by Birgit Staebler (firstname.lastname@example.org)
"Bye!" Kih'Injia called and smiled at her passenger as
she closed the door.
Roma Chi-la'achn waved as the car drove off down the road and left her alone in the middle of nowhere. Turning, the woman walked down a gravel covered road to a small house, her home. She liked it out here, far away from the cities and the people. It wasn't that she shied away from people, but she preferred to spend her off-time from the Academy of History in a peaceful, quiet environment. The house, which she had bought a few years ago, had been perfect for that and it was spacious enough to accommodate all her books, disks and artifacts.
As she approached her home she thought she heard something, a scraping noise. She looked around, but saw nothing. Nothing lived out here, not even large animals. She had seen the occasional bird or rabbit, but nothing else.
"Hello?" she called.
"Hello," a dark voice answered and she whirled around.
Her mouth opened to scream as she saw the towering robot, but she never came that far. Something hit her, some kind of energy field, and she collapsed. She didn't loose consciousness, but she couldn't move anymore. The robot lifted her up, then took off, transforming in mid flight, which repositioned her somewhere inside of him. Roma's mind tried to cope with the kidnapping, tried to supply her with reasons, but it failed. Unable to move, only able to think, she wished the beam of energy had let her fall unconscious.
* * *
"Can I talk to you?"
Steven Parker looked up and discovered Hot Rod standing beside him. Well, it wasn't hard to spot the large robot, but he had been so absorbed in his thoughts that he hadn't even heard him approach.
"Uh, sure," he said, blinking. His mind was still miles away. "What about?"
Steve sighed. He had thought as much. Still, he put up a facade of pretense. "Why? Anything wrong?"
Hot Rod looked slightly exasperated. "Anything wrong? Well, if you count running around with an expression to scare even a Decepticon off into the depths of space, yes there is something wrong. Steve, what's going on?"
"Nothing, Hot Rod."
The Autobot shook his head. He didn't believe him one little bit. "Must be a big nothing to get Midnight so estranged from you."
Steve frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"For the last two weeks Midnight's been behaving strangely, maybe even longer but since I was busy because of this virus and who might have created it, I didn't notice everything going on around here. He's spending a lot of time in the libraries on Alean and I can't help feeling that something is bothering him very much. Spill it, Steve, what's cooking?"
The human Interface sighed deeply. "What happened? You suddenly develop empathy skills?"
Hot Rod smiled. "No. I'm just not as blind as others seem to be. Or the other Sentinels go out of their way not to get into his way."
Parker rubbed his aching head. He had been trying to get in contact with Midnight for the last few hours, trying to sneak up into his mind to get a picture of what was going on with his friend. Every attempt had ended with a rather violent shove back out of Midnight's mind.
"I really don't know what's going on," he confessed and sat down. "I only know that it all started after the whole mess with Braintrust on Cybertron."
Hot Rod remembered that only too vividly. Braintrust, the leader of the renegade Sentinels, had kidnapped Autobots and Sentinels alike to exchange them for Midnight and Steve. They had been able to rescue the kidnapped robots and chase Braintrust off Cybertron, but it had been a victory bought with heavy injuries. Hot Rod himself had nearly died then.
"Midnight's been behaving kinda weird after that. And after the crisis with the virus he suddenly began doing research. I watched it all for some time, then began to inquire what he was up to. He didn't talk to me and for the first time since we Interfaced I found I couldn't access his memory banks."
Hot Rod was surprised. That wasn't normal. Steve and Midnight were Interfaced one hundred percent, which meant they could merge so completely that they complemented each other's talents just perfectly. It was a unique Interface, something that had not yet been achieved by any other Sentinel. That Midnight shut out Steve like that meant that something really weird was going on.
"Any ideas?" the Autobot asked.
Steve frowned. "Not really, no."
"How much of what Midnight is doing did you see?"
The human looked at him. "Some things. Mainly star charts and coordinates."
Hot Rod nodded. "All right. Then let's see those charts and coordinates. Maybe we can find out what's going on."
Together they went off into Autobot City.
* * *
The planet was far outside every known route and only
a few star charts had it even registered. It was barren of intelligent
life and the wild life wasn't very friendly to intruders. At least those
intruders smaller or weaker than it, those intruders who were possible
prey. The latest intruder was decidedly larger than the predators around
it and the animals had chosen that an attack was foolish. Metal was indigestible
anyway and the thin layer of organic skin was not worth the trouble. Adding
to the unattractive food option came the fact that the intruder spread
an aura of darkness, a visible darkness, radiating from his completely
black body. The only spot of color, except for some yellow vein like tubes
running over his arms, was his dark green visor, covering his optic sensors.
He seemed to eat the light around him, cloaking himself with it. No predator
wanted to get near him. So the large intruder walked along the border of
the jungle undisturbed.
Midnight was clearly aware of the danger he had put himself in. No one back on Earth or his home of Alean knew he was here. His Interface was not present, which wasn't something to worry about as long as he didn't get into a full-fledged fight. Steven Parker was a part of him with which he functioned above average when Interfaced, but he had chosen not to tell his human partner where he was going. It was too dangerous if it was a trap.
As if it wasn't dangerous this way as well, he thought sourly. If this was a trap he'd be toast.
The message had come in a few days ago. It had been delivered on a channel only he and one other robot knew, a channel that was reserved for only one purpose: a call for help. Midnight had not been surprised by the call, at least not after he had met the originator of the message again over a year ago. He had suspected something like this to happen every day.
The Sentinel leader stopped at the foot of a mountain and looked around. No one was here. He opened a frequency and transmitted a signal that had been chosen for this moment. Several minutes later he heard the sound of jet engines and looked up. A golden-brown and dark green jet approached and descended, transforming in mid-flight and landing softly a few feet away from him.
"Hello, Midnight," the robot said softly. "Thank you for coming."
Midnight nodded, his eyes drawn to the sign on the other's chest, the sign which meant this newcomer was his enemy. But he was also someone who had been his closest friend once, someone who had apparently understood him, who had even kept it a secret that Midnight had Interfaced with Steve so long ago -- until Braintrust had found out by himself. Right now he was Braintrust's second-in-command, a position that meant nothing at all.
"Hello, Wild Card," he said slowly, ready for a quick retreat in case this would come to the worst.
Wild Card spread his hands. "I'm not armed," he said, his voice calm. "I've come to talk, not to fight."
Midnight stayed wary, though he prayed and hoped this was the truth. "All right," he said. "I'll trust you -- for now. Why have you called me?"
Wild Card looked at him as if searching for a way to begin whatever he wanted to talk about. Then he said, "You remember when you destroyed the Creation Core?"
Midnight nodded, the unpleasant memories still vivid in his mind.
"You know that everyone but me was influenced."
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.
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.
"Did you ever think about why I wasn't influenced."
Midnight frowned a bit. Of course he had, very long and very thoroughly. "Either you were immune or you .... had developed Interface abilities, which are as good as immunity." Midnight's green visor plate flashed as his mind made several connections. "Wild Card ...."
The golden-brown Seeker looked away as if the fact ashamed him.
"You can Interface?" Midnight breathed.
Wild Card nodded slowly. "I not only can, Midnight, I already have....."
He had fled from the solitary planet the Seekers had chosen
as their momentary hide-out. After the catastrophe on Cybertron Braintrust
had developed a rather bad mood and being around him was a sure way to
get smashed into the next available wall very fast. And Wild Card had some
things to think about. He needed some time away from the others and some
more time to get the strange feelings inside of him sorted out. Flying
aimlessly through space he remembered the moment the Creation Core had
exploded. He had felt nothing except for a strange tingling, then the others
had flipped, attacking each other. Wild Card had not been influenced at
all, had remained sane. At the time he hadn't thought much about it; he
had reacted to Midnight's flight and had tried to stop him. Only when the
Sentinel leader had stood before him had he realized what might have happened
-- and he was frightened. He had let Midnight go, his mind in turmoil.
Braintrust had been too busy being enraged and fuming to notice his second-in-command's sudden change. Wild Card had not mentioned his fears that he had developed Interface abilities to anyone. It was too dangerous. If Braintrust every knew about it ... he would be dead. The Seeker leader was a fanatic where Interfaces were concerned and he would kill every other Seeker who would have this advantage over him.
Wild Card sighed deeply and considered his options. Either he stayed with the Seekers, constantly afraid that someone discovered his secret, or he'd turn his back on them and approach Midnight. He was a friend, someone who wouldn't shoot him first and then ask what he wanted later. The Seeker changed course for Earth, the most likely place Midnight would be. If he wasn't with the Autobots Wild Card could always try Alean.
"You came to Earth?" Midnight asked, puzzled.
Wild Card nodded, evading his friend's optic sensors. "I thought we could talk, alone. But at that time you had problems with the Decepticons and I was afraid that your Autobot friends and the other Sentinels would shoot me on sight. So I hid, thinking I should wait for a better time .... and that's when it happened."
Wild Card had leveled his gun at the human, staring at
the man who had apparently appeared like out of nowhere. He was wearing
some kind of uniform, sitting on a motorbike.
"What's that supposed to mean?" the man asked.
Wild Card let his gun arm fall to his side. "Sorry," he stammered. "I ... I was not sure ...."
The man took off the helmet and placed it on the bike. He was dark-haired, his skin suntanned. His grey eyes held a curious look and he appeared a bit confused. "You aren't an Autobot, right? That's not their insignia." He pointed at the sign on Wild Card's shoulder.
"No." A strange emotion rose inside the Seeker. "I ...I'm not an Autobot."
"Then who the heck are you?"
"My name is ... Wild Card....I ...." Wild Card couldn't explain why he was stammering like that. He grew more and more confused the longer the man stayed in his vicinity.
"Are you all right?"
Wild Card couldn't answer. His chest was burning, the place where the one weapon every Cybertronian feared was situated was like on fire. He touched his chest plate and staggered back.
"No," he whispered. "It's true!"
"Hey!" the man called, slightly worried. "You aren't all right. I'll get some help."
"No .... Jeff..... I'm fine." Wild Card didn't know why, but he knew the man's name. Lt. Col. Jeff Winters, Navy pilot, status: inactive. The information assaulted his brain and he staggered back. "No!" he moaned and fell to his knees. "It can't be happening."
Winters was equally confused. "You know my name...." he began, then gasped and grabbed his head. "What ... are .. you .... doing?" he whispered.
Wild Card's green visor plate flashed brightly. "I'm so sorry, Jeff," he said softly.
And then the world went white.
"Oh, my god," Midnight whispered. "You Interfaced immediately....."
Wild Card nodded, feeling ashamed. "I don't know how it happened, but it did. It was like instinct, I couldn't fight it!" He trembled slightly. "I didn't want it, Midnight! I didn't want to involve him!"
"What happened after the Interface?"
"We talked .... for a long time. Jeff took it all in a stride and I was glad he didn't shy away from me because I was so .... different. He was used to the Autobots." Wild Card smiled dimly.
"Where is Jeff now?" the Sentinel leader asked.
"He's still on Earth," Wild Card answered softly.
"How long were you Interfaced?"
"Some time. I don't know how long. He knows everything about me and I know everything about him, Mid."
Inside Midnight a fearful feeling rose. Could it be? A complete Interface? Something Steve and he shared? It was possible. There had never been any proof that a one hundred percent link was exceptional. It was rare, true, but it wasn't unique.
Wild Card shot him a desperate, pleading look. "I called you because I want you to separate us," he added softly.
"What?!" Midnight shouted. "No way! Do you know what it does to both parties involved if an Interface partnership is separated by force? A death can be coped with if the other half is strong enough, but not such a separation!"
"I don't want him to become involved, Mid!" Wild Card cried. "Braintrust will be after me, maybe to kill me, maybe to make me suffer first, but he will find me eventually. I don't want him to get his claws on Jeff!"
"I understand your reasoning, but separating is no guarantee for Jeff's life -- or yours."
"I don't care about my life!" Wild Card stated coldly. "I'm already dead. It's Jeff I'm worried about."
Midnight shook his head, realizing that the Interface had already influenced the other robot. He was beginning to react protectively toward his partner, trying to keep him from harm -- which wasn't possible. Midnight had had to come to terms with this long ago. Both sides didn't want the other to get hurt, but there was no way to be completely secure anywhere. True, a robot could withstand certain attacks better than a humanoid, but it didn't mean that the robot partner of the Interface was the protector and the other one the protégé.
"You can't decide this just like that," He told Wild Card calmly, "because it's not only your decision alone, don't you understand? This is a partnership now. Have you talked to your Interface about what you want to do?"
"No," the other confessed mutely. "I ... I don't want him to know."
"He will know the second you attempt such a foolishness." Midnight shook his head again. "Separation is painful, most of the times fatal, Wild Card! I want you to come to Earth with me," he then said slowly, coming to a decision. "Skywolf has to take a look at both of you. We all have to talk and I'm certain there's a way you two can handle this."
The Seeker, who no longer was one, so to speak, nodded reluctantly. Midnight smiled and rose.
With that he transformed and Wild Card did the same. The two jets gained height and then Midnight Gated.
The moment the two had disappeared inside the Gate, a
shadow moved out of the dense jungle. It looked like a large cat, but it
wasn't an inhabitant of this world. It was a robot, a Seeker.
"Braintrust," it growled into an open com link. "They have left. You were right: Wild Card has Interfaced."
In a cave deep inside a dead planetoid Braintrust chuckled
evily. His large, dragon-like body uncurled and he stretched his razor
sharp wings. "I knew it," he whispered and his voice stretched in a hiss.
"I knew the little renegade had a secret, and it's such a sweat one." He
turned to one of his men. "You know what you have to do, Phantom."
The Seeker nodded. "Yes, my leader." He turned, gesturing to several others to follow.
Braintrust chuckled again. "Soon," he muttered to himself, his voice still booming in the cave. "Soon he will be mine."
He turned back to his latest kidnapping victim, someone he had planned to use for his Interface experiments, but who had lost his interest.
"Well, my dear," he told the woman, who looked at him frightened eyes, "looks like we won't get to try out if we are compatible after all."
* * *
In one of the many labs inside Autobot City Perceptor
finished his examination and nodded at the slim, pink and silver colored
robot. Arcee jumped off the table, looking quizzically at the scientist.
"I foresee no immediate problems in the near future," Perceptor explained, "but Daniel is a growing human and he will require changes of his environment suit soon. I also strongly suggest that you and he talk to Dr. McGregor about the exo-skeleton and possible surgery on the damaged spine."
"If I get an exo-skeleton I have to leave Arcee!" Daniel protested.
"No, you don't, Daniel," the female Autobot said softly. "We will always be together. You can't separate a partnership just like that."
"But...." the boy protested.
"Daniel, our partnership was necessary for you to survive and I was glad to be the one to take you in." She touched her head where Daniel Witwicky was located. He had become a Headmaster partner because of a spinal injury, which would have killed him had he not been stabilized. Using Arcee's head as a transforming environment suit had been the only way. "But you are young, you have a life ahead of you," she continued. "You are growing and you need contact to others of your kind."
"Why can't we Interface like the Sentinels?" he pleaded. "Like Shanygn and Hot Rod?"
She smiled a bit. "We can't Interface because I'm not a Sentinel. And Hot Rod and Shanygn share a special link, which we already have. You know that it's impossible for you to be with me forever. And you also know that the Sentinels and their Interfaces are never Interfaced for all the time. The humanoids phase back into their partners when the situation demands it; otherwise they are separate."
Daniel shook his head in denial, tears gathering in his eyes. He loved Arcee and he didn't want them to separate, not ever. But there was a small part inside of him that told him it was the truth. If he got an exo-skeleton and the necessary operation to survive outside an encounter suit, he could still be with her. Like Shanygn and Hot Rod.
"All right," he finally conceded with a subdued voice.
Arcee smiled and touched her head. "Thank you, Daniel."
She thought of how happy Spike and Carly would be. She had seen how Carly had suffered emotionally when her husband had told her about what had happened on Nebulos. She trusted Arcee with her child's life, but the Headmaster partnership also meant that she never saw her son, except when Arcee transformed and her head became Daniel's suit.
"We'll go and see Dr. McGregor today."
"Yeah," the boy answered, summing up all the enthusiasm he could muster.
* * *
Hot Rod looked up and then turned to see what Steve had meant. The human was going through logs of Teletran Two's files, searching for what might be a lead as to where his Interface partner had gone off to.
"What is what?" the Autobot asked.
"See that?" Steve activated the giant screen in the room, transferring the picture he had on his much smaller screen to it. "Mid's been plotting a route through Sector 12-4 to some uncharted planet."
Hot Rod nodded. The planet was uninhabited by intelligent life and had been filed as good for settlement, but too far from the usual commercial routes. For some beings this might be an attractive place, but unless commerce didn't buy into the new settlement, nothing major would happen there.
"You think that's where he went?"
Steve nodded. "That's the only place we have a definite lead to. He went through several files where I can't explain why he did it, but he never called up information on a planet. You got a shuttle that could take us there?"
Hot Rod smiled. "Of course."
"The let's go."
"Go where?" a gruff voice asked.
Both looked up, both trying not to look like they had been caught with their fingers in the cookie jar. Kup stood in the door way, a suspicious expression on his face.
"Uh, scouting," Steve answered and smiled cheerfully.
A scowl appeared on the old warrior's face. "Scouting," he echoed. "Y'know that Prime will be back from Cybertron tomorrow, lad, and that we got tons o'things still to do."
"Sure, Kup, I know," Hot Rod answered with a strained patience in his voice. He hated it when Kup fell back in his old habit of reminding him of every task he had to do. He had memory circuits, for Primus' sake! "But this won't take long and we'll be back in a flash. Besides, the conference is over, every report is done, we got the foreign ministers safely shuttled back to their respective countries, there's no immediate crisis on the front door step and I'm not taking a joy ride around the galaxy, okay?"
He stalked past him and Steve followed, deciding not to say word.
Kup stared after the younger Autobot and then shrugged. Let Optimus Prime handle it when the young hot shot wasn't back by the time of his arrival.
"Hey, guys, wait up!" someone called and the whine of
thrusters could be heard.
Steve turned and discovered Shanygn flying toward them. She braked hard and touched down, her wings sliding into a 'hold' position. "Hi, Shan," he greeted her with a smile.
"What are you two up to?" she asked.
"Nothing much," Hot Rod answered easily.
"Don't lie to me, Mister. We're Interfaced, don't forget that, and I'm getting better at it every day." She frowned at him.
Hot Rod sighed. "We want to scout a planet, that's all."
"Oh, that's all?" She raised both eyebrows.
"Okay, okay, we're following Midnight," Steve explained. "He's been kinda secretive, even in front of me, and now he's gone off without anyone knowing where he went. I'm worried, Shan, that's it."
The blue-haired woman nodded. "Understandable. Then, if you are in such a hurry, why are you still standing here?" She ignited her thrusters and flew down the corridor to the shuttle. "Come on!"
Steve looked up at Hot Rod. "How can you stand that?" he asked in mock despair.
The Autobot shrugged. "I think half the time Shanygn gets asked the same....."
* * *
Optimus Prime looked through the observation nose window
of the shuttle, regarding the half finished Moon Base One, which floated
in a eclipse around Cybertron. Several months had gone into erecting the
base structure and now the workers were getting to the finer details. MB
1 would be a new defense perimeter installment, since the first two bases
had been destroyed by Unicron many years ago. Prime had decided that it
would a positive sign to construct a new Moon Base; Hot Rod had agreed
in one of their conferences and since the construction had begun, Prime
had been here on Cybertron.
It wasn't only the Moon Base that kept him here. There were many things requiring his presence and he was glad that Hot Rod handled Earth matters. Being in several places at once was a strain.
He turned and discovered Springer standing in the observation room's entrance. "Yes, Springer?"
"We're done with the refueling and ready to check out of orbit. You all done?"
Prime glanced through the window again where the impressive sight of Cybertron was rising behind the Moon Base. "Yes," he said. "I'm done with everything. Let's get back to Earth."
"Roger that, Prime!" Springer disappeared again and several minutes later the shuttle began to tremble under Prime's feet. The thrusters engaged and they moved slowly away from the base.
"Next stop, Earth!" he heard Springer call cheerily through the loudspeaker system and had to smile.
The shuttle turned 45° to the left and then gained speed. Soon, Cybertron was just a tiny speck among the other stars.
* * *
Midnight had decided not to appear in the middle of Autobot
City. First, he didn't want the others to shoot Wild Card immediately after
he stepped out of the Gate. Second, he wanted Jeff Winters present when
Wild Card and the Sentinels met.
Wild Card had not been too thrilled to reveal Jeff's location, but he yielded to Midnight's logic. If the others saw that what the former Seeker was telling them was true they'd reconsider their actions against him. So he and Midnight had exited the Gate somewhere over Canada and had flown to Jeff's current home, Vancouver Island. Wild Card led his friend to a small town called Tofino. The two robots where quite conspicuous, so they touched down outside the town, hiding in the forests. At this time of the year the walking trails were closed due to still lingering snow and ice, and tourist season had not yet begun. Midnight transformed and looked around. This place looked marvelous, he decided.
Wild Card looked around as well, then nodded toward the walking trail, which was sloping downward to their present position. Midnight saw a man walking carefully toward them. He was dressed in casual clothes and walking shoes. Midnight guessed that the man had to be in his late thirties or early forties, as far as he could judge a human's age. He had short, black hair and intense, grey eyes. The most prominent feature was the scar tissue in his face. Running along his jawline down his neck and disappearing beneath the cover of the jacket was a whitish scar. It also covered part of his left temple and eyebrow. Midnight wondered briefly what had happened to him.
"Hi, Jeff," Wild Card greeted his friend.
The man, Jeff Winters, scrutinized Midnight, then nodded slowly, his face an unreadable mask. "You must be Midnight," he said, his voice precise and sounding a bit clipped.
"And you must be Wild Card's Interface, Jeff Winters," Midnight answered. "Nice to get to know you."
"That's to be decided," Winters answered. "If we don't get blasted right out of the air when we meet your friends....."
"Nobody will shoot on you," Midnight told him.
The Sentinel leader exchanged a look with Wild Card. Jeff was quite pessimistic about all of this, but then he had every reason to. He knew all about Sentinel/Seeker history Wild Card knew and that wasn't very pleasant.
"Ready to go?" he asked.
Jeff nodded. "Let's go." And then he phased out of existence.
Midnight was used to Interfacing and he had seen all the others do it thousands of times, but this one was new. This time it involved someone he had only hoped would one day develop these skills. He smiled at Wild Card, who nodded, and then they transformed, taking off into the sky.
* * *
The Autobot ship had been away from Cybertron for ten
Earth standard hours when Springer noticed the small blips on the radar
screen, coming closer fast.
The Autobot leader, until now either busy checking some files or being lost in thought, snapped out of his work. "Yes, Springer?"
"We got company." The triple-changer pointed at the now much larger blips. There were two of them.
"Change course. Let's see if they follow."
Springer complied and changed their heading several degrees. The blips did the same. Springer looked at his commander and Prime frowned a bit. There was still no ID lock on. Prime wondered if these blips were Decepticons, but then the ship's computer would have identified them as such.
"Increase speed and get ready for evasive maneuvers," he ordered.
Springer nodded and his fingers flew over the controls. The ship shot forward and headed into the opposite direction of Earth.
"They are following," he reported. "They also increased speed and .... Prime, one of them has disappeared."
The Autobot leader stared at the screen, willing it to tell him who those two were.
Something slammed into the ship and all alarm klaxons went off. Again and again the ship rocked under the onslaughts and Springer had all hands full.
"We're under attack!" he yelled over the alarm. "Hull breach!"
The doors to the cockpit caved in under heavy fire and Prime whirled around, his own weapon in hand. The ones entering weren't Decepticons; they wore Seeker insignias. One of the two blasted Springer, who was still busy with the controls before Prime even had a chance to move. The other fired nearly simultaneously, his weapon spitting small projectiles instead of laser rays, catching the Autobot leader high in the chest. The projectile drilled itself deep into the chest cavity and then began its work, paralyzing the victim. Optimus Prime collapsed without ever firing a shot.
* * *
Dr. Jonathan McGregor looked at Roentgen pictures of Daniel
Witwicky's back injury.
"Not as bad as I thought," he said after some time. "Vertebrae damage, but the nerves are almost intact, able to interact with the artificial implants necessary for the exo-skeleton."
Arcee nodded. She had thought as much. She wasn't an expert on human anatomy, but she had heard enough from First Aid and Spike to suspect that Daniel could be helped with ease. Arcee knew that the Witwickys suspected that Daniel could be helped easily, but their son was making this hard. His emotional bond to Arcee was strong and the Autobot had to confess that she liked Daniel with the same intensity he loved her, but she didn't want him to regret this later. They were not the same, had different values, dreams and hopes, and though she had a fierce protective streak concerning the boy, she was still an alien robot. Their future could not be together as one entity.
"Of course I need to conduct some examinations," McGregor added. "For that I'd like you to spend some time at the clinic, Daniel."
"Okay," Daniel muttered.
"I'll inform your parents," Arcee said softly, her voice taking on a motherly tone. She then transformed and Daniel stood in front of McGregor, wearing the encounter suit.
McGregor gestured for the nurse to get the second encounter suit, so that Arcee got her head back and could return to Autobot City. Daniel had to switch, which was a delicate procedure, then Arcee transformed again, her head once again firmly reattached.
"I'll be back in a few hours, Daniel," she promised, smiling at him.
The boy only nodded, suddenly no longer sure he had made the right decision.
* * *
"Pretty lonely here," Shanygn commented and looked around.
"But I like it."
Steve nodded. "Reminds me a bit of Alean, though this planet's greener and has more wild life."
They had arrived on the uncharted planet several hours ago, spending the first hour scanning for anything that might be conclusive as to where Midnight had flown off to. Hot Rod had discovered a faint exhaustion trail from the thrusters of the Sentinel jet and they had followed it, taking the shuttle through the atmosphere. They had flown over dense jungle, finally arriving on the other side of the continent.
"Looks like he isn't here any longer," Hot Rod commented.
Steve nodded. "It's certain sure he isn't here. I can't feel him. Even if he closes me out of his mind, he can't close me off completely. Nope, he's gone again."
Shanygn sighed. "So, what now? Back to Earth?"
"If we can't find a trace of him here, that's the only thing we can do," Hot Rod muttered. "Damn, I wish we had found out about this sooner. Then we might have had a chance to find him."
Steve shrugged, walking back to the shuttle. "You can count on it that I'll read him a riot act when he comes back," he growled.
Shanygn exchanged an amused glance with Hot Rod. They both knew that each of them would react the same way if either of them pulled a stunt like that.
"Let's see if the shuttle's computer can find something in the exhaust trail," Hot Rod decided.
The shuttle left the lonely planet and went into a wide
orbit where Hot Rod put it on auto pilot while the three passengers poured
over what they had found.
"What's that?" Hot Rod asked when they went over the exhaust traces again.
Shanygn frowned at the readings. "It's not Midnight's trail alone," she realized with astonishment. "Oh, damn, there was someone else."
"He was meeting someone," Steve put it into words. His fingers flew over the keyboard and the shuttle's computer began to search for a fitting pattern. Finally there was a match.
"Seekers," Shanygn whispered.
They looked at each other, slightly shocked. No one wanted to hazard a guess to what had happened here. There were many scenarios, some of them too dark to consider, some of them too outrageous to be real. Before any of them could say something, the communications console beeped softly. Someone was calling them.
"What are the bets that it's Kup who wants us to get back to Earth immediately?" Hot Rod muttered and walked over, switching the vidcom on.
And, true to his guess, it was Kup. But instead of a scowl, that usually accompanied his reprimands, there was a dark expression on his face.
"What are your coordinates?" he asked without preamble.
Hot Rod glanced at the auto-pilot's read-out and told his friend. Kup nodded.
"All right, you are the closest Autobot ship. Change course to heading three-three-zero-two. Full speed," the security officer said.
"What is going on, Kup?" Hot Rod demanded.
"We picked up a distress call from the ship coming from Cybertron. You're the closest to the point of origin."
"Optimus Prime was on that ship ...." Shanygn whispered.
Hot Rod was already moving, switching off the auto-pilot. He took the shuttle out of orbit and increased speed when they were a safe distance from the planet and its three tiny moons.
"Don't panic yet," he said, trying to cheer her up. "First we find out what went wrong ..... then we'll panic."
Hot Rod sighed. His imagination supplied him with many frightening ideas as to what might have happened to the Autobot leader, which did nothing to help.
* * *
Midnight came in low, flying below radar, followed by
Wild Card. When they were only ten minutes away from Autobot City he called
Skywolf on their private link and told him that he and someone else were
coming in. Skywolf sounded puzzled, but confirmed that he would meet them
outside the City. Midnight had decided that Skywolf would be the best first
contact. Then he'd introduce Wild Card to the others.
Transforming, he touched down, Wild Card not too far behind him. He looked around and then discovered his old friend. Skywolf, a medic and engineer and also the oldest Sentinel still alive, nodded at his leader, then looked at Wild Card. Midnight knew that Skywolf recognized Wild Card; they had fought against each other many times, though never directly. They belonged, or had belonged if all went well, to different sides, each with different ideals.
"Nice to know you're back," he said to Midnight, then gestured at Wild Card. "Care to explain?"
The black Sentinel glanced at Wild Card, then nodded for him to go on and show what had happened. Jeff Winters materialized and Skywolf did a step back.
"What?! What is going on, Mid?" he demanded.
"Wild Card has Interfaced, old friend."
"Great Cybertron!" the medic whispered. "How?"
Wild Card shrugged. "How do you do it? I don't know. It happened. I didn't want it and I didn't force Jeff, believe me. If I had had a choice I'd have said no, but it all overwhelmed us...."
"Usually you don't get a choice," Skywolf remarked dryly. "What now?"
"I want you to take a look at them both, determine their Interface percentage, check if everything's okay. Then we'll talk to the others. Braintrust will be after them in no time when he finds out about it. Maybe he already has."
Skywolf nodded. He gestured at the two newly Interfaced partners. "Follow me and try to keep a low profile." He noted with approval that the Seeker symbol had been removed from the other's body. "Oh, by the way," he turned back to his friend, "Steve, Shanygn and Hot Rod have gone off to search for yours truly."
"You know how Interfaces get when their partners get secretive...." Skywolf smiled. "You should have taken that into account before pulling this disappearing act."
Midnight cursed lowly.
* * *
The shuttle approached the Autobot ship carefully, ready
to make a quick dart to safety in case this was a trap and someone wanted
to shoot at them. But nothing happened and Shanygn found no trace of anything
moving on the much larger ship. Hot Rod took the shuttle on a course around
the ship and Steve cursed as he saw the large hole in the starboard flank
of the hull.
"I'll dock at the second airlock," Hot Rod said grimly and eased the shuttle over to the airlock.
Minutes later the two humans were clad in space suits, or an exo-suit in Shanygn's case, and ready to board. Hot Rod had ceaselessly called the ship, but had never gotten any return answer. He was deeply worried, very deeply. Either no one was on board or .... or .... he squelched that thought.
The airlock opened and the three walked cautiously inside. The jagged hole was clearly visible, as were the destroyed doors leading to the cockpit. Hot Rod's face held a dark expression, expecting the worst. He didn't know if he expected to feel Optimus Prime's death. The Matrix was unknown to them in many fields and the only time he had experienced something, or nothing for that fact, was when Prime had returned for the first time; a zombie-like creature, revived by their enemies, the Quintessons, to lead the Autobots to their doom. Then he had told the others that he'd feel it if Prime was really alive, but he had still hoped that this was really their resurrected leader.
"Springer!" he exclaimed as he discovered the body of the triple-changer lying motionlessly over the controls, a large hole in his back.
Shanygn cursed whole-heartedly and followed her partner. Hot Rod eased his wounded friend onto the floor, checking for life signs. When he touched him, Springer's optics sparked with a tiny flame of life. A gurgling sound emitted from his vocal unit.
"Springer? Springer, it's me, Hot Rod; your friend. Can you hear me?"
Another warbled sound, but this time it held a bit of a question. The blue optics flickered more and finally Springer gasped, "Optimus?"
Hot Rod shook his head. "He isn't here. What happened? Who did this? Decepticons? Did Optimus escape?"
"Not ... Decepticons," Springer rasped, clearly laboring to talk. "Seekers."
Steve paled dramatically under his helmet. "Oh, no......."
"What happened to Optimus?" Hot Rod insisted.
"Don't ... know." With that Springer lost consciousness again.
"We have to get him back to Earth," Shanygn decided. "I'll go and radio Kup and the others that we're coming in with an emergency case." She disappeared through the airlock again.
Hot Rod and Steve set to work to get Springer stabilized for transport.
* * *
"Okay, you're as healthy as they come," Kyle Scott said
and smiled at his patient. "Get dressed and we'll have a peek at what Skywolf
has done to your friend."
Jeff frowned. "Done?" he asked.
"Oh, chill, Colonel," Jill McKennan laughed. She had joined Kyle while he had examined their guest. "He won't hurt him if Wild Card doesn't hurt him first." She looked curiously at him. "You're a native of Earth, right?"
He nodded. "You aren't?"
"With this hair and only four fingers on each hand?" the woman laughed. "No, I'm not, though my name sounds like it's Earth. My real name is quite unpronounceable for your tongues and Steve once told me that my last name, at least part of it, sounds like McKennan. That's how it got stuck with me." She raised an eyebrow. "Your turn. All I know is that you're with the Navy."
"Was," he corrected. "I was a pilot with the Navy, serving on an aircraft carrier."
"What made you quit?" Kyle asked while packing his medical equipment.
"Beside getting Interfaced?" Winters smiled a bit; a rare sight, as Jill mused silently, but a nice one. "Well, I had a nasty accident several years back," he gestured at the scars in his face, "and that remained. I couldn't fly anymore and so they stuck me into administration and teaching. Then I met Wild Card. You know the rest." Winters jumped off the table and dressed. "How long have you been Interfaced?" he asked as he put on his shoes.
Jill frowned in thought. "A long time. I lost count of the years. After such a long time you don't think back at the time it wasn't there, the Interface I mean."
The Colonel nodded. "Could I ask you something?"
"This Interfacing ... what does it mean? I mean, what ...." He shrugged helplessly.
Jill leaned comfortably against the desk. "Well, first of all it means you will never be alone. You have this .... feeling that there's someone there for you, even if he or she isn't from your race. Your Interface partner sometimes understands you better than anyone else. Well, sometimes he or she doesn't."
Winters raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Okay, the lengthy explanation. Sentinels aren't human or humanoid, they are robots. They are individuals, they are highly intelligent, they are sentient. But they also have different values, which might run opposite to what your values are. They might not understand certain moods, emotions or moves of you, just like you won't understand them most of the time, at least in the beginning. Take my Interface with Skywolf." Jill grinned. "He's a medic and engineer. He can fix robots, but it took him some time to understand that where my body is concerned different rules apply."
Jeff nodded. "I understand. It's a strange feeling, knowing there's someone else," he tapped his head. "It's not like I can read his thoughts, but it's a ... comfort to know Wild Card is there. Strange."
The white-haired woman shook her head. "Not so strange, especially when I consider how strongly you two Interfaced. Steve, when he and Midnight became partners, felt the same. I mean, I know that Skywolf is here, but only because of the close proximity. If we get separated it's ... well, not painful, but unpleasant. There's a lot us partly Interfaced partners can't do which Steve and Midnight can."
"You think we're Interfaced one hundred percent?" Jeff asked.
Jill gnawed at her lower lip. "Not really one hundred percent, but coming very close to it. You two are mighty close. I think we have to talk to the two of you and tell you what this really means. Normally I'd say let the both of you get to know each other and his abilities slowly, but this is a special case."
"What did Steve and Midnight do? How did they learn?"
Jill grimaced, exchanging a quick look with Kyle, who kept a neutral expression. "They learned through a crisis. Midnight was, technically, still a Seeker then and we confronted him as a such, believing he and Steve had been forced to Interface." She held up her hand as Winters wanted to say something. "You are Interfaced with a Seeker as well, I know, Colonel, but you don't have to confront a bunch of trigger-happy Sentinels who think you were abducted and forced into it."
"What happened when you heard about Midnight?"
Jill shook her head. "It's a dark chapter in our history. First we separated them, not the Interface, just physically. Then we tried to find out whether Midnight was telling the truth. Back on Alean we put both of them into an artificial world and confronted them with situations to test whether they had really been Interfaced voluntarily." She sighed.
"We nearly drove them insane," Kyle said levely. "Midnight managed to get free of the program, took Steve and fled. Thon Roque, our former leader, followed them and they talked. Thon Roque and his Interface Ray spent a long time with the two, and we began this whole meeting again."
Jill tried a smile. "Well, we don't want to put you two through such an ordeal. It wasn't right. It was a terrible thing to do, but at that time we didn't know that Seekers could really Interface. But let's not talk about terrible things of the past. Come on, Colonel, we'll see how far Wolf and your partner are."
She and Winters left the small lab, small compared to other rooms in the City, and walked to where Skywolf was busy examining Wild Card. The former Seeker sat obediently on a larger version of the same table Jeff had sat, electrodes attached to several parts of his body. Skywolf was just removing them when they entered.
"Well?" Jill asked.
Skywolf looked up from his work. "Well, I think we should talk to Midnight. This is fascinating."
Wild Card grimaced. "I hate it when someone says that," he muttered. "Especially if that's all he says throughout examinations."
The medic gave him a mock stern look. "Don't you even start complaining or you'll find out what real examinations are."
"I'll call Mid," Jill volunteered and walked over to the intercom.
"That's not necessary," a deep voice said from the door way. "I'm here."
Midnight stepped into the lab, looking even darker than usual, his skin reflecting his mood. Skywolf picked it up immediately.
"What's wrong?" he asked levely.
"Optimus Prime's ship was found floating in mid space after setting off a distress call," Midnight reported flatly. "Springer's badly hurt and is brought back by Hot Rod and the others."
"What about Prime?" Jill asked, her voice tinged with dreaded knowledge.
"He's gone. No trace."
"Shit," Jill cursed softly.
"What else?" Skywolf wanted to know.
Midnight hesitated, looking at Wild Card and Jeff Winters. "Looks like the ones doing this were Seekers," he finally said.
Wild Card's optics only flashed briefly.
"I knew we couldn't trust him," a deep voice growled.
Wild Card flinched a bit as Dagger stepped away from the wall. As always, the Sentinel had managed to hide from everyone, though he had been in plain sight. He didn't have any camouflage circuits at all. Somehow you tended to forget he was there, pure and simple. Wild Card remembered that the grey colored Sentinel had attended his examination, keeping an eye on him, looking suspicious and full of distrust.
"It's not Wild Card's fault, Dagger," Midnight said calmly.
"How do you want to know this?" the other Sentinel demanded. "He could have set this all up! He's a Seeker!"
"Not any longer."
"Why do you protect him?" Dagger asked with hostility clear in his voice. "Because he's an old friend? Or because your idealistic thinking has warped your perception of things?!"
Skywolf tensed. Dagger was getting outright insubordinate and insulting.
"You know that's not true," Midnight stated quietly. "Neither my friendship with Wild Card, nor my believes have anything to do with it."
Dagger snorted. "Yeah, right." With that he turned and walked out of the room.
Skywolf sighed deeply, shaking his head. "You have to forgive him," he told Wild Card. "He's not exactly on friendly terms with the thought of Seekers Interfacing."
"Who is?" Wild Card muttered darkly.
Midnight shook his head. "This has nothing to do with you specifically. Dagger had befriended a humanoid called Three Morning Stars, but before they ever got as close as Interfacing he was killed by Braintrust. No one knows how far this affected Dagger because he hates it when we mention it, but we suspect it was very close."
"And now here I come," Wild Card sighed, his shoulders slumping a bit. .
"And Optimus Prime gets kidnapped by Seekers," Jill added. "Great timing."
Midnight only nodded. "Yeah."
* * *
Optimus Prime's senses went back on line very slowly.
First there was sound, a scraping, voices, hissing, more scraping. The
voices became more distinct, getting more individual the more time went
by. His mind couldn't identify the speakers, their voices unknown to him.
Then came visual, though the edges of his vision were still fuzzy and he
had great difficulties getting a sharp picture. Something large entered
his limited field of vision.
"Ahhhhh," voice hissed, sounding clearly very satisfied. "We are awake."
Prime's vocal unit gave a rough, scratchy sound. He was aghast at what he heard. What had happened to him to make his senses fail so completely and so long?
"Don't worry, Optimus Prime. You'll soon get back to your old self," the large shape said. "Well, at least as much as I will allow it. Phantom's Paralyzers do good work, don't they?" Another chuckle.
He couldn't move, couldn't even twitch a finger. He was completely paralyzed and it frightened him. Helpless. Optimus muzzy brain finally supplied him with a name to one of the voices, which was so familiar all of a sudden.
"Braintrust," he croaked.
"Ah, you recognize me," the Seeker leader said with amusement and satisfaction. "Good, good."
"What have you done to Springer?" Prime demanded, though his voice couldn't relay the threat he had wanted to put into it.
"I haven't done a thing, Autobot. My troops might have disposed immediately of him or they might have let him suffer a bit until he died. I really don't know and I don't care." The large head lowered into Prime's field of vision and yellow bug-eyes glowed evily. "All I'm interested in is you!"
"I have my reasons." A claw tapped at Prime's chest plate. "And one of those reason's is in here."
The Autobot leader felt an icy cold flood through his systems. He knew exactly what Braintrust meant. The Matrix, the Autobot Matrix of Leadership.
"What are you planning?" he asked.
The dragon sat back on his haunches, curling his tail around his front paws, the sharp sting flicking lazily back and forth. The three airvents at each side of his long neck opened and closed with hissing sounds. They were located just below the crown-like construction shading and protecting Braintrust's neck where it connected to his head.
"Oh, the sacrificial lamb wants to know why it dies? Or are you looking for a way to escape? If so, don't waste your energon on thinking, Optimus Prime. There is no way out. As to why I want what I want.... Interfacing."
Prime looked at him in puzzlement. "Interfacing?" he echoed.
"You see, Autobot, this little device in your chest cavity, the thing you use to show off to all the universe who's the leader of that pathetic bunch of slaves, is also a way to Interface a humanoid with a Cybertronian. Your young second-in-command showed that quite clearly. Take the Matrix, use it's powers to merge with a humanoid life form..... voila!" He snapped his talons. "Interfacing."
Optimus struggled against his bonds. "You are mad!" he whispered.
"A lot of people have told me that." The eyes flashed shortly. "They all died a long and ugly death."
The dragon lifted one needle sharp talon, slowly cutting down Prime's thigh. The Autobot clamped his mouth shut, not giving Braintrust the pleasure of showing his pain.
"Of course, I want to test this method before I try it," he continued, sounding calm and reasonable again, his mood swings as abrupt as always. He pulled back the talon. "That's why I prepared a test subject, another one, that is."
One of the Seekers, one Prime didn't know, walked up to Braintrust, carrying a cylinder shaped contraption. He set it down and opened it. Out fell a humanoid, a female, Optimus Prime recognized through his shock at seeing the prisoner; he had no doubt this wasn't a volunteer. The woman was barely conscious and wore civil clothes, but nothing that told the Autobot leader where she might come from. She wasn't from Earth, so much was immediately clear, because she had slate grey colored hair that had nothing to do with age, and her skin was patterned.
Braintrust lifted his head from his examination of the human and looked at Prime, who couldn't move an inch. An evil smile split his lips. Then he lifted his right claws, sharp talons glistening in the artificial light. Before Prime could even twitch a muscle cable the talons dug into his chest, tearing apart his metal chest plate. He screamed in pain as the thousands of circuits protested wildly, overloading. The Matrix was ripped violently out of his body, trailing a faint, blue light, which disappeared after a split second. But Optimus didn't fall unconscious. His pain-filled optics saw how Braintrust put the Matrix into a kind of energy field, maybe to protect it, and then pushed the limp form of the human over to his Autobot captive. The woman stirred slightly, moaning softly.
"I choose her from dozens of her kind because of her apparent abilities to Interface," Optimus heard the Seeker leader say. "You see, not all humanoids can do it, only some. They have to be carefully selected." The woman twitched a bit. "And they have to be forced. She didn't know of her abilities, but I did."
Braintrust nodded at his helper, who obediently walked over to the woman, lifted her from the floor and strapped her to a similar holding device, like the one imprisoning Optimus Prime this one just much smaller. Then he rolled it to a position where Prime could see her.
"Energy streams help in the process," Braintrust explained, "though if they are too strong they might destroy the living tissue of the Interface." He chuckled. "Now, the Matrix is energy as well, but very special energy, not so crude as the ones we use. The remaining traces of Matrix energy in your body will enable the humanoid to merge with you, helped by a bit more energy supplied by this machine."
And then the other Seeker activated the small machine. It hummed to life and Prime thought he could sense the energy streams all around him. The woman's eyes snapped open and she looked around, fright clear in her black eyes. She stared at Prime, taking in his mauled chest and the wound in his shoulder.
"No," she moaned.
"Yes!" Braintrust triumphed and then punched a button.
Optimus Prime screamed, a scream relaying a pain and a desperation that wasn't only his, but was shared with the woman. Emotions washed through him, closely followed by an intense sensation he had never felt before. Then he fell unconscious.
* * *
Hot Rod felt a short, violent pain in his chest. He gasped,
his hand clutching frantically at his chest plate, then everything was
gone, only a foggy feeling remaining in his mind. He shuddered and stared
at his trembling hands. What ....? What was that? What had just happened?
"Roddy?" Shanygn's worried voice cut through the fog still clouding his mind. "Roddy, what happened?"
"I ... I'm not sure," he whispered, glad the shuttle was still on auto pilot. "It was ... like the time after the Matrix was removed -- just worse. Painful. Really painful, not just imaginary pain." He shuddered again. "Optimus ..."
Shanygn paled. "You mean ... the Matrix was removed?"
The young Autobot nodded. "Not just removed ... torn out. It was like an echo of the real pain, and there was something else, very faint." He shook his head. "I don't know what it was."
"We're half an hour away from orbit!" Steve called and Hot Rod nodded, turning off the auto pilot. They could talk about this later. He leveled the shuttle into a flight position for atmosphere entry, then contacted Autobot City. Ultra Magnus told him everything was ready and First Aid and Perceptor were already at the landing platform to take care of Springer. Hot Rod confirmed and then eased the shuttle into the atmosphere.
The atmosphere in the conference room was tense and you
could have cut it with a knife. Ultra Magnus, Kup, Midnight, Skywolf, Arcee
and Hot Rod were present, as were three humanoids. Hot Rod would have liked
to have Ambassador Witwicky present, but he was with his son in McGregor's
clinic. Midnight, with whom he had not yet had time to talk, but which
he badly wanted to, seemed a bit preoccupied, but it was always hard to
read the Sentinel's mood.
"This situation is bad," Hot Rod concluded the summary of what had happened. "With Optimus Prime in the Seeker's hands we can only guess what they are up to." Looking around he added, "And judging from what I felt this one second I don't think it's anything pleasant."
"You think it was an echo of the Matrix?" Ultra Magnus asked.
"I really don't know, but it was a feeling I knew, just amplified a thousand times for a very brief time. I experienced it the day I gave back the Matrix to Prime, though at that time I choose to ignore it. It came back stronger later," Hot Rod said slowly, knowing he was confessing something here he wouldn't have said otherwise. "I'm not sure there's really a link between the two of us only because I carried the Matrix for a time, but I have no other explanation for it."
"And with Braintrust involved I hazard the guess that this is exactly what he'd do," Steve muttered.
"But what would he want with the Matrix?" Ultra Magnus insisted. "It's worthless to him."
"It's not ever worthless to anyone, Ultra Magnus," Hot Rod said gravely. "Remember when Scourge took it? It transformed him, gave him powers beyond his wildest dreams. Sure, it transformed him in an ugly way, but that's beside the point. Even if the wearer is not an Autobot, he can harness some powers .... before it drives him mad."
"We have to get him out of their clutches!" Kup growled.
"Of course we have, Kup, but we don't know where they took him," Hot Rod smiled humorlessly. "The very second I get a clue as to where Optimus is, a fleet of Autobots will fly there and get him out, but we don't have that clue." He turned to Midnight. "Or do we?"
All optics and eyes turned to the black Sentinel.
"I have no idea where the Seekers are hiding out," Midnight said.
"But?" Steve asked calmly, not sure whether his partner was purposefully hiding something or just what it was Midnight was up to.
"But I know someone who might," the black robot continued. "You all know I went away for some time and that I didn't tell anyone where I went, but that's not because I didn't trust anyone, it's because the one who wanted to meet me wasn't sure he'd get here alive if I didn't come alone." Midnight paced slightly up and down. "This decision was hard for me, because it not only involves his life, but also the life of a human." He looked at the others. "One of the Seekers has Interfaced," he then said calmly.
"What?" Ultra Magnus nearly yelled.
"Yes. His name is Wild Card, Braintrust's former second-in-command. He met a human named Jeffrey Winters and they Interfaced. There was no force involved, no threats, no outside help. It happened."
"No Seeker can Interface, that's what you told us," Arcee said.
Midnight's green visor glinted in slight amusement. "I was a Seeker, at least technically, and I Interfaced as well. It is possible, though for some reason it's easier for us than for them."
"The Interface is a normal one," Skywolf now entered the explanation, "no harm done on both sides. It also seems quite strong, only paralleled by what Steve and Midnight experienced."
"And he changed sides?" Kup asked. "I don't buy it."
"If he had stayed with the Seekers, Braintrust would kill him, take Jeff and force him into an Interface with himself -- which would end with Jeff's death," Midnight said flatly. "He had only one choice."
"Okay, suppose the guy really changed sides, why do you think he knows where they took Prime?" Magnus asked reasonably.
"There is no guarantee," Midnight agreed.
"But it's worth a try," Hot Rod concluded, taking all this in a stride. This was an emergency situation and he reacted automatically to it, leaving the questions, rants and accusations for later. "Where is he?"
"In Skywolf's lab."
Hot Rod nodded. "Midnight, you and I will talk to Wild Card. Everyone else will stay here; I don't want our guest to be frightened off by too many hostile faces." He turned on his heel and walked out of the conference room, followed by Midnight, giving none of the others a chance to voice his or her protest.
Kup cocked his head in surprise at the transformation Hot Rod had undergone in the few hours he had been back. Leadership had been transferred to him now that Optimus Prime was gone, and he was taking it better than the old warrior had expected, especially when he remembered the early days of Rodimus Prime.
* * *
"He is still alive, my leader, as is the humanoid, but
her body is close to death," Tornado reported and turned back from the
console to face Braintrust. "They Interfaced for several seconds, but it
didn't hold very long."
"Because he is an Autobot," Braintrust growled. "But it shows that the Matrix truly gives them the power to do it. Imagine how it could work if controlled by someone who knows how to use it!"
The dragon's eyes glinted with satisfaction. Of course he hadn't expected a lasting Interface between the two life forms; for that it needed the Matrix and someone who knew how to apply it. If he had had left Optimus Prime without the Matrix long enough, the Interface would have been longer because his body would have desired a replacement for the missing part. But that wasn't what Braintrust had wanted to test. He had wanted to know if his theory was correct. And it was. Matrix energy enabled Interfacing. If someone was exposed to the full power of the Matrix, he would be able to Interface completely!
Now he had to act fast or his plan would collapse around him. The Autobots would look for their leader and would leave no stone unturned to find him. Sooner or later they'd find him. And then there was the traitor, Wild Card, who might help them. Not that Wild Card knew where he was, but he knew of the planet's location and the lab. He'd make the right connections and lead them here.
The other reason why the Interface had not worked was because of the inferior human subject. The woman had shown Interface abilities, but the one he was aiming at was a strong Interface, someone who wouldn't need so much energy to Interface. Braintrust was certain that if Jeff Winters was brought in synch with him he'd bind immediately. He turned his head and gazed at the glowing, blue device called The Autobot Matrix of Leadership. So small, but so potent, he mused. Fascinating. He needed a few more facts and then nothing would stand in his way.
"Now let's make our call," he told Tornado.
The blue Seeker nodded and walked over to the communications console, activating the scrambler device, which would make it impossible for the Autobots to trace the call, then opened a line.
* * *
Wild Card looked uneasily at the Autobot's second-in-command.
They had met before. At that time Hot Rod had been badly damaged and Wild
Card had threatened Midnight with a blaster. He didn't know how long the
Autobot held a grudge and he didn't know what he had decided. Jeff Winters
was at his side, his back ramrod straight, his grey eyes cold. Like Wild
Card he was not sure how this would end, but he was ready to phase back
into his new partner if things got ugly.
Hot Rod nodded at the two visitors, trying not to let his dark mood show. Since leaving the conference room he was aching again, his chest contracting painfully now and then. Something had happened to Optimus Prime and he was showing sympathetic reactions, something he had thought his pseudo-Interface with Shanygn had erased.
"Midnight told me your story," he began without preamble. "I know this is a bad time for you and for us to meet. Personally I wish we had met under very different circumstances, then what I have to say now would be more pleasant."
He saw a flash of panic in Wild Card's visor optics and smiled slightly.
"No, we're not damning you from this place," he calmed the former Seeker. "This has nothing to do with you, well, yet anyway." He hesitated a second, then told the two what had happened.
Wild Card had known about the kidnapping because Midnight had mentioned as much. What he hadn't known was the serious state of Springer and the possible removal of the Matrix. He leaned against the wall, burying his head in his hands.
"This is all my fault," he groaned.
Midnight shook his head. "No, it isn't. You, of all, should know how obsessed Braintrust is with finding an Interface. He went crazy with rage when he heard that Steve and I Interfaced. Now you came along and Interfaced as well, showing that Seekers can do it, but it's still impossible for Braintrust to achieve. He tried everything, from volunteers to brute force, but it's a no go for him. I don't really know what he hopes to gain with the Matrix, but it's not your fault."
"Have ransom demands come in yet?" Winters asked in a clipped tone of voice.
Hot Rod thought he heard a military background there, but he wasn't sure. Midnight had mentioned that Jeff was a Lieutenant Colonel, though inactive. When this was over he intended to have a long talk with these two new partners.
"No," he answered.
"I'll go back," Wild Card stated flatly.
"No!" Midnight decided immediately.
"You can't make me stay!" the other robot snarled.
The Sentinel leader snorted. "Try me. You're now a Sentinel, if you want it or not, and as such you're under my command."
It was a queer logic, but Midnight hoped it would stop Wild Card from doing anything rash. The truth was, he couldn't stop the former Seeker from doing anything. Officially, he was just visiting and hadn't been made a Sentinel yet.
"I'm still going," Wild Card insisted. "He wants me."
"Oh, don't make yourself more important than you are," Winters muttered dryly. "He wants me just as badly. You to kill, me to Interface."
"That's a reason why you aren't coming along."
The two partners stared at each other in a battle of wills, which reminded Midnight a lot of Steve and himself. The argument was caught short by the beeping of Hot Rod's personal link.
"Yes?" he asked as he opened the line.
"You might want to come here," Ultra Magnus said, his voice grave. "We just got the demands."
Hot Rod's optics flashed and he confirmed that he was on his way, then he raced back to the conference room, Midnight and Wild Card hot on his trail.
* * *
Optimus Prime was floating in a region between light and
darkness. Everything around him was a murky grey, now and then interrupted
by a flash of wildly swirling colors. There was no pain, no sensation at
all, except for being watched. He turned to see who was here with him,
but he found he couldn't. He was unable to move, paralyzed. A tiny spark
of panic ignited deep inside of him, bringing memories of distant events.
He couldn't grab those memories and they brushed past without ever giving
him a chance to keep them.
He drifted further, or did the world drift past him? He couldn't tell. After some time he saw that he was closing in on a black hole, something incredibly dark and sinister. Now and then bluish lighting flashed in the hole. He concentrated on the blackness, trying to distinguish shapes whenever a blue flash appeared. There was nothing in there, he decided after some time.
The blackness rose around him and the flashes whisked past him, never touching him, never coming close enough for him to feel anything. He puzzled over the reason as to why this black hole was here and what it meant. And then he saw it, a tiny spark of white light in the middle of the blackness. It pulsed weakly, struggling to live. Without conscious thought he reached out for the spark and to his amazement he changed course to intercept it. The spark flickered badly, and Prime thought he knew that it was dying.
He touched it.
Sensation and awareness came back to him so fast that it was a real shock. His nerves flared with pain, agonizing white-hot pain that seemed to go on and on. Finally, when he thought he couldn't last much longer, it receded into a distant drumming sensation. His optics cleared and he found himself still inside the lab he had seen last before falling unconscious. Braintrust was gone and now there was only the blue Seeker he had seen before, standing beside the table the female had been strapped onto. He was removing several electrodes from her body.
Optimus Prime struggled weakly against his bonds. They were still as strong as before. The Seeker, as if he had felt Prime's returning awareness, turned to glance at him, then continued his work. Looking at the limp body of the female Optimus felt sick. Judging from the laxness of her muscles and whiteness of her skin she was dead. Braintrust had killed her through his mad experiment with the Matrix. Rage build up inside the Autobot leader. Braintrust surpassed even the Decepticons with his careless waste of intelligent life!
The Seeker lifted the body of the human and carried her over to the cylinder she had been brought in such a long time ago -- or had it been a short time ago? Prime couldn't say. He had lost track of such unimportant things as time. The nothingness of the unconscious world threatened again and he had nothing to put up against it. His optics died down and he found himself in the murky grey world again. The black hole was still there, still flashing blue now and then, but the white spark was gone.
* * *
"I have your leader Optimus Prime," Braintrust said, his
facing filling the screen. "We've played this hostage game before, Autobots,
and you know I'm serious when I say I'll kill him without hesitation if
you don't give me what I want. And what I want is the treacherous Seeker
in your midst and his Interface, as well as the Autobot known as Hot Rod.
If the three of them don't show up within twelve standard hours, your leader
is scrap metal." A row of coordinates appeared on the screen, then it went
Hot Rod looked at the others, especially at Wild Card, whose skin seemed to have lost part of its rich, golden hue. His green visor optics sparked with nervous energy.
Now it's time to panic, he thought, reminded of what he had said to Shanygn earlier. But a panicking leader isn't exactly what they now need. And I am leader while Optimus Prime is gone, if I like it or not.
"We have no other choice," he told the Autobots. "Braintrust knows we will do everything to free Optimus Prime, so he will be ready."
"Don't tell me you want to walk into that trap, Roddy!" Shanygn exclaimed.
"I have no other choice."
"Of course you have," Kup growled. "We'll find the son of a N'thonian hellcat and blast him out of this universe!"
Hot Rod smiled dimly. "We won't be able to find him in the set time frame, Kup. Even if Wild Card told us all the places the Seekers have hide-outs it would take too long. Our best chance is to operate from inside."
"The moment we get there," Wild Card spoke up, "he'll paralyze us. Braintrust won't take a chance, like he did last time with Midnight. He learned from his mistakes and will restrain us from the very moment we arrive at the meeting point."
There was a strange smile on Hot Rod's face and he looked at Shanygn. "We have one ace left," he said slowly.
Shanygn went decidedly pale. "You can't be serious!" she whispered. "We haven't even tested this more than twice or so!"
"What are you two talking about?" Ultra Magnus wanted to know.
"Shanygn and I have found that she can home in on me, not just mentally, but physically as well," Hot Rod explained. "You all know that under stress she can get in contact with me and send messages by something I'll call telepathy now to make it easier. We don't have a word for it, we just know it works. The only drawback is that we can't seem to get in contact when we're both under no stress at all."
The others nodded. They knew that already.
"Now we discovered that Shanygn, if she concentrates solely on this task, can pinpoint my position and ... well, jump to where I am."
"She's opening a Gate," Midnight added. "It's the same I do when going from one spot to another. The difference is, I have the equipment inside of me, Shanygn uses her link with Hot Rod, draws on his power reserves and then thinks herself to where she wants to be. She can't go everywhere, just to the place where he is."
The assembled Autobots could only stare at them.
"Why didn't you ever tell us that?" Kup then demanded.
"Because we have only tried it a few times," Hot Rod answered calmly. "Both times on Earth. It's the same as with the mindlink: it works best under stress."
"And the moment you are in Braintrust's clutches you are under stress," Wild Card muttered.
"Exactly. If Shanygn can get inside his headquarters and position a homing signal, we'll find you and have a chance to free Optimus Prime." Hot Rod looked at each of them. "It's the only chance I see. If you follow us, there's not even a snowball's chance in hell any of us gets out of this alive."
Ultra Magnus nodded, seeing the logic, but not liking it. "It's dangerous," he pointed out.
"The whole thing is dangerous, not only the theory of Shanygn getting where she's supposed to get," Midnight said.
"And it's utter madness," the woman agreed, "but I can't see any other way myself. It's worth a try."
Hot Rod turned to Wild Card and Jeff. "You both know what you're getting yourself into?"
Wild Card nodded, as did the human. "I always knew that it would end like this, but there's a sliver of hope that it works." He looked at Jeff, mixed emotions flashing over his face. "I wish we had never met," he said softly.
The Colonel shrugged. "It happened," he said and smiled briefly, but without humor. "Now we have to cope with it."
Steve looked at his watch. "We have eight hours left to make plans and for the three of you to get to the meeting point." He turned to look up at Hot Rod. "And you need to get yourself charged up to the hilt. If Shanygn gets a lock-on, she'll draw immense power out of you to cope with the distance. If it's too much you'll either fall unconscious or end up being too weak to help her."
The young Autobot nodded. "I know. I also need to do a lot of other things ..."
"Which we will take care of, lad," Kup interrupted. "We can't afford to lose another leader."
Hot Rod looked silently at him, then nodded. He knew Kup was only telling him what he knew as well, though he hated to sit back and recharge while the others did his work. But he had no other choice.
"Then let's get going and prepare everything as best as we can," Ultra Magnus decided, an ill feeling of foreboding spreading inside of him. He couldn't help it, he didn't like the situation one bit. The Autobots and Sentinels were in a much weaker position than he wanted to confess and the only chance was an unstable link between a humanoid and Hot Rod. He couldn't help himself, he was very pessimistic this would work.
* * *
"An Autobot ship has just entered the Guj System," Twister
"Very good," Braintrust hissed. "Prepare to greet them." He turned to Tidal. "I want Wild Card out of commission."
The Seeker nodded, raising his gun, filled with his own special brand of ammunition. "He won't know what hit him," he said.
Braintrust watched as his troops prepared to leave. Soon he'd have what he had always wanted: an Interface! And he wouldn't make the same mistake twice by letting the one he wanted come into his lair conscious and ready to spread havoc. The Autobot he could restrain, but Wild Card, in his Interfaced state, was the more dangerous of the two. Braintrust knew what an Interface meant, like better reflexes, split second decision and action, and superior maneuverability. Wild Card had always been a good air fighter, now, with the humanoid inside of him, he was even better. His troops had their orders. The traitor wouldn't get here in any form to make trouble.
* * *
The meeting point was an asteroid field, too dense to
fly through any faster than a walking pace, and too heavily clustered with
sensor blocking materials to see what was hiding behind this or that piece
of rock. Hot Rod eased the shuttle toward a large chunk of rock, their
destination, careful not to hit too many tiny asteroids in the process.
Their shuttle was already dented and he didn't want to risk a hull rupture.
Finally they were safely on the asteroid. Now the even more dangerous part
was beginning. He turned to look at Wild Card, who stood motionlessly beside
him, staring through the view screen.
"You ready?" he asked .
Wild Card smiled shakily. "No, but let's go." He turned and walked to the airlock.
Hot Rod secured the shuttle controls, wishing he could get in contact with anyone to let them know where they were, but it was useless. Braintrust had chosen well with this asteroid field. No signal could get in or out. He didn't want to try and contact Shanygn. She was better at this anyway, but it would also cost him and her precious energy.
Her rose from the pilot chair and followed the former Seeker. Jeff Winters had phased into his partner for this part of the mission, which Hot Rod didn't dare to call a rescue mission just yet, and so there were only the two of them stepping outside onto the hard, rocky surface.
They were alone, as far as Hot Rod could judge the situation. Then he saw the three figures emerging from the shadow of a towering formation of rock looking like a spearhead. He recognized one of them as Tidal, the Seeker who had shot him in the underground system of Cybertron. The other two he didn't know. One was similar in built to Voodoo, the Sentinel with the strangely patterned skin. There were cloud-like patterns on this Seeker's brownish green skin as well, moving lazily as if they were alive. But unlike Voodoo this one had two distinguishable optic sensors and a human shaped face. The second, unknown Seeker was colored in all shades of grey, showing no exceptional signs for identification. All Seekers were armed.
"We are not armed," Hot Rod said as the three pointed their weapons at them.
"Where's the human?" the strangely colored Seeker asked.
"He's with me, Twister," Wild Card said calmly.
Twister looked him over. "Show us."
Wild Card looked uneasily over to Hot Rod, then Jeff phased into bodily existence, wearing a space suit. The grey Seeker nodded, apparently satisfied and his trigger finger moved. Something slammed into Wild Card's chest and he gave a gasp of pain and surprise. Jeff doubled over, not yet able to tune out suddenly flaring emotions or sensations relayed by his partner.
Hot Rod felt his temper rise and his blue optics burned. "What was that for?" he hissed. "We are not armed!"
Twister smiled cruelly. "Of course you aren't. Just being careful."
And then the third Seeker fired his weapon. Hot Rod felt the tiny projectile drill into his chest and paralyzing numbness fell over him like a heavy blanket. The last thing he saw was Wild Card's severe injury and the unconscious human lying not far away, then everything went black.
* * *
"We lost 'em," Blaster reported as he watched the shuttle
fly into the asteroid field. "Too many interferences."
Kup scowled and stared at the radar screen, willing it to show them where their friends were. Nothing happened.
"Now all we can do is wait," Voodoo said, crossing his arms in front of his chest.
"Ready?" Midnight asked Shanygn.
The blue-haired woman sat silently in a chair, concentration written over her face. "Yes," she answered in a distracted voice. She didn't dare to contact Hot Rod directly because this would use up too much energy. The Gating would be a drain enough later. Right now she was busy finding the spark that was Hot Rod and then home in on him. Finally she got him. He was moving away. "Got him," she said tonelessly, her eyes closed. "He's moving."
Midnight nodded. Now all they could do was wait until Shanygn told them that Hot Rod had stopped moving, that he had arrived in the Seekers' hide-out.
* * *
The third time Optimus Prime came around was to the sound
of voices and some cluttering, as if heavy bodies were falling onto the
floor. It was a tremendous effort to lift his head and his optics were
still cloudy. They cleared a bit, but the fuzzy edge remained. What he
saw made him wish that he couldn't see it at all. On the floor in front
of him lay two robots, both unconscious as it seemed. One, a golden-brown
colored one which he didn't know, was badly wounded, his chest torn, liquids
dripping lazily out of it. The other robot he did know and he groaned softly.
Hot Rod. The younger Autobot showed a shot wound in the chest where one
of Tornado's Paralyzers had entered.
"Welcome back, Optimus Prime," Braintrust hissed, his voice laced with excitement.
"What ... did ...you do ... to them!" Optimus Prime rasped.
"Oh, your young second-in-command is only paralyzed. This traitor," he kicked the golden-brown robot, "is still alive, but when I have Interfaced he will die." He nodded at his helpers, Phantom and Tornado. "Strap the Autobot up. I want to examine him."
Hot Rod was hauled to his feet and bound to a similar contraption like the one holding Prime.
"Put him in a cell," Braintrust added, kicking the unconscious robot again. "I won't need him now. And take care of his Interface."
Phantom nodded and grabbed the golden-brown robot, dragging him out of the room. Optimus Prime turned his head a bit more, still surprised that he could move again. The Paralyzer bullet must have worn off, but this didn't give him any advantages. He was too weak to do anything. Moving his head was straining enough. Hot Rod was still unconscious, but the flickering optics told the older Autobot that he was coming around. Tornado was connecting him to several machines, then began his work. Braintrust hummed with satisfaction as he studied the first readings.
"Good," he muttered. "Perfect. Tornado, scan him a bit longer and then give me the final results. I'll talk to my future Interface." With that he walked off, his body moving faster than Prime had thought possible for such a massive construction.
Tornado remained, preparing the scans, then he, too, left, leaving the two Autobots alone.
Jeff woke in a cold and dark cell. It was a dry, but still
uncomfortable. Except for a derelict construction that might have once
been a bed and something looking like a chair, there was nothing here.
He got himself into a sitting position and leaned back against his prison's
metal wall. Metal, hmmm.... He looked around. Energy bars locked the only
side of the cell that was open, shedding a murky yellow light. He could
see a similar cell opposite his own, this one having no activated energy
bars. There was a control panel beside the cell, its display dark.
Winters rubbed his head, which was aching badly, even worse than after the night of his graduation party. He remembered the sudden pain in his head when Wild Card had been hit by the shot, then there had been nothing at all. Even now he felt the pain his partner was in, though only as a shadow of the real thing, but he was unable to get in touch with his Interface. It was as if something blocked him out. Phasing back into him would be a real problem now. Besides, he didn't know how badly Wild Card was damaged and how this phasing would affect him. Jeff also didn't know if this block came from outside or from Wild Card himself. They weren't Interfaced that long that he could tell such differences.
Somewhere loud steps could be heard and several minutes later a gigantic, dragon-like creature stood in front of the cell, staring down on him with evily glistening, yellow eyes. Winters shuddered under the examination from the dragon, which he recognized as Braintrust, the Seeker leader.
"Hello, Jeff Winters," Braintrust hissed. "Welcome to my lair."
Jeff got his feet, his face devoid of any emotions. He was good at not showing what he felt. His service in the Navy had taught him how to handle such situations, though they hadn't prepared him for a confrontation with a gigantic, metal dragon.
"Where am I?" he demanded.
"This place is called Mernan. It was formerly a top security prison." Braintrust grinned. "It's been abandoned for decades and I found it served my plans well. So don't even think about breaking out; everything still works."
"What do you want from me?" he asked calmly.
Braintrust smiled, revealing sharp teeth. "I don't want anything from you. I want you!"
Jeff had feared something like this and it only told him all their suspicions were true. "Where is Wild Card?"
The dragon lowered his head. "Wild Card is no longer of any interest to you. Don't be afraid, he's not dead. If he were, you'd surely feel it." A sneer appeared on his face. "But soon you don't have to worry about this treacherous excuse for a Seeker anymore."
"I won't Interface with you," Winters stated flatly.
"You won't have a choice, human," Braintrust told him, then chuckled. "No one is asking you." Then he turned and left Jeff alone.
The dark-haired human sank back to the floor, closing his eyes against the pain in his head, wishing he had more experience with this Interface stuff. If their plan didn't work, they had a problem.
* * *
There was a fuzzy memory of how he had gotten here, Hot
Rod knew as he tried to convince his optic sensors to focus. He remembered
a gun flashing, then ... nothing. Slowly his mind supplied him with the
missing facts, reminding him of his plan and that Shanygn might be here
any minute. With an effort he lifted his head and looked around, his optics
clearing more and more. He was strapped to a vertical table or something
like it, inside a lab. Cables ending in electrodes were attached to his
head and chest. No one was here. As he turned to his head he discovered
a familiar figure.
"Optimus!" he whispered, his voice rough.
Optimus Prime was a gruesome sight. His chest had been mauled open and disconnected cables and circuitry could be seen, partly hanging out of the chest. Several liquids had spilled, including fuel, covering his body and staining the floor. A long cut went from his hip to his left knee, exposing muscle cables and more circuits. He was, like Hot Rod, strapped in a spread eagle position to a standing table.
At the sound of Hot Rod's voice he lifted his head, his optics glowing weakly. "Hot ...Rod," he rasped.
Hot Rod flinched at the weak and scratchy sound of his leader's voice. An irrational anger rose inside of him. For a brief second he wanted nothing more than to kill Braintrust with his bare hands, then the logical, rational side stepped in, reminding him that he wouldn't stand a chance and that he had to concentrate on their plan.
"Prime, what happened?" he asked.
"Matrix .. removed. Braintrust ...forced Interface ... with me." He coughed.
Hot Rod moaned as he realized what this meant. "No ..... what happened to the humanoid?"
"She .... died." Prime's eyes flickered again.
Hot Rod knew there was a lot left unsaid and one would be that Prime had felt the death of the woman. Even if Braintrust had forced the Interface, for a brief time the two beings had touched each other. The separation would also have been felt, especially by Optimus Prime.
"Why did you ... come?" the Autobot leader asked.
"I had to."
"That's .... no ... answer, Hot Rod." Prime's voice faltered now and then. It wasn't a good sign.
"Braintrust would have killed you, Optimus. We couldn't take the chance."
"Will kill ... all .....now," Prime muttered.
Hot Rod gave him an encouraging smile. But before he could say anything he felt a distant tug. He had felt this sensation before, but never like this. From one second to another he was overwhelmed with the drain of power that started without a warning. His awareness faded quickly and he fought against the blackness threatening to swallow him. He would be no use to Shanygn if he blacked out now. And then everything was over. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs out of his circuits and looked around. No one was here, except for him and Prime. Where was Shanygn?
* * *
The moment she began the Gating process she knew something
was wrong. Shanygn was drawing power from Hot Rod, homing in on his presence,
but somehow she didn't get where she was supposed to be. First she closed
in on him, then her course veered off, without her being able to do anything.
She cut the power drain and felt the Gate open immediately.
With a splash Shanygn landed on her hands and knees, drawing deep breaths of oxygen from her exo-suit. "Hell of a trip," she whispered, then took in her surroundings. "Oh, damn, where am I?"
Everything around her was a murky dark. She activated her night vision and her environment was presented in a greenish light. She was in a tunnel, a tunnel filled knee deep with water. To her it looked like a sewer. Mud and assorted slimy plant life, or whatever it was, clung to the wet surface of the tunnel, which looked quite old and had surely not been used for decades.
"A kingdom for a map," she muttered and walked slowly and cautiously toward what looked like an array of sewer pipes, high enough to crawl through with her exo-suit, but not high enough to walk. Shanygn peered into the pipes and was greeted by more greenish lit nothingness.
"Great plan, really," she continued to talk to herself. "I have no idea where I am. Okay, let's do this by the book. First, I need an independent power source for the homing device, then I'll find my partner. I have to go up, that's for sure. " Slowly she walked down the tunnel she had landed in, eyes pinned on the read-out screen of her small computer.
* * *
She walked through a strange place. It was dark here,
but not too dark to see. The darkness was there, but not really there after
all. Now and then blue lightning flashed in the distance and somehow she
felt drawn to it. As she walked toward the distant storm she passed a smooth,
reflecting surface and stopped, looking into the mirror. A pale, white
face looked back. She was surprised, but not startled. She still looked
like herself, just colorless, except for her hair, which was the normal
slate grey. And her eyes were black. Everything else was colored in all
shades of light grey and white.
Who was she? She tried to remember her name, but it wouldn't come. She knew she existed, but she had no name at all..... With a puzzled frown she resumed her walk.
* * *
Ultra Magnus couldn't help himself; he had to pace. Crossing
the ship's command center from left to right he wondered how long it would
take Shanygn to send a signal as to where Hot Rod had been taken to. The
next question forcing itself onto his mind was: had it really worked? Was
Shanygn where she was supposed to be? They couldn't possibly find out where
she had landed and he only hoped that she hadn't catapulted herself off
into the sun.
"Will you please stop that?" Knight asked and sighed.
He stopped and looked at her. Knight's face was an unreadable mask, mainly because her eyes and nose were hidden under a helmet-like construction.
"You'll run a ditch into the bottom plate and we'll have to pressurize the ship," she added with a smile.
"How do we know it worked?" Magnus asked.
"We don't," Midnight answered with an eerie calm. "Either we get a signal in the next hours or we don't. If we don't, then we can worry. Or are you worrying about whether we have enough manpower to handle the Seekers later?"
Midnight knew that this wasn't the case. They had the Dinobots and Aerialbots with them, which meant one combiner team. And there were Kup, Jazz, Blaster and his cassettes, Midnight, Voodoo and Knight. The Sentinel leader was positive that those were enough to complete the mission.
"No," Ultra Magnus sighed. "I just hate to sit and wait like this. We have no idea where they are!"
Midnight nodded. He also understood the worries about Optimus Prime and Hot Rod. Not only was now the Autobot leader with the Matrix in the Seekers' hands, but also the second-in-command. It wasn't a very encouraging situation.
* * *
Wild Card was conscious, but what he felt was something he might have wanted to miss. His chest hurt, his limbs were paralyzed and his mind was working with only half the normal speed. He knew he was in a bad state, even without consulting his internal damage report, but he also knew that he was in no immediate danger of dying. Braintrust would see to it that his former second would die very slowly for what he thought was treachery. Wild Card tried to find Jeff, but he had no luck. The Interface was still too new and both were too inexperienced to tell if the other one was close or not. All he could affirm was that Jeff was alive. It was a comfort, though a small one. He drifted off into the blackness again.
* * *
"Bingo!" Shanygn breathed as she arrived at something
looking like the rusty cover of a power point close to a tunnel leading
straight up. She began to unscrew the lid and then checked the circuits.
"Not bad. Not exactly a mega power source, but strong enough to supply
the back-up for the homing beacon."
The small device Perceptor had given her was able to run non stop for twenty minutes and would supply a strong signal, that went undetected on most known frequencies. After the initial twenty minutes it would shut down or tap into a back-up source if there was one. Shanygn had been positive to find one, especially since she had planned to land somewhere more dry and more modern, like a prison cell or something. Energy bars would have been perfect for this.
She looked at her watch. She had been here for over an hour and she knew that in the ship everyone would be mightily worried. The tunnels seemed to go on for miles and there was no way to an upper level. Now she had found both, a way up and a power source. Hurriedly she attached the beacon to the power point and then activated it. A green light indicated that it was working and she allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction. Now all she had to do was find Hot Rod and Optimus Prime, free Wild Card and Jeff and off they were.
"Dream on," she muttered as she climbed up a steel rung ladder to, hopefully, a way out of this sewer.
* * *
"We got a signal!" Blaster called and began immediately
with a search for the origin. "Gotcha!"
"Set a course and prepare for enemy attack," Ultra Magnus ordered.
She ship lurched forward, gaining speed.
* * *
Hot Rod was worried. Not only about Shanygn, who must
have left the Gate somewhere else, but also about Optimus Prime. The Autobot'
leader's condition was declining rapidly, which was mainly due to the gruesome
wound in his chest. Hot Rod knew that the removal of the Matrix wouldn't
kill him. A removal over a length of time would result in possible depressions
and emotional difficulties, but never death.
"Prime?" he asked softly.
"Still here," Optimus answered slowly after some time.
"How are you?"
"Felt ... better......"
Hot Rod smiled humorlessly. He could believe that. He only wished he had a way to tell the older Autobot that help was most likely on the way. But he didn't know if they were monitored or not. If they were, talking about Shanygn would get her killed.
"Just hold on," he said instead, wishing fervently he could do something, but the bonds were too tight and held him immobilized on the examination table.
The door to the lab opened and the Seeker Hot Rod knew as Tornado came in. He walked over to the consoles and studied the read-outs. Hot Rod felt an icy cold rise inside of him. If these machines had recorded the power drain ..... and if the Seekers made the right connections .... But how should they know? They had no way of knowing that Shanygn could Gate by using Hot Rod as a homing beacon, drawing on his energy reserves.
Tornado looked up, a slightly puzzled expression on his features. He must have noticed the power drop. Hot Rod kept his face a neutral mask, only his optics blazing angrily. The Seeker activated the intercom.
"Braintrust, this is Tornado. I have the results from the Autobot's examination."
"Good," came the answer in a long hiss.
A few minutes later Braintrust appeared in the lab and looked at the screen, studying the readings. "Very interesting. Especially the sudden power drop." He looked at Hot Rod. "You are a fascinating specimen, you know that? The removal of the Matrix left an open space and your circuits tried to close it, without success, because there's nothing that can compare to the Matrix."
Hot Rod stared at him, anger cooking inside of him, but he kept silent -- for now.
"And then you found that Interfacing lessened the emptiness, was a substitute." Braintrust chuckled. "You really don't know what kind of power this Matrix of yours possesses, right? You think it's just a grave yard for deceased leaders, a source for wisdom, a sign of who's boss. But it's much more. It can create, it can give life, it can rule!"
"You don't really believe that the Autobot Matrix will help you with your mad scheme, do you?" Hot Rod growled.
"Oh, yes, I do. You don't have any privileges of being the only ones to use its powers, Autobot," the Seeker leader said. "You were the first ones to use it, to pass it down the line of leaders, but it doesn't belong to you! Where do you think it came from?"
"It has always been passed from leader to leader!"
"Yes, of course it has. But somewhere someone must have found it." Braintrust lowered his head and sneered at Hot Rod. "Your first leader didn't construct it. He took it from the Quintessons. They had created it, they had planned it. It belonged to them. You Autobots turned it into a weapon against them and us in your stupid believes of almighty wisdom and knowledge."
Hot Rod tried to cope with that. He had never asked where the Matrix had come from, he had accepted that it had always existed.
"The Matrix has powers you would never even dream of," Braintrust continued. "But you tainted it, made it dangerous for us. Do you know that it can induce pain to Sentinels and Seekers alike?"
"You didn't seem to care when you ripped it out of Optimus!" Hot Rod hissed angrily, fighting back his rising temper.
"Oh, I have a certain resistance, compliment of my superior construction. And it only hurts when the Matrix is activated, but when I merge with it, it will adapt to me, change its structure to fit me." He chuckled.
"The Matrix will never do that!"
"Let's wait and see." Braintrust turned and walked over to where Tornado was busy working on some equipment. "How long for the Interfacing to take place?"
"It should be immediately, my leader," Tornado answered. "The human is a perfect specimen, nearly as perfect as Steven Parker, and he hasn't been exposed to Wild Card too long."
Braintrust nodded and opened a compartment in the wall. The drawer slid open and revealed the Matrix, covered by an energy field. Hot Rod strained against his bonds, but his struggle availed to nothing. The Seeker lifted it gently up and placed it onto a table, where it spread its warm, blue light.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Braintrust hissed. "And to think that a bunch of slaves carried it around all those millions of years."
"We are no longer slaves!" Hot Rod stated.
"No, but maybe soon you will be again."
A Seeker entered the lab and walked briskly over to his leader. "My leader, we picked up a signal coming from the catacombs."
"It's not a coded message, sir. We think it might be a homing device. Tidal and Hellfire are already down there, locating the source."
Braintrust growled, then turned to Hot Rod. "What do you know about this signal, Autobot?"
"What signal?" Hot Rod asked innocently, silently cheering for Shanygn. She must have made it here, though she had landed in some kind of catacombs. If this signal was truly the one leading the Autobots here, then everything was just a matter of time.
"Don't play with me!" Braintrust lifted one claw and put an outstretched talon against Hot Rod's chest plate. "Who is here? A spy? How did he get here?"
"I don't know what you're talking about! You said only Wild Card, Jeff and I should come and so we did! No one else came here with us!" Well, it was the truth. Shanygn had not come with them. She had arrived much later and not by any means of conventional transport.
The talon pushed hard against the metal and then penetrated it. Hot Rod stiffened with pain as the first circuits were cut. Braintrust's eyes glowed a deep yellow.
"Who - is - here?" he asked slowly.
"No one!" Hot Rod gasped. He'd rather die first before he told this mad creature that a rescue team was on the way.
"Does it have anything to do with your sudden energon loss?" Braintrust prodded, his voice sweet, but icy cold.
Hot Rod kept his mouth shut, shaking slightly as the dragon moved the talon deeper and sideways.
"My leader, Tidal and Hellfire found a homing beacon," Tornado reported. "They killed the signal. "
"How long was the beacon activated before we destroyed it?" Braintrust asked without ever taking his optics off his victim.
"Prepare the defense systems. We might have guests soon." He pushed the talon even deeper and Hot Rod groaned, shuddering under the tremors of pain running through his body. "Whoever follows that signal will be destroyed, Autobot, so don't spend your energy nurturing a hope of getting rescued," Braintrust hissed, then removed his talon.
Hot Rod sagged a bit, as far as his bonds let him.
"Leave Hellfire down in the catacombs," the Seeker leader ordered. "If we have a rat down there I want him to find and kill it!"
Tornado only nodded, leaving the room.
Optimus Prime was not really aware of where he was any
longer. His state of mind was that of a dream, a waking dream, but a dream
nevertheless. He felt detached from his surroundings, no longer aware who
he was exactly. He heard voices, coming and going, growing stronger and
then fading again. He thought he knew the owners of the voices, but nothing
came to him.
A picture drifted into sight, but he couldn't tell if it was reality or a figment of his imagination. He saw Hot Rod, strapped to a table, Braintrust standing in front of him. And Braintrust was torturing the younger Autobot, punching a deep hole into the chest with his talon.
Optimus watched the torture with no emotion at all. He could no longer feel anything, though deep inside of him something screamed to stop this, to help his friend. The voice didn't get through to his conscious mind. The picture faded out again, replaced by grey nothingness. Somehow he felt tired, devoid of the energy to continue existing.
"No," a voice whispered. "Hold on!"
* * *
Shanygn had finally found a way leading out of the sewers.
It had been a tight shaft going several feet straight up, ending in a grill.
She had used her scanners to take a look through the grill and when she
had seen no one in the room this grill led to, she had blasted it out of
its hinges, replacing it later, though if someone looked close enough he'd
say her traces.
Right now she stood in a partly lit corridor which was running along outside the room she had arrived in. She still didn't know where exactly she was, but at least she was out of the sewer! She had two possibilities to continue, one: run around this station or wherever she was, until she found her partner; or two: use her Gating abilities again. It shouldn't drain Hot Rod at all since they were so close. After flying down the corridor for some time without even seeing a trace of Seeker activity she decided to go for option number two. She set down and deactivated her thrusters, concentrating on finding Hot Rod's presence. Through the close proximity she should also be able to leave the Gate close to him, not like the last time, somewhere on the same planet.
A low rumble made her look up and she paled a bit under her helmet. In the corridor stood a grayish brown, robotic cat, snarling at her. Hellfire! Damnit, they had found her.
Hellfire advanced slowly, his claws clicking on the metal surface. There was a triumphant glint in his reddish eyes.
Shanygn remained where she was, still frantically searching for Hot Rod.
Hellfire crouched down.
She found her partner and began homing in on him.
The Seeker hissed and then jumped at her -- colliding with the wall of the corridor. His prey had vanished. Puzzled he turned around, his heightened senses searching for the intruder, but he found nothing.
* * *
"That's Mernan," Kup said and looked at the small planetoid,
which was surrounded by clusters of rocks, coming closer and closer, the
destination of their flight and the origin of the homing beacon which had
abruptly ceased some time ago. But it had sent its signal long enough for
them to find out where in this system it had come from.
"Looks abandoned," Voodoo remarked.
"It hasn't always been like this. Mernan was one of the toughest prisons in the whole galaxy. Ah could tell ya stories, lad, that would give ya nightmares without end," Kup said darkly. "The worst scum of the universe was imprisoned here. There was no way off this planetoid and even if ya managed to break out, the security system defending Mernan would kill ya. The weapons were always active and would shoot everything that was dumb enough to move without clearance through the system."
"Nice," Blaster commented. "So our guys are on this dump?"
Ultra Magnus nodded. "Looks like it. How are our chances that the loss of the signal was not Braintrust's doing?" he addressed Midnight.
"Below zero," the Sentinel answered. "And if he made the right connections, and I'm sure he did, then he's ready for us."
"Kup, what about this security system of Mernan? Is it still active?"
Kup frowned. "Well, when they left the planetoid they didn't scrap it."
"So he might have control over it. Do we have blueprints?"
"There are no blueprints of Mernan," Kup explained. "The only ones who knew the system were the guards and the warden, and, of course, the guys who had installed the defense system. Every physical material was destroyed. Ah know there are laser cannons in some of the rocks floating around, but they also had attack drones."
"Great," Magnus muttered.
"How about we draw the fire on us," Voodoo said, "and you fly the ship through?"
"We're faster and we're tougher," the Sentinel insisted. "In our Interfaced state we can act and react unlike anyone else."
Midnight turned to Ultra Magnus. "You know that this is true. And it is worth a try."
Ultra Magnus looked at him for a long time, then turned to the whole team. "Aerialbots, Dinobots, get ready to leave the ship on my command. We'll fly you in as close as possible and then drop you. Voodoo, Midnight, I accept your proposal. Blaster, how are our shields?"
"Up one hundred percent."
The team commander nodded. "Then let's go."
* * *
His repair programs had managed to dim out most of the
pain signals and get him at least partly operational again. Wild Card groaned
as he levered himself into a sitting position. He was low on energon and
his repair would consume too much for him to move comfortably, so he shut
them down. He just had to live with the pain. Looking around he saw that
he was in a cell, though there were no energy bars in front of it. They
had simply dumped him here, leaving him to rot until Braintrust decided
when to kill him. No one had not thought that he might get mobile again.
Mobile. Yeah, right. He was in no state to get more than a foot out of this cell. Leaning back against the wall he tried something else: find Jeff. He didn't know much about Interfacing, but Midnight had told him a few things, and since Braintrust had always researched Interfacing he had read a few things as well. Wild Card knew that he should be able to feel Jeff's presence, and the stronger he felt it, the nearer his partner was.
He was reminded of the time Midnight had suffered through the same he had, literally. Braintrust had nearly killed the black Sentinel in his rage when he had found out that Midnight had Interfaced.
The whisper made him look around and he discovered the exo-suit clad figure. "Shanygn?" His vocal unit seemed more or less intact, he heard.
"Damn, what did they do to you?" the woman asked, looking him up and down.
"Nothing too bad," he answered. "I'm still functional."
"But not much. Where are the others?"
He shook his head. "I have no idea. They shot me on sight and until a short time ago I wasn't very much awake."
Shanygn peered at the damage done to him. "Repair systems down?"
"I deactivated them. Would take too much energy."
Shanygn accepted the explanation. "Any idea where Jeff is?"
Wild Card sighed. "I'm not sure. I'm too new at this and I can't say where he might be. I know he's still alive, though. What are you doing here? I thought the plan was to plant a signal beacon and then find Hot Rod and Optimus Prime."
"That was the plan, yes," she confessed ruefully. "But the distance was a bit too great and I misjudged my exit point. I spent the last hour crawling through a sewer. I Gated a second time, hoping to get somewhere closer to Roddy. Any idea where they took him?"
"Not the slightest. This here seems to be the prison block."
Shanygn nodded. "I saw that. Listen, you sit still and wait this one out. I'll fly off and try to find my partner. Okay?"
Wild Card nodded slowly, though he had no intention to stay behind. Shanygn ignited her thrusters, extended her wings and then flew off down a corridor. Wild Card waited some time, then raised one arm, his hand searching for a hold. He found it and tried to pull himself up. It worked after the third attempt and Wild Card stood on shaky legs, his fuel pump trying to cope with the strain and the demand of more energy. He stumbled out of the cell and looked down the corridor, the way Shanygn had taken. Something, maybe instinct, told him not to go this way; the other way was where had to be.
* * *
Hot Rod had drifted off into a state of semi-consciousness,
giving his repair systems the chance to work on the damage Braintrust had
inflicted. Into this state between awareness and nothingness came a familiar
feeling. Someone was calling him.
[Shan?] he asked.
[Roddy!] She sounded relieved. [Are you alone?]
Hot Rod lifted his head and looked around. [Yes] he answered. [Braintrust went into the control room to watch the fight.]
[Looks like the cavalry arrived, but this place has a defense system]
[They are here!] she exulted. [Finally. Hang on, I'll be right with you]
[I won't move an inch] he replied sarcastically.
Minutes later he heard the whine of a thruster and turned his head. Shanygn flew into the lab, heading straight for him.
"Hi," he greeted her, managing a smile.
"Same to you." She landed in front of him. "What the hell happened to you and .... Oh, no...." She had discovered Optimus Prime. "What happened to him?"
"Braintrust happened," Hot Rod ground out. "And if I get my hands on him ...."
"You'll end up with no hands at all," Shanygn finished the sentence.
Optimus Prime didn't react to the voices and he had been unresponsive for some time now. Hot Rod feared the worst. He hadn't been able to rouse a single sound out of the older Autobot, and he had tried everything.
"Listen, Shanygn. You have to deactivate the defense system!" he told his Interface partner.
"What about you and Optimus?" she asked.
"Just get me free, I'll help Optimus. You just find a way to stop those defenses."
Shanygn nodded and deactivated the bonds holding Hot Rod. The young Autobot stumbled away from the examination table. He felt a bit wobbly, but all in all he was fine.
"Do they have a terminal here?" Shanygn asked.
"Tornado was working on a computer over there," Hot Rod pointed toward the consoles. "And I think he had access to other parts of this station as well."
The woman flew over and examined the consoles. "Hm, don't know all the equipment, but I know that this is a keyboard and that's a screen, so let's see what we can do." She began to work.
Hot Rod walked quickly over to Optimus Prime, who showed
no response to his approach. "Prime?" he asked softly.
Hot Rod pushed the button he guessed was the one deactivating the energy bonds and was just quick enough to catch Optimus Prime as he collapsed forward. The much larger robot forced Hot Rod onto his knees as he had to compensate for the sudden weight falling into his arms.
"Optimus?" he asked again. "Can you hear me?"
Hot Rod tried not to look at the gruesome wounds, but there was no way to avoid it. His eyes were magically drawn to the open chest, the place the Matrix had once been. Inside he began to ache, once again showing sympathetic reactions.
"I'll kill him for that!" Hot Rod vowed. "I swear I'll kill him, even if it is the last thing I do!"
* * *
She had finally arrived at the place where the lightning
was the strongest. Only now she saw that it wasn't a thunder storm, but
a deep, dark pit in the ground that was the origin of the lightning. From
deep inside the hole came a flash of blue, traveling up, disappearing in
the lead grey sky. Fascinated by the spectacle she didn't notice the other
figure until he was nearly beside her.
"Who are you?" she asked, her voice sounding eerily loud in the otherwise silent world. Not even the flashes of lightning produced a sound.
The man cocked his head, looking at her in non-comprehension. He was tall, but she couldn't really see any definite features in his face, except for his blue eyes. His clothes were just as non-descript and somehow she doubted he was human.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, not answering her question.
She thought she knew the voice, but the question puzzled her even more. "I don't know."
"Just like me," he confessed. His eyes were drawn to the black hole in the ground. "I had to come here."
She nodded. "So do I."
They stood together for a long time, then he said. "I have the feeling that I know you."
She frowned. "Yes." She looked at him again.
Suddenly a bright, blue flash raced out of the hole and the man groaned, holding his middle and collapsing to the ground.
"What's wrong?" she asked, clearly worried.
He looked at her, his eyes wide with pain. "Help me!" he whispered.
He groaned again, curling into a fetal position. "Stop the pain!" he begged.
She stared helplessly at him, her hand touching his shoulder. She felt the shudders and tremors coursing through his body, the pain in his chest. Then the world disappeared into nothingness.
* * *
Voodoo veered off to the right, evading an angry stream
of laser fire. His wing nearly brushed a chunk of rocks and he tilted to
the left, powering up his engines. The small drone followed, ceaselessly
firing at him. It wasn't as fast as the Sentinel jet, but it wasn't speed
that was its weapon, it was numbers. There were hundreds of the little
critters all around them.
Kyle Scott, Voodoo's Interface, muttered curses under his breath, concentrating on the route they had to take through the maze of deadly counter fire and drones. His eyes were pinned to the read-out screens, trusting completely in his friend. Midnight flew nearly parallel to them, Steve doing the same job Kyle did, getting his partner safely through while the Sentinel jet was busy dodging the laser blasts and taking out as many as possible. Their speed was their advantage; no more restraints, like on Earth where they had to watch out for unsuspecting traffic. In space, in a combat situation, restrictions didn't count. The moment the lasers targeted them they were already gone, though it was still a dangerous game, but also fun.
F/X would have liked this, Voodoo thought, his mind working rapidly and in synch with Kyle's, both of them joined together in a never suppassed fighting unit of an Interfaced Sentinel. It was an intoxicating feeling to live this close to the edge, exhilarating to hear the screaming of the engines as they were powered up to maximum and then gunned down to drop below the line of fire.
Another flock of drones exploded, sending glowing shards of metal and rocks toward them. Midnight, nearly completely disguised to the untrained and unaided eye through his black color, flew through the shower of fire and streaked toward the shuttle, trailing more silvery drones. Voodoo gave a cry of delight and destroyed them one by one.
Shanygn was a physicist, not a computer engineer or programmer.
She had some experience with foreign systems, but all in all she only knew
the mainframe on Alean. Jill was the one with a degree in computer mathematics.
Well, Jill wasn't here now; she was. And she had to deactivate the defense
computer. She turned the terminal on and looked at the monitor, which now
lit up. There was a menu screen and it said 'Mernan Institution Mainframe'
on the top of the screen. She scanned over the subsystems. There seemed
to be hundreds. Command, Heating, Main, Storage, Electronics, Hydraulics,
Communication, Control, Security. Shanygn chose Security and immediately
wound up in a dead end. Apparently the Security file had been erased. She
tried several others and every time she was kicked out again. A lot of
those files were old and had been erased. She didn't feel like trying to
reconstruct them. The defense system had to work from a still active file,
so reactivating old ones only cost her time. Finally she managed to get
into the Command Main and found her way to the Control Grids window.
'Welcome to Mernan Institute Mainframe', the computer spelled. 'Please enter login'.
Shanygn stared at the blinking request. Login? Damn! She leaned back, shaking her head. There was no way she could get inside!
* * *
Wild Card didn't know how long he had stumbled along the
corridor wall, one hand outstretched to keep him upright, when he arrived
at the cell. It was closed with energy bars, a sure sign that someone was
"Jeff.....?" He collapsed against the wall, his hands finding the controls for the energy bars and he deactivated them.
"Oh, damn! What did they do to you?" Winters asked as he ran out of the cell, looking a bit worse for wear but definitely alive.
"It's not so bad."
"Yeah, right. I can see that," Jeff said with sarcasm dripping from his voice. "Any idea where the way out of this hole is?"
"I think so. Shanygn was here and she went the way I came." Wild Card trembled a bit, feeling his power drain.
"Shit, you're even worse than you think," Winters said and his brows drew together in deep concentration. "Next question: how do we get you out of here and also help the others?"
"Someone's coming!" Wild Card suddenly whispered, his sensors picking up footsteps.
Jeff looked up in panic and then a Seeker rounded the corner. His optics widened a bit as he saw Wild Card and the freed prisoner. His weapon went up and he aimed at the former Seeker.
"You are making a mistake, Tornado," Wild Card said, straightening a bit.
"You made the mistake," Tornado answered.
"You think it's a mistake to Interface? Or do you think it's a mistake to do it before Braintrust finds a partner through his gruesome experiments?" Wild Card stared at his former friend. "Why do we have to step back behind him? I didn't do this on purpose! It just happened and that's exactly the way it has to be. No force, just plain chance."
Tornado's weapon didn't waver for a microsecond. "Get back or I'll shoot you right here and now."
"And enrage Braintrust even more?" Wild Card asked with a dry, humorless voice.
Tornado aimed directly at his enemy's head. "I'll take the chance."
"No!" Jeff protested.
The gun changed aim and Winters reacted with an instinct he had developed in the short time he and Wild Card had been together. He phased out of existence. Wild Card gasped and doubled over. Tornado was confused by what had happened and so he didn't move quickly enough when Wild Card grabbed his gun arm and twisted the weapon out of his grasp. Wild Card aimed and fired in one movement, catching the blue Seeker in the chest. Tornado was thrown back and collapsed. Wild Card grabbed him, dragged him into the cell and activated the energy bars again, then he leaned against the wall.
"Jeff?" he asked.
"I'm here. You okay?"
"I feel .... much better. What happened? He looked at his still existing chest wound.
"I can only guess and my best guess is that it has something to do with the Interface," Winters answered.
"Well, whatever did this, let's hope it holds a while," Wild Card decided. "Now we have to find the others." He ran down the way he had come, the way Shanygn had taken. Suddenly they passed an access grid for the computer system of the former prison.
"Stop!" Jeff called and Wild Card skidded to a halt.
"What?" the robot wanted to know.
"This might give us an idea where we are," Jeff explained. "Looks like the computer guidance system they had on the station I once was." He studied the screen. "Okay, give me a bit control of you hands. I'll see if I can get us somewhere."
Wild Card surrendered control of his motorics to his Interface partner and watched him work.
* * *
"This is madness," Ultra Magnus said, gripping the arms
of his seat so he wouldn't get flung out by the wild maneuvers Blaster
and Jazz had to perform to get through to the planetoid. The shields were
holding -- but for how long? Most of the defense system was still active,
but Voodoo and Midnight were doing an incredible job. Just watching them
could result in a headache. Their battle maneuvers looked elegant, like
a game of catch they were playing with the attackers, but they also required
a maneuverability he had never seen. Ultra Magnus had to remind himself
that the Sentinels were different for a reason, and he didn't really want
to know all that much about the past, when the Sentinels had been bodyguards
and executioners of the Quintessons. The Autobots could call themselves
lucky that Midnight and his team were on their side.
"This is our only chance," Knight told him calmly, standing behind Blaster, holding on to the back of his chair. She was watching the two fighters calmly.
Midnight turned in a tight circle and blasted several rocks, their sharp remains cutting through the defense drones. Voodoo followed his example and more drones died. Suddenly the laser fire died down completely. The drones stopped and hung motionlessly in space. Midnight turned into several spiraling rolls, brushing past the apparently dead drones. Nothing happened. Voodoo made short work of a series of defenses and Midnight eliminated the remaining drones, just to be on the safe side.
"What's that? A trick?" Kup asked, his optics narrowing suspiciously.
"Either that or our guys inside found a way to deactivate the defenses. Whatever happened," Magnus decided, "this is it. Get us in, drop the Aerialbots and Dinobots, then land the ship somewhere safe!"
"Yeehaa!" Blaster called cheerily as he steered the ship in a steep angle to the planetoid.
He opened the cargo doors. The Aerialbots and Dinobots jumped and flew toward the visible part of the former prison. Voodoo and Midnight followed without hesitation, their engines flaring brightly with the unrestrained energy output. They were mere streaks of color -- or non-color in Midnight's case.
"Let's get this baby down and then start the party!"
The ship touched down roughly, but nobody cared. They had to be quick.
* * *
Braintrust roared in frustration as the defense system
died down. He had been watching Midnight and Voodoo fight the counter fire,
always knowing that two Sentinels might be enough to take them out.
"Incompetents!" he hissed, lashing out with his tail. He caught Phantom in the back and threw him against the other side of the room.
A pale blue and white Sentinel turned and looked at him. "Someone cut into the command structure of the defense computer and deactivated it, my leader," Glacier said with apprehension. "It will take some time to kill the virus and reactivate the system."
"It's too late now!" Braintrust hissed. "The Autobots are already through. Keep them in check and get me the human!" He turned and left the room, walking back to the lab, seething with anger.
* * *
The Autobots encountered heavy resistance in the hangar
bay. The Dinobots stormed happily into the ranks of the Seekers, while
the Aerialbots stayed back and gave the others cover. Ultra Magnus, Kup,
Blaster, Jazz, Voodoo, Midnight and Knight moved into the station. The
two airborne Sentinels shot down the wide corridor and disappeared somewhere.
Ultra Magnus didn't have the time and the nerves to get into an argument
over command hierarchies, so he let them go. Knight stayed with them.
"I wish we had a map of this place," Kup muttered as they encountered an intersection.
Knight looked down the corridor, then shrugged. "Don't you have a way to home in on your leader?"
Ultra Magnus gave her a blank look. "Like a built-in homing device?"
"Is Midnight equipped with one?"
Knight smiled a bit. "No, but we have other methods."
"What methods?" Blaster asked, a bit puzzled.
Knight sighed. They were continuing to walk down the corridor, ignoring the intersections. No use in getting lost. Saving her from telling too many secrets of the Sentinels was her personal intercom. "Yes?"
"Knight? It's Voodoo. We found Wild Card and Jeff."
"Are they okay?"
Voodoo hesitated a bit, then said, "Could be worse. What about Hot Rod and Optimus Prime?"
"No trace yet," she answered.
"Okay, we'll get Wild Card to safety."
Knight terminated the link and looked at the others. "One found, two to go."
"And five slaves to kill right now," a deep voice hissed through the corridor.
Knight whirled around. "Braintrust!" she snarled, her hair crackling as energon coursed through her.
The dragon chuckled. "Oh, you recognize me. What gave me away?" His large form came down the corridor, blocking it. Except for the corridors leading away from them to the left and the right there was only the retreat option.
"Where are Hot Rod and Optimus Prime?" Kup demanded.
Braintrust's head swung from left to right. "Oh, they are still my guests. Have you come to pay a visit?" He grinned. "I could make it a permanent one."
"I'll send you permanently back to your creators!" Knight hissed. She held the two staffs she usually carried on her back in her hands.
"Such anger," the Seeker chided. "And I always had such great hopes for you, Knight. You showed so much talent as a warrior, but you choose to go with these foolish Sentinels."
Knight's dark red hair moved under its own accord as more energy crackled between it. "You are a murdering monster, Braintrust."
"Don't compliment me. I might blush." He drew back his lips, revealing his teeth. "And now be nice and die!"
He lifted his tail and fired.
Knight raised a shield, reflecting the blasts. "Go!" she cried. "Find your friends!"
"But ..." Ultra Magnus protested.
"I said go! I can handle him for a time."
A jet streaked out of one of the corridors and Voodoo joined Knight. "Do what she told you!"
The Autobots darted down the other corridor, leaving the two Sentinels behind.
* * *
Hot Rod heard the laser fire and looked over to Shanygn.
She was still busy with the computer terminal, cursing loudly in a tongue
he didn't know and which he suspected was he native language. Finally she
shook her head.
"Impossible! I can't get in!" When she heard the laser fire she frowned. "Looks like the cavalry arrived," she commented. "I don't know how they came through, but apparently they did. How is he?" she then asked, coming over to where Hot Rod still knelt beside Optimus Prime.
"Looks bad," the younger Autobot confessed. Just as bad as the time he died and passed the Matrix to Ultra Magnus. Prime, you can't do this to me! You can't just die like that! I won't take the Matrix, not again!
Shanygn gnawed on her lower lip. "He needs medical help. Fast."
"I agree, but we have no medical help, Shan."
"What about the Matrix?"
"I don't know where Braintrust took it," Hot Rod confessed.
"Could it help him?" she asked.
He looked at the mangled circuits, which now and then sparked in a bluish light. "Too much damage," he said softly. "The Matrix wouldn't connect properly anymore. Too dangerous."
"I understand, but what can we do? He might die right under our hands!"
"No, he won't!" Hot Rod said sharply.
Shanygn looked at him, her helmeted face revealing no emotions, but Hot Rod knew she looked sympathetic. "Hot Rod ...." she began.
"He won't die!"
"What if he does? You have to leave that option open."
His hands clenched into fists, his optics drawn to the injuries of his leader. He trembled slightly. "He -- won't -- die," he then said, his voice flat and forcibly cool.
Shanygn inhaled deeply. Hot Rod was proving to be very stubborn, but he was also devastated and desperate. She knew that in his mind he was going through every scenario there was and every time he came up with Prime's death he began to immediately dimiss it.
"All right," she finally said. "All right."
* * *
Wild Card stumbled, catching himself just in time. He
was getting weaker again, even with Jeff helping him from the inside. And
something told him that it was bad for the human to stay Interfaced too
long with a severely damaged Sentinel. He smiled dimly. Sentinel. He had
already begun to think of himself as one of Midnight's team. He only wished
he had seen his error in following Braintrust sooner. Somehow he had always
thought that not being able to Interface automatically made him a Seeker,
but then he remembered that not all Sentinels were Interfaced. It was just
a matter of what you fought for. But Wild Card had never found the strength
to confess to himself that he was on the wrong side. It had taken an Interface
to show him this.
"You have to separate," he whispered.
"No way," Jeff told him, his voice cool and decisive. "If I leave now, you'll break down."
They had found a map of the planetoid, though it wasn't a very detailed one. But there had been something even more interesting int he grid: the defense computer's access. Jeff had made short work of the defense system, using Wild Card's virus programs.
"I'll break down in a few minutes anyway and I don't want to trap you inside of me!"
"I can get out whenever I need to," Winters lied.
"You can't. You aren't as knowledgeable as Parker in these matters," Wild Card moaned. "Get out!"
The golden-brown Sentinel felt desperation rise inside of him. He didn't want Jeff to die inside of him. Outside he might have a chance.
And then heard the thruster whine and the approaching fighters. He lifted the stolen weapon, the one Tornado had used, ready to blast at least one enemy before they turned him into a sieve.
He knew the voice and suddenly he felt very weak. His gun arm fell to his side, the weapon cluttering to the floor, and he trembled badly.
"Mid...." he whispered.
The black Sentinel transformed and ran over to him. Voodoo remained where he was, watching out for enemy fire.
"Oh, no...." Midnight muttered as he took in the damage done to his friend.
"Get ..... Jeff ..... out," Wild Card said in a strained voice.
"Out? Out of where? Oh, damn!" Midnight cursed as he realized what his friend meant. "What drove you to do that?! You two have no idea what this means!"
"Wasn't me. Jeff did it."
Midnight grabbed Wild Card, stabilizing him. "We have to get you to the ship. If Jeff phases out of you now you could go into shock and that's not the best of things to do in your condition." He turned to Voodoo, who had contacted the others. "I'll get him out, you join the others in search of Hot Rod and Prime."
"Shanygn...." Wild Card began.
"And Shanygn," the Sentinel leader added, then took his friend by the shoulders. "I'll try Gating to the shuttle," he explained to him. "Don't do anything, let me act, all right?"
Wild Card nodded.
"See you later!" Voodoo called and took off down the corridor again.
"How did you find me?" Wild Card mumbled as Midnight steered him away from the wall."
"We have our ways."
Wild Card looked at him, his optics flickering slightly. "Which ways?"
Midnight sighed. "Later. Now, stand still, I'll get you out of here."
With that he opened a Gate and jumped. Wild Card lost consciousness.
* * *
"Me Grimlock love this fight!" the Dinobot leader growled
and lashed out with his tail, catching Twister and slamming him into the
wall. Grimlock added a stream of fire, then fried the Seeker's outer skin.
Around them the battle was turning very heated now, not only because the Dinobots used their flame throwers. The Seekers fought with a determination that did them honor, in Grimlock's opinion, but was fruitless. The Dinobots were superior to them.
Swoop streaked past overhead and dumped some missiles, scattering the enemies, making room for the Aerialbots to move in and clear up. Yes, it was a good fight, but as things looked, it would be too short for Grimlock's liking.
* * *
Ultra Magnus was the first to step into the lab. He stopped
when he saw Hot Rod kneeling beside Optimus Prime.
"Optimus!" he breathed and ran over. His optics flashed briefly as he took in the damage and saw that Prime wasn't conscious.
"Damn this lizard!" Kup growled.
"We have to get him out of here!" Hot Rod decided, his voice holding a command tone. "Jazz, Kup, Blaster, get him back to the shuttle. Ultra Magnus, where are the others?"
Magnus reacted to the voice of authority with an ease he had acquired over millenia of being commander. "The Dinobots and Aerialbots are taking care of the opposition, Midnight found Wild Card and is getting him back to the ship, Knight and Voodoo have encountered Braintrust." He hesitated a bit. "They told us to go on and that they'd take care of him."
Shanygn harrumphed. "Take care of him..... sure. He'll stomp them into the ground!"
"And so he did," the hated voice said from the doorway. "I hope you don't plan on going anywhere...."
The assembled Autobots and Sentinels froze. Hot Rod's optics glowed in barely suppressed anger. Ultra Magnus wondered what had happened to Voodoo and Knight. Braintrust walked lazily over to the console.
"Oh, bad, bad, bad," Braintrust said sadly as he looked at the screen. "Couldn't stop playing with the system."
"Why don't you just give up!" Hot Rod demanded. "Your troops are in the minority!"
Braintrust's eyes seemed to pin him down. "That's the way it seems, but you forget, I have the Matrix." He lifted the tip of his tail, which had been hidden by his massive body. Inside the tight knot of metal muscle glowed a soft, blue light.
"The Matrix!" Hot Rod hissed in barely contained rage.
Braintrust smiled evily and placed the Matrix between his claws. He then took it and pushed it against his broad chest. "And now see the real power of your toy!" A part of his chest plate slid back and he inserted the Matrix into his circuitry.
Bright blue light erupted from his body and he roared in a mixture of triumph and pain. His wings lashed out, spreading as far as they could, slicing through some machinery. The Autobots shielded their eyes from the bright light and moved back. Hot Rod kept a protective stance between the Seeker leader and Optimus Prime. He was unarmed, smaller and had not enough energon left to enter a full fledged fight, but he knew that he'd do everything to protect his leader.
"Yes!" Braintrust hissed in ecstasy. His eyes had changed into white-hot orbs, glowing in a crazy light. His jaws opened wide in a loud roar and then he homed in on the Autobots. His talons shot an energy field, crackling through the room. None of them could withstand the strange energy and they broke down without ever uttering a single sound.
Hot Rod was the only one remaining upright. The energy had passed over him without any harmful effect. Shanygn lay unconscious at his feet.
"Why are you still standing?" Braintrust hissed, his talons shooting more energy. It touched the Autobot, but left not even a scorch mark.
Braintrust growled in anger and attacked. Hot Rod jumped back, searching for a weapon. Suddenly Braintrust cringed, bellowing in pain. His body seemed to be caught in a violent seizure and then part of his metal skin cracked. Long, sharp spikes shot out of his body, some of them curling, some of them splitting at the top. The dragon whined in pain and curled together. The former greenish grey skin seemed to blister, turning a burned brownish red. Braintrust threw back his head and cried out, the sound revibrating in the room.
Hot Rod recognized the symptoms. The Matrix was changing him, as it always attempted to change its bearer, but since Braintrust was no Autobot it mutated him. His mind was going berserk. If Braintrust kept it much longer it would even kill him.
The Seeker leader lashed out and killed the door, shattering it into a thousand pieces. He had apparently forgotten about Hot Rod, turning in circles for a few seconds, then dashing through the newly created exit. Hot Rod looked from the dying form of Optimus Prime to the opening in the wall. His decision came as he looked at the open wound of Prime again. He had to get the Matrix back. Transforming, he raced after the Seeker.
* * *
Optimus Prime was in a place he had visited before, a
place between life and death, between light and darkness. But this time
he wasn't alone. Someone was there with him, though he couldn't see anyone.
He could feel the other presence, holding him, not letting him pass the
line that would irrevocably let him drift into the darkness of death.
"I won't let him kill someone else," a voice floated through his mind.
* * *
Shanygn woke with a groan, every muscle in her body aching.
"Who stepped on me?" she muttered, getting to her knees.
Around her, the Autobots awakened as well, all a bit disoriented, but looking none the worse. Whatever had hit them, it hadn't damaged them more than a few scratches and burns. Everything was superficial.
"Roddy?" she asked, looking around.
Hot Rod wasn't in the room and from the looks of the place something big had happened ..... and had then charged through the door, creating a large hole in the process. She looked over to where Optimus Prime lay, still not moving. Blaster was kneeling beside him.
"Looks bad, man," he told Ultra Magnus. "But he's not yet gone."
"Get him out of here. We find Hot Rod and the Matrix," the commander ordered.
The Matrix! Braintrust had it. Shanygn stared at the hole. And Hot Rod was after him to get it back.
[Roddy?] she broadcast her question.
All she received in return was an urging to come to the hangar bay. Their help was needed.
"Hot Rod's in the hangar bay with the others," she told Ultra Magnus. "He needs help. I think he has a plan," she added.
The large blue-white-red robot looked at her in surprise, but refrained from asking too many questions. He simply nodded and off they went.
* * *
Phantom moved back under the heavy assault of the Autobots,
barely evading the sharp teeth of the Dinobot leader as he searched for
a safe place.
"We're heavily outnumbered," Tornado breathed, firing ceaselessly at the attackers.
"But we are not beaten yet!" Twister growled. He had taken some heavy beating and was particularly low on energy.
"But it won't take much longer," Phantom muttered, watching as Hellfire tackled one of the Dinobots, clawing at the thick hide and trying not to get stepped on.
"We could always suck them dry," Twister said softly, as if talking to himself.
Tornado stared at him. "Are you completely out of your mind?" he whispered in horror. "Do you know how long its been since we really de-energized someone? Do you know how much energy we'd take in? It would kill us!"
Twister knew that his friend was correct. Like the Sentinels, the Seekers hadn't used the ability, which had made them a living nightmare of every slave robot millions of years ago, for a long time. They would simply burn themselves with too much intake. It was a senseless act of near-suicide.
Suddenly a part of the wall burst outward and a gigantic behemoth of metal entered the landing bay of the station. For a second Tornado didn't recognize the creature, then it hit him.
The Seeker leader had changed. His skin was torn in many places, looking burned, and peeling off. Spikes, most of them split apart or curling, cork-screwing or twisting toward his body again, covered his back, giving him the look of a squashed hedgehog. His wings were full of blisters, glistening wetly in the bright light of the station. The head was misshapen and the former yellow eyes glowed with a mad white fire. Some kind of foam was covering his lips.
Braintrust roared and lashed out, his spiked tail catching Seeker and Autobot alike. Tornado transformed in a split-second and darted out of the way of the mad onrush of his leader. He noticed a brightly colored car shooting through the opening Braintrust had created, stopping, then transforming. It was Hot Rod. The Autobot looked at the rampaging dragon and a determined expression crossed his face.
Tornado wasn't sure what had happened to Braintrust, but he could guess, and his guess was that the Seeker leader carried the Matrix. And the Matrix had transformed him, driving him insane, destroying his own troops.
"We have to do something!" Twister shouted, hovering beside him.
Tornado nodded, taking over the leadership role as if it was his second nature. "But we can't do it alone." He flew toward the brightly colored Autobot, lifting his hands to indicate he wasn't about to attack.
"What do you want?" the Autobot, which he remembered was called Hot Rod, asked warily.
"Braintrust has merged with the Matrix," the blue Seeker said, indicating the dragon, who was now smashing through the ranks of the Dinobots, taking on the combined team of the Aerialbots.
"Yes, he has. And I have to stop him!"
"Not you alone. We will help you." At Hot Rod's suspicious look he added, "He is our leader. The Matrix is killing him."
The Autobot accepted this with a curt nod, then frowned. "How do we go about this?"
Tornado looked at his transformed leader. "The Matrix has leaked its energy into him, that's the problem. He gets his strength from there. All we have to do is deplete that energy before he gets overpowered by it. It should weaken him long enough for you to get the Matrix out of his chest cavity."
Hot Rod looked blankly at him. "How do you want to deplete the energy?"
Tornado smiled grimly. "We are equipped with a weapon that can do this," he told him.
Hot Rod shook his head. "No. The Matrix energy would kill you. And if it doesn't kill you, it transforms you as well. We can't risk that. I once saw what such an action does to the receiving end of the energy transfer. You won't be able to get rid of the Matrix energy quickly enough. We'd get out of the fire and right into the frying pan."
Tornado saw the truth in this. The Matrix energy might drive them all crazy. "Do you have any other ideas?"
The Autobot watched the dragon Seeker. "No," he confessed softly. "Not really. Maybe if we all attack at once.... We have to get him to eject it."
Tornado frowned as well. "Eject it....." he muttered. "This means we have to penetrate his chest plate, the place where the Matrix is."
Hot Rod nodded. "If we combine our forces we should be able to pound him enough to get him both disoriented and weakened. All I need is one chance."
The two enemies looked at each other, then Tornado nodded. He lifted off to inform his troops.
* * *
Voodoo shook his head and helped Knight up. Getting stomped
on by Braintrust wasn't his all-time favorite masochistic idea at all!
Only a quick jump into the next available garbage chute had saved them.
"Man!" Kyle groaned. "Whatever gave us the idea we could stop him?"
Voodoo chuckled. "Suicidal tendencies?"
Knight snorted. "For sure. Now let's get out of this dump and find the others. I'm sure with Braintrust on the loose and the Matrix in his possession they are having a hell of a time fighting him!"
* * *
And they had one hell of a fight. Every Seeker, Sentinel
and Autobot was attacking Braintrust, firing all they had at him. The dragon
was spinning in circles, lashing out, snapping and clawing at his attackers,
who were smaller and most of the time quicker than him. But injuries occurred
and they were severe. Hot Rod knew they wouldn't stand a chance against
Braintrust much longer. He had to act now.
"Braintrust!" he yelled.
The massive head swung around, ignoring the laser pounding he was taking. "You!" he hissed. He stepped slowly forward.
"The Matrix doesn't belong to you!" Hot Rod shouted.
"It doesn't belong to you either!" the Seeker growled. "You stole it!"
"And so did you! Don't you see what it is doing to you?"
Braintrust snarled. "I can feel what it does to me, Autobot! It makes me powerful, more powerful than you can ever be with it!"
"It's killing you!" He stepped carefully closer. "If you don't remove it, it will mutate you so long until you die because your systems can no longer operate!"
Braintrust roared and lashed out at him, but before the claw could hit him, an eerie blue light shot from the Seeker's chest. He yelped, then cried again, this time in pain. He moved away from Hot Rod, clawing frantically at his chest. Like a caged animal he began to turn in circles again. The others moved quickly out of the way. Suddenly Braintrust's chest plate popped open and the Matrix glowed brightly in clear, blue colors. Several of the Seekers moved back, grimacing in pain; others fled from the agonizing energy field.
Hot Rod made a split second decision. He darted for the Matrix and grabbed it, yanking it away from Braintrust. The dragon caught him with his left claw and threw him clear across the room. Hot Rod held on to the Matrix, cradling it against his chest, landing on the steel floor with a loud crash.
Braintrust howled again as his body went through the whole transformation backwards. He writhed in pain and then broke down, his body looking like a wreck.
Tornado carefully approached his leader, then turned to where Hot Rod was lying. "You better get out of here now," he said.
Hot Rod climbed to his feet, still clutching the Matrix. He nodded slowly. "Thank you."
"This is not a sign of good will, Autobot," Tornado said coldly. "We are still on opposite sides."
"Of course." Hot Rod looked at the others and gestured for them to get back into the ship. This fight was over. If they had really won could be left for discussion.
Tornado nodded and walked back to his troops, his steps measured, his back ramrod straight. Ultra Magnus joined Hot Rod, looking like he wanted to say something, but then refrained from doing so. He simply stood at his side, giving silent support. Hot Rod was thankful for it. He grabbed the Matrix even tighter and walked to the waiting Autobots.
"Optimus and Wild Card are back on the shuttle, as are the others," Kup reported, looking warily at the Seekers, who were watching them just as warily. "Knight's doing some first aid on Prime, but we have to get him back immediately."
Hot Rod nodded, looking down on the Matrix. "Let's go home," he said softly.
"What about them?" Kup asked and gestured at the Seekers, who were now clustered around their fallen leader.
Strangely, Hot Rod felt no urge to punish them or to make sure Braintrust was really dead. All he wanted to do was get back to Earth and see Optimus Prime treated for his injuries.
"Leave them, Kup." He turned his back on the scene and entered the shuttle.
"Leave them?" the old warrior echoed as he hurried after him. "They damn nearly killed Optimus Prime, stole the Matrix and tortured you and Wild Card, and you want to let them run off again?"
Hot Rod whirled around, his blue optics blazing. "Yes, Kup, I want to let them go! There is nothing we can do to Braintrust that has not already been done by the Matrix. And I'm not after revenge. Foremost in my mind is getting Optimus Prime into sick-bay!" He stomped toward the cockpit.
Kup was shocked, to put it mildly. Ultra Magnus clasped his shoulder and smiled. "You know he is right, old friend."
Kup nodded slowly. "Yes, he is. It's just amazing."
"The change. A few years ago he'd gone after every Seeker with guns blazing until they would all be either dead or dismantled."
Magnus nodded, a strange smile on his lips. "People change."
The ship's doors closed and it shook slightly as Blaster eased it off the planet. Then they were on their way.
* * *
"It's over," the reassuring voice, which had been with
him for some time now, said.
"What?" he asked.
"How do you know?"
"I am with you, but I am also with the part that is not yet with you again."
He was confused, but he didn't even try to think too closely about the words. Thinking was getting harder and harder. He simply resigned himself to just existing, listening to the voice.
* * *
Back in Autobot City Perceptor, First Aid and Skywolf
were already awaiting the ship. The rushed through the opening door and
went to work. Their first patient was Optimus Prime, who was still showing
life signs, but who got weaker and weaker by the minute. Wild Card, who
had regained consciousness, warded off their help.
"Get him fixed," he said and gestured at Optimus Prime. "He needs you more."
Skywolf turned to First Aid and Perceptor. "You two take care of Optimus, I'll have a look at Wild Card." His stern look squelched Wild Card's further protests.
Hot Rod, with only a few bruises and hole in the chest, walked into the City under his own steam. He still carried the Matrix, refusing to let it out of his sight. He followed First Aid and Perceptor into the operating room.
"It's a miracle he's still alive," First Aid muttered. "These injuries, combined with the power drain and the shock, should have killed him immediately.
Hot Rod's head whipped around and he stared at the medic.
"I mean, I know how bad he was off when he fought against Megatron," First Aid added. "This is even worse."
"Then how....?" the younger Autobot started.
He shrugged. "I don't know. Right now I'm glad he is still somewhere in there. Perceptor, let's get to work and stabilize his CPU."
The two set to work.
Hot Rod simply settled back in a corner of the room, watching, waiting. The Matrix sat in his lap, glowing, spreading a comforting warmth; a warmth only he felt. Silently he wondered if what Braintrust had told him was true. Had the Quintessons really constructed the Matrix? If yes, for what? What had been its purpose? And why had he said that the Autobots had turned it into a weapon? All the Matrix ever did was store the dead leaders' knowledge and sometimes their personality. Accessing it was dangerous enough and he had deliberately tried it only once. It had been enough.
What if he's right?
Could the Quintessons still use the Matrix? Apparently not. They feared it. It could hurt them, just like it could hurt Decepticons, Seekers and Sentinels. Every being who wasn't an Autobot couldn't bear the Matrix, couldn't access its powers. But what made the Autobots so special? Because they were the ones who had passed it down from leader to leader? Had they really changed it? And why couldn't every Autobot bear it?
Question over question he had no answer to. Maybe inside the Matrix was an answer, but he wasn't so sure about it. Sometimes he thought the Matrix was alive, a creature with its own intelligence, its own reasons as to why it did what it did. Shaking his head he looked over to the motionless figure of Optimus Prime. Inside of him there was a turmoil of different emotions, emotions warring with each other. Prime's condition was very serious and he could die, Hot Rod knew that and he didn't kid himself about good chances of survival. There were none. And if Optimus Prime died, Rodimus Prime would be back. He shuddered slightly at the thought, looking down at the Matrix. If it came to that he would have no other choice. It was his destiny. This time he'd accept it.
"This is bad."
First Aid's voice jerked him out of his thoughts.
"I agree, First Aid," Perceptor said. "His brain waves are getting weaker and weaker and we can't seem to stabilize him enough to start the repair on his body."
Hot Rod walked over to the operating table. Optimus was attached to several machines, all showing weak, flickering readings. First Aid looked at him, his face mirroring his concern.
"If we disconnect his mind from his body he might perish completely. He is holding on, but only just," he explained.
"Can't you do anything?" Hot Rod asked, his voice calm, but inside of him something twisted in pain.
"Not as long as we are in danger of losing his mind while repairing the body."
The Autobot second stared at Optimus Prime. All this for nothing? Had he brought him home to die here? He looked down at the Matrix as if it could give him all the answers. It couldn't. It never had. But right now he thought he knew what he had to do.....
"Could you store his personality somewhere else?" he asked softly.
"Possibly," Perceptor conceded. "But where? And the transfer would be very dangerous. If we lose him throughout the transfer, he could be gone forever."
"Could you store his personality inside someone else?" Hot Rod asked levely.
The two medics looked at each other, then at Hot Rod. "What are you suggesting, Hot Rod?" Perceptor finally wanted to know.
The younger Autobot sighed. "I'm not sure. I mean, what if I took the Matrix and you transferred the personality components into me? Could he live inside me, using the Matrix? Could we use the Matrix as a transfer for his mind?"
First Aid was a bit baffled. "Hot Rod, that's too dangerous! We don't know if the Matrix can do such a transfer! We could lose Optimus' mind halfway and he'd be lost inside the Matrix forever! And even if it works, you could lose your personality, your mind, completely the moment Optimus Prime becomes the dominant personality inside your body! The Matrix will only enhance the process of assimilation!"
"Could it work?" Hot Rod only asked coldly.
"Yes, most likely," Perceptor answered slowly. "But ...."
"No buts," Hot Rod decided, his voice carrying an authority they had heard only of Rodimus Prime. "Do it. That's an order!"
In another medical ward Skywolf was working on Wild Card,
who was much better off, at least where his physical health was concerned.
"Whatever bit you to do that?" the Skywolf growled.
Wild Card grimaced a bit, partly from a slight twinge of pain. "Midnight asked the same."
"And he was damn right! It was a foolish move that could have killed both of you. Both of you are too green where Interfacing is concerned to try such a stunt!"
"Lay off, Wolf, it was an emergency situation," Midnight said and smiled slightly.
"Oh, you are allowed to read him the riot act, but I have to shut up?" The medic straightened and looked his leader right into the optics.
"You know what I mean. Drastic situation, drastic measures." The black Sentinel looked at Wild Card. " I was angry at first, but that was just a first reaction. How are the two of you?"
"Jeff's asleep. He fainted dead away when we separated."
Skywolf nodded. "He went through a lot. Jill took him to the guest quarters. He'll spend the next few hours sleeping, which is the best thing." He turned back to Wild Card, who closed his chest plate. "And you better get some rest as well. Recharge, take it ease, no Interfacing for a while. Your circuits are strained enough."
Skywolf grimaced and shook his head. Then he turned to Midnight. "How's Optimus Prime?"
Midnight's face seemed to grow several shades darker. "Bad. First Aid and Perceptor are doing everything possible, but he's very weak."
"I saw the damage. A miracle he's still alive."
"Everyone says so. I wonder if this has anything to do with his Interface, however brief it was." Midnight looked thoughtful.
Skywolf was surprised. "He Interfaced?"
Midnight nodded and briefly relayed what Hot Rod had told him on the flight back.
"Damn!" the Sentinel medic cursed. "Braintrust's a ruthless fanatic! But Interfacing an Autobot doesn't work! Look at Hot Rod's partnership with Shanygn. They share a link, but it's not a classical Interface. If Braintrust forced the Interface between Optimus Prime and the humanoid, it had to be catastrophic for him to feel her die!"
"Yes, I agree. But something else must have happened. He's hanging on to life with a strength I have never seen and which can't be explained by his status as Bearer of the Matrix."
"Maybe someone is holding him back from walking across the line," Wild Card said softly.
The other two Sentinels stared at him, then Skywolf looked at Midnight. "What if she is still there?"
"Yes, but she also Interfaced for a split second."
Midnight shook his head. "Impossible."
"Maybe not. Remember, we only know that humanoid Interface partners start aging again when the Sentinel they are bound to dies. We had the perfect example with Thon Roque and Ray. We never knew what would happen in the other case: the humanoid dies."
"All right, all right, but we're still talking Sentinels, not Autobots." Midnight shook his head in near frustration. "We know next to nothing about the effect of Interfacing where Autobots are concerned."
"Because it can't happen naturally." Skywolf walked out of the lab. "I'll have to talk to Perceptor and First Aid."
Optimus Prime became aware of his surroundings by and
by. Sight, sound, smell, touch. But everything was so different. He looked
around. He was in a lab, wires attached to his body. Apparently he had
been brought back from the planetoid, he was home. The feeling of relief
was caught short when he saw .... himself. He sat up abruptly, the electrodes
attached to him falling off. Looking down the body he had thought was his
own he recognized someone else.
This couldn't be!
Skywolf, who had stood aside, walked quickly over to him. First Aid and Perceptor were busy repairing Optimus Prime's body.
"Optimus Prime?" he asked. When he nodded, the Sentinel continued, "Follow me. We have to talk."
Mightily confused Optimus followed him, aware of how different this body was. Skywolf led him over to a niche overlooking the operating room, but far enough from the tables so no one would be disturbed by their presence.
"What is going on here?" Prime asked.
Skywolf explained shortly what had happened and what Hot Rod had decided. And when he mentioned the Matrix Prime could feel the warmth inside his, no, Hot Rod's, chest. He touched the chest plate. Through the Matrix Hot Rod had once again been changed into Rodimus Prime, how housing Optimus Prime as well.
"Why did he do it?" he whispered. "This could mean his death! He could perish forever!"
Skywolf gave him a sympathetic look. "Hot Rod thought that this was the only way to save you, Prime. He had no other choice."
"Of course he had!"
"Let you die?" The Sentinel shook his head. "No. You know he'd never let that happen if he can help it somehow. He still blames himself for what happened years ago and this brought it all back. You can't condemn him for trying everything."
Prime leaned heavily against the work table, shaking his head. "Damn him!" he whispered. There was a tight line around his mouth.
Skywolf looked at him. Even though this was the body of Rodimus Prime, there were several obvious changes, showing that inside was not the same personality. Optimus Prime gave off a presence that was intimidating, even when not in his original body. The angry light in the blue eyes was only one indicator. The Sentinel wondered how far Hot Rod's personality, which was in there as well, could influence Optimus Prime -- and the other way around. What could Optimus Prime's personality do to Hot Rod?
"How do you feel?" he finally asked.
Optimus head came up. "I feel fine, really. Different, but fine." He looked at his hands, which were not his own.
"What do you remember of what has happened to you after Braintrust caught you?" Skywolf wanted to know, trying to lead away from the subject of the body-switch.
Prime frowned. He remembered the abduction and that the Matrix had been forcefully removed from him. He remembered pain and the triumphant face of Braintrust. And then there was the picture he had not really seen, but which had been there: Hot Rod getting tortured by the Seeker leader. He immediately looked at his chest. There was no trace of an injury. The Matrix glowed warmly inside of him, spreading a calming energy.
"Optimus, we need to talk about what you experienced," Skywolf said gently when he didn't answer. "Things have happened, which we have to analyze. For that we need your help."
At those words something touched Prime's memory. He remembered the female, who had been forced into a brief Interface with him. "Yes, I think we need to talk," he agreed.
The question was kept neutral, but Prime was sure he knew the deeper meaning of the two words. "I remember that Braintrust removed the Matrix. Only too vividly. Then there was the woman..... He forced her to Interface with me, but somehow it didn't work, I think. I mean, I felt something, he did something, but...." He shook his head as more memories returned. Memories from his time inside ..... inside his mind. "There was someone," he said as if to himself.
"Where?" Skywolf prodded gently.
"Inside, with me, here." He touched his chest -- Rodimus' chest. "I remember standing somewhere, close to a hole in the ground --,"
A deep, dark pit in the ground. From deep inside the hole came a flash of blue, traveling up, disappearing in the lead grey sky. The empty place where the Matrix had been.
"-- with lightning all around me, blue lightning --,"
Matrix energy, dispersing off into nothingness.
"-- And there was someone there, talking to me."
A presence, a silhouette, a shadow. No one definite.
"Do you remember the woman's death?" the Sentinel medic asked bluntly.
Prime's head snapped up and he stared in Skywolf's softly glowing optics. "Yes," he finally admitted. "It was as if a light had been turned off --".
A tiny spark of white light in the middle of the blackness. It pulsed weakly, struggling to live. Then it was gone.
"-- but not really..... not completely."
A silhouette of a stranger he thought he knew.
'Who are you?'
'I don't know.'
Skywolf nodded. "She did write herself into a program. I knew it!"
"What are you talking about?"
'Hold on. I won't let him kill someone else!'
Skywolf began a lengthy explanation of his theory, which he had had no time to talk about with First Aid and Perceptor yet. ".... and so we think she simply wrote herself into a small program inside of you."
"Where is she now? With me or inside my body?"
"I don't really know. I had no time to talk to First Aid and we need to scan your body when you are operational again." Skywolf shrugged.
Optimus Prime looked over to the two Autobots working on him. It was very strange to stand here. "I'll be outside," he said slowly. "I need to think."
Skywolf nodded and watched him go. "I can believe that," he said softly.
Optimus Prime stood outside the sickbay, looking through
the large window overlooking the large inner yard below him. He had his
hands clasped behind his back, standing motionlessly. He was deep in thought,
mainly about what Hot Rod had done. He knew what it meant, he knew it exactly.
Right now Optimus Prime was the dominant personality program inside this
body, aided by the Matrix, and Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime's self existed somewhere
deep in the memory core, maybe not even consciously. What the young Autobot
had done surpassed everything Optimus had ever expected from him. This
was coming close to committing suicide! He couldn't even tell where Hot
Rod's self was! He had thought about travelling inside his/Hot Rod's mind,
searching for his second-in-command, but had refrained from doing so. Somehow,
he was afraid of what he might find.
"Hi," a soft, female voice suddenly said and he flinched, looking down. He hadn't heard anyone approach, lost in thought as he was.
"Hi," he answered.
Shanygn's blue eyes seemed very large in her otherwise white face. She was wearing her exo-skeleton.
"You know?" he asked.
"I know," she answered, her voice wavering a bit, sounding heavy. "He talked to me just before he went back into the sickbay for the transfer. He said it was something he had to do."
Prime nodded. "Skywolf told me as much."
"I don't believe him," Shanygn said bluntly. "He didn't have to do it, he simply did it because he was afraid of the consequences if he didn't decide something .... if he left the decision to Perceptor and First Aid."
Optimus was surprised. "What makes you think that?" he wanted to know.
"Oh, please," she said in a pained voice. "You know how he feels about your death and getting the Matrix. The first time he thought he was responsible. Then you came back and died again, right in front of his eyes. It devastated him. Now you were in the same situation once again and once again he held the key to you life or death. Roddy is terribly afraid of inheriting the Matrix through a fatal mistake he caused!" She shook her head. "You should have seen him back there, in the lab. I mean, he was denying the possibility that you could even die."
Optimus Prime began to understand. Even though Hot Rod would be able to lead the Autobots should Optimus die one day, he was also prepared to risk everything to bring the Autobot leader back from death to prevent this. This was a fierce loyalty he had neither expected, but should have, nor had ever considered.
"I see," he said slowly. "Does this situation affect you as well?"
She shook her head. "Not yet anyway. He is alive, somewhere, and I really don't know what happens should he die one day. We are not as closely Interfaced as the others."
At least that worry was out of his mind. Optimus Prime turned to look at the closed door of the sickbay operating room, wondering what would happen if he was back in his own body and Hot Rod could not be retrieved .... He shoved those dark thoughts back into a remote corner of his mind.
"I think I need to get some air," he said, using a human expression to excuse himself.
Outside on the gallery overlooking the main road leading to Autobot City he found he had not been the only one thinking of getting away from all the hectic and business reigning inside the City. Adam Witwicky was already here. He looked up as Prime stepped up to him, smiling a bit.
"Hello, Spike," he answered, briefly wondering whether the human knew about the body switch. If he didn't know he would at least be partially surprised by the fact that Hot Rod was once again Rodimus Prime. Then again, somehow it wasn't important, and from the way Spike took Hot Rod's new appearance in a strife, he knew. "How is Daniel?"
Optimus had been informed of the decision to separate Daniel and Arcee, but he had never followed the procedure. He only knew that it meant a great deal of emotional stress for both parties involved, but mainly for Daniel, who was very attached to Arcee.
"Oh, he's fine. The operation was successful and he's now wearing a reduced version of the exo-skeleton. Dr. McGregor was able to insert most of the additional skeleton into his body, so he won't look too freakish. He should be up in a few days."
"That's good news." Prime knew that then the real work would begin: working with Daniel on letting go of Arcee.
"Speaking of successful operations: how's it going in there?" He gestured vaguely at the direction of the sickbay.
"They are still at it."
Spike nodded. "I understand."
Both of them lapsed into silence, each one busy with his own thoughts.
Fifteen hours after they had transferred Prime's consciousness
into Hot Rod's body, Perceptor and First Aid were ready to reverse the
process. Optimus felt uneasy as he watched the two Autobots attach electrodes
and cables to his and Hot Rod's body. His mind was still busy with
the possibility that it had worked only half way, that Hot Rod would be
"Ready?" First Aid asked.
And the world around him vanished for several seconds. When he could see again he had changed position. Well, his mind had done this.
"Optimus Prime?" Perceptor asked.
He nodded and sat up. He was moving stiffly and with deliberate care. His body was still feeling sore from his recent injuries. Looking over to the other table he saw Hot Rod's motionless form. No, he was Rodimus Prime, his body still transformed by the Matrix. First Aid walked over to the still figure and carefully removed the Matrix, holding it out to Optimus Prime. The Autobot leader took it and inserted it into his chest's circuits.
"Something's wrong," Perceptor muttered.
Optimus Prime's head whipped around and he stared at Perceptor and First Aid in apprehension of bad news.
"He isn't transforming," First Aid muttered. "What's wrong?"
Prime frowned at the motionless form of Rodimus. It was true. He hadn't changed back into Hot Rod after the removal of the Matrix. Normally he should have done so immediately after Optimus had taken out the Matrix. Not even the lingering Matrix energy could be responsible for this. Rodimus wasn't moving and the light hadn't returned to his optics.
"Brain waves are okay," First Aid said as he checked the unconscious Autobot. "He seems to be deep under. Everything's normal, except for his appearance.... Let's give him some time to get back." He turned to Optimus Prime. "It looks like his personality was returned, but we can't tell for sure. We've to wait until he comes around."
"Keep me informed," Prime said, his optics lingering on Rodimus. He left the room.
Outside he was greeted by Midnight, who was leaning against the window, arms crossed in front of his chest. The Sentinel leader didn't say anything, just looked at him. Prime felt like lying under a microscope and he wondered what the Sentinel leader was thinking. After several seconds he said, "Welcome back."
Prime nodded. "I don't think I've to ask whether you know what happened or not."
Midnight shook his head. "Nearly everyone knows, but everyone agreed to drop the subject for now. No use talking excessively about it. They are just glad you're back."
Optimus felt an irrational anger rise inside of him. Hot Rod had risked his life and Midnight told him that no one would ever mention it aloud or in his presence?
"Optimus," Midnight said slowly, as if he could read his thoughts, "do you want him to be reminded of his near-suicide? Hot Rod did what he had to do."
"He didn't have to do it. That's the whole point," the Autobot leader ground out.
"Oh, yes, he did. He believed he had to do it and so he did it." Midnight's visor flashed briefly, mirroring a smile. "How is he?"
"Unconscious, but First Aid said he might be back completely."
Prime sighed. "When the Matrix was removed his body stayed that of Rodimus Prime. Completely."
"No one knows. Nothing like that has ever happened before."
Midnight looked thoughtful. "Maybe when the Matrix energy disperses ....?"
Optimus shook his head. "It never will disperse completely. That's what saved his life when he was infected with a virus. He should have transformed back into Hot Rod the moment I took back the Matrix, but he didn't!"
The Sentinel leader shook his head, then he asked, "What consequences will it have for him .... if he stays that way?"
Prime leaned against the all and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "I wish I knew. We'll have to wait until he wakes up."
"Say, you feel up to a debriefing?" Midnight asked, changing the subject. "Kup and Ultra Magnus are bursting with status reports."
He sighed. "I don't think I have any more excuses, do I?"
The Sentinel leader chuckled. "No, you don't. Have fun." He turned to go.
"And where are you off to?"
"I have my own problems running around and not knowing what to do with their life," Midnight answered.
Optimus understood and nodded. Then he walked down the corridor to go and see his chief of security and his city commander.
* * *
Waking up had never been so hard. He felt like dragging
himself out of a swamp. Hot Rod let his optics focus, then tried to sit
up, which proved to be much easier than he had thought. As he looked around
he discovered he wasn't alone in the sickbay. Someone was sitting on the
chair in front of the medical terminal, watching him. It was Optimus Prime.
"Uh, hi, Optimus Prime," he said, noticing that his voice somehow sounded wrong ...... somehow deeper. Maybe a side-effect of being under so long. "You look much better."
"I feel much better as well," Optimus answered, not sure how to approach this situation. He had been in busy conferences with Ultra Magnus, Kup and several officials and hadn't had time to see his recovering second-in-command until five hours ago. Since then he had waited for him to wake up, thinking hard about what to do when Rodimus did.
"Why did you do it, Rodimus?"
Hot Rod's face lost its partly cheerful smile. "It was the only way," he answered, then the last word registered. "Rodimus?" he whispered. He looked at his body and his expression changed into one of panic. "No..... that can't be!" He touched his chest. "I'm.... I'm not even having the Matrix any more....."
"No, you don't," Optimus said softly. "Still you didn't change back after First Aid removed the Matrix and I took it back. You have been without the Matrix for more than twelve hours and nothing has happened."
"Maybe .... it's the Matrix energy ...."
Prime shook his head. "No."
"Oh, no," Rodimus moaned, shaking his head. "What now? I can't stay this way! What do we do?"
"I don't know," Prime confessed. "We can't change you back into Hot Rod, only the Matrix can. If it didn't, maybe there's a purpose behind it."
"Purpose?" Rodimus laughed humorlessly. "Sure, a purpose!" He gestured at his new old self. "What purpose does this serve, huh?!"
"We have never really understood the Matrix, Rodimus," the Autobot leader reminded him calmly. "It does things apparently at random and I gave up seeing the deeper meaning behind everything. It reveals itself later on."
Rodimus shook his head again, silently staring at his body. There wasn't much difference, except for the deeper colors and the different car mode, but still .... he wasn't Rodimus Prime, he was Hot Rod. Optimus held the Autobot Matrix of Leadership! He had had so much trouble finding a place after the return of Optimus Prime, finally achieving a kind of inner peace with Shanygn's help and Optimus' declaration that Hot Rod would be his second-in-command. Now everything seemed to be destroyed by his transformation.
Optimus Prime crossed his arms. "This changes nothing, Rodimus; nothing at all."
"Yeah, sure," he muttered.
The Autobot leader leaned forward. "It doesn't, Roddy. You are who you are, bodily appearance aside."
"And who am I?" he demanded harshly. "What will the others see?"
"They will see Rodimus Prime, my second-in-command," Optimus explained with a fine smile in his voice.
Rodimus sighed, still hoping that this was only a temporary transformation.
"But your new old self aside, you haven't told me why you pulled this stunt," Optimus changed subject, scowling at his second.
Rodimus suddenly wore a defensive expression, looking Optimus Prime right into the optics. "I know you don't like what I did, but it was my decision and I made it. There was nothing else to do. It saved your life. That's all that counts."
Prime placed both hands on Rodimus' shoulders, shaking him slightly. "No, that's not what counts. I don't want anyone to sacrifice himself, especially when the cause is so hopeless."
"It wasn't hopeless," Rodimus contradicted vehemently. "You were still in there!"
"Okay, my young friend, then when do you judge a situation hopeless? When I'm dust? Rodimus, one day you might have to take over."
"This day isn't here yet!"
Optimus cocked his head and suppressed a sigh. "No, I guess not." His optics glittered with a smile. "I should be thankful for what you did, that someone is looking after my health so thoroughly, and here I am, reproaching you. I am thankful for the rescue. You saved my life and you got the Matrix back."
Prime couldn't give Rodimus the reassurance that this would always be the case. There was no way to foretell the future, but Optimus knew that Rodimus had changed in the last few years. It was quite clear that if the worst ever happened, he wouldn't refuse his destiny any more.
When Rodimus didn't say anything, Prime tried a shot into the dark. "Do you still feel guilty about what happened so long ago?"
Rodimus' eyes flashed briefly. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Oh, yes, you do. "I'm talking about the day I was killed by Megatron," Optimus said bluntly, noting how Rodimus tensed. "I'm talking about you trying to help me and how I was shot anyway."
"Optimus ...." the younger Autobot ground out.
"Are you still feeling guilty?" Optimus Prime demanded levely.
Rodimus looked away, then sighed. "A bit," he finally confessed.
"Because I should not have interfered. Because I was too hot headed and too stupid to see you had it all under control. Because I ended up with the Matrix -- the guy who was responsible for your death!"
"You call that a bit?" Prime asked in surprise.
"Yeah, well, I worked through a lot of that already and I know, somewhere, that it's not really my fault all alone." Rodimus shrugged. "It's just ... when you lay in the sickbay, dying ..... I couldn't help it. I flashed back to that fatal moment and thought that all would happen again! I was once again responsible for your death and would once again end up with the Matrix. It doesn't fit!"
Optimus smiled slightly, his optics reflecting the smile. "The Matrix never judges, it chooses. And it wouldn't choose someone who is a killer. You didn't kill me, Rodimus."
Rodimus nodded. He knew that, had known it for some time, but the last few days had brought those guilt trips back. He wondered if he was prone to guilt trips.....
"I know," he finally said slowly. "I think I overreacted a bit."
Prime looked pleased. "Now," he said, changing subject away from the Matrix and dark pasts and futures, "I want to know what happened to the Seekers and I want to know about this new Sentinel. Ultra Magnus and Kup told me about every detail since my last visit here on Earth, but they said you were the one best informed about the Sentinels."
Rodimus nodded, accepting the change easily. There would be other times to discuss this and he knew he'd never get rid of his feelings regarding the subject, but for now it was over. At least partly. If he remained Rodimus Prime .... what did that mean for his future? He sighed, hoping that there was a solution to this new problem somewhere.
The two Autobot leaders walked down the corridor, Rodimus briefing Optimus Prime about Wild Card and what Midnight had told him about the subject.
* * *
Wild Card sat outside Autobot City, watching how several
wild ducks descended onto the near-by lake. It was a peaceful scene, one
that should help to calm nervous states of the mind, but it didn't help
him a lot. He had a lot to think about, mainly about his future. He could
no longer return to the Seekers, even if he somehow terminated his Interface
with Jeff. The others would kill him right away, never asking any question.
And the thought of separating frightened him and he tried not to think
too much about his still wavering decision as to whether or not to request
the separation or not. Midnight had told him quite clearly that separation
was out of the question and Wild Card knew that through everything that
had happened in the last few days, their Interface had strengthened quite
Then there was the problem that somehow he couldn't think of himself as a Sentinel either, though he would love to be one. It was just a name, but it meant a lot now .... now that he was alone. He wanted to belong somewhere.
"There you are."
He looked up and discovered the infinitely black form of Midnight. Even though he knew his friend, had known him since he had been awakened by Braintrust, he was always slightly frightened by his appearance. He wondered how the Autobots saw him. He was so completely different, even from the other Sentinels, that he was an outsider in his own right.
"What are you doing here?" Midnight wanted to know, sitting down beside him.
"Dangerous," the Sentinel leader quipped.
Wild Card smiled wryly. "Yeah." He sighed. "I'm not sure where I fit in anymore," he confessed softly, feeling somehow at ease to talk to Midnight.
"Because of what? Because you Interfaced or because you are a stranger among Sentinels now?"
Wild Card stared at the lake. "A bit of both, I think. I don't want to hurt Jeff in any way, but I'm afraid that he can get hurt through our partnership."
Midnight nodded. "Every Interfaced Sentinels feels this way, but you have to learn to give him the space he needs. Jeff is not helpless, no Interface is. We just view them this way because they are smaller and more vulnerable."
Wild Card agreed silently.
"You will see in time that they can live quite well without our constant protection and worrying," Midnight added dryly. "If you don't realize it from the start, you'll learn it the hard way. "Skywolf was throwing fits because he thought that Jill, as a female and a humanoid, needed his help with every task. They had some pretty loud and long fights."
Wild Card smiled. "Doesn't look like it when you see them now."
"No, because they began to give the other more leeway. They stopped being overprotective."
There was a short silence between them, then Wild Card said, "I don't want to give up my Interface, but I'm afraid to stay here. I'm still a Seeker in the others' eyes. I don't want Jeff to become an outsider among his own race."
Midnight smiled a bit, his visor optics sparkling. "If I managed it, then so can you. I was a Seeker when I first met the others and I had a lot more difficulty convincing them I was for real. I was, and I still am, a Sleeper. I'm not a regular Sentinel; I'm different."
"Yes, but you're the leader....."
"Oh, sure, and I always was, right?" Midnight chuckled. "I wasn't borne a leader."
"But you're Interfaced one hundred percent! You were destined to be leader!" Wild Card contradicted.
"That's where you're wrong. Being completely Interfaced doesn't necessarily mean that you're in the line of succession for leadership. Believe me, if I had had a choice I'd have declined the honor." A wry smile passed over Midnight's face.
"No more buts. You are both more than welcome to stay. The Autobots won't mind another one of us hanging around and I, for my part, think Jeff and you need to learn more about Interfacing. Learning as you go along won't be an option, not with Braintrust's constant attempts to get a suitable Interface candidate. Jeff is now in the same danger as Steve is."
"You think we are Interfaced one hundred percent?" Wild Card asked with a bit of fear in his voice.
"Not yet, but Skywolf shares my opinion that you might be in time." Midnight looked around. "Where is Jeff anyway?"
"He's back in the City."
"What did he say to all of this?"
Wild Card sighed. "He left the decision to me."
Midnight shook his head. "You both have to decide. Let's go and find him. We'll start this whole thing anew, without a crisis threatening on the door step." Midnight rose and held out his hand, pulling Wild Card up.
"One more question," Wild Card said slowly, looking closely at his friend. "When you brought me back to the shuttle, before we Gated, you said you had found me through a 'method you have'. When I asked you said 'later'. Well, now is later. How did you find me?"
Midnight sighed. "How could I even foster the wish that you might have forgotten that." He shook his head. "It was a feeling."
"Feeling?" Wild Card echoed.
"I get these .... feelings when I get close to another Seeker. I know exactly who the other one is. It's like a faint humming sound, very faint, but it's there. And every Sentinel has a different .... sound ...." He shrugged. "Voodoo has the same abilities, but he doesn't pick up everyone, just some of us."
Wild Card stared at him. "Uh," was all he could say. "That's ... uh...."
Midnight chuckled softly. "Let's go back." With that he transformed and streaked off into the sky.
Wild Card simply followed him.
* * *
First Aid nodded slowly, rubbing his chin when he had
heard Skywolf out. "Maybe," he said reluctantly. "I know next to nothing
about Interfacing, but if what I heard of you guys is true, then the Interface
as such creates a bond, which is only separated by death."
Midnight and Skywolf nodded. Skywolf had finally found the time to talk to First Aid and explain his theory to him. The medic had listened intently to him, never interrupting. Midnight had joined them, as interested in whether this was true or not as anyone.
"The main problem is that Prime isn't a Sentinel and doesn't have the 'equipment' we have to Interface," Skywolf said. "We are enabled to do it by using our former weapon as a catalyst for the humanoids. Hot Rod simply reacted to Shanygn's latent Interface abilities, mainly because the Matrix left him with the ability to attempt an Interface."
"The Matrix was removed out of Prime's body ...." First Aid started.
Skywolf shook his head. "Not the same. Hot Rod was compensating for a permanent loss. Optimus Prime hadn't lost the Matrix, it had just been temporarily been removed."
"Okay, let's say this woman remained inside of him," First Aid said slowly. "Where?"
"She isn't physically present," Midnight explained. "Her body died and you can't Interface just by essence. It's a complete body experience. The human body merges with the Sentinel. In Prime's case we can't look for human tissue or something like that."
"She became just another program," Skywolf said.
"I mean, it's possible to store memories in an artificial life form," the engineer said with a smile. "I remember reading something about 'Autobot Spike', the time you had to transfer Ambassador Witwicky's consciousness into a robotic body. He became a program. I believe she became another program as well."
First Aid nodded. "We could run a scan through Prime's circuits, search for anomalies, new programs."
Skywolf nodded as well. "Let's do it."
* * *
Shanygn smiled at Rodimus. "Looking good," she said.
"Hey, really, I mean it!"
"Apparently the Matrix changed not only your body, but it also rearranged your vocal unit," the woman commented dryly. "Listen, Roddy, I know this means not only a small change for you, but believe me if I tell you, you've always been Rodimus Prime, ever since you got the Matrix for the first time. The Matrix never changes a personality, only a body. If it did change personalities, then every leader would just be a clone of the former one."
He looked down on her. "I know," he sighed. "But it doesn't make it any easier."
Shanygn nodded. "How d'you feel about a bit of fresh air and a little race?" she asked with a crooked grin.
Rodimus reflected the grin. "Race you to Lookout Mountain!" He transformed into the sleek truck mode and shot out of the City.
Shanygn laughed, shutting her helmet and taking off, her thrusters whining.
* * *
Tornado straightened from his work and surveyed the damage
he had still to repair. It was a lot. He had help from the other Seekers,
but the finer details had to be left to him. Braintrust was in a devastating
state, most of his circuits fried beyond repair, his skin twisted and burned,
partly ruptured, partly torn apart. The Matrix energy had swamped his whole
body, leaving nothing like it had been before, twisting and turning everything
into a barely recognizable shadow of its former state. Tornado doubted
that the Seeker leader would ever be who he had been before, but he couldn't
tell what Braintrust might become after repairs were finished. Too much
was destroyed and too little salvageable parts remained. There was even
a chance that he wouldn't be back at all.
Somehow he couldn't find himself to blame the Autobots for the damage. Braintrust had brought it upon himself, in his endless greed for an Interface. He had nearly killed himself in the end. Tornado had never felt the urge to Interface. He had always been happy with who he was. He knew that there were Sentinels who weren't Interfaced as well. Interfacing brought only trouble, in his eyes.
Maybe this will teach him to quit his search and turn to more sensitive tasks.
But the scientist knew this would never be the case. Braintrust envied the Sentinels their ability to merge with a human and amplify or fine tune their powers. Being already very powerful he craved for more.
With a sigh Tornado turned back to his work of stabilizing at least the central memory core of his leader.
* * *
She was in a place she had never seen before, but she
liked it. It was much like the place she had shared with the stranger,
the stranger she had always thought she knew somehow. But it was also very
different in some aspects, things she couldn't quite put her finger on.
She knew that outside the place things were happening, things concerning
her. Someone was trying to help her.
Settling back she stretched her mind like tentacles through the place that seemed to
be her home now. Knowing that somehow this might be her permanent home she began to explore it.
* * *
Optimus Prime looked at the small cube on the table in
front of him. This little cube, a memory box, held the memories and dreams
of a woman who had been kidnapped and tortured by a fanatic who had been
after a goal he could never reach. She had been forced to Interface, and
because the Interface with an Autobot could never work she had been killed.
Optimus could still feel her presence, could still hear the voice who had
held him back from going where he would never be able to return from. She
had saved his life and Prime couldn't help but think he owed her for it.
He didn't even know her name and they had been unable to take her body
with them to give her a decent burial. He knew next to nothing about her,
except that she had helped a complete stranger.
Skywolf and First Aid had scanned his systems and found this anomaly, downloading the apparently useless program into the memory box.
"We have to find a way to help her," Optimus had said after the download was complete.
"Whichever way that is," Midnight had replied, regarding him seriously. "We don't know if she's really still conscious or just existing, with no personality at all. Maybe this is just collection of memories."
Well, whatever they'd find out, he had to know. And one day, he knew, he would be able to pay his debts ....