TRANSFORMERS: Devil's Dance

Chapter 7

BLOOD LUST

"Everything beautiful bleeds."
Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Rusti ran the length of the hallway, heedless of its dark interior. She did not know where her feet led her. Her red hair flowed freely, bouncing with each rushed step. Her skin tightened in the cool air. Echoes of voices whispered incoherently. Memories, they might have been or voices of people who lived in times far beyond the existence of Humans.

Her feet stopped and Rusti closed her eyes as a gentle Song milked through her soul. A voice resonated in a beautiful but grief-stricken tone, in a language long since forgotten. Rusti considered the Music and the words. The language was not actually forgotten, but alien; neither Transformer or Human. She turned to the wall and touched it, half expecting it to ripple like water.

It snapped, clicked and sang in high-pitched tones. The panels before her shifted up and down or side to side like a puzzle. One small plate lowered before her and a blue optical sensor connected to a double-jointed arm complete with wires and lines bearing glowing fluids advanced toward her like an arm. It spoke with a slight echo and three different vocal pitches. At first Rusti could not understand it. She stood and stared.

It spoke again now using either a different dialect, or another language. The words came slow and slurred. Rusti still did not answer. The optical sensor remained silent for a moment longer then withdrew. The panels shifted back to their first pattern. The girl turned to resume her path down the corridor when a shape pressed from the wall just enough for Rusti to recognize a face. She turned to respond.

"I am not Prime. Why do you follow me?"

A female answered with a slow, solemn voice, "you Breathe his Breath. You are not him, but you Breathe and I love . . ."

CLEAR!

A shocking thunderous noise shot through Rusti's ears and the dream vanished. Sharp pains sliced into her and her eyes snapped open. A hurricane of noise whipped about her and she struggled to cover her ears but her arms would not obey. She tried to tell the world to be silent. She wanted to return to the quiet lonely corridor and talk to the face again.

"RESONNA!"

She didn't respond. That wasn't her name.

"RESONNA!" No matter how the voice shouted, it sounded in drowned tones. A bright light shot out and the girl dimly recalled jokes about the light at the end of a tunnel.

Wait a minute. She was in a tunnel of sorts, was she not? Was I dead?

"You could be." It was the same female's voice. "Very few are given the choice to die or remain alive. You can come and stay with me. You can come to the Gate."

The Gate? Rusti's sluggish mind scanned the horizons and landscapes of her memory for reference. She spotted a few empty valleys for some reason; landscapes that should have had trees, structures and mountains. There! The Gate. It was Optimus that told her about it once. The Gate was a place in the Matrix-a Gateway to Heaven. Yes, now she remembered.

"It would kill him if I died." she assumed.

"Yes." The answer was so certain that it frightened her.

She thought for a moment longer. "Is it my time to go?"

"No. Listen to the Music, Rusti. Listen to the Music."

CLEAR!

Someone stabbed her with two vibro-blades and her body jerked with shock.

Again her eyes shot open and she gasped, coughed, then gagged. She started crying. Shock and pain swept over her body. The horrible light finally swung away. Voices surrounded her and one familiar voice entered her ears as her cold body was covered. "Rusti, hon, you're going to be okay!"

Focus. Focus. There! She was in a stark white room and three medical staff stood at the foot of the bed talking in garbled tones. Beside her sat Aunt Missy.

A loud masculine voice shouted unnecessarily into her ear. "RESONNA? RESONNA, CAN YOU HEAR ME?"

"Yessss . . ." her feeble voice failed to convey her annoyance.

"Resonna, do you know what the date is?"

His words echoed about her head, their meaning bouncing back and forth. The date? What was so damned important about the date? What a stupid question. It 'was' a stupid question! But . . . she really couldn't remember what it was.

"WHAT YEAR IS IT, RESONNA?"

Year, year, year . . .and her name was Rusti, dingbat! "Twenty thirty-four." she finally answered.

"Okay. Resonna-"

That was Doctor Cynyr's voice, she was sure of it. Was she in the hospital? Most likely. Rusti feebly shook her head.

"Resonna, I have to tell you some bad news." His firm voice rang too loudly in her ear, "it's 2036, 14 November. Do you remember any of that, now?"

"WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO!" Marissa grabbed the doctor's arms, eyes flaming.

She did not remember. The girl shook her head and kept her eyes on Aunt Missy as Fairborn and Cynyr snapped at one another in low tones. Not surprisingly, Marissa won and Doctor Cynyr walked away. He muttered something, but Rusti did not hear it. She sleepily turned to Captain Fairborn. "What happened to me?"

"You fell, Rusti. A long way down from Central Command. Somehow you managed to keep your head together enough to make sure you landed feet first. But the water was very deep and we think you might have hit your head."

"I fell?"

Marissa nodded gravely. "We think you might have been trying to escape. No one was there, so we're not sure."

"Then how . . . how . . .?"

Fairborn merely kissed the girl's brow. "Sleep, Sweety." The two ladies searched the ceiling as thunder banged loudly overhead.

"A thunderstorm!" Rusti weakly smiled.

"I'm afraid not, Hon. Optimus and Rodimus . . ." she met the girl's eyes. " . . . they're fighting."

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DANCE 10

Rodimus lost wind as he smashed through a wall into an office building. He merely shrugged off the pain, transformed and crashed his way out the other end. This was part of the Business District's Riverpark; an eight-block radius boasting of such organization extensions as Proctor & Gamble, Sony, Boeing, Berger Ent. Starbucks, and a few alien companies such as Light Touch or Smat Industries. Rodimus' form just trashed the lower level of Proctor & Gamble. While the business might not appreciate all their things smashed into microscopic bits, they would sooner or later be compensated for it. After all, Optimus had enough a sense of humor to make sure Fort Max had insurance.

Roddi drove down three blocks looking for Optimus. Already the two had ripped up three main roadways between Central Command and the business district, obliterated four buildings and broke the piping along Treadway and Eastbound Avenue.

Magnus was not going to be happy. But Roddi couldn't care less. It was the City Commander's job to make sure things were kept up.

And speaking of which, where was the Big Guy, anyway?

Rodimus cursed himself in three different languages when something hard slammed his back and sent him flying again. He rolled with impact on the floor as Optimus came leaping out of nowhere. Rodimus lifted his legs, caught Prime in the thorax with the bottoms of his feet and jettisoned the co-commander in another direction. Optimus smashed into a nearby building and disappeared. Damn! He was good at this! He'd hide and then leap from almost nowhere. How he managed to escape Roddi's sensors was annoying. What frequency was he on? Or was it that Optimus was able to sink into the city's body itself and come out another place? Well, that was absurd, even for an Autobot leader. A Prime can do many things, but shadow-slipping wasn't one of them.

Rodimus picked his way carefully, glancing left to right, listening for the slightest crunch, or the tiniest creak. "O-o-o-optim-u-u-u-u-u-u-s-s-s-s!" he softly sang. "I'm gonna count to ten and you'd better come and hit home or you'll be 'it' by default!" He grinned to himself, swung to the right with his laser rifle and blew up a car. BOOM! Then another-KABOOM! And another and another-KABOOM! KABOOM! KABOOM! Yeah, looks like he'd have to tear up the whole city before getting his hands on the 'other' Prime. The universe only had enough room for one. Just one Prime. Rodimus was certain Magnus felt the same. One Prime was more than enough for anyone to handle.

He transformed and hung a left on Cinnamon Street and just when he crossed the corner of Cinnamon and Ginger, energon bars shot up from the street on either side of him. Rodimus kicked into high gear as he sensed energon bars rising ahead and behind him. He leaped just as the energon cage completed itself. He landed gracefully and circled the area, looking for the elusive Senior Prime.

Optimus calmly emerged from the Macy's office building, holding his own weapon and a vibro-blade. "RODIMUS . . . NO DISAPPOINTMENT THIS TIME."

"What a nice thing to say." Roddi's own voice dripped with annoyance and sarcasm. "So now you're trying to trap me. Is it that you're out to kill me?"

Optimus placed the vibro-blade into subspace, "YOU GUESS, RODIMUS PRIME. YOU HAVE ALL ANSWERS."

"You can't beat me." Roddi almost grinned. "You slap me around like a puppy but-haha-I just keep coming back for more. You're not very good at this, Prime."

Prime held his rifle to the air. "YOU BORE WITH CONVERSATION."

Rodimus thought it over for tenth of a second then charged his opponent. He transformed to auto mode in mid-step and ran Prime off his feet. Optimus skidded along the road. His powerful form left deep scratches in Max's plated surface. Prime was on his feet the next second. The two locked arms, one pushed the other against this shop, swung about and smashed a store. With a yell Optimus lifted Rodimus overhead and slammed him through a window. Roddi locked his knees around the window's ledge and yanked Prime against the building wall. Optimus grunted with impact, but held Rodimus' hand tightly and flipped him out the window, splattering his form on the street. Rodimus managed to his feet and with a handspring, pounded Prime's chest with his legs. Optimus thundered on the pavement. He swept his powerful legs around Roddi and whacked him into the metal plated flooring. Rodimus didn't know which bent worse: the pavement, or his backside.

Rodimus rolled back over his shoulder and crouched for a spring but yelped when Prime shot the left side of his spoiler with optic lasers. Ignoring the pain, Rodimus ducked and tripped Prime. Moving as fast as possible, Roddi swept Optimus up and tossed him like a rag doll into a street light, then into the nearby gift shop.

Optimus crashed through three steel walls and for a moment all died quiet. Rodimus bent over and coughed, spitting up fluids. He grinned. Maybe it was over. When his audios picked out the sounds of a familiar engine rumble, he realized he could not have been more wrong. Optimus came smashing through the shop. Rodimus back-flipped out of the way and Optimus transformed to robot mode too soon. Rodimus shot back with a leap-kick. "Right in the kisser!" he declared with glee.

But Optimus merely turned his momentum into a handspring and leapt back for him. The two locked, pushing and shoving, their feet scraped into the metal flooring as though it were soft mud until Rodimus broke the grip. He nabbed Optimus round the waist and marred Prime's face into the roadway. Optimus immediately twisted around and tossed Rodimus, sending him sailing all the way down the street. Rodimus landed with a resounding thud next to the Bridgework Pass; a fancy Renaissance restaurant constructed of stonework. He smashed a hand into the window and yanked off a cornerstone.

Optimus did not see it coming. It slammed straight into his thorax, tossing him into a cross section of parked cars. A second boulder came flying his way and he countered it with a blast from his rifle. Another one rolled his way-WHAM, WHAM, WHAM thumping up and down the street. This was a stupid game. Prime merely kicked it.

Not one of his better ideas.

The rock was laden with explosives and it blew, jolting him into another department store, through it, and into the nearby garden shop. All the windows in the immediate area shattered and the Macy's building crumbled, thundering over the street and into the IBM office complex across the way.

"OOOPS!" Rodimus called out. He cackled like an old woman and transformed, revving his engines. The Second raced up the street like an asylum escapee and just as he was about to hit the Macy's ruins, he transformed smoothly and leapt, landing gracefully on the other side.

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IT WILL TAKE THEIR LIVES. THEY WILL BOTH DIE.

Rusti's eyes snapped open. The sheltered world about her was shadowed in quiet but in a distance, Rusti heard voices.

She moved her right arm and it hurt. She winced-that hurt. She rolled her right shoulder and that hurt. It hurt to breathe too. What kind of hell did she pass through?

THEY WILL BOTH DIE.

She glanced right then left to see if someone were standing over her but she saw no one.

Was it the Music? Usually It spoke to her only when she slept. Rusti smiled. That was it; she was still asleep! Silly girl. She tried to draw a deep breath, but oh, that was painful! She merely closed her eyes and her body started to shut down for another nap.

R-R-R-R-R-R-U-U-U-US-S-S-S-S-S-TI-I-I-I-I.

It was a very pretty voice. The girl opened her eyes again as distant booms thundered across the ceiling. "Is somebody there?" her little voice sounded mousy.

No answer. Maybe it was the pain killer they gave her. Rusti moved her left arm and found it heavily bandaged. Did she break it in the fall? Why did she fall, anyway?

A beautiful alien approached her from behind the curtains. She had large squared eyes and a hairless head crested with a white bone-like structure resembling a crown. Natural bony armor spiked from her shoulders and chest. Her long fingers touched the bed frame. Rusti liked her blue skin.

THEY WILL BOTH DIE. The alien spoke without moving her mouth.

Rusti looked away, tears burned her eyes. "I can't help them." she choked.

THE ONLY GOOD LEFT RESIDES IN YOU. IF YOU DO NOT HELP, THEY WILL SLAUGHTER ONE ANOTHER OR ULTRA MAGNUS WILL KILL THEM.

"I can't help them! I don't have that kind of power!" Rusti was angry at her helplessness. No! Sleep! Sleep! Ignore the dream and go to sleep! Her body started to shut back down. The drugs in her system would not allow her to stay awake any longer. The vision of the alien came to her bedside but Rusti was no longer able to move her head.

I CAN HELP YOU. BUT IT IS A DECISION YOU MUST MAKE.

Rusti only scarcely understood. She closed her eyes and imagined Optimus and Rodimus speeding down a roadway in a game of chicken. But she never heard or envisioned the crash.

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Optimus punched Rodimus' mandible and the Second Prime slammed into the building. Prime ripped up a light pole and whacked the Second across the chest. Rodimus crumbled, his armor bent to the pole's shape. Optimus broke the light pole into a short, sharp weapon. "THIS ENDS."

Rodimus thrust with all his might, slamming his shoulder into Prime's middle and the two went flaying into the training field. They rolled and wrestled back and forth. Rodimus managed on top first and tried to squeeze his hands around Prime's frail neck. But Optimus bopped Roddi's audio sensors and threw him off. Optimus leapt to his feet, Rodimus still lay, holding his audios. Prime produced his rifle and BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM! Rodimus kept rolling to avoid 'new air vents'. At the next opportunity he sprang to his feet and charged. He transformed to auto mode in mid-run and would have rammed Prime had Optimus not leapt so easily over him. Prime landed softly and pointed to the light fixtures behind Rodimus. They started to wriggle and twist according to Optimus' silent command.

This time, however, Rodimus decided not to get caught and he sprang upward, swung around one pole and took a shot at Prime with his arm guns.

Rather than dodging fire, Optimus took it, advancing on 'the punk.' Rodimus yelled in frustration and scaled the wall.

"You're gettin' slow there, Prime!" he jeered.

Optimus quietly grunted and leapt straight to the top, surprising Rodimus. One chased the other along the bridge until Rodimus once again shifted to auto mode. Prime copied and the two raced from the Training grounds to the Bivouac. Seventy miles an hour, eighty, one hundred. One-twenty. One-thirty, one-fifty, two-twenty. Rodimus raced up one street, transformed for those narrow corners and returned to auto mode, surprised Optimus could keep up with him move for move.

The large Cybertronian Hotel loomed up from Chrysler Street but Rodimus' momentum was such that he had no way of stopping and turning. Optimus behind him transformed, backflipped and landed on his feet, sliding just inches shy of the building. Rodimus slammed his breaks and whapped his siding against the building, leaving a deep impact impression. Optimus grinned, unable to resist the next move. He jumped to and kicked Rodimus' aft, tossing the Prime in auto mode through the stone wall into the next courtyard and into the pool.

Rodimus swiftly transformed, leapt out like a spider and the two rolled head-over-heels along the lawn, crushing brush and breaking trees. Rodimus finally got the upper hand and tossed Prime off. He transformed as Optimus hit another extension of the hotel a little too hard. He remained dazed for a moment then seeing how Rodimus came at him, readied in a different position. When Roddi was close enough, Prime kicked him in the front section, sending the younger Prime on his backside, tires still rolling.

Optimus laughed. "WHO'S CLUMSY? NICE TRY. NO PICKLE."

Rodimus rebounded and armed himself with a vibro-blade. He swung wide and hard, but Optimus backed off just an inch, maybe less. Roddi swung the other direction and came back to meet one of Optimus' own energy weapons. They clanged and parried one another, slamming their blades into the ground, catching the grass on fire, blowing up stonework and melting walls. Rodimus had a hard time keeping his temper, but it finally got the best of him and he slashed and thrust and swept one direction then another and parried when Optimus went on the offensive. Prime himself finally had enough and deflected one strike then kicked Rodimus in the middle. Roddi rolled with it, came back and they hacked and slashed once again. Rodimus received a terrible gash in the left shoulder. A wound stretched along Prime's right thigh. Rodimus caught a tear in the side. Optimus bled from the left knee.

Then they stopped, catching their breath and stared at one another. Neither bothered to take notice how the other's optics were blood-red. Neither realized how dark their colors were, how their wounds leaked, how tired their bodies became.

"Had enough?" Rodimus huffed.

Optimus stared for a long moment then silently and slowly shook his head.

The next second, Rodimus found himself sinking into a pool of quickmetal and he struggled, splashing and fighting against rising temperatures. Optimus approached the edge of the pool that he created. "HAVE A PROBLEM, RODIMUS. CORRECTION: PROBLEMS TWICE. FIRST, YOU BECOME PART OF MAXIMUS. CONSIDERED PERSONAL CONTRIBUTION. SECOND: OVERCONFIDENT EXPECTATIONS CONTINUALLY MISINTERPRET MY OBJECTIVES." He started to walk away as Rodimus kept splashing about like a dog learning to swim.

"I'll get my hands on you, Prime! I'll free the city and cleanse the Matrix! They will worship me as their leader . . . as their priest!"

Optimus paused, but did not turn back. He resumed his retreat as Rodimus took a nasty gulp of liquid metal. Then he realized how the metal started to thicken about him. Optimus meant to bury him in the city itself. He finally quit splashing and waited for the metal to reach a certain thickness. Oh, he had to time this out ever so carefully! Too soon and he would not be able to escape, too late and he would not be able to transform for extra momentum-

-there! He transformed, using the larger truck size to give him leverage on the firmer edges of the pool and he hauled himself out just as the metal solidified.

Void and Desolate knew that would not keep the other Prime down for long, but now time was available. Soon the city upon which It festered and grew would be connected to the fleshling city north. Once that connection took place, It could infect the computers and seek the other cities the First Prime mentioned. The other cities were connected, but the First Prime had slipped by It and had disconnected Maximus from the links.

CLEAVER. NOT ENOUGH. And It waited for the Second Prime, the one not quite under its control, to arrive. It breathed in coolness and concentrated. All the elements were at Its every call. The city succumbed to Its desire. And It desired desolation. Void touched the building behind. Void sought the greatness around itself. Here grew things and souls. Here, feeding ground. And in this biped figure resided strength and power unlike any else. It would use this biped. It drank his essence, wrapped Its fine-pointed legs about his consciousness and grew inebriated with his misery.

There was no power that could end Void. It was alive. Now the buildings, soft and flexible, bowed to It, succumbing to Its power. Those too would be devoured. In time. In time.

"THERE YOU ARE!" The Second Prime came from the other end of the building.

Optimus merely grinned and he slammed his fist against the wall. Before Rodimus could react, the wall waved like water and snapped at the corner where he stood, slamming his whole form in one shot. Rodimus kissed the ground, transformed and aimed to ram down his opponent.

Optimus leapt, somersaulted in the air and held his palm out toward Rodimus. A blast shot from Prime's hand, slammed Rodimus into the wall, through the building and out the other end. Optimus shook his head. Pathetic!

He didn't see the car falling from the sky. It hit straight down and Prime landed on his face. Its tires shifted into iron clamps and Prime struggled in its grip as Rodimus came through the very hole he crashed into a moment ago.

"What's that? Having problems now, Optimus? What a pity! That's an old, old trick! Maybe you're not as up-to-date as you believe yourself to be! Well, that's all right. We can fix that." Rodimus uprooted a street sign and bent one side so that it resembled a golf club. He positioned himself so that he hit Optimus on the left side and would or might land in the fountain about a quarter of a mile away. He wiggled his aft then calculated the amount of strength needed for the strike.

Optimus made no move to escape and with a great THWAK, he and automobile went flying through the air. Rodimus pretended to shield his optics from a sunless sky. Seeing nothing, he shouldered the severely-bent makeshift golf club and paced down the walkway. He whistled and tap danced, straightening out the street sign and used it as a dancing cane.

Something nasty roared over the horizon and a SWAK, SCRAPE, SWAK charged toward the Second Prime. Rodimus almost didn't turn in time to see it. The car, which he had twisted into a weapon, was twisted again into some sort of freak six-legged creature complete with metal teeth and acidic saliva. It ran for him on razor-sharp legs and a tail swept upward in a stinger. Rodimus ran faster and faster until he leapt over a slope, transformed and sped to a hundred and twenty miles an hour. The mutated car kept pace, just barely an eighth of a mile from him.

The Fort Max central library loomed ahead and Rodimus realized he was going to have to do a little demolishing. He attained additional speed and just when he came five precious feet from slamming into the building, he transformed and ran up the building wall. He pushed away, flew in a somersault and landed behind the mutated vehicle. It started to copy him when Rodimus blew it away. He backflipped three then four times and stood in a ready-to-fight position, staring at the library wall as one would an easily defeated foe. Rodimus grinned proudly.

The wall before him swirled, its dark metal churned then pushed out into the shape of Optimus Prime's face.

"WELL EXECUTED, DIMINUTIVE PET. BUT WORTH NOT THE TIME TO WRITE." The voice boomed in a garbled, mechanical mixture of Optimus' real voice and something sinister and heinous.

"You're proving yourself a coward, Optimus!" Rodimus shouted. "Come out and face me think you better! Come! Come take a piece! Come face one Prime against another!"

"I GOD HERE. NO CHANCE FOR YOUR LIFE. I PLAY NO GAMES."

It infuriated the Second Prime and he turned from the building, gripping his head. He stomped about as though tortured or wounded then threw his head up and let out a terrible scream. He snapped out his hand toward the building and a shock of power shot into the structure. At first nothing happened then the building blew out from the sides like an animal exploding from within. Bits of paper and metal, fragments and shards of plastic and computers blew in each direction, rising with the air current and settling like so much confetti.

But the backside of the library remained intact.

Someone tapped him on the left shoulder and Rodimus cursed himself. He turned and Optimus landed a powerful one right on the mandible. Rodimus smashed into the library wall but rather than falling on his face again, the Second Prime caught himself on his hands, sprang to his feet like an acrobat and kicked Prime in the face. Optimus rebounded all too easily and transformed, charging for Rodimus like a rabid bull on wheels. Rodimus almost didn't see him coming and twisted down, kissing the ground. He felt every bit of Prime's weight on his backside and waited until the trailer itself mowed him over. He snapped to his feet, prepared for another run-down when Optimus, moving at an impossible speed for his size, shot straight out of transformation and slammed both feet directly into Rodimus' chest.

The impact honestly should have killed him. It would have killed Galvatron. Rodimus merely fell on his back, grinning all the while. Prime fell heavily, straddling over Roddi's form. He secured his hands around his opponent's neck, thumbs right under the chin. Prime pressed his thumbs upward and Rodimus felt muscle cables stretch.

"Is this how you killed Hosehead?" his own voice came distorted, cold like the thing twisting inside his body.

"ALL NUISANCES REMOVED. NONE STANDS BETWEEN THE GOAL AND THE VOID. POWER GENERATOR BELONGS TO THE VOID."

"Ah!" Rodimus instantly pieced together the incident; Optimus was going to take one of three major power generators in the city and Hosehead was assigned to it. Obviously, the Headmaster was trying to keep Optimus from dismantling it. Yup, the Headmaster kept him from doing it alright; it just cost him his own life, that's all. "Well, I'll not go so easily!" Rodimus bopped Prime's audios with his hands, but to no affect. Something snapped inside his neck. Rodimus ignored it and rerouted his systems. He tried punching the Senior Prime in the face. No results.

Something else snapped. Rodimus was swiftly running out of options and soon his air and fluid lines would be compromised.

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THEY WILL KILL EACH OTHER.

The music invaded her mind again. But Rusti was not going to wake up. She needed rest. "Optimus and Roddi never let me be around when they argue. Optimus always sends me outside to play with the Dinobots, pick flowers, or draw pictures for him. I know they have terrible arguments."

The music shifted and became a soft glowing orb that zipped from one end of the station to the other. Rusti realized they were inside the bunker, north of the city. But she did not know how she got there or who found her and brought her in. The orb returned to her little resting place and the girl envisioned her body in black and blue, bandaged in several places either to protect opened wounds or cracked bones; her ribs being a few of them. The orb insisted she get up and look around.

But Rusti just lay there, eyes closed. Her mind teetered on the edge of consciousness and dreams. She allowed it to drift wherever it chose, hoping to dream of fluffy, peach-colored clouds floating amid a soft sunset over a valley hemmed in by hills and flowers near a beautiful lake.

Instead, the squared blue optics belonging to Ultra Magnus came into view. His form rested in a chair while several Autobots and Humans gathered about him, softly talking among themselves before talking to him. Rusti could not hear what they were saying, not clearly, anyway.

Then Magnus spoke in soft, concise tones: "no one wants to do what must be done. Least of all, me. But something must be done to stop them."

Rusti remembered how Magnus was warned he might have to assassinate the two Autobot leaders. He was right, something needed to be done. But killing them was not an option Magnus should take, however inevitable it seemed.

"ME, GRIMLOCK TAKE CARE OF OPTEEMUS PRIME. ME GRIMLOCK STOMP HIM COLD."

"NO!" It was Springer's firm voice that interrupted the Dinobot. "Killing them would only jeopardize our own future. Magnus, we need to come up with a better plan!"

"I'm open to suggestions, Springer." Magnus answered quietly. "If you have another option, let's hear it."

Springer looked a bit doubtful, but said his peace, anyway. "We could knock them unconscious and hold them-"

"Hold them in what, Springer?" Daniel/Arcee snapped at him with a sharp voice. "Did you see what they've done to the city? Do you honestly believe anything we construct will hold either of them?" Daniel/Arcee gazed hard at Magnus, "Ultra Magnus, let me-I mean, 'us' do the assassination. Arcee's body is smaller and lighter than most others here; we can slip into places-"

"Thank you, Daniel, but no. I am not willing to put either you or Arcee at risk here. If anyone would be able to detect your presence, it would be Optimus Prime. You can't sneak up on him."

Arcee's arms folded in obstinance. "We are a Headmaster, Magnus. Our life frequencies are different."

"The answer is still 'no."

"Magnus!" Daniel's stubborn streak surfaced, "we are more than capable of handling the situation! All we need is a good weapon-"

"The answer is NO, Daniel." Magnus snarled.

"Dammit, Magnus, when are you going to realize that between the two of us, we're far more capable of doing things other than playing babysitter to diplomats! Arcee is a great fighting machine and more agile than most every . . . one . . ."

Daniel's argument faded when the Major-general forced himself to his feet and stood tall and threatening, towering over Arcee by a good ten, maybe fifteen feet. His flaring optics bore down on the femme, or more to the point, the Human inside the femme. "I am not going to argue with you about this, DANIEL. Arcee's life is in question here, whether or not YOU are in control. The answer remains NO. So, DROP IT."

Springer nodded, "Magnus is right. Optimus is far too aware of what takes place around the city." Springer ignored the acid gaze Daniel/Arcee stabbed his way and turned back to Magnus. "Mags, let me give it a try. I can knock them out with a concussion blast. If it doesn't work . . ." here the Triple Changer glanced at the Dinobot, "You can send Grimlock to take a shot."

Magnus sighed. The idea of sending anyone appalled him. Look at what Optimus did to him-and that was just to teach him a lesson in 'decorum'! However, something needed to be done. Something had to work. If nothing else, they had to try. "Alright, Springer. But don't get caught in a cross-fire. If it doesn't work, pull out immediately. We'll come up with something else."

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Rodimus managed to call up enough strength to fling Prime off him. He transformed and raced away. He needed new tactics. Unfortunately, Prime was not finished with him. Optimus chased and the two zipped out of the Bivouac into the R & D complex. Rodimus led Prime in and out of Research and Development all too quickly, steering back toward Central and EDC. He turned south on Polaris Avenue and zoomed for Ascension Grade. But Optimus, hot on his aft, jumped speeds and transformed to robot mode, landing squarely on Rodimus' trailer. Using their momentum, Prime swung all his body weight right just as Roddi climbed up the grade. Optimus' weight pulled the two of them to the grade's rail, over the ramp and they fell quarter of a mile to ground level. Rodimus transformed to robot mode as they fell and with a growl, punched Optimus then kicked him. Roddi landed like a cat, Optimus, more like a spider and the two assailed one another like a pair of rams. Rodimus jabbed Prime in the middle, then flew away when Optimus chopped him with the side of his hand.

Rodimus called his rifle from subspace, no longer willing to use his arm weapons. He peppered the area with photon blasts, damaging a support beam to the grade, tearing up Polaris Avenue and blowing up two Human vehicles.

By the time he was through 'redecorating' that part of the city, he realized Optimus was nowhere in sight. Rodimus cursed profusely, his face twisted into an ugly expression. This game needed to come to a conclusion.

Optimus seized him from behind and Rodimus tried to jam the butt of his rifle into Prime's face. But he succeeded only when he turned the rifle around and shot Optimus in the lower left leg. Optimus screamed and grabbed a firm hold on the points of Rodimus' spoiler then with a great shove to Roddi's backside, Optimus broke off the points and tossed them aside.

Rodimus cried out and stumbled forward but rolled back around to face his attacker. Optimus threw himself onto his opponent and the two rolled for control over the other, wrestling, kicking and punching, all the while, each struggled for the only weapon between them. Optimus finally managed to pin Rodimus down and pulled back his right fist, readying to pummel face. Rodimus knew he was no match at this moment and levered one foot up and managed to throw Prime off him, though it took everything he had. The Second transformed to auto mode and shot away, madly racing this way and that just to find a little refuge and nurse a few injuries and invent other ways to eliminate the other infected Prime.

Optimus let him go for now. His leg hurt from Roddi's gunshot and a bit of a rest would be good. He lifted his dark red eyes toward the sunless sky and tuned into the world for a moment. All around his immediate area, he sensed people, Autobot or Human, grieve over the destruction and the dismal darkness that enveloped the planet.

It was all the same, light or dark, as far as he was concerned. The darkness was comfortable and Optimus planned to keep it this way for a very long time.

Wait! What was that?

Something of Light now touched the streets.

Another Toy arrived to deter Void's attention from Rodimus.

Springer slipped to the outside world and transformed to his helicopter mode. The city lay like a dead thing left to waste away. Nothing of the familiar sounds echoed off his sonar. Buildings were either smashed or left completely alone. Streets lay ripped like wounds left unattended. Vehicles squatted along the ground like mashed aluminum cans.

No sign of either Prime. The world held quiet as a spider's web in waiting.

Springer knew better than to land, but there seemed no other way to find either Prime. It could be that the noise he made in the air forewarned them of his approach. He needed to attack swift and sure and leave, but . . . maybe Magnus was right after all. He transformed and grabbed hold of a support beam and slid his way to a quieter landing. This was near the R & D complex, the one place not yet fully trashed by the two Primes. If their goal was to completely dismantle Fort Max, they were doing a great job of it. It amazed the Autobot wrecker how much damage two people could do. But then, he digressed, they weren't ordinary people in any sense of the word.

Now to business. If he were Optimus or Rodimus Prime, pending on eliminating the other, where would he go? The building before him flashed in brilliance and a scene from the past flickered before his optics. But now accustomed to the strange phenomena, Springer paid it no mind. There was a mission to complete.

Where were the two Primes? Maybe his calculations were incorrect. Maybe the information was wrong. Or maybe both were bored and Optimus and Roddi had departed for another part of the city: Topside or something.

A finger sternly and firmly tapped the wrecker's shoulder and Springer about swallowed his own laser core. He flinched and stepped back, nearly tripping over a bit of refuse. Optimus towered over him like a dark gargoyle. And in the sunless day, all the wrecker could see were the bare outlines of the Senior Prime and his optics, now gone cold red.

"WHAT STANDS HERE?" Optimus' voice was clearly twisted with an alien sound. It vibrated and touched Springer's audio receptors like acid. "I BELIEVE YOUR NAME SPRINGER." Optimus began to circle him like a predator examining its prey. "LITTLE THINGS PRECIOUS."

Springer finally found his vocalizer, "Optimus, I-I've come to put a stop to the fighting."

"ELIMINATION EXERCISES NOT THE SAME. RETREAT OR FACE DISMANTLEMENT."

"You're destroying the city. You must stop-"

"INFERIORITY HAS NO PLACE OF AUTHORITY.

Springer had a hard time suppressing a shudder. The voice snapped and even the wrecker could tell every word was underlaid with a curse toward him. But he was considered courageous, even by Prime's high standards. Springer would not back down. "If you do not end this, you will force the rest of us to put an end to it." Prime's sizable hand clamped hard about Springer's neck and the Triple Changer found himself slammed into the nearby building. Optimus' hand slowly closed off fuel and air to his CPU.

"SUBCREATURE. INTIMIDATION UNIMPORTANT. YOUR HEAD USED FOR PLEASURE. YOUR BODY USED FOR SUSTENANCE. YOUR SOUL A PLAYGROUND FOR LUST. DARK DREAMS TAINT YOUR HAPPINESS. THE VOID ENVELOPS AND YOU CRY FOR DEATH. DEATH DENIED, SUBCREATURE. ONLY VOID AND PAIN AND SORROW.'

'YOU LEARN TO CRY.'

A white flash seared Springer's mind and he envisioned a group of Quintessons surrounding him, while he lay strapped to a table. A sharp, hot tool pierced his body and sank down, down, down. The Wrecker twitched with memory -oh Primus, it hurt! Another Quintesson spoke as a volt of electricity jabbed his innards, scorching him inside, boiling fluids and vaporizing components. Springer's body twitched with agony. He wanted to cry, but could not. Another Quintesson ripped open Springer's back panels and tore apart precious shield plates. It stabbed into his laser core and connected him to a machine which jolted him with hot acid. Springer opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came. His mind reeled with memories of an event he did not live through himself. They jammed needle-sharp tools into the back of his head and Springer felt each one of them, felt fluids and blood drip off the ends of the protruding needles and his body jerked.

Optimus dropped the Autobot wrecker and Springer remained where he lay, his body now suffering with spastic episodes of emotional and mental shock.

Rodimus staggered through the inner courtyard between Medical and the R & D complex. He knew he just barely escaped with his life when he and Prime heard Springer approach. Optimus abandoned him for a bit of fresh fun. He did not know how long that would last, but he hoped it would be long enough for him to prepare a trap.

Distantly the Second Prime heard something interlock with Fort Max. But did he actually hear it, or did he feel it? Or did it matter?

Rodimus decided it did not matter. He transformed and raced toward Central, hoping he could get there before Optimus decided to finish playing with his new-found play-thing.

The damaged streets stretched before him like opened wounds, seeping with fluids from the city. Fort Max was seriously injured. Roddi did not concern himself with whether it was life threatening or not. He rolled off Factor Street and into Central Plaza, a courtyard lying west of Central Command. In the center, as Rodimus suspected, lay Optimus' trailer. Roller was nowhere to be seen but his absence did not enter Roddi's mind as Prime examined the connections between the opened trailer and Maximus. Plates and other pieces of metal flooring were removed to make room for the trailer, now planted in the heart of the city. Optimus was planning something big and whatever it was, Rodimus was sure he'd not like it.

He was right not to trust to it. For the trailer had linked securely to Max's own systems and from there it sent a signal to a satellite high above. The satellite, now infected with the Virus itself, transmitted the signal and sent it to Fort Sagittarius in England.

There, at the Central Command center in Sagittarius, Autobots and Humans crossed the courtyard at the change of guard. But when the face of Optimus Prime pressed out from the building's structure, everyone in the area, as far away as half a mile, froze from what they were doing, whether it was walking, driving or talking. They stared at the impressionable and inexpressive face of Optimus Prime.

"AUTOBOTS, THIS YOUR GOD. PREPARE FOR DEATH." Again it was Optimus' voice but distorted and drowned by the Viral influence. Fear swept over the city and people dropped their immediate assignments and searched for security and assurance.

But that was as far as the threat advanced. In Fort Maximus, Rodimus leapt upon the trailer's platform and tore into it; ripping cross-circuitry, communication uplinks and feeding lines. He added a nice little bomb to the deck itself then whisked away before the deck blew.

Optimus, who had long since finished his business with Springer, crumbled with shock. He knew exactly what happened and who was responsible.

One attack deserves another.

Prime transformed to auto mode, but found it painful to call the trailer in through subspace. It bled and rattled from damage. Nevertheless, Optimus pressed forward and shot down Main Street, aiming straight for the heart of Central Command. Whatever dared to remain in his path, be it living thing or not, was flattened without a second thought.

Not far from there, Rodimus laughed, delighted they would fight once more. He transformed and shot northward, aiming to ram Optimus Prime. He knew Motormaster lost to a game of chicken decades ago. That didn't mean diddle to him. He was a Prime, Motor 'mouth' was not. In the dark of night, under the bloody moon, the two came within sight range.

"You can't do to me what you did to Motormaster." Rodimus dared.

"NO INTENT CRASHING," Prime answered. "OBJECTIVE: ANNIHILATION."

Rodimus Prime let out a battle cry and they came sixty yards of crashing.

Forty.

Twenty.

Ten.

They slammed into one another with such a sound that what glass remained intact shattered and both Primes transformed on the spot. But it was Rodimus who gained momentum first. He scampered for Optimus, grabbed his hand and swung him into the nearby building. He rushed after with a lightsword but did not get close enough. Optimus' foot slammed into his face and Rodimus fell back, marring the ground with his impact. Optimus leapt after, but Rodimus rolled out of the way. Optimus crashed, ripping metal and underside material into fragments. Rodimus jumped at the opportunity and came slashing down with the sword. Rather than running, Optimus faced his opponent and kicked Rodimus on the underside so that he 'ate' metal flooring. Optimus rolled to his knees, projected the palm of his hand toward Rodimus and shot an energy burst his way. Roddi saw it coming and flipped feet over hands out of range. The burst fragmented a nearby statue and bits of metal rained everywhere.

Optimus, however, did not take notice how Rodimus had disappeared and regretted not keeping closer track. Rodimus landed in front of him and slashed his chest with the blade. Optimus fell back with impact but rebounded with a spring and stood at guarded attention. Rodimus advanced with the blade, encouraged that he was finally gaining the advantage. "I will drink your fluids like fine iridium."

Optimus aimed a kick, but miscalculated and Rodimus slashed him along the left hip. The cut ran deep and Prime crumbled in pain as blood colored the surface of his body. He sprang back up, however, ready to attack from another angle, but his reaction time was slower because of the damage done to the Trailer. Rodimus kicked him squarely in the chest again, causing more damage than what was there before. Optimus stumbled back. He seemed surprised that Rodimus was finally attaining the upper hand in their conflict.

It mattered not. Whatever Rodimus did to him, the objective was the same; the intent to destroy. He foolishly, thoughtlessly, charged for Rodimus who finally impaled the sword through Prime's right shoulder.

For a single fleeting second, Optimus realized what was going on. His optics shed their red haze and his mind whirled with shock. What was happening to them? But the moment passed as Optimus faded into the darkness of a blackout.

Finally victorious, Rodimus dragged Prime along the ground, making sure the course he took was over the worst littered areas so that Optimus' hide would be well scratched and dented.

Where would he place Optimus to kill him outright? Where would be the best of places? Maybe near or on Central Command itself.

No, too obvious. Try again, No-Brain.

Ah-ha! The Museum of Alien History and Technology! It was one of Optimus' favorite places in town-he contributed much of his own stuff to it. Rodimus dragged the Senior Prime's unconscious form through Central Command back to the Bivouac and securely chained him while Prime could not fight.

Little by little Optimus came to and Rodimus watched, utterly pleased with himself, as Prime struggled against his bonds. Not only had he bagged the 'great and mighty' Optimus Prime, but now he thought it brilliantly ironic that Prime would die like this, virtually crucified on one of his own monuments. Roddi's ravenous anticipation suddenly fell into disappointment when Prime ceased his struggling. His optics darkened and his head bowed as though he had lost consciousness. Damn . . . Rodimus was pissed. Seems the old mech just couldn't take the punishment any more. Roddi stomped toward the Autobot leader, intent on 'bringing Op around' by whatever means necessary. He wasn't about to let Prime off that' easily. In that instant Optimus' head shot up, his optics blazing near-white with Matrix power. Rodimus slammed to a halt as though he had struck an unseen wall. Fear surged through him, but only for a moment. A hideous smile spread over Rodimus' face and his optics narrowed. "That's more like it!" he growled, drawing his vibro-blade from subspace. But what Roddi saw next nearly stopped his lasercore.

Rodimus stood in total disbelief as he watched the structure behind Optimus tremble, slowly shifting and reforming itself, allowing Prime to break free in the process. His head bowed, he dropped to one knee, resting his hands on the ground. Shards of heavy glass fell like rain, shattering on the ground around him. All the while the thing behind him shifted and writhed, slowly taking the form of a hundred foot mutated version of the Virus itself. It lurched to one side, then the other, fragmenting the concrete and metallic base that restrained it. One by one it extricated it's four legs from the ground. The ear splitting sound of scraping and twisting metal forced Rodimus to cover his audios in pain. He looked up again to see the creature take two steps, it's pointed legs piercing the earth like spikes under it's weight. There it stood squarely over Optimus, who did not so much as flinch. It crouched as though about to pounce and screamed.

Not even the Madness could shield Rodimus from the absolute terror that impaled him like a shaft of ice.

The building let out an insentient shriek and picked Rodimus up then slammed him down, leaving a deep impression in the city flooring. Rodimus groaned, now feeling pain, and plenty of it.

Optimus stood by and folded his arms, rather proud of himself. It seemed the city fell to a greater darkness, as though an unholy black flame absorbed whatever light remained. Neither Prime needed light to see by, however. They felt and heard everything around them, sensing buildings and debris, wreckage left by their conflict and felt the air choke with plasma fires and smoldering ruins. For Optimus, it was like breathing in evil and it felt soothing despite the fact that it disintegrated him from the inside.

Rodimus managed to pull his senses together and he struggled out of the pit his body made. His optic sensors were off-line. But the darkness swallowed all light and sight was impossible, anyway.

Thlomp!

Rodimus turned toward the sound and the depiction in his mind came as accurately as though he had visual contact. It took another step, leaving smoldering prints in its wake.

The city buildings bled at their junctions, corners and damaged areas. The walls around Fort Max wavered and all the faces lining outside started to murmur and chant foul things as their metal-carved optical sensors shed tears.

---------------------------------------

DANCE 11

The Music came back to Rusti in her dreams. But this time, as it played, the walls bled. She sat up and listened more intently. In her dream, she felt it necessary to leave. Now. Deep inside, she knew she did not have the power to stop the fighting. But maybe the Music could and maybe it just needed to know where to go.

Yes! That must be it! The Music just needed to know where to go and it would do the necessary work!

Rusti decided to chance it. She needed her robe and slippers because it would be cold out there tonight. She searched the closet and found the needed items. Oh, wait, what was that attached to her? Some kind of line. Yes. The line will have to go.

"Go away." her voice came as a soft whisper and the IV slipped out her arm on its own. The alarm did not sound, the monitors did not skip a beat. The Music would handle the details.

Rusti donned her leather-bottomed slippers and peaked out her room. The whole place lay in lightless silence. It would seem the terrible blackness above now affected the lower levels of the fortress city. Max, too, was in terrible pain, but there was nothing she could do about that. The Music wanted outside.

She padded her way past the room where Ultra Magnus slowly recuperated. Neither he nor the other Autobots noticed her walking by, nor did she see the lamplight from that room by which Grimlock prepared to meet Optimus Prime.

This way, Rusti thought. It was necessary to go through the side entrance because the back and front entrances were both watched. Yes, there was no need for conflict. Besides, the Autobot guarding the northern end was not well.

Rusti paid the Autobot no mind; she did not even notice how its upper half had been devoured by the wall it stood against. She did not see it bleed. The doors opened automatically for her. Maybe there was enough consciousness left in the city that it knew she was leaving the lower level.

Well, no, Rusti thought dreamily again, something else kindly opened the doors for her. Things like that happen in dreams. She exited to the outside world and found it cast in grey light. The sun, forbidden to shine upon the world by the power of the Matrix, struggled around the block, creating a creepy aura effect in the sky. The city stood in ghostly quiet but now and again Rusti heard things fall from precarious positions. Roadways that were once paved with care lay torn or distorted by Optimus Prime's underestimated power.

THIS WAY. The music promised her a yellow brick road. This way to a place it needed to go. This way to . . .

This way to . . .

This way to the Dance.

Rusti's form froze. Dance? That was a filthy word, now, like 'game'. Optimus despised that word. It reminded him of evil things from his past. The connotation of 'game' was not to have fun, but to see people tortured to death.

But that was about seven million years and two Decepticon lords ago. Megatron, at least, played no games.

THIS WAY. THIS WAY. Rusti followed wherever the Music led her. A force, gentle but firm, prodded her along. The girl could not tell if she were the one in charge or if she allowed something else to lead her. No matter. Dreams did those kinds of things. But where was the Voice? Where was the Faceless Darkness? Surely It knew she was here.

She made her way around the dimly-lit city, careful as not to reopen any wounds currently healing. But her feet hurt. It was a good thing she had slippers on because . . . oops, there it goes. One wound split back open. That hurt and she winced. But she had to get to the bridge. It might be a bit safer there.

Faces pressed up from the floor as she walked along. One of them made a nasty expression toward her, but she knew as long as the Music stayed with her, it could not harm her. Rusti found the bridge crossing Autobot River between Central Command and the Training Grounds. How she got here in a few minutes was . . . well, magic, really. Dreams do things like that.

She cast her eyes about her surroundings, finding some buildings damaged, others slowly melting. "This needs to be reversed." she said out loud.

YES, IT DOES, the Music agreed. BUT TIME IS SHORT.

That was when the building slammed Rodimus into the ground. It took a step: THLOM. It took another step and its weight sent cracks into the city flooring. Poor Max! Worse yet, there stood Optimus. His coloring faded to dark grey and unholy white. His optics shone nearly colorless in the greyness of daylight. His body was battered and bleeding. But he felt nothing. His consciousness was completely under Viral control. He wanted to rage, but the Virus raged for him.

"Ssssshhhhhhhh." Rusti wanted the virus to be still long enough to realize it needed to rest. Yes, the Virus was very tired indeed. Time to rest for a while.

Shock struck Optimus Prime cold. He heard that voice, that tiny little voice. He startled and glanced right-oh great Primus! The girl was there! But . . . but she was supposed to be dead! She was dropped and being so frail, as all fleshlings are, she should have died-oh, wait! Yes, that's right! That one was a bit special, wasn't she? She was able to see the psychological manifestation. Ooooh, clever girl!

The Building-Virus stopped in its tracks and started to recede into its former shape. Rodimus managed to pull himself up, his body drenched in his own fluids. Then he too, turned to see what the hell Prime was staring at.

Ah! The girl!

Rusti made no move. The Music was here to accomplish something and it needed a witness. Had someone else been there, however, they would have seen how the girl's eyes shaded to fine fluorescent blue, glowing brightly under the possession of a powerful alien entity.

"YOU WILL BOTH DIE." Rusti heard herself whisper it. But the two Autobot leaders heard it loud and clear. "I WOULD GRIEVE. YOUR PEOPLE WOULD DIE. THERE WOULD BE NO MORE AND PRIMUS WOULD BE GUILTY OF MURDER. YOU MUST NOT CONTINUE THIS ACTION. SLEEP. SLEEP. SLEEP."

They stared at the girl. A gentle breeze brushed against her robe and gown and fluffed her red hair. Rusti had no idea her body temperature had dropped. She did not know her feet were bleeding badly. But she watched as Rodimus remained sitting and slowly stared at the ground. A shadow of grief fell over his face and shoulders. He leaned against the virus-now-turned building.

The Music touched the air, sparking a bit of light like little fireflies. Dimly, Rusti wished she could touch one of them. She started to cry because she knew she'd never be able to touch them. That was the way of things.

Optimus sank to his knees, staring at the girl. Void longed for her. It knew she had something It greatly desired. But Void found Itself tired from all Its work. She called it Faceless Darkness. Silly girl. It knew its name. Void . . . Void.

And now Void would rest for a while. Let the dark and the cold take it. Let the darker corners of the Matrix be its resting place. Optimus Prime would wait for him a while longer. The demise of Rodimus Prime could also wait.

There would be a tomorrow. And the city would rise and Void would have more to conquer. Greater fun at a later time.

At a later time.

Shhhhhhhh.

Optimus sat on his knees, staring. A little color returned to him. The blue in his optics faded in, but came more as blue-grey. It was more Optimus Prime than Void, now.

Primus, help, he mouthed it, but no words came from his vocalizer. Darkness started to lift. He could see a ruined city smoldering about him. Optimus thought his heart bled. "Primus, help." Moisture fell from his optics-something that's never happened before. The moisture fell over his faceplate and dropped to his chest, only to recede into the sword-wound given him by Rodimus. Oh, but was that not ages ago?

The darkness covering the world started to lift. The sun pushed and pressed its way through the dark barrier. It revealed bleeding metal and a decimated troop of National Guard around Fort Max. But it gave people hope. Another day was coming. The nightmare was over. For all things must end; even the bad.

Rusti started to come to, now realizing she was walking in no dreamscape. Pain shot down her body and she sank to the ground, her slippers soaked with blood. Her mind closed down in shock. What the hell was she doing out here?

Something about Music . . . but it wasn't music as in song, but unfathomable power. She brought her hands to her lap, not seeing that Optimus crawled away in one direction and Rodimus another. Her eyes batted against the rising light, chasing shadows and revealing a world touched by evil.

Rusti was suddenly aware that something horrible had taken Optimus Prime. It took him and twisted him, forcing him to use a power he had never dared to reveal. He was filled with an emptiness and guilt shared only by one who could understand the extent of vast responsibility.

People emerged from their hiding places. They all shielded their eyes and optics from the bright sunlight. They welcomed the light and warmth with hope, but upon seeing the city in such plight, their enthusiasms sank. It would take months to repair the damage, if it can be repaired at all. What of the melted buildings? The walls surrounding the city? What about the faces in building walls or those who were eaten by them?

Captain Fairborn pushed her way from a crowd of gawking onlookers and searched for the little girl who managed to disappear. She kept trying to rationalize how Rusti managed to sneak past the two Autobot guards standing at her door and then the two down the hallway and then the three at each of the entrances. "Rusti!" she called out. Fairborn half expected Daniel/Arcee to do the same, but Daniel was more concerned about his family in Central City. Maybe Arcee was worried about Rusti, but she had little choice: Daniel was the head, literally and figuratively.

"Rusti!" The captain ran six blocks to Central Command. If she were Rusti, who loved the two Primes more than probably anyone else in the city, this was where she would go. But all Fairborn found was the smashed fountain, the shattered front windows and the roadways and flooring torn up by the two Autobot leaders. What a horrific mess! Fairborn doubted if a Decepticon attack could have made a more terrible scene! Roads had their courses changed and buildings slumped, partly melted. Other areas looked as though they had been uprooted and turned completely upside down.

They had been. One building, not far south, was completely uprooted and lay upside down. Cars and trucks were burned to a crisp. A pool of liquid metal lay near the ambassadorial suite there in Central.

And not far from there spanned the bridge leading from Central to the Training Ground. The bridge was twisted a bit so that it rose and fell . . . there!

Marissa ran as fast as her legs would carry her. She came to Rusti and checked the girl's pulse then raised the girl's head to look into her eyes. Rust's grey eyes fluttered open. Her cheeks were wet with tears.

"Optimus hurts."

Marissa softly cursed and swept the girl off the metal flooring, out of a small pool of blood. There was no need for words. Rusti needed immediate care.

---------------------------------------

DANCE 12

Rusti supposed every Autobot had their own opinion about Optimus Prime. Some appreciated his administration while others were simply accustomed to it. Some thought of him as a tireless soldier, always prepared for war; others suffered from hero worship. Some Autobots (and many Paratrons) viewed him as reclusive and unsociable. But there were those who were downright hostile, who thought him as a self-righteous prig with little love or respect for the Autobots under his command. Those same Autobots felt he viewed them as naught but gun fodder for that day when Autobots and Decepticons would once again engage in the age-old war AND they blamed Optimus for perpetuating the war.

But Rusti knew Optimus viewed himself as their servant. He was their problem-solver. He took care of their needs and tried to lead them toward a better future. But it would seem all that has crumbled to dust. Rusti wondered if Optimus was up on Central right now, cleaning his plants or maybe in his office, sorting through digipads. She felt nothing from him. It was possible he was numb from shock. She felt nothing from Rodimus but seething rage toward himself. The proverbial 'smoke' had cleared but all things touched by evil are never the same.

This was the case in point. Rusti lifted her eyes from sleep and stared at a wall where a TV quietly chattered on. Some Tom and Jerry cartoon played. Rusti assumed the doctor told nurses no news. A shadowy figure stepped in and Rusti met a nurses' smile.

"Good afternoon, Young Lady! Nice to see you awake. How do you feel?"

Rusti did not feel like smiling. Her lips parted and her cheeks hurt. "Optimus." It was all she cared about.

"I'm not permitted to tell you anything. Only Doctor Cynyr can authorize that. Are you hungry? Some Jell-O, maybe?"

Rusti looked away as she choked. Emptiness touched her. She nodded anyway as tears tumbled down her cheeks. Someone crushed someone else's soul and she felt that and took it in and tried to protect it. But the soul shied away.

Footsteps entered her ears and the girl realized she had slept again. The nurse set two little cups of Jell-O in front of her: orange and lime. "Here you go." The nurse did not seem quite so happy this time around. It was true; depression is contagious.

"Thank you." Rusti whispered. She sniffed and picked up the spoon with a bandaged hand.

"Would you like me to change the channel for you?" The nurse tried to make amends for her attitude. But Rusti merely shook her head.

"No, thank you. I don't want anything else. I don't want to hear the news or watch a dumb sitcom." The nurse nodded, forced a smile then left.

Rusti slept most of the day waking only to eat just a little something or take a restroom break. She heard commotions now and again down the hall and gathered that several wounded people lay in the same ward and from listening to nurses and other staff talk on, there were many Autobot casualties with about twenty-nine dead and sixteen unaccounted for.

Cynyr followed Rusti's treatment with laser surgery, healing four broken ribs and three bones in her feet. She had skin abrasions and bruises up and down her back and chest where she fell against water and later received shock resuscitation. While her bones were healed, they remained soft and would be for a few weeks. At least she was mobile. Cynyr kept her in the ward for a couple more days to make sure she was able to walk on her own.

It was about the second day that a pretty lady and her son came to pay Rusti a visit. Rusti did not recognize the lady at all but thought she had seen the boy before. He was very mannerly and kindly brought a bouquet of flowers which he set in the window. He seemed rather sad and at a loss for words.

"Hi." he tried.

She smiled, though her bruised cheeks hurt to do so. "Hi. Thank you."

He pocketed his hands and glanced at his feet. "I suppose you don't know who I am." She honestly didn't think she did. But from his demeanor, it seemed she was supposed to. He sent her a grim smile. "I'm Cody Greydon. We go to school together. Your Aunt Missy said that uh, you have a slight case of amnesia and that you would probably not remember me."

Rusti's whole face dipped into shock and sadness. THAT'S what the whole 'date game' with Cynyr was all about? She'd lost her memory! Rusti's eyes batted in surprise. What caused that? Was it the fall? Or maybe just the stress and anxiety of events or . . . oh . . . Primus! "I'm sorry, Cody." she answered quietly. "I guess you're right." That choked her and Rusti turned away. Part of her world was gone. Evil left its mark on her as it did the city.

Cody dared to touch her bandaged hand carefully. "That's okay. We were good friends and we can be friends again, right, Rusti? You can help me with English still, right? You're smart with that stuff."

Rusti wiped a tear as she looked back at him. She nodded and sniffed. He kindly handed her a tissue and she blew her nose. "Than-" she had to clear her throat, "-thank you, Cody."

The corners of his mouth turned up in a smile, but it wasn't an easy-going sort. Cody and his mother left Rusti with an emptier feeling and she wondered where her life was going from this point on.

"I'm tellin' ya, I'm terrified! What if he's planning to do something else? I mean, can you believe all the reports about the bodies found in his quarters?"

"Shhh! The girl isn't supposed to know anything."

Too late. Rusti heard them talking about Rodimus. What was wrong? She opened her eyes as one nurse disconnected her from the IV, the other took her blood pressure.

"What day is it?" she asked the one taking her blood pressure.

"Thursday, November 13." She was more cheerful than the last nurse. "And today Doctor Cynyr is kicking you out of here. You're not to do a lot of walking, but you are to eat little meals six times a day. You'll get a paper explaining all that."

And before she knew it, the two women left. Rusti didn't know if Cynyr had authorized her to watch the news yet, but she switched TV stations from the bed's remote, searching for local news. It was only 11 AM, however and the only news available was world and national. That would work.

IN JAPAN, REPAIRS ARE UNDERWAY AS FORT HORIZON RETURNS TO LIFE AFTER A SERIES OF STRANGE HURRICANES SLAMMED AGAINST THE COAST, KILLING FORTY-TWO PEOPLE. HORIZON CITY COMMANDER CONVOY OFFERS ASSURANCE THAT EVENTS AFFECTING FORT MAXIMUS IN OREGON, USA HAVE NOT HAD AS MUCH AN IMPACT IN HORIZON, HOWEVER THERE HAVE BEEN INDICATIONS OF MECHANICAL FAILURES WHICH MAY OR MAY NOT BE RELATED.

Rusti shut it off. Sports was not interesting enough to warrant her attention. Not even if the Lunar Colony won its sixth football game in a row.

The nurses talked about Rodimus. What was wrong? What were they so afraid of? Rusti decided if they did not release her in the next hour, she'd have to take matters into her own hands.

She had to rise to the occasion on her own. The girl dressed and made her bed (though she knew they'd come and change it anyway) and realized there were no shoes. Captain Fairborn brought her here 'as is'. It meant a trip to either her room in the EDC complex or at Central Command would be necessary. The city grounds, no doubt, would be littered with glass.

She glanced this way and there to make sure nurses who attended her would not catch her sneaking out. Rusti was sure she'd hear about it all later. A little fun now, pay for it later, she supposed.

The way was clear and she made her way down the hall and glancing at the directional sign board, took a right. Patients and hospital staff came and left, most of them on business of their own. So far, so good. The girl took a left and passed the cafeteria and there stood the exit with only an 'inmate' guarding the way. And he was in a wheelchair. Rusti walked a little more quickly, but kept mindful of her feet-no shoes or socks and the skin was repaired only yesterday.

She rounded her way about the old man in the wheelchair, pushed open the doors and stepped into the vestibule. No alarms sounded, no nurses came dashing down the hall to call her back. Ha! They still hadn't checked her room! Perhaps in two more hours they'd get around to discharging her. Rusti had better things to concern herself than their little power-play. She stepped out to the big wide world.

But Rusti found she was not prepared mentally or emotionally to face the sight of the city.

Buildings stood lop-sided. The metal plating making the roads and walkways of the city were torn up, melted down or blasted clear through. Rusti did not recognize the city. It was as though Godzilla had made a personal appearance. Signs and poles and street lights were uprooted or smashed down.

There! That was the fountain that belonged to Medical and the R & D complex. Emergency crews fought to patch up roadways as quickly as possible.

In the distance, Rusti heard someone shout and sirens sounded. What was it? Were either Optimus or Roddi coming back?

No! Part of Ascension Grade came crashing down, creating a strange rumbling sound. Rusti never saw such devastation before. She wasn't sure how to react to it but another part of her mind gave her the answer: ignore it and find Optimus and Rodimus before the Autobots do.

Yeah. Right. She, a . . . a . . . how old was she? Fifteen? Sixteen? No, don't get distracted right now. First, she needed shoes and clothes. Glancing this way and that, Rusti recognized her setting; Medical. So EDC district was nearby.

The girl picked her way about, carefully stepping over things, but still managing to cut and scrape her feet on debris. One street after another demonstrated the power of the two Autobot leaders. Everywhere she went, Rusti heard voices around her say how shocked they were by the amount of destruction. How could just two people do so much damage? Rusti wanted to laugh at them inwardly, knowing that Optimus and Rodimus were much more than 'just people', but she herself was shocked by the amount of damage-and the severity of it.

"Hey!" Gort called out to her from a small cart, "Aren't you supposed to be in Medical?

"I escaped!" she returned as repair crews let fall part of a nearby building.

"Where are you going in your bare feet, girl?"

"To my room in EDC."

He waved his hand toward himself, inviting her aboard. At least Gort would not take her back; thinking she'd go to EDC and stay there like a good girl. Rusti climbed onto the little car and they rolled slowly along the sidewalk. The ride was bumpy as the tough tires crunched on glass and metal shards. Rusti brushed glass and dirt off the bottoms of her feet. Yes, they bled a little, but she'd live. They traveled along, passing flattened vehicles and parking lots obliterated as though a meteorite had slammed into them. Not far off, First Aid examined an Autobot, shook his head and his assistants covered the Autobot's head. The poor fellow was dead. How many died? How many were wounded? Who was stupid enough to stay out here?

Seven miles from the Research and Development facility, Gort slowed and pulled to the EDC building. Every window there lay on the ground in tiny pieces. The door ways were busted in and the eastern corner slumped like a melted candle. Security checked ID's and asked questions to repair personnel who walked in or out of the building.

"Here we are, Girl. You'll have to tell them your name or they won't likely let you in."

She threw him a smile of gratitude. Walking here would have been a nightmare. "Thank you, Mister Gort." and she slipped off. His little vehicle vreemed off and she carefully made her way to the front entrance.

"Name?"

"Rusti Witwicky."

The officer, a top-heavy lady with a piercing gaze, scrutinized the girl and lifted her communicator. "Dave, tell Captain Fairborn her little lost puppy has come home, would ya?" Rusti tried to rush past her but the officer grabbed the girl round the back of her gown and robe. "Where do you think you're going, young lady?"

There were times when Rusti wished she could transform and fly away. She frowned. "I want my clothes."

"You were supposed to stay at the ward until released. Then you would have HAD clothes, girl. Your Aunt Missy's on her way."

Rusti stared at her, annoyed. "Do you really want me to stand out here in my jammies and catch a cold? I'd like to go up to my room and get something warmer on. Aunt Marissa can find me there." And then she turned on the puppy-eyes routine.

The security officer eyed her suspiciously, then relented. "Alright. But no funny stuff, Rusti. Your aunt's worried sick about you."

Rusti remembered to walk; if she ran, it might make her look even more suspicious. She made her way down the hall, but found the elevator out of order.

Great.

She padded to the crowded stair rails. People wore solemn faces, their bodies posed with insecurity, keeping close to the wall or one another. A couple of them wept. One lady, assisted by a gentleman, advanced one step at a time, ignoring blood seeping from her hair down her face, her eyes reflecting shock.

Rusti did not know how long she had been in the hospital but seeing this, she guessed it could not have been long enough. Or maybe the wound was fresh; that maybe the lady had tripped and injured herself.

The girl made her way up the last flight to her level and found the hall there almost untouched by the devastation. A bit of caution tape blocked off one wall to the left where words burned their way through. Some residents gave it a glance. Others shied away, perhaps fearful what it might say. Rusti glanced at it and was mildly surprised the words were written in Autobot. It had to be part of the virus attack.

"That is so freaky." one lady remarked.

"Come on," her male friend tugged her arm. "Let's get out of here."

"But what's it saying? What's it mean?"

"I don't KNOW, Norra, but let's GO. Your folks are waiting down stairs."

"No Games," Rusti blurted. She received several stares. "It says 'No Games'. Omk zh'vvupteen." She stared at it, struggling to fathom the reason for its appearance. It could be something Optimus was trying to say, something very important. But it seemed none of the adults either could not or did not want to believe her. That was okay. Rusti did not expect them to understand.

She abandoned the scene for her room and found it untouched. Even her homework remained lying in the same place as she . . . left it. Her mind reeled. Something struggled to surface to her memory but died. What was it? What happened? She fell? From Central? What the hell was she doing there? But try as she did, Rusti could not recall the reason for being there. Might have been that she was trying to reason with Optimus. But then, if that was the case, and she knew it would be dangerous, why didn't she just try to Communicate with him?

The girl turned a book closed to see what she was studying the day it all started.

Psychology? That was weird. What else did she forget? Civics, College prep English, Astronomy . . . would she have to take all these darned classes over again? What grade was she in, anyway?

Something nagged at the back of her mind. Something important. She came here to change her clothes, but there was something else she needed to do . . . think, girl! Her eyes drifted about her room and came to rest on her stereo. Music?

THE Music.

"Ohmigod." she rushed to her dresser and tossed out underclothes, jeans, socks and swiped a blouse from the closet. She wasn't going back out there in the cold fall air without something descent on. But she needed to rush. If the Music felt it imperative to stop the fighting between Optimus and Roddi, chances were they'd come back to their rational minds and slink away and if Magnus was already considering assassinating them, then she had to think of a way to stop him. Magnus, as smart and powerful as he was, would not understand the real situation like the Music. If Optimus and Rodimus died, the entire species would be wiped with them-no! There was no time for figuring out why!

Rusti stopped herself cold. Wait a minute! Think, Girl! If you're going to confront Magnus, you'd better be prepared to make your point absolutely clear! The first rule in playing Dinobot football is preparation against offensive retaliation against all possibilities.

She had to put on her exo-suit.

There was another problem Rusti forgot to think about: escaping before Aunt Missy came in and shipped her somewhere 'safe'. Maybe Max could help her in that department. Rusti stripped off her jammies and started to latch the exo-suit on over her underclothes. "Max?" she called. "Max, I need help." Pause, "Max?"

No response. The girl's heart sank. The city might have been wounded beyond response. She'd get no help from Maximus himself and she felt very much alone. Well, it would seem she'd have to take charge of the situation. Rusti slipped on her light colored jeans then her blouse then scrounged for her jacket and shoes. How the heck was she supposed to sneak out of this big complex without being seen (A) and get back to the ground without trying to be a super hero (B)?

There came no answer to her mind. Rusti decided she'd just have to wait out her chance. The door buzzed at the moment and she knew she'd have no chance now. "Yes?" she sang.

Aunt Missy entered, her eyes stern with disapproval. "Young Lady," Rusti supposed that sounded better than her mother calling her by her birth name, middle and last name. "When you are told to remain in one place, I would hope you'd have enough courtesy to either remain or inform someone where you are going."

"I'm sorry, Aunt Missy." Rusti mumbled. "It's just that I didn't want to wait. I wanted to find Roddi-"

"You can't help them, Rusti." Captain Fairborn's voice came flat and coldly honest. "Now, I want you to gather your things together. I'm taking you out of here."

Rusti stared, her heart skipped a beat in dread. "Out of Fort Max?"

"It's no longer safe for you to stay. I'm taking you to your folks."

"No!" she strongly objected, "I need to find Optimus and Roddi-"

"I already told you-"

"But they need help and-"

"Rusti! We are not having this conversation. Just do as your told. Gather your things. You are coming with me!"

Out of respect for her aunt, Rusti did as she was told and started tossing clothes onto her bed and dragged an empty suitcase out of the closet. But she was devastated. There was no way she was going to leave Optimus and Rodimus behind-especially with Magnus-"Ohmigod," she whispered. Her eyes darted back to Marissa, "Magnus is going to execute them, isn't he? He CAN'T!"

"Rusti!" Marissa's tone grew stronger. "I already said we are not having this discussion. I'm taking you out of the city and that's that! Now gather your homework, let's go!"

Her heart dropped and Rusti miserably piled her books and stuffed them in her backpack. There was not one person in the city willing to protect the two Autobot leaders. Not now, anyway. How many deaths resulted from the Virus? How many lives have been ruined? Too many for the girl to consider.

She finally swung her loaded backpack over her shoulder and held her suitcase in hand, her face long with grief. "What year is it, Aunt Missy? How old am I? Doctor Cynyr said I have amnesia. How is that possible?"

Marissa stroked the girl's curly hair, her face sad. "Trauma can do that, Rusti. Maybe your memory will return eventually. Now let's go. I want to get out of here while there's still light and it's still safe."

Rusti followed her down the hall, considering those last words. "You mean they think Optimus and Roddi might attack the city again? Is that why they're planning the assassination?"

"RUSTI." Marissa growled and glanced over her shoulder. It was a final warning and Rusti closed her mouth, though her mind screamed to do something-ESCAPE FIRST! She silently followed Captain Fairborn down the four flights of stairs and into the lobby. By now it was already more or less cleared of rubble. Undoubtedly repair crews, workers and volunteers would work all night to clean debris and start repairs. It was going to be expensive.

The ladies boarded an Autobot waiting outside for them. The Autobot waiting for them was Neon, a convertible with white, blue and purple trim. Marissa hefted Rusti's suitcase and backpack and waited for the girl to board first then climbed into the driver's seat. Neon shoved off, carefully making his way around crews and taped-off areas.

Marissa turned to Rusti, now a little more relaxed. "I thought your father and Arcee would be able to pick us up, but they've been assigned to assist in the Business District until later tonight."

"Captain," Neon interrupted, "I'm sorry to inform you that crews have blocked off the north-eastern exit out from EDC. We'll have to leave through the Easternside exit."

"Oh great!" Marissa spat. "More delays! Alright, just get us out of here!"

Rusti had a hard time looking at the broken buildings and torn roadways. All that was the glory of Fortress Maximus stood damaged, perhaps beyond repair. However, knowing the Paratrons as she did, Rusti believed they could put the city back together, perhaps better than new. After all, look what they did to Central Command in so short a time!

A good eight or nine miles later, they reached the Communications District. The one fountain which she and Optimus once sat beside staring at the stars still stood, though no water surged from its mirrored steps. It really had not sustained that much damage. Neither did most of the buildings here at Communication Station.

A flash image of Rodimus struck Rusti hard and she couldn't breathe for a moment. He was in terrible pain. Not so much physically, though he suffered from that, too, but most of it was in his heart. He sat against his door, bleeding and hoping he'd bleed to death. She couldn't let that happen! But what could she do? They were on their way out of the city! Her grey eyes carefully checked Aunt Missy and to the girl's relief, Captain Fairborn's attention was elsewhere, maybe on the distant horizon where most buildings were damaged by firepower or melted by Matrix energies.

Then Neon had to stop for the crossing of several crews. THAT was her chance! Rusti leapt out and made as mad a dash as her feet could carry her. Fairborn screamed after her, but no matter how much Marissa shouted, Rusti was determined not to get caught. She HAD to get to Optimus and Rodimus before Magnus did! Fear struck her stomach hard, but she kept running from one damaged building to another, listening for Neon's stomping feet or Aunt Marissa's calls. Magnus was going to assassinate the two Autobot leaders, Rusti was damned sure of it. That's why Marissa was taking her out of the city.

"HERE! I'M SURE I SAW HER COME THIS WAY!" Neon's voice filtered along the alleyway and Rusti crouched under the wreckage of fallen walls and ruined ceiling. What was to keep the Autobot from finding her? What would keep Marissa? "Please, please!" she whispered, "don't find me!"

A soft gust of wind blew through the ally and caused something in the next building to fall and crash.

"THERE!" Neon called, "I'M SURE OF IT!"

Rusti waited a while longer then a little longer than that. She had no idea why she was so scared. Maybe she feared not so much for herself, as for the two people she loved.

The girl waited until Neon's voice sounded from afar. Then she crawled out, moving from shadow to shadow and hiding to hiding. Rusti knew if she did not move now, and move quickly, search teams sent in by Fairborn would soon find her and she would be dragged, possibly bound hand and foot, and taken to Central City. The one thing that also frightened her was that her father might actually tie her to a bed or a chair to prevent her from running away.

Rusti finally found a small opening from the one building she moused in and into the next building, presumably, the one in which Roddi's quarters were housed. She climbed through a broken window and paused to look about. The building had no lights; not even emergency lights worked here. She removed her helmet from subspace and hoped it would pick up images she could not see with her unaided eyes.

Sure enough, the helmet's automatic optical system clicked on and gave the girl night vision. She tunneled her way around wreckage and into an untouched corridor. Footprints consisting of mech fluids and blood spotted the way to a door closed to intruders. Rusti followed the prints, recognizing them as Roddi's. With a hand over her heart, she timidly knocked on the door.

No, Lady-friend. You can't come in.

"Roddi . . . Roddi I think Magnus is going to send someone to kill you and Optimus. I . . ." She faltered, "I thought I'd warn you." She waited for an answer or an action but one minute turned to five and five became eight. "Roddi?"

That is the way of things, Lady-friend. Bad things happen. People have to pay the price.

"What?" Her eyes scanned the height and width of the door standing between she and Rodimus Prime. "Didn't you hear what I just said? Magnus is going to assassinate you and Optimus-and I don't even know where Optimus is-I can't sense him."

Again no answer. Rodimus made a noise and Rusti could tell he sat against his door. She touched it, but it did not open. She sank to her knees and rested her cheek on its ungiving surface. "Roddi, you can't let them do it. You can't let them take you."

Bad things happen, Rusti. This is the way of things.

"No!" she answered softly, "no! I don't want you to go! I don't want you to leave me! What about Optimus? You can't leave him, Roddi! He'd die!" She started crying, her body lost its strength and her breath came in gasps. "Wh-what happened wasn't your fault! Roddi! It wasn't your fault!"

Two Autobot Primes dancing from the strings

one tore off and broke his wings.

God called the doctor, but the devil replied,

don't worry about them, they've already died.

"Noooo!" Rusti wept hard. "No! You can't! The Autobots-they need you! They can't go on . . . Rodimus . . . Rodimus, Optimus, he'd-he'd not forgive himself and he can't go at it alone!" She sniffed and struggled to steady her voice. "Roddi?"

But he did not answer. He had nothing more to say. He would just stay there and wait for Magnus to come and find him. Through her tears, Rusti noticed a puddle seeping from under the door. She touched it and though she could not see the blue color, she could tell it was blood. Rusti stood. Rodimus was willing to either lean against the door and bleed to death or wait for Magnus to come and finish what the Virus started.

What could she do? He was beyond reason. Roddi wanted to be punished for whatever crimes or sins he committed. But the price Rodimus was willing to pay would pass to his people. Perhaps his sorrow was so great that he was unable to take into account what his death would do to others. He wasn't even thinking clearly enough to consider what it would do to Optimus.

Optimus. If Rusti could find Optimus and bring him here, perhaps Optimus Prime could get Roddi to fight his despair. A glimmer of hope rose in her heart. "Roddi . . . Roddi, I'm going to get Optimus, okay? I-please, please don't do anything until I get back, okay? Promise?"

Still no answer. Rusti decided to just take that as an affirmative. But her time was short. Where in this large city would she find Optimus? Central Command was out of the question.

Come on, Girl . . . THINK! But she could not come up with an answer. The city was so big and so many people were involved and most likely, many of them would alert Magnus and Marissa before Rusti could reach Optimus.

Wait a minute . . . what about ROLLER! If anybody knew where to find Optimus and how to get to him, it'd be the little spy car.

Oh. But then, how would she find Roller?

She slumped against the wall but continued her advance toward the outside. Maybe . . . maybe she could use the intercom from her own exo-suit. The risk she'd take there was that other people might hear her on the same frequency. Rusti stopped before a case of stairs. She tried to think hard but her emotions made things fuzzy. How often had she taken little trips in the spy car-Epsilon 9! The frequency was Epsilon 9! She was so excited, she nearly cried again. The girl sniffed and searched her pockets for a handkerchief or a napkin but found nothing, not even in her coat. Damn.

The world sank toward sunset when Rusti managed out of the Communications center. She wanted to leave under the cloak of darkness, knowing Max would not be operational for several more hours yet and security would be tight. Roller promised to wait and meet her at signal-point. That was a comfort. But she wondered how the little car was, since it felt everything Optimus went through.

Rusti had to wait ten minutes before receiving a soft signal over the comline. Her heart pounded and her skin turned cold in anxiety. The little car arrived and in light of the setting sun, Rusti noticed how its skin peeled down to a sickly grey. Metal shards punctuated his tires and there was no mistaking that nasty dent and slice alongside the poor car's right fender. But he still came for her and Rusti climbed in. Then she started crying. Her whole world was about to crash down around her and although she knew they had good intentions, it would have been wrong for Magnus and Marissa to take her away. Rusti wiped her tears with her sleeve and sniffed, wishing she had a tissue.

Roller bleeped and lowered a compartment on the passenger side. Rusti smiled. A box of tissues sat there alongside a bottle of water and a drawing pad. Picnic stuff she kept aside for those wonderful springtime days under the sun when Dinobot football and flowers were more important than stuffy parents and an overload of homework.

The spy car rolled through the city at a slower pace. No happy zipping along, nothing defying either gravity or authority. Rusti shared his despair. The city and everyone in it suffered horribly. Now they wanted Optimus and Roddi to pay with their lives. Rusti was not willing to accept Roddi's resignation. He regarded his sins, but his death was not the answer. There had to be another way. They needed Optimus and Rodimus. There was no one else who could keep the Autobot society together. And what of the Matrix? Would the Autobots be willing to destroy it, too? If they did that, if they considered it, they would certainly be on their way to genocide. And wasn't that what the Quintessons wanted?

Roller parked just outside the embankment of Autobot River.

Rusti took in the surroundings. Her mind was so preoccupied with the events and how to deal with them she did not take into account as to where she and Roller were going. They were outside the city! She turned back, examining the bridges then back at the river. "Roller, this can't be right! I wanted to find Optimus, not leave the city!" But the little car did not reply. Why the hell did it do this to her? She jumped out and stared at Fort Max. The Upper Level still stood. Several bright lights dotted the town where repair crews worked at a furious pace.

Maybe . . . maybe it was all for the best. If Magnus was going to kill Optimus, maybe it was best she not be there to see it. Her eyes blurred with tears. She didn't want him and Roddi to die! They were her family! Magnus was going to take away her family! Rusti collapsed, weeping. There would be no more reason to remain in the city. Optimus would not be in his office anymore. Roddi wouldn't be there to tell her his dumb stories. She could not imagine her world without them. Rusti blew her nose and gazed at Roller. Who would take care of him? Would he 'die' if Optimus died? If not, he'd be the only part she'd have left of Optimus. Rusti vowed to take care of Roller.

Nobody would be there to call her 'Baby bird'.

She wept harder, "don't leave me!" she begged. Another pair of tissues left the box. Rusti stared across the river. No stars twinkled over it. No moon rose to shadow the outlines of brush or tree. Roller bleeped in a slow, mournful tone. Rusti did not know what he was saying. She was not inclined to read it, either. She plucked up another pair of tissues and wiped her face. It was going to be a long sleepless night.

Oh Primus, god of Cybertron! Have mercy upon me, the darkest among the wicked! Wash me clean of my failures, for I am but a servant.
Purge the darkness from me for I ask naught but of your mercies.
I ask not of greatness nor power nor talent, but strength to work another day.
I ask for mercy for my torn soul; that you acknowledge my despondent spark.
There is neither laughter nor peace within me, Primus.
I lay before you an abomination of iniquity.
Where is the light? Where is the dawn that I may rise to serve you and your people, the Autobots?
Have I done such evil that you find me despicable? I am broken before you and long for healing.
Am I yet your servant? For I declare your words and attend your laws with care.
Move upon me, oh, Primus, as you would a great and honorable warrior.
I live for your mercies and strive to serve your commands.

But only silence returned to Optimus. He lay waiting for the death that seemed to continually elude him for meganiums. Perhaps, just perhaps, this time he would die, stay dead and leave this life of ceaseless struggles. He did not deserve-nor desire-another chance.

---------------------------------------

Dawn came, but the sun could not push through the clouded Oregon sky. The temperature dropped overnight and Rusti lay in Roller, grateful for the little blanket. No one found her. Roller managed to pass through the city without anyone taking notice; that was the beauty of traffic. But another sound beat the wind above and when her mind pieced together what she heard, Rusti snapped up. She searched the clouds for a low-flier and her suspicions were confirmed; an Aerialbot crossed the sky, probably looking for her. She sat on her knees and decided it really wouldn't matter now. Optimus was gone and soon would be dead. She would fight with everything she had to keep Roller.

Rusti slipped off the little spy car for a stretch. The river soundlessly flowed southward, rippling against the banks just enough to lap at the ground. Not far from there stretched a bridge leading from the main roadway in Fort Max several miles to the graveyard.

Several splotches of blue color rose to the water's surface and smeared along the top of the river. That was weird. Rusti gathered her jacket closer and watched again. Another patch of blue rose and dissipated down the riverway.

"Ohmigod," she whispered. Was that what she thought it might be? The girl turned to Roller. "Is-is Optimus down there?" Her eyes were wide with hope.

"Bl'teep!"

"Ohmigod." Rusti tossed off her jacket, undid the exo-suit gloves so she could feel her way about, cast off her shoes and removed the shoes from the exo-suit. She needed her senses to move about in the water. Leaving her pants and blouse on, the girl dipped her toes in first. Oh, biting, freezing, freaking cold! It shot straight up her body and Rusti thought she'd turn into an ice cube on the spot!

No, Optimus was more important than her physical discomforts! She dared a few inches in, but it was hard moving when the water was cold. "Optimus!" she called.

Well, that wasn't so smart. How was he supposed to answer her? No, he wasn't going to come up, say: "hi, Rusti, leave me alone, I'm trying to die', and go back down. She'd have to go after him.

Rusti took several deep breaths knowing the cold would shock her system. She was partly right. The cold bit her hands and feet and head. She thought her hair would freeze over and fall off. But her arms, legs and mid section felt nothing. The exo-suit apparently read the extreme temperatures and 'kicked in', protecting the rest of her body from the terrible cold. Rusti now regretted not using her helmet.

Could she still use it, even though her hair was wet? She didn't see why not. Dinobot football was played even in the Oregon summer storms.

She needed her helmet. Rusti rose back to the surface and called it out of subspace. At least it'd allow her to see in the murky cold river waters. Holding her breath, she returned. The optical systems adjusted to the lightless world and within five feet, Rusti found Optimus' form lying at the bottom of the river. She fought against the current and managed to touch his shoulder. What the hell was he doing down here, anyway? Was he really irrational enough to think he could drown himself?

She wanted to hit him, hoping to bring him to his senses, but water allowed for no such actions. Besides, hitting him would do no good. Optimus would not respond to such treatment. She knew better than to approach him from a 'stiff upper lip' perspective. She traced the edge of his shoulder but knew she did not have all the time in the world-the suit was not prepared for an airless atmosphere. She hugged the corner of his shoulder then struggled to get back to the surface. Rusti swam back to the bank and gasped for air. At least, at the very least, she found him. But what was she going to do? If Optimus were unconscious, there would be no way of reaching him. If she stayed here too long, chances were the other Autobots would find him. The thought drove spikes through her heart. Rusti wanted to cry, but her freezing feet and hands overrode her ability to express that emotion. What was she going to do?

She honestly did not know. No ideas came to her, brilliant or otherwise. She decided to go back and stay with him as long as she could, even if she had to return to the surface often to catch her breath.

Rusti followed her plan. She dipped into the cold river, stayed with Optimus' sunken form as long as she could then returned topside for a breath. But after the fourth time, her vision started to blur; her head spun. This was an exercise in futility if there ever was one!

But did it matter? No. Only her love mattered. Only those few precious moments left mattered. Rusti submerged again and wrapped her arms about his shoulder. She wanted to cry.

The water suddenly stirred, the currents strengthened and Optimus' body shifted. Before she could swim back to the surface, his hand clasped about her tiny form and water pressed her against his metal plating.

The air met her, prickling cold on her hands and feet. Then down his hand went-a bit too fast-and Rusti leapt upon the grass to avoid a possible accident. She backed off as he crumbled; half of his form still lay in the water, the other half lay on the river bank. The girl could not hold back her tears and she dashed to him, hugging a part of his helm. Miraculously, Optimus' body was not scraped or dented as badly as she imagined it might have been. But then, maybe it was repairing itself while he lay submerged.

"Optimus?" she whispered. She watched as his optics flickered. The cold red or dampened blue was not there anymore. A soft, familiar baby blue flared slightly. Was the madness gone?

The soft roar of mechanical engines approached over the distance from Fort Max. The Autobots had found them. She glanced over her shoulder and sure enough, there was Ultra Magnus, obviously out against First Aid's orders. Kup, Delta Sunstreaker and Daniel/Arcee tagged him. Rusti narrowed her eyes. How many Autobots does it take to assassinate a single helpless Autobot leader?

The Music rolled out from the ground, surging in fear. Rusti heard it, even if they could not. She dared a few steps away from Optimus, just enough to stand as a barrier between he and they.

Magnus arrived first and transformed. He winced, proving Rusti's assumption was correct; he should not even be out here. The other Autobots followed suit with Daniel/Arcee tossing an angry look at the girl. But Rusti was not going to cower before her own father. The Music was more powerful than any of them; or all of them put together.

"Rusti," Magnus' voice came tired, sorry. "You've frightened and worried a lot of people. You should have said something."

"Don't feed me bull, Magnus. I know why you're here." Rusti clenched her cold fists and considered slipping on the suit's gloves.

Magnus frowned. His optics shifted into a darker shade. "We don't want to do this, Rusti. I swear. But if we and the city are to survive-"

"I WON'T let you TOUCH HIM!" Rusti about screamed it. "If the situation were reversed and it was you lying here behind me, Optimus would do everything in his power, within an INCH of his LIFE to save you. I know what Doctor Scott said-I was there. And he's wrong. Where there's life, there's hope."

Magnus struggled to control himself. How was he going to reason with this child? "Rusti, have you seen the city? Do you know how many people have died?"

"Neither Optimus nor Rodimus had control over what they were doing, Ultra Magnus."

"I can't excuse that, Rusti."

"He's . . . right, Russstii." Optimus' voice came to her in slow mournful tones. "Let him do what he must. The Autobots-"

"-are wrong!" Rusti interrupted. She glanced from Prime back to Magnus and his group. "The Music-the Matrix still believes in him! You CAN'T DO THIS, Magnus!"

Ultra Magnus sighed and looked to Daniel/Arcee.

The Headmaster femme took a step forward. "Stand aside, Resonna," Daniel ordered, using Arcee's voice. It came over hard, demanding.

"No!" Rusti shouted. She cared not who told her to do it.

"I am you father and I'm TELLING you to STAND ASIDE!"

"I SAID NO!" The Music vibrated from the ground and made her nerves tingle. "I WON'T LET YOU TOUCH HIM!"

Daniel/Arcee drew a weapon. Whether he intended to use it or not was a guess, but Magnus noticed the gun was NOT set for stun. "DO IT!"

When Rusti spoke, she heard only herself, but the Autobots heard something far deeper, far stronger than her mousy little voice. It was commanding, strong, resistant, authoritative. "THE LIFE OF THIS ONE IS WORTH ALL YOURS. I WILL NOT PERMIT HIS DEATH UNTIL 'I' TAKE HIM."

Magnus, Sunstreaker, Kup and Delta all stepped back. They recognized that authority. Arcee, in the control of a Human who cared nothing for authority, remained, weapon trained on the young girl. But it seemed a conflict occurred within and Arcee shook her head, lowered the weapon. She too stepped back, but her face took on several expressions: anger, repulsion, sadness, demand, then finally resigned agreement. She cast her optics to the ground, her lip components cast downward.

Magnus patched into the central comline, "Ambiance, get me First Aid. We found Optimus Prime." And with that, the city commander bowed his head. Rusti read a mix of sorrow, defeat and relief in his expression.

---------------------------------------

NOVEMBER 21

It snowed outside. Some of the city's scars were graciously hidden by the white coat of winter. The silent snowstorm interfered with most repairs being done to Fort Max, but the Autobots remained undaunted and worked day and night to get the city operational again. All the melted buildings either mysteriously corrected themselves or had to be torn apart and replaced. Rusti never thought she'd be so glad to see winter finally arrive.

She turned from the window in Prime's room in Medical to her psychology book. Inside a week, she managed to completely catch up with her class mates. But Dr. Cynyr insisted she stayed home and submit her assignments via email for a while longer. The shock she suffered needed time to abate.

Privately the girl could not argue with him. She constantly flipped through her school yearbook and photo albums and crossed photographs containing information that meant nothing to her. Some of them she wrote and asked Dezi about, others she had to ask Aunt Missy. And in spite of their memories, it was all just so much information to her. Rusti remembered nothing of last Christmas or Easter. She did not remember the birthday party she attended at the VR park or the girl, Jenn, who scribbled the inside of her yearbook. She did not remember Cody (what a sweety!), Mrs. Banks, last year's English teacher or Mrs. Abbassi, the art instructor who encouraged her to keep drawing. Words and pictures without memories made Rusti feel as though she were reading about someone else's life.

She fell six Autobot stories (equivalent to 240 feet) and came out alive. Miraculous enough, but not without cost. And what the hell was she doing in Central Command, anyway? Marissa told her everyone in the city had more or less evacuated the topside of Maximus and if that was the case, then why didn't she go? What the heck was she thinking? Maybe she felt she could talk some sense into Optimus.

Somehow, that idea felt wrong. Rusti knew better. If Optimus was already insane, talking sense to him would prove as futile as charging a block of alpha-titanium.

The girl inwardly shrugged and glued her eyes back to the text book. She had five pages left. Math was already finished, spelling was done and she completed her civics lessons (for the week) last night. Rusti considered telling someone about her new-found abilities, but decided it best to keep quiet about it.

Oh, what the hell. She closed the book and picked up her cup of cocoa. Across the room lay Optimus on a flat sheet of metal. He seemed uncomfortable there. The Autobots might have the ability to walk and talk and identify with Humans, but there were still many aspects of their nature that remained alien. That made the girl consider the kind of powers, unnatural, or otherwise, possessed by the Autobots. No one would have guessed any Autobot to have the power to control the Earth's atmosphere so that the sun could not pass through. No one thought or dreamed any life form had the ability to manipulate metal.

But the Virus proved otherwise. Look at the power the two Autobot leaders had! Who would have imagined Optimus had those kind of abilities? Why had he never used them before? Why didn't he use them on the Decepticons? Would that not have ended the war millions of years ago?

The same went for Rodimus. Roddi tried to create allies for the Autobots by making peace agreements. How futile THAT proved! The Interplanetary Games was a nice thing, but they failed to change the minds of other citizens across the galaxy. Even bringing to light the Quintesson plot regarding the L'Narkian-Z'Taxan War did not necessarily make things better. The Autobots gained a little more respect and a few more trade agreements, but friends and allies?

That thought circled back to Rodimus. Rusti heard news of the bodies of at least ten victims from Rodimus' quarters. What the hell was he doing? Rusti thought hard about him, what kind of person he was, what he might have been doing or thinking to encase several Autobots in plaster and other art mediums. She didn't know he was an artist. What else didn't she know about him? What in the name of Primus was going on in his head? Rusti wondered if Roddi painted in his quarters, too and why Max didn't alert anyone about the murders.

Whatever happened, it finally resulted in Rodimus leaving Fort Max for New York without so much as a good-bye to anyone. He left in the dead of the night without fanfare or a note. Rusti heard that for a while Magnus thought Roddi had committed suicide. Of course, all the City Commander had to do was come and ask her, before listening to rumors. But Magnus' own mind was aflutter with desperation and fear after his own encounter with Prime and discovering Kup inside a temple, divided into five parts.

Something about that incident nagged the girl and she wracked her brain about it every time she thought of it. But answers did not come forward and Rusti eventually abandoned it.

Roddi left without telling her good-bye. Why? What was he so afraid of? Maybe guilt for his deeds, the murders, drove him away, unable to face what he did-what the Virus caused him to do. And maybe that was the most difficult thing to deal with. The events in the last several weeks were not the fault of the two Prime, but of the Virus. Yes, the acts were heinous, destructive, even depraved. But if Optimus and Rodimus were not at fault, should they still be executed?

It was a tough, tough question. Maybe it was Optimus who suggested Roddi leave for the time being, though Rusti couldn't imagine Optimus making such a suggestion. She knew the two Autobot leaders talked, but she was not there to hear them.

Whatever happened, it would forever mark souls and lives. It made the girl realize that evil scars whatever it touches and from here forward, nothing would ever be the same.

Optimus Prime thought about praying again. But after finding neither consolation nor answers, discouragement replaced hope and he stopped asking Primus for help. Terrible emptiness gripped his laser core. Was he doomed to fight the Virus time after time? Why? Why did Magnus not assassinate him? What happened? Was this a mistake Magnus would later regret?

More importantly, what caused the Virus to stop?

Maybe it no longer mattered. His optics flickered on, finding a sterile-white room in Medical and at the window, on the countertop there sat a little figure whose attention was aimed at the outside world. He saw it, too; a bitter rain drenched the city with ice slush, washing scrapes and laser burns.

Optimus did not know if he could bear to look another person in the optic. His memory told him of a horrific battle, his body lay witness to it all, but in spite of the struggled to recall, a curtain of darkness draped over his mind, offering mere snatches of memories. What did he do? What did he say? And what about Rodimus?

A picture of Rodimus' face, angry, ugly, scratched and snarling like an animal shot across Prime's memory banks. Optimus remembered rage. He remembered fighting and how his lasercore vibrated within him so that he thought he would explode.

Then he remembered Magnus again and -oh Primus! What demonic force possessed him to do what he did? He remembered Central Command's lobby and the statue and Magnus, impaled upon the weapon. Life blood and fluids seeped from the wound while smoldering trails of a damaged system smoked the ceiling high above them.

And Roddi's bloodied footprints trailed along the hallway floor.

His thoughts caused him to stir from the flat. Monitoring lines and feeders swung with his movements and a tiny beep betrayed his conscious state to another presence in the room.

"Shhhh. Optimus. They'll find out I'm here."

The small, familiar voice startled Prime and he froze. His gaze rested on Rusti's little form, bundled in a long sweater and bandages. A stack of books and a hot cup of cocoa gathered about her right side. Her watchful eyes pinned him and Optimus settled, a little more relieved.

"Was it a bad dream?" She pressed a button on a small box connected to a set of headphones sitting over her ears. Rusti hunched over, now staring at him with worry.

He deserved no kindness. His sins were too great for anyone's goodness. " . . . Magnus," Prime managed to answer quietly. "I was thinking of Ultra Magnus."

A slight smile lifted her face, "he's okay. He's been very busy. He's asked Jazz and Convoy to help out." Rusti looked a bit smug and picked up a book at the place it was marked. "Of course, I'm not supposed to know anything. Cynyr's put me on this substitute life style. He thinks he's doing me a favor."

Magnus, the tireless warrior, was alright. The city and its people were being cared for. The Autobot leader took that fragment of goodness to heart.

Another flash of bloodied footprints crossed his mind and Prime flinched, unsure what was going on. "Rodimus," he whispered to himself.

Rusti studied him. She glanced at all the monitors and scans and deduced the dream, whatever it might have been, caused a bit too much distress. "Optimus," she whispered, "don't be worried. We're all okay. Go back to sleep. I'll still be here when you wake up."

He did not know if he should take comfort in her words. Promises were such fleeting things. "What day, Rusti?" he quietly asked. That was an old tactic but a useful one.

"Friday." Rusti choked a little, unsure if she should tell him anything. But sooner or later Optimus would find out for himself, anyway. Someone else would tell him all the awful details. Maybe it was best that he heard it from her rather than First Aid or receive a cold-facts report from Ultra Magnus. "I-I overheard them talking, Optimus." She had a hard time keeping her voice steady. At least she wasn't crying over it. Rusti glanced from her music player back to his blue optics. "They said you-ahem-you were frail and that if you . . . if you don't get the rest you need, you could have a neural crash."

He wasn't that surprised but grateful she had the courage to tell him herself. Prime assumed Rusti was in his room without permission. How like her, he thought. "I see," he replied quietly. He settled back on the flat and realized how exposed he really felt. Optimus forgot how much he hated sterile rooms like this with only the table and a window. Rooms like this never used to bother him, but maybe some event several years ago changed his attitude toward such surroundings.

And once more, Roddi's bloodied footprints flashed across his mind. It was a memory that tried to resurface and his own consciousness tried to suppress it. "Will you be here a while longer, Rusti?" he asked quietly.

"Of course I will." her little confident voice filled the room; she was not going to leave him by himself.

Prime relaxed and recalled the images of the footprints. There was a long corridor leading to Roddi's own quarters. Rubble and damaged support beams blocked the entrance to the hallway. But he remembered pushing his way through it. Morning light dimly illuminated his path.

The image shifted abruptly to the city. Memories of the city opened a flood of pictures. Shattered windows and broken lights. Smashed vehicles and streets empty of people, but littered with refuse.

Switch: It seemed his memories were not going to come to him in any particular order. He would recall only whatever was important, or whatever inspired the strongest amount of emotion. There was a pool of blood at the end of the trail of footprints in the hall. The lifeblood slowly eked from under the door to Roddi's quarters.

Shift again:

There was the building in the Communications District,

slumped cold like a used candle. Prime laid his hand over his chest. Would they have to replace all these building melted under such extra natural power? How many buildings would have to be dismantled? And now he remembered the walls surrounding the city and the faces on them and wondered if they too yet remained.

A tiny light flickered in his laser core. Optimus reached out and touched the slumped metal. This was a wound, not a damaged building. This was a part of Max and although most buildings were a part of Autobot City, not every building was actually a part of Max's huge form.

"Be healed." he softly told it. It was so sad and Optimus felt so much grief for it. As he walked away, the molecules started to scramble and reorganize themselves, waking other sleeping molecules and bit by bit, the metallic matter buzzed with activity

Shift:

"Rodimus?" The memories jumped back to Rodimus. "Rodimus?" His usual strong voice fell whisper-quiet. He was about to lose someone he did not think he could survive without. Prime rested next to the door to Roddi's quarters. He brushed it with his fingers. Roddi . . . Roddi, Don't go.

Shift:

. . . the thing behind him trembled and writhed as though Maximus himself were giving it birth. The building's form twisted and became a hundred-foot version of the Virus . . .

Shift:

Roddi's answer came soft and sad, "I deserve nothing short of death . . ." The pool of fluids rippled toward the middle of the hall, now. Rodimus was very weak. Optimus felt his pain and blamed himself. What could he have done to prevent all this? What measures should he have considered when he first encountered the darkness? Where and when did it all start?

He was about to lose someone he did not think he could live without.

Shift:

Transforming hurt. Optimus remembered shuddering with pain but managed. Magnus begged him not to leave, to allow them to take him to Medical. But Roddi . . .Roddi was dying, too.

His legs ached. His chest burned both from within and without. He deserved it. For all the sins he committed, he deserved nothing good, kind or happy. Surely there was a special place reserved for him in the Pitt. Surely Primus had forsaken him by now. Who could forgive an Autobot leader who murdered his own people?

Optimus traveled along darkened streets, using only his sensors to guide him around refuse. He dared not use his lights; he did not want to see anything. But his sensors still told him of damaged buildings and gutted streets. His mind tormented him with visions of those who probably died. He deserved no forgiveness for this atrocity. Perhaps Magnus spared him so that Optimus could regret everyday of his life all the horrible things he inflicted up on his own.

I don't want you to leave, I do not want you to die. Prime sat slumped on one side of the door and knew Rodimus was slumped against the other. How could he convince his friend to stay alive? How could he convince himself that there was a future ahead of them, if they would just look beyond this moment?

I must atone for my sins.

Plasma fires burned out of control in the Business District. Ascension Grade was torn up. Several communication satellites were charred beyond use. Optimus did not think even the Decepticons could have committed a greater catastrophe, except for bringing Cybertron to Earth's orbit.

Go. Rodimus did not want to argue anymore, take care of the Autobots . . . and my Lady-friend.

Dread. He rose on his knees, nearly grasping the door, "No! I WON'T let you go! Not like this! Rodimus!"

Someone screamed . . . a fluffy duffy plunged from a building. It screamed as the fountain below seemed to rise from Max's plated flooring and swallow the toy like a monster would a sacrificial virgin.

Why was there a fluffy duffy and why did he remember it? What was so important about it?

Please . . . leave. Roddi's voice brought him back, pouring through his memories like a vibro-knife through several layers of tinfoil.

"I can't do this . . ." Optimus' own voice came in tones of resignation. " . . . can no longer do it alone."

And from there silence crept over the world and the door between them. Optimus could not longer afford to care about anything anymore. They brought him back from the dead to punish him for all the evil he brought into the universe. Rodimus had made his mind. Words were so trifle now. Even Optimus could not believe them anymore. He hated the Virus. He hated the Matrix. He hated his responsibilities. He hated himself. "Roddi," his voice fell so soft, so sad, "Roddi . . . don't leave me-" He choked, unable to breathe. Rodimus was going to die.

Bury it all deep, Optimus, he told himself. Rodimus wanted to die. Bury it all down, down, down. Drown your sorrow in business and leadership. But he no longer had the strength to do so. One war after another, one friend after another, one lover . . . After five meganiums it should get easier-oh, there'll be another to replace that loved one, or another friend to come along and replace this one. But that's not how it works. It's one hollow valley in his soul after another. Once more that part of his life would be empty. He made the mistake of loving someone. He cursed Primus. He cursed the Matrix. He cursed himself.

No more words. Rodimus was leaving him. Rusti would grow up. His whole life was a blasphemy. The Quintessons brought him back to make him suffer for all his sins before dying again.

What the Pitt. Rusti couldn't possibly love him anyway. Wrong species, wrong age, wrong-everything in his life was wrong.

The door between them slid open just a little. Rodimus peeked through but aside dimming his optics on, Prime paid it no mind.

"Optimus?" Roddi's voice cracked a bit when he tried to whisper. "Are you still here with me?" Prime did not answer. "Primus damn, you're stubborn when you want to be."

The expanding puddle of blood wasn't just Rodimus', Optimus needed medical attention, too.

" . . . if you promise to keep trying . . ."

They carried out a total of fourteen bodies from Roddi's quarters; Autobots and Humans alike.

" . . . if you promise to keep trying . . ."

That whole building in Communications was dismantled but not before crews found seven dead and missing Autobots inside Rodimus' sculpture work.

" . . . if you promise . . . I suppose I can give it a shot myself. We can live today."

Touched by evil, nothing would ever be the same.

First Aid released Optimus from Medical two days after Thanksgiving with the stipulation that he did as close to nothing as possible-physically or otherwise. It was not an empty threat and as weary as he was, Optimus doubted he could do anything other than follow medical orders.

That did not preclude him from returning to his office and sorting through digipads. Magnus had previously removed most of them and divided the responsibilities between Convoy and Jazz. While Jazz didn't mind the extra load of work, Convoy eyed her share with dread.

Prime sorted through what remained of his workload. Permit requests for bodyguards and security lined up one digipad after another. There was a complaint about two Autobots racing down Stardrive Avenue in Central City. After that, Optimus found a digipad regarding the construction of fortress-city Zenith on Mars. There were detailed plans and ideas for head staff and an idea of assigning Strike Back as city commander. An older digipad lay under that one. It contained a letter from Dr. Paul Gates regarding the construction of six new Autobots-a project dating clear back to 2012. The details were vague in the letter except to say the bodies were still in mid-stage of completion and that Gates would contact him in a matter of weeks-well, back then, anyway.

Prime sat back in his chair, tapping the corner of the pad against his chin. The idea of new Autobots was refreshing and seemed easy enough an assignment, one that would require little stress. Optimus searched his desk drawers and found an unused pad and made a note of things to do-one of them to contact Paul for an update.

Prime set the pad in one of the upper drawers so he'd find it easily but upon opening the top drawer, he discovered a circuit board: an Autobot circuit board.

He almost could not breathe. He knew who that belonged to.

"Oh no . . ." His lasercore vibrated hard and Prime nearly choked. He abandoned his office, carrying the board tightly as he raced upstairs, dashing several flights to the garden.

Or what was once the garden.

War was brought here.

Dead, frozen and unwatered plants drooped in sad brown colors. Some plants were partially burned. Their dark forms stared at him accusingly. Shattered pots, dirt, fertilizer and bent tools littered the ground everywhere he looked. Even the windows around the garden had cracks or lay in shards along the metal floor.

But for every six or eight plants that died or were killed, there was at least one plant that survived in the cold Oregon air. But their survival did little to lift Optimus' sunken spirit. Toward the work bench dangled a cage. Human-sized furniture cluttered its interior. A tiny drawing pad and pencils lay on it bottom. Nearby stood several larger pots and below those lay the alien trees Optimus imported from other planets. In their places were the remains of an Autobot, long since murdered and dismantled. His right arm stood upright in one planter. Three fingers were absent, broken off in a fight.

What had he done?

Optimus slowly sank to his knees.

That was one of his own. He no longer saw his surroundings. His whole world shrunk down to just he and the circuit board between his hands. Horrible guilt flooded his soul and Optimus stared at the board until his sight blurred. He bowed over.

Hosehead was only doing his job. He paid the price . . . Lug paid the price. They were innocent, just like all the dead plants.

And the fluffy duffy.

And now Optimus knew the truth, the horrible, horrible truth.

He dropped Rusti.

Here he tried so hard to convince Rodimus to stay alive and now, once again, he no longer wanted to live.

Drops of water splattered his hands. Cold wet tracks trailed over his face plate as more drops fell and splashed his hands.

Lie down and die. Shut down. Black out. Terminate.

Rusti!

He couldn't breathe. Energon flow stopped and his lasercore vibrated more strongly, but skipped a time or two.

Oh, please stop moving! Please cease functioning!

Optimus slowly lowered his frame to the floor, clutching the one piece of Hosehead between his hands.

Forgive . . . forgive . . .

But no one could, now. No one should.

Footfalls echoed from the stairway and passed through the door. Optimus no longer cared. He must be executed.

Magnus finally found Prime in the one place he should have checked first. Optimus lay on the floor, heaving silent sighs. Optimus made no sound as he lay in a pool of water. The Major-General stole his way around broken plants and warped tools.

He spotted Hosehead's remains in the pottery and in Prime's hand and tried to think of something appropriate to say. Optimus knew full well a crime was committed, but Magnus knew it wasn't his fault.

But what could he say? This was not the situation for a pep-talk. This was not a soldier who simply failed to finish a training course and felt sorry for himself. This was a matter that needed to be addressed with a measure of sensitivity. But Magnus was at a loss for words.

So he stood for some time while Optimus did not move, did not acknowledge his presence. The sight was bitterly sad but it was worse for Magnus because had no words of encouragement. So he drew a single breath; and knelt where he stood: "Prime. Optimus, I do not know what you're feeling right now. I have no words to describe . . ." and even that line died because the Major-General simply had no vocabulary to keep going. His optics fell to the floor in resignation.

"She would have died . . . Magnus." Prime's words came so small, so soft even Magnus almost did not hear them. "I do not deserve this life given me. My life was over. It was supposed to be over and I'm brought back and-and . . . " his voice choked. His fingers curled into a weak fist.

Magnus turned away. Emotional anguish radiated from the Autobot leader and Magnus almost could not take the sight. "She's . . . Rusti's alright, now, Prime. She just can't remember a few things but in time-"

"Is that right?" Prime challenged. "Does that make it right? She is precious! You NEVER crush-" he choked again "-baby birds!" and brought his knees up tightly.

Magnus could not deal with this emotion any longer. He forced himself to crawl to the lifeless Autobot leader and helped Prime to a sitting position.

Optimus hung his head, ashamed. "You should have executed me, Magnus. There's no telling what will happen from here."

Magnus released Prime's arms and cupped his hands round his friend's face and stared optic to optic. Tears that should not be there, fell from the Autobot leader's optics. It was not a normal thing for a Transformer to actually weep like a Human, but Magnus' concern for Prime overrode curiosity. There were no words Magnus could use to describe the pain in Prime's optics. No, the Major-General thought, this was not the time to be stern. This was not the time for a good 'stop feeling sorry for yourself' talk. So Magnus embraced Optimus and silently prayed for a miracle.

-End

T.L. Arens