TRANSFORMERS: Testament

Chapter 15

Optimus reread the report then dropped the digipad, disgusted. For his cooperation, someone in the court thought it only fair to reduce Brian's bail. Consequently, Brian was released from jail under a hundred thousand dollar bail which someone else promptly paid.

Obviously someone on the outside, the Autobot leader mused. He pushed himself off the desk and paced, brooding.

He glanced out the window, his optics scanned the great city around him. What irony! Here he was supposedly this great military commander and yet he still could not save Central City. "Max," he called out loud. "News."

The video screen flickered and channels automatically switched to accommodate Optimus' request.

" . . . THE EXPENSE OF LIVING IN FORT MAX/CENTRAL CITY DUE TO THE ROAD BLOCKS HAS REACHED AN ALL-TIME HIGH. GAS PRICES: TEN DOLLARS A GALLON! MILK, FIVE DOLLARS! FLOUR, SIX AND MOST OF THE BAKERIES THAT HAVEN'T CLOSED ARE ALMOST AT THAT POINT."

"AND WHAT'S BEING DONE ABOUT IT NOW, SIL?"

"WELL, DAN, THE AUTOBOTS AND CENTRAL CITY AUTHORITIES ARE DOING WHAT THEY CAN AT THE MOMENT. MANY PEOPLE HAVE BEEN KILLED AND INJURED IN THE LAST FEW BATTLES. REPORTS STATE THAT RODIMUS PRIME WAS SERIOUSLY INJURED DURING A BATTLE WITH THE TERRORISTS. TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, THERE ARE REPORTS AND RUMORS-AND AGAIN, I SAY THAT THIS IS JUST AN UNCONFIRMED RUMOR-THAT SEVENTEEN MORE PEOPLE HAVE DISAPPEARED IN THE LAST TWENTY-FOUR HOURS SO IF THAT'S THE CASE, IF THAT'S TRUE, IT RAISES THE MISSING PERSON'S LIST TO ABOUT FIVE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-TWO . . ."

Suddenly, he didn't want to hear any more. He didn't want to listen to something that pointed invisible fingers, reminding him of his failure. Prime turned away and was about to tell Max to just turn the damn thing off when the reporter suddenly cut off and a bizarre voice, like a children's cartoon character, filled the room with coldness:

HELLLLLLOOOOO CENTRAL CITY! HELLLOOOOOO FORT MAX!

Optimus spun around. "Max! Record this!"

"IIIIIIT'S ME! MR. WATCHER! DIDJA MISS ME? AWE, THAT'S GOOD. LISTEN, I HAVE A LITTLE MESSAGE TO GIVE TO ALL YOU GOOD PEOPLE. AND YOU'VE BEEN SO GOOD, TOO! I'M GOING TO INTRODUCE YOU TO MY LAST FRIEND: EXECUTIONER!"

Up stepped another puppet. This one had a little ceramic mask on its face, the mask had no expression, but one could clearly see all too-human eyes under it. It was dressed in white robes with the drama masks of comedy/tragedy dangling from a necklace. The masked puppet waved in silence and Watcher laughed.

"DON'T MIND HIM, FOLKS, HE'S A LITTLE TV-SHY. ANYWAY, WE THOUGHT WE'D GIVE ANOTHER LOVE MESSAGE BEFORE LEAVING. WHAT'S THAT? AWE, NOW, DON'TCHA CRY! I KNOW YOU'RE GOING TO MISS US! BUT WE HAVE ANOTHER TOWN TO VISIT BEFORE LONG AND WE THOUGHT WE'D CELEBRATE OUR TIME WITH YOU WITH ONE FINAL PARTY! SEE, WE WANT YA ALL TO SEE OUR BELOVED MASTER AND YOUR LOVED-ONES WILL MAKE IT POSSIBLE! THAT'S RIGHT! WE'RE GOING TO USE THEIR LIFE FORCE TO BRING RROGOCHE RIGHT TO YOU, CENTRAL CITY, JUST BECAUSE YOU'VE BEEN SO GOOD TO US! WHAT'S THAT? WHERE ARE WE GOING TO APPEAR NEXT? WHY, THAT'S A GOOD QUESTION! WE LIKE TEXAS, YOU SEE AND THOUGHT ABOUT GOING TO HOUSTON. SO, IF YOU MISS US, YOU'LL FIND US THERE. AWE, NOW, I CAN'T GIVE AWAY ANY DATES . . . THAT'S AGAINST MY RELIGION-HAHAHAHA!"

Optimus swung around shoved all the digipads off his desktop sending the computer monitor with them. He pounded the desk, infuriated beyond all but one word: "NO!"

The three-eyed puppet stepped back and Executioner leaned against the TV screen, a set of human eyes blinked under the mask: "KORDOK. ROCK NAAKANNNNNDA. DOISH."

The words stabbed Prime through his laser core and he sank to his knees. He knew those words; that phrase! He knew that language! The people who spoke it were long since dead. He and Magnus were the only two people in the whole quadrant who knew and remembered those people. Was this what happened to them? Were they killed by the very creature-god they worshiped?

Prime shuddered within. The Droms on planet Staumblan were a fierce people, ruthless in business and well known for their cultural child abuse. Then, one day, they simply ceased to exist. Optimus collapsed, sitting against his desk, staring out his window into a partly-cloudy mid afternoon sky. How could a cult attain so much power?

"OH MAX AND CENTRAL: TWIN CITIES FAIR!" The Watcher's voice came back to haunt Prime's audios, "WE SHALL SAY OUR THANKS. WE WILL LIVE AN ETERNITY DANCING IN THE LIGHT OF RROGOCHE'S FIRE!"

" . . . IT'S ALL OVER THE NEWS, DAN. A GREAT LEGAL BATTLE IS TAKING PLACE BETWEEN THE AUTOBOTS AND THE WITWICKYS FOR CUSTODY OF THEIR LITTLE NINE YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER, RESONNA WITWICKY. RUMORS HAVE BEEN RUNNING RAMPANT ALL OVER TOWN, THESE LAST FEW DAYS FROM DRUG ABUSE AND CHILD ENDANGERMENT; CULT INVOLVEMENT; TO PARENTAL NEGLECT AND CHILD ABUSE. THERE ARE NO CONFIRMATIONS ON ANY OF THESE RUMORS AT THIS TIME AND WHERE IT ALL STARTED IS NOT CLEAR. WE CAN'T GET ANY ANSWERS FROM EITHER SIDE, BUT WE DO HAVE CONFIRMATION IN REGARDS TO THE CUSTODY BATTLE."

"VERY INTERESTING INDEED, BEVERLY. COULD THIS HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE RUMOR THAT THE WITWICKYS' SON, BRIAN IS RELEASED FROM JAIL UNDER A HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLAR BAIL?"

"AGAIN, WE HAVE NO CONFIRMATION ON THIS NEW STORY, DAN, BUT THE PUBLIC'S EXCITEMENT OVER THIS NEW DEVELOPMENT SEEMS TO HAVE OVERSHADOWED THE TERRIBLE CIRCUMSTANCES CAUSED BY THE DOPPELGANGERS. AND IT SEEMS FOR THE MOMENT, THE CITY HAS FALLEN EERILY SILENT THESE PAST FEW DAYS."

"BEVERLY, THANK YOU. ON WALL STREET, TODAY, THE JONES AVERAGE-"

"Max, kill it." Prime softly ordered. He sat there frozen with anger and frustration.

The door bleeped for attention. Prime was not in the mood to greet anybody and wipe their proverbial nose. "Who's there, Max?" He asked softly.

"CITY COMMANDER ULTRA MAGNUS, SIR."

"Let him in." Prime forced himself off the floor, although he would just as soon as remain there. But it was not a proper thing to do in front of anyone. He inwardly frowned at the mess he made and knew he'd have to call for a new monitor and someone to come and clean up after him. He started to pick up the fallen digipads as Magnus entered.

"You're not going to like this . . ." Magnus stared the mess on the floor then gazed at Prime. It wasn't very often that Optimus threw tempers like this, even more seldom to this extent. "Can I ask what happened?"

"Did you see the news broadcast?" Prime asked in turn.

"No."

"You didn't?"

"No."

Optimus paused for a moment, unsure whether to fill Magnus in or not. Then he saw the digipad and a tiny object sitting on it. "What's this?" He asked.

Magnus handed it to him, fragment and all. "You're not going to like this. Do you recall something about a crate that appeared from nowhere and three Antares Screamers packed tightly in it?"

"No." Prime gazed at him, now, surprised. "No! I knew nothing of any Screamers."

Magnus nodded. "Until an hour ago, neither did I. You are, of course, aware that the inventory stock has been haywire."

"Yes. It has been for several weeks. What's the problem?"

"Electro mice, perhaps."

"What?"

Magnus grimly smiled at his own little joke. "It seems some of those shipments directed to Brian Witwicky also included weapons, among other things and a crate containing three Antares Screamers."

Optimus picked up the fragment and scanned it. "Is this . . . is this what I think it is?"

"A fragment of the same material the road barricades are made from, yes." Magnus answered matter-of-fact.

Prime gazed at his Third in command. "This came with it?"

"It was found in the mess made while someone rummaged through the lock-up and stole several hand grenades, six Semi-Solars and one Screamer-one of the three we were never told about."

"Does Rodimus know about this?" Then Optimus remembered Roddi was sleeping, "Perhaps we'll wait until he's come out of recharge-" he amended.

"Rodimus was called out of recharge by the officer in question to investigate."

"Stickler?"

"That's the one."

Prime leaned against his desk and sighed, a sure sign he was far from happy. Magnus knew what it meant: Stickler was going to be reassigned and he himself had the pleasure of doing it. The City Commander already started thinking of places to put the figure of incompetence. The trash compactors would be a good start. All the trash compactors in the city needed a good washing. Then the Human physical facilities would be good, too. The sewers in Fort Max could use a good flushing . . .

"So, this means we have a Screamer out on the streets." Prime assumed. "And we don't know who has it, except they left this as a calling-card."

"Correct." Magnus confirmed.

Optimus handed the digipad back and swept up the broken monitor and promptly dropped it in the trash can. "Well . . . I'm heading into town, anyway. I want to personally talk to Tolomsky about the latest communication from the Doppelgangers."

"What?"

"Oh . . ." Optimus picked up a couple more digipads and set them on his desk, "it was another interrupted message broadcast from the Dopps. Something about an Executioner . . ." Prime turned to his friend, his optics narrowed, "Magnus, do you recall the phrase: 'KORDOK. ROCK NAAKANNNNNDA. DOISH."

Magnus' own optics narrowed and he stared at Prime in confusion. "I haven't heard that phrase in . . . . a very long time."

"Well, I heard it today, Magnus. The Executioner puppet used that very phrase."

Blaster buzzed him just then. "Prime." Optimus accepted.

"Yo, boss. Tolomsky's on the horn. Wants a talk at ya."

"Patch him through, Blaster."

Magnus smiled grimly. "I'm leaving to make someone's life miserable, Prime." He paused just then remembering to report their progress-or lack thereof on finding Groove.

Optimus waved as his friend turned away. "Chief Tolomsky?" He asked.

"Heyyy!" Tolomsky's voice rang through the room.

"What did you think of the broadcast?" Prime asked as he picked up a couple more digipads.

Magnus just about crossed the door threshold when Tolomsky asked "What broadcast?"

"Didn't you see it?" Optimus stood straight, staring at his city commander in puzzlement. Magnus froze and turned back, listening in.

"Sorry, Prime." Tolomsky muttered. "I don't have a clue as to what you're talking about."

"The Watcher." Prime answered, wondering why he was having to be so specific about a pirated broadcast. "The Doppelgangers sent another TV message."

Silence.

"Optimus . . . weeee . . . never intercepted any transmissions at the station. And we've got three TV's going on at once."

"It was a local channel." Prime explained. He waited while Tolomsky asked someone in the same room about any second transmissions. But no one seemed to know anything. "Nope. Sorry, Prime. No one here's seen anything at all."

"That's strange." Prime mused. "Max, did you record that transmission?"

"AFFIRMATIVE, COMMANDER." The city replied.

"And is it in fact a transmission?"

"YES."

"Max, burn a copy of it for me. Jax," he called to Tolomsky, "I'm bringing in a copy of the transmission. I should be there in forty-five minutes."

"Okay." Tolomsky answered. "See ya then." And he disconnected.

Magnus stared blankly at Prime, the puzzlement wouldn't leave his face and he crossed his arms, suddenly feeling cold inside. "The transmission was meant for you only."

"Apparently." Prime couldn't get over it, either. He kept trying to figure out how they could broadcast something like that right into someone's private lines.

Magnus thought it over a little more carefully. "That might explain the ancient Chunomik warrior's vow. You and I are the only-"

"Magnus!" Prime gasped. "You're right! You and I are the only ones here that knows anything about that! How could they know?"

Magnus fell dead silent a moment more, his optics shut off, his whole frame leaned against the doorpost, thumbing his chin. After a second, he gazed back at his friend. "It's possible that Rrogoche isn't a god at all, but alien Intelligence. It could be that this Intelligence has the ability to travel inter-spatially and/or lives in a sister-dimension."

Optimus thought it over also. What Magnus suggested wasn't all that improbable. Still . . . "Six million years or more. That's a long time to travel." Optimus set two more pads on his desk and decided he'd leave the rest for someone else to pick up. "Even for the distance between Earth and Chunom."

Magnus sent him a wry smile. "Everyone makes pit stops, Prime." he lightly joked.

"Very true." Optimus chuckled.

"KORDOK. ROCK NAAKANNNNNDA. DOISH."

"What is this?" Tolomsky snarled. "Sounds like Swahili slang."

"It's from a planet that no longer exists." Optimus replied in quiet, somber tones.

Streetwise, Tolomsky and Blades all stared at him in shock.

"Ultra Magnus and I . . . once visited a planet called Chunom far into the Sagittarius sector. Most of the villages and cities were decimated by what looked like an invasion. Those who survived were sick and dying from starvation. KORDOK. ROCK NAAKANNNNNDA. DOISH. Live Violence Die. The English translation might be more like: Live by violence, die by violence. It's an ancient gangster's vow of death; they would keep murdering and destroying until they themselves were killed."

Tolomsky had to remember his mouth was hanging open. He sighed, flabbergasted. "And how is it that these bozos targeted you for a private email?"

"I don't know." Optimus answered. "Ultra Magnus suggested that maybe Rrogoche is, in fact, an alien intelligence, rather than a god."

"Commander," Streets broke in, "that Chunomik phrase . . . why would the Doppelgangers use it?"

"It's a clue, Streetwise." The Autobot leader answered simply. "It tells me Rrogoche is responsible for the destruction of an entire planetary population."

Streets shook his head. "But . . . Optimus, considering the meager tactics the Dopps are using now, they could easily be stopped. The government is merely giving us time to deal with it ourselves but if the Dopps were a planetary-wide threat, all they'd have to do is bomb this whole area. I don't see how a group that concentrates only city-to-city could obliterate an entire planet. That doesn't make much sense unless Chunom wasn't very modernized."

"It was, Streetwise." Prime answered, "That's the kicker. Chunom was as advanced as Earth is now."

Streetwise turned to stare out Tolomsky's office windows. It made no sense. The Dopps' tactics weren't designed for planet-wide destruction. There was something else, something missing from it all. He turned back as Tolomsky finished reporting the discovery of three mutilated bodies found dangling from the rafters of a department store warehouse.

"Commander," he called after Tolomsky finished. "I just thought of something else: the DNA. How would it fit into this picture?"

Prime shook his head. "I don't know, Streetwise." He answered honestly.

"But . . . what you said, about Chunom, that similar circumstances occurred there . . . the DNA. Optimus, what if the alien intelligence is the source of the DNA? I know Mrs. J. said it wasn't real DNA, but it fits nearly all the criteria. What if it's DNA that's based on an alien life form, something we've never come across?"

"Makes sense." Tolomsky plopped a stuffed manila folder on his desk.

Blades frowned. "It still doesn't answer planet-wide destruction." He added. "Prime, even with all the powers that DNA/joys can provide, it still doesn't answer how they could kill a whole planetary population. Unless, of course, they had Screamers." He shrugged.

Prime thought it over carefully. He tried to recall the places he and Magnus traveled. He didn't mention the Decepticons he and Magnus and their troops fought. It was inconsequential information. The planet's population was already decimated when they arrived. It looked like an invasion. It looked as though something with terrible power came, obliterated the cities and people and left. The ecosystem was still in tact. The buildings, for the most part, were still standing. He turned to Tolomsky. "We must find that Screamer, Jax. I can't over stress the importance of finding that weapon."

"A new form of atomic bomb?" Tolomsky leaned against his desk and crossed his arms.

"No." Prime replied quietly. "Something much worse." He watched as Streetwise silently reviewed the recording. Optimus felt proud of his people. They worked hard, did everything in their power to get the job done. Blades silently pointed out the Human eyes under the mask of the Executioner and Streets silently nodded. Prime smiled privately. "I'm going to the I.G. building. Contact me if you've picked up anything."

Streets merely glanced at him and gave him a thumbs-up.

Prime departed and Blades replayed the recording.

Streets sighed lethargically. "Sometimes, I think Optimus has more faith in me than I do in myself."

"Whatzat mean?" Blades asked, not looking at him.

"I've been racking my processors for the last several weeks looking for little nuances, patterns, a certain phrase or symbol. You know, something that will give us more of a clue into how these guys think. And so far, there's been nothing that I can think of."

Tolomsky sat down and shuffled through papers, signing his name to several forms. "Ah, something's bound to click, Streets."

"It's so easy for you to say. But . . . I just can't see it, Chief." The Protectobot gazed out the window and into the streets, longing to see the 'whole picture' with better clarity. He had been through everything he could possibly think of from the masks and puppets to analyzing the equipment (or what was left of it) after the attacks. They examined the damaged trucks, finding the material again to be the very same as the barricades. It still didn't give Streets what he needed: an edge, a way to beat or meet these jerks at their own little game.

And he was frightened for Groove. They hadn't stopped searching for him, but Streets was needed here for the moment. Sideswipe, Tripcord and Tenton were scouring the city streets. But Streetwise would have preferred to do it himself. Eight days later, they still hadn't found a clue as to his brother's whereabouts.

He turned back to the video and watched as the Executioner took off one mask, another hiding behind it. Then it crossed its arm over Watcher's shoulders. It was an eerie sight. Something that might have been entertaining for children was turned into a nightmare. Two puppets. Two masks. Just a pair of demons like the Dopps and their twins.

"Aaaagggghhh!" Streets suddenly screamed. Tolomsky and Blades both stared at him.

"What?" Tolomsky shouted, startled.

"Them!" Streets stammered. "Two! Two!"

"Wha-?" Blades quipped. "What under the Earth are you talking about?"

"Two!" Streets was almost ready to crash right through the windows and he wished to all Primus that he had his collection of newspaper articles and video clips to prove his point. "Two! Oh, Primus! Everything is done in pairs! Think on it! Every time there's been an attack, it's always been done twice! The Dopps come in pairs! Optimus and Magnus were attacked by two trucks! There were two trucks at the school! There were two bombs at Kmart and at the mall and again on the second bombing! And at the theater! And so on and so on! Oh, Primus!"

Tolomsky stood and finished his coffee. "Better calm yourself there, Streets. You'll blow something out."

Streets laughed. "I don't know why I didn't see it all before, Chief! Rrogoche herself is not one gender, but two. The Dopps can divide themselves into two people. Whenever they attack, it's always been twice. Duality-blood and war. Through duality there is fulfilment and completion. There is complimentary and contrast. There is the authority and the subordinate. There is the predator and the prey. There is the attacker . . . and the victim. So, when the cult attacked, it attacked 2 cities, 2 peoples, 2 races two . . . what would be considered 2 in the city? What's considered double that might have some significance to the Dopps?"

Tolomsky shrugged. "Uh, I dunno. Seems the one thing the Dopps've never done is attack the same place twice."

Blades nodded. "Good point. How about that one, professor?" He asked his brother.

But Streets was thinking about Morgan Stadium and the building full of bodies Mrs Jamison discovered. What was the significance of those two? Or did they have anything to do with the cult at all? "I don't know." He answered quietly. "If and when the Dopps attack again, I'm sure it would be a place significant . . . to the whole city . . ." He turned back to Jax, his expression now a sudden blank. "Chief, what was that building all about anyway?"

"What? The one Mrs J found the bodies in?"

"Yeah, that's it."

Jax shook his head. "Parking. Not much else. There was an office at the top floor. But the building was going to be converted into a parking facility-"

"For Humans and aliens between the business district and the Mall." Streets finished. "And the Stadium . . . it was rebuilt after Blitzwing took it over and the Decepticons fought in it. Then the city held a trial . . . and the Zone Defense was used as a maze created by the Decepticons, then mapped out and turned into a game arena. There has to be something else in the city that has a significant duality. We must think of-" Street's internal comline called his attention. "Streetwise here." He answered.

"Hey!" Roddi's voice piped through. "I'm going Screamer-hunting. Wanna come and lend me a hand?"

"Now?" Streets asked, trying to figure a way to weasel his way out of it.

"Yeah. Now would be good." Roddi agreed. "And you can bring Blades with you. Air support would be nice."

"Well . . . okay." He moaned. Streets turned to Jax. "Guess the rest of my brainstorm will have to wait. My boss says he needs me and Blades to help look for that Screamer."

"That's alright," Tolomsky dismissed. "I'll give your problem to my boys, see what they come up with."

Optimus rounded the corner of August and Ninth Street in the Diplomacy District of Central City. He transformed in the parking lot, counting the number of people at work.

Not many. He hoped those that were here, left work early. He approached the bottom of the solid steel steps leading into the huge lobby when a small child peeked round the corner.

"Peek-a-boo!" It shouted at him in a strangely familiar voice. It laughed and Prime stared for a moment, expecting the child to peer round the corner again.

"Peek-a-boo!" And for half a second, half an eternal second, Optimus swore on whatever was sacred that the child was really the Watcher puppet. He slowly, cautiously rounded the corner, straining for a second glance.

"Peek-a-boo!" And the child-or whatever-slipped round the back of the building, leading Optimus on a goose-chase. Prime followed, almost unnerved at the very idea the puppet was really a living thing.

"Commander?"

Streetwise's voice disrupted Prime's little hunt and the Autobot leader turned around, nearly startled. He didn't know Streets was there! He stood straight, attending the Protectobot as he recovered his composure. "Streetwise?"

Streetwise did not approach him, "Sir, I was in the area, I was wondering if you'd picked up on the Screamer's signal."

"No. Isn't Rodimus looking for it?"

"Yes, sir."

Optimus withdrew, suddenly spooked.

Streetwise disappeared before his optics and a tree stood there in his stead. The Autobot leader stepped carefully away and glanced about, finding he was still at the IG building. The grass area, the trees and the parking lot hadn't changed, nor the number of cars. Surges snaked up and down his back as he made his way into the front lobby, greeted by a few hellos and waves from receptionists, delegates and a couple of interplanetary ambassadors.

Prime stepped to a receptionist's desk and signed in. "Dee, what day is it?" He asked casually. Although, he didn't need anyone to tell him.

"Friday, sir." She smiled, her optics glowing just slightly. "It's new moon tonight."

"Hmmhmm. Thank you, Dee. Oh, send all messages to my office."

"Alright, Commander."

Prime climbed upstairs to the second lobby and entered his office on the left hand side of the adjoining hall.

Oh, geeze. Roddi answered when Prime Called him.

Let me guess. Prime answered as he rummaged through a pile of digipads. You caught yourself hallucinating.

Yeah.

Something about a-

NO! Don't say it! Don't say it!

puppet. Optimus finished to be purposefully teasing.

I told you NOT to say it! Roddi sent.

I just had the same experience. Then I thought I was talking with Streetwise and he turned out to be a tree. How's the search coming along?

Not fast enough. We found two more bodies deposited in an old house. Funny thing is, they don't fit the ususal pattern.

Oh?

Missing organs, parts of skin-

Something suddenly hit Optimus square in the chest and he flew against the wall, knocked senseless for a moment.

Did you feel that? Optimus?

Red on black, red like blood. Red like the sunsets on Theta-9.

Black like flat spray paint.

Optimus?

Roddi. Something hit me.

I know . . . I know.

He came to when his intercom bleeped. It amazed Optimus how he was able to carry on a conversation with Rodimus while not fully conscious. What did that mean? How was that possible? It took him another six point four seconds before he could recover enough to answer the annoying bleeping sound. "Prime." He gasped.

"Sir? There's a phone call for you. A lady named Ashlyn. She say's it's urgent."

Prime climbed to his feet and sat hard in the chair, a little distressed. "Patch her through. Ashlyn?"

She sniffed, obviously sobbing. "I'm sorry." she wept. "I can't control-" she screamed and cried.

"Ashlyn?" Prime asked again.

"Yeah, I'm here. But the city, the city is so loud. And everything is covered in blood."

"Stay there. I'm coming right for you." He ordered.

"No! That's what they want! No! You have to call Rodimus back to the Fortress! Back!"

She screamed again.

"Ashlyn!" Prime shouted. He almost disconnected and would have run out had she not come back.

"The whole city is swimming in blood. You have to stay! Two moons, dark. Two minds, one soul. Two genders, one life. And a scream in the darkness of night, and the windows . . . so much glass! My hands hurt!" She started to sob again.

"I'm coming, Ashlyn." Prime disconnected and dashed out the building.

Optimus found his psychic friend hunched close to the brick wall of a cinema. Ashlyn was a bundle of nerves and she hid her face as he transformed. He quietly knelt before her, sorry for the over-stressed psychic. He should never have asked her on the job.

"Forgive me." He breathed quietly. "If I had known . . ."

Her eyes searched him, her face a twist of two sorrows exchanging places in her psyche. Ashlyn forgot the ache emanating from the city. The pain Optimus carried in his soul, wrought by years of personal tragedy and overwhelming responsibility, hurt more deeply than the death that stood poised over Central City. Ashlyn shuddered, unable to cry at this point.

"Can I give you a ride home?" Prime offered.

"This city is about to scream." Ashlyn didn't know why she said that. Something wriggled along her backbone and lifted her to her feet. She stared directly at Prime and suddenly she thought herself a puppet, a thing to be controlled and later broken.

A . . . plaything.

She stared at Optimus again, her head tilted back to perceive the giant robot. He considered himself a toy. Why? Invisible strings forced her to walk around him, examine him from a set of eyes not her own. He was a magnificent creature. The power within him was ancient, a power rare in the universe. One species, two races. Oh, what delicacy! Why, she could feast on this race, then search the universe and find the other race. Did she not hear the Autobots call their counterparts 'Decepticons'? Did they not mention in Fortress Maximus that the 'Decepticons' were a race of warriors? Ahh! A tactical advantage! The introduction of the Rites of War would sell those creatures well and she could make them swath a path of blood and destruction across whole planets, rather than obliterating a planet one city at a time! She could drink the blood of entire solar systems!

"Could you just take me to Fort Max for a while?" She asked against her own will. "I'd feel safer there. I just can't stay here right now."

"Very well, Ashlyn. Climb aboard."

He transformed, the trailer silently connecting. Ashlyn saw the whole thing through someone else's eyes and she screamed and screamed but was unable to do anything about it. She fought for control, but blood contaminated her feet and held her prisoner in her own body.

Optimus! she tried to contact him, No! It's a trap! It's all wrong!

I know.

Something mentally gagged her and she could say nothing more. But Ashlyn did receive another vision; one of City Commander Ultra Magnus making his way back to Central City. Three other Autobots tailed him transporting building materials. The great Autobot warrior believes he is coming into town to assist in a building that's about to collapse.

The psychic wanted to warn Optimus of impending danger. But now she could not give so much as a verbal warning.

"I got it!" Blades cried. "I got the signal!"

All the other Autobots, Roddi included, stared at him in puzzlement. Rodimus' optics narrowed, "I thought we couldn't pick it up at all."

"I dunno. Maybe the static cleared."

"I mean I'm not getting anything, Blades." The Autobot leader explained.

"But I have it." The Protectobot triumphantly insisted. "It's . . . it's south-east. Come on!" And he eagerly transformed and flew away. Rodimus exchanged uneasy glances with Hotspot. "I don't like this." Rodimus complained to the Protectobot leader. "If Blades picked it up, the rest of us should have been able to do the same."

"Maybe he set his frequency at a higher level or something." The Protectobot leader replied. "Maybe it's not a Zeta-9 frequency."

Rodimus doubted that, but he said nothing.

They moved out on San Jose Drive, just a quarter of a mile shy of the Ribbon. Roddi's sensors tingled and he took up the right side lane. They passed old abandoned buildings standing for many unaccounted years. He kept looking beyond them, expecting to see an alien truck or someone in an exo-suit or other crazed thing to just pop up from nowhere and attack.

Something was wrong.

Before he could account how many times his intuition had been right, the buildings around them burst open and three tanks fired on the Autobots.

Rodimus skidded, leaving tire marks along the road, the others around him veered off the side. Roddi transformed while his body still skidded over the pavement and he called his rifle from subspace. He fired, although he knew his efforts would do little good against the outer hulls. One tank lifted itself off its own treads and rolled forward, its underbelly opened up like a dancer tossing her clothes and fired armor-piercing rounds in every direction.

Rodimus dodged the fire and returned it, but the tanks didn't receive so much as a scratch. They advanced on Rodimus and Hotspot leapt over one tank, joining his leader in the barrage of fire.

"We're being herded." Rodimus shouted above their laser fire. He raised the power on his rifle and tried to fire right up the barrel. But all it did was blow that part of the tank away. Streets and Blades tried to fire from the backside, with the same results.

The tanks didn't fire, now, merely pressed the Autobots further and further up the ramp of the Fort Maximus Exit.

The tank sitting on its 'haunches' flipped its sides open and revealed a set of heat-seeking missiles.

"Oh crap." Rodimus said softly.

Up from the railing Ultra Magnus swung over and body-slammed the tank aimed at Rodimus. The tank fell on its side and the one next to it veered right, aiming a blast at the Major-General. But Magnus rolled right over the other side of the first tank, allowing the second to blow a deep gash into its topside. Rodimus and Hotspot joined Mags behind the first tank, the second now having to find a way to maneuver around the ramp without falling over the railing.

Rodimus gave Magnus an approving and grateful glance. "Didn't I hear Optimus say the Autobot Council once called you 'nefarious'?"

Mags gave him a broad grin. "The Council was angry because I taught Prime how to fight."

Roddi nodded. "I believe it."

They pushed the first tank over as well as they could. Streets and Blades got in behind them and pushed the overweight piece of scrap. Their efforts forced the second tank right up against the railing so that it could move either backward or forward, but not without endangering its balance against the railing

A missile whizzed over their heads and Magnus ducked. "Didn't know you had other company!"

Roddi glanced behind them and spotted three other tanks rolling in their direction. He grinned, privately uttering another choice word.

Ashlyn had fallen silent, watching the sun fall from the sky leaving the world in uneasy darkness. No moon came to replace the sun as it abandoned Central City. Optimus approached the Ribbon from the Oakview Exit and took a right at a stop sign. As he crossed the overpass, they approached a throng of prisoners bound hand and foot. A noose wrapped each of their necks as they stood stiffly atop the rail edges of the highway. Prime rolled to a complete stop and as he did so, six people were pushed off in pairs by the Dopps who guarded them. Optimus felt their bodies wriggling as the victims slowly suffocated.

Ashlyn abandoned him and Prime transformed, pulling his weapon from subspace. As he did so, four other people, tied to light poles, were lit on fire.

The Autobot leader tried to free them with the pinpoint accuracy of his weapon.

The Dopp warriors, clad in the strange exoskeleton armor charged him, running and forming a V-formation in two rows. The first row slid to their knees before the second and they shot him with stolen semi-solar .19s. Optimus took on the terribly bright, stinging rays of alien laser fire from a weapon designed to slaughter vampires. Prime wasn't about to take kindly to the Dopps anymore. He raised and fired back, slaughtering them one at a time.

"STOOOOP! ALL OF YOU! STOP!" Someone shot at the Dopps from the back side and Prime lowered his rifle, firmly commanding his body to ignore the flaring pain that coursed under his plating. He waited until Brian's form emerged, pushing his way forward, Rusti firmly in his clutches.

Prime's optics flared and he waved Rodimus and Magnus back as they arrived behind him. He felt a sense of urgency from Rodimus, but this was not the time to panic.

Not yet.

"ALL OF YOU!" Brian screamed at the top of his lungs, "YOU WILL ALL PUT DOWN YOUR GODDAMNED WEAPONS AND SURRENDER! OR SHIRLEY TEMPLE HERE DIES!"

Optimus read shock in the Dopps standing between he and Brian. They were no more aware of this than the Autobots. Everyone put down their weapons except Op and Roddi.

No one spoke.

Brian pressed the barrel of the rifle against Rusti's temple.

A bad thing to do. Rusti freaked and squirmed. "DON'T LISTEN TO HIM! HE'S A FUCKING DOPP! KILL IT! KILL IT!"

Before anyone could react, the three tanks tracking Mags and Roddi came up from the other over pass and shot the center of the street, killing two other Dopps and scattering the rest. Rusti bit down on Brian's hand and the Dopp reacted with a shout.

Optimus fired and shot the creature dead in the forehead. It dropped Rusti and fell flat on its back. Rusti scampered on all fours and Prime lost optical with her.

Another bomb went off, fired by the tanks and a good portion of the on-ramp cracked, crumpled and fell. Autobots and Doppelgangers alike raced to Rusti's side of the ramp while the pass fell over and smashed against another overpass, obliterating one tank as it collapsed.

And then it happened. There came a shriek. If it were from the heavens, it would have to be the voice of God, crying the death knell of millions. If it were from hell, it would have to be all the demons bound together in divine torture, screaming for the release of nonexistence.

Optimus and Rodimus gazed from the location of the noise and their optics followed a trail of complete obliteration as an invisible power swathed a path of desolation in its wake. If mountain, it now stood with a hole in its belly. If building, it collapsed. If land, then a great scorch mark remained where the power touched it. And it went on for one, five, seven, nine. Nine echos. Ninety miles. Nine seconds. The two Autobot leaders gaped at one another.

Someone fired the Antares Screamer and it scarred the earth with the power of pure sound.

A collective cry echoed and three Dopps lost their minds and patience and pushed prisoners off the bridge at random, lighting the bodies of other gas-drenched victims.

One of those was Dezi and Rusti screamed, scampering to help her. The jerk who was about to light her merely pushed the girl away, trying to get his lighter to work. Rusti's body trembled with rage and she grasped a nearby weapon. She thought for a moment; she had no idea how to use it.

She thought again. She didn't need it. She pointed a finger at the ass: "Nak." And the man flipped over the rail himself and met his 'god'. Rusti hissed inward as a laser grazed across her back, slicing her blouse, sizzling her skin.

Laser fire, both from Autobots and the Dopps shot back and forth, the Autobots picked off the Dopps one or two at a time, the Humans seemed to ignore the entire barrage as others came to replace them.

For all their efforts, the Autobots were actually accomplishing nothing. One tank came up from behind and fired at Magnus square in the back. Optimus ordered Hotspot and Blades to cover him while he dragged Magnus out of harm's way.

"This is futile!" Streets shouted as another part of the on-ramp fell from beside them. "We're all going to get killed by those damn tanks."

No one answered him, which irritated the detective even more. Streets slammed at the sidewalk with his fist. What an idiot. "Hotspot, Rodimus!" He called, "We've got it all wrong! We should be attacking their religion, not them!"

"What are you talking about?" Rodimus snipped in irritation. He hissed inward as an already deep wound took on two more strikes from the Semi-Solars. Their bursts of burning light ate him up inside like a bad case of heartburn. Roddi knew if he took enough hits, it could melt his servos.

"It's the Dopp's greatest asset! Their twins! If we could kill the twins off, it leaves them half themselves! Twos! They operate in doubles! But we have no way of seeing them!"

Rodimus narrowed his optics, wondering why he and Optimus didn't realize the answer long ago. Rusti could see them, why didn't they? But then, a Human was a creature of random. Psychic abilities existed in random chances, controlled only by a randomness of genes. He took up Street's suggestion, switching his conscious psychic level to gamma and the whole world changed to a blood-red hue and the overpasses on which they fought turned crimson, cold with the lives taken in the battle. Was this how Rusti saw things?

Sure enough, there they stood. The wooden puppets Rusti claimed she saw stood in and around all their flesh-and-blood counterparts. Rodimus abandoned the Humans and shot the twin Doppelgangers.

Rusti prayed her sister hadn't died from gas inhalation. Dezi lay on the cement, unconscious. The girl cut the ropes tightly binding her sister's body and set her ear to Dezi's chest, listening for a heartbeat. But with all the gunfire and shouting around her, Rusti couldn't make out anything.

She ducked when another Dopp in exo-suit dashed quickly amid the bodies. Her blond hair flowed out from under her helm, her feet light. As she ran, other cultists started to take their prisoners and tortured them or killed them slowly.

"No!" She shouted to the other Dopps. "Forget it! Forget it all! It's time for Lord Rrogoche to come! The time is now! Kill them all! Kill every one of them!"

Rusti swallowed hard, laying as still as she could, eyes closed tight. She heard screams and pleas as people wept while their bodies were torn asunder or shoved off the overpass to their deaths.

The air grew hot and all light flared in fire and blood and Rusti dared to look as a translucent red shape rose from the middle of the road. The head lifted toward the sky, a deep cry of bloodlust rose from the shape and two sets of clawed hands plunged on either side of the bridge. The face swooped down and devoured those prisoners not yet killed by the Doppelgangers. The frenzied cultists whooped and hollered in praise as their god spoke in their alien language.

Optimus slowly rose from attending Magnus' wound. He and Rodimus exchanged looks, again shocked by the sight and power of the Rrogoche Cult. The creature came right out of the asphalt of the passway, its followers now formed a circle while It plucked up the kidnapped victims, living or dead and devoured them.

The Antares Screamer was fired again, this time just missing the whole platform everyone stood on and obliterated another tank, counting three for three.

Rodimus' optics narrowed and he recalibrated his rifle as quickly as he could while the Dopp was still in sight. He concentrated, leaving everything else out of his mind and he aimed for the cannon-end of the Screamer, first canceling the force field then firing a power-draining shot from his rifle and obliterating the Screamer. The shock of it, however, flared high and killed its bearer.

Optimus covered Roddi while he tried to recharge his rifle. The Senior Prime kept firing at every twin he could see, and took out a few of those that weren't. Their numbers grew fewer and fewer until Blades ran out of power and scrambled to find another weapon.

The numbers fell to fewer twins than twenty and Rrogoche screamed and wreathed as though in agony over the death of her children. She glanced about the battlefield, finding most of the Dopp twins lying useless. There were no other living victims on which she could feed and with a glance at Rodimus, the great creature began to obliterate his own people, slicing their bodies just to hear them scream or devoured them entirely.

Optimus found he could not watch this. He had seen such sights all too often. He turned away, knowing why those people shrieked, knowing what was going to happen to them if they survived their.

And then, as if justice had finally been served, as if the deaths of the Doppelgangers had paid for all their crimes, the sun broke through the darkness of the night, rising over the crest of the Cascade Mountains and shot out over the city, snapping between buildings and peeking through the ruins of the bomb sites.

Rrogoche shrieked, not with the high pitch of the Antares Screamer, but with the realization that defeat had come far too soon. He/She realized the battle was over and there were no other worshipers to bring more offerings of death and sorrow.

And an ancient legend, recalled only vaguely by an underground cult rose high overhead as the sun brought warmth to the frosted land. Rrogoche stretched her mouth toward Optimus and Roddi but dissipated like the mist, vanishing in silence, wisped away with a rising warmth.

Optimus dropped his rifle and tried to ignore the mess the Autobots stood in. He slowly stepped his way around dead bodies, searching for one 'little bird'.

Rusti sat up and gladly accepted his hand.

The clean-up crews arrived and worked long into the day. The ribbon would be out of service for at least a month. Tolomsky cupped his coffee between his hands and sipped it while his boys came and left, reporting every ten minutes. First Aid arrived and once again they carried Ultra Magnus back to Fort Max while Hotspot directed others to assist in the gathering of bodies and clearing streets.

Optimus and Roddi exchanged reports with the EDC and Central City authorities and finally decided it was time to leave.

"It's over." Optimus told him solemnly. There are no others to follow Rrogoche. I don't think It will be back."

Tolomsky tried to ease his upset stomach with antacid. "I, uh, I'm sorry we didn't come sooner."

"Forget it, Jax. It would only have resulted in more casualties."

Rodimus gazed down at Rusti who now slept soundly in his arms. "You'll allow us to take her home, wontcha, Chief?"

"Allow?" Tolomsky echoed. "I won't let anybody else take her. I've got an APD out on Brian right now." He fell silent for a moment, his stomach queezing. "You know, I really don't see how a god could kill its own worshipers like that."

Optimus searched the sky in a glance, "Rrogoche was not a god."

Her radio gabbed on about the custody battle between the Autobots and the Witwickys. Rusti frowned as she towel-dried her hair. Roddi put her to bed without bothering with a bath. He roused her two hours after that to give her something light to eat, then he put her back to bed. She slept hard until late morning the following day and never did she recall being so glad to have her own private bathroom! She was grateful for the privacy, time to herself to settle down and slowly rebuild her psyche while she bathed.

Rusti dressed, finding her hands still shaking. Her nerves were still on edge and it was hard controlling and concealing it. She was angry beyond words at Brian, saying nothing about her parents. She was frightened for Dezi who was admitted into a hospital and treated for gas inhalation.

Rusti decided to slip her exo-suit on under her jeans and shirt, just to be on the safe side. She slipped her new tennies over the soles and glanced at the mirror to make sure everything was in place. No one could tell she had an experimental suit under her clothes.

It was just cool.

Rusti ran a brush through her yet-dampened hair and swept up a jacket. She opened her door and found Streetwise poised to knock. He smiled sheepishly and he and Blades stepped aside to allow her to walk between them.

"Hi." Rusti greeted without moving from her place at the door.

"Uh, hi, Miss Witwicky." Streets stammered.

She batted her eyes. "Whatcha doing?"

Streetwise knelt before her, his face downcast. "Groove is missing." He put simply. "We were wondering if you could help us find him."

That memory had all but gone cold for her, but Rusti figured she could recall enough to give them a fair lead. She set her lips in a straight line and merely nodded.

Rodimus left Optimus to deal with the inventory in Magnus' place. He, and the four Protectobots made their way back to the VR park, this time hoping Rusti could point to the whereabouts of the Protectobot's brother.

They stood in the center square and let her take a look around first. Rusti had never been here before and she was astonished at the size of the park. A large wooden fort was the first thing she saw. It was huge, filled with rooms, ladders and ropes. A large tower crowned its center and Rusti could think of all kinds of wonderful fantasy adventures to play in it. There were buildings painted brightly with murals and signs that either gave directions or advertised other areas of the park. There was a large labyrinth for paintball and a 'safe zone' for toddlers. Three stores in the immediate area offered snacks and comics while a fourth offered memorabilia. It was hard for Rusti not to dream about what she would do here if she had time and money.

She drew a deep breath, concentrating on where she might have been found. She turned left and tried to match the colors and lights in her memory with what she was seeing here. It was hard because she was so tired and hungry when Brian found her, she couldn't think straight.

"I think it's this way." She guessed.

"Are you sure?" Streets challenged.

"Well, no. I don't know what time it was when I was found, just that the light was really bright and I was really tired."

Blades bent over slightly to get her attention. "Then how do you know you were even here? How will we know for sure?"

She thought it over carefully then it dawned on her: "Because Brian never replaced the grate. We left and they didn't bother to put the grate back where it was."

Rodimus turned to Blades. "Your turn there, pal."

"I'm on it." Blades ran a few paces before transforming and flying out then zooming back for a better aerial view.

Rusti felt cold. Amid all the wonderful colors and fun things to do at the park, it bore an evil air. It made her uneasy. After all, how often does one get to attend an amusement park? What underground thing lies doormat until one calls its name so loud? Does death call it forth? If so, then it lies there, waiting . . . she opened her eyes and realized what was going on;

The VR park was haunted.

Rusti decided she didn't like the place after all.

"Hey!" Blades called. "I found something. It looks like a hole in the flooring."

"Where?" Hotspot demanded.

"By the Tyger's Den area."

They had to walk nearly around the mountain and it was then that Roddi realized the VR center wasn't just built into the mountain there in Central City, but it was part of the mountain itself.

"This is it!" Rusti cried as she approached the grate. She pointed into the tunnel. "I climbed through that, but I don't know from where."

Rodimus turned to Hotspot. "Service tunnel? Air shaft? Sewer?"

The last one made the girl's nose wrinkle, repulsed by the idea that she may have been crawling in a sewer.

"Mmmm . . . mmm . . . ventilation, most likely." Spots returned as his optics sized Rusti up and down. "It could be a sewer, but from her description of the room they were in, most likely not."

"Ventilation from what?" Blades asked. "A kitchen?"

"Nnnnnooo." Hotspot answered slowly. "If I recall, VR World smokes its own salmon and jerky. It could be in a room that allows them to do that-perhaps someplace in the mountain itself."

Roddi thought it a brilliant deduction and had them split up into two teams; one searched outside the building, the other inside the mountain.

Rusti followed a bit reluctantly. The longer she was here, the less she liked it. She tagged Roddi and Streets anyway, hoping something more than a few stores would pique her interest. But when they arrived in the center of the atrium, Rusti picked up a serious disturbance, an echo, really. She glanced all around the empty lobby, ignoring the beautiful rest area and the waterfall still running. She turned in every direction and found a trail. Without a word, she abandoned Rodimus and Streets and bolted right for the very door Ashlyn had gone through leading into the employee's exit and thereafter, the House of Reflections.

Rodimus and Streets caught up with her. "Heey!" Roddi called. "Wait up for us!"

Rusti glanced at them for a second, then her eyes glanced all up and down the hall. One door led to a janitor's closet. Another led to the next retail shop. Another still led to the House of Reflections.

But they were all wrong. She kept glancing around. Ashlyn had the right idea. But she was frightened and tried to find an escape route.

She had the right idea . . . but Rusti found it. It was lost to the patterns on the floor tiles, but it was there; a trap door.

She pointed to it. "I am not going down there."

Streets didn't care. He started to lift the flooring while silently notifying his fellows to the spot. He and Rodimus managed to pull the flooring up by the edges and set it aside.

Streets didn't bother with the vertical ladder. He jumped right in and glanced three directions. A wide room met him, cold with darkness. And just behind him stood another room, that one remained closed. He swung his light from one side of the room to the next, spotting several racks of drying jerky and freezers protecting salmon. The strong smell of smoke and salt permeated the room.

He didn't see anything. At least not yet. He aimed for the door as Roddi noiselessly joined him. Streetwise opened the room and cringed at the mixed scent of death and embalming fluids. And the two Autobots found the cement flooring covered in old blood.

But they did not see one single body hanging from the ceiling.

"No bodies here, Lady Friend." Roddi reported.

"That's impossible!" Rusti returned. "I know what I saw!"

"Yes. I know."

"Groove!" Streetwise cried. He ran to his brother and hoped they arrived in time; he felt they did. But poor Groove lay in pieces.

First Aid entered and made a gaging sound. "Let me see here." He called. He laid a laser hypo against Groove's audio and waited a moment. Sure enough, Groove's optics lit up, although weak.

"Heeeyyy!" He feebly greeted. "Like my new quarters? I thought . . . since my present neighbors complain about the noise I make, I might move down here."

"Very funny." First Aid answered evenly.

Hotspot stepped into the hallway and he crossed glances with the girl. "Roddi says there's no bodies down there." Rusti informed.

"Maybe they were used out on the bridge." The former ranger suggested.

"No, they were already dead. But now they're gone."

Hotspot never got the chance to speculate. First Aid called him down to help gather Groove's pieces.

The Autobots resurfaced and Rusti stepped aside as they came up one at a time. It was over. Rusti dreaded what lay ahead of her: she had go back to court.


They dragged the trial hour after weary hour for four days. Much of what was said in the trial was already spoken in the hearing. The Defense was given permission to have their say first. The Witwickys stuck to their guns as the natural parents in the issue, declaring the Autobots incapable as a species.

No one could read the faces of the jury as they heard Dezi's testimony, then Delphra's.

A day later they dragged Rusti in to testify on her own behalf. The Prosecution paced once. "Rusti, in your own words, can you look me in the eye and tell me truthfully; are your parents good parents, or not?"

"Objection, Your Honor!" The Defense stood. "The question is unfair."

"Why?" Volmers asked calmly. "Is that not what this is all about? Objection overruled. Prosecution, please continue."

Rusti could not look her parents in the eye. She knew what would happen, the rift she placed between they and she would never be healed. She gazed at Op and Roddi. "I am not safe at home. I could have been raped. I could have . . ." She struggled to keep from crying. she closed her eyes and a tear escaped her self-control. "I lost everything I owned in my room. He took away my toys and my clothes and my drawing pad. He let Brian to come back after he hurt me. He let Brian poison me with 'joys'. I can't sleep in my bed anymore, I'm afraid I might get . . ." She would have said 'killed', but the thought choked her and Rusti finally broke down and wept.

The Prosecution stared sympathetically with the little girl a moment longer, so obviously wanting to comfort the grieving child. But this was business, not a church function. "No further words, Your Honor."

The judge nodded. "Rusti, you may step down."

Rusti feebly moved off the witness stand and was greeted by Aunt Missy who laid a warm coat over her shoulders and dried her tears.

The Prosecution and Defense made their concluding statements but Rusti paid them no mind. She really just wanted to go home and either watch TV or curl up with a good book and quiet music.

"Jury," Volmers called later. "It is left to you to decide the verdict. However, it behooves this court to remember I make the final judgment. You may all retire to your chamber for your decision."

Exhausted, Rusti snuggled close to Captain Fairborn. The Captain could not turn and look at Rusti's parents. But she felt them stare disdainfully at her. It didn't matter what they felt or did anymore. Rusti was going to stay out of their hands one way or another; even if she herself had to disappear with the girl. But Marissa hoped it would not come to that. It would only cause more mistrust between the Autobots and Humans and at this delicate time in history, Earth needed the Autobots.

The jury filed out of their chamber. Marissa gasped and Rusti slowly sat up. They were done already?

She turned in her seat and gazed at Optimus. But he did not return the fear in her eyes. He waited. Rusti sighed, taking some comfort in that.

The jury took their seats and Volmers finished a glass of water. "Jury of the supreme court of Douglass County, have you reached your decision?"

"We have, Your Honor." The spokesman answered. He brought a torn piece of paper out of his pocket and took a deep nervous breath. "In light of the events from Easter to today, May 21st, 2021, we have come to the conclusion that Resonna 'Rusti' Witwicky be placed under the custodianship of Optimus and Rodimus Prime for the benefit of her safety and well-being."

Rusti covered her mouth and Marissa embraced her closely. People all over the room let out a collective sigh of relief or gasp of shock.

Volmers struck his gavel for attention and the crowd fell respectfully quiet. But the room was filled with barely controlled excitement.

"It is the final decision of this court that Optimus and Rodimus Prime be awarded custodianship of Resonna 'Rusti' Witwicky and all the duties and responsibilities therein. All detail matters will be conducted in the final draft of the arrangement. Rusti will be allotted visitation rights to her family, but her residence will be on the property of Fortress Maximus."

Outside the courthouse, news reporters lined the steps and lawn, awaiting the final word. Optimus exited first, but kept clear of them. He waited while Rusti and Marissa filed out with the rest of the crowd, people milling around, congratulating them.

His optics caught sight of someone sitting against a tree. It was Dezi, from what he could tell. She sat there alone, not so much as a book or a calculator laid in her arms. He quietly approached the downcast young woman.

But Dezi could not look at him.

Prime knelt quietly before her and examined her before speaking. "I'm sorry you and your family have suffered so much, Dezi. I know you must be very angry with me and Rodimus for taking your sister away."

She said nothing at first, her hands clutched an old well-worn Raggedy Ann doll. "You took nothing, Prime." She answered softly. "You would do nothing to take anything away. Even I know that." She looked up at him, tears marking her cheeks. "You see, in another year, I will be going to college. There will be no one home to take care of Res. No one to make sure of anything. So I had to do something. I had to make sure that when I come home, I come home to a sister who's still alive and happy. She can't be happy at home. Dad took everything away from her. Is that fair? He's an obsessive control-freak. He tried it with me. So I buried myself in my books to get away. But Res isn't like me. She can't be like me. She needs freedom. And I knew that and so . . . I had to do something to ensure her safety. Even if it meant missing her."

"You . . . you're the one who alerted the news media?"

Dezi shamefully nodded. "It was all I could think of. It was the last shred of hope. I thought that if people knew what was going on, if someone else knew, then they would take action"

"The runaway note? The DNA sample? The box?"

Dezi nodded. "It was me. All of them."

The two of them turned back toward the courthouse and watched while Aunt Delphra made a big production of herself and shouted at Rusti.

Dezi moaned. "That woman."

Optimus stood, silent as the soft spring breeze on a warm day. "Dezi, if you ever need anything you know who to call."

Her eyes climbed three stories high, and smiled a thank you.

Optimus stepped carefully away from her and transformed. "Rusti," he called. "Say good-bye to your aunt. It's time to go home."

The girl smiled and walked away from Delphra just as a Marshall approached and handed Delphra an envelope.

"What's this?" The dark-haired woman asked.

"A subpoena."

She opened the letter and her face flushed hard. She turned brusquely away, trailed by reporters and cameramen. And where she left, Daniel and Netty descended the front steps.

Rusti turned to Optimus as he opened the door for her. Before she boarded, her father called out to her. Reluctantly, Rusti sighed and supposed she should at least be civilized. She could afford it, now that she was no longer under her father's control. The girl turned back with a blank expression and Daniel handed her a drawing pad; saying nothing of the fact that he found it in her bedroom.

"I . . . I think this is yours, Resonna." He stammered.

She took it and ran her thumb over Brian's name inscribed over the cover. "I guess not all monsters are big and ugly, huh, Dad?"

He gave her a forced smile and nodded, thinking what a price he paid for Brian.

But Rusti wasn't talking about Brian. She stared at her dad a moment longer, then decided it would never hit home. She gave her mom a hug and a meaningless kiss and forced herself, however she loathed it, to hug her dad. But it was empty. There had never been a relationship between them and with each gesture of worthless sentiment, Rusti felt that much more distant.

And the meaningless, empty gesture made her feel awkward and dirty.

Optimus closed the door after she boarded and slowly rolled off the lawn. He drove three streets from the courthouse and passed onto a main road. He remained silent, very sorry for it all to have happened.

And he wondered how this turn of events would affect Rusti in the long run of her life.

Optimus managed to steal bed-tucking privileges from Rodimus that night. Rusti sighed, glancing at all the things surrounding her in her own little room in Central Command. She snuggled down under the blankets and gave him a smile of satisfaction.

"Will you be alright?" Optimus asked her. She had decided to sleep here tonight, asking him only to tuck her into bed.

"Yeah. I'll be okay." She answered.

"You might have nightmares, you know." He warned.

She thought it over, and decided she would not. Rusti was Home for good, now. No more sleeping in the closet, no more noises in the middle of the night, or fearing coming home from school the next day. "I'll be okay, Optimus." she promised.

He nodded and rose, aiming for the door.

"But, there is one thing!" She called, as though changing her mind. "I have to tell you something."

He glanced back at her then turned around.

"But, it's a secret." She smiled coyly and wiggled her finger for him to come closer.

He knelt. "I'm listening, Rusti." He said softly.

"No. Max is too." She shook her head. "I don't want him to hear it."

Prime shook his head. "I can swear to you that Max won't tell a soul."

"Optimus." She insisted.

His turn to smile and he got all the way down for her to whisper in his audio receptor. Rusti got up on her knees and lightly kissed him. Then she bounced back in bed and flew the covers over herself.

Optimus felt that little kiss; light as the first sprinkle of snow. He laid his hand on his face plate, words escaping him entirely. He sat up on his knees.

"Good night, Optimus." Rusti had her back to him now because she was trying not to giggle.

He was at a loss for words. "Uhh . . . hah, uh, good night, Rusti." He doused the light, leaving the room shadowed by a comforting darkness. He entered the corridor, hand still on his face plate. He smiled and couldn't decide whether or not to laugh. He turned and found himself scrutinized by two femmes. Optimus shrank away in embarrassment. "Heh, she kissed me." End

To be continued in Devil's Dance

T.L. Arens