain in his right leg. He aimed for the tailpipe and fired, the but truck swerved left, his aim missing altogether.
A terrorist encased head to toe in armor climbed out the moving vehicle, only her hair proving it was a 'she'. She aimed a shot at his neck. But the truck rammed into a cement divider, causing her to miss her original target. Her aim shot into Prime's chest and she cussed in French. She aimed again but Optimus lifted his rifle before she could pull the trigger and the exosuit proved no contest.
Optimus shot the harpoon at the source and the truck swerved out of control. Prime rolled three times before lying face down and aimed one shot up the truck's tailpipe. No, he shot three times, each in a different direction but the forth shot sent the vehicle in a blaze of yellows.
Sirens blared from afar and Prime struggled to his feet. Pain shot through his shoulder and leaked down his arm. It was followed by the other 'bites' to his back and leg. It dug its way into his chest and Optimus ordered himself not to feel any pain. He sought his shoulder with his damaged left arm, searching for any exterior attacker, but realized he was being eaten up with acid on the inside.
From the blaze of the last truck, two Dopps in armor stepped calmly out. They produced two very large guns and walked up to the disabled Autobot leader. Optimus noted how they were the exact same height, the same shape, and under their helmets, they had the same eyes. And the two of them aimed their stolen Semi-solar .19s at him.
A battle cry sounded from the sky and Dogfight swept low, zooming right over the Dopp's heads, laughing. He came right back, flipping in a loop-de-loop and blew the two men away.
Quasar landed just before the police arrived. Dogfight proceeded to douse the fires while Quasar checked on their leader. Optimus was bowed over, grasping weakly at his right arm. It melted in several places and he was leaking badly.
"Commander," she whispered. "We're going to get you out of here."
He gazed at her with wide optics, a sense of urgency plastered his face. "No." He weakly objected. "There might be survivors in those planes. The ambassador-there was an explosion in the building-"
The technician shook her head. "There's nothing we can do right now."
Sirens shut off as emergency crews filed out their vehicles, dragging equipment with them. Quasar watched a moment while Dogfight put out the fire that continued to eat what was left of the second hanger. The airport was all but destroyed. EDC crews hauled out two and three survivors at a time. She looked back at Optimus who trembled and vainly tried to pick at his weapon. She stood, laying a hand on his shoulder.
"Dogfight," she called. "We have to get him out of here now. He's in shock."
"This fire isn't out yet."
"The emergency crews can handle that. Come on." She turned back to Optimus and proceeded to aid him to his feet.
"I can stand. I'm alright." Optimus insisted.
"No, you can't" she argued. And she slipped under his damaged left arm and guided him in as Dogfight transformed and opened the hatch.
Magnus activated his optics. A dimmed room occupied by life support systems and monitoring devices greeted him. He had no sense the time; he somehow managed to loose track of it.
He sensed someone else in the room and turning just to his left, discovered he was right. Optimus sat in a nearby chair, silently going over a digipad, slowly drinking a tankard of energon.
Prime glanced up from his pad and took another sip of energon. "Hello, old friend." He greeted in quiet, deep tones.
Magnus said nothing at first. He spotted the wrapping lining both of Prime's arms and his right leg. "It seems they picked a fight with you too." He mused.
"Hmm?" Optimus followed Magnus' stare and seemed a bit sheepish for the moment. "Oh. Yes."
"I guess Kup's already given you a lecture about going anywhere by yourself."
"Well, no. Not yet, anyway. Besides, you were going to meet me there. I wouldn't have been alone if they hadn't gotten to you first."
Magnus said nothing, scrutinizing his friend with a more intense gaze. Optimus was hiding something again. He was fidgeting with the digipad now and he tore away his optical contact. But it was futile to try to pry anything from him, that much Magnus knew. There was a time when Optimus talked to him. But that was long ago. That was before 2005, when times were a little less grave. The war was with the Decepticons and things were seemingly more simple.
Optimus stood, albeit slowly, as his right leg could not take much weight yet. He dragged his chair closer to the bedside and turned the digipad face down. Magnus guessed Optimus was here to hide from First Aid. It was amusing in some ways. First Aid swore up and down that Prime was the worst patient. He wouldn't do anything he was told.
"I'm sorry, Old Friend." Optimus' voice came soft, slow.
The apology shocked Magnus into a blank expression. He wasn't looking for this at all. What was wrong? There were times when he'd swear Prime could read his mind. He wouldn't really be surprised if Optimus did. After all, he wasn't the Autobot leader because he was an idiot.
"I haven't been fair to you lately." He looked away, ashamed of himself, of circumstances he felt he created. "Not fair to anyone." He gazed back and the look on his face struck fear in Magnus, an old fear that perhaps this would be the only time he would talk heart-to-heart to an old friend. Perhaps the final time he would see Optimus open and honest. There was a hint of urgency in his friend's voice, in his actions. Optimus trembled, just ever slightly.
"I don't know how to tell you this. I don't know how else to say it. But something's wrong. And it's not something First Aid can fix." He paused, glancing about himself and when he continued, his voice fell to hushed tones, fearful of being heard. "I don't know what's wrong. I don't believe in what's wrong. I know I'm not making any sense. But . . . whatever it is, it's not with me for the moment. You can't do anything." Again he glanced around him, down at the floor and toward the darkest part of the room. "It's . . . its feeding on me. Every day I feel a little more of myself drifting into nothing. I feel nothing, I feel for no one." He glanced about the room again, but not as though searching for someone, more in dread of what he was trying to say. "A veil of darkness is covering me. I don't know how else to say it. I don't know how else to tell you. Except, that I'm sorry." He made optical contact again and Magnus could swear a drop of liquid fell from Prime's right optic. He had never seen anything like it before.
Magnus struggled against the monitoring devices that clung to him. "Let me help." He begged. "I'm your friend. We've been friends for a long time. Why won't you turn to me now?"
"Because I don't want you contaminated. I don't know the source of this . . . thing. I don't know if it will transfer to Rodimus or not and one of us has to keep a clear head. Magnus, if I loose my mind, if I do something unspeakable, swear to me you'll assassinate me!"
"No!" Magnus shot back. "No! We have always been there for each other. Just like right now, you've sat there for hours waiting for me to wake up. And at what expense? No! We have to be there for each other. I am your support."
Prime stood and paced a moment. His breathing came ragged, his limping pace indecisive and fast. Finally he darted to Magnus and bent over so that he spoke only in Magnus' audio. "Are you prepared to descend into darkness? Can you look upon madness and not loose your own mind? Have you ever danced with a devil?"
He withdrew, but Magnus caught his arm and held his hand fast, refusing to just let Prime walk out on him.
"You were sent back to us, Prime." He sternly answered. "By some miracle, some unforseen event brought you back to us and I'm not letting you go without a fight. I may not have the answer right now. But we need you. If we're about to walk through the fires of the pit, we need you to be with us."
Optimus gave him a final glance and the sorrow that masked him struck Magnus hard. It was the worst thing he had ever seen; despair in its purest form.
Optimus slowly walked toward the door.
"No!" Magnus tried to get up, forgetting that he was injured and had lost a lot of fluids. It prevented him from leaving his flatbed. "Optimus, don't walk out! Let's talk! Prime!"
But the door hissed shut, leaving Magnus alone in the dark. The city commander kept trying to get out of bed. One connector broke and set off an alarm.
First Aid and an assistant rushed into the room and pushed the big guy back on the flatbed. "What under Heaven are you doing?" The Protectobot doctor demanded. "You're too weak to be moving around like this!"
"Optimus." Magnus answered stubbornly. "I have to get to him."
"Nonsense. He's in intensive care, has been all day. No one can see him right now."
"But, he was just in here a minute ago, talking to me."
First aid reattached the monitor device and gave Magnus a laser shot to help him relax. "Prime isn't going anywhere, he hasn't seen anybody. He's been in intensive care all day, just like you. Now lay down."
"But he was talking to me." Magnus rested his weary head, his expression reflecting confusion and disorientation. It was Optimus. He swore to it. He swore to it.
But then, Optimus also said on occasion how he enjoyed the freedom of the battlefield far more than the chains of diplomacy lying around his desk. Digipads piled everywhere on Roddi's desk and there were three more stacks of them waiting on the floor. He had worked so long and concentrated so hard that he had forgotten the music he was listening to had ended, leaving him in a sea of silence.
Someone knocked at Roddi's office door. And the Autobot leader found himself surprised to even hear any sound at all. He stared at the door before remembering he was supposed to answer. "Enter." He greeted.
Rodimus expectantly stared up. Then he looked down. A woman stood in a business suit, holding a black portfolio in one hand, her purse in the other.
"Hi." She greeted. "I'm Lace Ordaz. Rusti's case worker?"
Rodimus stared at her blankly. "Uhhm . . . okay. Uhm . . . okay. What's . . . no one's said anything about you."
"Prime didn't tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
"He hired me . . ." She stopped and smiled. "Well, let me get right to the point. There's been an incident . . . with Rusti? I just received a report from Antelope Medical Clinic. And I think you should like to know what's going on."
And right then Rodimus realized exactly what Optimus meant by 'that sinking feeling'.
Several days passed as Prime and Magnus slowly recuperated. The death toll continued to escalate in Central City. Another hit-and-run raid with hospital records had authorities yanking out their hair. They scoured everything, searching for prints, hair, weapons, clothing, cigarette butts; anything to indicate mistakes made by the perpetrators. But nothing offered any leads.
And three days later, twenty-nine more people disappeared.
Distraught, the mayor was finally forced to call a city staff meeting and declare marshal law. The meeting was very ugly. All the city officials, both Autobot leaders and the chief of staff of the National Guard and EDC officials really couldn't agree on more than one thing; that the city would have to be suppressed in order to bring the culprits to justice.
"Whaddoi look like here?" Mayor Sprintlin shouted above the clamor. "Am I supposed to be a god 'r something? Eh? You guys figure out a better way and I'll just sign my name on it." He thumped down in his chair.
"That's not acceptable." Diane Stokes of the local newspaper media declared. "You're going to prohibit the freedom of the population because someone is trying to disrupt daily life?"
"I'm with Frank on this one." Tolomsky popped a sunflower seed in his mouth. Most of those who heard him glared. "No, I'm serious." He insisted. He stepped to an erase-a-board that contained the map of Central City and set his palm in the center. "Folks?" He waited for them to attain some civility. "Folks?"
Someone whistled loudly enough to get their attention.
"Thanks, Don." Tolomsky nodded. "Look, we''ve got eight places completely closed down, now under clean up and reconstruction. Even the Autobots can't keep up with all the madness. And believe me, people, they've been right there from the beginning. Something's gotta break here. Cause we're at our limits. I don't have any fresher patrols than what's out there already. I don't have any emergency resources. I've even thought about calling Seattle and asking them to sneak us some of their boys via airplane. They've attacked our airport and crippled the comm tower there. They've attacked our railroads. Is anyone here aware that the train bridge between Gapper's Peak and Fort Max was blown the same time Ultra Magnus was attacked? How's this look, people? Hu? Look, instead of chewing up and spitting each other out, we should pull together. No more pointing fingers and accusations. We all want the same thing. I wanna go to bed tomorrow night and sleep a full eight hours without tossing and turning in worry; is my family next? K?" He glanced at Optimus. "Prime, I think you said you wanted to say something?"
"Yes, Chief Tolomsky. Thank you. Last week we hired another telepath. We're prepared to hire more and get them in here if necessary and station them throughout the city."
Optimus paused and he and Roddi glanced all around the room, checking reactions. Rodimus bowed his head slightly. <<Seems they're taking it well enough.>>
<<You think it's safe to go on?>>
Optimus continued. "So far we have been successful in recovering other bodies. The next step will have to include all your departments."
Diane stood and held a hand in the air. "Wait a minute." She announced. "You mean each of us will have to employ a psychic?"
"No." Rodimus interjected. "But we are recommending dog teams."
Suddenly the whole groups' manner shifted into a more relaxed mode. Diane sat back down and wrapped her hands about her cup of coffee. Optimus inwardly sighed and felt a tug of sadness. He needed to see Rusti. He needed to know if she was okay. "Here's what we suggest:" he continued, "There will be four patrol shifts consisting of dogs, military, police and a few telepaths. There will be overlapping in all areas."
Rodimus shifted from his position on the floor. "What we're trying to do is look for the ordinary that's not so ordinary. We figure that's how they're operating so well. They look like everyone else. So far we have been able to determine the Dopps operate as twins. We don't know how it works yet, nor can we distinguish between them. We're still just going to keep an optic out for things that's not quite so common."
"Shape shifting?" Aaron of Utilities Commission asked.
"Not quite." Rodimus answered. "Something more like leather jackets in summer temperatures." He received several nods. People were beginning to understand.
Optimus picked it up from there. "We also recommend more security around the schools. As you all know, there's been several children disappearing over the last few days. This is a very critical and dangerous time. We have limited resources and no way of telling when the Dopplegangers will attack next."
Tolomsky leaned back in his chair, snapping the edge of an envelope on the table, guided his hand down its surface then swung it up and trailed his hand to the bottom again, repeating the process. "What we'll do is plan out what patrols go where and we'll start handing out assignments as early as tomorrow. I know you're all tired and scared, but people, let's keep our edges keen. Cause from here forward, it's war."
Sideswipe and Streetwise quietly flowed with the rest of traffic down Circumference Avenue. The three o'clock rush jammed traffic for three miles in every direction. Ever since the bombings, roadways were blocked and detoured, pressing the traffic in more constrained areas.
Streetwise impatiently waited for a light to change. He scanned the area around him, noting three cars with expired registration stickers and sixteen pedestrians waiting on the corner to cross. The pedestrians were given way first and one impatient driver revved his engine.
"Hmph." Sideswipe accidently snorted over their internal comline.
"Whatsat?" Streetwise asked automatically.
"Hu? Aw, nothing. Just noticed a set a' twins on the crosswalk."
"Nothing. Just that I saw a set of twins."
"Where?" Streets instantly demanded. He scanned the area. "Where?" He kept searching the sidewalks parallel to their position then he scanned those crossing the street and spotted them. "Oh, Primus!" And without thinking, Streets transformed and leapt for the humans.
"Streets!" Sideswipe called after. "You're not supposed to do that!" But he transformed and did the very same thing. Mid-traffic transformations were not good protocol, but Autobots, whose very nature it was to just switch modes, found it hard to remember. And as excited as Streetwise was, the whole Earth could condemn him to the Pit if he could just get his hands on one or both the twins. His friend leapt after him in traffic, frightening drivers, upsetting others so that they honked or shouted profanity.
The twins spotted the Protectobot hot on their heels and the two split up, each heading in opposite directions.
"Primus!" Streets cried out. "NO! Sides, grab one of them! We can't let them get away! They know where Groove is!" He chased one down the sidewalk and in a back ally. The guy could sure run!
And then, he disappeared-just like that.
Streetwise choked back a cry of dismay. But he could still hear the guy dashing away from him. He tried to switch scanners to pick up body heat and made another run for it. But it was impossible-how was this Human able to outrun him? And then the guy disappeared altogether? It sharply reminded the Protectobot detective of the incident at the soccer game a few weeks ago-the binoculars that just floated in the air. And then they too disappeared. How were they able to do that?
"Streets!" Sideswipe called behind him. He grabbed Streetwise by the arm to get his attention.
"No!" Streetwise cried out. "Let me go! I gotta go after him! He knows where Groove is! I gotta get to him!'
"There's nobody there!" Sideswipe shouted. He waited until despair covered the Protectobot's features and defeat forced him to calm down.
"They got Groove." Streetwise moaned.
"I know." Sideswipe answered evenly. "But reacting like a madman isn't going to help him. You need to think, to concentrate on getting these guys. Now stand up, soldier! Use your processor!"
Ultra Magnus' words hit him and Streetwise stood straight and cleared his mind. Fear and worry for his brother had clouded his judgement, obviously. But Sideswipe was right, he needed to concentrate on the task at hand. "I'm sorry, Sides." He finally mumbled.
"Forget it. Here. Tell me what this is." Sideswipe gave Streets a small plastic bag with something in it.
"What's this? The Protectobot asked.
"A present the guy I was chasing dropped. I didn't look in it, thinking you might want dubbs on the first peek. Wanna tell me what it is?"
Streets examined it carefully. 'It's a plastic Kmart shopping bag."
"Yeah." Sideswipe answered sarcastically. "I can't read, I guess. What's in it?"
Streetwise carefully unfolded the bag and found a small black object the size of a celphone. At first Streets thought it was a celphone. Then his ol factory told him of fresh popcorn remains in the bag itself. The celphone had a countdown sequence of approximately ten minutes. "Oh gawd. It's a detonator!" He gasped.
"Where? Kmart?" Sideswipe guessed.
"Where else? Come on!"
It took them five blocks before they could weave their way through traffic into a right turn. Once there, Streetwise rounded Sideswipe and dipped into a shopping center down the hill. He transformed in front of the Kmart store and started to encircle the building searching for obvious clues on the outside. Sideswipe smiled at a few pedestrians while Streets finished his outside scan. Then he picked up a gleep broadcasting over his comline. He crossed the garden center twice. "It's here!" He called.
Sideswipe joined him a minute later and shook his head as his impetuous companion withdrew his right hand and produced a pair of wire cutters and split the chain link fence. Shoppers withdrew as the two Autobots carefully picked their way around plants and gardening equipment.
An employee pointed toward them for his boss who stomped right for them. "Hey!" Her round little mouth shouted. "You can't do that here! Take your inquisitive little selves and-"
"Sorry." Sideswipe cut the squat little rat-like female short. "We think there's a bomb here."
Streetwise shot him a dirty look. That was way out of protocol but Sideswipe rarely paid attention to tact. Always the blunt sort; Sideswipe just told it like it was and that was it. Well, after all, he was a warrior, a good one, but he was no make for diplomacy-unless it was shotgun diplomacy, that is.
The Kmart manager's jaw dropped past her collarbone and Streetwise shrugged. "Sorry. But he is telling you the truth."
"Gawd!" She dashed off and started shoeing people out the whole backside of the store then called other department managers and ordered them to quietly ask people to leave their things and exit the store.
Streetwise and Sideswipe kept searching around the area, not seeing anything. Streets began to wonder if he hadn't made a mistake.
After another eight moments, he turned back to Sideswipe. and shook his head. "Maybe I made a mistake." He said softly.
Sideswipe gave him a small smile. "Nobody's perfect." He answered sympathetically. But it didn't seem to help Streets' confidence. They passed a bird bath on their way out and Streets suddenly stopped and peered at the concrete decoration. He closely examined it, picked it up and saw nothing. Then he glanced once at Sideswipe and picked up the whole table of plants and tossed it aside and pulled up a loose slab of concrete and sure enough, there was a rather large, but flat bomb-with a force field protecting it.
The Autobot squatted down before his new toy. Sideswipe stepped away and contacted head Quarters, informing Ultra Magnus of the condition. In another fifteen minutes, Blades whirled overhead while people poured out the building and ran for their cars. Streetwise concentrated on the intricate designs of the bomb. It wasn't anything like the others which were simple black boxes with scanners. No, this one was set to trigger the moment the force field was disrupted.
Hot Spot bent over to avoid the net overhang in the garden center and silently knelt on the other side of the bomb while Streetwise continued to study it. He waited anxiously, struggling to remain silent.
"Groove is so much better at this kind of thing than I am." Streets moaned.
"Just do the best you can, Streetwise." Hotspot answered softly.
Streets did what he could to read what he was looking at. He turned it over and over very carefully, hoping he could undo the detonation in less than six minutes. He carefully scanned it, hoping his action would not trigger anything overly-sensitive. Then finally he got a reading. "This has a double back-up system." Streetwise finally assessed.
"Well, two force fields, each going in two different directions. There's two off-set devices and two timers."
Streetwise finally gazed up at the Protectobot leader and looked a bit grim. "This is almost not even the work of our little troublemakers. Seems someone else planted it. But, the style is in direct keeping with the others. It's just a different type."
"Can you disarm it?"
Streetwise studied it a little more as bomb squad teams, emergency crews and the local fire department arrived. Police and National Guard also arrived and blocked off the entire shopping center, insuring all citizens had evacuated the area. Streetwise suddenly gasped. "Hot Spot!" He cried, "I just realized something! If there's two of everything in this bomb, there has to be a second bomb here somewhere else!" He watched Hot Spot's optics glowed brightly and the Protectobot leader jumped to his feet and leapt right over Sideswipe and dashed to inform the bomb squad. They went right into action, entire groups of police and their dogs, the National guard and fire department all running into other buildings, tearing the places apart.
Meanwhile Streetwise pulled his mirrors out of subspace and ever so carefully inserted them into the force field beams at the same time.
Nothing happened. He nodded to himself. "Hey, I really need someone here. It's gonna take two people to disarm these things." He announced.
In a moment, Tolomsky and one of his 'geeky' kids arrived and Tolomsky watched while Sideswipe directed the kid to hold the mirrors while he and Streetwise started slicing wiring from the timers. They had to snip two wires at a time then unscrew the top layer of the bomb two screws at the same time. In so doing, they knocked the force field safely off line and bomb expert Delbert Burrell withdrew with a deep sigh of relief.
"You know," Sideswipe finally piped after a long moment. "We probably should have asked some of those evacuees if they saw anything odd or not."
"How do you mean?" Tolomsky popped a sunflower seed in his mouth and checked his watch, his blood pressure slowly rising.
"Well, it's just that, I think these bombs were just planted within the hour. Streets and me were just driving down the street when I spotted a set of twins and we gave chase. One of them was carrying a Kmart bag."
Tolomsky nodded and made a mental note of it.
Streetwise suddenly paused in his work and sat up on his elbows. "Come to think of it, I'm wondering how these twins exist at all. I mean, how are we seeing so many of them?"
He turned to Tolomsky who shrugged. "Don't look at me. I dunno the chances of seeing more than one set a' twins, myself. How would that have anything to do with the bombs?"
"I dunno." Streets confessed. "Just a thought, I guess." And he snipped a pair of blue wires entwined with a pair of white wires at the same time.
The bomb made a small click and a small hiss of smoke trailed up. Streets, Delbert and Tolomsky waited for the big boom, but nothing happened. Streetwise plucked up the slim bomb casing and sat back on his haunches. "I'd like to keep this, Chief, if it's alright with you. I think . . . I think Groove would like to have it."
"Hey, I personally don't like ta' keep stuff like that in the office. If you're right and the boys find the other, you're just about welcome to it!" Something screamed in Tolomsky's communicator and he pulled it out of his jacket. "Hey!" He admonished. "Let's be professional, here, people." He stepped over upturned plants and out the garden center. "Ah, hu. Okay, hold on." He turned back to Streets. "They found your other toy, jus' like you said." He dipped back into the celphone. "You gotta do everything in two's there, Larry. Yeah. Yeah. Hey, you got everything under control here. I'm going back for some aspirin. I gotta look into something else here. Okay. Yeah." And he kept grunting as he walked toward his car.
Sideswipe sat on the ground, turning the bomb over and over in his hands. Something was definitely amiss here. Really, the way he found the bomb didn't make sense. It was well hidden, but it had a very remarkable signal. Almost . . . as if . . . it was supposed . . . to be found.
And at that very moment, across town, two local gas stations blew up in a fountain fire.
Five days, sixteen hours, thirty-three minutes and seventeen seconds and counting. That's how long it's been since the last bomb struck Central City. Optimus sat atop Central Command just to get away from his office and steal a few precious moments to himself. He felt guilty neglecting his garden again. More plants died by the day, but he wouldn't appoint anyone to attend them. He just sat there, legs dangling over the edge of the rooftop and stared aimlessly over the city's second level. Slingshot and Skydive came in from patrol just as Scattershot and Blades took off on theirs. Ambassador T'thupav's shuttle landed shortly thereafter.
Optimus wasn't in the mood to talk to anybody. He had said nothing of the terrible premonitions he had suffered in the past few days. He fought despondency constantly. He missed Rusti terribly. Yet, he tried to respect the wishes of her parents. Optimus did not want to endanger his own relationship with the Witwickys. But they seemed determined to remain as far apart from the life at Fort Max as possible. So, Prime thought about checking on Rusti from a more subtle standpoint. He requested Douglas County to investigate, but that was over two weeks ago and he heard nothing since.
These things take time, he understood that. But he had a feeling time was the issue; they were quickly running out of it.
His fingers traced the contours of the digipad in his hands. He missed her!
No, don't admit it! Don't even think it!
And for damn sure, don't say anything to anybody! How many times had he let his guard down only to lose the object of his love later? He wasn't going to go through that again, never again.
And that was why Rusti was better off where she was. Or so he forced himself to believe. If she came here, if he made room for her here in his life, he'd lose her for sure and it was something he couldn't handle.
No more deaths.
On the other hand, the silence was killing him. Today alone he jumped from his desk three times, thinking he heard her little voice down the hall only to find either a pair of femmes quietly talking or worse yet, no one there at all. It was maddening, as though someone he loved had died, and his subconscious hadn't accepted the reality yet.
Prime sighed and tried to tear away from those thoughts. There were other things to think about; like the two other emergency rooms and a hospital clinic robbed of their records day before yesterday? The death rate now hit three hundred and six.
He sighed and tossed the digipad back on the floor. It clanked against four other pads. But he couldn't concentrate. What he needed was a good recharge.
Or at least, that's what he assumed.
A familiar pattern of feet entered his audios but Optimus did not turn to acknowledge Roddi as he approached.
Rodimus took a place beside Prime and stared at him for a brief moment. He glanced at the sunset, noting in passing the pink hues of the lower clouds. It wasn't a spectacular sunset and Roddi figured Optimus wasn't really up here to stare at it, either.
"Microchip for your thoughts." He asked softly.
He held his thumb to his mouth as though it were a microphone: "Cybertron to Optimus Prime, we are having technical difficulties in communications, could you repeat that last phrase?"
He tried once more: "Earth to Optimus Prime, come in, please."
Nothing. Just a dead stare into infinity. Rodimus smiled apologetically for his teasing and fell quiet. Other than emergency crews working round the clock to protect the city and the fire department's desperate endeavor to put out the gas station fires, it had been a quiet week. Rodimus, like Prime, waited for the worst to strike. Tolomsky kept them informed right to the second, calling them two, sometimes three times a day to let them know how things were. But the city still sat in dead silence. It was actually kinda scary. An air of uneasiness stretched everyone's nerves. The police, the military, the added agencies and psychics and dog teams; they were all poised for something big to happen.
And what were they doing right now? Sitting atop a building looking at a not-so extraordinary sunset.
"Calm before the storm." Roddi muttered.
"Calm before the storm." Optimus echoed softly.
And the two fell silent. Rodimus learned sometimes if he just sat there patiently enough, Optimus would open up to him.
"Roddi, how do you feel about custody?" Prime didn't know why he asked. He should not have brought the subject up, but there it was and he could not go back.
Rodimus flinched with the suddenness of Prime's question. He smiled lightly. "Sorry, Op, you're already adopted. We're stuck with you."
"I mean Rusti."
Rodimus almost wanted to hit Prime upside the head. Not one of his jokes creased Prime's emotionless face. Then Prime's statement sunk in. "Oh. Well . . . who'd you assign to take care of her?"
"We'll both chip in."
Rodimus flinched. "You?"
Now Optimus stared at him. Keep your feelings out of it, he told himself. "She's Spike's granddaughter, Roddi." He rationalized. "That makes her a priority. Spike . . ." Prime looked away again. ". . . did a great deal for us as a people and a species. We owe him something for it." He gazed back at Roddi, almost pleased with himself for the brilliant form of excuse. "And Rusti's in trouble." He didn't know whether or not to tell Rodimus he had already requested the investigation. He supposed if he didn't say anything now, Rodimus would find out later and blow his top that Prime didn't trust him enough to let him in on the plot. Optimus actually felt a little ashamed. He was doing this as much for himself as he was for Rusti.
How very selfish of him! Especially when he knew how much her family wanted her home! But . . . something else rationalized, she loves it here and wants to stay.
Rodimus stared hard at Optimus for a long silent moment. He closely examined Prime's face, searching. He settled down and looked very perplexed. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"
Optimus fingered the digipads on the floor beside him. He seemed to very much want to say something more, but could not. Dammit, He was such a tightwad! Rodimus thought.
Rodimus sighed resignedly. "Well, since you said we'd both chip in, how so? And where do we start?"
"I'm going to file for custody tomorrow morning, basing our request on her health. I'll have Dr. Hanson make a report based on her research regarding Rusti's depression and I'll ask Captain Fairborn to ask for certified letters regarding Rusti's behavior in school. It's not much, but it should be a good start."
Rodimus nodded. "I'll see if we can't get our hands on those other reports from the emergency room she was sent to two weeks ago."
Optimus shot him a surprised look. It was news he was not aware of. He paused, unable to decide what to say, how to react. But finally he did neither, merely casting his sad optics westwardly where Skylynx now landed on the space port, bearing precious supplies for the Twin Cities.
Then again Optimus threw Roddi an 'I-know-I-should-tell-you-but-I-can't look. Roddi threw him a knowing smile. He'd just kick Prime's afterburners later.
The city fell to an even more eerie silence, more disturbing than the silence of an oncoming icestorm. The news reporters ran a 24-hour vigil on the city. The police departments rushed to get all the paperwork they could finish before the next wave of disasters occurred.
Optimus counted them like the vibrations of his own laser core. What agony! The cities sat on the edge of a razor, waiting for the deadly stroke.
And Wednesday came.
At exactly 10:05 A.M. Blaster announced the sudden movement of an alien-design convoy of trucks heading right down Dionysus Ave.
"That's it!" Optimus declared in Fort Max's control room.
He swept his rifle off the table when Rodimus grasped him by the arm.
"No!" He objected. "I'll go. And I'll take Sideswipe and Skyfire with me."
"Rodimus-" Prime cut in,
"No," Roddi objected. "You and Mags suffered enough damage. Besides, someone needs to be here just in case Rusti calls and needs help."
Optimus stepped back, out of Roddi's grasp. That was a devious argument. But a valid one. If something were to happen, both Autobot leaders knew Rusti would make a beeline straight to Fort Max, straight for Home. Prime slowly nodded. "I'll be here." He answered softly.
"I know." Roddi whispered.
He transformed and raced away.
The gymnasium went first. An alien vehicle plowed through it as though the brick building were made of straw. Children and their teachers fled from the building as the floor scrunched up like an accordion. One teacher fell and was caught in the wake of the great tank-like vehicle. The Dopps paid no mind as they crushed the poor man under.
And then the killing began. The tank fired two and three missiles into the wings, obliterating entire classrooms at a crack. The science wing went first, a terrible fire erupted while down the main hallway, three huge bikes plugged the entrance and exit ways. Those Dopps bore the skeleton armor and carried huge alien-design guns, ripe for the overkill of their helpless victims.
The theater caught afire and the smoke billowed out in every direction. Children and teachers raced out the buildings like ants whose tree home blazed with deadly flames. Then the terrorists started shooting indiscriminately at the fleeing survivors, forcing others to race right back into the fire.
Two Dopps met their maker when Blades landed first. He shot down two and three at a time. He was surprised to see so many of them! Then he shot new holes into the building walls, allowing the prisoners to climb their way to freedom.
And once again, EDC, city police and the National Guard came racing to the scene. At first, the military and armored EDC officers managed to push the Dopps into a fight with them rather than attacking the children.
But not more than three minutes passed when another truck arrived, a tank, really, and it plowed right across the football field, over the basketball court and into the parking lot, blowing three vehicles left and right with a photon-pulse cannon. Streets and Sideswipe attacked it while Rodimus arrived and fired at three new biker groups as they came on the scene. One of them fired an acid rocket and having seen what one of those things did to Optimus, Roddi knew to duck and fire at the same time.
It did him no good. One biker shot him anyway, nailing him in the leg. He started shooting right back at them, finding his efforts proved futile; the bikers were using a force field to protect them from random fire.
One biker set up a bazooka and fired it straight into the front office, leaving a gaping hole in the side. Four people raced toward their freedom, only to get shot down by two other bikers. The bazooka biker turned to Roddi and fired, missing once. Rodimus raised the power on his weapon and fired, at least to knock the jerk off his bike. But two other bikers replaced him. One fired at the busses lining the other side of the lot, the other aimed at Rodimus, shooting two and three times until he nailed Roddi in the shoulder.
The tank shot at everything. EDC, Central City police, the military, the Autobots, even some of their own gang members got a taste of the tank's pulse cannon.
Sideswipe slammed into the tank's side, attempting to push it away from the fleeing crowd. The tank, so much larger than the red and black Autobot, merely swung its turret round about and aimed a shot, missing its agile opponent. Sideswipe back- flipped, transformed and revved his engine so that his wheels smoked, burning rubber. And the tank lumbered round, aiming to crush him. Sides screeched away, the tank rolled leisurely after, crushing vehicles and bodies alike in its wake. Sides zoomed across the parking lot and around the school yard, leading the tank away from the scene.
People and children flew in every which direction. Some were shot down right where they ran, their bodies trampled by those still trying to escape the madness. Vehicles roared as loudly as explosions and guns fired. Blades sought two Dopps who hid from him a moment ago. They had just downed six children and were busy planting a bomb alongside the cafeteria. He spotted one dashing out in the middle of the courtyard and nailed him.
But something bit his lower leg and he glanced down, wondering what it was that he might have stepped on. Something else shot at him, a little pin prick, really, but it agitated him enough. He glanced round about to take a look at that one when something else shot into his right lower arm and he tried to pry it out when it blew, taking his fingers with him.
Blades let out a yell of pure irritation and fired at everything that moved. But he was unsuccessful and five and six more acid bombs punched his arms and legs until he fell in agony, wondering why the idiot Humans played with him like a pack of rats round an injured cat.
He saw Springer leap from nowhere as he passed out. The Wrecker fired five and six times at the little annoying pests, splattering one against the cafeteria wall. Another ran right for him and Springer merely kicked him, sending the armored terrorist crashing through what remained of the cafeteria glass windows.
The second tank clamored its way over the second wing and fired inside one of the classrooms. A beautiful sparkling blaze shot up. It twisted in the breeze and spread over the rooftop. Rodimus pointed to it, staring at Hotspot. "Spots!" He called, "Plasma fire!"
The tank turned and aimed at a line of EDC fighters who were currently engaged in a cross-fire with a line of biker Dopps. Roddi swung with his rifle and aimed up the tank's cannon barrel.
To his horror, the damn thing had a fore field of its own! It advanced, crushing bodies and rubble without pretense or respect.
Skyfire landed hard beside Rodimus and the two stared at the invulnerable machine.
"That thing's going to obliterate everything!" Skyfire gasped.
Rodimus narrowed his optics. "And we don't have any weapons that will stop it, either." He continued to watch it a moment longer while it plowed through the parking lot, chasing people, from both sides of the war. "You know," Roddi called, "We can't use any weapons, but we can use our heads."
"Ever play 'King of the Hill?' come on!
The two Autobots leapt for the alien monstrosity and Rodimus plowed into it, attempting to knock it over on its side.
"Ahh!" Skyfire grinned. "Now I get what you mean. Push it over on its back like a turtle." And the two of them slammed into its side time and again until the mid section of the turret swung around and showered Roddi and Skyfire with acid. Rodimus growled, determined more than ever to put a stop to the mass murders. He could feel his metal skin melt under the acid's terrible heat. It smouldered, filling his ol factory with the stench of disintegrating alloys. Pain ate into him and he winced, weakening under its power. He had already lost a great deal of fluids and power from the wound in his right shoulder. But they kept pushing until the tank tipped up on its right wheels. It skid along the ground, grasping for a foothold and finally, the two Autobots shoved it over the edge.
Springer leapt from the sky, a live wire cable in his hand. "How about a cherry on top of that cupcake?" he cracked. And he zapped the tank, force field and all. The tank turned bright white, affected by the overloading electricity. Then it faded into a crisp black like an overcooked grasshopper.
Dopps on bikes strapped mini cannons to their backs and shoulders. They fired at the Autobots, EDC officers and what remained of the police and military. The Guard began a slow encirclement, lining right behind the EDC warriors who subtly exchanged positions with Central City police so that there stood a wide circle of 'good guys' around the Dopps. With one tank down, the other missing, only the bikers and 'foot soldiers' remained.
But that was enough. The bikers charged their mini cannons and fired them in every direction, heedless of the laser and gun fire that went off in their direction. Anything that had substance was pummeled by either rockets, bullets or lasers.
Three, four, six, ten soldiers died in the cross fire.
Eleven, fifteen, twenty-three; nothing was getting through the biker's force field.
Rodimus tried six different laser frequencies on his weapon until he was shot through the right leg. He cried out, exhaustion finally getting the best of him.
"Keep at it!" Roddi ordered, his voice betraying the anguish that consumed his body. He knew they had to run out of ammo eventually and then all they'd have left was their force field. That would be easily contained, if all they needed was a good net. Roddi wanted them spared for questioning.
Streets landed beside Rodimus as the Autobot leader faded, already fallen to his knees. The acid ate down to his muscle cables and it was all Rodimus could do to remain conscious. Streets finally pulled out his laser flare and shot a burst of white light, blinding not only the bikers that saw it, but several of their Human allies.
"Yeah!" Hotspot rejoiced. He managed to put out the plasma fire and it looked like the whole thing was all but a wrap.
But the tank Sideswipe managed to veer away, rammed right through the apartment buildings from across the street, spitting another laser blast into the remains of the school. Skyfire shot at it, but the tank blazed a trail, cutting down several EDC officers and crushing Skyfire into the new fire. It suddenly turned and fired at Roddi, slamming him square in the left side.
In turn, it blew Hotspot's left arm and leg. Springer leapt atop the vehicle, lifting the gun turret, forcing it to aim at the other bikers. The cannon blared, its pulse laser blinded the area with its power and obliterated five of the encircled bikers.
Then from what was left of the front office hallway, a huge white shape ripped through the rooftop. It raised a terrible brilliant dragon-like head and shrieked at those Dopps still living. The very sound of the shriek was enough to knock some Humans right off their feet, grasping at their damaged ears. It spat a blaze of plasma energy at them, intentionally missing Springer entirely. The power of the creature of pure light melted the terrorists, armor, vehicles, flesh and all. Even the blacktop under them was not unaffected. It cooked under the supernatural power, the tar melting into a fine glaze, melting and mixing with those who died on top. And then the creature of light slipped back from where it came.
Roddi lay on the ground, now gasping to keep power flowing through him. Pain forced him to remain as still as possible, many of his own components lay naked in the cold Oregon sun, his body slowly eaten away by the acid. He knew what he had just seen, but for the life of him, could not think it possible. A touch by Primus Himself. The Matrix saved them but what in Primus' name called forth that power?
The world turned dark and silent before he could think of an answer.
1. See the episode *Megatron's Master Plan*