Choices
Choices
by Birgit Staebler (mac@gno.de)

Just for the curious: this story follows 'Silent Voices' on the heel, which was posted here some weeks ago. For all those who haven't read it I'll just say this again: English isn't my first language (it's German) so there are grammatical errors here for sure.
Copyrights for Transformers belong to ...ungh. .. Hasbro, right? Dimly remember something in that department. The Sentinels and Seekers (no, not those Seekers; I now know there are Decepticons called Seekers. Sorry) are my creations.
And do me a favor ... overlook the typos? Please? Thanks.
Comments welcome (as always).

The shuttle

"It's beautiful," Jill McKennan said softly as she looked through the window of the shuttle.
"She sure is. And I never t'ought I'd see 'er again." Michel de la Croix, native to the planet Earth, sighed and smiled. "It sure has been a long time."
Hot Rod, who stood beside them, watching the blue-white, cloud covered planet coming closer and closer, had an idea what the human felt. He had felt the same after returning to Cybertron after such a long time of absence. Earth was a kind of second home to him as well, but it didn't feel like homecoming today. It felt like going to his own funeral. Maybe he was too pessimistic. Hadn't he been the one talking to Midnight several times and assuring him that he and the other Sentinels would be really safe? That no one would dismember them on sight? Well, yeah, that had been him, but now he wasn't so sure any longer. What if the majority of the Autobots decided against the former Quintesson guards? Would they pass a death sentence?
And was he really primarily worried about the Sentinels? They were, after all, very well able to defend themselves and had survived for more years than Hot Rod could remember. He slowly realized why he was afraid to go back; not because of the Sentinels, but because of himself. 'This is ridiculous!' He thought forcefully. 'Those are my friends down there, waiting....... waiting to give me lectures on how dumb a stunt I pulled, yeah, right.' Bitterness swept over him and he turned away from the window. Kup would give him That Look again, a look he knew from his time as Rodimus Prime. The memories of this special past were painful and not something he would ever want to repeat if he could help it. He wasn't a leader, had never been. He was Hot Rod..... or was he?
"So that's Earth...." Shanygn muttered and looked curiously at the planet, which now filled most of the view screen. "Looks nice."
Mike raised an eyebrow. "Nice? I'd say it looks wonderful!"
She chuckled. "Of course it does. It's your home, right?"
"When did you leave?" Hot Rod asked Mike, trying to cover his emotional doubt and pain.
"Hm, let me t'ink. I guess it was after de first World War.... I was on my way to a race when dis storm came up and de plane hit somet'ing."
"After the first World War?" Spike asked in amazement. "But ... then you should be nearly 90 right now!"
Mike grinned. "Compliments of Archer. Interfacing is as good as face-lifting and health farms. But to tell de truth, I'm a bit older den dat. I not only made a space jump t'rough some crazy storm phenomenon, I also made a time jump. Would I 'ave been able to return I would 'ave found myself way back in de 14th century."
"I don't understand," Hot Rod began when Skywolf joined them.
"It's not so easy to explain, but on a lot of planets there are space/time phenomena. On Earth it is called Bermuda Triangle or something like that. Other planets have other names for those phenomena. It all comes down to small gates opening and closing randomly, and whenever a solid object enters the gate it's exiting automatically on the other side."
"For me de ot'er side was a barren wasteland of a moon," Mike chuckled. "And dat was where I met Archer for de first time. Couldn't say it was love on first sight, but he was a 'ell of a race car, every race driver's dream, and dat was somet'ing dat made me agree to dis strange Interface. I thought I could just walk away later ... dat was a long time ago."
Hot Rod stared at him, then let his gaze wander to the rest of the humanoids on this shuttle. He had never even dreamed that it had been anything close to this! He wondered how Jill, Kyle and Steve had met the Sentinels ... and how long each of them had been Interfaced. Though he knew Midnight's story and the story of the Sentinels after the war, he had never dared to ask about the humanoid Interfaces.
The shuttle bucked a bit as it entered Earth's atmosphere and Mike turned back to watch the planet he had left such a long time ago. "It's so beautiful," he muttered again.
Jill patted his back. "Snap out of it, race boy. We're not here for a vacation."
Mike sighed deeply. "Wish we were." Then he turned away from the window and walked back to Archer, who was studying Earth on the scanners. Hot Rod, left alone with Skywolf and Jill, stared at the land masses looming up in front of the window. In the background Optimus Prime was talking to Blaster in Autobot City, instructing him for their landing.
'I just pray that this goes well', the young Autobot thought. 'For the Sentinels'. His problems could wait. The priority now was to get Midnight and the others through the first meeting without anyone starting a fire fight.
A hand fell on his shoulder and he recognized to his surprise that it was Optimus Prime. "It will work," he said.
"It has to," Hot Rod muttered.
Prime seemed to smile, as far as that was visible. "Have some confidence."
Hot Rod didn't know if he had all the confidence this needed, especially when it concerned Rodimus Prime/Hot Rod. He had fled from Autobot City to come to terms with the removal of the Matrix, but had he really worked this out? No, he hadn't, he confessed silently to himself. And, somehow on his journey back, he had realized that he would never get back to being what he had been before. It was too late. Not even Shanygn could change that.
He looked at the woman standing not far away. Maybe this pseudo-Interface wouldn't work at all; maybe they were just trying to make it work, imagining it would be all right in the end, but then it wouldn't. Hot Rod was confused and scared, doubting his decisions once again.
Optimus Prime seemed to read his thoughts. "We will talk about this, Hot Rod."
And Hot Rod knew what 'this' meant. It wasn't the Sentinels, it was him; his situation. He only nodded, unable to say anything. And what could he have said? Optimus Prime seemed to know him much better than he had thought. Had he done anything to even suggest what the deeper problem was -- beside running away, which he had blamed on other things? He didn't know, but with Prime, everything was possible.

* * *

Earth

The shuttle had touched down several miles away from Autobot City. It had been Optimus Prime's decision. With the Sentinels on board he didn't want to risk anything. It wasn't that he didn't trust Midnight to keep his troops in check; he just didn't want a confrontation right from the start. Midnight had agreed to that strategy. Prime and Hot Rod had left the shuttle and had driven back to Autobot City, leaving the Sentinels behind.
Skywolf and Jill were in science heaven. The oldest Sentinel and his Interface were busy recording data, evaluating what they got and storing it somewhere. It wasn't only the city that interested the, but also the few Autobots who had appeared in the last hour, watching them.
"We are being watched," Voodoo stated. He was standing at the open shuttle door, looking over to the small hill rising about half a mile south of the shuttle.
Knight stepped up to him. "Yes, but who watches the watchers?" she asked.
Voodoo knew what she meant. If those Autobots were anything like Kup, who knew what a Sentinel meant in Cybertron history, then they should be prepared for everything. There would be no Optimus Prime to slap their trigger fingers, and shooting an Autobot wasn't high on Voodoo's 'still-to-do-today' list; especially since it would mean his immediate, rather unhappy death.
"As long as we don't do anything I believe we are safe," Midnight said calmly and joined them. Even in the light of the sunny day he appeared like a pool of absolute blackness, his layer of organic skin greedily absorbing the light and storing it.
Knight didn't look convinced. "We should call back Archer and Mike."
Midnight shrugged. "I promised Optimus Prime to stay with the shuttle, not in the shuttle. Archer and Mike know what the situation is like and a little bit of scouting doesn't hurt. Besides, this is Mike's home. He will be careful."
The female Sentinel was still unconvinced. "You're the boss," was all the muttered, then she walked back inside of the relative safety of the shuttle.
Midnight watched the various Autobots, who kept their distance to them, never coming too close, but being close enough to be seen. He just hoped that everything went well. If not, they would soon see the other side of life.....
'You're the boss', Knight's words echoed in his mind. Yeah, well, being boss didn't necessarily mean he made the right choices all the time.

* * *

Shanygn stood outside and studied the landscape around the large city. This planet was incredible! She had never been to Earth, but Mike and Steve had told her stories about it. And all of them seemed to be true -- to an extent, of course. She had accompanied Optimus Prime and Hot Rod against all better judgment from the Sentinels. Midnight had said nothing to her decision, but Archer, Knight and Voodoo had objected immensely. Skywolf, had kept his silence.
"If we want this to work we need a sign of good will," she had told the robots. "And if it has to be me, then it is me. B'sides, Hot Rod and I have to work out a lot and this might be the best time."
'Yeah, right. A whole lot of good I'm doing him', she thought sourly, resting her chin on her hands, watching a flock of birds. She had seen Hot Rod's fear as he returned to his own kind, had somehow known his doubts. They might not be really Interfaced, and would never be able to do it, he being an Autobot, but she was good at reading emotions, even if the other one was a robot. She had learned to do so very quickly, since Sentinels were very good at hiding emotions if they wanted to; and reading them sometimes saved a lot of trouble. Hot Rod was terribly scared, but he covered it well.
'Then why doesn't he talk to someone? Like me, for instance?' The answer was easy: he didn't want to. Something was bugging him and had so since they had left Alean, but he kept it inside and hoped nobody would notice. Well, someone had. Shanygn knew Optimus Prime was well aware of the younger Autobot's problems. 'Let's hope they can work it out. I'd hate to see Roddy suffer like that. I can only ease part of his pain, the physical pain. I can try to fill the void left inside of him when the Matrix was removed. But the emotions .... no.'
"Hi," a voice suddenly said, and it was female voice.
Shanygn turned in surprise, startled out of her thoughts, and noticed the slim, blonde woman in the white overall, an overall similar to the one Spike wore.
"I'm Carly Witwicky," the blond woman introduced herself and stuck out one hand.
Shanygn lifted one claw and shrugged as an apology. Carly smiled and let her hand fall to her side.
"Andrea Shanygn," Shanygn returned the introduction. "Call me Shanygn. You must be Spike's wife."
Carly nodded. "He told me about you while he went to the council chamber. I was curious."
Shanygn chuckled. "Well ...what did he tell you exactly?"
The blond woman chuckled as well. "Not much. He didn't have much time." A dark cloud seemed to pass over her face.
Shanygn gave her an understanding smile. "Never marry a politician or someone involved in politics," she said. "It was a saying on my planet."
Carly smiled. "Only too true. I guess he's not only married to me but also to his job."
Shanygn shrugged. "I can't talk about marriages since I never ever had anything coming even close to a serious relationship, but I know that being together with someone you consider a partner means making compromises."
The other woman nodded. "I know. I knew it all along, but it's still hard." She lightened up a bit. "But that's not exactly why I came here. I thought you might want some company and maybe a guide around the city as long as the High and Mighty have their top secret conference."
Shanygn had to confess that she was very curious about this city. "If that doesn't get you into trouble because you show me something I shouldn't see ..."
"Oh, no, of course not. You're a guest, and as far as I understood Spike you might stay around for some more time ... because of Hot Rod." Carly led her down to the ground level. "It's good to see him back. All of us are glad."
"Understandable." Shanygn looked around and noticed several Autobots in the various rooms they passed or the corridors they walked down. All eyed her curiously.
"HiCarlywho'syourfriend?Ihaven'tseenherbeforeanywherenearthecity.NicetomeetyouI'mBlurr." The staccato of words surprised Shanygn and she wondered if she suddenly had a hearing problem. The speaker, a blue and silver Autobot stood in front of the two women, gesturing so fast you only saw blurring motions.
"Shanygn, that's Blurr," Carly introduced him.
"IjustsaidthatCarly," was the lightning speed answer.
"Whoa, slow down," Shanygn laughed. "You said 'Blurr'? Fitting." She smiled at him. "Nice to get to know you."
"Everyone'shavingsecretsandtalkingtoanyoneisincrediblydifficult. What's going on, huhuhu?" Blurr asked, only the last sentence clearly understandable.
"Prime's in a conference because we have visitors."
"Visitors?Visitors? Where?" Blurr turned, his motions again blurring, searching the ground. "Where?Tellmewhere?"
"My friends are still waiting until the conference is over," Shanygn explained. "Say, are you missing a few screws or are you always that confusingly fast?"
"Fast?Fast?Whome?"
"Yes, you Blurr," Carly laughed. "Come on, Shanygn, let's get you to meet some of the normal guys."
"Normal?" Blurr echoed, looking a bit piqued as he the two women walked on. "SoyouwannasayI'mabnormal,huhuh?"
"Whew!" Shanygn breathed. "My mind's on overload with him."
"Tell me about it. Sometimes he's too much for anybody, human or Autobot."

* * *

34-09AJ-L5

On a small planet far away from Earth the giant form of Braintrust stared darkly at the vid screen in his throne room. The screen showed only empty space, but that didn't bother the Seeker leader the least bit. Now and then one of his ears twitched or his airvents at the side of his long neck flared open to release a hiss of air, but otherwise he was completely still.
The planet had no name, simply a number on a space chart some long-dead race had drawn up eons ago. It was called 34-09AJ-L5. There was no life on this rocky island in space and no breathable atmosphere either. The beings residing on the lonely planetoid didn't need an atmosphere and the toxic elements in the thin air were only deadly for most of the humanoid life. Some would be able to live here -- if they managed to survive the Seekers' unquenchable thirst for an organic Interface. None ever had.
Wild Card looked uneasily at his leader, not knowing whether he should be suicidal enough to interrupt whatever train of thought Braintrust was following, or not. Being second-in-command didn't necessarily mean that he was automatically safe from wrath attacks; it made him even more prone to getting smashed into a wall somehow. He decided to be suicidal today.
"My leader," he addressed the draconian Seeker and felt suddenly extremely unwell as the massive head turned to look at him out of bulging insectoid eyes. "I have the report you wanted," he added quickly.
"Yes," Braintrust rumbled, his airvents releasing another gust of toxic air.
"The Sentinels have left Alean and returned with the Autobots to Earth," Wild Card reported. "They took the Autobot shuttle."
"All of them?"
Wild Card's optics flickered nervously. "No, my leader. Only a few have. The others have remained to guard the base."
"And Midnight?" the deep bass voice demanded.
"He and the Interface accompanied the Autobots."
Wild Card made a quick step back as the dragon hissed loudly and the tail smashed into the wall, denting it a bit.
"How dare he!" Braintrust whispered hotly. Quieting down he stared at the screen again. "Ready the shuttle."
Wild Card fidgeted nervously. "My leader, we are no match for the whole Autobot force ... and if the Sentinels help them like last time we ..." The next second Wild Card found himself eye to eye with the cruelly shining eyes of his leader.
"This time we will have allies," the dragon hissed and if Wild Card had been able to pale and faint dramatically, he would have done so. Braintrust's massive claws were too close to him for his comfort.
"Allies?" he echoed, his voice unstable.
Braintrust used his tail to push a button. The picture on the vid screen changed from a starfield to a planet.
"Char," he said.
Wild Card didn't know the planet, nor did he want to get to know it.
"Even the Autobots have enemies," the dragon explained with a icy smile. "And I intend to make their enemies my allies. We will set up a trap with a bait Midnight can't ignore." The picture changed again. "Here."
"On Cybertron?" Wild Card asked.
Memories surfaced, memories of old times on the factory planet. It had been a much more peaceful life beside the rebellions and uprises of the slaves. But then he had been able to smash a few Cybertronians a day, not live a life hiding on a little lifeless heap of rocks, trying not to get trashed by a maniacal Seeker who pondered how he could Interface with an organic life form. Wild Card, though he had to admit he would try it, had never been very enthusiastic about the whole Interfacing idea. Maybe it meant functioning more efficiently, but it also meant loosing one very serious advantage: the ability to deplete energy from other robotic life forms.
"What better place than our own home?" Braintrust chuckled. "No one, not even the Quintessons, knows more about Cybertron than us." He turned back to his second-in-command. "Now go and ready the shuttle, then call the others. We will make a little trip ....."
Wild Card nodded and carefully left the room, trying not to run. So they went back to Cybertron .... they went back home.

* * *

Earth

The council chamber was closed for the public, and that meant every Autobot who hadn't been personally called by Optimus Prime upon his arrival back at Autobot City. The meeting had been called into existence right away, leaving Hot Rod no time to ponder anything much. Springer, Kup, Ultra Magnus and Blaster had been radioed to meet Optimus Prime and the others in the large council chamber. While Arcee had given Springer some short hints as to what would come, Kup, Ultra Magnus and the others were caught short by Optimus Prime's words.
"Sentinels?" Kup shouted, rising slightly from his chair, his hands firmly planted on the surface of the table. "You can't be serious, Prime!"
Optimus Prime regarded the old warrior calmly. He had suspected that Kup would object -- strongly object. Hot Rod was a bit fidgety, exchanging a quick look with Spike, who gave him an encouraging look.
"I'm very serious about this, Kup," the Autobot leader said.
Kup stared at Prime, then his optic sensors locked on Hot Rod. "And you've been meeting with them? How could you be so stupid?!"
"It wasn't stupidity!" Hot Rod returned sharply. "It was a decision based on trust, a decision that had to be made."
Kup snorted. "Yeah, right."
"Why do we still fear the Sentinels, though they haven't been around for millions of years?" Hot Rod asked, his temper rising a bit at Kup's inability to move away from his old believes. "We still treat them as if it had happened yesterday that they fought against us! It's been a long time and they have changed! We have changed. We're no longer slaves to the Quintessons." He clenched his fists, waiting for Kup's temper to explode.
"He has a point, Kup," Springer said, taking Hot Rod's side. "A long time has gone by since the Sentinels were enemies to the Cybertronians. I, for my part, can't even remember such a thing as a Sentinel, and if I hadn't looked it up in the old library I would have stayed blissfully dumb in that department."
"You're too young to remember anything concerning the Sentinels, lad," Kup told him.
"It doesn't have anything to do with youth!" Hot Rod exploded, feeling a sore spot react to Kup's words. How many times had the older Autobot told him that we was too young to do this, too inexperienced to decide or know that? Hundreds of times! He wasn't taking it anymore! He was no longer Rodimus Prime; he was Hot Rod again and as such he was entitled to temper flares. "Why is age a measurement for decisions? You never met the Sentinels yourself! You only heard about them from the survivors of the rebellion, just like I read it in the old files! No one knows what they are like!"
"They are professional killers, Quintessonian bodyguards! They can kill any Cybertronian by simply extracting his energy, lad. Do you think they can act against their programming?" Kup shook his head in anger and frustration. "How can I make you understand that? They will eventually do what they were made for."
"No!" Hot Rod protested. "They are not like that! True, there are the renegade Sentinels, but it's not them we're talking about! And they acted against their programming when they Interfaced! Don't we act against our initial programming as slave robots as well?"
Arcee nodded. "He's right. And we shouldn't judge them by what we read. Everyone can read about any given race in the library, but reading about them and really meeting them are two different points. Words can be influenced by the writer; I agree with Springer that everyone has the right to have his own opinion, but we need to give them a chance."
Prime watched the exchange quietly, waiting for tempers to cool a bit. He had an extra eye on Hot Rod, noticing every expression, every move the former Autobot leader made.
"I want to give them this chance," he said calmly into the brief silence following Arcee's words. "They are here and I don't intend to execute them because of what they were."
"No one said anything about executing!" Blaster immediately protested. "But if those robots are really that dangerous we should be careful."
"They aren't!" Hot Rod said. "Believe me, they don't want to hurt anyone of us; they want to help."
"What about those Interfaces?" Ultra Magnus asked reasonably.
"They are individual, intelligent beings," Arcee reported. "They are neither enslaved or surpressed."
Spike nodded his agreement. Kup only kept on looking darkly at the assembled Autobots.
"I vote we give them a chance," Springer expressed his thoughts once more. "
Kup gave him a look that shot acid daggers. "You don't know what you are inviting," he said darkly. "We will all die."
"Give them a chance, Kup," Hot Rod repeated him. "They are not killers!"
"We have to see what this leads to," Ultra Magnus supported Springer. "If they turn out to be either repulsed by us or the other way around, we know it should never have been. They are willing to risk their lives to make this work and I guess the least we can do is accept them as guests. I don't intend to judge someone from old library reports and dusty tales."
Kup snorted.
"We should invite these Sentinels over and get to know them," Blaster said. "Talk's cheap compared to the real life party." He grinned.
Prime nodded. "Agreed. Hot Rod, I want you to find Shanygn and then drive over to the shuttle."
The younger Autobot jumped from his chair and left, glad to finally do something. The whole meeting had been a rather dumb idea, he thought. It was just getting tempers high and opinions made prematurely. He wished Prime had simply introduced Midnight and let the others come to meet them without getting a dose of Sentinel badmouthing before that.
Lost in his thoughts he nearly collided with Carly and Shanygn, who had apparently found the Dinobots -- well at least they had found Grimlock, or Grimlock had found them; whatever way. "Whoa," Shanygn called and looked up at him. "Watch were you're going, Roddy, or you can scrape me off your feet."
He smiled in apology. "Sorry, didn't see you."
"I might be small, but I can still kick and punch like the big," she answered, looking at him with a sweet smile.
Grimlock, who had studied Shanygn with curiosity, nodded. "She can kick butt all right," he rumbled. "Me Grimlock nearly stepped on her and she hit me."
Carly surpressed a giggle and Hot Rod looked quizzically at his pseudo-Interface. Shanygn only shrugged.
"That big baby came around the corner and nearly trampled us, so I gave him a smack on the head."
"Nose," Grimlock corrected and rubbed his muzzle with his short arms. "Still hurts."
"Aw, c'mon, dino, I didn't even put enough energy into the blast to peel the paint job off!"
Grimlock snorted. "Not nice lady," he decided.
Shanygn ignored him, but the amusement shining in her eyes was a clear indicator she liked the Dinobot. "What's up?" she wanted to know.
"Council meeting's over. We'll drive out and get Midnight and the others. Prime wants them to meet the other guys," Hot Rod told her.
"And you think that's a bad idea?" Carly piped up.
Hot Rod sighed. "I wish he'd have brought them in first and then let the others get an opinion; right now there's a discussion about the rights and the wrongs going on, and I don't like the attitude."
Shanygn nodded. "I understand. C'mon, Roddy, let's find the others and talk to them first."
Hot Rod grimaced at the affectionate abbreviation of his name. He transformed as they left Autobot City and Shanygn shot in the air, for the first time since they had landed using her ability to fly. Hot Rod, driving with a break-neck speed over the ground, was brooding about his future.

* * *

The Autobots watching the shuttle weren't curious spectators; they had been dispatched by Optimus Prime to keep an eye on the Sentinels and to assure that no Autobot tried anything foolish. Streetwise had been watching the shuttle for over three hours now, taking in every dent and crack, noting how many of the Sentinels showed up and how many preferred to stay inside.
"Anything?"
"No," he answered.
Groove crossed his arms in front of his chest. "What about the one who left?"
Streetwise didn't know. He would have followed them if there hadn't been Prime's strict order to stay.
"Silverbolt and Skydive are watching him. And there seem to be two, the Sentinel and a humanoid. As far as they reported none of the two make any trouble. They're only looking at the scenery."
Groove looked at the shuttle again. "I wonder what those Sentinels are. The others are really making a big fuzz about them. They don't look like any other robot I've ever seen. Maybe except for the black one. He gives me the creeps."
Streetwise could only agree. The black robot had only shown up once, and as far as he had been told by Prime he was the Sentinel leader, but his ability to apparently absorb light was spooky.
The sound of an approaching jet made both Protectobots turn and they discovered Silverbolt returning -- without Skydive. The Aerialbot transformed and walked the last few feet over to them.
"Anything?" he asked. "Did Prime call?"
"No," was the almost simultaneous answer.
"Where's Skydive?" Groove wanted to know.
"Still with Archer and Michel."
"Who?" Streetwise wanted to know.
"The Sentinel and his human friend who went off exploring," Silverbolt explained.
"You actually met them?" Streetwise asked, perplexed. "I thought Prime's orders were to just watch them!"
The Aerialbot leader shrugged. "It happened, so what? I'm still in one piece, as is Skydive. They don't mean any harm. Quite interesting characters, I have to say."
Groove shook his head. "Prime won't like it."
"There's Hot Rod," Silverbolt said.
"And the other one," Streetwise added, looking at the humanoid figure in the exo-suit. Shanygn landed in front of him, looking up, her face hidden by the helmet.
"The other one," she repeated. "I take that as a compliment.
"Sorry," Streetwise immediately muttered.
Hot Rod transformed and looked over to the shuttle. Everything was quiet. "I've come to get the Sentinels," he explained. "Anything happened?"
The three Autobots exchanged a look, then Silverbolt sighed. "Archer took off a few hours ago, exploring the immediate area."
"I'll drive over," Hot Rod said. "You guys can go back if you want."
The two Protectobots immediately declined. "We'll accompany you back to Autobot City," Streetwise decided.
Silverbolt agreed. "Skydive will be back if your friend has found the two Sentinels and I'll wait for him. I think accompanying you guys is a very good idea."
Hot Rod nodded and transformed again, driving down the little hill they had been standing on as fast as traction allowed it. As he closed in on the shuttle he noticed that he was already expected. It was Midnight.
"Hi," he greeted his friend as he transformed.
"Well?" the black robot asked.
"I can't say I'm very positive about all of this," the young Autobot sighed softly, shaking his head.
Midnight's optic shield flashed briefly. "But you want us to come?" he asked calmly.
Hot Rod nodded.
Voodoo approached, accompanied by his Interface Kyle Scott. Kyle didn't look very enthusiastic. "How safe is it?"
"As safe as I can promise it to be for you," Hot Rod answered truthfully. "Kup has vetoed vehemently against it, but the others are still rather open-minded. Optimus Prime wants this to work, as do I. This isn't a war any more!"
"We know that," Kyle said darkly, "but do your friends? I hate to patch everyone back together again."
Midnight smiled wryly. "We will risk it, well, at least I will."
Voodoo nodded. "Count on us." He glanced at Scott, who sighed theatrically.
"Curse of a medic," he muttered. "Always there when the worst hits."
A few minutes later the rest of the Sentinels were present, even the two explorers. The Sentinel jets launched themselves into the air and then transformed. Archer, Hot Rod and Knight, bound more or less to the ground, followed. As they passed the Protectobots and the Aerialbots, those four transformed as well and took off. Silverbolt automatically found himself in the lead position, while Skydive brought up the rear. Voodoo kept close to Midnight, both their human Interfaces sitting clearly visible in the cockpits.
"I won't hide," Steve said as they approached the city. "I don't know about the others, but I guess showing openly that we are real is better than having them surprised by a sudden materialization."
"You'll be vulnerable," Midnight objected.
"I can always phase back into you, Mid," Steve said reasonably.
Midnight wasn't thrilled. He wasn't thrilled at all. "It's still dangerous."
"We faced worse things ... for instance Braintrust."
"With him I know what I'm up against, Steve. This time, we're in unknown, possibly hostile territory. They'd rather blast us than meet us."
"So what makes them different from the Seekers?" Steve joked.
On the ground, Archer was speeding toward Autobot City, whistling slightly.
Mike looked at the city with interest. "Well, quite a sight," he commented.
"Let's hope it's not our last impression of dis planet," his robot partner said. "It would ruin de whole trip."
"You're just as pessimistic as Midnight, y'know. Lighten up and enjoy de day."
They crossed the bridge while the jets roared past above them, transforming while already descending. They were expected by not only Optimus Prime and the Autobots who had sat in council, but also several others. Silverbolt and Skydive walked over to the other Aerialbots, while Groove and Streetwise, together with the rest of the Protectobots, watched the first meeting. Kup stood a bit apart, his hand resting on a weapon. For Hot Rod it wasn't exactly an optimistic sign, especially since a few others looked also wary. He moved closer to Midnight, noticing that Optimus Prime gave Kup a warning look.
Midnight looked quickly at his human Interface, who stood at his side, watching tensely what was coming next. Steve was clad in battle armor, a sign that though he was willing to step out in the open he wasn't foolish enough to do it without protection. Hot Rod was sure that Kup wouldn't open fire as long as human lives were in danger and maybe that was one decision why all the Interfaces had materialized.
"Welcome to Autobot City," Optimus Prime greeted them formally and Midnight nodded, keeping a wary posture.
"Thank you," the Sentinel leader said.
'And let's hope it's not a hasty good-bye', Hot Rod added silently.

* * *

Location unknown

Galvatron looked at the massive dragon with a mixture of respect, curiosity and a bit of fear. But none of that showed on his face, which was a neutral mask. Braintrust was an imposing sight, he had to confess. The robot was large, his head towering high above Galvatron, it's bulging yellow eyes glowing unhealthily. The dragon had wings, which were thin and razor-sharp pieces of metal, which rested on his back. The long tail ended in a sharp, scorpion-like sting and the greenish grey hue of the metal gave him a look of a swamp creature. The other Sentinels were of normal size and more humanoid in construction than their leader.
"I never heard of your kind," Galvatron said.
The dragon chuckled, which was a dark rumble, echoing in the room. Some of the Decepticons present shifted uneasily. "You are too young to remember," Braintrust whispered, his voice still booming loud enough to shake circuits. "We are the worst nightmare of any Cybertronian."
Galvatron sneered. "Yes, indeed. And that's why you need our help."
Braintrust hissed in indignation. "We don't need any help from anyone!" he growled, his tail twitching, making the others move aside to get out of reach. "I merely offer a deal."
Galvatron leaned back on his throne while Cyclonus kept his silent guard beside him. "I see your gain from this, though I can't say I understand your craving for this human. But what is in for us?"
Braintrust lowered his head a bit, his eyes glowing evily. "The destruction of your enemies -- forever. Not even a Quintesson can bring a Cybertronian back to life if he is killed by a Sentinel. I get the human and the traitor, you get your victory."
Galvatron mulled this over. "What is so special about this human?"
"That is of no importance to you," the dragon snapped. "Are you interested or not?"
Cyclonus leaned confidentially over and whispered, "Mighty Galvatron, I believe we should first research the claims of this race of robots before we...."
Galvatron rose from his throne, ignoring his Commander, who had a worried expression on his face. "You get the human and the traitor you are talking about, we get the head of Optimus Prime and the death of every Autobot."
"Yes," Braintrust hissed.
The Decepticon leader grinned and it wasn't a pleasant sight. "Then we have an agreement."

* * *

Earth

"Hot Rod?"
The young Autobot turned and discovered Optimus Prime. "Yes, Prime?" he asked, a bit warily since he thought he knew what was coming.
"I'd like to talk to you," the other Autobot said.
Hot Rod only nodded. So it was what he had thought. With a bit of a nervous feeling he followed Prime into a room, watching as his leader closed the door.
"What's up?" he then asked, trying to put some cheer into his voice, which failed to be really convincing.
Optimus Prime leaned against the table and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "We need to straighten out a few things, Hot Rod. We didn't have time to talk about this on Alean and we didn't have time on the shuttle back to Earth either, but this is something I can't let slip by."
"Uh...."
"I know what the removal of the Matrix did to you now," Prime went on as if Hot Rod had never tried to interrupt. "I think I knew it all along, but never realized it until you showed me how bad it was by running away."
"I didn't mean...." He shut his mouth when he looked into Prime's blue optic sensors.
"It was a very drastic measure, but it shook me awake. I have to confess I was too busy to give what had happened more than a cursory thought," Optimus Prime went on, "and this is something I'm blaming myself for. I should have realized your condition sooner."
"My condition?" Hot Rod echoed. "I'm fine, Op, really...."
"Then why did you go off to Alean without talking to anyone of us, especially me? Do you think I couldn't have understood ... couldn't have helped?" Prime asked neutraly. "Why did you try to hide your pain?"
"Because .... you were busy ... the attacks of the Decepticon ... I didn't want to burden anyone with such a minor thing.....," Hot Rod stammered.
Prime's optics flashed with emotions. 'Minor thing?' He thought in pain. 'Roddy, that was no minor thing. You realized it and I should have known!'
"I ... wanted to work this out myself," Hot Rod added in a whisper. "It was my problem."
"I was never that busy, Hot Rod." The Autobot leader told him softly. "You should have come to me. Did you think I of all Autobots wouldn't understand? I don't think so. And it wasn't only your problem, because it affected all of us."
Hot Rod evaded Prime's knowing gaze, gesturing weakly. "It's just ..." he tried to explain his feelings, "... it was so different and I didn't want it to sound like I was trying to get the Matrix back because I wasn't. I was glad you were back and that I didn't have to live up to their expectations anymore, that I could go back to being who I was and...."
"Hot Rod," Prime tried to interrupt the flow of words.
"I mean, I didn't want anyone to feel guilty because of what the Matrix did to me when you got it back, and it really wasn't your fault in any way......"
"Hot Rod!" Optimus Prime said much louder and Hot Rod stopped, looking a bit dazed and confused.
Prime wasn't surprised about the rambling; he was even glad for it. "What happened in the past is ..... gone," he said quietly when he had his younger friend's attention. "All we can do is try to work this problem out in the future."
"Well, Shanygn is trying to help....."
"But it's no replacement for what was before," the older Autobot finished. "You were the Autobot leader and were degraded by the removal of the Matrix. You can't be your old self again because of what you experienced through the Matrix, but you also can't be Rodimus Prime."
"But I am Hot Rod ...." he started, but Prime held up his hand.
Prime stabbed a finger at the smaller Autobot's chest. "In there, you're still Rodimus Prime." Hot Rod flinched at the name, shaking his head in denial. "I know you deny it, but it's true. In time you would have found out by yourself, but until then it would have been a painful life, full of doubt and guilt. I'm trying to change this, Hot Rod, if you want my help."
There was no reply.
"I want you to help me integrate the Sentinels here. You can do it; I have faith in you, Hot Rod. The loss of the Matrix doesn't mean the loss of leadership abilities."
Hot Rod opened his mouth to deny this. He wasn't a leader and never had been! He might be able to help with the Sentinels because he knew Midnight, but ......
"I would like you to be my second-in-command." Optimus Prime literally held his breath at what Hot Rod's reaction would be.
"What?!" the younger Autobot nearly shrieked. "Optimus, I can't ... I mean, Ultra Magnus ... I can't be your second ...... It's Magnus' job! Or someone else's..... not me! Please! I couldn't ....." Hot Rod moved away from him, shaking his head.
Optimus Prime put a restraining hand on Hot Rod's shoulder. "Ultra Magnus is a capable warrior and a good commander, especially concerning Metroplex, but he was never cut out to replace me," Prime explained. "He only kept the Matrix until you were ready. The Matrix choose you and I know why. You are cut out for command, though you don't want to realize it yourself. You have it in you."
"I'm too young, Optimus. I can't hold such a position!" Hot Rod looked pleadingly at him, despair in his eyes.
"Youth is relative, my friend."
"No, it isn't! I always have Kup to remind me how inexperienced and rash I am!" All the old memories of Kup advising him not to do that or behave more examplary rushed back to him.
"I know. That's his way. Believe me, he felt the same about me when I took over...." Prime felt the ground he had won in the last few minutes slip away again. Hot Rod was so in doubt of his own leadership abilities that he wasn't listening. He tried to wriggle out of what Prime was leading at, pushing him away and trying to get him to stop. But Optimus Prime was one very determined Autobot; and what he did would only help Hot Rod come to terms with the changes.
Hot Rod felt so confused. Accepting Optimus Prime's offer meant going back to what had been before: Rodimus Prime, the young and inexperienced leader. This youth and inexperience was what still stuck to him. The name was gone, the attributes remained. Would the others trust Hot Rod with their problems if they hadn't had faith in Rodimus Prime before? He looked at Prime, who gave him an encouraging nod.
"What about the others?" he finally asked, sounding partly defeated.
"You had their respect as Rodimus Prime, why shouldn't they now turn it over to Hot Rod?"
"I don't think I ever had their trust and respect in any way coming close to what they saw in you," Hot Rod said bitterly, his past coming back to meet him again. How many times had he been told he wasn't Optimus Prime? He had stopped counting. He couldn't go back to that; he wouldn't be able to hold his temper anymore when Kup or Ultra Magnus reproached him. "I'll always be the wise-cracking youngster with an engine for a brain. In their opinion I'm not fit to lead; I'm fit to race along highways or pull crazy stunts or spend a day doing nothing productive at all." He looked away. He had not wanted to sound so crestfallen and pathetic, but he hadn't been able to hold back the words. "It wouldn't work. I'm sorry, Op."
Optimus Prime looked calmly at him. "I know you have changed. You are another person and no amount of happy carelessness and witty remarks can hide it. If they trust my judgment so unquestioningly as you want me to believe, then they'll accept you. I won't burden you with impossible tasks; I just want you to give me a hand now and then, okay? And whatever 'they' are saying -- ignore it."
Hot Rod stared into Prime's eyes and wished he had another argument, a good one, to back out. He was scared of going back to the leadership position, even if it was only the second-in-command. Finally he sighed deeply. "Okay," he muttered.
"What was that?" Prime asked.
"I said 'Okay'," Hot Rod repeated louder.
Satisfied, Optimus Prime nodded. He knew he had won a little victory. "Good. Now, as to what you could get working on right now ... the Sentinels. I want you to handle everything concerning Midnight and his friends, but I'd like to be informed now and then, all right?"
Hot Rod nodded. No problem at all. "I can do that," he told the older Autobot.
As he left the conference room he felt like someone had lifted a lot of the weight resting on his shoulders off him. The empty feeling inside his chest was fading, replaced by a feeling of being needed, really needed, not just tolerated.

* * *

Somewhere around the Asteroid Belt

The Autobot shuttle was on its way back from a test run to the outer planets of the solar system. Jazz was rather pleased with the test results of the new engine and he was sure Optimus Prime found the easy maneuverability and the sudden power output for short sprints very interesting. Suddenly the alarm klaxons sounded. Jazz whirled around and looked at the radar screen.
"We have a ship coming in at high speed from out of the Asteroid Belt!" Smokescreen reported and punched some keys on his control board. "Decepticons!" he yelled.
"Battle stations!" Jazz commanded.
A first blast hit the shuttle, which was a rather inadequate opponent for the much larger warship. Jazz gripped the back of the pilot's chair.
"Radio Autobot City and tell them of our situation!" he instructed Powerglide.
Another volley hit them and Smokescreen readied the new engine for the quickstart jump. Suddenly the shuttle received more pounding, making it shudder wildly.
"Engine is ready!" Goldbug reported, but it was too late.
The engine was hit with a powerful blast and ripped right off the stern of the shuttle. The four Autobots tumbled through the cockpit, trying to hold on to whatever was available. As the lights in the shuttle went out a hole was blown into the hull and Decepticons swarmed into the cockpit. Jazz raised his weapon to take at least one or two with him, but he never got a chance.

* * *

Earth

Mike de la Croix sighed. This was great! He was finally home and it looked like would be able to spend some time here, not running off in a hurry because a bunch of Autobots tried to end his existence. He leaned back in the chair of the street cafe and closed his eyes in bliss. Not far away from him, standing inconspicuously at the curb of the street, was Archer. The metallic green car blended in with most of the other cars, since he looked like one of the many sports cars.
"Isn't dat wonderful?" Mike asked and blinked at his companion.
Steven Parker sipped his coffee, one of the first cups of real coffee he had had since he had left this planet. "It is, Mike," he said and looked down the street, watching the many people. None of them even gave them more than a cursory glance.
Further down the street he noticed two cars, standing in the parking slot of a supermarket. They were Autobots, he knew. As far as he remembered their names were Cliffjumper and Tracks. With a wry smile he turned back to Mike.
"We have watchers."
Mike shrugged. "So what else is new? Let's hope dis peaceful week continues into more peaceful ones."
The week had really been peaceful, though slightly strenuous. Steve wasn't a politician and she sure as hell wasn't a diplomat or anything resembling that. Midnight had shown very diplomatic behavior and nerves of steel concerning how they had sometimes been treated. There were no really open hostile encounters, merely the suspicious looks and the strange glances following them. Not every Autobot was prejudiced, but some seemed to take history quite seriously. He hoped this would settle soon. Hot Rod did all in his power, and his was the power of being second-in-command, to help the two races get to know each other better.
Steve? Come back here, we have a problem>>
Steve flinched and nearly dropped the mug he was holding. He hated it when Midnight did this! Mike, noticing his friends behavior and recognizing it, frowned in concern.
"We have to go back," Steve said.
"Trouble?"
"Don't know." The dark-haired man counted some money and placed it on the table for the waiter to get it later. "Midnight said we have a problem."
"Let's hope he exaggerated," Mike only muttered.

* * *

Hot Rod walked through Autobot City, feeling pleased. Though there was still a visible tension between most of the Sentinels and Autobots he believed that their problems could be worked out. Even Kup's hostile declarations of the Sentinels being ruthless killers were not enough to rattle at the confidence building up inside of him. He could do it; he could work this out. His pseudo-Interface with Shanygn seemed to work, but it didn't solve everything. The strange feeling of emptiness inside of him was gone, though he still felt the loss of the Matrix like an old wound. His place as second-in-command was accepted by the Autobots and he had been able to work through every problem arising because of the Sentinels so far. He kept Optimus Prime informed and the Autobot leader told him he was doing just fine.
Entering one of the many labs in search for Shanygn he discovered Perceptor and Skywolf, apparently deep in conversation about some really complicated sounding, scientific project. Jill was at their side, playing with the computer and calling up files. Since Shanygn wasn't here Hot Rod decided to beat a hasty retreat. He wasn't the scientific kind at all.
Outside in the corridor he met Voodoo. The strangely patterned Sentinel had a worried look on his only partially visible face and it struck Hot Rod as odd that he thought he could see a faint outline of his eyes behind the smooth surface above the nose.
"Hi," he greeted Voodoo. "Something wrong?"
"Come with me," Voodoo only said and pulled him along.
Hot Rod was surprised by the brief order and resisted a bit. "What's going on?" he wanted to know.
"We have a problem." Voodoo unceremoniously dragged him along the empty corridor.
"What kind of problem?"
"Midnight will tell you."
"Shouldn't we call Prime if ...."
Voodoo gave him another push. "No time. Aren't you Prime's second-in-command?"
"That's not the same...." Hot Rod protested.
"You were a leader when we met and you still are, Matrix or not," Voodoo only said.
Hot Rod frowned and let himself get pushed into one of the many small rooms used for conferences. He noted to his surprise that Midnight, Archer, Knight and the Interfaces were present, as was Skywolf, who entered only seconds later. Hot Rod wondered how he had explained the departure to Perceptor and First Aid.
"Midnight, what's going on here?" he demanded of the black Sentinel.
Midnight looked gravely at him. Somehow he appeared to be even darker than his usual absolute blackness. "We have received a coded transmission, Hot Rod. We have to leave."
"Leave?" the Autobot echoed. "Something the problem?"
"Yes," was the cryptic answer.
"Well?"
"Braintrust sent me a message," Midnight explained after a short silence. He pushed a button on the table and the vid screen lit up.
Hot Rod felt chilled to the core as he saw the sneering dragon face with the yellowish eyes. The voice he had only heard once and had hoped never to hear again hissed through the loudspeakers.
"We have your friends, traitor," Braintrust said and the picture showed several Sentinels, who Hot Rod recognized as F/X, Aurora and Dagger, and four Autobots, namely Powerglide, Jazz, Goldbug and Smokescreen. Hot Rod's mouth fell open and he stared in shock at the vid screen. "And the Autobots as well. I want you and the humanoid Steven Parker. Either you come alone or their lives are pretty fast at an end." The screen went dark.
"When did this come in?" Hot Rod asked sharply.
"A few minutes ago," Midnight answered with a strained and slightly tired voice.
"We have to tell Optimus Prime!"
"No, we don't," Midnight said immediately.
Hot Rod stared at him. "What?"
"I just told you and because you are his second-in-command it's just as good as telling him."
Midnight's logic didn't ring true with Hot Rod. "Listen......"
"No, Hot Rod."
"Why?"
"Because I'm going."
The statement hung in the air and Hot Rod somehow thought he could hear it crash onto the floor with a loud 'bang'. Everyone turned to look at Midnight, who met the disbelieving expressions on everyone's face with a calm that bordered to the unreal.
"I think someone whacked your head against a wall, Mid, and dislocated some logic circuits" Voodoo said dryly. "Looks like thinking straight isn't in your capacity anymore."
Midnight smiled humorlessly at his friend. "I'm going," he repeated.
"Then you're completely out of your mind. Did you lately acquire a suicide program?" Jill asked. "Because this is suicide."
"No. It's the only way I see. There are innocent lives at risk and I won't hide just because you say so." The black Sentinel looked at them. "Braintrust wants me and Steve and that's what he gets."
"Did you talk with Steve about this?" Skywolf wanted to know.
"Yes."
"Well?" the helicopter prodded.
"Same opinion," Steve answered.
Hot Rod suppressed a startled exclamation at the sudden appearance of the Interface. It was always a surprise that the humanoids could appear and disappear just like that.
"Steve, please," Jill said with a pained voice. "You can't just follow this suicidal plan! Braintrust will kill you both! We know what he's planning and I, for my part, will fight against him as long as I breathe!"
The others muttered an agreement.
"I won't sacrifice your lives for mine," Midnight stated levely. "Braintrust wants only me and ...."
"And we won't surrender you just like that," Voodoo finished with a decisive voice. "You're a friend, a good friend ... and you happen to be the leader of this crazy bunch of robots and Interfaces, and as such you're supposed to be exemplary. Would you let me agree to such a stupid hostage situation."
Midnight's optic shield flashed briefly. "No, but that's not the same."
"It is," Skywolf said calmly. "And it's not only our decision as to what to do now. The Autobots are involved as well."
"Only because of me."
"Us," Kyle corrected. "You're talking not only of yourself, you're talking about the Sentinels. We are Sentinels, not just you."
"And since some of the hostages are Autobots, this involves us as well," Hot Rod stated. "You won't go without me." He crossed his arms in front of his chest.
Midnight flashed him a look that could mean anything from 'Die and wither' to 'You had to remind me'. Hot Rod merely smiled humorlessly and shrugged.
Suddenly the door opened and Optimus Prime entered the small room the group of Sentinels and Hot Rod had chosen as their conference chamber. The Autobot leader looked at the robots and humanoids and if he could have frowned with displeasure he would have done so. Hot Rod felt a bit of guilt creep up inside of him. Then he squelched that guilt. Wasn't he the second-in-command? And hadn't Prime given him free reign concerning the Sentinels?
"I heard about the message," Prime said calmly. His gaze traveled to Hot Rod. "Why wasn't I informed?"
The younger Autobot tried to come up with an explanation, though he hadn't really had a chance to tell anyone when Voodoo had dragged him off to the room. He wondered where Prime had heard about this.
Midnight turned to their host and answered, "Because this doesn't involve you."
"Autobots were taken hostage," Prime stated.
"I know," the black Sentinel replied calmly. "That's why we called Hot Rod in on this; he would have informed you later. We will take care of that. It's our fault."
Prime shook his head. "It involves us as well."
"Y'know," Mike quietly addressed Jill, but still talking loud enough for everyone to hear him, "dis is like quarreling about who broke de window of de butcher's shop."
Midnight and Prime looked at the Interface and Mike shrugged. "It's de truth, mon amis. We 'ave a problem dat involves both our races, why not solve it together?"
"Because I won't risk anyone's life except mine," Midnight stated flatly. "The whole trouble started when Steve and I Interfaced ...."
"No, my friend, it started years before that," Skywolf said softly. "It started when we discovered our Interface abilities and the Seekers found they couldn't copy that."
The black robot stared hard at the oldest of their race. Prime, who hadn't really worked out yet how the command structure of the Sentinels worked, wondered if Skywolf might not be something like a last obstacle for Midnight. Though the medic and engineer normally never acted as a second-in-command, the Autobot leader suspected he had great influence on Midnight's decisions.
Midnight felt torn between insisting on going alone and letting his friends help. Skywolf was right after all; the Seekers had declared war when they had found out that there was one advantage the Sentinels had which the Seekers would never be able to copy: Interfacing. He looked at Optimus Prime and saw the decision to go, whatever the Sentinel decided.
Hot Rod wore the same expression. For a fleeting moment Midnight mused that they were both much more alike than they were different. Then he sighed, knowing he was one against all.
"All right," he muttered. "All right, all right, all right."
"Now for a plan," Archer said cheerfully.
Midnight smiled. "I already have one."
Voodoo groaned. Optimus Prime crossed his arms in front of his massive chest and looked expectantly at him, listening to Midnight as he outlined his plan.

* * *

Cybertron, far below the surface

Aurora couldn't say she had had worse times in her long life. She paced up and down in her cell, a cell she shared with two Autobots, both who watched her with carefully hidden, but still visible curiosity and a bit of healthy respect, as she thought for herself. Rubbing her injured arm she stopped in front of the opening of her cell, which was secured with energy bars. Opposite her was a second cell, likewise occupied by prisoners. How could they have been so dumb as to walk into that trap? She couldn't understand it!
"Any ideas?" she asked generally.
F/X grimaced. "Sure, hundreds. They all end with us being very dead."
Aurora sighed and leaned against the solid, reinforced wall, looking at the two Autobots sharing her cell. "And you?"
The one called Goldbug, who had also displayed a fair amount of interest in their surroundings and asked her several questions, shook his head. "I analyzed the structural integrity of the energy barrier and I've to confess it's quiet .... unbreakable."
"Unless you're outside the barrier and find the 'off' switch," Smokescreen joked with black humor.
"Or you find someone mad enough to short-circuit the whole thing," F/X added darkly. "But I guess it would even stand up to that."
Aurora felt utterly helpless, a state of mind she wasn't used to. Created as a warrior and fully able to defend herself against any given opponent she hated helplessness. Though she was in effect a female Sentinel and as a such much lighter in built and appearing much more vulnerable, she wasn't an easy target.
"Have you ever thought about simply ....depleting the energy?" F/X suddenly asked and walked closer to the energy barrier, his hands brushing over the outer field of the energy bars. They tickled his metal skin, but didn't hurt him
Her head snapped up and she stared at him in disbelief. "Are you crazy? If you were a Seeker I'd say you might be able to do it, but you are not! It would kill anyone of us attempting it!"
"How do you know?" the jet asked reasonably. "We never tried it."
"What are you talking about?" Powerglide asked suspiciously.
"Suicide," Dagger spoke up for the first time.
The dull grey robot had an aura of invisibility around him that made it easy for anyone to simply ignore him. Goldbug jumped as Dagger entered the conversation, caught off guard. He had once again forgotten that the grey robot was sharing their cell.
"All of us are not Interfaced," Aurora explained and gestured at the Sentinels. "We still have our original abilities to remove energy from .... " she noticed the uneasy looks of the two Autobots and smiled, "others, though we don't do it any longer. But the equipment, if you want to call it that, is still there."
"But trying to remove enough energy from the barrier and thereby depleting the generator is suicide," Dagger added. "We haven't done it for such a long time, it's like trying to fly through a belt of fiery asteroids with your stabilizers and navigational controls gone. You'd surely get killed."
"It's worth a try," F/X said nevertheless.
"It's not an option," Aurora corrected. She leaned back against the wall again. "There must be another way."

* * *

Cybertron

"I haven't been here for ... a long time," Voodoo whispered and looked around with a sad smile. "And I wish all my memories of this world were fond."
Knight gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder, expressing that she understood. "And we aren't even here for friendly reasons," the female Sentinel added.
Hot Rod, more used to this planet than the Sentinels, checked everything. They were in a very remote part of the former factory planet, a part he had never visited himself and which was mostly uninhabited. Everything looked pretty old and run-down. Nobody had seen them arrive and he hoped that no one would see them anytime soon. All of this would only work if they had the surprise effect on their side. He sent a short signal to the waiting shuttle.
"Okay, everyone knows what to do?" he then asked rhetorically, taking over the leadership as naturally as he could drive in his car mode. He was more than used to being a leader now; he had been a leader once and somehow Optimus Prime's word rang true: he was no longer Hot Rod. He would never be able to go back. He was a mixture of both the young and wise-cracking Hot Rod, and the more mature Rodimus Prime. If he could cope with that was something completely different.
He looked at his little team. Their role in this hopefully happy ending rescue was simple: distract the enemy enough for the second team to go in and free the hostages without much opposition. It was dangerous and all knew it, which was why Hot Rod hadn't wanted Shanygn along. She had protested a lot, but had finally given in, pouting and looking generally displeased.
"Let's go," he simply said.

*

"I feel like running," Steve muttered.
"Likewise," Midnight confessed.
They stood outside a large entrance leading into a barely lit corridor. Midnight was unarmed, at least visibly unarmed. He still carried some hidden weaponry.
"Someone's coming."
Steve narrowed his eyes and watched as a golden-brown robot walked out of the tunnel. His dark green optics locked on the Sentinel and his Interface.
"Hello, Wild Card," Midnight greeted him.
Wild Card acknowledged his greeting with a nod. "Follow me," he simply said, his voice neutral and emotionless.
Midnight and Steve complied, entering the tunnel. As they stepped inside a large door closed shut after them. Steve felt an icy chill creep up his spine. Maybe this hadn't been such a good plan after all.....
Whose side is he on?>> Steve asked.
Midnight looked at Wild Card's back, wondering the same. The Seeker was what his name implied and Midnight only hoped that if push came to shove he could trust in Wild Card to stay at least neutral. Anything else was too much to hope for.

* * *

Cybertron's orbit

Kup sat in the co-pilot's chair, staring out of the shuttle. The dark expression that resided on his face kept even Ultra Magnus at bay, telling him the old warrior would shoot everyone asking what was wrong first, then answer the question. Blaster, who monitored every frequency for cries of help or back-up, exchanged a meaning full look with Magnus.
"Kup very bad mood," Grimlock stated the obvious.
"Very, very bad," Blaster added.
Ultra Magnus sighed. Yes, Kup wasn't especially cheerful. Not even the long and peaceful presence of the Sentinels in Autobot City had convinced him that they weren't the killers of old times anymore. This hostage situation had only rekindled his suspicion and hostility against the Sentinels and nothing would make him budge. Magnus hoped the outcome of this highly dangerous plan was very, very positive......
"Me Swoop no like waiting," the Pterodactyl Dinobot complained.
Grimlock shot him a warning look. "You wait here just all us others. It's Prime's order and we follow Prime's orders."
"Wasn't Prime's order!" Snarl objected vehemently. "Was Hot Rod's."
"Hot Rod like Prime," Grimlock informed him. "We listen to him."
The other Dinobots muttered unhappily about the lack of action, but Grimlock's low growl silenced them. Ultra Magnus wondered about what Grimlock had just said. How did the Dinobot leader think of Hot Rod? Still as Rodimus Prime? If so, why? If not, what kind of position did Hot Rod hold in Grimlock's opinion?
He turned back to watching Kup, wondering if it really had been such a good idea of Optimus Prime to let him accompany them, especially since Sentinels were aboard this shuttle even now. Archer and his Interface were the back-up for the ones down on the planet's surface, though Magnus wondered how one Sentinel and one humanoid could be back-up for such an operation.
Had he known about Archer's still existing ability to deplete a Transformer's energy -- beside the fact that he was Interfaced to a certain degree -- Ultra Magnus would have revised his opinion immediately.....

* * *

Cybertron

"The old catacombs," Voodoo said and nodded at the grimy walls, which hadn't seen a cleaning rag for centuries. "I've been here only once since we air Sentinels were stationed above ground. Archer and Knight have stories to tell of those catacombs ... you'd get a short circuit."
Hot Rod gave a whistle. "Never knew there were so many old passages below the surface."
Voodoo smiled humorlessly. "You don't wanna know what else is down here."
Sandstorm was genuinely interested in the tunnels and gave every corridor leading off from the one they were walking in a quick look.
Hot Rod kept his silence, concentrating on the task ahead. If this went wrong, Midnight and Steve were dead for sure. And the hostages as well. Braintrust had made no secret of his taste for energon, wherever it came from. He studied the tunnels and little passageways they passed now and then. Just like the others he had a map of the known catacomb system stored in his memory circuits, but there were so many unexplored tunnels and no Sentinel had a complete plan of the maze, so this made their task very, very dangerous -- if the Seekers knew the maze better than them.
"It's a miracle if we don't get lost in here," he muttered to himself.
"It's a miracle if the drones can find us before they get lost," Sandstorm said humorlessly.
Hot Rod only smiled darkly.

* * *

Midnight faced the large dragon with taut nerves and tensed muscle fibers. Braintrust looked triumphantly down on him, his eyes glowing in a sick yellow light. Most of the other Seekers were also present, except for Tidal, Tornado and Phantom, as Midnight noted, and he suspected they and a squad of drones were off and playing down in the sewer-like catacombs. Steve stood at his side, clad not only in his usual black overall with the pilot markings, but also in his battle armor. He didn't want to take any chances right from the start. The armor would prove pretty useless in case of a direct blaster hit, but it also gave him a sense of security.
The large chamber they stood in was in a state of decay that showed it hadn't been used for a long, long time. Midnight guessed it had last been visited shortly after Cybertron had gone into production of the slave robots. The chamber he recognized as the Creation Chamber, the room where Sentinels had been created until Cybertron had been completed and the Creation Chamber had been of no more use. It had been sealed, Midnight knew from the memories programmed into him, to secure it from any stray slave likely to wander down here. The Creation Chamber was deep inside Cybertron, marked on no map and generally a secret kept by the Quintessons. Only the Sentinels constructed here knew of it and its catacombs, its prison rooms .... and the Creation Core. The Core was the single sign of life in the chamber, a pitifully flickering purple energy ball, kept in a transparent security vault. Midnight found his optics drawn to the Core. It had created him as well as any other Sentinel still alive today. And it could be the only way out of here......
Steve Parker stood silently at Midnight's side, watching, waiting..... planning. The air in the underground chamber was stale and dry, he noted, but he didn't mind it right now. His concentration was on trying to stay alive as long as possible while evading a forced Interface with Braintrust, because that would really put a dent into their plan.
Midnight noticed the strange robots in the room, all of them wearing insignia he recognized as Decepticon symbols. So Braintrust had allied himself with the Decepticons. Great. That was the reason why he had also taken Autobots as hostages. Midnight guessed that Braintrust's deal with the Decepticon leader involved dead Autobots and promises of more deaths to come. Swell.
"I knew you would come," the Seeker leader whispered. He grinned. "As did your pathetic little rescue force crawling through the sewer system right now. They won't last long."
'Long enough to keep you very busy and not notice the other team using one of the many old and secret service tunnels.' Midnight had known about the old service tunnels since he had found this little map and file in the depths of the library system. He had never told Braintrust about it and he knew the Seeker leader didn't know them.
"Let the hostages go," Midnight said flatly.
Braintrust chuckled. "Oh, no, not before I have successfully Interfaced with the humanoid." His greedy eyes fixed on Steve.
Then we can kiss the hostages good-bye>>, Steve sent a silent message to his friend. It wasn't telepathy since Midnight's brain didn't contain the necessary organic neural pathways to perform that task. It was more of a shared link, something coming with the hundred percent Interface, something not even Skywolf could explain.
Midnight smiled wryly. Yes, indeed. Braintrust had always been unable to Interface, as had all the other Seekers. All his attempts had ended with the humanoid being very dead and the Seeker being very mad. He had even once partially Interfaced with Steve, but the human had repelled him so strongly that Braintrust had had to retreat, leaving Steve weak and close to death. That had been the time Midnight had met Steven Parker, in a cell. The following, involuntary, Interface between them had saved both their lives, but it had also damned them. Braintrust declared him a traitor and thief, sentencing him to death. Well, today wasn't exactly a good day to die, but it was as good as the days to come.
"It won't work," Midnight told the dragon nevertheless.
Braintrust snorted. "After you are dead, it will." He lifted his head and turned to his followers. "Kill him," he ordered.
"If you kill him I will die as well," Steve said quickly.
Braintrust chuckled coldly. "I know the procedure, human. You will go into shock first and that gives me several minutes to Interface. After that, oblivion for you and power for me....." He laughed. "And unlike the last time I now have the help of the Core."
Midnight stared at the Creation Core again and realized what Braintrust had planned. "You can't Interface an organic life form by using the Core!" he protested. "It was never designed to do that."
Braintrust chuckled. "I redesigned it," he explained his amusement. "It will now work perfectly."
Inside Midnight a plan was forming. Their initial plan had crumbled to dust upon seeing that there were not only Seekers, but also Decepticons involved, not to speak of the Creation Core. He knew the Creation Core was powerful ... had been powerful, since it now was only a weak shadow of its original strength, but it still contained a lot of power. And this power was able to influence a mind.....
"You are completely and utterly mad," Steve said calmly.
Braintrust growled in rage and lashed out with his tail and, instead of hitting Steve, threw Midnight into the wall at the far end of the cavernous room. The black robot felt the organic layer of skin tear and the fluid gush out. A short, intense pain told him it was one of the veins nourishing the special skin. He hardened his surface skin immediately, stopping the flow of blood, but the pain remained.
Steve stared defiantly at Braintrust. 'I'm sorry', he told his Interface partner.
One of the Decepticons walked up to the Seeker leader, wearing a disdainful expression. "I'm tired of waiting and watching your little games. You have your traitor, Seeker," he said. "I kept my end of the bargain, so now give me the Autobots!"
Braintrust swiveled his head to look at the Decepticon like he was a disgusting little insect, not even worth noting. "They are yours, Galvatron, as those most likely crawling around the catacombs right now are. My troops will round them up for you and then do whatever you please."
Galvatron didn't look very pleased. "I'm not interested in just a few of those Autobot vermin, I want them all destroyed! I want Optimus Prime's head!"
"Then get it yourself," Braintrust told him dismissively. "I'm not interested in anyone's head."
Galvatron raised the weapon attached to his arm. "I should have known better than to trust something like you!"
The draconian Seeker growled. "The deal was the traitor for the Autobots. I never said I would help you destroy them all." He sneered. "Are you so weak you need my small band of Seekers to destroy such puny resistance? The Autobots are inferior constructions."
Steve thought Galvatron looked like he'd burst in a second. "Cyclonus!" he yelled.
Another Decepticon moved away from the ranks of the strangers and walked over to his leader.
"Get our troops gathered," Galvatron ordered with an angered hiss. "Then take them to the cells and get me the Autobots. I hope I can find their dismemberment pleasing enough to refrain from destroying this fool!"
"Be careful what you say, Decepticon."
Now! Midnight thought. The two factions were getting hostile and while tempers were high his chances were the best. He concentrated on the Creation Core behind Braintrust. It was secured, but the transparent material wouldn't withstand several direct blasts. The black Sentinel lifted his arms, aiming at the Core. His weapons hidden in his forearms activated and he began to fire at the pink glowing ball of energy.
"No! Stop him!" Braintrust yelled.
Midnight kept on firing while Braintrust's troops charged. There was a crack in the casing of the Core and some of the pink energy was leaking. Braintrust roared in anger. One of the Seekers fired at Midnight, catching him high on the right shoulder. Still, the Sentinel kept on blasting at the Core. And then the casing cracked completely. The room was flooded with the pink light and Braintrust shrieked, trashing around wildly. His eyes lit up with an internal fire, reflecting the madness like a mirror. He roared and his claw flashed toward Galvatron, stomping down inches in front of him. The mighty head of the dragon lowered until he was on eye level with the Decepticon.
"Rebellious slave," he hissed. "I destroyed more of your kind in the old times than you have ever seen and now I will destroy you!"
"Slave?" the Decepticon leader asked, the Core already influencing his logic circuits, amplifying the emotions he had toward Braintrust by many times. "Galvatron is nobody's slave!"
The blast from his weapon hit Braintrust between the eyes, ricocheting off and blasting another Seeker instead. The dragon screamed, more in rage than pain, and his claw swiped the Decepticon leader off his feet.
Seconds later there was a full blown fire fight in the chamber as every non-Interfaced robot reacted by sheer instinct while trying to sort through the millions of sensations running through his mind. Midnight and Steve did the first best thing: they went for cover.

* * *

Deep under the Creation Chamber Hot Rod, Sandstorm, Shanygn and Voodoo didn't have such a good time either. Hot Rod had suspected that there would be a fight, but this was a full scale counter-attack. Voodoo had told him there were only three of the Seekers, but dozens of drones, mindless fighting machines developed by Braintrust.
He wondered how the others were faring while firing shot after shot into the catacomb chamber ahead. Another blaster volley chipped a lot of metal off the edge of the corridor he was hiding and he went for cover. Molten metal dripped down beside him.
"We don't stand a chance," Voodoo said grimly, "if we don't get them out in the open where I can influence their memory circuits. The drones are easy to get to malfunction, but even if I can take them out, there are still three Seekers."
Sandstorm fired a few more volleys, trying to get closer to their enemies to place some good shots. "How much in the open do you want them?" he asked.
"No chance," Hot Rod immediately decided. "You're not playing bait."
"I never suggested that, Hot Rod."
He glowered at his fellow Autobot. "But you thought about it."
Sandstorm shrugged.
"And the decision is no," Hot Rod said firmly.
Another rain of laser blasts made them crouch deeper into their hiding place. Suddenly there was fire coming from behind them.
"They are surrounding us!" Voodoo called and fired blindly into the corridor.
Hot Rod sought a way out, but there was none. His desperation grew. 'A blatantly obvious trap and we walked right into it with our eyes open. What a great leader you make!' He squelched that thought, wondering why his self-doubts came back so violently every time he was in a hot spot. He felt the empty place where the Matrix had been for so many years glow warmly and something ... no someone entered, telling him he was doing fine. He remembered Prime's words, that he trusted him, that he was still Rodimus Prime deep down inside and that would never change.
He saw something move at the other end and fired, getting a grunt of pain in return. Hot Rod smiled in satisfaction. Another shadow appeared.
"Sandstorm, watch out!" Hot Rod yelled and jumped forward to push his friend out of the immediate line of fire.
And then something fiery hot tore into his stomach area. He cried out more in surprise than pain, but the pain quickly followed as he slumped forward onto the ground. Part of his systems shut down in shock and he felt his knees give way. As his hand dug into the metal floor in a seizure of pain a shot chipped more than just paint off his shoulder. He was thrown back onto the floor and gasped as his still working circuits were flooded with the endless sensation of agony.
One hand tried to hold the fluids running out of the wound, but he knew it was a lost cause. The pain was everywhere and he wished he could simply shut it off with a switch.
'I don't want to die!' he thought stubbornly. 'Not like that! Optimus Prime trusted me with this mission and I don't want to fail him!'
He pulled himself to his feet and leaned against one wall -- which suddenly gave way. With a cry he lost his balance, toppling backward and rushing down what appeared to be a chute.
"Hot Rod!"
The last thing he saw before his optics went dark were the bright glowing patterns on Voodoo's body far, far away. Then there was nothing.

* * *

"Here we are."
Knight handed Skywolf the square panel and he leaned it carefully against the wall of the service tunnel they had entered after walking through endless other tunnels and corridors. Knight looked through the hole she had opened in the floor of the tunnel. To be correct, it was more of an air vent, a very large one, for that fact. And a vent which hadn't been used for ages.
Springer leaned forward and a surprised look crossed his features as he saw the room below. It was relatively large with small cells lining its wall. Two of the cells were activated, energy bars glowing faintly in the twilight below. The Autobot had no idea if there were prisoners in the cells, but he was sure they would find out sooner or later.
"What now?" he asked softly.
"First we find out what's down there, especially in the security alarm department," Knight explained. She leaned forward and peered through the opening, though her head never ever left the tunnel. She had bound back her hair so it wouldn't slip forward. "Oh goody," she muttered. "The floor's secured and I guess the alarm will go off if someone steps on it. There are also several light barriers criss-crossing the ground and the door to the outside has some nasty traps."
"You saw all that from just having a peek?" Springer asked in surprise.
Knight smiled. "In a way. My main field is security and I know how Vermilion thinks. He's the Seekers' Chief Of Security And Nasty Traps. There are several hints to what he has planned for any robot dumb enough to fall for the empty room below."
Jill, who had materialized a few minutes early, grinned broadly. "I get the hint."
Springer glanced at the humanoid female and his mind made the right connections. "You?"
Jill nodded. "I'm not a robotic life form and I'm small enough to slip through the first line of defense so I can shut it down. Then it's Knight's turn to disarm the rest." She checked her battle armor and produced a rope from somewhere. "Let's do it."
While Jill and Knight went about their task to secure the woman as much as possible, Skywolf looked thoughtfully down the tunnel. "I wonder how the others are doing," he muttered.
Springer shared his worry. They had encountered no resistance whatsoever and had reached their destination quite smoothly. Springer guessed that meant that the diversion, namely Hot Rod and his team, were fully engaged in battle and keeping the guards occupied.
"We're ready," Jill said calmly.
The rope was attached to her armor and Knight was standing by to follow her down the second she was done with the first security stage. With an ease acquired through years and years of work-out she went down the hole.

* * *

Midnight was trapped.
The fight between the Decepticons and the Seekers was cornering him in the Creation Chamber. Though he knew he couldn't be influenced by the Core's raw energy playing wildly through the room, he was sure he'd be very dead indeed if he couldn't get out of here soon. Steve had phased back into him seconds after the first volley had hit too close to home.
"We have to get out of here and try to find the hostages," Midnight muttered.
"Uh-huh," was all Steve answered while furiously going through the repair systems to speed up Midnight's healing.
This wasn't exactly what they had planned. Midnight had been supposed to be the bait and decoy in one, holding Braintrust's attention long enough for the second team to break into the cells and free the hostages while the first team gave the Seekers the expected opposition. No one had thought about the Decepticons being a part of this...... And no-one had thought that Braintrust would manipulate the Core to make a Seeker/organic Interface possible. Midnight's decision to blast the Core had been instantaneous; now they had to deal with the outcome.
As far as Steve could judge the situation, the Core had bled off enough energy to influence every robot present. It had amplified their sensations and emotions, and all of them had felt hostile and wary toward the other faction to start with. Now they were fighting a fight no sane commander would have ordered, but which had been theoretically going on in their mind.
"Hold on to your teeth, partner, we're going in," Midnight said and jumped from his cover.
Steve gave a protesting yell as his robot Interface partner entered the fight, aiming mainly at Braintrust, who was engaged in throwing several Decepticons off his back as if they were fleas. The draconian Seeker roared and stomped down on one of the hapless Decepticons, squashing him under his foot. Then he discovered his prime prey and moved to intercept Midnight.
Dodging several volleys Midnight transformed and ignited his engines, shooting toward the corridor leading deeper into the Creation Chamber maze.
"Watch out!" Steve yelled.
Midnight swerved sideways and barely missed being beaten against the wall by Braintrust's tail. He fired his shock bombs and blasted them right into the Seeker's face. Braintrust bellowed in pain and clawed at his face, falling back. It gave Midnight the time to disappear into the corridor, which was barely wide enough to allow him to fly with his wings outstretched, so he slid them a few inches toward his body.
He came to a sudden stop and had to transform as he encountered one of the Seekers, who had apparently come away from the whole disaster with the Core unharmed.
"Wild Card," Midnight said tonelessly.
The Seeker must have either escaped the Creation Core explosion or ... or he hadn't been influenced by it. If he hadn't been influenced then it would open a whole new realm of possibilities. Either it meant some Seekers were immune to the Core's influence or Wild Card had developed Interface abilities. And if he had ... 'If Braintrust finds out you're one very dead Seeker, my friend..... I hope you are only immune, not able to Interface, Wild Card. It would be your death sentence.....'
Wild Card had his gun pointed at him, his dark green optics glowing with determination. "Hold it right there," he commanded.
Midnight raised his hands. "Let us go, Wild Card," he said softly.
"I can't."
Was it his imagination or was there a kind of desperation in Wild Card's voice? Midnight had known the Seeker for a very long time and Wild Card had always been very dubious about Braintrust's way of handling things. That he was Braintrust's second-in-command was nothing special, since he'd never get a chance to take over, nor did he want to. Braintrust had chosen him one day, maybe to keep a closer eye on him because Wild Card had a conscience.
"We were friends," Midnight continued. "I still count you as a friend and I'd welcome you if you'd only come to your senses and see that what Braintrust does can't be the way."
"Shut up!" Wild Card hissed and this time there was no mistaking the fright. He didn't want to shoot and Midnight doubted he could.
"You weren't influenced...."
"SHUT UP!" the Seeker cried.
"You helped me get away the first time...." the Sentinel pressed on, knowing he had an advantage.
"That was in the past."
"And this is now, Seeker, so let him go before you get a rather unfashionable hole in your chest," a weak, but very dangerous sounding voice told him.
Wild Card whirled around, raising his weapon. Midnight jumped him and slammed him hard against the wall. Wild Card lost his weapon and was flung to the floor by the stronger Sentinel. He immediately raised his hands in a gesture of surrender and Midnight stepped back, then turned to look who had interfered.
"Hot Rod!" he gasped.
The young Autobot leaned heavily against one wall, one hand clutching his stomach. "Hi," he whispered.
There was a dark liquid leaking through his fingers and the amount forming a puddle on the dirty ground gave Midnight an uneasy feeling. If he were not an Autobot but a Sentinel, he'd classify the liquid as one of the major fluids running through them. And that would be a bad sign indeed. But Hot Rod was an Autobot and Midnight didn't know much about an Autobot's construction, so it could as well be something minor. Hot Rod's optics glowed weakly and he summoned a smile.
"What happened?" the Sentinel wanted to know in horror.
"Little dance with a few drones." Hot Rod's mouth curled into a half smile. "And then I fell down a chute. I found myself a bit further down that tunnel when I woke."
"Looks like you ruptured something and burned some circuits," Midnight told Hot Rod after a cursory examination, sounding worried.
"Could have told you that," Hot Rod answered with a rough voice. "My internal damage report still functions."
Midnight shook his head in dismay. "How about your repair systems?"
"Working." He groaned in pain and his hands clenched into fists. Then the pain ebbed away.
"You'll better stay here."
A stubborn line formed around Hot Rod's mouth. "I can still drive," he rasped.
The Sentinel shot him a silencing glare. "You wouldn't be able to transform correctly."
"I can."
"Can not."
"Can."
"Can not!" Midnight stared at him, putting all his authority as a leader in his voice. "Even if you could, what good can you do if you can't get back into your robot form?"
Hot Rod straightened painfully. "We'll discuss that topic when it arises," he said with a tone of voice that reminded Midnight very much of Optimus Prime. "The Matrix transformed my body and when it was removed it left me with a bit of what I was before. I'm not that easy to take out anymore." With that he engaged his transformation circuits.
Midnight flinched in sympathy as she watched him transform. It had to be painful. The Matrix might have endowed Hot Rod with a more strength and endurance than before his transformation, but he was still suffering from the blasts. He turned to Wild Card. He should disable the Seeker, but Wild Card had been his closest friend .....
"Go," the Seeker muttered, turning his head away, a mixture of shame and desperation flickering over his features.
Midnight felt with him. If he could simply convince him to come with them...... But Wild Card had to decide what was good for him alone.
"Thank you, my friend," Midnight answered. "You know you can turn to me every time."
Wild Card didn't answer. Midnight sighed deeply and then transformed as well, moving away.
Wild Card watched him go and leaned back against the wall. With a moan he buried his head in his hands.

* * *

The shuttle

Ultra Magnus felt like pacing, but he restrained himself. It wouldn't do to show his anxiety and nervousness. He looked at the vid screen for the umpteenth time, but nothing had changed. There was still Cybertron down there and they were still holding their position. Behind him, Sludge and Snarl were engaged in a bit of a rough play and the resounding crash told him that one of the two had just lost. Grimlock gave a bellow for silence, but the two Dinobots kept on quarreling.
"Nothing?" Magnus finally voiced his worry.
Blaster looked at him. He had been manning the com station since the two teams had left. "Nothing at all. It's quiet like a grave down there." Realizing what he had just said he added, "Not that it is ...."
Ultra Magnus sighed. "Yes, I know, Blaster. I wish there was any way we could get a picture of what's going on."
"Me Swoop fly down and have a look," the Dinobot offered, eager for action.
"Dinobots will tell Ultra Magnus about situation," Sludge added.
The commander smiled. "Thanks for the offer, but we want to do this covertly."
"Whoa!" Blaster called.
"What?"
"Strong power flare, just below us. Looks like it came from below surface." Blaster typed away at his control panel. "It's ebbing away now."
"Can you identify the power?" the commander wanted to know.
"No, but .... hey, another signal, audio this time. It's the emergency frequency."
Ultra Magnus placed his hands on Blaster's chair and leaned forward. "Open the channel."

* * *

Cybertron

Voodoo was completely out. Sandstorm looked at the shaking Sentinel with a worrisome frown, but he knew he couldn't do anything about him right now. Voodoo would have to refill his energy reserves. The Sentinel had accomplished something he had never thought possible. Using the Seeker in front of them, the one poor soul daring to come out in the open enough for Voodoo to get an ID lock on him, he had depleted him of his energy and used it to boost up his own powers. This had enabled him to influence the two remaining Seekers' circuits enough to take them out for some time.
Kyle rubbed his aching head. Normally Interfaced Sentinels were no longer able to extract energy, but this hadn't been a normal situation. Voodoo had done something extreme and possibly suicidal, kicking out Kyle and using his old powers again. It reflected back on the Interface right now and Kyle hoped Voodoo hadn't damaged himself beyond repair.
"Damn, I hate it when he does those stunts," he muttered. "Never an aspirin around when you need one."
Sandstorm grimaced as he looked at the extensive wounds of the Sentinel. "What are we gonna do now?" he asked practically.
"Well, the drones are out, as are the Seekers. I guess we did our part." Kyle looked tiredly at the larger robot. "Let's call in for back-up."
"What about Hot Rod?"
"Let's hope he is safe."
Sandstorm shook his head. "We can't just leave him!"
"Where do you want to search for him, huh?" Kyle asked reasonably. "And don't even think about going down that chute. Voodoo is out and I can't protect myself against another squadron of drones. It's not that I don't care about him, don't understand me wrong here, but we have our own problems."
Sandstorm knew the human was right. They had to get Voodoo out first; the Sentinel was worse off right now. But the knowledge that Hot Rod, who had been wounded, was lost in this maze somewhere was very disconcerting; especially when he imagined telling Optimus Prime about it.
"All right," he finally said and walked over to Voodoo.
"Wait a sec, I'll give you a hand." Kyle phased back into his Interface partner.
"Huh?" Sandstorm made.
"Oh, we Interface organics are good for a few things," Kyle answered with Voodoo's voice. "I can manipulate his mechanics enough to help you move him out of here." True to his word Voodoo raised an arm. Sandstorm grabbed it and pulled the Sentinel to his feet.
While they were on their way back, making very slow progress, Kyle decided it was time to call in back-up. Voodoo's internal repair system were doing overtime but there was no telling when he'd be on his own two feet again. His outside looked even worse, since most of the first layer of skin had flaked off and he looked like a robot with a rather bad sunburn. Kyle activated the communicator and opened a line to the waiting shuttle.
"This is Voodoo One to shuttle," he said. "Can someone hear me?"
"This Blaster blastin', Voodoo One. You're comin' in loud and clear!" the cheerful voice of the Autobot rang through the corridor.
Kyle winced. "Turn down the volume, Blaster. We might got company down here."
"Read you, Voodoo One. How's the party going?"
"Party's over, but the hosts have some problems," Kyle answered. "We lost Voodoo due to some heavy opposition; he's out cold and his internal repair systems won't get him up and running any time in the near future without help. Hot Rod was hit as well and fell down what looks like a chute connecting two tunnels. We don't know where he is right now ...."
"This is Ultra Magnus," the voice of the commander of the shuttle said calmly, though there was a worried undertone in it. "We will get you out as fast as possible."
"Negative," the human Interface immediately said. "It's time for Plan B. I don't know how Mid and Steve are fairing. If they don't get away from Braintrust we might as well say good-bye to them now. And Hot Rod could still get out by himself."
There was a short silence and Kyle thought he could hear Magnus' logic circuits tick. Then he said, "Understood. But we'll get you out nevertheless. Ultra Magnus out."
Kyle shut down the communicator and concentrated on trying to keep Voodoo in an upright position and walking.

* * *

Braintrust had pinned down the Decepticon leader and snarled at the helpless figure. "I could crush you right here and now, Galvatron," he triumphed.
Galvatron, his weapon arm pinned under the gigantic claw, glared back at the Seeker. Shots ricocheted off the thick metal hide of the dragon and Braintrust didn't even spare his attackers one look.
"But this fight leads to nothing right now, except that my prey has escaped in the commotion and is just now trying to free the hostages. I guess this has to wait until another time."
Braintrust thrust Galvatron aside like a doll and roared. His brain circuits had finally cleared up and he had realized what had happened. He was mad with rage. Not only had Midnight fled, he had also destroyed the Core! The chamber seemed to vibrate with his roar and all fights stopped for a few seconds.
"Stop that foolish brawl!" Braintrust commanded. "We have been tricked and played for fools! My troops, bring back the Sentinel leader and his human friend. I don't care what state the traitor is in, but the human must be brought back alive! And while you're at it, destroy the others as well," he added with a hiss.
Galvatron got his feet under himself, rudely brushing off Cyclonus' helping hand. He, as well as Braintrust, had just realized what had happened, though he didn't really know anything about the Creation Core. He only knew something had influenced him.
"Decepticons, destroy the Autobots. Destroy all you find!" he ordered. "Bring me their heads!"
With their orders given clearly, both troops left the Creation Chamber. Galvatron glared at Braintrust, who was much too big to fit into the narrow corridors. His eyes searched for weak spots, cataloguing possible points of attack. Braintrust gave the much smaller robot an amused look.
"Don't even contemplate it, Decepticon," he rumbled. "I could crush you within a second."
Galvatron tensed, but kept his calm, though under only the strictest restraint. "When the Autobots are destroyed, you will be next," he said.
Braintrust only laughed and walked lazily back to where the Creation Core had once been. "Amuse me," he chuckled.
Galvatron lifted his weapon, then let it fall at his side again. Not now. First Optimus Prime, then this pompous snake!

* * *

Powerglide didn't trust his optics as he saw the human-sized figure descend along a thin rope into the cell block. It was a female, as far as he could tell, and she was dressed in what looked like an armor. It was colored in silver and black. The human stopped after a few feet and looked around. One hand was curled around the rope, as was one leg, her foot resting in a loop. She looked up to where she had come from and made a gesture.
"Jill!" Aurora called in surprise and walked as close to the force field as she could.
"Hi, Aurora," the human female called back. "Everyone all right?"
"Except for a few dents and scratches we all seem fine," the female Sentinel answered, gesturing at her scorched metal skin.
"We'll have you out in no time. Knight and Skywolf are up there," Jill gestured toward the ceiling, "and the others are playing decoy for the guards."
"Decoy?" Jazz spoke up. "Who?"
"Uh, well, there are Hot Rod, Voodoo and Midnight, not to forget Sandstorm and Steve. We have some back-up in orbit as well."
Goldbug came over and gave the human a dubious look. "How do you want to free us? These fields are charged and the floor is secured as well."
"Well, since the sensors in this room only react to robotic life forms trying to get out and since I'm not in any way robotic, I can get the first line of defense deactivated. Knight will do the rest. She's the expert."
Jill looked around and discovered the control panel. She held up one arm and triggered a weapon inserted in the armor cover of her forearm. A tiny hook shot out and lodged itself deeply inside the wall. She then activated the rewind and was slowly drawn over to the wall, all the time still swinging on the rope.
"Here we go," she muttered and began to work on the panel, manipulating command codes.

* * *

Hot Rod burst out in the open, taking a few inches of metal with him as he left the corridor. His navigational controls were acting up and it was getting hard for him to tell where exactly he was. Midnight followed swiftly and stopped beside him, looking around. They were in a gigantic hall which stretched endlessly upwards. Hundreds of thousands of similar sized and similar built tube-like chambers lined the wall.
Midnight looked at the tubes with a strange expression. "That's our origin," he said softly.
"Huh?" Hot Rod made.
"These chambers were used to create our bodies while the mind was programmed by the Quintessons and inserted in the body with the help of the Creation Core," the Sentinel leader explained. "This was also where Braintrust found my body. I was the only Sleeper here, he told me. The other had either been destroyed long ago or had no consciousness left to activate with the Core. Now the Core is destroyed ... forever."
"Come again?" Hot Rod asked.
Midnight quickly explained what had happened, something he had forgotten to mention.
"Decepticons?" Hot Rod asked in horror. "He allied with Galvatron?"
"Well, they aren't exactly allies anymore.... But we should go now. Since Braintrust is busy stomping someone else into the ground let's find the way outta here." Midnight materialized a holographic map of the Creation Chamber and its maze of catacomb-like tunnels and rooms. "We're close to a service tunnel to the surface." He pointed at a hatch. "That way."

* * *

Grimlock made short work of the closed door leading to what Midnight had told them was the access to the underground room before he had left he shuttle. The other Dinobots followed him, their steps resounding loudly in the vast hall. Ultra Magnus, Archer, Kup and Blaster had their weapons drawn. The chamber was empty, but there were sounds of battle coming from deeper within the maze.
Grimlock growled in anticipation of the action to come and followed that sound, his fellow Dinobots in tow.

* * *

Knight carefully stepped onto the floor and, when nothing happened, looked around. Her optics, which she had modified to detect the invisible laser beams criss-crossing the floor, marked the most likely places for her to step on and she gave Skywolf and Springer a thumbs-up.
"Just be careful," Springer called down.
Knight smiled. "Course I will." She quickly braided her long hair and then bound it into a knot, securing it just below her neck.
Goldbug, Jazz and the other Autobots Sentinels watched in amazement as Knight then performed a couple of fast and very precise flick-flacks, jumps and somersaults through the corridor of the prison cell block to avoid all the sensor pads and light beams, arriving at the door leading outside. She rammed her fist through the metal of the frame of the door and pulled out a bunch of wires. The lasers immediately died down and the force fields flickered, then shut down.
Jill grimaced a bit. "Very delicate, very subtle, Knight."
Springer and Skywolf jumped down and the imprisoned Autobots and Sentinels finally left their cells.
Aurora was glad to see her friends, but there was also a worried look on her face. "Why aren't there any guards rushing in? I'm sure this incredibly diplomatic handling of the security system alerted someone."
"Hm, maybe the decoy team really made a spectacular entrance," Jill mused.
"Or they ran into trouble," Springer added.
The Autobots and Sentinels looked at each other. Before anybody could do anything the door to the prison cells opened.
"Decepticons!" Goldbug called.
Skywolf and Knight, the only two with weapons, fired immediately. Aurora had no trouble fighting without weapons and attacked the closest Decepticon at hand, a large, purple colored robot. He grabbed her wrists and slammed her against the wall, smiling.
"You really think you're a match for me?" he asked.
Aurora smiled her sweetest smile. "Yes," she answered, then kicked him hard, the force of her kick propelling him back into the attacking rest. Knight got out her two swords, which she always carried on her back, and drove one of it into the shoulder of the next available enemy. The Decepticon gave a scream and fell back.
"There are too many of them!" Skywolf called, covering the Autobots.
"Only one way to get out of here," F/X called darkly and met Aurora's gaze. Her face went blank with realization what he meant. Knight's head whipped around.
"We might not survive that," she stated.
"We might not survive that if we don't do it as well," F/X said.
"What is going on here?" Springer demanded, his gun blasting another attacker.
"Aurora, Knight, first line," F/X only said. "I'll take the second one. Ready?"
Skywolf nodded as did the other Sentinels, who knew what was going to happen. "Take cover and stay behind them," Skywolf ordered, retreating into the cell block while he kept on blasting every inch of Decepticon he saw.
Jazz grabbed the helicopter Sentinel's shoulder. "What are they doing?"
"Showing you why we are feared so much," Skywolf replied levely.
A scream coming from one of the Decepticons turned Jazz's attention back to the fight. Goldbug gave a silent sound of disbelief. Aurora, Knight and F/X stood like rooted to the spot, their eyes glowing madly, their metal skin crackling with energy. One after another the attackers went down, writhing on the floor in agony.
"What are they doing?" Powerglide whispered with a mixture of fear and awe.
"Get out of here!" Skywolf commanded, pushing the Autobots one after another toward the hole in the ceiling.
"Aurora!" Springer cried and Skywolf whirled around.
The golden/white female, still glowing, had collapsed on the floor, her limbs twitching faintly. Springer ran toward her.
"Don't touch her!" Skywolf yelled, but it was too late.
Springer, worried about the female Sentinel, had already touched her shoulder. Something like lightning passed between them and he was thrown violently back against the wall. With a gasp he tried to stagger to his feet, but found he was to weak to even get to his knees. Skywolf hauled him to his feet and shoved him unceremoniously into Powerglide's hands.
"Get him out of here," he told the Autobot.
"What about them?" Powerglide asked, nodding toward the three Sentinels.
"We'll be fine. Just get the hell out of here!" For a mere medic and engineer Skywolf mastered the Voice Of Authority very well.
Powerglide looked still dubious, but he complied. Half a minute later the Sentinels were alone, together with a bunch of very power-depleted Decepticons. Skywolf walked briskly over to Aurora and scooped her up. Since she had discharged the excess energy on Springer it was safe to touch her. F/X, a glazed look in his eyes, staggered toward the exit. He collided with the frame of the door and groaned.
"I knew why I gave that up," he moaned and clutched his head.
Knight turned to look at Skywolf, who still held Aurora. "I think," she said with a drunken sounding voice, "we better get outta here."
"Very good idea," Skywolf agreed.

* * *

Midnight and Hot Rod were cornered. Leaving through the service tunnel had been a very bad idea, Midnight now realized. The troop of Seekers pinning them down in this chamber was overwhelming. Hot Rod had transformed back into his robot mode and if he were human he would be pale, sweating and close to fainting. The transformation had opened the clotted liquid tube again and the dark fluid was staining the floor already. They had no chance.
"We have to retreat," Steve said, still inside Midnight and busy rerouting power and helping the repair systems. Midnight was badly damaged as well and it was only a matter of time when he would collapse, though Steve had done everything possible to give him more energy.
"Fall back!" Midnight ordered Hot Rod.
The young Autobot kept on firing his weapon, stubbornly staying upright.
"He won't get far," Steve said softly. "He's close to shutting down."
"And I can't carry him. I have barely enough power left to walk...." Midnight felt despair rise inside of him.
A roar echoed along the corridor and into the room. The Seekers looked confused for a minute, then something slammed the two of them closest to the entrance into the room where Midnight and Hot Rod were.
"Swoop!" Hot Rod whispered as something whisked out of the door and shot through the room. Then he slid down the wall with a groan. A new gush of fluids shot out of the wound and Midnight realized sickly it was another color than the liquid before. He caught him and Hot Rod cried in pain as more delicate circuits tore.
Swoop fired his missiles at the nearest available Seeker. The other Dinobots piled into the chamber as well, not minding if they stepped onto a Seeker or not. The Seekers concentrated their fire on the new opponents.
"Hot Rod!"
The outcry let Midnight whirl around and staggered a bit. He wasn't very stable on his legs anymore. His weapon fell to his side as he recognized Ultra Magnus, Blaster and Kup.
"You!" he breathed in relief.
"What the thousand blue and purple hells of the ancients happened here?" Kup demanded as Blaster knelt down beside Hot Rod. There was a worried expression on the old warriors face as he looked at the injured young Autobot.
"We had to alter the plan," Midnight explained while leaning heavily against a wall.
The fight between the Dinobots, who were happy about the action and really loving it as it seemed, and the last few Seekers, who hadn't fled, but were in the process of doing so, was moving back into the corridor.
"He's in a very bad shape, Magnus," Blaster said with a grave voice. "He needs medical attention -- pronto! He's loosing too much liquids and some of the circuitry has been obliterated. I'm no doctor, but it looks pretty serious."
Kup knelt down beside Hot Rod, his face a stony mask. Hot Rod's optics were glowing weakly and the stomach wound looked terrible. It was a miracle he had lived to make it so far. The shoulder injury was minor in comparison, simply some torn metal, which could be repaired with no great fuss.
"Hold on, kid," he whispered, his mouth a grim and determined line.
Hot Rod didn't reply, simply lay there, one hand still clutching the stomach wound. Kup wasn't even sure Hot Rod was still aware of his surroundings.
"We'll get him out of here," Ultra Magnus decided, watching worriedly how Blaster and Kup hauled Hot Rod to his feet. Another gush of dark fluids spilled onto the floor and Hot Rod groaned softly.
Midnight pushed away from the wall. "What about the others?" he asked.
"Your friend Archer drove off toward what he said was the prison block before we could stop him," the commander explained. "We sent Steeljaw after him."
"Did you encounter Braintrust?" the Sentinel leader finally asked.
"No. When we came in everything was deserted."
Thundering steps interrupted the explanation and they turned to see the Dinobots enter.
"Good fight!" Grimlock called. "But too short for Dinobots. Other robots disappeared."
"Good work, Grimlock," Midnight said with a grin.
The Dinobot leader looked very smug.
"Mid, Skywolf is on his way out. Something happened that he didn't want to talk about," Steve reported. He had materialized in his battle armor and had been scanning the Sentinels' frequencies for any word from the second team. "Don't ask me what but I have a good guess it wasn't pleasant. It affected Knight, Aurora and F/X. They did it, didn't they? Damn!"
"What is he talking about?" Kup demanded.
"Later. Let's get out of here as fast as we can." Midnight transformed and ignited his engines. Then he shot out of the room and into the corridor.

* * *

// He swam in a grey sea of nothingness. There was no light, no shadow, no pain, no nothing.
Pain.
A faint memory of pain stole itself upon him and he looked down his body -- only to stop in surprise. He had no body. But the memory of pain remained.
Pain and the voice of a friend.
Puzzled he tried to drag more of the memories to the surface of this strange state of consciousness.
A shadow, passing through a dark tunnel.
Pain.
A shadow and the immediate sense of danger.
Pain.
A shot.
Incredible, unbelievable pain.
Someone called his name.
Then he was lost in darkness for a while.
Light washed over him and he groaned. The pain shot through him, consumed him, burned itself unto his waking thoughts.
Someone begged him to hold on. Someone was out there, somewhere in the greyness, still begging, still calling. The voice changed, became darker and more insistent, telling him not to give up, to hold on..... to fight.
With an effort he tried to move from where he was and get to the voice. He wanted to know the one who called him, though he faintly thought he knew him. But he couldn't move. Every time he tried the pain increased. It was like a living barrier between him and the voice.
Weak.
Tired.
Sleep.
The greyness around him was oppressive. He fought against the ever tightening walls of grey against grey, but it was a fight he was loosing. He was too weak, too tired. The pain was omnipresent.
He slipped back into nothingness, his awareness fading.
Someone yelled, but he couldn't hear the sound anymore.......He just wanted to go. //

* * *

The shuttle

Jazz watched as Midnight sunk into one of the chairs in the shuttle, looking like he had been in a wild fight with some large cat. He was covered in a sticky yellow fluid and there were several deep cuts all over his body. His skin looked sickly grey and mottled black. Well, he had been in a pretty wild fight, as all of them had, but he wasn't as bad off as Hot Rod.....

In the room next to the cockpit Skywolf was leaning over the young Autobot, working frantically at him, trying to keep him alive. Jill had materialized on Hot Rod's other side, helping her Interface partner as best as possible.
"How is he?" Kup asked, his voice sounding rough. He hadn't left Hot Rod since they had carried him into their transport home.
"Holding on," Skywolf said with a preoccupied voice.
"Looks like Tidal's handiwork," Jill commented. "He's basically a coward, but when he gets around to blasting someone or something you shouldn't be in his way. His weapon fires high intensity energy beams. It's a miracle Roddy came away alive."
Kup looked grim, keeping watch at Hot Rod's side.

In the cockpit compartment Jazz walked over to Ultra Magnus, who was talking to Sandstorm, getting a brief story of what had happened from him.
Voodoo had found some of his strength again and was leaning over Blaster's chair, watching the space outside the shuttle pass by. He still looked like he had been sunburned.
"I still wonder why Braintrust let get us away," Midnight muttered.
Ultra Magnus turned to look at the Sentinel leader. "Maybe he realized he was outnumbered."
Midnight snorted. "Outnumbered? Braintrust?" He shook his head. "Not a chance. He'd fight to the end, whatever the number or strength of the enemy is."
Jazz frowned. "Then why didn't he try to hold you?"
"That is one very good question. I don't have an answer."
"What about your friends?" Ultra Magnus asked, nodding toward the separate room Aurora, Knight and F/X occupied. Springer was keeping them company.
"What about them?"
Magnus frowned a bit. "I thought you didn't have the ability to take another life form's energy anymore."
"The Interfaced Sentinels have lost this ability," Midnight corrected, though that was a little white lie, since Archer still had this power. Skywolf couldn't exactly explain it, but he theorized it came from the rather superficial Interface Mike and Archer shared. "And you saw the result. Aurora, Knight and F/X will need some time to get back to normal. This wasn't pleasant and I doubt it's an experience they want to have again."
"I can vouch for that," a voice said and Jazz turned. It was Aurora. She looked slightly sick and not too stable on her feet. Walking over to them she leaned against the hull of the shuttle. "It really isn't pleasant and it hurts like blazes. Gives you one hell of a headache as well. Since I bled off some of my excess energy onto Springer I'm fitter than the rest, but we need to get rid of the energy when we're back." She rubbed her head.
Midnight smiled tiredly. "I guess we can find a way to vent most of what you took in."
Magnus only nodded, not really ready to believe this, but willing to get proven otherwise.

"We're loosing him!"
Hot Rod flatlined and Skywolf quickly, but methodically began to reroute circuitry. The movement of his hands seemed to blur.
"Fifteen seconds."
"Jill, connect him to support A. Slow feed," the Sentinel commanded
The female Interface complied and connected several cables coming out of Hot Rod's chest with the small life support unit of the shuttle.
"Thirty seconds."
Kup watched in anguish as the medic tried to save Hot Rod's life. Hot Rod was hooked up to a liquid feed, a monitor and now the life support unit. He had continued bleeding some liquids even after they had brought him to the medical room of the shuttle and Skywolf had lost no time closing the ruptured tubes. That presented them with a new problem because without a regular feed of liquids, several systems relying on them had started to go.
"One minute." Jill gave her Interface partner a slightly nervous look. Suddenly there was a small blip on the monitor. "You've got him," she said calmly. "Not very strong, but he's back."
Kup leaned heavily against the wall, looking down at his shaking hands.
Skywolf straightened from his work, his hands covered with the liquids Hot Rod had lost. "He's stable for now, but he needs professional surgery as soon as we're back," he told Kup.
The old warrior nodded. "Thank you," he said with a hoarse voice, meaning it.
Skywolf smiled and cleaned his hands. "You're welcome." Then he began to clean up some of the other damage.
Jill kept a watchful eye on the monitor. As she looked up, she discovered that Kup was still there.
"He'll be all right," she said and smiled encouragingly. "We caught him just in time and the life support will hold him until we can get him linked to medical equipment."
Kup nodded. "He's stubborn ..... and strong," he said as if to himself. "I always knew it." 'But I never told him. Why? If he dies now, he'll die in the belief I thought he was incapable of leading the Autobots.' Kup felt desperation rise inside of him. 'You're a good leader, Hot Rod, and I wish I'd have told you that as Rodimus Prime..... I hope I get the chance to tell Hot Rod some day.'

* * *

Autobot City

The shuttle had come in some minutes ago. Optimus Prime watched the rescued hostages greet their friends while the Sentinels stood aside, welcoming their own. Shanygn was at his side, clad in her exo-skeleton. He could see her fearful expression. It mirrored his own feelings. Prime nodded at Jazz, who sauntered over to him, followed by Sandstorm.
"Hey, Optimus," the Autobot said cheerily. "Shanygn."
"Jazz, Sandstorm" he answered, his eyes still fixed on the shuttle.
Shanygn only nodded. She was much too preoccupied with whatever she was able to feel through the unstable Interface link to say anything.
With a sick feeling Optimus Prime watched the wounded get rushed into the Medical Ward. One of them was Hot Rod.
"Looks pretty grim," Sandstorm said softly. "Skywolf lost him once before he could stabilize him."
Something inside of Optimus Prime twisted. The message about the successful rescue had come in two hours prior to the shuttle's landing and Prime had been relieved. But the news of the grave injuries of his second-in-command had dampened that joy a lot. Skywolf had talked to First Aid over the com lines and from what Prime had been able to make out of all the medical tech talk, Hot Rod was lucky to be alive, though he barely was. Shanygn had silently sat through the exchange of news, her face a stony mask.
He walked back into the city and toward the Medical Ward, followed by Shanygn. First Aid and Skywolf were already preparing for the operation, while the others were treated for their rather superficial wounds, compared to Hot Rod's condition.
"How is he?" Prime asked.
First Aid's optic shield seemed to flash with concern. "Not good. He's stable right now, but the damage is extensive. He lost a good part of the major fluids and his transformation circuits were all but obliterated. I neutralized the pathways leading to his pain centers and hooked him up to a life support. We have to let the machine take over most of his functions until we've replaced the destroyed parts."
Optimus Prime felt sick. He wondered how Hot Rod had survived until now, with so much of his important circuits destroyed or close to breaking down. He looked down at the female humanoid and noted her closed expression.
"Do your best, First Aid," he said quietly.
"I always do," the Protectobot replied and walked into the operating room. Skywolf had entered minutes earlier.
"I know," Prime said. "I know."

* * *

// The pain was somewhere far away and nearly forgotten. Instead of the pain there was a strange sense of loneliness. Wherever he was, he was alone. He couldn't see, but he could feel and he could hear.
He felt the cool surface of a table.
He heard a familiar voice talking softly to someone. First Aid, his mind identified the voice. Medical Ward, it added.
The voice blurred. The pain was still far away, but another voice rang through the confusion that was still inside of him. It was the familiar voice again. The voice told him something. Before he could will his body to respond to the voice, it faded. Tiredness washed over him. He felt so fatigued.
He drifted into nothingness again. //

* * *

Twenty-four hours later

Optimus Prime watched silently as Hot Rod straightened carefully and winced in pain. He was still not fully functional and it would take a few more days for his systems to bounce back. The wounds had been pretty severe and First Aid had operated on him for a very long time. It had been a matter of seconds and quick decisions. Luckily Skywolf had stabilized him on the shuttle back or he wouldn't have made it. Prime was very thankful for Skywolf's help; loosing Hot Rod would have been disastrous. The young Autobot was just now developing his full potential; and Prime believed he had a lot of leadership potential. Without it the Matrix would never have chosen him as the new Autobot leader after Optimus Prime's death......
Shanygn had sat through most of the operation and had been the first to relax even before First Aid had announced that everything was all right. She had talked to Hot Rod while he was still in the Medical Ward.
Hot Rod slowly slipped off the table, with First Aid watching him closely, and then left the Medical Ward. As he became aware of Optimus Prime he stopped, looking like he wanted to be somewhere else completely.
"Are you all right?" the Autobot leader asked with a bit of worry shining through in his voice.
"Yeah, I guess so." Hot Rod evaded the blue gaze, studying the wall instead.
"You had us all worried there for some time." Prime eyed his second, who still didn't look at him. He simply shrugged. "You did a great job," the Autobot leader added.
That made Hot Rod look up. "Yeah, sure," he mumbled. "What a team leader .... One of the team decided for a suicide move and I got myself shot up. Great." He shook his head. "I'm not cut out for this." For the first time he looked up. "I want to resign. Give the position to someone else."
Prime stared at him. "That's complete rubbish! Stop doing this to yourself, Hot Rod! I thought you had worked through your doubts."
The younger Autobot sighed. "It's not so much of doubt ... it's more ..... I'm not sure."
"You still feel it, right? Not even Shanygn can ease what the Matrix did to you. I'm sorry, my friend," Optimus Prime said sincerely.
"But ... but it wasn't your fault!" Hot Rod sputtered.
"In a way, yes. I died."
That drew a chuckle out of Hot Rod.
"Listen, " Prime continued. "I know you can never go back to what you were. Your body has changed, as you proved because First Aid said you wouldn't have survived if the Matrix hadn't altered a bit of your molecular structure and rerouted some of the important circuits. You did really well with this mission and no-one blames you for anything that happened. It could have happened if I had been there as well."
"Sure," Hot Rod muttered darkly.
"Hot Rod, please...." Optimus Prime said with a bit of a pained voice.
"Okay, okay, so I screwed up but it could have happened to anyone, right?"
"You didn't screw up! You gave your best. Nothing you did can be blamed on inexperience or youth or rash thinking. I read the reports and all of this could have happened to me as well. I would have acted the same way you did, Hot Rod. Believe in yourself, have faith in your abilities." Optimus Prime didn't know what else to add. What should he say?
Hot Rod leaned back against the wall. There was a very long time of silence and all kinds of emotions flashed over his face.
"What now?" he finally wanted to know.
"First: I won't accept your resignation," Optimus Prime told him. "And this is final."
Hot Rod opened his mouth, then closed it again, nodding. "'kay."
Prime looked satisfied. "Second: I talked to Midnight while you were in surgery and he said he'd give this another try. We both knew that there were enemies coming along with this alliance. If it hadn't been Braintrust making the first move, I suspect Galvatron would have shown up. The others assured me there were no ill feelings because of this and even Kup is backing down from his stubborn declarations that the Sentinels are killers."
Midnight, as well as the other Sentinels, had healed their wounds, though Voodoo still suffered from the severe damage done to his Interface circuits. Kyle was doing everything possible to ease the pain. Knight and F/X had bled off most of the excess energy as well.
Hot Rod's eyes lit up. "They can stay?"
"I never said anything else."
"Great!" he cried with enthusiasm.
Optimus Prime's eyes glowed with amusement at the outburst. Former leader or not, Hot Rod would always make up a very large part of Rodimus Prime. And Rodimus Prime would always give the enthusiasm a good dose of maturity. Yes, Hot Rod was still Rodimus Prime, Matrix or not. Maybe this mixture would prove to be something very unique in the future....
"Now," he said, "you take it easy for the next few days unless you want to answer to First Aid."
Hot Rod grimaced. "Not exactly high on my Most Wanted List."
Prime chuckled. "So follow this order. As for what there is still to do ...."
Walking down the corridor the two leaders kept on talking about the immediate future of not only the Sentinels, but also the Autobots.

* * *

An uncharted planet

Braintrust looked at Wild Card, who stood in front of him, awaiting whatever was to come. The golden-brown robot seemed to tremble under his gaze, but the Seeker leader said nothing. He didn't intend to punish his second-in-command for what he had done. Braintrust knew exactly what had gone on in the corridor. There was little escaping his notice -- if you didn't count that he hadn't expected the rescue attempt to come through the service tunnel. He hadn't known about the existence of that particular tunnel at all.
Air escaped through the airvents at his neck, the hiss the only sound in the room. Then the draconian Seeker turned to watch the stars on the vid screen.
He suspected Midnight had known about the tunnel since he had been awakened. The little traitor had spent a lot of time in the library.
"Leave," he rumbled, not even looking at his second, and Wild Card did that in a hurry.
Braintrust chuckled slightly. Midnight had won this battle. 'Clever little bastard', he thought in amusement. 'I knew why I awakened you. You would have made a great second to me, but you had to turn your back on me, my boy. Wrong move. Never turn your back on me. Next time I'll get you. And that's more than just an empty promise.'
Though he was sometimes rash in his actions, Braintrust had decided that a retreat was the better solution for him and his troops. Fighting the Autobots, and the Sentinels, would have been easy, but he hadn't been in the mood. 'And now I found out a little bit more about the Autobots. Very interesting. They might be inferior constructions, but some of them show very intriguing qualities. This Matrix is worth some research.'
The Decepticons were another matter. All
of them had survived, though some of them had been barely functioning. Galvatron had retreated back to his planet to lick his wounds. 'Have to keep an eye on him. He might come in handy once more.' Braintrust chuckled. Galvatron dreamed of power and he was pretty good at spreading mayhem, but he lacked the finesse Braintrust considered one of his best treats. 'He never learned that victory isn't everything. It's the information you gather from a battle. That is what you can use against your enemy the next time.'
With those thoughts he forgot all about the latest encounter with the Sentinels and began planning for the next, but this time he included the Autobots -- those touched by the Matrix ....