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: firstname.lastname@example.org
TWO MOONS DARK
They carried Rodimus on a stretcher, securing him kindly into Skyfire. Hotspot and Blades were towed away not long after that while Magnus, Perceptor and Streetwise laboriously aided in the clean-up and investigation.
Many children and most adults lay dead. Several others were missing, their peers, those who survived, suffered from shock.
The entire school stood as not much more than an unstable house of cards, ready to fold. Several Dopps lay dead, their own bodies lay in negligence. Those whose job was to tag and haul away the dead, felt the children and teachers came first.
The creepiest scene on site were the shadow-images of people burned right into the walls down the main hallway. Oddly enough, EDC scientists and forensic specialists from Central City were able to collect DNA from those shadow-images. Magnus kept staring at them and came to one private conclusion; something supernatural had occurred.
"Ultra Magnus?" An EDC officer called. She waited for the giant robot to attend and displayed a hypodermic needle for his examination.
"What is it?"
"From the color, I'd say it was 'joys'.
Magnus magnified the image through his own optics and found a light purple color staining the plastic interior of the device. "Good work, Lieutenant. This may be something we need."
"Yeah, well, if it was a forced injection, I'd hate to be the victim of that hypo. The hypo was full."
"Ultra Magnus!" Perceptor cried excitedly.
Magnus stood and carefully picked his way across the hall while police, military and emergency crews marked and carried the dead away. He approached Perceptor who crouched before one such 'shadow' mark lying half on the floor, half against the wall. He stared at it, unsure what to think.
"This. . ." the scientist ran a finger down the black powder area, ". . . was highly intentional. Whatever had the power to do this, aimed only at the adults. Not one of these belongs to a child."
"What is it, exactly?"
"Human remains, Ultra Magnus. The very basic remains of the Human body when all the water and calcium have been evaporated and slightly burned."
Magnus looked somewhat disgusted. He glanced around the rest of the hallway, his optics darted from one shadow mark to another, inadvertently counting a total of fourteen shadows.
"If I may," Perceptor piped again, "I've done a spectorgraphical analysis and it shows this may have been done by gamma wave particles."
"Gamma wave radiation?"
"Not radiation, Ultra Magnus, Gamma wave life force."
"I don't understand."
"All living things exist on and produce a type of life force aura, explained in the wavelengths of consciousness. Most sentient creatures exist on four planes of consciousness: Delta, Alpha, Gamma, and Theta-Alpha. This is strictly Gamma. How, I don't really know."
"It's a miracle, that's what it is." Ashlyn joined them, drawing her trench coat closely about her.
"What do you mean?" Magnus sighed, still very tired.
"Whatever it was that stopped the Doppleganger's attack went for them directly. There was a battle here, but it was Alien Force: Fourteen, Dopps: Zippo. It knew exactly what it was doing." she turned then glanced over her shoulder. "Oh, and I think you'll find the DNA in the shadows matches the DNA used by the Dopps."
Magnus stared at her a long moment longer. He recalled survivors outside the school, those EDC, police and military officers during the battle had said something weird had happened, a light . . .
Prime listened to Magnus' first hand account in his office. He leaned back in his chair, optics off, arms crossed, rocking slightly. The tale was disturbing enough without the bizarre circumstances surrounding its resolution.
"We've managed to account for most of the children's bodies, here, Prime." Magnus reported. "But . . . there seems to be something like forty-two missing."
"Forty-two children unaccounted for?" Prime echoed.
"Rusti is one of them. We've been all over the school, identified all the bodies. A Mr. Tumnus, a science teacher assured us she was there."
Optimus seemed unmoved. "Good work. Keep me posted."
They kept Rodimus in repair bay for six hours. First Aid forbade anyone to enter the room other than his staff as he rushed to save Roddi's life.
Ultra Magnus' team had not yet returned from the school. Magnus sent Prime updates every thirty minutes but nothing, absolutely no sign of Rusti. Prime tried not to think of the worst, but his worry finally forced him to forsake his paperwork. He merely sat against the wall, opposite the repair bay and waited. He had slowly drifted to shut down, stirring now and again when some kind of noise would slip past those solid doors. Fear gripped him in a solid icy embrace. He had no idea what he would do if Rodimus died.
He crossed his legs and set his elbows on them, bowing his head between his hands. Secretly he prayed no one else would come down the hallway and find him in such a state. He felt so vulnerable right now.
Much later, the sun shed light into the hall, gently rousing Optimus out of a semi-shut down mode. Optimus welcomed the sun, hoping the situation would begin to turn around. He cast his optics five stories down and watched while people in the R and D complex rushed back and forth, to and from work. They went about their lives, in spite of the emergency situation. They seemed to have such simple lives, Prime thought to himself. They all lived and worked under his care, under his protection. He wondered if any of them knew how he sometimes longed to feel that care, that protection, himself.
"Commander?" First Aid's voice filled the silence of the hallway and Prime was glad he was standing, not sitting and moping. "Roddi can talk, but only for a few minutes."
Relief flooded Optimus' whole self and he passed the Autobot doctor without so much as a glance. He stepped to the flatbed and stared down at his friend. "Rodimus." His voice came in a very shallow whisper.
Roddi's optics dimmed on and a wry smile weakly pressed over his face. They had wrapped him in a special polymers alloy that would graft to his own body, effectively creating a new exo structure. In turn, that would be reinforced with two more layers of other metals. It's a long painful process. But Roddi's exo structure had been contaminated by acid, rather than punctured by conventional laser fire. "Hey," he softly, weakly greeted. "I see they're giving me a new set of clothes, eh?" he shook his head. "Won't wonders ever cease?"
Prime stared at him silently for a long moment and fought off the desire to embrace his injured friend. Rodimus didn't need any words, though. He knew that look of despair. He weakly stroked Prime's arm. "We'll make it." He whispered.
"Rusti's missing." he bluntly stated.
Rodimus now understood the extent of Optimus' grief. The Senior Prime not only feared for Rodimus' own condition, but Rusti . . . He took Prime's hand and weakly squeezed it.
Mayor Sprintlin stood behind a ring of mics. Light flashed from every corner of the room as TV, newspaper, Internet and radio reporters scribbled notes, readied their recorders and waited for him to say something.
"At approximately eleven-fifteen this morning, the Antelope Elementary school was attacked by terrorists. We're still trying to gather information regarding the . . . sudden and unusual event that stopped the attack. We don't know what exactly killed the terrorists, or why. But we have sixty-three children dead, a hundred and five injured and about forty-two unaccounted for. As you know, I am declaring Martial law as of now, at two P.M. on the twenty-eighth of April. The Autobots, the city police, the National Guard and all county departments are on red alert. We will begin searching the city for the terrorists and we will shoot to kill on sight. All businesses will be closed as of seven o'clock every night. Anyone caught on the streets after eight o'clock will be arrested. No exceptions. I will hold another conference as soon as we can attain more information."
Sprintlin withdrew from the podium to signal he was through. Reporters shouted questions at him and he stepped up to the mics. "Look, I-I'm very tired. I haven't slept in a week. So I will answer only three questions. The rest will be handled by Officer Dotti Gibbens. You there, with KDCT."
"Thank you Mayor Sprintlin." The woman kept a sturdy gaze on the exhausted man. "Will there be public executions concerning these terrorists?"
"We are considering it. But at this time, all we care about is putting a stop to this insanity. Our children are now a target and (sigh) I'm tired of all the deaths. You there, in the Dr. Who shirt."
"Thank you Mayor." The news reporter took to his feet. "Sir, with the impact damage of the all the bombs, what will this do to the economy in the long run?"
"Central City, as some of you might know, has contracts with Fortress Maximus. Most of that contract stipulates a trade between the cities as far as fuel and resources goes and the upkeep and construction provided by our friends. So any damage done stipulated in the contract will be handled by Fortress Maximus. Last question, you there, in the suit."
"Mr. Mayor, is it true that an unknown, alien force is responsible for stopping the terrorists at the school?"
Sprintlin stared at him for a long moment. "Mr . . . Danker, is it? We can't confirm that. All we know is that three Autobots, one Rodimus Prime, were seriously injured during the fight. The school had been surrounded and attacked on three sides. We found fourteen terrorists killed by unknown causes. And two have been diagnosed with schizophrenia."
"It doesn't exist." Mrs. Jamison declared two days later as she held the zip-bagged hypo in her hands.
"What do you mean?" Streets asked, his face twisted with puzzlement.
"I mean the DNA doesn't exist. I can't get any readings on it at all. And perhaps that's why we haven't been able to really pin point the Dopps. They register as just another person. The DNA doesn't have a substantial psychic projection at all. It's as if-"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Tolomsky waved a Micky-D's apple pie in his hand. "You're saying that the DNA is unreadable psychically because it really has no life force of its own?"
Jamison pursed her lips, her whole body sagged in weariness. "This DNA doesn't come from something, Chief. All DNA patterns come from living things, right? Wood, plants, animals, people, insects, there's even a type identifying the extraterrestrial metal that makes up the Transformers race. But this stuff has nothing of the kind."
"Perceptor said it resembles Chapronite DNA, though." Streets suggested.
"But it's not. It's missing too many things; no elements like iron or genetic strands like blond hair, blue eyes, etcetera."
Tolomsky pointed at the weary psychic with a slight smile on his face. "But the Chapronites don't have hair or eyes-or a head."
Jamison fell silent for a long moment, tipping the hypo one way, then the other, watching as a few precious drops of liquid flowed in the directions of the tilt. She took a bite of her sourdough sandwich, thoughtfully chewing. "I . . . I think I'd like to talk to Optimus Prime about something. I'm . . . I have a wild haunch."
Optimus' office was open. The Chapronite ambassador, Lt. Updegraff, two police officers and Brian Witwicky gathered about the front of his desk. Optimus leaned against the front of his desk, facing them all at once. He was expecting Brian's parents to come parading in at any moment, hoping to attain Brian's salvation either by verbal force, or by subpoena. But if they were smart, Netty and Daniel would stay as far away from the boy as possible. Brian was going to be locked up for a very long time, if they didn't find grounds for execution first.
"This is all a fucking lie!" Brian whined. "I wasn't even there at the school! Look, I got friends that will swear that I wasn't."
"No doubt." Optimus grunted, unconvinced. Brian was a mess. He was bandaged head to foot and he slightly trembled.
"What's that mean?" Brian snapped.
"Some friends will do anything for a favor. All I want is information regarding 'joys'."
"I don't know what you're talking about." The boy sneered
"Very well." Prime reached around and picked a digipad from his desktop. "Perhaps you'd like to explain how three crates came to Fort Max, shipped right from Seattle in your name."
"That's correct." Optimus confirmed with a leveled voice, "Brian Witwicky. We thought it suspicious and took liberties to open the crates."
"That's against the law! You're not authorized to open my-"
"Mail?" Prime intervened. "Ahh. I see. Then it was supposed to be shipped to you. Well, Brian. Seeing how you've basically confessed to it, might I ask why you are purchasing or receiving medical preservers and hypodermic needles?"
Brian said nothing, not even willing to look the Transformer in the optics.
"Hmmhm." Prime punched a few buttons on the digipad. "I'd say that was all; I wish it were, but it's not. How about six small boxes that disappeared from Topside warehouse number three eight days ago?"
"What about it?" Brian sneered.
Optimus leaned over, looking more like a god of judgement. He wanted to ask about the huge shipment of crates that disappeared from Stickler's inventory, but felt it was not something everyone should know about just yet. His blue optics shed bright light over the Human. "In their place was a piece of paper, a home work assignment from school with your name on it." Optimus stopped as footsteps echoed from the hall. He thought about closing the door earlier. Such discussions should always be private. But frankly, he didn't like to feel closed in around Brian. There was something about the boy that he didn't like. Not that he hated Brian, but he didn't like him, either.
Streetwise, and Mrs. Jamison peeked through the door way, Tolomsky followed them at a slower pace, a celphone attached to his ear.
The Chapronite stood away from his post at the wall. "Return latter time. Other interests require attention."
"I'm sorry, Ambassador." Optimus' softer voice followed. "I can contact you later."
But the stick-figure alien did not answer and Optimus hoped 'it' was not upset. The Autobot leader turned to the 'boy' and his keepers. "Perhaps we should continue this later. I might have Ultra Magnus interrogate you instead."
"He doesn't need to leave." Mrs Jamison objected. "I have a couple of questions." She threw him a mean grin when he suddenly looked hopeless.
"I don't have to answer." He snarled.
"No, you don't." Jamison answered flatly. "I can pick up on things, hints, emotions. All I have to do is punch the right buttons. Like," here she dangled the bagged hypodermic needle. "Isn't this yours? You left it at the school attacked by your little buddies."
Brian's eyes shot wide and he aimed to kick her. His keepers yanked him back, but did not harm him. "I WASN'T THERE!" He shrieked.
"Funny." Jamison mused. "The bruise on your right shin says otherwise. It's about the same height a girl of nine might reach if she were trying to break your bone. Oh, by the way, the finger prints on the hypo match the ones on your finger. And another note, Brian, this DNA isn't real, is it? It doesn't actually exist, does it?"
Brian's face turned white as a sheet. Mrs Jamison started to pace around the trio; Brian and his two turnkeys. "ALL I CAN SEE IS THE BREEZE AND THE WIND." she sang softly.
Optimus shrank away behind his desk, Street's optics followed his commander's odd reaction to the song.
But Jamison seemed not to notice. "ME AND MY SHADOW TWIN, TWO HEADS, ONE MIND. ME, MY SHADOW AND THE WIND." She stood straight before him, still dangling the hypo in her hand. "Come on, Brian. They might let you live if you help us out."
Brain's jaw clinched. "You're right. The DNA isn't real DNA."
Optimus set his hands on the back of his chair. "Then what is it?"
Brian shook his head, looking down. "I don't know. It's not manufactured. They say it's . . ."
"Old." Mrs. Jamison nodded. "Isn't it? Old, old, old." She watched as Brian still could not make eye contact. She moved her face too close to his, just to speak in one ear: "Rrogoche." She said it loud enough for the others to hear, but the satisfaction came when Brian jumped, his eyes darting back and forth from one of her eyes to the other.
Tolomsky's face twisted. "What's that got to do with the bombing?"
But rather than answer his question, Jamison turned to Optimus holding the bag like a trophy. "What happened at the school was no accident. One force attacked another."
Optimus' optics narrowed. "Are you saying that there was more than one battle occurring?"
"I'm saying that something was awakened. I'm saying that whatever it was that destroyed the Dopps, did so because it was attacking this DNA, or whatever it really is."
Optimus knew what the next question should be. He knew it needed to be asked. He did not want to ask it in front of everyone else. But there was nothing he could do; "Brian, when you attacked your sister, did something from within her attack everyone?"
Brian suddenly looked very faint. "I don't want to remember that." he whispered.
"Come on, Brian." Tolomsky prodded. "You obviously instigated it.
"No!" He whined. "Please, that . . . There are some things not meant to be known!"
"Such as what, Brian?" Prime asked. "Such as the fact that your sister has been Touched by Something?"
"I don't know!" Brian snapped. "I don't wanna know! I saw what that THING, that Force did! I heard those two guys shriek like nothing I'd ever heard before! I dunno what she did to them, but it was the most horrible thing I'd ever heard!"
"And where is your sister now, Brian?" Jamison asked.
"God only knows."
"So you admit to giving that crap to her." Tolomsky pressed.
"Yes! For god's sake! Get out of my face! She was a pest!"
Streetwise finally knelt in front of the Human. "Is there an antidote to this stuff?"
"What? No! We don't use an antidote!"
Jamison raised her brows. "The Dopps use this to make doubles of themselves, don't they, Brain? They - ohmigod!" She turned to Prime. "Optimus! It just occurred to me! If this is both joys and the DNA, the Dopps have been using this to make themselves invisible! Somehow, you can tweak it, adjust it to create a drug, or allow you to become invisible or use it to commit mitosis!"
Streets took to his feet. "You know, if we were to somehow create a counter-agent, something that kills this stuff in the blood without killing the host, we might be able to stop the Dopps from becoming invisible, or selling the stuff on the market. It might not be an answer to everything, but it's a start."
"Do it." Prime ordered. "I'm sending everyone we can spare to scour the city for the missing children." He pulled out his chair and typed into his computer. Brian was quietly escorted out, followed by the others. Mrs Jamison gave Prime a last, sad look and followed Streets out the building.
"You know, your commander is very sick." She reported quietly.
"He looked fine to me." Streets dismissed.
"Not outwardly sick, Streetwise. She paused and stared at the ignorant Autobot. She wanted to say something more, to try to explain to him what she meant. But Jamison decided Streetwise would not understand. She wondered if there was anybody in all the city that could.
Early May morning brought clouds and the sweetness of soft rainfall. Mr. And Mrs. Witwicky marched up the police station stairs and demanded on no uncertain terms to talk to Lt. Tolomsky.
"Chief Tolomsky." The receptionist corrected as Delphra entered behind them.
"Whatever." Daniel growled.
Tolomsky denied their request to see him and Daniel pushed his way through anyway, his wife and sister in-law tagging along. Their faces were worn with fear and rage. Daniel smashed Tolomsky's door to pieces without a second thought and stood before the desk with crossed arms.
Tolomsky crunched on a pretzel. He had been up for three days straight and wasn't in a mood for a stupid, cranky over-paid . . .
"My daughter's missing and I don't see anybody trying to find her."
"Oh. You two again." Tolomsky answered with a casual grunt. "Well, which one is it this time? Your teenage daughter who has more sense and guts than my entire department, or your little one who should be in a good foster home?"
Delphra pushed her way between the parents and pointed an evil finger at Tolomsky. "You watch your mouth there, asshole!" She snarled. "You'll find yourself in court!"
Tolomsky tried very hard to keep from smiling at her. She was nothing. Besides, he had an 'in' with the DA (married). "WELL!" He boomed very loudly. "LET ME SEE HERE: I HAVE TWENTY-SEVEN DEPARTMENTS STANDING ON RED ALERT FOR THREE FREAKIN' WEEKS. I HAVE NOT SEEN MY WIFE IN FOUR. I HAVE EVERY MAN, DOG AND DAME OUT ON THE CORNER, TRYING TO FIND THE DOPPLEGANGER TERRORISTS. I HAVE THE BLOOD OF THREE HUNDRED AND SOME-ODD PEOPLE ENGRAVED ON THE SCREEN OF MY COMPUTER. THE WHOLE CITY'S BURNING ALL TO HELL AND I CAN'T REMEMBER THE LAST TIME I HAD A DESCENT HOME-COOKED MEAL."
He paused and smiled and his voice dropped. "Now you want me to just drop all that and go looking for one little girl? Folks, I'm sorry. You may have to resort to other means yourself. File a missing persons report and I'll set it ON THE STACK ALONG WITH ABOUT EIGHTY OTHER MISSING PERSONS! NOW GET OUT OF MY OFFICE!!"
They retreated, albeit reluctantly. Netty threw the chief one last sad glance. Tolomsky was a little sorry but two minutes later he was his usual cheerful genius self.
The parents and in-law exited the police station and Netty started to cry. She pushed the other two aside, making her way to the car.
Where did they all go wrong?
The city streets echoed the wails of the police and rescue sirens. Curfew was strictly enforced, people shut the doors, locking and blocking them, boarding their windows in fear. The whole city now lay in the grip of terror. It seemed even worse at night, when the moon failed to shine through late spring clouds, when rain would cause the cold to ice over and embitter even the best of hearts. Suddenly dog teams stomping the sidewalk became an everyday occurrence. Hired psychics lead groups of police, EDC or military official from one broken building filled with missing or dead bodies, to underground stashes of weapons, or old hideouts that might indicate where the Dopps spent their nights.
But for some children, life ended cold when Ashlyn led Ultra Magnus to an old condemned theater. Eleven children were kindly let down from the ceiling and carted away in body bags, their parents, friends and priests all wept bitterly, slandering the perpetrators.
Much to Optimus' private relief, Rusti was not among them. He sat with Rodimus the first part of each day, discussing ideas and tactics, updating news and trying to give and receive some kind of encouragement. But frankly, both leaders felt a dispar that could not be comforted. Optimus had long since abandoned his paperwork, finding his concentration levels far too gone to do anything more than drop the present digipad back on the desk and walk away.
He decided to assist on the search, much to Kup's grumbling. He needed to do something; he needed to feel he was actually doing something more than just receiving round the clock reports and waiting. Central City had grown exponentially since the Autobots first landed over fifty years ago and it took every man and woman available to comb through it, street by damaged street.
The one good thing; the only good thing was that the Dopps had fallen back and the terrorism had come to a cease-fire. The city still sat helpless. Surrounding counties and government agencies had to fly all supplies and manpower in just to keep things going. But it was costly.
"The roadblocks are a serious problem." Roddi admitted two mornings later. First Aid marveled at how fast Rodimus was healing, but his midsection was taking longer and Rodimus would have to wait a few more days before leaving the bedside. Roddi found all his energy was devoted to the grafting procedure and he lay shut down most of the time. Even as he sat up, talking with Optimus who had found a comfortable place on the floor for the past four days, he found he was sleepy, and he hadn't even been awake for more than half an hour.
"The Boys Down Town have interrogated every Dopp Clown, as they called them, and haven't come up with any answers regarding the road blocks. Even if we finally conquer the Dopps, even if we annihilate them, how will we get rid of the blocks?"
Prime stared out the window, watching a single bird fly across a gloomy cloudy sky. His worries for Rusti kept him from taking much else into consideration. Someone he loved was missing, maybe dead . . . NO! He fought to control his fear. She wasn't dead! She wasn't dead! And it seemed every moment of every hour of every day he had to keep telling himself that very thing. She wasn't dead!
He couldn't look at Rodimus at that moment. He felt his expression would give it all away; betray the battle for control that raged in him.
"They're going to find her." Rodimus promised with a tone quiet as a feather falling to the ground. "Nobody's giving up on her. It's frightening, I know. I know."
Optimus still could not look at him. But now, he couldn't say anything, either.
Street's entire quarters had been rearranged to accommodate piles of digipads, two erase-a-boards and a chalkboard. He lay on his couch, which faced all three boards. The pile of digipads sat on the floor nearby. He said nothing for the longest time; knowing the silence was killing Blades and Sideswipe. Hotspot was still under First Aid's fussy care and probably would remain there for a while yet. Blades hadn't completely recovered, either, but he was a lousy patient, hating to be cooped up in a place where people came to stare.
All the notes from the clues they collected over the last month stood scribbled on one board or another. Everything from the places bombed, to the blockades, to the puppets given to the police department, to the scribbles in black and white on the boards. And Streets went over and over it all in his mind. Something bugged him. Something was missing and he had no idea what it was.
Blades finally sighed where he sat in the corner of the room on the floor. He adjusted his position, cringing in pain from yet-unhealed wounds. He crossed his arms, lifting his knees. "You know that saying, 'it ain't over 'till it's over'?"
'Yeah." Streets answered without looking at him.
"Well, I wish it were over. I know you love a good mystery, Streets. I know you like living one better. But this whole thing has torn the city apart. People are dying left and right, children and adults disappear, hospitals are raided-"
"You know," Streets interrupted. "That's the thing that really gets me. With all the senseless death and mindless destruction-if you'll excuse the cliche, the hospital thing doesn't add up. It's like . . . someone threw an extra wrench into the car for no reason. Hadn't you noticed that? It's a piece of the puzzle that doesn't belong."
Blades moaned and shook his head. Streets slid off his couch as Mrs Jamison entered the opened doorway, peeking in. Sideswipe silently waved to her as Streets plucked up a cloth and wiped the hospital incident off the right erase-a-board.
"Hey, Mrs. J." Streets glanced over his shoulder and gave her a smile. The poor lady looked really tired.
"Still at it, Streets? Don't you guys ever take vacations?"
"Not until an assignment is over. That's why we're so good on missions and such. We don't wear out-"
"No." Jamison shook her head at the Protectobot, "but you do wear down. What are you erasing there?"
"Eh? Oh, just the hospital incidents. You wouldn't happen to figure that one out, would ya, Mrs J?"
Jamison watched Streets cross the room and collapse back onto his stiff couch. She hugged her purse, her face a blanket of sadness and resolution. "Streetwise, I am just a housewife. I get up in the morning to see my children off to school. I clean house, watch a soap, read a book and run errands, paying bills. I sometimes do work for the police department and I make dinner. Then I go to bed and make love to the man I married. I live a very simple, non-hurried life. I like simplicity. And this, all of this, cannot be any more difficult than going to the kitchen and finding the ingredients to make toast."
"I don't follow you, Mrs. J." Streets answered plainly.
"Me neither." Blades grunted. "What's toast?"
Jamison turned to the boards and stared at all the scribbling. "What haven't we thought of?"
"You mean, what are we missing?"
"No, what haven't we been considering?"
Streets shrugged and Jamison turned back around. "We've taken down all the clues, written out all the graffiti. We've taken photographs and considered their unusual technology. But last night it hit me in a dream; something we really haven't been thinking about at all. We've been treating the Dopps as criminals; as killers, right?"
Blades looked a bit annoyed. "Well, aren't they? They're terrorists."
"But they're also religious, Blades. They are devout, so much so that they use some kind of . . . DNA . . ." She paused and stared into nothing for a long moment. Blades, Sides and Streets stared at her, waiting. "Where did that stuff come from?"
"Dunno." Streets answered. "Why?"
"Didn't the puppet museum say something of the sort? Something about . . . the blood of Rrogoche?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Mrs. J." Streets answered.
"I do." Blades answered flatly. He stood from his corner, cringing with effort. "And I'm willing to bet the body count has some significance too."
"What are you talking about?" Sideswipe insisted.
"Guys, think about this; we're dealing with religious fanatics here. And if everything in their lives pertains to the religion, I'm willing to bet their work does too."
Streets' optics shot wide. "Like the victims in the park; one of them was buried in a sitting position! And the other victims were placed in different positions all around her-lying in abstract posses." Streets paused a moment. "Oh Primus!" he breathed.
"What?" Jamison asked. She stepped aside as the Protectobot leapt from his couch and flew to the boards, erasing more of the hospital clues. "I got it. The hospital break-ins have nothing to do with the rest of the operation."
"Huh?" Sideswipe approached. "Say that again?"
Streets drew the human's death positions on the board first from a bird's eye view, then from the side. "Some people believe a person's energy flows in a different pattern after the spark leaves the body. And that might be the very case here. See, if we look at this more as a religious thing, rather than a simple sick case of multiple-murder, it makes sense. See each of these positions here?"
All three attendees mutely nodded.
"They're symbols-like those found in the ruins on Ganymede- landing coordinates, guys!"
The room fell dead silent, the other three stared in astonishment.
Sides was the first to speak again. "That . . . is the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard. Why would they do that when all they had to do was send a radio signal?"
"No." Jamison agreed. "I think Streets is on to something. It's in keeping with the rest of the Dopp's activities. The scene at the park was sort of an introduction as much as it was a signal. By doing what they did at the park, more than their first attack-those four people burned at the stake, and damaging Springer, the incident at the park was sort of their way of saying hello."
"But for some bizarre reason," Blades added, "the people they're dealing with require hospital records. But what has that got to do with the rest of the puzzle?"
"Obviously it's a trade of some kind." Streets answered. "I mean, a kind of business transaction."
"Which . . ." Jamison stared at the space once occupied by the hospital notes. "Would explain the alien-design vehicles and the barricades."
"And the DNA?" Blades added.
Streets and Jamison stared at him, but neither of them answered.
Streets, Sideswipe Blades and Mrs Jamison managed into town without too much a fuss. All four knew if they were caught, several police agencies, plus one unmentionable Autobot leader would be 'rather put out.' But it was necessary that no one knew where they were. Care had to be taken to keep everything as normal and ordinary as possible. Streets felt if there was to be an answer, it had to be back at the museum, back somewhere in the history of the Rrogoche display.
"Hey, did you guys see that?" Sides asked as they neared the Little Tokyo district.
"What's that?" Blades asked.
"The VR place. It's open."
"Can't be." Streets admonished through their internal comline. It's one in the morning. Everybody's cuttin' logs."
"What's wrong, Streets? You've gone quiet." Jamison asked in the passenger seat.
"Ah, Sideswipe thought he saw the VR park active."
"This time of night?"
"Well, it was his assignment for the past week and a half." He announced so that everyone else could hear. "He's just missing the place."
"Yeah, right!" Sideswipe snapped back. "I know what I saw, Streets."
"Okay, okay. After we're done at the museum, we can swing back. Maybe it's just the janitors or something."
They stopped about two blocks shy of the museum and climbed the side of a Mrs Field's cookie store to the rooftop.
"This is insane." Blades just transformed, flew up and changed back to robot form. "Here we're sneaking around like a group of cat robbers when we're supposed to be the good guys. I hope your idea proves to have merit, Streets. Otherwise, I'll start telling everybody you reprogrammed me into doing your bidding."
Streets set a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Will you relax? We'll be fine! And we are the good guys. We're just doing research under a different hat, that's all." He let Mrs Jamison down from his shoulder strut and she too looked unconvinced.
"You know, I'm supposed to be fast asleep, getting mentally ready to send my kids off to school tomorrow, not playing catwoman."
Streets bent over, spreading a kind smile over his face. "Mrs J, did I ever tell you that you're my hero?"
It shut her up. But Streets meant what he said. Of all the humans he interacted with, from the general public to the well-trained EDC and police officers, Mrs. Jamison proved to be the best. She was calm, but not unemotional. She was rational, but not unresponsive. Tolomsky was right; Mrs. Jamison was a remarkable woman. Streets geared himself mentally, took off with a running start and leapt to the other building. The other three stared at him, wondering what had possessed him to do such a thing.
Then Sides shrugged. "Well, you know, what works, works." And in the next minute, he joined the Protectobot.
Blades didn't need to do such a thing. He courteously gave Mrs. Jamison a hand and flew over, landing far more quietly than the other two bungling idiots.
Far too pleased with his plan, Streets did it again and again after that until he was one building away from the museum. He climbed down the side of the bookstore and waited while Blades joined him first, transforming just before landing and carefully setting their Human companion on the ground. Sideswipe joined them about thirty seconds later, landing with a resounding thump. His companions both cringed at the noise and shot him dirty looks.
"Hey!" He snapped back quietly, "I'm a Autobot, not an acrobat!"
They managed to slip passed the extensive security and disabled the cameras. Mrs Jamison added her share by sneaking around the first floor and used chloroform on all the janitors and officers on duty.
When everything was secure, they made their way around force fields and into the one room containing the very objects that told the ugly story of Rrogoche.
"Can you recap for me what this is all about?" Sides asked as he stared at the Puppet of Flames."
Streets and Blades both stared at the terrible wood-and-grass statue of Rrogoche, wondering if indeed it had a soul of its own.
Streets glanced at Mrs. Jamison then back at the statue. "From what I've been able to put together, the Rrogoche cult existed somewhere during the dark ages. The occultists, who lived mostly underground, would commit Human sacrifice and go out to the world and commit all kinds of evil deeds in the name of Rrogoche, the god of war and violence. Supposedly, Rrogoche herself was a warrior who murdered even her own kind, devouring them often right on the spot. She promised great things to her faithful followers, powers not possessed by Humanity. And by drinking of her blood, the occultists were able to do miraculous and terrible things to the people in whatever town they lived nearby."
Jamison glanced at the ceiling, noticing how huge black flowers were posted in the corners. "Streets, does the legend say how Rrogoche was defeated?"
"Not clearly. Just that the townsfolk cleansed the cultists of their blood and burned the bodies."
Blades tore himself away from the statue, hoping that's all it was. He could still feel it staring at him and surges ran up and down his infrastructural spine. "What are we looking for, Streetwise?"
"Something we might have missed. Something that speaks more of who and what these people are."
"Oh," Jamison perked, "you mean like 'It is the will and the desire of Rrogoche that sorrow should reign on the Earth?"
"Yeah." Streets agreed, his optics still fixed on the three-eyed puppet. He hated the thing, but found he had a morbid fascination over it.
"How about . . . " Jamison continued, "for two moons, dark of face, shall Rrogoche the Annihilator, the Initiator of Desolation, walk the Earth."
Now she suddenly had the attention of all three Autobots. They stared at her, astonished.
"Where'd you read that?" Sides asked.
"It's right here on this staff." Mrs. Jamison answered simply. "There's not much more, but I think I can make it out."
Streets shook his head. "How are you able to read that? Did you take a class in Ancient Japanese?"
"It's not written in Japanese, Streets. It's written in their own text language. It's written in the frays and senselessness of their emotions. Remember, I'm a psychic. I pick up, of all things, emotions. Emotions, like shoes walking in dirt, leave prints. I simply have the talent to be able to read those prints, invisible to everyone else. It's like seeing the dead. But I'm seeing the 'psychic footprints' of the emotions left after the person is dead and gone."
This was exciting and Streets wondered if an answer to his every question lay right here. "Is there more, Mrs. J? Is there?"
"Let's see . . . where did I leave off? Oh, here: Uhh . . . two moons, dark of face-oh! Rrogoche shall walk the Earth. And we, her humblest of servants, shall reap a great feast for her; a feast of two thousand dishes. And we shall praise her name forever more. We who are blessed, we who have chosen and been chosen. . . . Ah . . ." she flushed a little. "It goes into sexual description from there and I really don't want to get into that."
Sideswipe, Blades and Streets exchanged looks. Sideswipe's optics narrowed. Blades stared at his feet. Streets fingered his chin, staring at the ceiling.
Sides spoke first again. "What's that mean 'two moons dark?"
"Dark of face?" Jamison answered. The late night was begging to wear her down. "I dunno."
"Dark of face . . . " Blade mused. "Might that mean two new moons, two months?"
"It might." Streets answered carefully. "If that's the case, then for two months, their reign of terror would continue."
"Not for us." Sideswipe objected. "We've already been through one month."
"Right." Streets agreed. And . . . and the puppets. There's six altogether and each of them represent a different phase in the cults' attack."
Blades threw him a look of disbelief. "How do you figure?"
"Well, the Watcher attacked first, right? Then the Murderer-that is Mass-murderer. Then the pyromaniac. You guys follow me? Then there's the one of death-and all of us have seen that one. So what's left?"
"The sixth one." Jamison swiftly answered. "The one puppet with the mask on."
"And what's that supposed to represent?" Sides asked.
No one could answer yet. Streets turned away, his mind suddenly someplace else completely. "You know," he stated after a moment's thought, "throughout history, the ancient peoples used masks in ceremonies to take on the identity of a god or a power they themselves wished to represent. It's documented in every ancient culture ever studied, even in cultures off-world. The use of puppeteering doesn't date back nearly as far as masks and I'm willing to bet that the masked puppet signifies that the cultists would, at a certain point, take on the very identity, the very form of Rrogoche herself."
"I think you're reaching here, Streetwise." Blades grunted. "They already possess her power. Why would they want to become her?"
"Well, think of it, Blades. To become a god is as universal as the need for energy. Hero worship, religion, even something as simple as being a fan of a movie, a TV series or some ideal is so common, we don't realized that just being a fan is a reflection of being something greater and better than you are. You're a M*A*S*H fan, you should know. How often have you wished you could be as silly or as clever as Hawkeye? The only difference between you and the ancient peoples who used masks, is you have television to loose yourself into for a half hour everyday. They had ceremonies that lasted from one night, to a whole week. Mrs Jamison, is there anything, anything more at all?"
"A feast of two thousand dishes?" Mrs. Jamison sighed.
Streets nodded. "And what's the body count to date?"
"What?" Blades asked in disbelief. "Streetwise, take a break, won't you? Can't you see Mrs. J is exhausted? Have some thought other than your case, alright? Let's just take the lady home and come back tomorrow."
Streets left the museum with terrible reluctance. There was still so much more he wanted to explore. But he knew Sideswipe and Blades were right. Humans, unlike Transformers, couldn't just go on for days and days without a rest. That was both advantageous and disadvantageous, he supposed. Humans ate food, which they could manufacture at far less the cost of making energon. And they didn't require as much of it as some Autobots needed fuel.
Streets smiled inwardly as he pulled up to Mrs. Jamison's home. He actually did think of something other than the case! But he said nothing of it to the others.
Mrs. Jamison disembarked from his interior and searched for her keys.
"I'm really very sorry, Mrs. Jamison." Streets said quietly.
She patted his hood. "Go home, Streetwise. Get some sleep, like your friends told you to. I'll see you tomorrow."
"This is 'joys'." Perceptor pointed. "The red substance, naturally, is blood. The silver discs are part of the so-called alien DNA injected into the body. They perform a double function: endorphin stimulation and chemical-electro-magnetism. It overstimulates brain wave impulses and heightens adrenaline activity far above normal parameters. For Humans, Joys administers a constant state of surrealism. Their perceptions deceive them and their entire world is a faulty system of stimulus and response modes. Everything around them is a state of perpetual illusion. For example: what a normal person might see as a building, the person under the influence of 'joys' might see a monster. The point of it is that the alien DNA proves to be the very same source the Dopplegangers use to create their twins. And now we have proof it can be altered so that the person in question can appear invisible."
Roddi and Optimus had heard all this earlier. They were here merely to support Perceptor while he made his report to EDC, Fort Max and Central City staff leaders. Rodimus merely listened in to make sure he hadn't missed out on anything earlier when Perceptor presented his findings to them in private. Optimus, on the other hand, kept toying with the digipad between his hands. His whole manner was downcast, not so much as occasionally glancing at Perceptor. <<You've been painfully silent in the last two days.>> Roddi sent. <<I know. I'm worried about her, too.>>
Optimus didn't look at him. <<I'm terrified, Rodimus.>>
Rodimus sat up in surprise, not caring whether or not Marissa glanced his way. <<Why?>>
Now Optimus looked at him. A sense of sadness assailed his expression and Rodimus was sorry he intruded. <<I can't sense anything of her. No feeling, no words, no presence.>>
Optimus paused a moment. <<And no laughter.>> Optimus returned to the digipad and fell silent again. Roddi felt badly for him. Optimus was eating himself up with grief; something the Second hadn't counted on. Without that Sense, neither of them knew whether or not Rusti was alive. He gazed at the slide in the front of the room. The answer to their problem was suddenly very obvious to him. The 'joys' emitted electro magnetic radiation. And that right there could be what was blocking them from her. With her mind altered like that, it could affect other aspects of the brain.
Roddi's optics narrowed and he waited three beats before interrupting Perceptor's dissertation. "Perceps, could that stuff affect psychics, too? Do you think it could disrupt their ability to send and receive information on a psychic level?"
Perceptor stared at him, stunned. He craned his neck forward, tilted it slightly to the right. "Hmm. I hadn't thought of that . . . I presume the possibilities might be numerous . . . because of the E.M." His voice trailed off. He switched the projector down and turned to the erase-a-board. Now he really had everyone's attention. He scribbled madly across the board in Autobot, sketching and erasing as fast as he wrote. He whispered to himself a time or two, spitting out a formula, then a hypothesis then a premise and another hypothesis.
Everyone in the room held their breath, wondering what idea struck him just then. Suddenly the Scientist swung about; his whole frame animated by the excitement of a brainstorm. "Commander, I think you've hit an interesting nail on the head! If I'm accurate, the 'joys' not only suppresses certain mental functions, but enhances others."
At that point, even Optimus raised his head and gave the Autobot scientist his attention.
Perceptor pointed to the board, painfully aware not everyone in the room could read Autobot. But that was not the issue at this point. "Here, we have alpha/delta frequency waves used in psychics. There's an enhancer many telekentics use in the gamma frequency. If that frequency is altered or cut off, those areas of the brain using ESP will simply reroute the directional flow. It's like power being cut off in one section of a town, and PG&E coming along and rerouting the whole system to temporarily keep things flowing until that downed area can be repaired."
Marissa stood and pointed to the board. "What exactly does that mean? Are the abilities changed? If my ability to use my right arm is affected by the same process, would my brain rewire itself and suddenly I'm using my left arm?"
The scientist stared at her, trying to predict the implications of what he was saying himself. "Possibly." He said carefully. "It could also determine that what was lying dormant could be awakened. Say for example, someone who never used telepathy in their lives suddenly developed a Stage Four empathy rating."
Optimus and Rodimus met optics, all emotion completely wiped from their face plates. That would most certainly explain what happened at the school.
Ashlyn lagged behind three police officers, two EDC officers and three dogs around the neighborhood. It was midday. There was nothing here, but they insisted on looking in spite of her advice. Most people had a hard time taking her seriously and this case was no exception. Ashlyn held back while the dogs whined and sniffed about one empty and condemned home.
But she could have told them that. Her eyes lifted across the street where the huge VR amusement park stood. She hated it. Even in daylight, she hated the bright attractive colors and the stupid characters lining the painted walls. She hated the trees that stood dutifully in the parking lot and she hated the fact that it was a center designed to turn children's minds into mush. Instead of getting them to go out and play like children should, they strapped on goggles and sat in seats and stared into nothing.
Well, Ashlyn admitted, that wasn't entirely true. There was a giant paint ball facility and a small gym and an indoor swimming pool. She supposed any child who had an ounce of a sense of adventure would have a hay day there. They could dress up, take on a new identity and do a form of live-action roll-playing.
Her niece and nephew were bright kids and they at least had the good sense to create their own games.
"What are you staring at?" One of the police officers asked.
The psychic pointed out as an Autobot drove up. "The VR center. I hate it."
The officer shrugged. "It's an okay place for me. My boy loves it."
She examined him up and down under the tree shade. Scrapes and scratches ran along Officer Yarbrough's arms. He was a hard working man, taking his job seriously.
She offered an apologetic smile. "No doubt."
The Autobot transformed into Sideswipe and bent over slightly. "Hey!" He greeted. "I've been sent to offer assistance."
Yarbrough nodded and stuck out his lower lip. "Okay. We can split up, cover more ground."
EDC officer Gibbs joined them a moment later. Her dog, Planko, seemed very excited over something in the dirt. "We can split into teams of two, go down the neighborhood an' meet back here in about two hours."
Planko whined and kept digging into the ground. Now Ashlyn's senses shouted at her.
"Planko!" Gibbs admonished, get a grip!"
"No!" Ashlyn snapped on latex gloves and started helping the dog dig into the corner of the yard. "Ohmigod!" She gasped. The others looked on as she uncovered a cold grey Human hand. Part of its fibula protruded from the dark earth. Ashlyn's stomach queezed with the smell, but she turned it carefully over while Planko barked triumphantly and sniffed elsewhere in the lawn.
Meanwhile, the owners of the house and lawn stepped out their door, horrified over the discovery. Ashlyn turned the hand around and found the back stamped with a day pass to the VR center.
She glanced across the street then at Yarbrough. She vowed to never discredit dogs again.
A skinny tall guy in a light beard and head full of hair came stomping toward them. He grabbed Yarbrough by the arm and turned him away from the eyes of staring visitors.
"What's this all about? Hmm?" He asked sharply.
"A police investigation." Yarbrough answered simply.
"Well, Mr. Whatever-your-name-is, you can't cross any private property without a permit. That means these sacred grounds here. So take your Tonka Toy and Miss Fortune Cookie and Little Lulu and her doggy Spot and vacate the premises."
"Oh, warrant!" Yarbrough turned back with a grin. "Is that what you're asking, Mr. Moneybags?" He pulled out a piece of paper and nodded his head onward, meaning for the others to just continue on their search while he gabbed on about commercial and private property rights verses city-wide martial law.
Sideswipe and Ashlyn started on the right side of the park, aiming for the paint ball facility while Gibbs and her dog took the VR gaming section.
Ashlyn peeked round corners, while Sideswipe took the high-road, trying not to be too obvious in his search. But young mothers and their little ones could tell when a police investigation was underway.
One mother turned to Ashlyn, her baby in her arms. "Excuse me, miss, can you tell me what's going on?"
The dark-skinned lady stood straight with a smile. She just examined six wooden benches and was about to look around in the swing set area. "Just looking for clues, Ma'am."
"Clues? For the missing children?"
"It's a city-wide search, Ma'am. Leave no stone unturned."
"Oh." And the lady relaxed and rocked her baby. She still seemed a little tense, but not what she might have been if Ashlyn had told her they were looking for bodies. She moved from the benches to the swings, recalling news about the bodies in a smaller park several weeks ago. She closed her eyes and concentrated, searching for any life energy leaking from under the sand.
Nothing. Silence like the starry nights under the summer sky deepened for her and Ashlyn sat in one of the swings and just stared off into nothing. The bitter scent of smoked salmon and drying jerky wafted just lightly in the air. If nothing else, the VR park stayed in business because of its specialty snacks.
How very cold things had become in town. She visited Central City on many occasions, finding such vitality and devotion not seen in other cities such as New York or L.A. Central City had its problems, like many other towns. They had a transient problem, and a housing problem among others. But that was life. Still, it was a nice town and Ashlyn considered moving here when she'd get the chance. But then there was Klammath Falls and she also loved that place; places nice . . . too sweet and sweetness was the word. Because in sweetness, you could loose yourself and you became one with something greater and better than you are and no one knows that better than the one better than you. But then, what more could there be if something was better than better?
Ashlyn blinked, wondering what interrupted her train of thought. Did she fall asleep? She glanced from one side of the playground to the other, still seeing only three women and their little ones.
She listened intently, stretching out with her senses, trying to perceive everything and any little thing that could be out there.
Any little thing at all.
Her eyes burned and she closed them, still keeping alert. There must have been something here; something powerful enough to disrupt her thoughts like that. She shivered, wondering what god-like thing could possibly be so strong? A god? A godling? A devil? Maybe a strong manifestation of poltergeists or something completely different? Something completely different. Children laughed here. They played and made dares and bonded in holy childhood friendships. They changed their spirits for a while and became pirates and heros. They discarded their names given them by their parents and took on the identities of TV characters and played games in the cosmos. They put on costumes and painted their faces and became mighty heros, they worshiped . . . worshiped their gods . . . they became slaves to their gods . . . they fought and died for their gods . . . they fought and died for their gods . . . they fought and died.
They fought and died and the death of millions of souls. And a thing; old, old, old. Older than Earth; older than the Matrix and it was a hated thing and it ruled the quadrant long before the word 'Quintesson' lay on the lips of intergalactic consumers.
All the way into a vortex. All the way into the belly of a god; all the way into the stomach of the cosmos. Falling, falling , falling. Embracing the darkness and breathing the darkness and kissing the darkness and becoming one with the darkness and allowing the darkness to devour you . . . piece by piece by piece . . . and you would loose yourself in it and become a part of it and with it, you become power; you become a part of its power and its power, to destroy and devour is everlasting and you, you little tiny speck in the greatness of the vast universe, you have a hand in becoming a part of that hunger, that need and desire to conquer, to take and devour and move on and devour again and the cycle, everlasting and cold would be forever.
A spike of electricity shot through Ashlyn's arms and she jumped with a start, finding herself face to face with Autobot Sideswipe.
"Hey," Sideswipe called. "You okay? You want me to take you home?"
"No." Ashlyn covered her eyes, still trying to settle after the shock. "I'm alright. But this place . . . it's haunted."
"Really?" The Autobot glanced around, expecting to see ghosts. "I don't see anything on any spectrum."
Ashlyn smiled grimly. "No, Sideswipe. A place isn't haunted because there's ghosts floating around. It's haunted either because of psychic footprints, or because there's a power at work that creates a certain feeling or emotion in people. Sometimes it's good, sometimes its' bad."
"You're saying there's no such thing as ghosts."
"No. I'm merely saying there's no ghosts here." She was suddenly very tired. Ashlyn made her way out of the playground, feeling rather clumsy as she tried walking in sand. She had become a little irritable and hoped Sideswipe didn't take it personally. Sometimes she would say some things in ways people would take wrong and she'd have to go back and apologize.
Ashlyn strolled down a hallway toward the minigym and the basketball court. Sideswipe politely, silently followed her and they glanced at the mural decorating the hallway. At first Ashlyn paid it no mind but she stopped suddenly and stared at the mural to the right. Pictures of boys on skateboards dominated the scene, jumping right out as though to land on the viewer. Girls with protective gear held paint ball guns in their arms, splattered each other. They all smiled. There was even a tree in the background that smiled. There were smiling faces on the paint balls as they flew through the air.
"Oh gawd." Ashlyn breathed.
"Hmm?" Sideswipe stepped away from the wall with her, both of them now studying the wall. At first glance, the picture was exactly what it seemed to be. But by stepping back, and erasing the face features and the colors, both Autobot and Human alike saw what the mural really looked like: the representation of the Watcher; the paint balls were its eyes, the shape of the skateboard arena became its face and the grass and trees formed secret text.
Sideswipe's face turned blank. "Uh, Mrs. Gibbs, I think it's time we sorta left the facility." He called into his internal comline. "Officer Gibbs?"
Ashlyn finally pulled out her radio. "Officer Yarbrough?" She called. 'Yarbrough?"
"Yeah." Came a grunt.
"Uh, we can't seem to contact Gibbs." Ashlyn didn't feel it a good idea to say anything of their finding, especially considering they might be in the Dopplegangers' very hangout.
"Okay." Yarbrough answered. "Meet me at the restaurant section, okay?"
Ashlyn and Sideswipe exchanged uneasy glances but agreed to it, anyway.
The gaming center started out on a half acre of flatland property and worked its way into the mountainside. Shops and little eateries lined that part of the center with pleasantries and candy shops of all kinds. It was a haunt for kids on the weekends, but it also drew young mothers on the weekdays when they had time on their hands and their husbands were away at work. There was plenty to do, even without paying for paint ball games, or VR movies, or other things. Shops and book/comic stores, a beautiful resting area allured the weary to come and sit at a waterfall while hired musicians played live music.
Sides and Ashlyn arrived at the center of the atrium and waited for Yarbrough to arrive. But not for ten minutes did he do so.
Just when Ashlyn was about to leave, the police officer arrived. "I suggest we leave as quickly and quietly as possible." He said in a hushed and hurried tone."
"Why? What's wrong?" Sideswipe asked.
"Just . . . let's just do it." He laid a hand on Ashlyn's back and her skin froze all over. A sudden terror took over her and she shook her head, unable to control her fear. Her heart raced and she couldn't get her body to move.
"Mrs. Foster?" Yarbrough asked. "Is there something wrong?"
Ashlyn stared at him in disgust. He never called her that-she never told him what her last name was-she shook her head again and ran off, not really knowing why she ran. Yarbrough's heavy feet trailed her and Sideswipe lumbered after, shouting Yarbrough's name, trying to figure out what was going on.
Ashlyn kept moving until she found an 'employee's only' door. She dashed through it and down the hall, trying to run as fast as she could. The psychic didn't want to be around Yarbrough. She ran into one room, darted down that hallway and she could still feel him coming after her.
RUN, RUN, AS FAST AS YOU CAN, YOU CAN'T CATCH ME, IM' THE GINGERBREAD MAN oh, and what a mad song it was! What a mad story! For the little gingerbread man was obviously arrogant and deserved to be eaten in the end! And Ashlyn hoped she wasn't taking his place . . .
RUN, RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN . . . RUN, RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN . . .
She laid her hands on another door and opened into another bright, white hallway and that led to only one door. She passed through that, allowing the door to close on its own and found herself in a house of mirrors. Ashlyn stepped back, her hand reaching for the door knob. She wasn't about to fall for this. She hated tricks of light and shadow-she saw that often enough in her dreams. The young lady turned for the door knob and found nothing there. She padded the wall, thinking maybe a trick of shadow had hidden the knob from her sight.
Not so. There was the regular crack along the threshold, but there was no doorknob on this side of the door. Panic took her and Ashlyn pounded on the wall.
"Nooo!"' she cried. Let me out of here! I'm clostrophobic!" She pounded until she realized there would be no going back. The young woman tried to calm and forced herself to take a step. Then two. Then three.
Maybe it won't be so bad.
THONK. She ran into a window. And the moment she did so, the lights switched to red and ultra-violet, making sight nearly impossible. She started to hyperventilate and leaned against a mirror. "Please," she begged, "Let me out of here, please."
No answer. She pulled herself up and pressed forward, hitting either a mirror then a window. She slammed on a mirror, less angry that it was a mirror than if it had been a window. Around. Left. THONK.(window) Right. Straight. THONK. (Mirror) Right, THONK. (Mirror) Right. THONK. (Window) Left. Left. Left. THONK. (Mirror) Right. Straight. Straight. THONK. (Window) Right. THONK. (Window) Right. Left. Straight. THONK (Mirror) Right, THONK. (Window)Straight. THONK. (Window) Left. Left. THONK. (Window)
"Aaagggghhhh!" She screamed and in frustration, Ashlyn slammed into another window and it made her so mad that she pounded into it with all her might, shattering the glass and slicing her hands. The glass fragmented and in her deranged state, all she could see were the eyes of the Watcher, laughing at her childish temper. And voices from everywhere chanted in a language long since forgotten by alien intelligence. The faces of puppets turned to her, stone cold, stone dead, their eyes fixed, intending to take her life.
Their chanting shot upward like a great cannon firing a single blast, a scream that obliterated everything in its path. The scream lasted forever and its power swathed a path of death for miles unseen.
Overcome by despair, Ashlyn sank to her knees, sobbing. Her bloodied hands stung and smeared red drops all over her clothes. The whispers of millions of voices kept chanting at her and Ashlyn forgot what reality was like outside the VR park.
That was unacceptable!
Something crunched in his hand, snapping like the fragile bones of a Human being. He nearly leapt out of his seat and found all he had crushed was a digipad. A stupid digipad!
He turned away from his desk. There was so much to do and he simply could not get himself to even read. He gloomily stared out the window. This was ridiculous! He had been though worse than this and was still able to perform his duties.
Well, admittedly, not always. There were other times, other friends he grieved over.
"Prime?" Magnus peered through the door. "Didn't you hear me knock?"
Prime turned and frowned at himself. "No. Come in." He sat down, knowing Magnus was there to hand him more work.
But Ultra Magnus did nothing of the sort. He took the chair opposite the desk and sat down, steepling his fingers. His large optics studied the Autobot leader for a moment. Optimus was in another of his darker moods. The piles of undone digipads alone told the whole story.
Shame shadowed Prime's whole frame. He knew what this was about; his lack of interest and inability to do his job. "I'm sorry, Magnus." He said softly.
Magnus shook his head, "For what?" He asked.
The Autobot leader fell into a sullen silence. He didn't know what to tell Magnus. He didn't know where to start, if he did. He half expected Magnus to chew him out for his behavior.
Magnus' expression remained impassive, but not insensitive. "You once told me you believed if she was out there, alone, Rusti would most likely do anything she can to find her way here."
Prime nodded. "Yes."
"You know her better then any one in Fort Max. I suggest we look for her out on the main roads. If I were in her position, someone who's had to use her head in Dinobot football, you have to think of ways to avoid getting stepped on."
Optimus pondered Magnus' words carefully. Then it dawned on him what Magnus was saying. It was brilliant! Optimus had been so busy worrying over her, he hadn't stopped to think how she herself might be thinking. She would purposefully dodge the very people who might try to help her, fearful they'd be helping her the wrong way! He stared at Magnus; a new form of respect crossed his face plates.
But two days later, they still heard and saw nothing. Optimus secretly began to think they might have lost her for good. He even slipped into her room the night of the second day and noted with a tinge of amusement that she didn't bother to make her bed before she left little over two weeks ago.
A life time ago, he thought dismally. He wondered if this was how Rodimus felt after he himself had died and they had to pack up his quarters. Not just his, but Prowl's and Ironhide's, Brawn's and Ratchet's. You'd have to fold up your soul with each piece. You tuck it down deep inside so that it doesn't surface unless you want it to. Optimus remembered going through the same horrible process when Spike and Carly were killed. He'd never see them again. It would seem the Autobot's presence on the Earth had cursed the Witwicky family. They were as much a part of the Transformer's war as every Autobot ever created. And that curse extended right down to Spike's grandchildren.
Perhaps Delphra was right. Perhaps Rusti should have stayed with her family. At least, she'd be alive. But, Optimus digressed, that wasn't true, either. The circumstances in this case wasn't a battle between the Autobots and Decepticons. It wasn't between the Autobots and the Quintessons. It was between the city and a group of terrorists. It was the Witwicky family fighting against itself. One wanting something the other did not approve of and that went for Brian as well as Rusti.
He Searched again, silently calling her name, Reaching out with his soul to touch the laughter of another and the response was the same empty darkness he had felt in the last several weeks.
And he missed her. If it was death, it was a cold death because she was separated from anyone who cared about her. If it was intentional, that she ran away from everyone and everything, it was a cruel and cold-hearted thing to do.
He found her Raggedy Ann and sat down on the floor before her untidy bed and held the doll in the cup of his hand. Where the Pit was she?
Someone cleared their throat at the doorway and Rodimus entered when Prime shot him a surprised, if somewhat bashful look. He closed his hand around the doll, not really willing to share what he was doing.
Rodimus entered slowly, the door closing behind him. He sat at the foot of the bed with some difficulty. The wounds round his thorax were still closing, making movement a little awkward. Rodimus smiled at the messy bed. "Guess we'll have to make sure she remembers to make it in the morning, hu?"
Optimus could not say anything. He feared he'd say something . . . But now the pretense of leadership would not save him this time. The fear held him too firmly, the sadness too overwhelming and all that pent-up heartsickness came flooding out. He looked away, unable to communicate at all.
Rodimus watched him with growing sadness. He himself had lost friends. He had wandered from place to place before his life here on Earth. There were no guarantees in life. That was the cruelness of reality. But there seemed to be something more than companionship, than friendship where Rusti was concerned. She was a gentle child and rekindled something in the Senior Prime that had long since died. And they both knew without a doubt that she loved her life here in Fort Max. She wanted to stay. Perhaps in some small way, they gave her something back, though Rodimus could not figure what a couple of Autobot leaders could provide for a child, really. They never ignored her, that's for sure. But they were constantly busy and still, she never complained.
Rodimus finally sighed and took to his feet. "I'm going out on watch for a while, Op. I'll call you if I see anything."
Optimus silently nodded, and remained just as motionless long after Roddi left the room. He really needed the silence and was grateful Rodimus didn't try to cheer him up with impractical hopeful thoughts. He sat hunched over and stared at the doll for a long time, counting the little white hearts on the red dress, counting the strands of red yarn making the dolls's synthetic hair. It was all he had, a precious remnant of someone he cherished.
And he wept inside.
Where the hell was she?
He fingered the doll, the dead silence of the room matching the dead sadness of his heart.
Where, where, where?
His systems began to shut down on their own one at a time. It would be nice to be able to rest, just for a little bit. And just as his mind was about to dip into darkness, a Coldness touched him.
Optimus's optics flickered on as his senses came on line. The Coldness was not his imagination.
It was an old Coldness. Something ancient and forgotten by most Autobot historians. Records kept of this forgotten Evil were stashed deep under political red tape and diaries written of it were secretly stored in the asteroid Storage unit, long since destroyed by Cyclonus.(1)
It was a wraith, actually. Something Optimus Prime had not fought since . . . since a time before he was publicly recognized as a Prime. The Cyberwraith had been devoured by the Matrix once before as it could not be destroyed, even by the creation powers of the Autobot's sacred artifact. But, why would he suddenly sense its presence again? Even if it meganiums had passed since he felt its chaotic spark, there was no mistaking its presence.
Prime stood and laid a hand on his chest. He remembered it; how it ripped him to pieces. You do not forget its icy touch. You do not forgive the violations, the feeling of its mouth as it devoured you a piece at a time, its fingers as they worked on kneading your body to mush.
But why was he sensing it now?
Prime abandoned the room, not realizing he dropped the doll. He left the building, paying no attention to people as they greeted him along the way. They merely shook their heads, figuring he just had too much on his mind.
Optimus transformed once outside the building and roamed about the streets and courtyards, trying to pinpoint the location of the presence. But after roaming aimlessly for half an hour, he gave up and transformed back to robot mode, confused and befuddled over the sensation. This just didn't fit. How could something imprisoned in the Matrix escape? What kind of doorway did it find?
Prime finally lifted his optics and scanned the city and surrounding buildings. Then he Scanned the city and surrounding buildings.
"Roddi?" He called through interpersonal comline.
"Right here." Rodimus replied from the highway between Fort Max and Central City.
"Have you felt anything odd today? A . . . an unclean spark?"
Pause. "What? Hey, is this Optimus Prime I'm talking to?"
"Rodimus, I'm receiving . . . " It touched him again then disappeared. "Dammit." He muttered to himself. "No. This isn't right. There's . . . there's something wrong here."
"Okay." Rodimus promised hurriedly. "I'm coming back right now."
Prime didn't answer. He walked aimlessly about. He tried to pick up traces, anything that resembled the source of the disturbance. But finally he patched into Max and asked the city itself if it had seen, heard or felt anything.
"NEGATIVE." Max softly answered.
"That's fine, Max. Thank you." Prime shook his head and supposed he could have imagined it all.
He couldn't be sure. Optimus leaned against the wall of a nearby building and thought long and hard. If . . . Rusti had been injected with 'joys' again, it would explain why they could not contact her. It could explain how the Doppleganger members died in the school. Could it be, indeed, that the 'joys' had stirred something in her, awakened something that should not have been . . . and here Optimus dared one more thought, something nearly unbelievable. Could it be that Rusti really did have a connection to the Matrix? Was that were possible for Humans? And if so, could something of the past manage to slip out through her?
But the whole idea seemed so terribly far-fetched. What Human would have a connection to the Matrix? It would not recognize Humans as life forms, surely! It was designed specifically for Autobots; even a Decepticon could not use it without being poisoned.
Nevertheless, the nagging feeling would not lighten and it drove the Senior Prime to take another walk around the square. That turned into a trip to the Southeastern gate where Rodimus checked in, jotted down his report on a digipad, and approached him in car mode then transformed.
"Rough night?" He joked.
Prime stared at him, then suddenly realized the joke really wasn't that funny. He had spent all night looking for something more elusive than his own sleep patterns. "It's here, Roddi." he swore. "I know it."
Rodimus folded his arms. "Okay. What is it?"
Prime paused for a moment then gazed out at the eastern skyline. "An ancient creature that nearly destroyed Cybertron at the time I was recognized as the leader of the Autobots. A cyberwraith. It took on the shape of thousands of creatures calling themselves Multiformers and they attached themselves to the planet itself, devouring Cybertron's life force as they grew in number." Prime gazed at him, now, a light touched his optics. "The Matrix was unable to kill it, because it had no physical substance. So, it was devoured."
Rodimus looked very perplexed. "Devoured? You mean the Matrix ate it?"
"No. The Matrix imprisoned the cyberwraith within itself. If the cyberwraith escapes and devours again, we could have a very serious problem . . . on . . .our . . . hands." His voice trailed off as he turned northward toward the EDC district. Without another word to Roddi, he transformed and raced away.
Rodimus merely followed suit, figuring Optimus knew what he was doing.
No sooner had Prime arrived at the R&D building there, than Max had informed him of two life forms approaching the outer barrier.
But Optimus really didn't need any information; he could feel it. He felt the malignant craving. He raced out the city, heedless of other people's stares and dropped off the backside of the third storage unit. And there, at the edge of the grassy clearing stood what looked like a dead and blackened tree stump. Rusti was on her knees, facing the city. Her eyes were open, but glazed over with shock. The stump's branches were wrapped all around her like a spider's web, holding her helpless.
Optimus only had to take one step and the stump dropped its first victim and its branches reached back toward the forest. Its darkness imploded and disappeared.
Prime fell to his knees before the little figure. It took everything she had to get back home. She was torn up and bleeding and the sight of her pierced his own soul. He scanned her and found nothing. He tried to hear, but nothing sounded. Not breath, not life.
She came too close to just die! "Russstiii?" His own voice betrayed his feelings. "Rus-s-s-tii?" He called again. "Sweet . . .heart?" Oh, he just wished she would say something, move something, whisper, or Whisper! But there came nothing, absolutely nothing. "Russtii?" He called. Oh, how his own voice sounded so pitiful, so sad in his own audios! "Come on, Sweetheart, stay with me." He begged.
Rodimus joined him in another minute, landing hard on the grass. "They're coming." He reported, meaning the emergency crew. But he stopped dead short and laid his hand on his chest. "Oh, Primus!" He whispered.
Optimus ignored an interpersonal communication call from Blaster. "I'm . . . not registering anything, Roddi." He passed his hand over her, scanning again and again,. "I-If I pick her up, I might injure her further."
Rodimus said nothing, silently answering Blaster's call. A mixture of pain and anger kindled in his optics. "Prime," he said softly, "Blaster says her family just arrived."
"No!" Optimus clenched his fist and stared urgently at Rodimus. It was the last thing he wanted to hear! Prime didn't want to face Daniel right now. "We just found her!" He couldn't help it; he covered his face with his hands, struggling to control the anger and fear that nearly overwhelmed him. Then Rodimus laid a hand on his shoulder. It brought him out of his inconsolable state and Prime forced himself to swallow his internal battle.
"Look," Rodimus said gently, "I'll go and entertain them. You take her in." He watched as Optimus hesitated, torn between wanting to care for her, and fearful of injuring her further.
But Optimus finally managed to get his fear under control and as gently as he could, he cuddled her tiny cold body close to his chest. She was drenched, scratched head to foot. An old flimsy dressing barely covered an ugly cut on her left arm and a fresher naked cut sliced her forehead. Her right arm had an even uglier wound just below her shoulder and another of the same size at her ankle. He had cared for her all her life and seeing her like this just ripped him up inside. Why? Why would somebody hurt someone so sweet? She'd do nothing to hurt another soul! Sadness ate him up inside. When was the last time he told her that he loved her?
Grievously, Optimus could not remember when he told her how much she meant to him and now he could loose her.
Rodimus followed him into the EDC R&D complex then gave them a final glance before he transformed and headed for Central Command.
People parted way as Optimus carried his treasure to the second level of medical and silently asked Max to call Dr. Hanson.
He entered a dark and empty room and tried to keep his own heart from breaking when he realized Rusti still hadn't made a move. Not a whisper. Not a breath. He laid her on the med table and searched for something with which to clean her little face. He found towels and a pile of white wash cloths, a package of alcohol-soaked towelets . . . No, no, no. Optimus wanted something gentle, something that wouldn't tear her skin or burn her wounds. He found a jar of cotton.
Perfect. He attained one little swab, soaking it with warm water. He turned and gently dabbed the cuts and scratches marking her face. Blood soaked the cotton too quickly and he had to get another piece. He turned away, not seeing that she finally took a real breath.
He returned and dabbed her face again, the warm water gently washed away dirt, revealing the cuts and scratches more clearly.
He trailed the cotton over her arms, red with cold, scratches and bruises. He almost asked her out loud where she had been to get so badly cut up. But Optimus held his silence and changed cotton again. He didn't see or hear Hanson step into the dark and silent room.
He did see Rusti blink.
"Rusti!" He whispered. "Rusti!"
Hanson smiled and stepped closer. "I think you'd better let a pro do that job, Prime." She intervened.
Optimus visibly flinched and dropped the cotton like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Under other circumstances, the sight might have been funny. But Hanson by now was aware how self-conscious the Autobot leader was and she maintained her poise.
Optimus moved around and sat against the wall by the bed, legs up, arms across his knees. Hanson gave the girl a cursory glance then plucked a hand scanner from her coat pocket and ran it over Rusti twice. She frowned and glanced at the ceiling.
"Max, would you contact Sarah? Tell her Rusti's arrived?" She turned to Optimus and nervously wet her lips. "Prime-"
"I am not leaving her." He growled before Hanson could order him out.
She blinked, surprised at his adamancy. "Oohhkay. Well, you can make yourself useful by staying out of my way and . . . take off her shoes and jeans."
They carefully undressed her -or rather, Optimus undressed her. Hanson supervised while he tenderly washed her down and put a fresh gown over the girl's cold lifeless body. Hanson bound the fresh wounds and cut off the old dressing binding the needle-wound on Rusti's left arm. Then Prime lightly covered her with a white blanket.
Hanson herself prepared a small blue laser and jotted down several notes on a clipboard. "You know, Optimus, I was just wondering how you're going to handle her parents once they find out where she is. Daniel won't be very happy about the fact that she ran away. And less so that she's here."
Optimus was quiet for a long moment and Hanson paused in her preparations and gazed at him. He was concentrating on the little girl, perhaps carefully choosing his words. "I almost lost her to them, Doctor. How else am I to handle it?"
"They could sue you for child endangerment."
"The fact that they can say you tempted Rusti into leaving her home and safety in order to get to you." Hanson measured the laser with her eyes then gazed back at the Autobot. "They can get away with that perspective, you know." She turned to Rusti and slowly passed the blue light back and forth over the ugly cut on Rusti's forehead.
She didn't see Prime's optics flash. Nor did she wonder why he suddenly fell silent. She paused and smiled a greeting at the girl who opened her sea-grey eyes. "Well, you certainly are of all things, a survivor, Miss Witwicky!"
Rusti obviously could not smile with dry and split lips. Then she jerked under Hanson's grip. "Optimus!" She whispered as loudly as her worn body allowed.
"Sssshhhhhh . . ." Optimus mentally kissed her and wished he could rock her to sleep right now. But it would have to wait. Dr. Hanson gently pushed the girl back down. "Hon, you'll have to lie still for this to work."
The distraught girl lamented, weeping over something Hanson could not fully understand. Well, she might have if Rusti had spoken in English. Hanson blinked, surprised the young girl could speak Autobot so fluently when just about every Human who attempted to learn the language failed. The doctor gazed at Prime whose whole world right now did not include anyone but the girl.
Optimus leaned over and very carefully slipped his finger under her right hand, trying not to lift it too much. "Shalatta." He practically breathed it and Hanson swore up and down that was Rusti's name in Prime's own language. "S'datat t'mootant. Kedakt p'snasis sleedits s'kadists t'nattadat kendavadzh."
Rusti mourned, her voice carrying the tone of physical and emotional grief. Hanson wished she could do more for the girl other than heal her physical wounds, but it was all she had a gift for. The rest would have to come from those who cared most about her.
"Ssssshhhhh . . ." Optimus touched her soul, with as gentle and warm a radiance as the weak spring sun breaking through the cold Oregon rains. Rusti calmed, taking in the kind touches of his love and trusting he would let nothing hurt her now.
Hanson sighed and wondered what had just transpired between them. She turned back to her work. "She's not going to recover in a day." She advised quietly.
Prime really wasn't very concerned about anything outside this moment. Something he privately cherished had come back to him and nothing else really mattered. "Rodimus has already informed Tolomsky." He answered Hanson. Not that he really knew whether or not Rodimus did, but he knew it was a safe assumption, because it was the very thing he would have done himself. And both Primes thought alike. Optimus never took his optics off the girl. Suddenly he felt very tired but completely unwilling to leave her.
"What about her family?" Hanson pressed again.
"No." The Senior Prime almost growled. "I have temporary custody right now."
1. See TF episode "Surprise Party"