DSR CH 11

A/N: This will be a quieter chapter. Events take place on different Autobot ships. The writer will attempt to keep the situation-and the dialog-as clear as possible. To do this, it was necessary to break up events according to each ship. The story will jump around a little because several things happen at the same time. Sorry for any confusion. And for the sensitive: some extreme language.

CHAPTER 11

Signal to Noise

The sun shines behind me

I press toward the darkened clouds

Rain falls clean and free.

That's where I want to be.

I walk from a throne of glory,

I desert a crown of bloodshed

I walk from optics burning with desire

And I move toward redemption.

I am small. yes, very small.

I am a pitiful thing who once believed himself a god.

I am not.

I walk from the twisted glory of death

I leave behind a cult of destruction

I seek the clean sweet rain:

the promise of happiness beyond my inept imagination.

I did not deserve it. I could not work for it.

But it was there and I accepted it because it was free.

Redemption was free for me

like the falling rain.

like the sweet soft breeze.

like the colorful dancing leaves.

I don't need a crown of blood

I do not desire sacrifice

I do not crave the innocuous respect of murderers.

I just want redemption.

-Galvatron

"Nothing good comes of dabbling with Decepticons. Zip-lock my word, we're headed for serious trouble."

Strike Back tightened the last bolt to the landing gear under the Lady Razor. Pong stood by with the tensioner. Last minute prep, ordered by Ultra Magnus, meant examining each ship top to bottom while Titanium and Cyclonus left for remaining supplies. Magnus ordered all ships ready in a second's notice for take-off.

That meant those who came to Cratis on the Sagittarian Mozart or the Gabriel Genesis already had their ships ready for take-off and battle. Magnus assigned the same prep crew to other ships throughout the camp to 'enliven' the slackers.

"As if we weren't capable of doing it ourselves!" Strike Back sneered. "Gosh, Major-General, I need a babysitter. Will you sit on me?"

Pong sent his nervous glance on alert in case Strike Back said too much, too loudly. "I'm sure Ultra Magnus means well," Pong defended. "After all, he's following orders, too."

"Orders?" Strike Back challenged as he climbed off the ship's footgear. "Whose orders, Pong? Hu?"

"W-well-"

"Oh! You're saying that maybe Rodimus or Optimus said something to Magnus? No. No. Wrong, Pong. You are such an ignoramus!"

Pong's optics skittered like a frightened mouse.

Strike Back frowned, annoyed. "Look, everything that comes from Optimus or Rodimus Prime ultimately comes straight from the Quintessons, okay? Everything we are going through, everything we do is being monitored by our superiors because ultimately, the Quintessons are the ones in control. You didn't know that, did you? Know why?" Pong shook his head. "Cuz you're not supposed to know." Strike Back scoffed. "Come on. Let's check this thing."

The former city commander stomped off, leaving Pong to gather tools and equipment. Strike Back glanced over his shoulder. "What's with you? Got gunk in your gears? Move it, soldier!"

Pong managed, with a little grace, to pick up everything and trot along. He kept up a genuine attitude, smiling like a puppy dog. Strike Back rewarded him with a hand on the shoulder.

"Pong, you're a good mech and it makes me sad to knowing that you're having to live in ignorance, serving a hierarchy who pay little to no heed to your true talents, you know?"

Pong half-laughed. "Oh, well, I'm just one of the little guys, sir."

"But you mean a great deal to me." Strike Back took one of the heavier cases of tools. "After all, Pong, I, like you, am a Paratron. We may have lost our precious identity by folding in with the Autobots. But there are a few of us who still cling to the ways of our homeworld. There are many of us who secretly renounce the tyranny enforced by the Primes. And it grieves all of us that now the Primes have fallen to ally themselves with the Decepticons. But, yet, we are so few. Voiceless. And for the most part, powerless."

Pong gibbed: "y-you mean there's other people who aren't happy with the Primes?"

"Aren't you happy with the Primes?" Strike Back challenged.

"W-well, no. But that doesn't mean I'm always unhappy. I mean, they're not really mean. It's just that, sometimes I feel like just another cog. I-I sometimes like to pretend that I'm really important, like an Aerialbot or a Protectobot. You know. Something more than just maintenance."

Strike Back nodded. "I know maintenance seems pretty low on the whole scale of things, doesn't it?"

Pong merely nodded and adjusted the burden over his shoulder struts and back.

"You know, Pong, maybe you'd like to come sit with me and some of my friends sometime. We can chit-chat over a bit of light oil and remember our life on our lost homeworld. Sing some of the songs you and I recall from dear Paratron."

"Will you tell me more of the Quintesson's conspiracy?"

"Of course! Everyone in the group knows about it. But keep a low profile. This is stuff we're not supposed to know."

Pong nodded hard and the two stepped into the ship to test the landing gear.

Rodimus sat in the command chair onboard the Cold Refractor. Two femmes worked fervently to repair the view screen. Prime's head rested on his hand while the ladies quietly worked. Blaster gave them directions and the process crawled along.

Rodimus was sick and tired of dealing with one repair or another. He swung his feet over the right arm of the chair and dipped back on the left arm so that his optics met the soft ceiling light. "This is fabulous," he said to no one. "All I need is a deck of cards, someone calling to complain about Daniel and a Dinobot to blow a fuse. Life is wonderful!" opening an internal channel, he contacted Optimus. "Are we there yet?"

"No."

"Are we there... now?"

"No."

"Can we be there... tomorrow?"

Optimus signed off the latest check on weapons supplies. "No, Rodimus."

"How about I keep whining about it? Will that motivate everyone to expediently find ways to get us off this rock?"

"Roddi?" Op's voice softened so that it made Rodimus grin. He was pushing buttons out of boredom.

"Yes?"

"Don't make me find something for you to do."

Rodimus giggled and distracted the femmes. They gazed over their shoulders as Prime spun about in his chair."Op's gonna give me something to do!" he declared blithely. "What joy!"

"You can help Ultra Magnus track the saboteur." Optimus added.

Rodimus moaned and covered his face. "Paperwork. Naturally you'd give me paperwork. You really and for real hate me, don'tchya, Op? I'm sitting here like a filament on a disk, waiting for the view screen to align with the ship's force fields and all you can offer me is paperwork."

Optimus did not respond right away. Rodimus ticked the seconds off: five seconds. Ten. Fifteen. "Uh, Optimus?"

The Senior Prime sighed and Rodimus felt the simmering anger in the exasperated expression. "Rodimus, it's Daniel. Again. Do you want to handle it? Because I've lost my patience."

Optimus growled-yes, growled.

Roddi sat up. "Where is he?"

"On the Sunset Kummya."

"Yeah. I'll handle it."

"Thank you."

Whatever it was this time must have really pissed Optimus off. Rodimus tried to decide what approach to take. He could choose to be angry but anger didn't fit his present mood. He was bored. So... sarcasm was in order. Besides, Prime told himself, sarcasm was always a more cruel and unusual way of dealing with people like Daniel.

And Daniel loathed Rodimus' mind games.

Rodimus boarded the Kummya in automode, passing the entry at a reasonable speed. He tapped into the ship's main computer to locate the raving lunatic and found a long list of complaints reported to two separate EDC officers: Witwicky attempted assault. Witwicky threatened use of a weapon. Witwicky assaulted with verbal abuse. Witwicky exhibited unreasonable aggression... Blah, blah, blah.

Rodimus transformed and greeted Blades and Drox at the brig. "Well!" Prime greeted sarcastically, "I see you two have been given the privilege of guard duty."

Drox frowned. "He's not the model prisoner I'd consider rehabilitated, Sir."

"Take the night off, Drox. Blades and I can take it from here."

"Aye, Sir."

Drox departed and Blades accessed the door to a four-cell chamber. Daniel sat in cell Number Two, his back against the far wall, knees up, a frown on his unshaven mug. Shredded bedding, spilt food and drink and shattered electronic equipment trashed his cell.

"Wow," Rodimus observed. "You're in here all by yourself?"

"Noticed that, did you?" Daniel coldly returned.

"Yeah. I think they call it 'solitary confinement." Rodimus folded his arms and gazed about the brig as though inspecting it for purchase.

"Oh. That's what it is. Huh. I thought they put me in here cuz Optimus kiss-My-Ass forgot to pay the cable bill."

"Oh yeah?" Roddi echoed. "Oh, I get it; cheap entertainment. Yes, Daniel, that you certainly are."

Daniel flipped him the bird. Immune to such immature gestures, Rodimus shrugged and glanced at Blades who solemnly shook his head. "Well, I have no idea why they called for me. You're pretty much contained."

"CONTAINED?" Daniel exploded. He stood so fast, Rodimus was almost impressed. "You fuckheads think you have all the GODDAMN ANSWERS! DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT I'VE BEEN THROUGH? I'VE BEEN PISSING SHOT!"

Daniel ripped the sheets and blankets off his bed and tore up the pillow. He kicked an upturned food tray and made a football of his water cup. It struck the energy bars and sizzled before dropping to a smoldering husk.

"Yeah," Rodimus replied, unamused. I recall that. I'll bet you woke with a migraine from the Pitt."

"My urine is green. Do you know why it's green?"

"T.M.I., Daniel."

"Let me clue you in, Rodimus Slime. The meds they gave me weren't meant for Humans. So it dyed my kidneys!"

"'magine that."

"WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU PEOPLE? HOW COULD YOU ALLOW A DECEPTICON LOOSE IN THE FUCKING CAMP?"

"You know, Dan-o, if you keep screaming like that you'll either develop laryngitis-which I can only hope for-or you'll inflict brain damage-Oh, wait! Heh, you're already brain damaged! What was I thinking? Oh, um, I was considering ordering someone to tranquilize you then put you on a regimen of anti-inflammatories for your head. Oh, wait. Strike that. You need bi-polar medication. You... are bi-polar, aren't you? Or is it scitzo?"

Daniel undid the front of his exosuit and urinated in front of the Autobots.

Blades leaned slightly toward Rodimus. "Is it customary for bi-polars to do stuff like that?"

"Y'know," Rodimus answered. "I'm not an expert in that field. My guess is that he's retrogressed in the whole... age-mentality thing. Stay here a moment or two with him, would ya?"

Blades balked. "What? By myself?"

"Don't worry," Rodimus answered smoothly. "If he breaks out of his cage, I'll see to it Groove gets your rock collection."

Blades did not find that amusing. Daniel screamed as Rodimus left. He threw everything at the energon bars until there was nothing else in his cell except smeared food, urine on the floor and his bed, bolted to the wall and floor.

"WHAT ARE YOU STARING AT?" Witwicky demanded.

Blades shook his head. "I have no idea. But it's nothing sane."

Daniel froze and stared at the Protectobot then quietly laughed. You think I'm nuts?"

"Aren't you?"

"What makes you think I'm nuts?"

"Your irrational behavior."

Rodimus returned as though on cue with Perceptor in tow. A pleased-as-punch grin plastered over Roddi's face. Daniel glowered and sneered. "Dan-o!" Rodimus sang. "We've come to rescue you from yourself!"

"How charitable of you," Witwicky snarled. "Let me guess: you're going to chain me to my bed."

Rodimus gazed at the ceiling in mock thought. "Hmm. Optional. But no. not my style. Perceptor, if you please."

The Autobot scientist stepped forward and held between his fingers something that looked like mechanical underwear.

Rodimus pointed to it, "Dan-o, this nifty, hand-dandy device is the wave of the future. Mainly yours. It'll assist you during those moments of embarrassing incontinence and knows exactly when you've lost control. You'll never have to rush to the restroom again because this little bugger will tell you when you need to go and the nearest location of the appropriate facility to which you can do your business."

"This is NOT FUNNY, Rodimus! There's no fucking way I'm putting that on!"

Rodimus nodded. "You gabber on as if I didn't take that into account." Rodimus laid the side of his hand at the corner of his lip components and dropped his voice as though to whisper in Perceptor's audio. "Isn't he adorable? It's enough to make me want to slap him." Roddi stood straight, cocky grin in place. He resumed his normal volume. "Well...I think that we'll install your new equipment, and then get you a new cell-Oh! And Daniel, if you destroy your new cell? You'll not get another." Rodimus reached for the cell control. "Okey dokey!"

"I'm NOT putting it on!" Witwicky repeated. He watched as Rodimus cleared an opening for Perceptor. The scientist tossed the mechanical device into the cell and Rodimus closed the gap and the three Autobots stood and stared. Nothing happened. Blades cast his gaze around Perceptor and sent an unspoken question to his leader. Rodimus only nodded toward the cell in reassurance.

Daniel rolled his eyes when two minutes later, nothing happened. His shook his head. "Looks like your diaper bomb is a dud, Rodimus. I actually might have had more respect if the fucking thing actually worked." He laughed lightly and turned back to his favorite corner. He took three steps and the mechanism shifted, grew legs and raced after him.

With a whoop! from Daniel, the device knocked him on the ground, wrestled with him-and his exosuit for a moment then latched securely in place.

Daniel sat up, face blank and speechless.

Rodimus clapped a hand on the scientist's shoulder strut. "Works just fine, Perceptor. Thanks a billion."

"Oh, my pleasure, Rodimus. Always willing to help out."

Rodimus nodded to a stunned Daniel Witwicky. "Blades, thus concludes our good deed for the day. You can contact security to escort our guest to his new quarters... uh... at your desecration."

Rodimus turned away, fully aware that Daniel flipped him off.

The Crested Moon

Optimus sat patiently in his command chair and listened to radio chatter. He gave Magnus the joy of last minute prep, while Rodimus attended other 'details'. Thinking on Rusti's deranged father, Optimus silently expressed gratitude toward Rodimus for dealing with the problem. Roddi always had a certain knack for handling such people. He knew, of course, he'd hear about the diaper incident for a long time to come.

In the last weeks they remained on Cratis, Optimus did not see Rusti more than a few precious times. He missed their relatively tranquil life on Earth. He missed the summers, the weekends, the Sunday drives. He wanted to make up for not having time for her, but nothing came to mind.

The Autobots will think you mad for taking on an alien wife.

Void's faceless head rose slightly from the floor before him.

Optimus pretended not to see it.

Doublecross tapped down the dias steps and handed Optimus a report on isotrype counts ship to ship. The report stated they were a little low, but with caution, the Autobots had enough to last another thirty to fifty days.

What's wrong with her? She looks good. Dumb sometimes, but good enough. What did Rodimus say? You know he's painfully aware of your extra-racial affair. She's not the first, of course. But doesn't that make you a freak? Only freaks take wives who aren't of their own kind, you know. Some religions state the prohibition of 'mixed blood'. You wouldn't want to commit a crime against the cosmos, would you?

Now Optimus stared at the Virus. This nasty, vicious side of its personality was one he disliked most. It fed on his guilt, insecurities and mocked his self control.

[The cosmos?] he repeated, [what do I care about the cosmos? It is a place, not an entity, not a life form. The cosmos is not self conscious.]

Void's head pushed through the floor, its neck stretched ribbon-thin. Optimus scanned the room. No one noticed or saw the Virus stare at him. No one flinched as the freakish thing tilted its triangular head one side then another.

Optimus dimmed part of his optics then flared the lower part. "Get off the bridge." he quietly spoke.

Her God may not approve of you taking on a marital vow. You are not her species type, you're not even of the same skin color.

Optimus leaned forward. [Who told you about religion?] A call from medbay brought the Autobot leader out of the strange conversation. "Prime," he answered deadpan.

First Aid responded with hesitation. "Optimus, Sideswipe would like to talk with you."

He did not like Aid's tone. "On my way.

The Dancing Siren

Sideswipe paced the hall in front of Sunstreaker's room. Optimus grimly noticed the warrior's pallid appearance, the slight jitter from too little rest, the metal fatigue from lack of nutrition. Sideswipe gave Optimus a cold, condemning glare.

"He's dying in there!" Optimus nodded gravely. "How could you just stand by and let that happen? Sunny has always been there for you and there you are, sitting on your throne while he suffers!"

"He's not the only one suffering, Sideswipe-"

'OH! Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"No. I want you to realize we're all suffering."

"GREAT! One of your 'we're-all-in-this-together' speeches! Just what I needed. So you just stand by while we pick our afts up off the ground and somehow move on.

"Sideswipe, I know you are upset and terrified that you may lose your brother. We are doing everything we can-"

"The smelt you are! Do you know what he told me last night? He wanted to die! DIE! Sunny NEVER talks like that! He doesn't want me to see him anymore because he's got too many dents. Hah! He's dying because his paint job is... and he's upset because he's worried he'll never be the same!"

Sideswipe spun away, heaving with sorrow. Optimus gave him a moment's silence; a little emotional space. "And what of you, Sideswipe? Do you think that by not resting or recharging you're helping-"

"THIS ISN'T ABOUT ME!"

Optimus' optics flared. You can't help him," he said firmly. "None of us can until we get to Yolthanis Three. We do not have the means or the facility to properly repair him. I know you're frightened. I know you're frustrated."

Sideswipe shuddered, edging closer to a meltdown. Optimus laid a careful hand on the grieving soldier. "We have not forgotten Sunstreaker. And we have not forgotten you. Now I am ordering you to get rest, something to eat and something to do. Rodimus has assigned Doublecross to make sure you do so."

I don't need a babysitter, Prime." Sideswipe skulked.

"Yes you do. And you either do what she tells you or I'll babysit you myself-or worse, Ultra Magnus." Optimus watched the warrior twin slump in submission.

Satisfied, Optimus left Sideswipe and hunted First Aid. He found the Autobot doctor in a box of an office, sitting at a makeshift desk comparing Snarl's scans.

First Aid spoke before Optimus announced himself. "Do you know what I remember of Ratchet?"

"His personal hatred with the replicator?"

First Aid made a funny noise, half a smirk, have a snort. "No. But I remember that, too." Aid swivelled, two digipads in his hands. "He was always cranky. And as I sit here, working 'frontier' medicine, talking more to equipment than my aids, I realize that Ratchet was cranky because everything seemed to take too much time. You reset a support rod. And you wait. You reattach atrical zyn and you wait. You infuse fresh fluids and you wait. Humans are always under the impression that because we're robots, we're not different from their automobiles. You replace a part, patch a tire and off you go. So when I discussed Transformer physiology at Human medical conventions, I use the word mechanism, not machine to describe our status as living creatures. Have you not wondered why we are metal instead of flesh, wood or stone?"

Optimus had indeed thought it over. Certainly more so around Rusti. And had he been in a better mood, or had the question been put to Rodimus instead, Optimus was certain First Aid would have been given a smart remark. But the circumstances dictated a grim frame of mind and Optimus cared only about necessity. "How is Sunstreaker?

First Aid stared, frowned and set the digipads aside. He leaned over, arms on knees. He resembled an old man, worn with worry and helplessness. "We have him on twenty-four watch. We're having to scratch-build pieces... frankly. Duct tape, paperclips and crossed fingers is what's keeping Sunny and sixteen others-including Grimlock-alive. Snarl was eaten half alive with acid. He's alright as long as we keep him in a suspension capsule. But we can't let him out. And he bitches that he's bored. Sunstreaker... that's another case load."

First aid peered up at Optimus, his optic visor darkened as the medic tilted his head left. "There's something else going on in his head, Prime. I tended him yesterday. He laughed about something he would not tell me. And it didn't sound like Sunstreaker."

Optimus stared, analyzing, hoping his next statement might be rejected. "Do you think Sunstreaker is infected with the Virus?"

"I wish I could say no. But I can't say yes, either. We simply don't know enough about the Virus to determine whether or not it... is capable of spreading."

"It's not going to spread, First Aid. The Virus adapts, changes. It might even... replicate."

First Aid sat up. "How do you know this?"

"I don't." Optimus answered grimly, "not for certain, anyway. I want to keep believing the Virus is only a virus, not a higher life form. Yet... how could anything come into contact with the Matrix and remain unchanged?"

First Aid offered no answers. He retrieved the digipads and stared into them. Optimus retreated to the door when First Aid called him. "Do you think it might be possible, however slight, the Matrix could repair Sunstreaker?"

Optimus did not turn around. He gripped the door frame. "The Matrix almost could not save Rodimus when he nearly died on Earth, First Aid. What's left of the Matrix's strength... isn't even in the Matrix."

The Gabriel Genesis

"All hail frequencies, this be Jazz on board the mighty-fine and uber-special Autobot cruiser, the Trench Driver. All systems are go at seven P.M. Earth Standard Pacific. Copy? Over."

"This is city commander Convoy on board the Razor Lady. We copy that, Jazz and echo all systems are go for lift-off. Repeat, the Razor Lady is go."

"This is Ultra Magnus on board the Sagittarius Mozart, Razor Lady. We copy. And we copy that, Trench Driver. The Mozart is ready for planetary departure."

Blaster grinned and spun in his chair. "Echo that, Mozart. This be Blaster smashin' into the airwaves, yakkin' atchya from the illustrious Gabriel Genesis and the Presidente for life, Rodimus Prime is here t' give you a serious audio load. Listen in! Take it away, Boss!"

Rodimus patched into the all-systems comm channel. "This is Rodimus Prime. We are departing as soon as Titanum returns with his party. Stay crisp, Autobots. Stand by."

Rodimus killed the comm and Blaster grinned at him. "'Crisp'?" he asked.

Rodimus winked at him. All but two ships reported standing by at the ready. Optimus, who had to attend a situation on board the Dancing Siren, did not report yet. Rodimus hated delays; this delay, in particular, when it meant the Autobots were finally escaping the next-to-the-crappiest planet he'd been on. Tempted to pace, Rodimus lapped his legs over the arm of his command chair instead.

"What I would not give for a good game of Candy Land right about now. Well, actually, Mousetrap is more fun."

Blaster re-rechecked his board just to keep his hands busy. "I always liked them driving games myself. The only time I get to feel like a car."

Rodimus half sat. "Mm. No, no, Blaster. You never play video games with Rusti. She never bothers with the rules."

I gotchya, Boss-bot." Blaster turned to Rodimus who was already conversing with Optimus. Blaster turned back with frown. He hoped to find out what the Primes did and said half the time. But he supposed he couldn't begrudge their confidentiality. Gossip wasn't a good thing. A red button beeped on his board. Blaster patched into Titanium's comline.

"Whoa! Check it!" Blaster called. "Tite is headin' in hot and sizzling 'cros the plane! And he says Cyc's not with him!"

Rodimus searched the view screen. "Patch me in, Blaster."

"Autobot camp! This is Titanium! TAKE OFF! I repeat: commence launch! INOUX ON OUR TAILS!"

Rodimus hopped off his command dais and leaned over Blaster. "How close is he to one of our ships?"

Blaster called up the area map. "They're still a mile from the Confiscator."

"I gotcha, Op." Rodimus said a bit loudly. He patched into an alt frequencies comline. "Autobot shuttles, this is the Gabriel Genesis, the Confiscator, the Armored Crest and the Covenant will remain on the ground until further notice. All other ships: you are to commence lift off according to Ultra Magnus' schedule. I repeat, all ships except Genesis, the Confiscator, the Covenant and the Armored Crest are to commence lift off as of NOW. Rodimus Prime over and out!"

The Interrogator lifted off first. The Frostbite followed then the Razor Lady. The Saber's Claw struggled igniting thrusters. But after a few choice words uttered by Fahren, a good kick in the side, that ship took off, followed by the Vertical Horizon.

By the time the Hanibal's Mark made lift off, Titanium made it to the Confiscator. Heavy with purchased goods from Concentric City, Titanium required a little assistance from Hotspot. Bumblebee closed the hatch just as a wall of flying spiders came for them.

Rodimus stared at the view screen. "Shale, I hope to Primus you're a good pilot."

The femme reflected worry. "Why?"

"Because you'll have to out-think, out-run and out-maneuver those things."

Shale released the controls. "I-I can navigate the ship, Commander, but I-I can't-"

"Commander?" Cloudstreaker called from her place at scan control. "I'm a pretty good pilot. I've seen how they behave before we abandoned Fort Horizon."

Roddi nodded to navigation, indicating the personnel exchange. "Go!"

She did not need a second request. Cloudstreaker took navigation-pilot control. She shut down all automatic pilot systems, disabled all safety guards and shut power to all unnecessary functions.

Watching her flip switches on and off at professional speed, the bridge crew settled tightly in their seats. Rodimus patched into the ship's com. "All personnel, this is Rodimus. Strap in, hold your breath... and pray." then he wished he'd taken his own advice. With a sudden jerk, Rodimus was shoved into his command chair. The Gabriel Genesis shot off like a gun, bolting toward the Inoux. Under Cloudstreaker's precise control, the Genesis tipped hard left, and spiked through the mass of attackers, forcing them to split apart.

"YEAH!" everyone on the bridge shouted. But knowing their enemy, Cloudstreaker kept her course low and fast.

"Blaster," Rodimus called, "what's the status on the other ships?"

"The Racing Beast, the Alvarez and the Spiral Star are all in orbit. Magnus is behind us in the Sagittarian Mozart. He's holding off, ordering the Confiscator to hit escape velocity."

Rodimus stood from his command chair. Optimus waited for the last possible moment to leave. Roddi patched into ship-to-ship comm. "Crested Moon, you're still on the ground."

"Copy that, Genesis," Redial returned. "Sand by."

"Stand by my aft!" Rodimus spat. "What the hell is going on?"

Before anyone tried to answer, Blaster turned to Cloudstreaker. "Bogies jamming in at starboard point nine-seven degrees!"

The Genesis boomed, shuddered and blinked with the impact of a direct hit. Rodimus almost fell out his chair. "Cloudstreaker!" he said above the alert siren. "I don't care what you have to do, you cover the Crested Moon!"

She glanced and gave him a silent affirmation. Cloudstreaker cut secondary engines, freaking out half the personnel. She made a hairpin turn and halfway into the swing, re-engaged thrusters and shot the Genesis back to the abandoned camp.

Over ship-to-ship comm, Optimus' voice came in. "Crested Moon to Genesis, Rodimus, what the HELL are you doing?"

Roddi grinned. "Don't look at me! I'm not driving. What's going on? Why are you still here?"

"Docking clamps are jammed. Who's piloting the Genesis?"

"Cloudstreaker."

No answer. But Rodimus and the bridge overheard commotion. Someone argued hotly with Optimus.

Rodimus' optics darkened. Redial, Eclipse and Linksys all argued about the clamps. Optimus ordered Grotesque and Hardhead to remove all but two personnel from the bridge.

Optimus came back to the comline. "Ultra Magnus, you will have to fire on us. The clamps are non-functional."

Rodimus swore with a snarl. He jumped down to communications. "Blaster, is there a way we can override the Crested Moon's landing systems?"

"Yeah. If they're not password protected. But Prime said they were jammed, he didn't say the-"

"Blaster."

Knowing the look on Roddi's face, the communications officer patched in without another word. Genesis scanned the Crested Moon for broken comlines.

"THERE!" Rodimus spotted it before Blaster. The communications officer worked fast; furious fingers flew across the consol. "Crested Moon, this is Genesis. We found the problem. Ready your thrusters for launch-"

Everyone but Cloudstreaker lost their footing when the Genesis dipped hard then struck straight up in a vertical lift. Cloudstreaker spun the ship once to equalize the stabilizers.

Laser fire missed the Genesis by fractions.

"Hold on!" Cloudstreaker shouted. Only Rodimus heard her in time. She flipped the Genesis belly-up and the ship's automatic defenses blew off two attackers descending from nowhere, reaching speeds almost faster than the Autobot ships handled.

"I'm sorry!" Cloudstreaker cried. "I'm sorry!"

Rodimus clambered up while Blaster tried to continue his remote work on the Crested Moon. "Cloudstreaker," he growled, "Don't EVER apologize for saving our skins. Got that?"

"Yeah."

"Got it! I got it!" Blaster declared.

Optimus did not need to be told. The Crested Moon took off like a wound rubber band and wove through the sky between Inoux fighters as the Sagittarian Mozart tagged close behind.

According to plan, all Autobot shuttles were to rendezvous in an asteroid belt two planets from Cratis. Most of them made it.

Rodimus waited for damage reports and ship personnel status before heading into the Genesis' ready room. The other ship captains and commanders followed the same protocol except the Confiscator whose captain had Bumblebee and Titanium join her in the conference room.

Optimus signed off a digipad before facing the view screen. "Report." he said deadpan.

Titanium kept a steady gaze at the viewscreen. "We managed to acquire most of the needed materials, Optimus Prime. But we were attacked in Concentric City. Cyclonus took the girl with him so that I could escape with Bumblebee.

"And you are certain Rusti was with him?"

Titanium paused. "Yes, absolutely."

Convoy shook her head. "We've heard nothing from Cyclonus."

Optimus scratched something into another pad. "Cyclonus would have maintained radio silence to keep our location safe until Titanium arrived."

Rodimus suppressed the growing chill. "You don't think anything's happened do you?"

"No." Magnus answered. "Cyclonus is a professional. Our scanners would have picked up something."

Optimus' optics bounced from one captain or commander to another on his view screen. "We need to prepare a rescue party ready, then."

Galvatron found his way to the Crested Moon's bridge. He sat at the security consol while Optimus worked with Redial diagnosing the Moon's computer landing controls. The Decepticon watched Redial fidget nervously and grinned each time the communications officer glanced in his direction.

Finally Redial broke a growl. "Does he have to be here watching us work?"

Optimus almost flinched at the odd break in silence. He followed Redial's line of sight and greeted Galvatron with a slight nod. "What's wrong, Redial? Afraid he's going to bite?"

"He makes me nervous."

Optimus stared hard. "You have more important things to concern yourself than someone on the bridge, is that clear?"

Redial blinked. "Y-yes, sir." Optimus adamantly broke up a heated argument between Hardhead, Redial himself and Eclipse. Optimus confined Eclipse to her quarters and sent Hardhead and Linksys to the brig. Very unlike Optimus Prime. But everyone on the Crested Moon understood that Prime was short on toleration for nonsense.

Optimus approached the railing dividing the security station from the command dais. He lapped his arms over it and stared at Galvatron. "What's on your mind?" he asked quietly.

"You'll need more than just a rescue party, Prime. You'll need to send someone to aid Cyclonus. If, in fact, the Inoux have found us. Chances are they have found him and may be tracking him now."

"There's only four Autobots who can withstand flying in space for any length of time."

Galvatron leaned over. You mean the Aerialbots?"

"No. They were not initially designed to fly in space."

"A design flaw?"

Optimus hesitated. "Call it 'political sabotage', Galvatron. And I can't say more about it here."

"Hmm. Well, Prime, I hate to pour acid on a wound, but I doubt such Autobots as Velocity, Cloudstreaker or Highbrow can handle the Inoux with more than marginal success. And I'm confident Rodimus would agree when I say that it'd be foolhardy to send one of the cruisers out there, risking many lives for the sake of two, no matter how important Rusti and Cyclonus are to us."

Optimus stared a long moment. 'Well, I can't send you out there, either. It'd be like tossing a worm on a hook."

"At least I make a good looking worm." Galvatron smiled.

"Galvatron, the person who resuscitated you... did he or she mention how insouciant you are?"

Galvatron shook his head. "Not that readily I recall, Optimus. I was too busy experiencing life as a dust mite."

Dumbfounded, Prime turned away, perplexed. "Hey," Galvatron called him back, Optimus returned to the rail and his friend leaned so close, he could fall off the edge of the chair. Galvatron almost whispered. "Why not ask Magnus?"

Optimus flinched in surprise. "What?"

Galvatron glanced at Redial who remained busy. "Magnus," he repeated quietly. "He's fast enough and can handle extra firepower unlike the Headmaster."

"No," Prime objected. "He absolutely will not go for it-"

"Optimus, this is not the time for placating to personal issues. You need every resource you have at your disposal. If Magnus can, then Magnus should. And I'm not just suggesting this lightly or for personal gain no matter what Cyclonus means to me."

"He will not forgive me for it."

"Then he will simply have to grow up and deal with it. Who's ultimately in charge? You? Or his personal vow? He is an asset, not a wall plaque."

Galvatron was right. But Optimus dreaded the potential argument with Magnus. He leaned close enough to whisper: "If I get spaced for this, I expect you to rescue me."

"Why?" Galvatron grinned, "I'll most likely ask to join you."

Optimus pretended to rub his hand down the side of his helm, but he tucked in all his fingers but the middle, flipping Galvatron off.

Galvatron silently laughed.

The Sagittarian Mozart

Magnus stared at the view screen in the Mozart's ready room. He fixed his gaze at the one person (one of two Autobots) still alive who knew of his past. Magnus could not decide between shock or anger. He settled for indignant. "I can't believe you're asking me-"

"I don't have time for you to react, Ultra Magnus." Optimus answered socially. "I simply need you-"

"No! There's nothing simple about this! You're asking me to revert to something I abandoned to another life. More than that, you're asking me to reveal a personal issue that's been buried for millions of years! Who the Pitt do you think you are?"

"Your commanding officer." Optimus answered calmly. "And don't you think that if I had a better option, I'd take it? Or do it myself?"

Ouch. Magnus glowered.

"I'm sorry, Magnus," Prime added gently. "I have always tried to respect your preference to remain... mostly anonymous. But we simply do not have that luxury now. I am forced to use every advantage and every resource-"

Magnus nodded, following the logic, but not liking it. "I know. I know. I just.." he could not bring himself to say how exposed he felt. Once his secret was out, he could never put the lid back on. "I'm going to need back up."

"You'll have it," Optimus quickly promised.

Highbrow, Velocity and Cloudburst met Magnus at the Mozart's docking bay. Ultra Magnus personally double checked their weapons before he stepped back and measured each Autobot with his optics. "This will be the fastest mission you will most likely perform. We will go in, rescue, hit hard and shoot right back here just before the fleet heads into warp speed. This mission must go exactly according to plan or none of us will be returning. Do I make that clear?"

"Yes, Sir!" Only Highbrow responded. The other two, assigned to Fortress Draco, did not have Magnus as a drill sergeant.

"What was that?" Magnus asked Velocity and Cloudburst.

Velocity offered a sheepish grin. "Sir. Uh, yes, sir."

"Pump up that VOLUME, SOLDIER, UNLESS YOU'RE DYING OR DEAD! I EXPECT TO HEAR YOUR VOICE SOLDIER! ARE YOU PRETENDING TO BE A KITTEN?"

"Sir! NO SIR!"

"What? Are you some puny little DLL droid wannabe?"

"NO, SIR!" Velocity strengthened her voice.

Somewhat satisfied at the moment, Magnus stepped back. "Stay focused. Stay sharp. And keep an optic on my lead. What is it, Cloudburst?"

"Sir, I don't see your shuttle, Sir."

Magnus did not smile but inwardly he realized he was going to enjoy this moment. "Fall in, Soldier." Magnus spun about, took a running start and leapt into the air. His form shifted, rearranged and folded into a tough, space-faring ship. His backup crew almost lost time while they stood aghast.

Magnus led them on a tricky, zig-zag path out the asteroid belt and into three thousand miles of Cratis' twin moons. Scanners cried out as they detected combat ensuing on the other side of the first moon.

Velocity plunged in first, firing distracting missiles. She veered hard into the conflict, barely scraping by two Inoux. Cloudburst shadowed behind. He shot one Inoux and led a tailgate on a wild chase, weaving in and among the other assailants.

Highbrow joined the party crashers and diverted laser fire from a damaged, unresponsive Cyclonus. Magnus appeared a moment later, twisting and meandering between their opponents. He gunned several Inoux with similar results; the Inoux resisted laser fire and photonic charges alike.

Locked inside Cyclonus, Rusti knocked her head against the interior. The Inoux weren't messing around. They hit again and one more time.

"Knock it OFF!" Rusti screamed, frustrated. She knew, however, they did not hear her.

"Transformer surrender..."

"He can't surrender, you bogus, thacking sli'kik'ik! CYCLONUS, WAKE UP!"

Thoomkoon!

Rusti screamed again as an Inoux flew scant inches before them. She started to cry and her eyes fluttered off the tears. "Control... control..." she told herself. "This really isn't much worse than the cyberwraith..." Her mind raced with an idea. "He's a Transformer. Using transducer relays and terminal textports and... multi-link capacitors, thermal tri-guard preps-" she gasped and smiled in relief. On the front window a projection appeared, writing off Cyclonus' automatic scanners. At least ten Inoux surrounded them, waiting.

A pulse bleeped at the bottom of the 3-D window and all other potential indicators flared at her in Decepticon writ.

"I have no idea what this is for," she mumbled

"Transformer. Comply. Choose."

A flash of yellow blossomed from Cyclonus' port and Rusti just caught the tail-end of an Autobot. But her relief died when the other Inoux scrambled in a confusing configuration. They flew over, around and under the unconscious Decepticon while a second Autobot fired at them. A third Autobot spirited into the melee. Rusti expected someone to hit Cyclonus any second as the mobile of players zipped and flew around them.

"Cyclonus?" she called again. "Cyclonus, you must wake up!" No response. Of course not. Rusti clutched the seat beneath her and when her hand contacted a wet spot, she brought it up slowly, hoping she had not wet herself.

Hemotricity, Transformer blood. Cyclonus suffered internal injuries. Rusti clenched her fist. "Okay," she said to her unconscious companion. "Let me explain something to you: I am a-or was-a high school student. Okay? I don't even have a driver's licence. I did drive with Optimus once-but don't tell anybody else that-cuz that uh... That's personal." Rusti took a gulp of air. "Okay. I am not going to die floating in space. So... I'm going to see if I can access your mind, or part of it to... to uh. Get you moving again. Okay? Don't be offended, I just don't want to die. I've never done this with a living mechanism before. So bear with me."

With a second deep breath, Rusti concentrated on the Decepticon's exterior and mentally probed her way around. Cyclonus' powerful life force surrounded her; smooth, strong, sharp. He did not have Optimus' depth nor the sensation of purity. Cyclonus was more like a blade, direct and intense.

Rusti found his wings and from there, she encountered his navigation systems. She could maneuver his form, but not access a propulsion system... Assuming, of course, he utilized one separate from his robotic systems.

A face flashed in her mind, kicking her mentally. Rusti startled and batted her eyes. The face flashed again, staring back with deep cruel eyes-or maybe they were optics.

Not Decepticon.

Blinking, gasping for breath, she gradually calmed herself enough to concentrate, to turn and face the fearful. Unicron? Somewhere in the back of Cyclonus' mind loomed a monster, dragging him ever further into the dark. The tattered remains of Unicron's will still fluttered in the deepest recesses of Cyclonus' mind and subconscious. He feared the thing, dead or not.

Someone voiced along Decepticon communication frequencies. Rusti frantically touched the dashboard, hoping to trigger something. Instead, her hand accidently brushed along the 3-D window, knocking a scanner off.

"Oh, well, duh!" she chastised herself. That's a mind projection."

She searched the window, straining to hear the voice again. There! She spotted the incoming call as displayed and touched it, moving her finger up, down, side left then right to tune in.

"-clonus, this is Highbrow! Do you read?"

"Highbrow?" Rusti cried. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes-yes, Ma'am! What's wrong-"

"Cyclonus is badly injured and I can't fly him!"

"Hang tight there, Missy-"

Highbrow's communication cut out when another light sparked from his location. Cyclonus rocked slightly from the energy wave. Rusti settled in her seat, forced to wait and hope. She watched the Inoux move predaceously across space. They grouped, attacked, split apart and regrouped like a band of cunning, hungry wolves.

Highbrow, Velocity and Cloudburst lined wingtip to wingtip before Cyclonus in a line-up of monsters verses robots.

The Inoux assaulted, racing for the kill. The three Autobots held their position until the last minute. Cloudburst dropped, Velocity shot up and Highbrow tipped left at high speeds. Their tactic forced the alien rivals to split in three direction from Cyclonus.

Rusti watched until she spotted a fourth Autobot fly in from the first moon's south pole. The Autobot was huge, big enough to swallow Cyclonus. He swept up and caught Cyclonus in a tractor beam.

"Are you all right, Miss Witwicky?"

Rusti's jaw dropped. "Ultra Magnus?" she squeaked. "No way!"

"Stand by."

The tractor beam carefully maneuvered Cyclonus into Magnus' interior. Not more than a moment or two later, the other three Autobots landed in the same docking bay. Velocity transformed and gripped the side railing as the hatch closed.

"It's a go, Magnus!"

Magnus dipped hard to starboard and bellied up half a roll. He tipped to port, escaping two Inoux tailing from the starboard bow.

The Major-general throttled for the moon and glided dangerously close to the surface. Six Inoux fliers chased him along the lumpy lunar crevices. Magnus frantically scanned for an advantage.

Far ahead lay an old mining complex. Neglected for centuries, Magnus' readouts indicated potential structural instability and massive metal fatigue.

Perfect.

Magnus dropped into the abandoned encampment and blasted the entrance. He flew in with just enough space to accommodate his width and height. The Inoux did not hesitate to pursue. The first one in fired on Ultra Magnus and clipped his underside. The Autobot hissed inward as the alien weapon burned his exostructure.

The mine shaft sloped sharply, a downhill plunge that, even Magnus, found unnerving. But he found the bottom and ignited his turbo thrusters. One mile ahead, scanners declared the exit in sight. Ultra Magnus fired a total of six rockets into the walls and three at the entrance just as he blew out. The mine shaft collapsed behind and buried the Inoux.

The Racing Beast

"Let's just give her a wee amount of oxygen, eh? Yes, yes. There we be. Yes. Hello, Miss Witwicky. Good to see you well."

Rusti could not suppress a moan. "My head hurts."

The alien doctor nodded. "Aye. It's good that your head hurts and that you're alive, yes? We retrieved you from Cyclonus and now you are here."

"Cyclonus? Is he okay? I couldn't help him."

Dr. Zornoy and his assistant gave her no answer.

The Spiral Star

The fact that the mission was successful did not lighten Magnus' mood. Now it came to it, he thought the whole operation foolhardy. The Inoux were a formidable foe and the rescue mission could have jeopardized everyone.

Landing on the Spiral Star, Magnus waited patiently while First Aid directed his crew to carefully remove Cyclonus. Magnus waited until everyone else departed. He shifted back to robot mode. An intense sense of guilt sickened him as he headed for the bridge.

He passed through the shield doors and frowned at a waiting, nonchalant Galvatron. "I hope you had clearance to be here," Magnus rumbled.

"Mizz Witwicky is my chaperone, although she is currently on the Racing Beast." Galvatron answered evenly. "I am aware I'm not supposed to be anywhere without her. But Cyclonus is here. Or was I to have your special authorization to be anywhere?"

Magnus glowered and walked off. Unfazed by the city commander's unaccommodating mood, Galvatron tailed. "I must say, Magnus, you're a little rusty in your alternate mode."

Magnus snapped around, a finger closed on Galvatron face. "Not a single word of this to anyone. Got me? Not one."

"Why are you so ashamed of your heritage, Ultra Magnus? There's noting wrong with being a Decepticon." Galvatron easily dodged Magnus' flying fist. The punch landed in the wall. Galvatron gazed from the hole to Magnus' face. "Feeling better? Listen to me. It's not your species make up that makes you, Magnus."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better? Who are you to counsel me, anyway? Or have you forgotten your own insidious past?"

Galvatron shook his head. "I cannot forget or make up for what I've done. But this isn't about me. It's about you, refusing to be something because of what it appears to represent."

"Oh. Alright." Magnus sneered. "So tell me, Mister Slaghead, would you offer such enlightened counseling were you speaking to Starscream?"

Galvatron paused a moment considering. "I think you confuse 'Decepticon' with malice, evil and blood lust, Ultra Magnus."

"The fact of it is, Galvatron, I walked out on that life millions of years ago. I found the lust to control, murder and pillage more than I care to tolerate." Magnus' optics flared with disgust.

"All of which was directed under Megatron's rule, Ultra Magnus. But I am here to tell you that the Decepticons were not always so vile. There was once an age of honor among them. They were warriors, protectors. Not hunters or scavengers.

"I see," Magnus returned coldly. "So now you're on a crusade to bring virtue, honor and respectability to such scum as Frenzy or Scourge."

"I am not here to evangelize anyone, Magnus," Galvatron dipped into serious tones. "I know worthless when I see it. I am saying is you have no reason to fear a part of yourself that is clearly more powerful, more capable of resistance than the rest of them here. By denying it and quashing it, you disable everyone else. They do not need Ultra Magnus, the Autobot City Commander, the one who forsook the ruthless Decepticon war machine because he had high standards. They need Ultra Magnus, the former Major-general of the Decepticon armies; who understands the meaning of integrity and staunch perseverance."

Magnus balked. "So you're the one who talked to Prime! I was wondering who blabbed."

Galvatron turned cross. "Get off yourself, Magnus. You saved the lives of two people today. Two very important people. Excuse me."

Galvatron left Magnus to himself in search of Cyclonus.

The Racing Beast

"I'm fine." Rusti insisted for the tenth time. Dr. Zornoy clicked his tongue in sympathy.

"It is not what your current blood pressure says to me. It says, 'Yes, Doctor, she is uptight and suffers a slight case of infection' and let me see here..." he utilized a microscan along each of her ears. "Aye. See that? I ask there Mizz Fesso, be so kind as to hand me the hypo behind you?"

The volunteer pushed her lips into a smile and handed Zornoy a hypo filled with light blue liquid.

Rusti winced as the antibiotic entered her bloodstream. "Is this going to turn parts of my body into another color?"

"Mm. Should not." Zornoy answered lightly. "Most likely the powdered eggs will do that. Odd you ask that, Miss Witwicky.

"Well...it's just that uh, I heard what happened to my dad."

"The diaper was not my idea." Zornoy quickly responded.

She scoffed. "No, that's definitely a Rodimus thing."

"Ah... already heard about that, have you? Well, then, you must be talking about his lice incident. Most not happy for him. And there we are for you, Mizz Witwicky. Do not blow up any balloons or blow bubbles in your milk for twenty-four hours. Eh?"

She gazed into his lime green eyes and wondered why she did not have him growing up. "Thank you, Dr. Zornoy. You're a doll."

His light-hearted smile warmed with gratitude and he shooed her out.

The Sagittarian Mozart

Rodimus left his ship to join all the rest of the senior staff for another ponderous get-together. He immediately noticed Lady-Autobot Spectrum replaced her late commander, Tektonix, at his usual seat. A tankard of energon sat in front of her, untouched. Roddi rounded her and laid an hand on her shoulder.

"Doing okay?" he asked quietly. She forced a smile without an answer. Tektonix would be missed for a long time.

Magnus entered the room with a small stack of digipads. Lagging at his heels came Brainstorm, now commanding the Spiral Star and Lakendra Littlefield who Optimus gave command of the Sunset Kummya.

Hotspot shifted uneasily in his seat and frowned to himself. "Exactly how long is this git-together gonna last, Rodimus?"

"Beats me. Depends on what everyone has to say. Didn't get any rest before take off?"

"Er... No. Not the right kind, anyway."

Roddi nodded and decided he'd rather not know. He gave a broad grin to Gryph, Quazar and Kup as they took their seats.

Optimus followed Titanium into the room, optics on a pad and mind attending an internal conversation. He greeted no one.

Strike Back, Ambient and Jemel Helser arrived last. Each officer picked an appropriate seat and waited. Optimus turned off the digipad before him and ran his optics around the room. "All nineteen of us are here, I see," he said. "Thank you for coming."

Strike Back stretched. "And not a Decepticon to be found."

He got the same answer from both Primes in stereo: "Not now, Strike Back." That they answered in unison caught everyone's attention. But not everyone smiled.

Optimus started the meeting again. "Captain Helser, how are things on the Dancing Siren?"

"Peachy, sir," Jemel replied confidently.

"Excellent. Captain Littlefield?"

"Smoothly," Lakendra answered. "The Kummya has a good crew."

Optimus nodded, approving. "Ultra Magnus will give us a report on his mission and then Titanium, if you will not mind bringing us up to date?"

Magnus laced fingers and laid his arms on the table, palms down. "At approximately twenty-two point zero nine, my team and I reentered Cratian space in the attempt to retrieve Lieutenant Cyclonus and civilian one Miss Rusti Witwicky. We encountered ten Inoux currently engaged in assault. I submitted orders to my team to distract our enemy while I procured Lieutenant Cyclonus. The ten Inoux readily engaged Cloudburst, Velocity and Highbrow. We discovered, yet again, the futility of our weapons against them. The only reason we made it back was they let us go. Reasons are unknown. They have not followed us into the asteroid belt. Again, for reasons that remain unclear. And I am told Cyclonus is recovering."

Strike Back leaned forward, suspicious. "How is it, Ultra Magnus, that you suddenly have the ability to shift into a third form?"

Rodimus glared. "Not open for discussion, Strike Back," he warned.

"Why?" Strike Back insisted. "Is he a former spy or something we should know about?"

Rodimus' glare turned dark. "I said it's not open to discussion."

Optimus rescued the awkward silence. "Titanium, your report, please."

"We managed to acquire most of the supplies you requested and had to substitute one of them. Our mission went smooth until we spotted an Inoux perched on a building wall. We were attacked. Cyclonus insisted I returned to camp at once while he fended the enemy off. I -uh-I didn't think it right to leave him or the girl, but I believed the choice was better to return to base camp with the supplies. I caught Bumblebee along the way. But I lost track of Lieutenant Cyclonus thereafter. I have all the supplies tallied and inventoried in my detail report, Optimus."

Optimus made a note on another slimmer digipad and silently nodded. The table fell solemn and uncomfortably silent. Ultra Magnus watched Optimus and Rodimus a moment. Neither said a word until Rodimus' lip components twitched with a smile. He snatched a mischievous glance to Optimus then gave his attention to Spectrum.

"We need to ah... relocate the Dinobots. Well, three of them, anyway. They're on the Spiral Star with Grimlock and in spite of his best efforts, Repugnus can't keep them out of the stasis chamber. First Aid is losing his mind. So... Spectrum, how 'bout it?"

"On my ship?" Spectrum snapped pointedly.

"Yeah."

She glanced at Magnus as though searching for support. "Why my ship?"

"Because it has a storage bay large enough to handle them. I mean, it's obvious they won't stay docile for long."

"I'm sorry, Rodimus," the femme interrupted. "I thought their appointed guardian was supposed to control them."

"Well, yes," Rodimus verified. "But they're not puppies who just sleep, Spectrum. We're going on a long voyage and the Dinobots require room. It's either that or hydroponics."

Spectrum looked horrified. "Hydroponics?"

"We have to have food for our Human friends, Spectrum." Magnus answered.

Spectrum turned back to Roddi. "How much space did you say the Dinobots needed?"

Roddi grinned. "Okay. Lakendra, you're assigned to hydroponics."

"Um..." Littlefield glanced at the giant robots around her and were it not for her other EDC companion, she would have felt far too small. "Um, will we be carrying animals, too?"

"Why? Do we have any?" Roddi instantly asked.

"Robo-lice." Brainstorm said out of turn. Strike Back smirked.

"No," Optimus answered instead. "We do not have any. We have enough to start crops and rotate oxygen supplies-" he stared at Strike Back who scribbled on his pad, barely suppressing laughter. Optimus continued, "I think I will assign the Sabor's Claw to maintenance protocols."

Strike Back sharply turned, caught like a child pulling a prank. "W-maintenance protocols, Optimus?"

Optimus stared, stoic and silent. Rodimus also fell dead silent as he jotted notes into three different pads. Magnus took up the challenging city commander. He visually pinned Strike Back like someone would a new worker. "Such protocols include the laundering and soaking of filters across the fleet. You will need to set up systems for Humans as well as Autobots and our other diverse life forms. You will need to organize a nursery and clothing facility and run a recycling center so we can reuse properties such as water and solvent."

Strike Back sneered at Optimus who pointedly ignored him. "I can't believe you're assigning my ship for that sort of task!"

"Why?" Rodimus asked. "It's just as important as the Spiral Star's science lab."

"You're basically assigning me to wash everyone's underwear!"

"Oh!" Rodimus turned sarcastic. "I was not aware you were incapable of handling such a difficult job, Strikes. Well... Gryph, would you consider taking it on?"

"Certainly, Roddi. The Mark is more than happy to do it."

"Good," Strike Back snorted, "Her girls can do it."

Optimus pinned Strike Back with a searing gaze. "Strike Back, you say one more word at this table and I will dismiss you entirely. Is that clear?"

"Aye, sir." the former city commander submitted.

Optimus immediately turned to Titanium. "I'm appointing your ship, the Confiscator, the Trench Driver and the Interrogator to troop drills. And I know everyone will object when I say this, but I'm going to order it, anyway. I want drills done with children ten and over."

Everyone except Rodimus, dropped their mandibles in shock. Lakendra was the first to find her voice.

"Optimus-"

"This is not a baby sitting facility, Lakendra. If you want the children to survive, they'll need to learn to protect themselves."

"No! You're going to teach them how to fight? They're children!"

"And a liability," Rodimus added. "Or don't you recall what happened on the Frostbite?"

"What? You think training the children to fight would have kept Decepticons from invading the ship?" Lakendra challenged.

"No." Rodimus replied. "But it would have given them a better chance."

"There's no way they could have outrun the Decepticons! Even Rusti Witwicky couldn't-"

"Put a weapon in their hands and they have a better chance," Rodimus insisted. "This is about survival, Lakendra. We're not on a field trip."

"They're innocent-"

"And a target. Besides... they lost their innocence the day the Quintessons attacked. They can't go back to that point in their lives. They can only move forward and put their anger and fear to work."

"I HATE your war! You-you brought it to us! You contaminated our world with your senseless violence!"

Rodimus leaned forward. "Do you really think you're that innocent? Maybe you need another look into your own history before you judge ours."

"At least we didn't have monsters from space coming down to obliterate entire cities."

Optimus interjected, "this is not accomplishing anything. Our goal is to reach Yolthanis Three, regroup and return to Earth. At present speed it will take us six weeks to arrive. Once we get there, we can decide who stays and who goes to war." Prime gazed hard at Lakendra. "I do not expect everyone to fight that war. But I do expect everyone to have some ability to defend themselves. I am not dragging people out this way to die, but to find or make a second chance to get Earth back from the Quintessons. Just because we're drifting further from Earth does not mean we are running away. We are running to get aid." Optimus paused to read the faces of the senior staff and the newly-appointed captains. Lakendra fought tears. Strike Back stared into his digitablet. Gryph wrote on hers and Titanium stared at the table top.

Optimus continued, "Ultra Magnus, have you completed your special assignment?"

"Negative."

"I have a new one. Find out what the devil happened to the landing gear on the Crested Moon. I am fed up with the mysterious circumstances and there had better not be any more of them. I want scout ships sent out from the Mozart, the Refractor and the Racing Beast. I also want better weapons detail from the Hanibal's Mark and the Confiscator. Anyone else have something else to say?" Optimus paused. "Say it now because I may not have time to deal with it later."

Captain Littlefield took a deep breath, now over her anger. "What-ah-what would you like us to do with Mister Witwicky?"

"Keep him in isolation," Roddi answered instantly. "He's not to have any visitors and if he gives you any crap, contact me immediately. By the way, Captain, how is Jasmine Goodwin?"

"Which one?" Littlefield rolled her eyes. "Doctor Zornoy keeps expecting her to die. But... one is a genius, the other is insane. And she keeps screaming."

No one offered answers or condolences. Goodwin's situation lay beyond science or medical help.

Optimus etched another note on his pad. "If there is nothing else at present, then we'll break here. Armored Crest, Cold Refractor, Hanibal's Mark and Interrogator, I want round-the-clock recon. We're going to need the field cleared for the rest of the ships. Hotshot, I'm leaving that operation in your hands. Do not be afraid to enlist EDC or civilian pilots if they've had training. Jazz, I know you have our backs."

"Damn straight!"

Optimus lifted his optics off the digipad and glanced from one side of the table to the other. "Meeting dismissed." he declared.

The Sunset Kummya

At the next available ship, they sent Rusti off the Racing Beast to new quarters on the Sunset Kummya. No sooner did she touch foot upon the landing bay when an older woman greeted her with a dour expression, a stern voice, an ID tag and her first work assignment.

"I am Julia Karnes. I am your level supervisor. Your quarters are listed here. You will find a map locator in the elevator. Do not lose your tag; it's the means to identify you if something goes wrong. Showers are allowed once every two days. Meals are at eleven AM and six PM. This is your work assignment. You will assist in the set up and upkeep of the new hydroponics division. Everyone has a job here. Everyone. If you refuse to work, you will not eat. Clear and simple. If you have a problem, we will address it. But everyone will work. Any questions?

Rusti shook her head. She stayed silent because she was delighted to work in a garden; far more interesting than laundry or dishes. "I do have one question," she said. "Why didn't we setup a garden on Cratis?"

Karnes lifted her right brow. Her voice stayed tight, almost monotone. "Cratian soil proved incapable of supporting earth plant life. Anything more?"

"No, Ma'am."

Rusti visited her future job site before seeking her new quarters. She wished she could have been assigned to the Crested Moon to spend a little time with Optimus. But under the circumstances, Rusti understood their relationship had to sit at the bottom of his priorities list. She chose to be adult enough to accept things as they were. No one was afforded special treatment and she didn't mind working. Besides, Rusti reminded herself, she's had some experience in gardening and that may prove useful.

Rusti found her quarters-such as they were. The Sunset Kummya's initial design intended everyone to have their own space. But all rooms and halls were modified to stack people, supplies and goods on top one another like grocery store shelves. Rusti was given middle bunk, sandwiched between two women not much older than herself. One lady, all arms and legs, slept under her, languishing with a blank expression. The woman above lay in a messy bed. Ink marks, scratches and crude drawings framed a photograph and driver's licence on the wall beside her.

"Hey, Bo," she called the gal below, "Looks to me we got Snow White bunking with us."

'Bo' rolled her eyes. "I hope you don't toss and turn," she said coldly. "I'm a light sleeper."

The girl above sputtered into laughter. That's right. She'll kick your ass, little girl."

Unintimidated, Rusti played right along. "Pfffp doubtful."

That got Bo's attention. "What's your name, Snow White?"

"Rusti. And Snow White had seven suitors and got her ass kicked by a poisoned apple." she flopped onto her mattress. "I don't do apples and I don't have seven suitors."

Bo frowned. "I don't got even one suitor."

The woman above groaned. "You got yourself a suitor, Rusti?"

"What?" Rusti said incredulously. "We're doing good surviving. You have one?" Rusti did not like how her mattress smelled. She scrunched her nose over the combined scents of WD-40 and sweat.

"Eh. Not a suitor," the gal at the top replied, "he just suits." Bo broke out laughing.

Rusti was not impressed. "So what's your name? Or what do they call you?"

"Name's Ruby. They call me The Ruze."

Rusti carefully kept the grunt out of her voice. "And what did you do for a living, Ruze?" Rusti would not have been surprised had Ruby declared herself a 'showgirl' or exotic dancer.

"Ah, you'd not believe me, Sweetie Pie."

Rusti peeked out and up, catching Ruby's dark eyes. "Do I look like a blonde to you?"

Ruby cracked with laughter. "Ah shit, no."

"So what did you do?"

"I was a paralegal." She smiled, pleased with Rusti's expression. "See? Told ya' you'd not believe me." Rusti smiled, glad she was wrong. But Ruby wasn't done yet. "So, Sweety, what did you do?"

"Went to high school."

"Come again?"

Bo wrestled with a pillow. "What?"

"Uh, yeah," Rusti reinforced. "Before the time jump. I was seventeen. Now I'm twenty-one and I'll be twenty-two in June."

"Get out!" Ruby leaned over and stared at Rusti upside down. "Where'd you go to school?"

"Cascade Prime High."

"Pfffp." Ruby hauled herself back up. "They got the meanest teachers there."

"You've been to Cascade?" Rusti thought she should have remembered seeing Ruby at least once.

"Hell, no! I took net school. Too much a wild child for them halls. I don't like class rooms. Can't sit still. But my kid sister went. Brutal." Ruby suddenly dropped silent. "She's gone now.

Rusti fell sad for her. "I know."

"You gotta kid sister?"

"No. I am the kid sister."

The conversation dwindled into sleep. Rusti had no sense of time and hoped the Kummya remained silent long enough for her to get descent rest.

"Hey, hey! Whoa, whoa, whoa! You can't just come on in here uninvited and all. You gotta have clearance, dimwit!" Rusti recognized Ruby's whiny voice and assumed she spoke with someone who tried to enter their room.

"I'm here to report to Miss Rusti." That was Galvatron's voice.

Rusti sat up and batted her eyes twice to make sure it was Galvatron that stared at her. She wondered how he managed to fit into their room and when her sleep-addled brain failed to add that equation, she scrunched her face. Galvatron smiled and wiggled his fingers in greeting. She propped up on her elbows and twisted her face with puzzlement. "Galvatron, I thought you were on the Spiral Star."

"You left without me," he immediately answered.

Ruby's motions caused the bunk to squeak slightly. "Hey, you guys friends?" she asked with casual tones. Bo said something else, but Rusti did not catch it.

"I did not leave," she answered the Decepticon. "They dragged me here. So how and why are you here?"

"I'm not supposed to be. I mean..." Galvatron's voice trailed and died when Rusti held her hand up for his silence.

"Um, let's take this outside, okay? Bo and Ruze need their beauty sleep."

Galvatron complied and they slipped into the empty corridor. Rusti winced with an oncoming headache and pushed the pain aside to concentrate on her charge. For a split moment, she wondered how she ended up taking charge of their Decepticon hitch hikers.

Oh, right. The Matrix did it. Or rather the Matrix did it through her... Galvatron struck the conversation anew, sparing Rusti the frustration of logic and rationality before her brain kicked in.

"Rodimus hates me. And I know I'm not supposed to run around by myself." Galvatron did not whine. His optics implored her like a clueless child.

Rusti frowned. "Rodimus hates everyone and I hope they assigned a crate for you. All pets have to be on a leash."

He did not respond to the joke. Galvatron's optics reflected concern and disquiet. "They said Cyclonus will not be up for several more days."

Rusti tried to read Galvatron's posture. "He was bleeding pretty badly, or so I heard. Will he be okay?"

"Oh, yes. Cyclonus... black holes cannot defeat him, he's-" Galvatron's burst of enthusiasm melted into dejection.

Rusti gave him a moment or two in case the Decepticon had something more to say. When he did not, she made ready to put her tattered jeans back on. "Did they assign a place for you to crash, Galvatron?"

"What?" Surprise proceeded realization and he nodded. "Oh, you mean rest. Well, officially, I'm not even here."

Rusti lost expression. "What?"

"They don't really know-"

"Galvatron, did you stowed away on the Kummya? And how did you get past security?"

"What security? They had a couple of teenage boys with plugs in their ears. This is not Magnus' ship, you know."

"Okay, okay. But how did you get off the Spiral Star? No. You know what? I don't want to know."

Galvatron turned cross, "I didn't attack anyone."

"That's not what I'm implying," Rusti answered gently. "It's just that I've not had a lot of sleep and if you give me a smart remark, I can't retaliate."

Galvatron smiled in honest gratitude. "Can I stay with you?"

"What? You mean sleep in the same room?"

"I promise not to steal the covers."

Rusti lifted her chin, closed her eyes and rocked on her heels. "I expect you to behave, Galvatron."

"I will."

And help out."

"I will."

She opened her eyes and slightly smiled. "We're going to build a garden center tomorrow. Can you handle that?"

"Are we planting Humans?"

While a group of engineers planned the hydroponics facility, workers of all ages and types labored diligently and quickly. They removed walls, supports and rearrange rooms, halls and corridors on the Sunset Kummya.

Rusti worked the third shift, assigned to remove and 'fold' utility walls. She, Bo, Ruby and Galvatron arrived fifteen minutes early.

"STOP RIGHT THERE, Decepti-crap! You are not authorized to be here!"

Rusti icily glared at the two EDC 'heros' who trained Targetmaster weapons on Galvatron. She approached one with gritting teeth. "He's with me, Stupid."

"He's not authorized-"

"Then you'd better do something about security in the docking bays, Georgy-Boy before I report this incident to Optimus Prime. Galvatron is under my guardianship. If you have a problem, I suggest you take it up with Magnus."

He leered in her face, "I'll do just that. Cuz you're under arrest."

"This is Ultra Magnus-oooh boy." Magnus stared upon two EDC personnel, their angry faces and Galvatron behind them. Standing beside the Decepticon, Rusti smiled, baring teeth.

"They didn't get the memo." she blurted before anyone else.

The blonde male captain at the left, shot her a snarl over his left shoulder. "Quiet." He peered at Magnus under a set of heavy brows. "This girl insists Galvatron was assigned under her care-"

"Yes, er, uh, Captain. That's right. However, I thought Galvatron was on the Spiral Star."

Rusti came to Galvatron's rescue: "He followed me here, Ultra Magnus. They just shipped me off the Racing Beast."

"Cyclonus?" Magnus asked informally.

Galvatron piped in: "Medbay. Spiral Star. Having far less fun than I."

Magnus took note that Galvatron scrunched behind Rusti as though she were a psychological shield. The city commander turned his attention to the EDC officers. "Captain, I don't see what the problem is-"

"He stowed away on the Kummya and did not declare or request permission-SOP... this is a breech of security!"

Magnus took that in. "Captain, the Kummya consists of sixty-four percent organics, most of which are of Humanoid physic. If a Transformer managed to sneak on board the Kummya it means the problem lies not with Galvatron, but your sorry lack of security and the discipline necessary to maintain it. That being said, the situation concerning Galvatron only reinforces the fact that Optimus and Rodimus were correct to instigate training for everyone.

"But-"

"As for Miss Rusti Witwicky, the commanding staff should already be aware that she is Galvatron's guardian and chaperon as apparently designed by Prime."

"Ultra Magnus-"

"IN WHICH CASE," Magnus interrupted, "if you have problem with that, you'll need to discuss it with one of them. Magnus out."

The EDC officers faced one another hoping for better answers before turning their consternation on Rusti and Galvatron.

As it turned out, Galvatron worked and cooperated very well with everyone. Rusti kept an extra eye on those less congenial with her charge. She was genuinely pleased how well Galvatron adapted to working. He joked lightly, if carefully, around the more hyper-sensitive and gracefully handled their less-than-courteous remarks.

Rusti helped set up a labeling system while others worked on irrigation. Galvatron followed her from plot to plot, staying mindful of those around them. He still could not resist setting her up for an absurd conversation. "So tell me, Mizz Witwicky, where are they getting the soil with which to bury the bodies?"

Rusti smiled as she applied labels using magnetic strips. "The body would be yours, Galvatron... if they didn't think you'd poison the plants. And I have no idea where the dirt is coming from."

"Hmm. Well, I'm not a gardener. Never understood why people get fixated over watching things pop up from the ground. However, as my memory serves, do not organic plants require nitrogen to grow?"

"Yes."

"And does that not often come from such things as animals?"

"Yes, Galvatron."

"But, Mizz Rusti, there are no animals with us."

Rusti paused in her work. She cast her eyes upon the contemplative towering giant and put on a shit-eating grin.

The ship-wide intercom called everyone to life at six A.M. Earth Pacific time. "Rise to shine, boys and ladies!" Came Magnus' less than sweet and melodious voice. "Out of bed in fifteen minutes and in the hallway! NOW!"

Rusti moaned, rolled over and slipped off the bed. She and Bo stumbled around, bleary-eyed and mute.

Galvatron sat half up and sneered at the intercom. "What the Pitt is he doing?"

"Drills, Galvatron," Rusti groaned. "Started day before yesterday."

"Oh."

"Here, hold this for me, would ya?" Rusti handed him her bra while she slipped on her jeans, tied her hair back and snapped out her ragged shirt. "Thank you." She tied on her shoes. "You'll stay here till I get back, won't you?"

"Is that an order or a request?"

Rusti raised squinted eyes at him. "Galvatron, don't make me hurt you."

"Okay."

Everyone started a full mile jog a before three-quarters of them hit the floor in exhaustion. Rusti only vaguely heard their drill instructor's words. She followed everyone else's actions while her groggy head struggled to keep up.

They practiced one series of moves a hundred times before everyone was dismissed to breakfast and back to 'dirt work'. Rusti heard complaints from every side and level. After surviving attack on the Frostbite, she decided not to complain. But Rusti preferred learning fighting/defensive moves to exercises. At least with Dinobot Football, running was fun.

The day closed and Rusti returned to her rock-hard bunk and flopped on her pillow. "I miss my room," she moaned. Expecting a remark from Galvatron, she rolled in his direction and found him sitting silent, optics dim, face emotionless. She watched him a moment more. "What did you do today?"

He did not respond right away. His optics flickered to life and he stirred with a great intake of air. "We worked on the recycling water systems along Level Three. By the way, Mizz Witwicky, Cyclonus sends his regards and apologies."

Rusti dragged a smile over her weary face. "That's very nice, Galvatron. But I am never flying with him again."

"He's very good at it. Better than Starscream, I think."

"He's a jet, Galvatron. How could he not be good at flying?" Rusti gathered her pillow under her chin as her sore frame slowly relaxed.

"Ramjet was not very good at it."

"Really?"

Galvatron intensified his gaze on her. "Just because something is or does a certain... thing, does not mean they're very good at it, Mizz Witwicky." he read her confused expression. "Take Humans for example. Would you not say that some people are better at being Human than others?"

"Maybe, Galvatron. It just seems silly to be something and not do it well."

"Dancers."

"Eh?"

"Not all dancers are good at dancing. Not all painters paint well. Same thing with Transformers. Just because you can shift into a car does not mean you can drive well."

She smiled, now understanding. "So, are you good at being a Decepticon?"

He thought about it. "No. I'm good at being Galvatron. I don't seem to be capable of being anything else."

Day Three. Magnus' bellowing vocals filled everyone's quarters. Rise to shine. Dress. Hit the hall. Run. Bodies fell by the wayside, exhausted and annoyed.

Work on the gardens. Break for meals. Work again. Break for meals. Retire.

Rusti dreamed of shouting people, clamor and disarray. Memories of the sister cities, filled the silent moments. Rusti now thought of them as naught but but hollow images in her mind.

Day Four. Drills. Work. Break. Sleep. Three more days on top of that. By the end of the week, most people accustomed themselves to the regimen. Some formed partnerships or split into cliques.

At the beginning of the following week, the Kummya's staff handed everyone replicated, uncharged laser rifles. Some adults protested about children receiving them but drill instructors did not bend. Children caught goofing off with the weapons were severely disciplined with a two-mile run and kitchen duty.

"We are not doing this to give you a toy," One tough lady DI strolled among her charges. "You will learn to take these apart, clean them and put them back together until you can do it in your sleep. And that's before we teach you to shoot." Her eyes fell upon one particularly disruptive young man. "If you cannot be grown up enough to respect the weapon, then you will be assigned to change diapers."

His eyes blew wide.

So they dismantled the laser rifle; a Constellation West .19. It weight lightly with three adjustable settings and battery packs. The Constellation utilized charged electrical clips and fired short, hot bursts of negative power. Used more as a stun gun (and thereby safer for children) it still came lethal at high settings; capable of burning a nice crispy hole in someone's car door.

They broke for meal. Rusti stared at her tray and picked at the crackers. She missed Optimus even if he were not more than a call away.

"Better eat," her bunk mate warned. "They'll drag you off and pump you full of meds."

"No they won't," she muttered.

Bo snorted and rolled her eyes, signs of discontent grew in her day by day. She crawled out of bed last, showered longer and picked arguments with Ruby so they constantly shouted at each other.

Speaking of Ruby-"hey, Girl," she said to Rusti. She plopped in the seat beside her and rolled out her silverware. "What I'd not do for a real home cooked meal! Fried chicken or something off the Bar-B-"

Bo snapped, "would you just shut up?"

"What?" Ruby dared. You want me to start in on fried babies? Hu?" Ruby half stood but Rusti laid a hand on hers.

"Stop. Stop." she contacted Ruby's resentful eyes. "Just... she's just not feeling well-"

"On her period or something, that it, girl? Huh?"

"None of your fucking business, Ruby."

"Oh! But it's alright for you to be rude to me? You're all Miss Queen 'round here; gotta take 'nuther shower," Ruby mocked with a raised pitch in her voice.

That annoying throbbing headache Rusti had not suffered in years struck up a nice home in her head. Her vision blurred while Bo shouted her response to Ruby's taunts.

"Piss on you, bitch! How about you find a nice hole in the wall and stick your head in it so your brains get sucked out!"

"Better that than getting stuck in a room with you!"

Rusti discreetly left the table as Ruby ended her insult with another foul word. Bo took her food tray and swaked it upside Ruby's head. With a scream of frustration, Ruby grabbed Bo's hair and the girls tried to grapple each other over the table.

Rusti did not stay to watch the ridiculous fight. She raced for their quarters. The half second she reached their tiny bathroom, everything in her stomach came up. Wilting before the toilet, Rusti heard the call to work.

A refugee's life sucked.

Ruby returned late and collapsed on her bunk. Rusti vaguely heard her but paid no attention to the woman's incessant sighs. After half an hour of flopping on her bunk and growling to herself, Ruby hung her head over the edge. "Ain't you even curious as to what happened? You did and took off an' all."

"No, Ruze," Rusti moaned. I'm not curious."

"An' why not?"

"Cuz it's between you and Bo."

Ruby flopped on her bunk again as if daring the bed to break. "I guess you don't give a damn about me, then," she pouted.

"No, Ruze. I'm just not well, that's all."

Ruby grunted. "Well, Girl, you outta be glad to hear Bo's been locked up for hittin' me."

Rusti couldn't care less. She did wonder where Galvatron disappeared to, however. Most likely the Decepticon kept himself busy, working hard and staying out of trouble. The young woman drifted to sleep while Ruby kept flopping on her bunk like a fish outside its tank.

The ship considered itself a space tank. A big one. Thousands of voices filled its halls and rooms. People came, left, worked and slept. The Sunset Kummya honestly did not mind the change to hydroponics. Nor did it mind operating as a human vessel. But there was something it did not appreciate. It's engines grinded under the unpleasant things.

Things? Things?

Not things. Events? Circumstances?

What?

Rusti rolled from her right side and stared at the bottom of Ruby's bunk. Her head pounded between an invisible hammer and an anvil. Her stomach burned and heaved and she almost did not make it to the bathroom again.

"Wha'?" Ruby moaned, half asleep. "You sick, girl?"

Rusti's stomach lurched and heaved until her eyes watered and nothing else came up. She sank to her knees, shaking. Ruby's voice rose and fell with demands, but Rusti could not answer even when Ruby trounced into the bathroom and shook her.

A few moments later an older woman entered and someone roughly forced Rusti off the floor and onto Bo's bed. They took her temperature, blood pressure, oxygen and white blood cell count.

"Well, frankly, I don't find anything wrong with you, Miss Witwicky." The old bird needled Rusti with suspicious eyes.

Rusti shivered and gathered the covers about her shoulders. She supposed they believed she faked her symptoms. And she might have convinced herself that had the old woman not taken a pen light and flashed it into Rusti's eyes. The young woman heaved again and vomited bile on the woman's pants and shoes.

The old hen lifted her right brow. "Okay. Good enough for me. Take her back to Zornoy."

Fortunately, Dr. Zornoy was on the Kummya, treating another patient suffering from acute tendinitis. He met Rusti, read her symptoms and checked her ears first.

"Are you allergic, Mizz Witwicky?"

"No," she murmured. The headache traveled down her spine and she slumped where she sat. The old woman spoke with a muffled and garbled voice.

The Sunset Kummya also sounded as though it were nauseated. Again, something about circumstance.

"Doctor..." Rusti said weakly. "You have to get me off the Kummya."

"Right you are, my dear," Zornoy snapped his fingers. You there, Galvazan!"

"Galvatron."

"Yes. Take up my patient here. We need to get her to the Crested Moon."

The Crested Moon

Stress.

"Nuh-uh." Rusti felt better as she lay in a quiet chamber. Galvatron sat in the corner, bored but composed.

"Yes. Yes and yes." the alien doctor insisted. He turned to Optimus. "so here you say she's suffered this before?"

The Autobot leader solemnly nodded. "She was very young at the time."

"Aye. I see. Well at that case, I leave her to something to eat, get some sleep. I'll be back in two days."

He left and Optimus knelt at her bedside. "Rusti," he mourned, "I'm so sorry. I simply did not think."

She nailed him crossly. "Stop it. I'm not dead. And I do not expect you to hover over me twenty-four-seven. I can handle myself. Besides, how do you know I wasn't just pretending so I could get on board the Crested Moon?"

"Because it's not in your nature," he replied evenly.

She peeled her gaze from him, unable to answer that. "Well... you have more important things than me to worry about. Besides, I have Galvatron to make fun of me." She smiled when her Decepticon charge softly grunted. "He's not going to sleep in the same room with me all the time, is he?"

"She's right!" Galvatron brightened. "I don't make a good pillow. And hers is too small. Can I sleep with you, instead?"

"Hey!" Rusti snapped, "back off, you big dork! He's spoken for!"

Optimus shook his head. "Sorry, Galvatron. I have no say in the matter. Can I get you a room of your own?"

"I don't know. Can you?"

Optimus turned to Rusti. "Can I?"

She slightly smiled. "Yes you can."

He relayed it to Galvatron: "Yes, I can." He moved to leave when her small warm hands caught him, tugging at his heart. Optimus knelt back, wishing he could spend more time with her. "Rusti..."

His soft voice blew through her and the young woman shivered. She stashed away thoughts not prevalent to the moment, no matter how her heat longed to spend more than a few scant moments with him. "Op-Optimus the um, the Sunset Kummya... there's something wrong."

"What?"

"I couldn't get a clear-I couldn't hear it very well. I guess I was too sick. But it was complaining an awful lot."

"I'll look into it."

Rusti heard. 'Sweetheart' in his voice, though he did not openly speak it. She relaxed and fluttered her eyes, batting back tears. [I miss you.]

[Miss you too, Love. Give me a little more time to get things organized. I promise to take a whole day off.]

Rusti smiled as her eyes closed for a long sleep. Prime drew the blanket about her then turned to his companion. "Come along, Galvatron. We have some snooping to do."

Rusti woke four hours later. Her head ached but not at the level it did on the Kummya. She mentally searched the Crested Moon's personality and found it settled and quiet. Rusti sighed. "Computer," she called, "where is Optimus Prime?"

Cartography. Redial and Alto bickered on navigational pathways while Optimus compared notes on his digipad and adjusted controls on the holographic projections before them. Rusti stepped just inside the doorway as Redial rerouted a course change to the right.

"There!" Alto declared, "See that?" The argument died. Redial and Prime stared at a blank blotch on the screen

"What is that?" Redial asked.

Alto shrugged. "It's neither accepting or rejecting energy. Energy flows around it. Yet you're saying it's not a singularity complex or a vortex."

"Cloaking device?" Optimus asked.

Alto teetered her head side to side. "Might be. But not the type of which I'm familiar. The energy signatures are weird."

"Coordinates?" Optimus waited while Alto and Redial triangulated the area. Prime took the moment to settle his gaze upon Rusti.

The young lady looked guilty. [my timing is bad. I'm sorry.]

[I'm sorry we can't seem to get a break. You can meet me on the bridge.] Optimus' optics dimmed.

"Found it!" Alto declared. "About one and a half parsecs from us. And, Commander, it's producing energy."

"Then we are looking at a force field." Prime deduced. "How far is it off our course to Yolthanis Three?"

"About two parsecs off the path," Redial reported.

"Optimus!" Alto gasped. "I just received word from the Hannibal's Mark. They've picked up what looks like an incoming object!"

Prime nodded, grateful for the distraction. "I'll be on the bridge." He stepped out and transformed. Rusti helped herself to the passenger's side and sat quietly.

"I hope whatever's out there is not a detriment." Optimus confided. "The last thing we need is more trouble."

"You can always just move away from it," Rusti weakly suggested. "Or you could blow it up."

"Not always a good plan, Rusti." They landed on the bridge where Hardhead bickered quietly with Duros. Linear greeted Prime with a digipad. "We're just now receiving datum from the Mark, Sir. Blaster is currently attempting communication on all hailing frequencies. Visuals uploading."

Alto arrived on the bridge as the view screen switched. A huge rectangular ship ghosted through space, half lit by a gaseous cloud and its own exterior lighting. Ice and dust caked its hull and smothered any origin markings.

Alto claimed her place at navigation and scan controls. "Negative readings on oxygen levels or life forms, Sir. Blaster reports no readings on either organic or mechanical living things."

"Hm. Is it empty?"

She relayed the question. "No, Sir." Alto answered after another pause. "Just nothing alive... organically-speaking."

"Give me ship-to-ship com, Alto."

"Aye, Sir."

"And tell Redial to report to duty. Now."

"Aye, Sir."

Gryph's voice warmed the bridge with her throaty voice: "Hey, Optimus. Seems we have something of a mystery on our hands. Shall I take a look?"

"Yes, Gryph. But don't limit your team just to Autobots. Report back in six hours."

"Gladly." a smile sang in her voice, clear and eager.

Optimus looked to Rusti again. She smile lightly as Redial stepped onto the bridge. "Alto," Optimus directed, "Inform the other commanders to keep their channels clear."

Redial answered instead. "We'll do, Optimus."

Alto shot him an acidic snarl. "He was talking to me."

"Well, I'm here now and I'll handle it," Redial argued with condescending tones.

"No, you won't." Alto carried out the orders without another word. Redial stared, confused and seethed silently.

Rusti slipped off the bridge and ventured the corridor toward the mess hall. The argument on the bridge left her with chills. She did not often witness blatant hostility between Autobots-that is, directly in front of their leader. Although, technically, Redial was a Paratron.

Lockout and Eclipse waved hello as they passed her. Rusti gave them a warm smile. She paused and watched them disappear into the bridge. Now she thought on it, spats between Autobots had slowly increased. Something changed in the collective dynamic among them and the young lady wondered if Optimus and Roddi noticed it too. Rusti abandoned her musings when a set of familiar metal footfalls caught up with her.

"Excuse me, Miss," came Optimus' voice, "Is the walkway beside you taken?"

She paused, slowly blinked and lifted her chin. "Not as long as there aren't any Decepticons dangling around."

"I missed you."

"Shh!" she hushed. "Don't say stuff like that. The Autobots will hear you and think of some way or reason to steal the moment."

"Right." he agreed reluctantly. "And you were going to mention a matter I needed to look into?"

"Yes. The gardens."

He stared. "The gardens?"

"The gardens, Optimus-the hydroponics on the Sunset Kummya?"

"Yes. What of them?"

"Well, they have soil. They have water. They even have ultra violet light."

"Yes."

"They don't have any fertilizer. Something you and Roddi probably didn't think about?" He said nothing, searching her eyes, clueless. "Optimus," she continued. "You do know about fertilizer, right?"

"Of course. I used it in my own gardens. I simply don't understand why it's a problem."

"We don't have any."

"It was supposed to simply be manufactured, Rusti. Fertilizer is just nitrogen-"

"No, Optimus. You cannot use Human nitrates to grow Human food."

"Ohhhh..." his great shoulders fell, his optics searched for a place of escape as embarrassment caused his optics to darken. "Oh boy."

"Yeah."

"I should have known that."

"Well... you and Roddi were a little preoccupied."

"Hmm. Well... come with me. We'll have to discuss this with Perceptor."

The Alien Space Craft

Gryph silently bemoaned her duty as commander of the Hannibal's Mark. She yearned to explore the derelict ship, to step into the unknown. But she could not leave her ship. The Hannibal's Mark was one of few vessels fully capable of protecting other ships such as the Spiral Star. She extended the opportunity to Kup, who commanded the Vertical Horizon. But mired in a billion responsibilities, the former security officer could not take command of an away team, either; not while they had a saboteur lurking among them. He submitted the offer to Convoy.

Convoy proposed the opportunity to her former second-in-command, Cloudstreaker. Crosshairs, Arcee, Fineliner, Tortus and Highbrow made up the rest of their team.

"Keep it tight and brief," folks," Convoy told her team. "We want to gather as much info in the shortest period of time. I will remain in one location. The rest of you spread into a half-mile radius only."

They split into teams of two and spread in three directions. Arcee tagged and lagged behind Cloudstreaker. At first Fort Horizon's former second-in-command did not notice her companion's languid participation until they encountered a room stocked floor to ceiling with huge, sturdy metal crates.

"Wait a minute," she called, "I'm registering sealed organic materials." She held a moment then two before searching Arcee for affirmation. "Arcee?"

"Hmm?"

"Did you find anything different?"

"Oh..." Arcee produced her scanner and regarded the room with distracted interest. "I'm getting readings of various proteins. There's complex sugar molecules and something resembling wood fiber." She sent a befuddled gaze to Cloudy. "What sort of place was this?"

Cloudstreaker shook her head. "This can't be right, though. The Hannibal's Marks' long-range scanners did not pick up organic matter.

Arcee lifted her optics. "Maybe the dust outside the ship has something to do with it.

Cloudy only shrugged. They navigated through one room then another. Each contained the same heavily sealed cargo. Not once did the femmes encounter people-robotic or otherwise.

"Convoy to away team. Ten-minute status report."

"All clear, Captain," Cloudstreaker announced first. "No sign of crew, alive or dead. But Arcee and I have found stacks of crates containing organic materials. Possibly supplies."

"Copy that, Cloudstreaker. Wait. Did you say 'organic'?"

"Aye, Captain. Complex organic material, but defiantly organic."

"Copy that," Convoy acknowledged. "Continue recon."

The ladies tapped down two flights of stairs and entered another dark, cold room. Great blocks of dried ice contained slabs of meat, vegetables, weapons and oddly enough, furniture.

"This is just strange!" Cloudstreaker grimaced in disbelief. "You know Ultra Magnus and I saw similar stuff on Cratis when we rescued the Cold Refractor. The crew were locked into some sort of stasis. Doesn't seem like a good way to travel through space, does it?"

Arcee gazed at the monolith casing containing tree saplings. A series of monitors bolted into the ice indicated the integrity of the frail organic matter. Ah, if only it were possible to put Daniel in such a state! At least 'popsicle Daniel' could not harass her.

Cloudstreaker's hand laid on Arcee's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Arcee. I know I'm not the brightest bird in the batch. But I can tell something's bugging you."

Arcee's visual focus drifted elsewhere, ashamed. She failed to keep her problems off her face. At first she didn't want to say anything. "I ...I talked about it with Optimus before we left Cratis. But he and Rodimus have either been too busy or too sick to do much more than hold us together. I, um..." she forced a smile, "...have a pest problem."

Cloudstreaker slowly nodded once. "Um,...Daniel... it's Wik-Wikitus?"

Arcee lit up, amused by Cloudy's mispronunciation. "Yes!" But just as fast as Arcee smiled, her face and shoulders drooped. "Oh, but you won't tell anyone, will you?" It's-I know it's ridiculous that someone like me has been... affected so deeply by someone so... so..." Her optics latched onto the ice monolith.

Cloudstreaker took her hands. "Everybody knows that you and Daniel Wik-Wickitus were a Headmaster. That's not a secret. And it's no secret he's turned into some sort of clot. I saw him attack his daughter. I thought Rodimus was going to do something worse than kill him."

Arcee shrugged, yet unable to look her coworker in the optic. "He may do so yet." Arcee tried to lift her face into a smile but failed. "He...Daniel floods my datatablets and digipads with..." she paused. "He's just mean. And no matter what I do, he gets around my security codes, passwords and actually crashed one of my pads."

"That's not right." Cloudstreaker said gently. "Have you said anything to anyone?"

Arcee scoffed, exasperated. "How could I? Look at us! We're the size of buildings to them and yet I don't know how to deal with this! I used to love Daniel. I loved the child and when I think of him, it's always the boy I think of, not the Human monster. I just wish he'd leave me alone."

"Oh, Hon!" Cloudy laid a hand on Arcee's shoulder. "Sounds to me like you need a gal-pal." she read sadness in Arcee's expression and decided to take her offer one step further. "You know, I happen to know how to trace rudimentary transmission signals. I might be able to help you with some of those pesky messages."

Arcee hesitated only a moment. With pleading optics, she handed Cloudstreaker her scanner and pad. Expectation gave her enough strength to compose herself.

Cloudstreaker read the digipad and winced at the latest messages from Daniel. His beastly letters routed into Arcee's pad frequency from an undisclosed source. There was, however, one small clue. A d/:-coma_D docked the top portion of the readout. Cloudstreaker scrolled down the page and balked at the crude, unrepeatable message Daniel sent Arcee.

The Dancing Siren

Optimus and Rusti politely waited on the scientist. Perceptor attended a patient whose initial emergency repair work turned haywire and gave the poor Paratron an awful tick. Rusti made the most of their time reiterating her experience with Bo and Ruby. Optimus listened as he signed incoming reports by digipad.

"Survival never guarantees luxury or happiness, Rusti."

"I've sort of figured that one out," she replied sharply. "You said we're headed for Yolthanis Three."

"You'll love it there. They grow the best flowers."

"And is that why you chose to regroup there? Visual therapy?" She read the smile in his optics; a hint of mischief.

"I have 'visual therapy' sitting in front of me."

She blushed for him. "Flattery will get you a stip show."

"Will that include a song and dance?"

She considered that. "The dance is extra."

Optimus fell silent and still. Rusti guessed someone contacted him over an inter-com channel. Her eyes wandered around the lab. Crates and tool boxes refrigerator and heating units lined another. It dawned on her how much a neat freak Perceptor really was. A large view screen contained row upon row of Autobot writ in a tiny script.

Unscheduled, unauthorized trespassing.

Rusti blinked and flinched. Where did that come from? She searched the corridor as though expecting her answer to appear on the walls.

Perceptor approached as he rubbed his hands clean with a stained towel. "Ah, I was trying to recall the reason for your visit, Prime."

"The hydroponics on board the Kummya."

"Ah. Yes. Er, what of them?"

"They need nitrates." Optimus answered. Rusti thought he tried to keep the 'guilty-as-charged' out of his voice.

"Well, we'd just use Human 'resources' for such a dilemma," Perceptor said it as though it were a song.

Rusti rolled her eyes. "Excuse me," She smiled when both robots nailed her with attentive optics. "I don't mean to sound condescending, but how could the two of you have lived on Earth as long as you have and never realized that 'people pee' is never used in food production?"

Perceptor feigned smugness."I have never explored the science of botany nor have I had the time to tinker with herbology. Autobots do not use or need C12H2O11."

Perceptor used the chemical formula for sugar to throw her off. But Rusti already had chemistry and followed him just fine. "Okay. Well, um, then, we're going to need to come up with a substitute. Otherwise without fertilizer or mulch, the plants will starve to death."

Perceptor glowered at both of them and folded his arms. It did not take a genius to read he had better things to do. Rusti subtly took a step then two or three backwards. "Er... I think the only botanist we have is already on the Kummya. Perhaps we'll discuss that problem there."

"An ingenious application, Miss Witwicky. Please excuse me." Perceptor turned about face and retreated deeper into his lab.

Rusti and Prime stared after him. Rusti tried to think of another solution. "You know, Optimus, it might be possible to find nitrates in the asteroid belt. After all, isn't an asteroid thought to be the remnants of a failed planet?"

A call via second sub-space lines spared Optimus the necessity of explanation. He answered the message and turned to his love. "The away team has returned ahead of schedule. Shall we see what they've picked out from the store?"

The Hannibal's Mark

Galvatron tagged along but had little to say. Rusti was sorry he had little to nothing to do except follow her around. Were he a child, it'd clearly be a matter of reading, school work or some sort of game. Still, unlike most people when bored, Galvatron refrained from frowning. It pleased Rusti that he maintained such good poise. That was until she, Optimus and Galvatron entered the exam room where Rodimus instinctively went for his rifle.

Galvatron's expression curled into a Cheshire grin and Rusti inwardly moaned, bracing for the war of words. Rodimus withdrew hand from gun and neutralized his expression.

"Well! Look what the roachbot dropped on us!"

"Something good looking." Galvatron replied smoothly. "It obviously knew you were lonely, R.P. and sent me to rescue you."

The blank look on Roddi's face could not have been more priceless. "Did... no, you did not! Did you just call me R.P.?"

"Not initially, Galvatron answered. He pointed to Optimus.

Rodimus followed the pointed finger to the Head Hancho and narrowed his optics in displeasure. Optimus, meanwhile found immense interest in the salvage brought in by the away team. Rodimus approached the senior Prime and stared. Optimus pretended not to notice until he reached for a digitablet.

He acted as though nothing happened. "What?"

"You're an instigator! R.P.?"

"Ridiculously Primitive?"

"You know what I'm talking about!"

"Romance Police?"

"Not funny."

"Recycled Pinhead?"

Rodimus held his hand up. "I am not speaking to you for the rest of the day."

As Rodimus retreated to stand next to Cloudstreaker, Convoy, Tortus and Fineliner gathered about the table loaded with alien artifacts.

Optimus attended, light with amusement and fascinated at the new find. "Report."

Convoy took a thick digipad from Tortus' hands and gave it to Prime. "Well, as you can see, we've found a few useable items. It seems the ship's crew has completely and inexplicably disappeared, leaving a vessel of materials obviously meant for colonizing."

"Did you find the ship's logs?"

"Sort of. The language is not in our databanks."

Optimus glanced at the pad then examined the number of materials in front of him: plants, seeds, tools, books, photographs and medical equipment.

Rodimus neared the table and poked at a package pictographically labeled as fruit tree seeds. "You know what gives me the willies about this is how all this stuff is in such pristine condition. If the crew encountered pirates, there'd be none of this left."

Optimus nodded. "Almost as though they were transported right off the ship."

"Yeah!" Rodimus paused half a beat. "I don't think we should touch any of this until we know what we're dealing with. Convoy, scour that ship for more info. We'll put someone to work here to test this stuff."

Rusti turned to Galvatron. "Excuse me, may I please have a lift to the table?" Galvatron obliged her with a smile. Rusti glanced at Rodimus who watched the Decepticon with predatory optics.

Rusti picked her way along the length of the table, feeling like a Barbie doll. She peered through glass cases containing vials of colorful liquids. Tools, material for clothing and a few odd pieces of furniture covered the table. Then Rusti found what she hoped

Convoy's party picked up; a computer. The good thing was the species in question were apparently smaller than Transformers, but larger than Humans. The objects, while large, weren't overwhelming and unreachable.

Optimus, who still sifted through various away team reports, heard her open the latches containing the unexplored machine. "Rusti, what are you doing"

The machine was about as big as her whole body and she grinned, amused. She released the final latch and the personal data controller (computer) unfolded on its own. The consol lit with bright blue buttons in a triangular shape while the 'screen' floated above in a holographic projection.

Rusti laid her hands on the consol and closed her eyes. She 'read' the machine operations before looking to Cloudstreaker. "This uses binary. It might be possible to connect this to the ship's computer and translate from there. But um..." she scanned a little deeper. "This is a child education tool. It can't tell you what happened on the ship."

Cloudstreaker stared while Convoy scrutinized the alien computer first then the Human interpreter. "You figured all that just by touching it?"

Optimus smiled lightly outside but inside he beamed. [Will you marry me?]

Rusti struggled not to crack up with laughter. She coughed into her elbow to maintain poise.

Galvatron stepped up and stared into the holographic projected shapes of a triangle, a circle and a square. He too stared at Rusti. "Will you teach me how to do that?"

"No," she answered firmly. "I don't want you to learn to do funny things to Roddi."

"I do not need to lay my hands on him to do that, Mizz Rusti. In case you've not noticed, it'd does not take much to piss him off."

Rodimus glared. "That's not true."

"No?"

"No," Rodimus confirmed. "But I'll make an exception in your case."

Galvatron leaned back toward Rusti. "I think he's warming up to me." He gave Roddi another glance. "Well... thawing out might be a better description."

"Sorry, Galvatron," Rodimus' voice dropped to unamused. "You're not pretty enough for that sort of attention."

Galvatron stared, clearly confused.

Convoy broke the moment with an impatient frown. "Commander," she addressed both Primes, "with your permission, I'd like to keep the computer device for analysis. I can leave Cloudstreaker at your disposal if you'd like."

Tortus examined the frozen plants and seeds before noticing Rodimus' stare. He read an unspoken question in his leader's optics. "There may be enough compatibility between this alien botanical variety and the Earth vegetation," he suggested. Tortus produced a small datatablet from subspace and swiftly calculated his thesis. "Unfortunately, it will take several days to find the absolute answer. We'll need to plant the seeds in order to be certain."

Optimus privately liked the idea of a delay. "Exactly how many days are we looking at, Tortus?"

"You cannot rush plant growth, Optimus Prime. The seed must soften and feel comfortable before germinating. The sprout needs to take in nourishment and build a reliable root system before it can move above the security of the soil. The leaves must learn how to use light and mature. A solid time line might be as long as fourteen days, if we're lucky. And this flora, coming from an entirely different planet, may have extra secrets. You just can't assume."

Optimus stared at the array of mystery items before him, debating. He did not need Tortus to tell him about gardening. He calculated it may take several days for Gryph and her crew to complete their research. The fleet would remain stationary in the asteroid field a little longer. "Very well. Take the seeds to the Mozart. I don't want any possible cross-contamination that could end in disaster. No further exploration of the alien ship until we know what we're dealing with."

Optimus put Grotesque in charge of the Crested Moon for the rest of the day. He left strict orders not to be disturbed-even if another ship were to self-destruct or implode.

Optimus formally invited 'Miss Rusti' to attend a meeting on the observation deck. But said nothing more about it.

Thinking it had something to do with Galvatron and Cyclonus, Rusti gathered her brown, borrowed, tattered EDC jacket, ran a brush through her hair, bound it and left fifteen minutes early.

Upon arriving, she did not see an extra long, Autobot-sized table. No one occupied the room, not even Galvatron. But Optimus stood toward the far-end of the room. The lights dimmed so the starscape outside the huge pane of windows glowed and glittered majestically. Rusti's heart skipped a beat.

"Miss Rusti?" Optimus said sweetly. "Dinner for two?"

Her cheeks burned so that her skin was as red as her hair. Her lips tingled. Rusti stepped in and the doors closed quietly. She dropped off the jacket as she neared the step-down area. Optimus changed the room so that a dias rose, bearing a table and comfortable chair before the large picture windows.

The young lady laid a hand on her chest as a shiver coursed through her body. The table, small enough for two, contained a small dinner, a lovely blue table cloth and next to it sat a flagon of energon. The biggest smile lit her face. "I don't know what to say," she said in a humble, quiet voice.

"Then I did it correctly," Optimus replied in kind. With a finger under her hand, he led her to the table and helped her to the chair. He settled on the floor several steps down so they were now face-to-face rather than she looking up, him looking down.

Rusti let her eyes feast on the setting before smiling. Sitting back, she crossed her arms and stared. The smile did not leave. "How was your day?"

"In a word: typical." he replied smoothly. "Rusti," his voice dipped; a verbal massage. "I wanted to show you an apology rather than simply saying it. You have a right to be angry with me for sending you to Concentric City."

Rusti's eyes swept the skyscape then returned to him. "I'm not mad about that, Optimus. I will say that I hope you'll not make me ride with Cyclonus ever again. Bronco horses don't hold a finger compared to his flying. But the Inoux attack was not your fault. However... going to Mars was a bad idea, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Optimus affirmed humbly. "Going to Mars was a bad idea."

"And the rendevous on Cratis was not so brilliant, either, was it?"

"It was not the prettiest idea." he concurred. "The plan was set up years before you were born. Had I not been quite so distracted, I might have considered asking other sources for a better location. But sometimes, when the rug gets pulled out from under you, the best thing to do is start with something familiar."

She read his expression, searching for forgiveness. "Well, it's not your fault. You and Roddi have been through hell. I don't know how you put up with so much. But I love you. And I missed you."

Optimus slightly bowed his head, optics diverted to his right. "I hope so, Rusti." he said softly. He gazed back with a sad light in his face. "Because unrequited love is a painful thing to live with."

The Dancing Siren

Optimus gave Galvatron clearance to visit Cyclonus. Perigee fussed over Cyclonus' chart and asked him if he needed anything three times before Galvatron eyed her with cold optics. She left and he settled into a chair beside the berth. Cyclonus finished his report from Concentric City and turned to his life-long friend.

"You need not worry, Galvatron. I am functional and at the moment, adequately comfortable."

"Perhaps, Cyclonus," Galvatron answered. "But I am bored and lonely."

Cyclonus knew what he could say to that but chose not to. How is the girl?"

"Rusti? Ornery." he watched Cyclonus' lips twitch with suppressed amusement.

The Lieutenant tapped the digipad with his thumbs.

"I cannot figure out why the Inoux let us go. Clearly they have superior firepower. I almost cannot outrun them-"

"Cyclonus, what makes you think they let you go? According to Rusti, they fired on you."

"Yes. Apparently before Ultra Magnus came to the rescue. They were-" Cyclonus cut his sentence off and Galvatron followed his friend's line of sight to the doorway and Rodimus who leaned against the post like a spying teacher.

"I'd ask what was going on, Galvatron, but I'm afraid I'd not like the answer."

Galvatron stood, his game face in place. "Rodimus Prime! What, by the nine galaxies, brings you here? Very nice of you to visit my disabled friend."

"Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Step outside. I wanna talk to you."

"Heh!" Galvatron grinned, knowing the conversation wasn't about talking. He winked at Cyclonus who looked concerned. "I'll visit later," he promised.

Galvatron found Rodimus standing in a corridor three levels down out of 'earshot' and most sensor ranges. Just to be annoying, Galvatron leaned against the wall, copying Rodimus' posture. "It's nice to have a tet-a-tet with my fans, Rodimus, but did it have to be in such a remote location?"

"Don't you ever just shut up?" Roddi's optics darkened.

"I suppose so," Galvatron shrugged. "But I've never tried."

"You know, Galvatron, I don't know what you did or said to initially gain Optimus' trust, but I assure you it won't work with me."

"I hope so, Rodimus. You're not the same Prime."

Rodimus pushed himself from the wall. "Do you think you're cute? This isn't some game, Galvatron! You're playing with someone else's mind, their spark. I gotta say that this is a new low for you."

"No one is playing anything, Rodimus."

"Bullshit."

"No," Galvatron insisted. "I did not come here with dishonorable intentions."

"You speak of honor?"

"Oh, here we go," Galvatron moaned.

"You are a Decepticon. What could you possibly know about honor? How many lives did you ruin, Galvatron? How many people died by your hand? How many more died as a result of your malevolence?"

"Guilty as charged, Rodimus. You are right."

"Are you trying to placate me, now?"

"Well, I suppose I could deny it all; tell you that I'm not that same person. But since my name is Galvatron, clearly, I am that person. I should have died when Skorponok and the other Decepticons blew me to pieces. But I didn't. So here I am, in all my dark and sinister glory, all the more to annoy you with... RP."

"You call me that one more time and I'll kick your aft!"

Galvatron grinned. "You're just looking for a way, a time and an excuse to kick my aft!"

"DAMN STRAIGHT!"

"Then what are you waiting for, Rodimus? Come and get it!"

Rodimus charged then in mid-movement, pulled back, jerking his body away from the target. "Na-uh!" he shouted. "I know exactly what you're planning, Pal!"

"Really?" if Galvatron had eyelids, he be blinking innocently.

Rodimus folded his arms and cast his face in stone irritation. "If I hit you, you go to Rusti and get me into trouble. I'm not falling for that."

"Oh, nonsense!"Galvatron scoffed. "You cannot tell me you fear a Human more than me! Come on, Rodimus! I'm the monster!" Just for emphasis-and a private joke, Galvatron growled.

Rodimus was not laughing.

Galvatron rolled his head in resignation. "Fine. Have it your way." He threw the first punch.

Rodimus kissed flooring and suddenly wondered why he tried so hard to instigate a fight. "Ow," he grunted.

Galvatron stood over him, fists on hips. "Come on, Wussy-boy. Don't make me start monologuing."

A devil's grin swept across Prime's face and he kicked Galvatron's shins. Galvatron buckled on top and they rolled in a loose wrestle. Rodimus wrapped his hands about Galvatron's neck, thumbs along the mandible.

"You've been asking for it since you got here."

"You're just jealous because my smart remarks are better than yours!" Galvatron shoved his head against Roddi's and rolled away. He bounced up, turned his rear to Roddi and wiggled. "Woohoo!" he sang.

"Now you're making fun of me." Rodimus snarled.

"No. Not yet." Galvatron flew above the Autobot's head and floated on his side, helm supported by his hand "Now I'm making fun of you. Autobots can't fly, can't jump and in your case, can't fight."

Roddi's goat was got and he leapt high, grabbed Galvatron by the feet and yanked.

Galvatron yelped with surprise and lost his balance. The two hit the floor with a not-so-graceful crash. Rodimus pinned his wily opponent to the wall first then called up his weapon. "Well, I still say once a Decepticon always a dickhead."

Galvatron lifted his optics from charged weapon to unhappy Autobot leader. "You know what your real problem is, Rodimus?"

"Educate me."

"You're upset that you have no legitimate excuse to kick my aft. I'm not all sinister and mean and it sticks in your craw like a glob of bad oil. All those years of having nothing but Quintesson ooze to mop up have left you a little trigger happy. And I'm sorry that after looking forward to kicking the smelt out of me, you find you really don't have a reason to do so-"

"I don't trust you, Galvatron. And in my datatablet, that's reason enough."

"Oh, come on!" Galvatron groaned. "You're not telling me that somewhere in that squishy-soft little Autobot spark of yours you're not wishing that the Decepticons could be nice for once? You know... peace and good will in the universe?"

"I look at you, Galvatron and all I see is the cold gleam of a white monster. I know that under that powerful remade frame vibrates the spark of the Slag Maker. I hear the screams and cries of millions of Autobots. I grew up watching in untold horror as one city then another fell under Decepticon rule. Make no mistake, Megatron, I know you. I know who and what you are. And you cannot tell me that you can just roll over and change into Mister Decepti-Goody-Two-Shoes. I don't buy it."

Galvatron stared at Rodimus' angry, ugly expression. He calmly pushed Rodimus' gun away without losing optical contact. "Tell me... Hot Rod when did you die and grow up? Was it the moment of Optimus' death? Was it the moment you realized you had to be the Chosen? Or was it the moment you learned to hate?"

Rodimus could not move. Too angry to let go, too upset to pull the damned trigger.

"I know what it's like," Galvatron continued, "The slow burning fire of disgust. Disgust with your own weakness. Facing a future wrought with grief, frustration and fear. You try to turn away, turn it into something less than it is. But eventually, all the distress, the death and suffering eats you alive. Your judgement came in sorrow. Mine, by pain."

Galvatron inched closer to Roddi's audio: "you have a right to hate me. No matter how I've changed. Because neither of us can change the past."

The Crested Moon

Rusti lay quietly beside Optimus. They talked for hours. The subjects they covered melded from home sickness to a few stories about Rusti's grandfather to reports Optimus read regarding the destruction of other Autobot fortress-cities. They talked until she drifted to sleep. Not long thereafter, he too fell to gentle darkness.

Now Rusti lay on a makeshift bed on the cold floor, a pillow under her head. She stared out the observation deck windows into the great cosmos. She absent-mindedly caressed Optimus' arm while her mind wandered from thought to memory. In the distance, the Cold Refractor floated; as serene a view as a lone sailboat upon calm waters. She thought how her past seemed so surreal now; as though her life and home on Earth were nothing but a fading dream. While at present, her life was not easy by any measure, Rusti counted herself better off than most refugees. Certainly they were not starving or lacked medical treatment. Most children attended a makeshift school in the evening hours.

But the situation as a whole produced instability. The instability created an air of uncertainty. That uncertainty often produced fear among the beleaguered refugees. Most Autobots who survived one war or another on Cybertron took the 'challenge' in stride, making the most of what they had in the time of crisis.

Rusti wasn't so sure she handled it well. Being homeless drilled holes into her and filled her with a sense of displacement; she belonged nowhere. At least her concern for Optimus and Roddi grounded the young lady enough to see her to the end of the day. They were all homeless and vulnerable. Not one of those races who worked and traded with the Autobots stepped up to help. Not one except Lunarphyte's ambassador.

Clearly true friendship and loyalty could not be bought even in business and politics.

Rusti narrowed her eyes. It ticked her off to remember all the other nations and planets to whom the Autobots extended aid. Why wouldn't at least one person or planet outside Ambassador Koontah offer assistance? Were they all cowards?

Rusti thought of the Inoux. Maybe they were the very reason.

She drew a deep, cold breath and lightly touched her lips to the warm smooth surface of Optimus' metal. The only peace he found came in sleep. But as he recently confessed, his rest often came with nightmares. Fragments of memories twisted into dreams of things he could not describe.

She ached for him.

Unscheduled, unauthorized trespassing.

Rusti lifted her eyes to the ceiling, listening carefully. The 'voice' came distant but familiar.

Second time. Unauthorized. Do not break the lock.

That was not the Crested Moon. Rusti propped herself on her elbows. Where did she hear that before?

Unscheduled, unauthorized trespassing.

"...the Kummya?" she whispered. "Optimus," Rusti gently called. "Hey. Love? The Kummya said there's an intruder." Rusti sadly watched as the Autobot leader, who used to be so alert, so ready for anything, sluggishly sat up and covered his optics.

"Where, exactly?" he asked with effort.

The Sunset Kummya

Littlefield eyed everyone like an irritated cat ready to kill. Drox, her first officer, leisurely scanned for residual energy signs then shook his head.

"I'm sorry. I simply am not getting any readings."

Littlefield rolled her eyes. Dark circles on her face indicated lack of sleep contributing to her less-than-amiable mood. She scowled at Prime. "Where did you say you got this information?"

"I can't disclose that. But I am confident the information is accurate."

Drox scoffed. "Well, my equipment says otherwise. So if you'll excuse me, I have another assignment to attend."

Rusti waited at the end of the hallway, hands in her EDC-issued jacket. She rolled her eyes. [Is truth?] she asked the Kummya.

Event verified by theta-thermal scan. Floor panel twenty-six.

Drox turned to leave and Rusti swiftly joined them. "Excuse me," she called. "But you're scanning the wrong area."

Drox scowled, drilling her with his optics. "Excuse me... ma'am. But my equipment is not lying to me."

Rusti returned his stone-icy glare with one of her own. "Floor panel twenty-six. Check the wield points with a theta thermal scan...sir."

He stared at her until Optimus crossed his arms. "Drox? Are you going to stand there all day?"

"No, sir." he snarled in turn. The Paratron located panel twenty-six and sure enough, the hand-scanner's alarm called everyone's attention. Drox shook his head. "I don't see how this is possible. The ship's scanners should have picked it up."

Littlefield gave the panel a suspicious glare. "Not if the action took place while the computer was down for maintenance."

Drox nodded in agreement. "I'll look into it, Captain."

"Negative," Lakendra Littlefield responded defensively. "I'm in command. It's my responsibility. You," she directed at Rusti, "can we have a word?"

Optimus remained behind to keep an optic on the workers.

Littlefield led Rusti into a small, secluded room filled with crates and crates of toilet paper. The captain secured the door behind them and folded her arms. "Explain."

"Explain what?"

"Don't play Snow White with me, little girl. I want to know who told you about the problem."

"No one told-your ship told me. And don't call me Snow White."

"What do you mean the ship told you?"

"I can hear the Autobot ships talk. They don't talk to me, but I hear-"

"You mean the computer?"

"No. The computer controls the ship functions-like a train. But the physical ship itself has its own personality. They are, after all, made by Transformers."

Littlefield weighed the revelation. "Can you speak to it?"

Rusti nodded. "It's a little crude. This isn't exactly something I do on a regular basis."

"Good. Well, maybe you can help us hunt down other potential problems."

Rusti gazed out the corners of her eyes. "Such as?"

Littlefield shook her head, lined her lips. "Can't get the water system going. Can't figure out what's wrong. It'd eliminate at lot of guess work if you'd ask the Kummya what's going on."

Rusti nodded in consent. "But you'll have to put with Galvatron."

"I do not have anything against Galvatron unless he starts raving and shoots everyone."

The Dancing Siren

Sideswipe stirred from shutdown. His customary corner radiated warmth from his own body heat. Compared to the rest of the room, it was cozy. All lights glowed dimly to conserve energy and keep Sunstreaker from overload. One soft light blessed the birth on which Sunny's disabled chassis lay. But First Aid made extra sure all lighting remained indirect, even during repair work. Sunny had neither strength nor capacity to deal with anything too loud, too bright, too hot or cold. Even touching him too much upset his ability to respond to treatment.

Sunny hummed. Sideswipe listened carefully. His brother's voice-what there was of it-vibrated clipped and cracked. But the remnants and fragments of a song spouted through. It was a song only Sideswipe recognized; an old, overused tune; one he never liked.

Sideswipe turned and hesitated to be extra sure. "Sun?" his own voice pathetically cracked and spat with a portion of static. "Sunny?" Sideswipe turned, stiff and aching from hours to days from lack of movement. He slowly pushed off the floor, walking at first like a tree, slow and graceless. He approached the berth which resembled more a large water pan with vital fluids partially covering Sunny's broken and incomplete form.

Sideswipe could not decide if his brother's survival was a miracle or a horrible form of torture. Certainly Sideswipe did not want his brother-half his own spark-to die. But seeing Sunny in such a pitiful, inglorious state was more than he could handle.

Sunstreaker hummed again, his vocalizer cracked at the high notes and vibrated badly with the low ones. He stared at nothing, his mind drifted along the valleys and plateaus of his memories.

"Sunny?" Sideswipe said cautiously. "Sunny? Why do you hum that tune? You an' me...we've not ever talked about that place for hundreds of years-even before Earth." Sideswipe smiled to himself, though the smile came insipid and trembled. "Maybe you're getting better, huh? You and me; we'll be road racing again soon. You and me, Sunny. The Terrible Two. Magnus' Twin Bane. It just hasn't been the same without you, Sunny. Primus-damn I miss you! I-I can't seem to pull myself together. I can't function without you. I know you can't wait to get out of here. You will. I know."

"No."

Sideswipe almost did not hear it. "Whaddya mean 'no'? Are you getting all punk on me?" Sideswipe snorted but inwardly, he leaped for joy. Maybe Sunny's defiance was a good sign. "Coping an attitude with me! After all I've suffered...too..."

Sunny's attention drifted and he hummed again. The same dreadful tune rang eerily in Sideswipe's audios. Sideswipe shuddered and backed off, confused. Perhaps the ordeal had damaged his brother mentally. Yeah, that had to be it. But, yet...why? Why that song?

The Crested Moon

Rusti forced her weary self into and out of the elevator. Dragging feet took her to her new quarters: the Moon's observation deck. The young lady shed her jacket and wished for the billionth time for a bottle of aspirin.

"Computer," she called, "I need to locate Galvatron." The communication bounced between three ships before the former Decepticon leader appeared on the view screen.

"Busy and out of trouble, the Decepticon promised. His voice produced a strange pitch, as though strained by pain.

"Did you hurt yourself somehow, Galvatron?"

"Hurt myself?" he echoed. "No. No. Erm... just... lost in an arm wrestling match with someone named Granite."

Rusti couldn't believe her ears. "You... lost? Or did you just decide to be nice about it?"

"Nice?" Galvatron scoffed. "Are you serious? There was nothing nice about it! He tried to pick a fight. I was... disinclined to oblige him. So we did a ...an arm wrestling match and I lost."

"On purpose." Rusti added assumptively.

"Well... yes."

She hesitated, weighed her words. "I know it is hard for you to keep a low profile, Galvatron. But I appreciate it."

"As long as it makes you happy, Mizz Rusti." he answered in pleased tones.

Yeah, right. Rusti weighed the moment between a fifty-cent problem or a five dollar difficulty. Since no one complained about Galvatron (yet), the young lady chose not to worry abut him too much.

Rusti visited the Sunset Kummya two days in a row. Each day dragged while she listened to the cranky vessel and interpreted the Kummya's messages to her crew and captain. Her interpretation job gave Rusti headaches but not from the work itself. Crew members scoffed and teased Rusti, declaring her a fraud. Other Autobots grew impatient, expecting her to give them immediate answers.

The Sunset Kummya was not altogether forthcoming with information. It spoke but often not to her. It protested all changes made for the hydroponics. The Kummya was not happy with the soppy sensation of dirt on its flooring and it complained about it for hours. The ship hated how the crew rearranged its hydraulics and the Kummya spattered constantly about a dead body lodged in a sensitive area.

That was a scratch in everyone's record. A what? How did they miss a body? How long? They hounded Rusti for answers to which she assured them she only knew as much as the ship; it didn't know who the body was, only that someone put it there.

A swift record check declared her name was Orca, a research specialist in micro xenobiology. The femme disappeared on Cratis, presumed terminated during the battle against Decetron and his minions. Orca's dismembered body caused a disruption along the Kummya's hydraulics, much like a pebble in someone's shoe. Once Rusti located the body, fewer people gave her grief. One Autobot even apologized.

Magnus interrogated Rusti for two and a half hours, often repeating the same questions. Rusti, reiterated she knew only as much as the Kummya-which wasn't a lot.

Word about her ability spread along the fleet like the common cold. Rodimus quipped that Rusti now had an official job as Ship Whisperer.

She did not find that amusing.

Following that came requests from ten ship captains begging her to come to their aid and solve dilemmas regarding their vessels. Rusti set an appointment schedule and reminded each captain that what she did wasn't a quick fix and they'd have to be patient.

By the third day, the Kummya had noting more to complain about. Rusti returned to her quarters early and wished Optimus could take a few hours off. She had not seen him since the initial incident with the Kummya.

As she peeled off her jacket and removed her shoes, Rusti approached the area she and Optimus slept. To her surprise, a bed, chair and lamp replaced the pile of material she used for a makeshift bed. A small circular, metal table for one squatted before the chair and on the table lay a drawing pad, two pencils and an eraser.

Gasping with delight, Rusti sat in the chair and laid her hands on the table to make sure she wasn't imagining. She touched the mechanical pencils and flipped through the virgin drawing pad. The fluffy pillow on the bed (a real bed) waited for her. Rusti never thought she'd be so grateful for something as simple as furniture. Lying down, the bed endowed her a comfort she missed since they left Earth. Rusti passed out cold.

The sound of a low-droned voice slowly dragged her from the depths of a dreamless sleep. Rusti drew a waking breath. She moved luxuriously between the sheets, rolled to her left and listened. The Crested Moon did not gabber on as much as the other ships. But it did speak to the computer. A familiar phrase slipped through the Moon's garbled communication. "Sydromm temm norr orr."

Well, that's breaking it down into Human dynamic and referential construction. Crawling out of bed, Rusti swept up the precious drawing pad and pencil. She paused and stared at it. This was a privilege no one else had; paper. She held a treasure. She could have asked anyone for a spare digipad to draw on. But the feel of lead on paper gave her a greater connection to her art.

What did she do to deserve something so simple but so valuable? Rusti let the moment drop, opened the first page and jotted the Crescent Moon's repeated words. Rusti retranslated the mysterious phrase into the mathematical language of Autobot:

2/(-5x10)00B-7-10A7[c-h2]

cx12+k91007N {Pp/m/.0045}

Of course, they meant nothing to her. It could be, too, that she got the translation incorrect. Language was a tricky business. Giving up, Rusti cast her gaze out the windows. Space was so beautiful yet terribly empty. She longed for the Cascade Mountains. Hugging the drawing pad, Rusti wished even harder for a simpler time, for silver skies and sweet autumn rain. She missed the smell of snow and the songs of frogs and birds.

The deck doors opened. Two Autobots yammered incessantly. Optimus responded in one or two simple words before assuring them their problems would be handled-

"...tomorrow." he emphasized. They stopped gabbing, surprised that whatever was important to them was not so to him.

"But...Optimus-" came the whine.

"Good night." Optimus reinforced. And he closed the door on them. Rusti thought it odd; he locked the door. "Had enough," he muttered. Optimus approached their little make-shift world then stopped short. "I was hoping to find you..." he hesitated, lost with the wrong word. "...home."

His meaning was not lost on her and she offered him a smile. "I don't think I could thank you enough, not just for the furniture, Optimus, but for the drawing tablet. I-I don't know where or how you got one."

He settled at the drop-down floor next to her little place and rested an arm on her floor. "Concentric City has almost anything, even drawing tablets and chocolate. But I suspected we were going into a fight and figured the chocolate would not survive."

Rusti flopped into her chair. "Oh, chocolate! Next to a bath in a bathtub, that's something I really miss. I think when we get home, I'm going to buy stock in Hershey."

"Heh." Optimus softly laughed, "well, we're a bit short on chocolate. But the bath I might arrange."

Rusti raised her brows. Obviously he knew nothing of Roddi's 'lunch program.' "What did you do today?"

"Me?" he acted slightly surprised and it made her smile. "Well... you could say it was typical." she deeply nodded, knowing exactly what that meant. "And how about you, Miss Rusti? How was your day?"

"You're being evasive, Optimus. And I asked you first. Now sit still and let me draw you while you tell me about your day." Rusti settled in her chair, legs folded and smiled in to his optics. The day wore on him hard and heavy.

"Did you want me to start from the moment I left the Sunset Kummya or would you like me to reiterate what happened first?"

Without looking at him, Rusti lifted a finger. "No repeat episodes, please. That's what got me drafted."

"I hear that one."

She half-laughed and finished the initial shape of his form. "Did you have any emergency situations?"

"There are always emergency situations, Rusti."

"Yeah. Well, you're being tight-lipped and stubborn. Don't make me tattle on you for being evasive."

"I like to be evasive. Keeps you guessing."

She lifted her eyes off the paper to stare into those beautiful blue optics. Like liquid light, she thought. "The alien ship, Optimus," she insisted. "Anything new about it?"

He forced a light laugh and she heard something different there. Rusti paused in her shade work. "Did I say something?"

"Well, no. I just got away from it all and you want a news report."

Rusti hesitated, trying not to take it personally. "Okay. Well, I'm hungry and cranky and maybe while I nibble on soup or something, you'd tell me something about your trip across the cosmos."

"With Galvatron?"

"With Galvatron."

"Did you want the PG-13 version or the rated-R?"

Her mind drew a blank. "Uh... Galvatron didn't get laid, did he?"

Optimus shook his head and laid on the floor, head resting on his arms. Concerned, Rusti put the drawing down to check on him. She pressed her hand along his face. "I'm sorry, Optimus," she squeaked. "You must be very tired."

"I missed you," he softly answered. Her shoulders fell and she ran her hand along th edge of his helm. Optimus rested his hand closer to her. "I've been to hell and I made it back."

She gingerly kissed the edge of his faceplate. "You probably figured I'd kick your aft if you didn't come back to me.

"That's it exactly."

"Ha!" Rusti settled on the floor, using his hand to support her back. She drew up her knees and gave him the moment to speak or remain silent as he needed. She really wanted to know what was going on; what everyone was doing. But if Optimus needed peace and quiet, she could wait and ask later.

He looked adorable lying half on 'her' floor and half on his. Was he tired because he had so much on his mind? Or was he tired from the plague of nightmares? Hurting for him, Rusti took to her feet and gently kissed him again.

"Wish you could just spend time with me," she whispered. She turned away and rubbed her right shoulder.

"That's a good idea, Rusti," Optimus answered in similar tones. 'We're quiet at the moment, waiting for a collection of plants to grow. And for First Aid to autopsy Orca's body." He crossed his arms, settled his chin on them. "Would it be such a crime for me to just lie low for a while?"

She turned, speechless. "Is that you speaking to me, Optimus, or is that Void?"

"Heh."

"Did you leave the workaholic somewhere on the bridge?"

"No. I passed it on to Magnus." he delighted in her smile. "I realized that I want to spend time with you while I am mostly me. I am here in this moment, sane and happy to be with you."

Rusti choked up. "You know what?" she said suddenly. "I'm starving. And um, did you mean it when you said you could arrange a bath for me?"

The Dancing Siren

Sunny lay on the flatbed, a prisoner inside a disintegrating shell. His mind raced, stopped and raced again. Pain radiated from his extremities, although eighty-five percent of them no longer existed. He stared at the ceiling with one optic. Dim lighting kept the total dark at bay. Dim lighting kept the horror of direct light from revealing his present condition.

A pinprick of consciousness reminded Sunstreaker that his brother hovered nearby. Sideswipe huddled into himself, grief-stricken with worry. Sunny did not know what to say to ease his brother's suffering. It yanked old gaskets that they were in this situation. Sunny always believed he'd die in battle. That was his destiny; pure, plain and simple. In fact, it often surprised the Autobot warrior that he lived this long.

That one stupid song came through his mind again:

Them days a-rollin

my insides a-boilin'

Over and over.

Clickin' clackin'

Workin', packin'

over and over.

Slavin' up and lyin' down.

Gassin' up and flyin' round

an' round, an round.

Them days a-rollin

... a-rollin'

over and over.

The catchy tune ping-ponged in Sunny's head like a bad commercial on repeat. He hated the song. He hated the memories painted in the notes, the faces lodged in the lyrics. The song was not about happy times and good friends, but about suffering and slaving away for the sake of survival.

The good thing was that Sunstreaker failed to recall the name of the bastard who owned him and his family. That was so long ago, it was blissfully vague.

Speaking of vague, Sunny registered Sideswipe's voice. Oh, it was maybe one-one hundredth the strength it should have been. But it was there; sad, despondent. Sides asked about the song. He should know, the little cuss. He was there, too. He watched other Autobots slave under the brute's heavy-handed rule.

Wicked, wicked Sidesssss.

Sunny didn't know where that thought suddenly came from. It wasn't true of course. Not regarding his brother. Sideswipe's just emo.

Wicked. Abnormal. Conniving.

Sideswipe was a pain in the aft, but he wasn't malicious; mischievous, but not cruel.

Sunny did not realize he conversed with himself. He went along with it, failing to question why such ideas floated through his processors.

Co-dependant?

Mm. Maybe. But it's okay. Sideswipe had been at his side since Day One...whatever day that was.

You're not so perfect.

Sunny stopped humming. His thoughts now attacked himself. He tried moving his fingers. Nothing obeyed. Oh. Maybe he didn't have fingers anymore. He tried to move an ankle. No response. So sad. How much of his body did he have left?

Pathetic.

Apparently, he was. Would Sunstreaker ever be what he was again? They were far, far away from Earth and Cybertron. Nobody packed any necessary equipment. What if he faced a life looking like a freak; like a bad rendition of some mangled Earth machine? He knew everyone who looked at him could lose their respect and admiration. Freaks never have friends. Freaks are so low in the Blue Book their value isn't worth the pixels that list them.

Sunny refused to look like a freak.

Sideswipe languished in the corner of Sunny's room. He had not recharged or refueled in days. Abandoning his brother, even long enough to pace outside the door, hurt.

He woke when First Aid and Apogee entered with a floating stretcher. Before they did anything to Sunstreaker, the medic attended Sideswipe. Concern dimmed his optics.

"Sideswipe, I know this is difficult for you. And I'm sorry to tell you this, but you need to go and get rest."

"Can't." Sideswipe's voice barely hit an octave.

"Then I'll call someone to come and assist you."

"Can't leave him. If he dies and I'm not there..."

"I will be with him, now. You need to trust me. You need rest and fuel. You do your brother no good by wasting away yourself. I have enough patients here. I do not want you to add to my list."

A knock at the doorpost elicited an annoyed sigh from First Aid. "All other emergencies and questions have been relegated to Blue. I am not available for anything or anyone at this time."

Doublecross offered a sympathetic smile. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I'm not here to harass you. I've been assigned to help Sideswipe."

Fist Aid tilted his head and nodded. "Thank Primus. He's not been the most cooperative visitor, Crossy. I've asked him to take care of himself-"

"Well, that's my job now. You just take care of his brother." the lady Monsterbot entered the dark room and crouched in front of the worry-wearied Autobot. She studied him and determined his inability to properly fight her. "Hey, Sideswipe. I'm here to collect you and plant you in a new container with lots of good soil and warm sunshine."

Sideswipe shook his head, his face dulled by a wall of hopelessness. "Not leaving Sunny."

"Yeah, I know. But orders are orders and I'm not going to paint any more ships. So either come with me, or I'll carry you."

"I don't want your help, Crossy. So tail out."

"Sorry. I have problems with your authority," the Monsterbot retorted.

"You can't tell me what to do. You are not my superior."

She nodded. "I am as of oh nine forty-seven this morning. If I have to, I will even bathe you."

The fading coils in Sideswipe's retraction instuds flared to life. Determination gave him the strength to resist her once more. "I said to piss off, Crossy! My brother is dying and I don't need your oily pity party."

She carefully tucked her smile into her voice. "Have it your way!" She gripped the stubborn twin about the waist, stood, and heaved him over her shoulder like a pack of parts. Sideswipe kicked and growled. His fists banged against her tough, resistant exterior.

"The Pitt to Primus, Doublecross, friggin put me down NOW!"

She winked at First Aid and Apogee who watched the moment with relief and surprise. "See ya, guys. Keep us informed!"

The Sagittarian Mozart

Twenty minutes. Never long enough a nap even for someone as disciplined as Ultra Magnus. His comm buzzed three times before he grumbled off the flat. "Computer, patch me in." He waited half a beat and drilled his optics into the ceiling. "This had better be worth it. We're not in the middle of battle."

Kup's own crotchety voice grated over the comm, "No, but we have something you need to take a look at."

"Call Prime or Prime. I have other things-"

"Optimus said to contact you. Rodimus is dealing with staff problems on the Covenant."

Magnus did not dignify Kup's wake up call with another word. He stomped out his quarters, transformed and rammed his way to command. All personnel on the Mozart's bridge zipped their lip components the moment the former city commander figuratively burst through the doors. The scowl on his face read 'Predator. Piss off at your own risk.'

Kup on the view screen crossed his optics with Magnus', his own expression strictly business-like. "Clampdown and Metric hammered a few loose panels on the Cold Refractor two hours ago. This is what they found feeding off the ships:" He hit a control and flashed a slideshow from outside the Autobot ship. Crusty little sponges freckled the ship's exterior. A single florescent antennae drifted from the tops of their bodies. The same 'antennae' landed elsewhere on the hull and bound the things to the hull like clams to a rock.

Kup turned back to Magnus. "At the moment, the ship's hull integrity is still above ninety-seven percent. But it's steadily dropping. We need to get someone up there and burn them off."

Magnus took in the report, categorized it, assimilated and formulated a series of possible solutions. "How many ships have been affected?"

"Six."

Magnus stared a long moment. "Well, then, Kup, put together six teams of five people. Put Galvatron out there, too. Keep in contact, burn everything off. I want hourly reports."

Kup's face read reluctance. "Uh... Galvatron, you say?"

"He's not going to bite."

"Yeah. Alright. Uh, hourly reports?" Magnus folded his arms. Kup bobbed his head. "Yeah, sure. Not a problem."

The Cold Refractor

Shale, Siren, Bypass and Groove met Galvatron on the outer wings of the Cold Refractor. Galvatron held a small digipad in one hand and tools in the other. A few dents and scratches decorated his body. His face held a constant half smile-not a smirk, but a smile.

"Let me guess this on my own," he stated without preamble. "You're Siren," he handed the Headmaster a scrubbing tool. "You must be Bypass-"

"Are we seriously working with you?" Bypass scoffed with a slight German accent.

Galvatron didn't pause to answer. "Well, working. I don't know about serious." Galvatron reached around the warrior and handed Groove a tool of his own.

Bypass's optics darkened. "Listen, Wise Aft, I don't know who said you could be out here, working with us-"

"My aft is wise," Galvatron returned smoothly.

Groove inspected his gear. "Uh, Bypass, hate t' break it to ya, but Kup an' Magnus did the assigning."

"I don't need you to tell me what to do either, Groove," the other Autobot snapped. I do NOT want to work with a Decepticon."

Galvatron gave him a lined smile. "Don't make me wiggle my aft at you, too." He picked a spot several yards off and started to burn and scrape stubborn space barnacles from the ship.

Bypass' faceplate dropped and lifted with confusion. "What the pitt's he talking about?"

Twenty minutes of work dragged into two hours. Kup called for status updates. Several workers mewed and whined. The barnacles that cooperated best, died before the operation began. Those critters still alive often let go of the ship and latched onto the Autobot workers themselves. Kup popped a gasket and prepared for a long week.

The Hannibal's Mark

Technically, command and responsibility of the Confiscator belonged to Silverbolt. All the 'little kids' under his command were expected to be mature enough to understand the necessity of authority. But in Rodimus's experience, mutiny wasn't something anyone planned. Roddi loathed playing babysitter/negotiator and he decided this was going to be the one and only time such an incident occurred.

The argument between Roddi, Tieback, Bracket and Resin turned ugly and from ugly to loud. The shouting match escalated into violence. Rodimus put Tieback and Resin on the operating tables in the Dancing Siren and permanently confined Terrace, Udu and Botnik in the brig. From there, he appointed Arietta as communications officer and Semi to navigation. Silverbolt appointed Ashiko as second in-command and Skydive as security officer.

It was bad enough he and Optimus had to keep on their foretoes over the Virus. But dealing with lax discipline in the ranks pushed both of them to that tyrannical edge.

Rodimus returned to his 'home ship', drained and grumpy. He stomped onto the Hannibal Mark's bridge, three digipads in hand, a worn expression on his face. The distracted bridge crew failed to greet Prime as they watched events on the main view screen. Groove and Northpoint argued and crossed fire rods with Sureshot and Defractor. Irritated, Roddi tightened his grip on the digipads but kept his voice level. "What is going on?"

Patches jumped from her place at navigation. "Oh, Sir! So sorry about the lack of activities, Sir. But as you can see, there's lots of stuffs going on out there because somehow lots of space debris stuck to some of our ships. Although, Quasar says they're more like space barnacles than debris cuz it's a level of life forms, not just rocks and junks. And we're in the process of clean up but the guys outside are getting cranky cuz the junks keeps leaping from the ships to their legs. Except Galvatron. He's on the Mozart. Kup asked me to monitors the progress. Especially Galvatron, of course, cuz nobody likes him anyways cuz he's a Decepticon and nobody wants to works with a Decepticons, no matters how funny they is-" She stopped abruptly when Rodimus descended the dias.

He clicked the screen from drama to the asteroid field-the place they're supposed to scan. "-how funny they are," he corrected.

"Yes, Sirs."

"Waitaminute. You did not just say 'Galvatron."

"Uh, yes, Sir-I mean-I mean-yes...Sir. Galvatron. He's on the-" again she muted her vocalizer when Rodimus patched into the Mozart himself.

Ambient answered. "Yak at me, Your Primeness."

Five seconds later, she patched Rodimus to the appropriate line feed-

Galvatron grinned. "This is Galvatron. Currently all meta processors are busy. Please stay on the line for the next available smart remark."

"Galvatron!" Rodimus snarled.

"As far as I know-"

"What are you doing? You're supposed to-"

"I was assigned-and no, Mizz Witwicky is not aware. But I have witnesses."

"This is NOT in the agreement!."

"I know. You weren't there to agree to it at all." Galvatron burned one critter then three others and scraped them off while he listened in to Rodimus Talk Radio:

"You and Cyclonus are not supposed to run around without a leash!"

"Cyclonus can't use a leash right now. He's got booboos. As for me, I have Groove jiggling my retros."

"You stay right there. Don't move a servo until I discuss this with Ultra Magnus."

Galvatron stared at his torch as though it were defective. "Well, I suppose I'll allow you, R.P. Can I at least stay and play with my friends out here?"

"Don't call me that! Groove!"

"Sir?"

"You're in charge. Do not let Galvatron out of your sensory pattern."

Groove tried not to break a smile. "Aye... yeah-I mean, yes, Sir. Uh, what should I do if he ends up sucked into a singularity, or implodes or replicates and there's two of them?"

"Aww!" Galvatron beamed. "You're so cute!"

"Galvatron!" Rodimus snapped, "You stay out of this! Groove, don't get funny with me, buster! We have enough comedians around here. Stand by. Rodimus out." Groove laughed while he scraped off another barnacle.

Galvatron joined his laughter. "I knew there was a reason I liked you, Groove."

The Protectobot shrugged. "It's not often I can get under Roddi's exostructure. Don't mean you an' me 'r dating, though, Galvatron."

The Sagittarian Mozart

Magnus jumped his scrutinizing gaze between three digipads and tapped notes on a fourth. He did not need to ask who bleeped at the com. Rodimus was about fifteen point seven seconds later than Magnus anticipated. So Magnus answered with a deadpan "what?"

"What the Pitt?" Rodimus spat. "Galvatron? Outside? Unsupervised?"

Ultra Magnus lightly grunted. "He's not unsupervised, Rodimus. He's with several other Autobots. Kup and his staff are keeping an optic on the operation. What more do you want me to do?"

"This was not per the agreement!"

"We needed people out there scraping. Galvatron can scrape. I don't know what your bitching about."

"Bitching?" Rodimus snarled. "Bitching?"

Magnus finally dropped his concentration on the pads. "What exactly is the problem, Rodimus? Don't you have enough to do?" Magnus felt the snarl across the com and smiled. He found a way to fully irritate and annoy Rodimus Prime. It was a lovely day, indeed.

Elsewhere on the Vertical Horizon

Tucked into a spacious room set aside for the alien plant nursery, Xylem carefully watered and fertilized three fruit tree saplings. Other than the piano melodies of George Winston leaking from her personal radio, the well lit room made not a sound.

Xylem crowned the top of a planter with moss she acquired-and replicated-on Lunarphyte several months ago. It made the perfect water retainer.

Squelch.

Xylem paused. Did she really hear that? She glanced about the room. Maybe a leaf fell. Nothing appeared out of place. She waited while George Winston's Angels of the Deep started playing. Nope. However someone entered the far side of the nursery.

Xylem smiled at Nu and Ableean Drobblstein as they approached with carts bearing newly planted seedlings. Ableean pushed her anti-grav cart into a row of plants and dusted her long dark hands on her jeans.

"I think that might be the last of the new crops for a while," she announced. "We could not squeeze one more empty container from anyone."

Nu nodded and Xylem glanced from cart to cart, counting shelves and plants per shelf. "Perfect. I just updated our hydroponics collection and we have a wonderful array of plants. It's just a matter of waiting for them to grow."

Nu eyed the more recent work. "Have you witnessed anything odd or strange regarding the alien inventory off the derelict ship?"

"Oh, a little. The seeds have a beautiful silver shell. The plants grow amazingly fast. I almost transplant as fast as I plant. The vines grow much faster than anything I've experienced. However, other plants aren't responding well to normal soil. Fortunately, it appears that anything will grow from soil I acquired off Lunarphyte."

Xylem signed Nu's digipad. "Please inform Ultra Magnus my status update will be delayed a few more hours. I wish to set the rest of these plants in their little beds before I write my report."

Nu said something more but Xylem thought she heard something yet again. She smiled at Nu and nodded.

"Great!" Nu grinned. "I'll let Blaster know you'd like to borrow it. You'll love Brian Eno. Guaranteed!"

Xylem watched her fellow femme and the Lyrian, Ableean, depart. The doors shushed behind them and Xylem took another visual stock of her nursery. She set down her digipad and quietly toured the nursery. Nothing appeared out of place. Nothing lay on the floor. She checked for water leakage. Nothing dripped. Only bits of soil speckled the flooring wall to wall.

Xylem swung her arms out and let them flap against her sides. "What the crazies? I must be hearing things!" she turned left to right and found three planters devoid of saplings. "No, that cannot be right! And Nu was right there-" Xylem patched into the com, "Keepsake, have you been in the nursery doing inventory today?"

"Negative. You want me to?" the Autobot smirked.

"Negative. It's simply that I'm missing-"

Swish-grind, Swish-grind. Swish-grind.

Xylem cut herself off and glanced around.

"Eh, there?" Keepsake called. "Xylem? Xylem?" he heard her scream.

Magnus devoted every spare moment to the mysterious happenstance among the ships-especially the Crested Moon's docking clamps. That incident should never have taken place. Magnus ordered his people to recheck each ship's lift-off capabilities.

Adding to his workload, Magnus investigated Orca's death. He refused to call that a murder until First Aid performed the autopsy. But in First Aid's list, Orca was not an immediate priority. A saboteur lurked among the ranks; a proficient ghost who covered his tracks and knew where to hit them.

Rodimus called, asking for an update on weapons supplies on the Cold Refractor.

Magnus obliged him and returned to work.

He whittled his investigation down to a single tool. The Major-general found a glitch in the gadget-input system. All tools logged themselves into subdirectories when users signed reports on their activities. The system created a tracking detail in case a device turned up missing. As he followed the input path, Magnus found a missing log entry.

Rodimus called again and asked about the staff switch on board the Sabor's Claw.

Unruffled by the interruption, Magnus searched ten minutes for that particular digipad and uploaded the reports to the Hannibal's Mark.

He resumed his work and tracked all personnel who used that particular pad then cross-referenced it with everyone who worked on that particular day, then down to the shift and-

Rodimus called, this time asking for reports from Velocity's recon team.

"Not back yet," Magnus rumbled.

"Is Galvatron back in his cage yet?"

"No."

"Why?"

"He's still working."

"Why?"

Magnus' gears grounded. "Because it's the best way to use him as a resource."

"Why?"

The digipad in Magnus' hands cracked, smoldered and sizzled in death.

Then Keepsake called in.

They checked the nursery. Keepsake, HiDef and Panout examined the plants, the floor and the walls. Magnus swept the place with three different spectrometers and coordinated all their efforts with the ship's computer.

Just when Magnus considered setting the whole ship under quarantine, the klaxon alarms called the investigators to Deck Seven. They rushed along several corridors and slid down emergency hatchways.

Storage room 39-G welcomed Magnus and his soldiers to a room dripping with humidity, lichen, moss and more plant growth than what they found in the nursery.

Magnus' optics flared. "What the leaking Pitt is this all about?"

"Movement!" HiDef announced. "I got movement-"

"Talk to me, soldier!' Magnus ordered.

"Ahhh... ten paces out the door, about a dozen or more-" Magnus did not stay to hear the rest. He fled the scene, followed by Keepsake. They transformed and trailed the hall at high speed. They hit their brakes, shifted back into robo-mode and skid in their tracks.

Leafy vines slap-stepped or crawled along the wall like an amoeba. Shrubs tumbled in a roll toward the Autobots. Plants. All shapes, sizes and varieties crept toward them.

Magnus cussed.

The Crested Moon

Rusti sat in her comfy chair, feet on her little table and a bowl of rationed oatmeal in her hands. She and Optimus watched a Madison West film, one of several romance comedies available to the fleet.

Optimus maintained one optic on reconnaissance reports as they trickled in. Every now and again he signed his name on a report or a request, but did not answer any incoming calls. "Rusti, explain something to me," he said quietly.

"Hmmhm?" She did not meet his gaze. Rusti stared at the character's beautiful dress.

"If... if Kamay loves him so much, why won't she simply come out and say it?"

Rusti batted her eyes and peeled her attention from the story to her love. "Um... you mean Japheth?"

"The animal shelter's director, yes."

Rusti thought it through. The story about a city girl forced to move to a farm in the desolate countryside was typically silly. But it was a simple movie and Rusti preferred her romance stories sweet and simple. "I think it's a fifty-fifty deal, Optimus. She loves him, but there's only a fifty percent chance that he feels the same. So she teases him to see whether or not he's attracted to her. When he came to her rescue in the rain, that made the situation worse because now he's her hero. And the girl always wants to marry the hero."

"I don't understand. She's clearly playing mind games with him. It's cruel." he replied with confusion.

Rusti took another mouthful of oatmeal and swore that once they got home, she'd never touch the stuff again. "Well, Kamay needs to see if he's even looking for a relationship, something permanent, someone to commit to. It's about the other fifty."

"What about the other fifty?"

"The other fifty is that he just wants a good time."

Optimus mentally chewed through the oddity of 'Romance According to Rusti'. "So she plays mind games with him to see if he's really interested in her as a person as opposed to her as a sleeping bag."

Startled by his frank comment, Rusti bit her tongue and groaned with the pain. She laid a hand along her cheeks, dragged her eyes onto him as she swallowed air with her oatmeal.

Before she said anything, Optimus moaned and dropped his head. "Magnus is calling."

Rusti rolled her eyes. "Please tell him you are not the universe's babysitter, Optimus." Rusti ate her words when the Crested Moon's comline bleeped. Magnus was desperate for attention. Prime tilted his head, expressing an I-told-you-so.

"Prime," he answered.

"I. WANT. A. VACATION."

Rusti raised her brows over Magnus' growling vocalizer. She read the smile in Optimus' optics but he too kept his voice serious.

"What's the problem, Ultra Magnus?"

"I have plants walking the decks! There are three lines of data missing from a sonic tool. Rodimus and Galvatron are waging verbal war. They're driving me to drink!"

Optimus hesitated before answering. "You know, Ultra Magnus, you should be grateful they're at each other's throats. It could be much, much worse."

"Oh, really?" Magnus challenged. "Because Rodimus just contacted me-again-and rattled on and on how Galvatron is using his temporary freedom to gather support for his cause. I have NO idea WHAT Rodimus is talking about. He simply won't shut up! So you tell me, how could this be worse?"

Optimus laid his optics on Rusti and considered Magnus' frustration. "They could team up against you. Do you need any assistance, Ultra Magnus?"

"NO! I DO NOT NEED YOUR HELP! I am, however, blaming it on YOU!"

"Very well," Optimus accepted quietly. "I suggest you start with a tea party, Magnus. Invited Rodimus and Galvatron to it. Get yourself an ass and find a tail to pin on it." Rusti did not hear anything more until a 'click' signaled that Magnus 'hung up'. She and Optimus quietly chuckled until Optimus hung his head with a deep sigh. "Love, I need to check on Sunstreaker."

Rusti nodded. "Titanium asked me to visit the Frostbite. He thinks there might be stowaway rats onboard." Optimus gave her a scrutinizing glare, silently warning her to be careful.

"Stay in touch," He did not mean it to sound like a order. Rusti understood. She smiled and blinked before pushing off the chair and dressing for the job.

The Dancing Siren

Sunstreaker rocked himself in the darkness, softly humming the same loathing tune. It wasn't so bad now. He had, however, forgotten the words. Somewhere in the back of his head his brother called his name. But Sunny decided it was a dream; the echos of things old and mostly forgotten.

Other voices came and departed, fading with time and darkness. He just sat there and hummed. Elsewhere in his little world, another Self joined him in his private reverie. Sometimes the Other Self hummed along with him and asked about the song. Other times it simply sat and listened.

What's it say you had a sister?

"We did," Sunny answered the Other Self. "Long, long time ago. They took her away."

Where to? Do tell. Where to?

"Oh, wherever it is that people go when they die."

We don't understand the 'go-and-die'.

"Nobody truly does. Nobody knows what happens when you die. They know that you have left your body and that the body can't live without the spark."

We will make certain we do not die.

"Everybody dies." That did not sit well with the Other Self. Not at all. Sunny could not bring himself to care. A bug buzzed around him. He shook his head to keep it from landing on his face. No bugs, please. Bugs are icky-yet another thing he hated about Earth. Icky bugs slammed into a chassis on the road. Open mouth, insert bug. Ewwe. Bugs crawled on the ground and flew in the air and wormed their way into crevices and places where nothing belonged.

Bugs were gross.

Just as Sunny raised his hand to bat the bug aside, he activated his optics and found two people staring at him. Sunny balked and tried to back off.

"Take it easy, Sunny," First Aid soothed. "You're okay. Give yourself a moment or two to adjust."

That sounded bad. Bad. Sunstreaker froze. As he did so, his optics focused. Shapes and colors realigned on their own. Edges sharpened and highlights streaked less and less. Sunstreaker dropped and gathered his lower mandible. Something felt strangely off; his shoulders didn't move as they did before the battle.

"Hold still, Sunstreaker. Let me make another adjustment here."

"What? What's going on? What are you doing to me?"

"Yo, Bro!" Sideswipe's voice sounded cheerful to everyone but his brother. Sunny heard the exhaustion and worry in Swipe's perky tones. "They're fitting you with temporary housing. Isn't that great?"

"What?" Sunny's movements jerked and creaked.

"HOLD. STILL." Perigee clamped a strong hand against Sunny's neck while heat radiated into his left hip. Sunstreaker obeyed as First Aid muttered 'almost finished'. The Autobot warrior's face... plate (?) twitched. The heat neared Sunstreaker's toleration mark and he forced himself to stay very still.

First Aid let up and his visor zoomed into Streaker's face. "Sorry if it's a little sore, Sunny. But at least this improvisation will give you time until we can get your other body properly repaired."

Sunstreaker's mind whirled with confusion. "Improvisa-" he found Sideswipe at the door, Doublecross stood beside him. She offered a supportive smile. Sunny thought it creepy. "What... what's this about?"

First Aid laid a hand on a shoulder too small to belong to Sunstreaker. "We found a way to keep your metaprocessor functional while we wait for an opportunity to repair your body, Sunstreaker. You're not good as new, but you're up and around."

Sideswipe brightened, all smiles and hope. "See? Nothing like a small miracle!"

A tentative knock at the door post drew everyone's attention as Optimus peered inside. "I heard the news and thought I'd stop by and see how you're doing, Sunstreaker." he paused, optics skipped from person to person. "Nicely done, First Aid," he praised.

"Don't overdo it, Optimus," Aid put away his tool while Perigee cleaned off the skeleton of a robot. The poor thing jerked and squeaked with every nuance and movement. Sunstreaker's temporary housing lacked refinement, style and glamor. He also had no means of transforming. First Aid hauled up a chest plating, Perigee picked up a plating for the backside. Between the two, they fitted the metal shields over Sunny's delicate inner workings and clamped the pieces together.

Sunstreaker's mind slowly disentangled and he stole a quick glance at his hands, another at his feet. He gazed at his right arm. He lowered and raised a faceplate and found he could not look his brother in the optic.

First Aid tightened adjustments on Sunny's feet and made certain the weight retraction instuds at the ankles were not too tight. "Alright, Sunstreaker. No antics. No racing. Just take it easy, go slow. Make sure you get back here ASAP if something goes wrong." The medic wiped his hands on a dirty towel and tossed it in a basket already piled with laundry.

Streaker attempted a first step forward. Sideswipe caught his flailing brother and forced on an assuring smile. "Whoa there! No tripping or falling over, either. Isn't that right, Doc?"

Sunny glimpsed part of his reflection off his brother. "I look like walking trash."

Optimus leaned a shoulder against the doorway. "It's only temporary, Sunstreaker. Once we get to Yolthanis Three, they can fix you up right. At least this way you're off the critical list and out of First Aid's way."

Sunstreaker nodded, knowing better than to mew to a less than sympathetic audience. They didn't understand what it was like to lose beauty. "Aye, Sir," he mumbled. He tried to walk again but stumbled against his brother. "Help me outta here, Sideswipe. I need some fresh scenery."

"Not a problem!" and Sideswipe carefully aided his brother out the room and down the hall, broadcasting all the latest gossip and news. Optimus and Doublecross watched the brothers slowly make their way toward the elevator.

"Crossy," Prime said with a quiet voice. "Tag them. Report changes in mood or behavior."

"Yes, sir!" Doublecross switched to her alternate Monsterbot mode and tailed the two as First Aid stepped up to watch. He shook his head with uncertainty.

"I don't like to just let him out like this, Optimus," the medic confided. "But I can't keep him in here, either. Sunstreaker and Sideswipe aren't the sort to keep down for weeks at a time."

"You did well to fit him with something, First Aid."

"I don't know how long it will work."

Optimus hesitated. "If you need extra materials, just let me know-"

"It's not materials, supplies or sustenance," First Aid clarified. "It's his spark. He's so depressed, I don't know if he wants to recover." the Autobot doctor shook his head and returned to the room where Perigee sanitized used tools and the soiled table. "I can put him in a housing, Optimus. But I can't make him happy. Sunstreaker will have to decide for himself whether or not he has something worth living for."

The Frostbite

Rusti surveyed Docking Bay Three with Snippit. The femme inspected two shuttles and inventoried tools as Rusti picked her way around crates, powerlines and hoses.

While the bay remained soundless, Rusti sensed something outside the walls but noises and static from other directions disrupted her ability to pinpoint oddities. She turned to the femme who double checked her list. "I'm not really getting anything."

Snippit shrugged. "The workers might be imagining things."

Rusti scowled. "No. There's something. But it doesn't feel mechanical or organic. And I can't hear the Frostbite. How about we step out of here? Is there a control room or a place adjacent to the bay?"

"Bay auxiliary control."

Rusti followed her next door to a closet of a room. A control panel coupled with a pair of chairs offered just enough space in which to sit. Snippit courteously offered to assist the girl onto one chair while she claimed the other. Rusti sat with legs crossed, hands in lap, eyes forward. Snippit continued to write her report when the young lady turned to the Autobot femme.

"Can you stop writing for a moment?" she tried to sound courteous and thanked the femme with a smile. The room stood still; the bay soundless. Rusti stretched her senses. The reason she failed to hear the Frostbite was because the shuttles were also 'talking'.

...CREEPING UPSIDE DOWN. TICKLES. SQUEAKS. CHEWING ON LINES...

[I hear you. I hear you speak.] Rusti was not sure the Frostbite heard her or was inclined to answer.

...CHEWING ON LINES...

[Where? Location, please.] she batted her eyes and smiled at Snippit. "Deck Two. Starboard environmental controls."

Snippit offered Rusti a nice flying lesson through the Frostbite's interior. But after time spent with Cyclonus, Rusti politely declined. They met Titanium, Negate and Perox at the EC room.

Negate frowned at the door then his scanner. "Are you certain our vermin problem is in here, Miss Witwicky?"

"No," Rusti answered, "but the Frostbite seems to be." she did not flinch when the ship's security officer glared. Perox deactivated security controls and the group entered. Titanium ordered lights on.

Black shapes scattered in several dozen directions; icky things on too many legs. Spiked tails trailed after. Perox acted on instinct; he shot everything that moved and splattered six before Snippit forced his weapon down.

"What's the matter with you?" she snapped. "We don't know what they are!"

As Perox and Snippit bickered, Rusti examined the remains. "Green goo," she muttered. "Why does it have to be green goo? Gross."

Negate followed her, scanner in hand. "I don't like this. Scanner readout says it's not organic."

Rusti cringed. "What else can be slimy if it's not organic?"

Negate steeled his optics squarely on her. "You're assuming everything that's found on Earth is the same across the universe, Miss Witwicky. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this case, the organism's compositional makeup aluminum, bromine and... proto nitrogen."

Snippit turned with a tilt of her head. "Proto nitrogen? How's that remotely possible?"

Negate scowled with a huff. "We're in space, ladies. We're bound to find the strange and extraordinary. Now, Miss Witwicky, if you kindly step back, we'll hunt the rest of these things..."

Rusti blocked him from her senses. High-pitched static squealed and a rough voice attempted to contact anyone close by. She slowly turned from the gooey scene, her sight shifted inward as she struggled to translate the sound. Snippit called, her voice distant and weak. Rusti made for the door and laid her hand on the post. The static increased in volume and the young woman pinched her eyes closed. Pain ebbed into her head as she strained to listen.

Snippit touched Rusti's shoulder and brought her back to the moment. The young lady gazed upward, her eyes moist with tears. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. "I'm sorry. Can you take me to the Vertical Horizon?"

The Vertical Horizon

Kup's disgruntled expression appeared on the docking bay monitor. He scratched a signature on a report before fixing his optics first on Snippit then Rusti. "What's so case-cracking important? I got twenty-three areas affected by scruffed-up, chassis-mangled barnacles."

Rusti tugged her oversized jacket closer around her. "I'm sorry, Kup. If I didn't think it was important I wouldn't bother you."

"What, then? I'm busy."

"Yeah. I won't be long. I think the Vertical Horizon was trying to communicate with the Frostbite and I just need to know what it was trying to say and why."

"What?" Kup asked incredulously.

Snippit tried to help, "she was aiding us in tracking down some type of rat on the Frostbite when she... well, she acted odd."

Rusti glared at the femme but it went unnoticed. She rolled her eyes. "I just need a few minutes on the bridge. I won't be in the way, I promise." she blanched at Kup's unrepeatable reply.

"All right," he snarled. "You have ten minutes." he cut communications and Snippit sneered.

"Crotchety old backfire."

Rusti smiled. "He's harmless and most of it is for show." She followed the femme into the docking bay lift. In spite of all the traveling arrangements, Rusti's 'job' was much more interesting than time done on the Kummya.

The deck crew sent and received reports and updates while they ignored Rusti and Snippit. Kup was not present. Tressel, Mnemonic and Xylot supervised operations and communications. Rusti tried to sift through the constant chatter and ignore those who came and left. She forced her senses to cue in the ship's computer. The crew spoke in their native language and it distracted Rusti at first. No doubt most of the Autobots on the bridge assumed she could not understand them.

"Heads up, mechs," one Autobot sneered, "squishy on deck."

Rusti frowned at the round of sniggers following Tressel's remark. She let it go and concentrated on the soft vibrations under her feet. She envisioned the circuitry and internal components beyond control panels and switchboards.

"I'll bet Optimus Prime would marry a slug if it looked just right."

The laughter knocked Rusti out of concentration. Snippit hung back and said nothing.

"Maybe Rodimus will find himself a fish or a worm to entertain himself with." Tressel checked off a list on his datatablet, giving room for Macron to speak:

"Knowing Rodimus, he'd try to teach the worm to dance." That earned him an accompaniment of raucous laughter.

"Do you short-circuited keypads think you're funny?" Rusti challenged in their language. Snippit gasped behind her. Everyone else's optics turned bright and wide with amazement. "You're not remotely funny, Tressel." she paused for emphasis then huffed a breath and spoke in English. "Now put it in mute so I can concentrate!"

Rusti closed her eyes and again attempted concentration. The Autobots around her vibrated with indignation. She steered from them to the Horizon and searched for the 'static language'. Down, down, past surface controls, Rusti searched the ship's computer.

She found nothing, except the computer mentioned a high number of log entries by Ultra Magnus. Bickering ping-ponged between a group of micromasters and three humans who did not want to give up their makeshift pool table...

There!

She looked to her companion. "Snippit, I need a digipad, please." Rusti expected opposition but one of the other deck staff offered hers. Two Autobots barely concealed their laughter. Rusti knew she looked ridiculous kneeling before the pad to input information. She tried to ignore them. The keypad was the size of a bed, the keys slightly larger than her hands. But Rusti made do and punched in words and numbers as they came to her. In the middle of the transmission, she startled and stared out the view screen. "Ohmigod," she whispered.

"What?" the femme asked.

"The ships aren't talking to each other." chills spread along Rusti's back. "They're speaking to the alien vessel."

Cold Refractor

Rodimus reached boredom point at the half-hour. Two hours more had him seething at the view screen. "This is taking too long! Why don't we just charge the hull and fry them crispy?"

His communications officer, Chalk Talk, grimaced. "Kup said the things don't respond to electrocution."

Outside the Cold Refractor Galvatron scraped off the last barnacle before examining the area around him. Were it not for the Refractor's shields, he and the others would be standing botcicles by now. The work left scrapes and dents all over the affected ships, but it was far better a thing than holes. Rodimus ranted along the communication lines like a squishy caught in the rain.

To agitate the Autobot leader further, Galvatron gave him the silent treatment for seven point four minutes-with a grin.

"GALVATRON!"

The former Decepticon leader leisurely wiped scrapings from his tool. "I know," he answered calmly.

"You know what?"

"You miss me. And I'd sing to you, Roddi-boy, but then everyone would talk, Optimus would get jealous and before you know it, Magnus would want attention too."

"This is NOT about Magnus! You've been ignoring me for ten minutes! I want a report!"

Galvatron thought quickly. "Mm. Okay. Uh, Groove, help me out here. Roddi needs a report. I'll start and you fill in the blanks."

Rodimus palmed his forehead. "Oh, God," He moaned.

Chalk Talk grinned at him. "Sounds like you're going to get exactly what you asked for," he sang.

Galvatron cleared his vocalizer. "At approximately eleven hundred A.M. Standard Pacific Time-"

Groove: "that's eleven-thirteen, according to Magnus' report."

Galvatron: "I was called in by His Uppitiness, Security Officer Kup, to assist in the extermination and elimination of space pests nibbling gleefully away at the hull on the Refractor.

Groove: "Kup was sorta cranky about it and wanted to make sure I kept an optic on Galvatron at all times. But you know that already, Rodimus. And the space barnacles attacked six ships, not just the Refractor."

Galvatron: "Naturally, I obligated since Cyclonus and I are now a minuscule part of this entire envoy and refugee operation."

Groove: "that's permission to join the envoy."

Galvatron: "Consequently, for eight laborious hours-"

Groove: "Eight point four, actually."

Galvatron: "I and several other crew members-

Groove: "Twenty-eight."

Galvatron: "-from five other ships have singed, scraped and shot an undetermined number of... critters.

Groove: "We did not collect any live specimens to determine their exact species."

Galvatron: "We now stand at the last few perpetrators and plan to return to our designated origins for decontamination and hopefully a short recharge. In regards to myself, I plan to reconnect with my self-appointed parole officer, Mizz Witwicky and give her mostly the same report that I am verbalizing to you. Etcetera. Etcetera. Groove, please translate."

Groove reiterated everything Galvatron just said, using synonyms and borrowed vocabulary. Rodimus moaned and pressed finger to the bridge of his ol factory. "Chalk Talk, if anybody asks, I'll be in sick bay."

"Visiting Sunstreaker, Rodimus?"

"No. With a headache."

Galvatron heard the dismal voice of a defeated Rodimus and grinned. Groove let loose a single laugh. The Decepticon nodded at the Protectobot, grateful for the moment of fun. He lifted his optics toward the ship's deck upper level and spotted the Sunset Kummya not far from starboard. "Is everyone certain they've found everything?"

Groove hesitated and sent a silent message to workers on other ships. The response came almost immediately. "All's clear, Galvatron. Looks like we did the job. Kup will assign someone else to keep a look out for other stuff as the fleet moves along."

While Groove spoke, Galvatron caught sight of an off-color object protruding awkwardly from an exhaust hatch. "What is that?" he asked pointing toward it.

"What?"

"That." Galvatron climbed the smooth hull, bypassing wing retractors and a series of intake valves. Groove trailed after and kept an extra optic out for his peers. Allowing the Decepticon to do anything alone was asking for trouble.

Galvatron crouched at the corner of the Refractor's sonar/radar top fin and studied the arm and hand of some Autobot who lay bolted and buried under the panels. He slowly turned his optics from the body to Groove. "I think we have a dead one here."

The Sagittarian Mozart

Magnus lay flat on his back, recalling the time he, Rodimus and Blurr chased after Perceptor to Planet Zimojin. That world had such a dense structure that the tree he fell in hurt like hell; breaking him, not he breaking the branches. He compared Zimojin's rocks and trees to the walking foliate running loose on his ship. He wished this was just another of Rodimus' irritating pranks.

A bout of playful giggles issued from a blue-green shrub as it skittered along the hallway on long skinny roots. It hopped over Magnus with a soft grunt. As Magnus scrambled to his feet, the shrub paused, barked at him then galloped round the corner.

Magnus' internal comline bleeped. "THIS HAD BETTER BE FRAGGING GOOD! I'm BUSY!"

Unaffected by his foul mood, Magnus' communications officer answered with a calm voice. "Sir, I'm receiving a transmission from Rodimus Prime-"

"Didn't you just hear me Ambient? I said I was busy!-WHUMP!"

A pompom of leaves and twigs assaulted Magnus face-first. He lost his footing and slipped backward.

"Commander? Commander, is everything alright?" Ambient sighed out loud. "Sir, I'm sorry to keep bothering you but Rodimus Prime said they found a body on the Refractor, Sir. He wanted to let you know."

Magnus' fingers lost their way through the shrub while he tried to pry it off. When that failed, he searched blindly for his fallen rifle. The same ridiculous, playful giggle rattled through the shrub's short trunk before it whisked away, running at an unbelievable speed. Magnus found his weapon, rolled left and jumped to his feet, though not quite as nimble as his assailant. He heard soft rustling but could not pinpoint the source.

"Damn it!" he spat.

"Commander-"

"I HEARD YOU! And you can tell Rodimus Prime that I'm BUSY!" Ambient said something more but Magnus ignored her as his optics lifted and traced the upper corridor lighting. Stretching and snaking along at yet another unrealistic rate, a vine grew along either side, dimming the lighting and dropping festoons of bright white flowers along the walls.

Ambient sighed into the comline. "Rodimus, I'm sorry, but Ultra Magnus is currently unavailable."

"What? What the hell is he doing?"

"Fighting the alien plants, I do believe, Sir."

Rodimus stared at the consol in disbelief. His index finger twitched until the humor of the situation finally made sense. A slow mischievous grin spread across his face. "Ohhhh. I'm going to get some milage out of this one."

The Crested Moon

Rusti stared out the huge windows in her observation deck-turned quarters. Optimus was called away to the Dancing Siren. First Aid finally found the time to autopsy the Autobot Rusti discovered. No telling how long that meeting may take. Rusti hoped the femme was a casualty of the battle on Cratis, not a murder victim.

As she stared out the window toward the other ship off their port bow, Rusti suspected Optimus would not take her request lightly. She tried to formulate a logical reason why she should visit the alien ship. Just the fact that she was a 'big girl' held no water. Rusti lifted her eyes to the top sills along the windows. "Need to get on that ship," she said to herself.

The Crested Moon's computer called her attention: "TRANSMISSION FROM GALVATRON, MISS WITWICKY."

"Galvatron?" she repeated.

"Hi!"

Rusti turned about as a monitor unfolded from a pocket in the wall. The grin on his face forced her to return one to him. "Galvatron?"

"Yes, Ma'am. Thought I'd check in, let you know that the natives haven't tried to burn me at the stake yet. However, they might consider me a god. Been there a time or two-"

"Galvatron," she interrupted, "what are you doing? You're not agitating Rodimus, are you?"

"Is that my next assignment?" He read her body language. "No? No, you're right. He gets enough of that from everyone else. I say, however, we found a body."

Her face turned blank. "Huh?"

"As in a corpse? Lost in Space, was Rodimus' eloquent quip."

"Yeah, that sounds like Roddi," Rusti agreed. "Well, I'm guessing you want to spend the night right where you are."

Galvatron hesitated, "well, now that you mention it..."

"How's Cyclonus?"

"Mmm... bored."

An idea formed in Rusti's head. If Optimus and Roddi trusted Cyclonus with her safety in an alien city... She smiled. "Okay. Be good, Galvatron. Don't piss anyone off."

"Never intend to, Mizz Rusti."

"Naturally. I'll be in touch." she cut communication when he tossed her a cheesy smile. "Such a dork," she muttered.

The Dancing Siren

Optimus entered the exam room just as unhappy as Rusti thought. First Aid frowned and handed a sonic tool to Perigee. Galvatron greeted his friend with a light smile.

Rodimus reflected Optimus' demeanor. "Nice of you to join us."

"Nice of you to be here ahead of me." Prime countered. "Looks like you found something we don't need."

Roddi shook his head. "Don't look at me. Your adoptee here found Mr. Not-So-Happy outside the ship, lying down on the job."

First Aid slammed an exam tool down and received everyone's attention. "First off, his name was Klasp. Secondly, he was hardly lying down. He was brutally attacked first with a black virus program then savagely overloaded. His meta-processor is fried beyond recognition. There's nothing I can do to retrieve anything of him. He's gone. And to add insult to injury, he was spaced and embedded in the ship's hull. So how about a little respect for the suffering, Rodimus?"

Rodimus played it cold and sighed. "First Aid, not at this point, okay?"

Optimus folded his arms. "What have you found?"

The medic picked up a digipad and flipped screens. "Our friend here has been dead for several weeks. Probably died on Cratis. Whomever attacked him, knew more or less what they were doing. Premeditated. At first Klasp put up a fight, indicated by the scruff marks on his hands and face. My guess, Optimus, Rodimus, is that Klasp knew his attacker. And he didn't go down easily."

Rodimus leaned against the exam table, head bowed. "Waitaminute. You're saying he died during the fight with the Decepticons, right?

First Aid gravely shook his head. "This happened before that."

Roddi's optics darkened. "So now we have a saboteur and a murderer lurking among us."

Optimus stared at the face of an Autobot possibly murdered by his own kind. He felt responsible, as though he should have known something like this was bound to happen. "First Aid, what of Orca?"

"We're still piecing her together, Optimus. But from what I can tell, she died almost at the time we arrived on Cratis." First Aid waited for one Prime or the other to ask or remark. But Rodimus turned away. Optimus stared at Klasp's remains. His dark optics betrayed only the slightest hint of anger and sorrow. The medic proffered an hand toward the adjacent room where they stored Orca's broken remains. "We'll let you know the half-second we find anything, Optimus."

"I appreciate that, First Aid." the Autobot leader carefully tucked his voice into neutral. "Where is Magnus?" Prime asked abruptly.

Rodimus grinned with a twinkle in his optic. "Oh, Magnus? Let's just say that he's listening to something begging him "Feeeed me!" when Roddi read the question in his friend's face he rolled his head. "Not into Little Shop of Horrors. Okay. Magnus is taking lessons in xeno-horticulture."

The room fell silent for a long moment until Optimus shook his head. "Did you want to rescue the dearly distraught, or shall I?"

"Neither." Roddi answered immediately. "I think he should be left to his own devices-for now, anyway. Me and Galvatron here will snoop around and look for clues to our perpetrator. You need to go talk Rusti out of chasing ghosts."

"What?"

The Crested Moon

Rusti scowled when Optimus told her of what Rodimus said. There's just no keeping secrets from either Prime. "They're not ghosts," she corrected. "The alien ship is trying to communicate with the Autobot ships."

"We have linguists working on the computer, Rusti."

"It's not the computer, Optimus," she countered with some exasperation. "The ship... look, the ship and its computer are not one and the same. They're a part of each other-like your meta processor verses your body. Not the same thing but your body is a part of the processor. Your body communicates on a level different from your mind. It's the same way with the ships. I'm not hearing the computer, but the ship."

He stared at her a long moment, optics devoid of expression until his posture sagged. The Autobot cast his sight out the windows. Rusti just presented him with something more that required his time and attention. Weariness burdened his heart. Optimus felt he'd do almost anything just to get a break. "It seems that no matter what I try to do, something is constantly taking my time away from you." He rested his optics on her. "I'm not blaming you, Rusti," he added swiftly. "I'm guilty for dealing with issues that can easily be handled by someone else. Call it a habit. I need... I want..." he dejectedly bowed his head.

Rusti felt his frustration and sat in her chair. "You know," she tried, "that ship isn't going anywhere. We're not going anywhere-yet. How about we just let everyone else deal with things for a few hours? Take a mini vacation?"

"We can't go anywhere on vacation, Rusti. We'd most likely be stuck in this room."

Rusti snorted. "As if we've never traveled anywhere at all, Optimus! Good God! How many light years are we from home?"

"Twenty-"

"DON'T ANSWER THAT! Rhetorical. I'd rather not know."

"Heh. Well..." he avoided optic-to-eye contact a moment before meeting her gaze. "What would a vacation for you and I entail? It'd just be the two of us."

Rusti smiled warmly. "Yes it would! Britania has a huge movie database. We could watch a few more films, swap stories, play a game or two... just talk. We can also trade music." she winked. "And didn't you mention a bathtub?"

A beautiful light sparked his optics.

The Sabor's Claw

Pong nervously entered the gun deck along the Claw's starboard bow. Fourteen people from across the fleet surrounded a soft light globe. Each Paratron held a flagon of energon in their hands and an old digipad lay on the floor before the each of them.

Strike Back grinned and beckoned the timid maintenance worker to join them. His optics glowed with approval when Pong sat next to him. "Friends, this is Pong. He's new to our group."

"Welcome, Pong." they said in unison.

Strike Back laid a heavy hand on Pong's shoulder. "I can't tell you all how good it is to sit here among brothers and sisters from our own homeworld. Perhaps Imp, you'd share some of your poetry with us tonight?"

"Happy to do so, Brother Strike Back."

"Such a treat. First, Delta, my dear, perhaps you'd like to share with us things you've discovered over the week?"

The femme warrior solemnly shook her head. "All's more or less good on the Racing Beast. Unless, of course, Improve has anything to add.

He too shook his head. "I know the Witwicky girl was transferred elsewhere. So was Daniel Witwicky after some weird incident."

"What incident?" Strike Back asked.

"Some fight over his rights to use a digipad or datatablet. Rumor says he was using his to hack into other people's pads."

Delta laughed. "He such a clot!"

Other chuckles bounced from the circle and Strike Back grinned. "Colt! What have you to tell us?"

"All's the norm on my side. Just drills and recon. Drills and recon."

Strike Back pointed left. "Jacket?" Strike Back watched him shake his head. "Nothing?" he laughed. "In a fleet of nineteen ships and about a thousand Autobots and Pratrons, nothing is going on?"

Skipper raised his hand and lowered it when Strike Back pointed at him. "Um, I'm sure everyone already knows about the fight on the Confiscator." A few members shook their heads. "Well, I thought... well, maybe Silverbolt zipped everyone's lip components-"

"Out with it, Skipper!" Strike Back ordered.

"Six guys tried to take control of the Confiscator couple days ago. Rodimus came and put two of them in medbay with broken hands and legs." Skipper nodded when Delta and Pong gasped. "He tossed someone else into the brig and appointed newbies to the bridge."

The room stiffened with silence until Strike Back's voice brought the group out of shock. "Wow. It's uh... not exactly like either Prime to resort to violence to get a point across. I mean, is it just me, or does it seem like Optimus and Rodimus are losing their grip on reality? I dunno, seems to me like our leaders may not have the capacity to lead us much longer. Or, um, am I the only one who feels that way?" Strike Back carefully scanned around him and read his follower's faces. Their contemplative silence provided the only answer he needed. Drox raised his hand a moment later and Strike Back pointed at him, glad someone pushed the moment forward.

"Rusti Witwicky discovered Orca's body buried in the Sunset Kummya."

Delta frowned. "That little girl is spooky."

"Yeah..." Colt agreed. "Whaddo we know about her?"

"Not enough," Jacket answered.

Linear drained his flagon. "She's staying with Optimus Prime on the Crested Moon." His gossip was rewarded by gasps and avid interest.

Strike Back looked impressed. "Nicely done, Linear. See? That's what we want: inside information. Do you have anything more to tell us, Linear?"

"Not at the moment, no. She doesn't interact with anyone on the Moon."

Colt winced. "What's her connection to the Primes? Why is she so special? What do we know about her?"

"They raised her," Delta answered a little coldly.

"So?" Colt challenged. "They raised her looney father."

"Yeah," Delta agreed. "But they didn't treat Mr. Ankle-Biter like a national treasure." Several soft chuckles followed Delta's new name for Daniel.

Strike Back waited for more input but the circle fell wordless. "Well," he said at length, "I'd like to know more about her. How 'bout everyone else?" They nodded. "Great! So, Imp, how about that poem? And then we can close with a song?"

The Sagittarian Mozart

Magnus thought himself among the more independent, resourceful, reliable Autobots out there. For thousands of years, he led Autobots in Optimus' absence. Sometimes Magnus had to remind himself he was not invincible; that even the mighty elephant has problems with the mouse.

Magnus' mouse, however, came in the form of leaves, stalks, vines and moss. Calling Rodimus for aid meant the Major-general actually had no other options.

Magnus growled into his personal comline from the Mozart to the Horizon. "Rodimus, if you don't come and lend me a hand, I swear I will use whatever blackmail I have on hand to publicly humiliate you."

Lounging in his quarters, Rodimus lowered the latest recon report in hand and tried not to laugh. "Aw, come on, Magnus. Would type of blackmail could you possibly have over me? Half the fleet already knows about my stint in Mexico. And everyone knows about Ambassador Shavalam. That's nothing new."

"Two words, Rodimus: Victor Drath."

Rodimus knew Magnus was not talking about the weapons dealer himself, but the incident with the plutonium. He tabled the tablet and glared at nothing. "Yeah, you would bring that up."

"Bring Galvatron with you." Magnus swiftly added. He knew Rodimus would do anything once he mentioned Victor Drath. "I know it's not an assumption to say that you consider him expendable."

"I'll be sure to tell him you said that," Roddi snarled. He finished pouring through three recon reports before deciding it time to rescue the Magnus In Distress.

Rodimus seethed as he transformed and raced through the Horizon. While they waited on further forensics on the murder victim, Galvatron worked with a group of EDC staff on inventory. Rodimus strongly disliked such nitty-gritty work and he figured it was the best way to keep Galvatron busy and as miserable as possible.

He found the Decepticon standing before a secured shelf, tapping into a digipad. Captain Adorjan Sibert stood on Galvatron's left shoulder, counting large and small boxes in his native alien language.

Rodimus quietly approached Galvatron from the right and waited for Sibert to finish his row. "Hey," he said without malice. He shook his head when Galvatron grinned. The Decepticon met his optics without expectation. Rodimus peered at Sibert. "Uh, I need to borrow Galvatron, if that's alright."

The EDC officer shot Rodimus a glare. "We're in the middle of inventory... Sir."

"Yeah. I see that. You're doing a fab job. But I need to talk to your make-shift stepping stool here." Rodimus waited for Galvatron to hand his digipad to Arcee and left Sibert on the shelf. They found a quiet corner and Galvatron let Rodimus do all the talking.

"Look, uh... Magnus wants us to rescue him on the Mozart. I'm told something's gone really wrong with the plants from the alien ship." Galvatron only nodded. Rodimus inwardly cringed over the awkward moment. "Look... I'm not going to apologize for uh...being an arschloch."

A small smile touched Galvatron's lip components. "You can use the American term, Rodimus, I get it. I don't find a reason to tease you about using Earthen references."

Roddi's expression hardened. "Oh, that's such a relief. All right, flyboy, I won't hold back: I'm not going to apologize for being a dick."

Galvatron nodded. "I can respect that."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah. How much hell have I dished out? Hmm?"

"Quite a bit."

"See? There's your answer. You want my hide for a livingroom rug. Perfectly understandable. And now you want me to help you trim the lawn over at Magnus' territory. I don't have a problem with that."

Rodimus had no idea why he felt so relieved. Maybe the fact that Galvatron held no grudge against him-effectively forgiving him made the moment easier. "Temporary truce?" he offered.

"Yes!" Galvatron shrugged. "Least until I find another way to annoy you, certainly."

The Dancing Siren

Click. Whirrrrr. Clank. Squeak. Crunch. Click. Whirrrrr. Clank. Squeak. Crunch. Sunstreaker hated every sound that betrayed his movements. I used to be beautiful, he kept telling himself. Sunny made sure to walk behind Crossy and Sideswipe as they traveled from Deck Two to Deck Five. While it was nice to move and hang with his brother again, Sunstreaker couldn't shake his shame. He desperately wanted to turn into a tendril of smoke and dissipate completely.

"Here we are!" Crossy declared. "Rec Room Four. I reserved it just for us." She took one step over the threshold when Sideswipe's hand blocked her from entry. She stepped back, arms crossed, optics set with irritation.

"Look," Sideswipe said with determination. "I get it that you're just doing your job. But my brother and me don't need a tagging babysitter. How about a little space? I'll even pay for you to leave us be for a couple of hours."

"Bribery doesn't work on me, Sideswipe. And all you had to do was ask nicely. I'm not a tape recorder, you know." she watched his optics as he searched the ceiling for a sense of self discipline. Doublecross knew the situation was difficult for the two of them. But she had orders. On the other hand, she respected that Sideswipe nearly lost his brother. She glanced at Sunny's disfigured form. "Okay. How about two hours?"

"Four."

"Two and a half."

"Three." Sideswipe countered.

"Done."

"Thanks." He watched her go with dread building in his heart. Pulling up a quick smile he turned to Sunny. "How about that?" he shined, "got rid of the nanny!" he nodded toward the room. "Come on."

The Twins worked twenty minutes on Sunstreaker's physical exercises before boredom took over. They settled quietly on the floor against the wall furthest from the door. Sideswipe rolled a light ball between his hands and fingers and stared into nothing. Sunny said very little. His energy level lay docile.

At length Sideswipe visually examined his battered brother. He looked positively awful. The physical structure barely functioned proficiently. One optic flickered off and on. The faceplate garbled his words. He squeaked and snapped at every move.

"Go 'n say it." Sunny grumped. "I look like smelt.

Sideswipe averted his optics. "You almost died, Sunny. Made me an only lonely. I don't care what you look like. You're here-"

"And a laughing stock."

Sideswipe grimaced. "It yanks corroded bearings, Bro. But I still got my brother and I don't care if you've been shoved into a turtle shell. Y'know?"

Sunstreaker lifted his optics. His fingers, little more than gears and rods, opened and closed. "This isn't me. I'm not me anymore."

Sides gently nudged him. "Of course you are," he smiled. "You're just a little under the weather at the moment-"

"Not the point, Sides," Sunny snapped. "I look like a cursed set of K'nex. Seriously!"

Sideswipe glared. The construction toy analogy fit too well. "It's only a temp situation, Sunny. And no one will care how badly you look as long as you're alive. That's ultimately what counts."

Sunstreaker laughed bitterly. "Right. We go anywhere public at all and all optics will be right here: 'Eeewe, lookit the robotic freak!' You an' me can go join that Circus of the Dark, Swipes." Sunstreaker cringed when his brother gripped him about the shoulders. He sneered when Sides peered hard into his optics.

"Stop," Sideswipe ordered gently. "I'm telling you it's only temporary. Not more than a couple days ago I was watching you die. Is that what you want? Cuz it's not what I want for you!"

"As if it mattered," Streaker countered. "I've not been a laughing stock since Vetty's death. And now this." he waved his hands along his shell.

Sides covered his mouth and sank back, shocked that after such a long time, his brother mentioned their sister's name.

If Sideswipe had something to answer to that, it fell by the wayside when a mech and two femmes stepped into the rec room, completely heedless of its present occupants.

"Here we go!" one femme declared. "It's just perfect for hanging out."

Sideswipe recognized Trixy's easy-going voice. He peered over exercise equipment and spotted her, Jacket and Quill then ducked back. "Smelt!" he hissed. "We were supposed to have this room to ourselves for four hours!"

Sunstreaker shook his head and for a moment, Sideswipe saw a fraction of his real brother under the gangly robotic ware. "Just go and..." Sunstreaker interrupted himself. A weird light touched the outer corner of his right optic. Sideswipe dimmed his optics, uncertain and uneasy. Sunstreaker pushed himself to his unsteady feet.

"What are you doing?" Sideswipe rasped. "Get back down! I'll make them leave."

"Make them leave?" Sunny's voice strained with the volume. "Why, Swipes, that's not so nice. We're all friends here!

Trixy found them to her right. "Oh, we're sorry!" she called out. "We didn't know anyone was here. We'll come back later-"

"Not at all!" Sunstreaker objected. "There's always enough room for more players. Isn't that right, Sideswipe?" Sunny grabbed the ball from his brother and twirled it between his hands. "Volleyball?" he tilted his head in a slight smile as the three newcomers exchanged a glancing agreement among them.

Sideswipe set up the net. He didn't like this one bit but if the game kept Sunny's misery at bay for a while, then maybe it wasn't such a bad idea. He offered Trixy to start the game when Crossy popped in.

"Oh! Hello! Game?"

"Why, yes!" Streaker answered smoothly. "Swipes an' me here could use an even-steven player, Doublecross. Come along, Sweetness."

Sideswipe glared at his brother. "Will you knock it off?" he hissed.

"What?"

"You're acting weird!"

Sunstreaker shrugged. "My not-so-freakish-looking brother seems to think I'm acting strangely." and he laughed. "Really, Sides. You just need to shake the tension." Sunny rolled the ball to Trixy then waved his hands toward himself, beckoning her to start.

Doublecross caught Sideswipe's worried expression as she took the center back behind the Twins. Trixy popped the volley. Sideswipe sent it back.

Quill palmed it back.

Sunny rebounded.

Trixy caught it from her side.

Crossy saved the Twins.

Jacket slammed the ball, Crossy ran after the runaway sphere.

Sunny rubbed his hands together. "Nice job, Jacket!" he crooned. "Perhaps next time I'll cut your arm off and slap you with it." He shrugged at the disgust his peers shared in their expressions.

Without a word, Trixy started the next round. She hit too high and the ball flew out of bounds. Crossy jogged after.

"Fetch, Crossy, fetch!" Sunny quipped. "Such a good little Monsterbot! Would you like a monster munchie?"

Sideswipe stared at his brother in disbelief. Crossy started the next volley.

Jacket popped the ball up, Quill sent it over.

Sunny used the sides of both fists and slammed the ball into Jacket's face. "Whoops! Guess that went a little wild!" he ignored the glare as Jacket caught the ball and bounced it twice.

"Isn't that an automatic point?" Jacket asked. His glare turned icy.

Sunstreaker tilted his head. "I dunno. I'm just the court freak. Whaddya think, Swipes?"

Sideswipe kept his expression neutral. "I think it's a foul, Sunstreaker. They get the ball."

Sunstreaker waved his hand under. "See? There you are: a foul."

Trixy set the volley again.

Doublecross kissed it back with the tips of her fingers.

Quill pumped it up and Jacket sent it over.

Sideswipe bumped it with his fists and Streaker slapped it so hard its impact knocked Quill off her feet. The ball bounced the floor and hit the wall as Jacket approached the net.

"What the pitt was that?" he growled.

"What?" Streaker challenged.

"You got a problem or something, Sunstreaker? Cuz you're a little off."

"Oh," Sunny whined in feigned self pity. "Must you pick on the freak? Why not take it out on the Monsterbot, instead? Hmm? She's just as fugly." he gazed at Crossy over his shoulder. "Too tall, too big... no class whatsoever."

Crossy about lost her patience. "Shut up, Sunstreaker." she spit.

"You know what?" Jacket growled, "take your game and shove it up your pipe. See ya later, Sideswipe. Come on, girls."

"That's right!" Sunny called after. "Just keep walking, Jacket, you fragging cowardly little smudge! I've already made reservations for you in the Pitt; your very own little kiln, Jacket, with a special flux to wash out organic waste from your tailpipe!"

Jacket ducked the net and came scant inches from Sunny's face. "You're smelting lucky I have enough restraint to empathize with your current condition, Streaker. I don't bother picking fights with someone who's suffering from head sludge."

Jacket never saw it coming. The ground hit him. Sunstreaker's fingers drilled into his chestplate. An eerie, unnatural light flared from the Autobot's optics-

But he's just a skeleton of a creature!

A high pitched squeal emanated from Sideswipe's brother. It wasn't until something broke inside Jacket that he realized the attack was real, with deadly intent. "GET HIM OFF ME!"

They tried. Crossy, Sideswipe and Quill tugged and pulled with all their strength. Sunstreaker growled and screeched. He clawed Jacket's face and left deep gouges from optics to jawline.

Crossy let go, leapt in front of Sunny and stunned him with her weapon. The Dancing Siren's alarms blared. Sunstreaker passed out in his brother's arms while Trixy dashed out the room for help. Crossy stepped to the doorway to notify Captain Jemal of the incident.

The Sagittarian Mozart

"Sheriff Rodimus an' his deputy, Galvatron 'r here t' help out. So, what seems to be the problem, Ma'am?" Rodimus tipped an invisible hat at Magnus.

The Major-general's face turned to stone. "If this is supposed to be funny, it's not working, Rodimus."

"Well, Ma'am, not to worry. Whatever rod is up yours, me an' my deputy can find a way to get you some relief. All we need is a posse."

Magnus' optics flared with annoyance. "Just once can't you pretend that you're an adult?"

Galvatron tilted his head toward Roddi. "Very sad. Classic symptoms of denial, no doubt due to shock and overtaxing stress. I suggest you take the young lady here to a quiet and serene corner while we handle the situation."

Rodimus feigned surprise. "Should that include a tranquilizer, Mister Galvatron?"

"I was going to suggest a place with lace and flowers... a cup of tea. Maybe some chocolate... laced with ibuprofen." Galvatron kept his expression professional.

Rodimus paused, amazed Galvatron knew so much -well, he did spend time on Earth. He protruded his lower lip component and nodded. "Midol?" he guessed.

"Mmm. I was thinking more like Pamprin."

If ignorance was bliss, Magnus should be the happiest person on his own ship. He crossed his arms and glared.

"RIGHT!" Rodimus clapped his hands together and rubbed them in anticipation. "So what's the plan?"

Magnus frowned. "I have no idea. None. The ship has been all but taken over-"

"What of the crew?" Galvatron asked simply.

"Again, I don't know. Communications are cut to a bare minimum. Ship-wide com is down. Person-to-person is limited by a range of two decks."

Rodimus stared. "Well, that's weird."

Magnus' lip components twitched. "You don't know the half of it."

"Have you had the plant life examined?"

Magnus glared at Rodimus. "I've not had time, Rodimus. This forest came to life, obviously starting from the nursery on Deck Five."

"How many 'bots do you have on hand?" Galvatron followed.

Magnus calmed. "Twenty." He kept his face blank but enjoyed the surprise reflected off the two jokers' faces. "So... suggestions are welcome-er-" he held his palm against Rodimus, "serious suggestions, Rodimus. I'm in no mood for clowning around."

You never are, Magnus, that's what makes you so much fun. Seriously, however, I'd say we need a big can of RoundUp. Guess I left my handy-dandy stash back on Earth. And I assume you've shot the plants a few times."

"Incendiary blast. Red lasers, fire, weed killer. We kill some of it, it comes right back."

"It grows back?" Galvatron echoed. "Sounds like you haven't found the true source."

"I told you," Magnus retorted sternly, "the source came from the nursery on Deck Five."

"It originated from Deck Five," Galvatron agreed, "that doesn't mean that's where the plants are coming from now."

Magnus snorted.

A scratch-patter rustled in the room and Magnus' posture turned stiff. Galvatron and Rodimus glanced everywhere. Nothing moved until Magnus cried out and landed on his back. A large bush tapped over his chest and Rodimus leaned closer when he heard it giggle.

"What the hell?" he asked. WHOMP! Rodimus landed on his back with a resounding clang. He tried to pry the shrub off his face and rolled until it let go. The bush tumbled toward the door, pulled itself up on its roots and barked at them. It skittered off and Roddi rolled back over and propped himself up on elbows.

"You've got yourself a little problem, Mags," he understated.

Magnus glared.

They waited twenty minutes for all personnel within communication range to find their way to shuttle bay two. Magnus requested status reports while Galvatron and Rodimus hung back and let the Major-general do what made him feel more in control of a bizarre situation. Galvatron leaned against the wall, arms crossed and turned slightly to Rodimus.

"Have you thought that maybe your pet Virus did this?"

"Void?" Rodimus cringed at the thought. "No." he shook his head. "No."

"What makes you so sure?"

"Cuz the plants attacked Magnus. That's funny. The Virus doesn't have a sense of humor."

Galvatron absently nodded. "The Sagittarian Mozart has how many decks?"

"Ten."

"Good."

Magnus stepped backwards toward them as he finished his dissertation. "Any questions?" he asked. When no one offered, Magnus glanced at Rodimus and hoped the Autobot leader was not going to make an idiot of himself. He hung back as Roddi stepped forward.

"Alright, looks like we have a situation that's more like something from a bad cartoon series than our usual brand of 'ah,-shit,-whaddo-we-do-now'."

Magnus covered his face, mortified.

Rodimus continued, "And obviously, all the tried-and-true hasn't worked; not even foul language, per our esteemed and stoic Ultra Magnus." the smiles Rodimus received told him the Autobots were more at ease. "SO!" he added. "We need to be more creative. First of all, we need more IN-FOR-MATION. We'll marry off into teams of two and comb through the ship one deck at a time. We'll meet and greet back here in three hours. We'll wine, dine, whine and cry aaaaand... come up with something that will save the day. Questions? Commentary? Senseless advice?" Rodimus almost dismissed the group when he found Galvatron's hand raised. "Galvatron?"

"Well, it's more of a statement than a question, Your Roddiness."

Rodimus didn't know how to take the new name. "Okay," he accepted.

"It occurred to me that the plant-or plural thereof-displays some sort of intellect. I mean, it has a thing for Magnus, most certainly-and who wouldn't? Be that as it may, I suggest we try not to piss it off."

Magnus' glare intensified. "I'm the one that's pissed, Galvatron," he growled.

Galvatron pointed at him, "see? You react rather than interact, Ultra Magnus. Let that be a lesson, to you, mechs and femmes. Why don't we just talk to it?"

Magnus turned to his group, "company, pair off. Rendevous three hours. Dismissed!" He swung back to Galvatron. "You're stirring trouble. I don't need anymore trouble. You hear me?"

"Sure."

"I'm taking deck four-alone. You two can take Deck Seven." Magnus stomped off.

Galvatron and Rodimus watched the Major-general disappear through a corridor darkened by dripping vines. Galvatron pursed his lip components. "He's going to blast the plants."

"Yup," Roddi agreed.

"They're going to kick his aft."

"Yup."

"We should have rigged the ship's internal camera system."

Rodimus grinned but kept the secret to himself.

Thorn-strewn vines infested Deck Seven. Not that it bothered Galvatron or Roddi, but the five personnel they encountered complained of bad scratches on their exostructure. Worse still, the vines produced globules filed with a sticky resin. Stepping on the vines resulted with splatters of the weird smelling, unremovable substance.

Shark, former security officer from Fort Draco briefly explained how the alien plants plucked people off their feet and tucked them into pockets and crevices in the walls. Apparently no one has been injured; just inconvenienced.

Galvatron scratched the outer edges of his right audio. "Have the plants laughed at anyone?"

"Uhhh, laughed?"

"Did the vines bark at all?"

"No. But they... they slobbered."

Rodimus merely stared a moment longer. The situation shifted from strange to abnormal. "Where is the ship's nursery, again?"

"Deck Five."

"Huh." Galvatron traced the tendrils and ropes along the walls, ceiling and floor. "I'm going out on a limb and assume that you know nothing of any reports Magnus might have received about the infestation. Is that right?"

Rodimus winced at Galvatron's pun. "You really think Magnus made a report?"

Galvatron watched Shark disappear into the safe room without a word. "Rodimus, I'm the ignoramus around here. Don't make me make fun of you. Ultra Meticulous Magnus probably has a file on every scratch and dent on every crew member on this entire ship."

Shark returned with a set of digipads. He handed one to each of his betters. "I received the reports two hours before the vines took over the deck. I..." he shrugged. "I'm not science-minded. I can't make out what they're supposed to say."

Rodimus held his digipad up. "We can take these, right? You won't tattle on us?"

Shark shrugged. "Can I put together a wresting match?"

Rodimus nodded. "Send the request directly to me. I'll make it happen."

"Yes, Sir!" Shark grinned.

Rodimus smacked him on the upper arm. "Stay inside. Keep the ladies safe."

"Aye, Sir."

Rodimus led the way as he scanned his tablet, sifting through Magnus' personal inputs and critic on spelling, grammar and punctuation. It drove Rodimus nuts and sometimes he'd submit a sloppy form just to piss Magnus off. He stopped dead in his tracks, knowing that Galvatron was capable of following-or stopping-his lead. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," Roddi reread three paragraphs.

"What? What is it?" Galvatron peered over the Autobots shoulder strut and made a mental note to let Magnus know that reinquistion was not a real word.

"The report here says the plant composition isn't cellulose but of a mineral polymer and an elastomer hydrocarbon."

Galvatron processed the information then reprocessed it. "The plants are silicon-rubber life forms?"

"Apparently. That's why they grow back so easily."

Galvatron lightly shrugged. "Also explains how they're intelligent. Makes sense."

Rodimus nodded. "But where or what is their energy source? The ship doesn't seem to be affected at all."

"That we know of," Galvatron added. He visually traced the vines again while he and Rodimus contemplated the answer. "Erm... Rodimus, what do these ships run on?"

"Bipolarized protonic antimatter. Why?"

Galvatron nodded. "And what do you use to generate your shields?"

"Inverted hydro...carbon... plasma. Oh crap."

Galvatron nodded. "Which can be converted into ultra-violet light and condensed-"

"-into plasma isotopes." they both finished.

Rodimus forced a smile. It meant that the plants were feeding off the ship's shields and most likely the generators were down. "Nice."

The Crested Moon

Rusti sank into rare luxury. Hot water surrounded her like a warm blanket on a snowy day. All the tension lodged in her frame for months melted out of her. Pure bliss.

Optimus sat beside her and signed sixteen pads, authorizing or denying requests. The silence between them drifted into forty minutes of comfort. Rusti thought she could sleep enveloped in delicious, soothing warmth. But her head started asking questions and wondered about things. After fighting the urge to dispel the quiet, Rusti gave in and asked a question.

"Optimus?"

"Hm?"

"What happened on Monicus?"

He lowered the digipad and gazed at her. I fought my way to get back to you, was his first thought. "Not enough to complain about, Rusti." he answered softly. How did you know about Monicus?"

"Something Galvatron let slip. Something about ladies and a bomb boss and you blowing out an entire wall. Wanna reiterate on that?"

"No."

"Optimus," she eyed him sternly. "You asked about Laserbeak. I get to hear about the wall. Turnabout's fair play. I told mine." she waited while he held his silence. "You weren't in a bar fight were you, Optimus?" he squirmed and slightly shrugged. Rusti almost laughed. "Ohmigod! You were in a bar fight! Hah! How many fights in bars does that make?"

He dipped his helm to the right. "Finished... or started?"

Her first reaction was to deny that her Optimus never picked a fight. But she reconsidered and realized it was silly and childish to think Optimus was above picking fights. "Both," she replied.

He thought about it briefly while his finger tapped the side of his digipad. "I'd say close to three hundred. Give or take maybe twenty."

"Three hundred?" she marveled.

"Well, I was a bouncer for a while."

Rusti batted her eyes. "So you were a career trouble maker."

"I was not a trouble maker," he quietly objected.

"Optimus, you do not need to make trouble to find it; often it finds-and makes-you."

He tucked the pad aside, wiggled into a more comfortable position and focused on her. "Galvatron, Cyclonus and I were going to be sold to a slave master. I was ill. Galvatron had been poisoned and Cyclonus was the only one rational between us. I started the fight. Cyclonus got us weapons. I blew out the back wall and we escaped."

She nodded. "Huh. Just... blew a sizable hole in the wall?"

"no, no. no, no. I blew the entire thing. Never do half a job.

"Right."

"So I had to blow the entire thing," he repeated.

"Of course you did."

"I impressed Galvatron."

"That's not hard to do."

"Considering the state he was in? No, it wasn't hard." Prime's optics shined with the memory. "He was so intoxicated."

"I thought you said he was poisoned."

"He was. But he acted drunk." Optimus paused before his voice softened. "And the things he said..."

She waited but he said nothing more. To keep the conversation going, Rusti pieced another question. "What was either your favorite bar fight or the most memorable?"

"When I first met Ultra Magnus," Optimus answered without hesitation.

Rusti puzzled. "I thought you've always known Ultra Magnus."

"Oh... Primus, no. I did not meet Magnus until Megatron mysteriously disappeared. The Decepticons were leaderless and most of them were unwilling to follow Shockwave. So Magnus took up the role-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Rusti made a 'T' with her hands. "Magnus took up the role as a Decepticon leader?" Optimus' demeanor drew dead silence. Rusti waited for an explanation but all she received was the guilt on Prime's expression. "Ohmigod, Optimus... are you saying Magnus-our Ultra Magnus is a Decepticon?"

"Was," Optimus meekly confirmed. "He changed allegiances long ago."

The next bout of silence permitted Rusti time to draw another conclusion. "He's secretly a triple-changer."

"Yes."

"That's his original form?"

"Yes. Had he not defected, Magnus would have been Megatron's second in command rather than Starscream."

"How many people know of his changed allegiances?" Rusti tried not to consider the repercussions regarding Magnus' revelation. Questions no doubt tumbled from everyone's lips-Autobots and Humans alike.

"Four-that I know of. Rodimus, Kup, myself... Galvatron. I do not know of Cyclonus."

Rusti guessed Rodimus found out through the Matrix. Her eyes drifted out the windows and decided she had enough of the bath. She stood and reached for her towel when Optimus handed it to her. Rusti smiled sweetly with gratitude and carefully stepped out. As she approached her bed, the bathtub slid into the floor as though it were never there.

Rusti picked out the only comb in her possession and carefully untangled her hair. "You know, Optimus, that explains the poem Magnus recited to me a long time ago."

"Poem?"

"Something about a warrior."

Prime dunked his head, perplexed. "Magnus recited poetry?"

"I can't remember how it goes," she confessed. "But I remember it was cool and... I guess patriotic."

"I did not know Ultra Magnus knew poetry."

Rusti ignored him while digging her brain for memories. "It was Shatra-something." she bounced the comb in the air and concentrated until all she drew was a big nothing. Well, anyway, it explains a lot about it him. I wonder what convinced him to change sides."

"That, Sweetheart, is something I'm sure he'd rather keep to himself."

She nodded with agreement. The brief comfort quiet led her from thoughts of Magnus to Optimus. "Speaking of keeping things personal, Optimus, how are you? How are you feeling?"

"Better than I have been in a very long time," he answered quietly.

"Nightmares?"

He solemnly nodded and averted attention elsewhere.

She fixed her eyes on him a moment before slipping off the bed. She beckoned him, "come here." He neared as though expecting to hear a whispered secret. Rusti touched her lips to his faceplate just below the top fold then kissed him again along line. "I wish there was a way I could make you happy. I wish I could make all the bad things in your life disappear. I am sorry that the best I can do is listen, that I can't fix it, too."

"I don't need you to fix things, Rusti. You do far more for me than I can express with a few words."

She nodded, understanding. But she held onto her wish.

They ate and watched a bad remake of Crocodile Dundee. Optimus signed a few digipads for reports he forwarded to Rodimus while Rusti doodled on her precious drawing tablet. Two-thirds into the movie, Optimus slumped into sleep mode. Rusti tapped into one of three music stations Blaster currently ran for the fleet. No techno but he did play classical. It was better than the 'screaming' rock he liked so much. Rusti wasn't into country, either so she listened to Bach and bits of Beethoven and Claud Debussy. Strauss wasn't so bad, either.

At one point Rusti too fell asleep. Dark things and fleeting shadows splattered across her mind in a jumble of confused images and unnatural sounds. Voices spoke with half sentences and slurred words. One distinguished voice filtered through it all, sweeping Rusti out of the noise of her dreams and back to the present. Batting her eyes against the Crested Moon's exterior lighting, she sat up and listened closely. The sound milked through the air in soft resonance; a gentle blend of baritone melodies and sharp mechanical tones.

Optimus lay where he fell asleep some time ago. But he hummed, obviously not conscious of it. She picked out the notes, uncertain if she knew the song or not. One note lifted slightly then carried and dropped. Hum. Drop. Stop. Hum. Drop. Stop. Sad, plaintive, slow.

Optimus' left fingers curled slowly inward. The song in his dreams faded and Rusti frowned, wondering what haunted him. She turned away, disappointed.

He hummed again, the notes and tones came more pronounced. She turned as he slowly woke and shivered.

...cause God's stopped keeping score...

Did you cover your eyes when they told you

that he can't come back cuz he has no children to come back for...

Rusti caught the song and added "hanging onto hope when there's no hope to speak of... and the wounded skies above say it's much too late. So maybe we should all be praying for time..."

He nodded. "I don't remember the song, Rusti."

"Praying for Time, Optimus. By George Michael. Don't ask me the year. It was a thousand years before I was born."

"I think it fits how I feel."

Rusti settled back on her bed and roved her eyes about his dejected posture. "Did you have a really bad dream? You woke humming the song."

He slumped and hid his head under his hands. Rusti gave him privacy as he physically expressed his inner turmoil. All his stoicism dropped and she witnessed a person with doubt and fear. You can tell me, she thought.

"Rusti," he whispered her name like a holy word. "I've never said a thing to anyone about..." he searched the wall beyond her. She waited. What he had to say was very important and sensitive. "...it was after our rescue from the Quintesson space station. I fell into the Matrix and found myself... in a place reserved for Primus. I don't know. I was there, Rusti. I've been there before. But... I was always welcomed before. But that time..." he paused and stared, struggling between emotion and memory. "I've never... felt so rejected. I was nothing. I was dying and... and it didn't matter. Nothing mattered. All he talked about was the fight with Unicron... Rusti."

Now Optimus could not look at her. He found the darkest corner in the room and talked to it. "How do I come to terms with rejection by the one I believed to be God?"

The Dancing Siren

"NNNNNAAAAGHHHH!" Sunstreaker squirmed and kicked under his restraints. Apogee tried to talk him down while her sister prepared an energon shot to reduce the flow of power to his capacitors.

"SHUT UP, YOU SMELTING RUST BLOTCH!" Sunny's vocal unit approached blowout as he emitted a piercing scream. Fed up with his mouth and his behavior, Perigee slammed his head back on the flat and shot him in a tender area. That did nothing to improve his mood and he screeched another line of unrepeatable words.

First Aid stepped into the room, digipad in hand. "What by the Matrix is going on here?"

Crossy pushed herself from the opposing wall. "We have no idea. We were playing volleyball with Jacket and Trixy and Sunny started mouthing off. He purposely tried to pick a fight with Jacket, but I don't know where he got the strength-"

Sunstreaker growled, "Enim eno seeth." his voice growled in a pitch far lower than his vocal unit ever sounded. "Enim eno seeth." he repeated with a double voice, now; an echo that made everyone else recoil, unsettled and a little frightened.

"Put him out!" First Aid ordered.

Perigee obliged with a second shot. Sunny looked at her, his optics blazed with an eerie hatred. The femme gasped when she spotted something minuscule and black cross his right optic. It disappeared before she found her voice. He slammed his head against the flat-THONGK! THONGK! She emptied a full hypo's worth of Bienpolamed into Sunstreaker and eight seconds later, he conked out.

"This thing isn't working!" Sideswipe exclaimed. "Whatever it is, there's a... side effect or whatever and it's making him crazy. Fix it!"

"It's not a side effect," First Aid calmly answered. He tapped into the pad and handed it to Apogee. "Give me the reader, please." He took a scanner from his assistant and adjusted it to Sunstreaker's specs.

"What, First Aid?" Sideswipe demanded. "What else could it be?"

First Aid raised his optic visor from patient to impatient brother. "I will let you know when I find out, Sideswipe. Now give me some room and some time. Crossy, please escort him out."

"I am not leaving my brother," Sideswipe answer sternly.

First Aid slammed his pad on a nearby tray before approaching Sunny's brother. The medic stared him down. "I understand that this is hard for you. Something like this is hard for anyone. I can barely keep the Dinobots from calling me every hour to find out how Grimlock and Snarl are doing. I'm worried about Optimus and Rodimus. I have twenty-six humans barely living on life support. I have twice that number of Autobots in stasis lock. Not more than three hours ago I lost Lockback and Winker. I am exhausted, frustrated, low on resources and patience. I am asking you, Sideswipe, not to make my job any more difficult than it is. So please, go with Crossy. Get some rest. We will call you when something happens. Did I make that clear?"

Guilt over his behavior forced Sideswipe to cast his optics to the floor. He solemnly nodded. Incapable of expressing his overwhelming anguish and worry, he headed for the door. But then he paused for a final glance at his unconscious twin. Sideswipe hurt in ways he had not experienced in a long, long time.

The Autobot warrior treaded the hall, lost in an emotional jungle. Sorting through weeds of despair, Sideswipe sawed his way through all the possibilities his imagination erected. They all ended like deadwood strewn along the ground after a hurricane. He couldn't lose Sunny. He just couldn't. Sunny was all the family he had.

"Sideswipe!" Crossy grabbed him at the arm. "Let's head to the midroom-"

"Get off me, Crossy! I don't need a fragging babysitter!" Sideswipe yanked his arm from her grip. "Just leave me the pitt alone!"

"If you didn't need a babysitter, they would not have assigned me to you. I am not going to leave just because you said so."

In half a breath, Sideswipe slammed Doublecross against the bulkhead and held his arm fast against her neck, lightly choking her. "Let's make this clearer, then," he said. "I. Don't. Need. You. I want to be left alone. You are not my brother. You cannot replace my brother and I don't need a smelting nanny."

He didn't see it coming. She cuffed his mandible with the butt of her hand then sent him sprawling with a jab to the left audio. She straddled his aft and pinned his arms. Leaning over, the Monsterbot spoke clearly, softly and slowly. "You are not my boss. And even if you were not an assignment, I'd not leave you alone, Sideswipe. Because Roddi knows if we lose one of you, we'll lose the other and I for one do not want to lose you-even if you are a pissy, two-bit mechanism in serious need of a good defrag. You're not alone in this, Sideswipe. And I'm here to make sure you remember that you have people who care. Now let's get you off the floor and to the midroom for something to eat."

She stood then picked the shorter Autobot up and half dragged him to the elevator.

The Crested Moon

The sound of mutated mosquitoes whined and sang in her ears like a badly worn engine belt. Rusti ignored the sound at the start. She pretended she did not hear voices in the ever-increasing mechanical screams.

Those same screams chanted now, syllables refined into words. The high-pitched tones dropped to comprehensive notes. The notes turned into an unknown language. The language mutated into mathematical equations. The equations reorganized themselves into a visual:

"3÷57.√8... He never saw the whole equation."

She woke with a start, springing up with a gasp. Rusti choked on the sudden intake of air-

Sybifu en trainu tols. Sybifu en trainu tols.

She scrambled for her drawing tablet and wrote the words down as swiftly as they came and ended.

"Russsti?" Optimus' voice weakly disturbed the silent room.

She lifted her eyes as his optics dimmed on. Her visual focus drifted from her Love to the universe outside their windows. "I must visit the alien ship, Optimus. It's talking and I can't understand what it's saying."

He slowly sat up. "I thought you had to touch a ship in order to hear it."

She could not answer him; her thoughts bounced between the ship's communique and the bizarre dream she had before their exodus from Earth.

The Vertical Horizon

Galvatron and Rodimus picked their way along a vine-entrenched corridor. They knew the deck they treaded, but not the exact location. Moss carpeted walls and doors alike. Slender young trees took root amid piles of lichen lying on the floor.

Galvatron allowed Rodimus to take the lead. He kept one optic behind them, another above. Rodimus scanned the floor and the 'space jungle' ahead. Galvatron did not miss the plants' freakish ability to grow so fast in such a short time. He paused at one slender tree as it stretched and grew another inch. "How is it that we have not yet encountered the Mozart's crew? Shouldn't there be more than a few people around here?"

"About fifty-four crew members, five hundred, some-odd passengers and Ultra Magnus." Rodimus concurred.

"Soo... perhaps they're on other decks," Galvatron watched on as the tree's bark swirled and shifted until a face appeared. His face, to be exact.

"Perhaps."

Galvatron took a closer look at the tree trunk and in turn, the tree leaned forward, face peering back like a child copying the parent. He was aware Rodimus paused in his tracks and turned about face. The Decepticon lifted his right hand and wiggled his fingers in a greeting gesture.

"What are you doing?" Rodimus about grumbled.

Galvatron slightly turned his head, keeping optical contact with the tree. He grinned and the tree did the same. "Communicating... I think."

Rodimus glared. "If you're expecting it to start reciting Newtonian physics, you're going to be disappointed, Galvatron. They have to have a meta processor, first."

Galvatron turned, his smile never dimmed. "I knew a Decepticon who had one in his aft." He did not see the tree move four twigs that imitated his fingers.

Rodimus held up a palm. "Not going there," he sang.

"Can't say I blame you, Rodimus," Galvatron waved good-bye to the tree and the tree's branches copied the movement. "You'd have to declare yourself guilty as charged."

"Perhaps," Rodimus tossed back. "But I've always known my aft was smart-smarter than yours." He continued to maneuver over and around bundles of plant growth.

"But never as witty," Galvatron followed. "When your processor is stuck in third gear, you're obviously forced to compensate through pretense and grandstanding."

Rodimus halted and turned to his companion. "Grandstanding?" he repeated. "You're accusing me of grandstanding?"

Galvatron shrugged. "Can't handle that? How about acting ostensibly?"

Rodimus shook his finger at the Decepticon. "You know what? I am not going to talk to you for the next ten minutes. Starting now." Rodimus marched forward.

"It's the vocabulary, isn't it?" Galvatron tapped agilely and even flew a second to catch up. "You're upset because you probably don't even know what ostentatious means."

Rodimus swung around, finger pointed in Galvatron's direction, mouth open. But he remembered what he just said and silently glared.

Galvatron nodded, his face locked in a smile. He grinned openly when Prime again turned about face and marched onward.

Four minutes ticked into seven. Seven minutes stretched into twelve. Twelve minutes and counting... Galvatron's patience dropped like a wet sponge. He lifted into the air and landed two yards from Rodimus. "You're two minutes overdue."

Rodimus abruptly stopped again. "What's that?" he challenged. "The mighty Galvatron is undone by a simple silent treatment? Not as tough as you think you are. Ha! I could do this all day, needling my way under your exostructure without so much as a single word! I WIN!"

Galvatron opened his mouth for another retort when the vines along the walls slithered and rustled with movement. The two mechs stood still, waiting for the attack. No attack came. The vines wove their way in and out, back and forth, tightening and folding until Rodimus' face appeared in three-dimensional greenery.

Roddi stood there, staring with blank befuddlement. "Okay. Not something I see everyday." To further their amazement, Roddi and Galvatron watched as the imitated lip components moved as though speaking.

Galvatron lightly smacked Rodimus' arm. "Say something again. Keep it simple."

"Like what?"

The vine-crafted copy moved its 'lips' the same way.

Galvatron pointed to the 'vegitation face'. "Exactly like that. It's trying to communicate."

Rodimus frowned-and so did his leafy counterpart. "That's special. But uhh... kinda hard to speak when you have no voice." He watched the vine mimic his facial expressions. Rodimus held up his hands and spread his fingers outward, "sound effects!" he told it. Other vines snaked out of the nest and braided themselves into imitation hands. They too copied Rodimus' movements.

Galvatron made a visual scan, looking for another corridor. "Don't you have someone who knows plant life languages?"

"Botany doesn't come with a Webster's Dictionary, Galvatron. And before you ask, no, we don't have any psychologists or psychics who specialize in... Vaganese... hey, what are you doing?"

Galvatron approached the face of vines and searched until he found a root. He tugged on it without breaking and spoke into it like a microphone. "Hellllooo! We need to speak to someone who's in charge, please!"

Rodimus looked annoyed. "Oh give me a fragging break! Do you honestly expect a plant to conjure a synthesizer? It's an alien plant, Galvatron! Carrot sticks do not speak! And there's no brain-"

Rodimus cut himself off when a tangle of vines along the right side wall draped apart. He glared at the Decepticon before leading into the darkened corridor.

"Where does this go?" Galvatron asked after they traveled six minutes.

"Um, I'm a little turned-around. So-"

"You don't know," Galvatron finished. Rodimus grunted. "As I recall, Magnus said the plants started on deck seven, didn't he?"

"Uh, I don't quite-" Rodimus paused again when he spotted light seeping from a damaged set of double doors. He pointed to it and the two of them quietly approached. Rodimus pried open the door to his right and stumbled forward when it snapped in two. A heavy, thick vine snapped up and arched like a threatened snake. Galvatron drew his rifle to cover Prime.

"Wait!" Rodimus called. "I'm all right."

They watched the vine shrink and worm its way backward to the center of the room. Galvatron and Rodimus visually traced the vine until their optics beheld a great, broad tree. It squatted squarely on top of the Mozart's force field generator. Its thick, giant crown garnished the trunk like a leafy umbrella. The great tree's roots sprawled the room and braided among the vines. Clumps of lichen dangled from its branches like wind chimes while moss padded the floor, walls and ceiling. Both mechs surveyed the room as though transported onto an alien world.

Galvatron put his weapon away. "I do not think your Roundup will fix this, Rodimus." He ignored Prime's glower.

"Rounduprounduproundup."

The source of the garbled voice evaded both Galvatron and Rodimus. Roots and vines slithered and wiggled everywhere. Rodimus cringed. He huffed when Galvatron took a brave step forward, right hand held up.

"Hi!" the Decepticon greeted cheerily. "We're here to find out how to get you off this ship."

"Don't talk to it like that!" Rodimus reprimanded. "You'll tick it off."

Galvatron glared over his shoulder. "As if it speaks our language... or rather, yours."

"Speakslanguage. Language, language, language." Galvatron's mouth dropped open when the tree's base split horizontally. The wood curved and reshaped itself into a mouth. The leaves atop rattled and vibrated.

Rodimus, who also stared in awe, joined Galvatron. "I think you're right, Galves. I think there's more to this thing than creepy vines and barking bushes."

"Name! Name! Ssss. Here. Me. I. Ssss... yes! Yes! I have a name." the wooden lips moved clumsily at first. The roots and vines snapped and flopped about the floor as the tree struggled to communicate.

Galvatron planted his hand on his chest. "I am Galvatron. This is Rodimus. We will not hurt you."

Rodimus took that a step further: "We're sorry if we have."

"Ogbower. I...I. Here. Ogbower."

A root floundered across Rodimus' feet. He jerked away, startled. The root tried again. Galvatron forced the Autobot to stand still. "I think that's how it's learning from us, Rodimus. I suggest you just deal with the physical contact." Ignoring Prime's acid glare, he turned to the tree. "Ogbower, I am Galvatron. What do you need?"

"A can of high octane and some bad TV," Rodimus snarled.

The vines and roots retreated, clearing a path between the tree and the broken doorway. Ogbower displayed no eyes or ears. Galvatron figured the tree's vines and root system was its way of comprehending its surroundings. Ogbower did not speak until all its roots retreated around the base. That, of course, only made the life form that much creepier. "I... I am. I am Ogbower. We are not on Auvee 463."

Galvatron tilted his head to the right. "Is that the alien ship?"

"No. Might be their destination." Rodimus raised his voice and spoke carefully. "No, Ogbower. You are on an Autobot ship. We found your ship drifting in space." He frowned, doubting the simple life form had the capacity to understand a long sentence.

"Memory is unclear. They attacked. We drifted."

"Who attacked?" Rodimus pressed. He guessed the plant had the ability to speak all along but that it took time to learn to speak in Autobot.

"No names. No names. Much screaming. Sad. Life pods stolen. Children stolen. Rausk set the communication. I watched him perish."

Rodimus shook his head. "Might have been pirates." Galvatron wordlessly nodded. Rodimus berated himself for not thinking sooner; he flipped on his external communicator and tuned it for Ultra Magnus to hear their conversation. "Ogbower, we love how you've redecorated the ship. Green is groovy. But on the more serious side of things, we can't keep any pets. Is there a place you'd like to live? Uh, a cozy asteroid, or some remote planetoid... Middle Earth, maybe?" he grinned when Galvatron covered his own eyes.

"I... I make a ship. Go myself."

Rodimus stared, confused and uncertain. "Huh. Um... you're going to build a ship here?"

"Yes."

"Out of our... ship? That'd be a little expensive for us."

"Expensive."

Galvatron translated: "We need our ship."

Ogbower did not answer right away. Root tips slowly wiggled restlessly as the alien plant appeared to think things through. "Assistance required for manufacturing."

Rodimus and Galvatron made their way toward the elevators. All the plants shrank and disappeared, wriggling, snaking and walking their way back to the tree.

Rodimus attempted communication with the bridge.

"Hi there, Rodimus, it's Ambient." she sounded harried, as though it took an effort to answer him.

"How's stuff?" Rodimus asked.

"Uh, well, the bridge was... cluttered." the sound of tearing leaves and snapping twigs accompanied her answer.

"Did you guys get to have your own terrarium?"

"Yeah..."

"That's so cute. Listen, Darling, I need to locate Magnus. Can you do that for me?"

"W-well... my consol is sorta covered in moss. Am I going to get a rust rash from this?"

"Not likely. Give the moss a few-" Rodimus shot his gaze at Galvatron when Ambient squealed over the comline.

"It's moving! It's moving by itself!"

Rodimus cringed when he overheard another bridge officer call for a gun. "No! Don't shoot-" too late. The communication dissolved into static and Rodimus sighed. "Well... crap."

Galvatron nodded. "Decepticons, Quintessons and crash landings they can handle. But pit them against a patch of self-motivated moss and they fall to pieces."

Rodimus glowered. "Not helping."

Galvatron tipped his head toward the end of the corridor. "Come along. Let's find Magnus."

The elevator failed to so much as open. Rodimus stared at the double doors with a deep frown.

Galvatron leaned against the door frame. "You know, I could just fly-"

"No thanks."

"It'd be faster."

"No. No flying."

"Magnus-"

Roddi held up a hand to shut him up. "I said no. I'm not flying." The Autobot leader gazed at the right wall then the left and right again. He laid a hand on a set of three panels before choosing the middle. Prying it open, the panel led to the emergency jeffries tube. Rodimus clambered on first and led the Decepticon up a three-storey climb.

Lichen dripped moisture and Rodimus did his best not to complain about it; no sense in giving Galvatron something to tease him about. Of course, Galvatron did not bother to climb. He floated and played a private, silent game of yo-yo. He considered simply flying ahead of the stubborn Autobot who loved to do things the hard way. But Galvatron chose to respect Rodimus enough to let him do his own thing. Ten minutes later, they emerged from the tube onto Deck Four.

A thick slippery algae coated the flooring. Rodimus lost his footing immediately and landed face-first with a resounding crunch. Just to niggle on the Autobot's nerves, Galvatron walked/floated around him just scant centimeters above the goo.

Rodimus pushed himself up, slipped again tried once more and managed to hold position long enough to study the surroundings. Algae buttered the floor as far as he could see. But islands of moss lined the edges between wall and floor-just enough for one person to avoid the treacherous glistening goo.

Dignity well and gone, Rodimus crawled his way to the moss and stood. Algae slicked and dribbled down his whole front from the chin down. Rodimus looked as if he had eaten the stuff. He shot an acid glare at Galvatron. "Not a word of this to Prime. I swear you'll regret it."

Galvatron shrugged, palms up and open. "I did offer to fly you up." He cut himself off as Rodimus passed. The Decepticon allowed himself a small smile.

Roddi transformed and tried to drive through the goo but two inches of slime gave him no traction, no matter how he augmented his tires. Frustrated, Rodimus shifted back and walked along the mossy walls.

They passed three dark corridors until they encountered several trees blocking the rest of the way. Rodimus back-tracked and led Galvatron to the last corridor on the right. He paused and stared at the jungle of lichen dripping from the ceiling before giving Galvatron some visual attention.

"I've been trying to contact Ultra Magnus and I'm not getting an answer."

"Is he unconscious?"

"Possibly. I just hope Ogbower didn't damage him."

Galvatron lifted the left side of his face with a smile. "Of course. That's why barking shrubs are so dangerous." Rodimus failed to suppress a smile. Galvatron nodded ahead. "How about I simply fly around and locate him. It'll save time."

Finally a nod of concession. "Okay," Roddi agreed. "I need to contact the bridge again, find out what's going on."

Rodimus made six more attempts at communication before Ambient answered him again. "FINALLY!" he declared.

"Sorry, sir. The console's damaged-"

"Listen up," Rodimus ordered. "Tell everyone to stop harassing the plants."

"What?"

"It's all one organism and we need to stop trimming the hedges, Ambient. Tell everyone to stay put while we figure out what to do."

"But, Sir-"

"That's an order, Ambient!"

"Aye, sir."

Not a second after Rodimus cut communications when Galvatron popped up. He landed on the moss and wordlessly nodded toward Magnus' direction.

Two corridors on the right, one on the left and somewhere in the middle there Magnus hung, upside down and definitely out for the count. Thick strong vines cocooned him in a net and deftly separated his hands from his body.

Rodimus took an extra moment to survey the area. Dead, blackened and hacked plants smoldered, gassing the corridor with noxious fumes. Beside him, Galvatron scrunched his face with disapproval.

"This is not a Magnus in his natural habitat."

"Mmmm... park rangers recorded several complaints of someone shooting at the neighbors. I guess the neighbors took matters into their own hands." Rodimus nodded with a smirk planted on his face.

"Maintenance is going to be pissed." Galvatron cringed as a glob of smoldering lichen gathered from the ceiling and plopped on the floor in an icky, gooey mess.

Rodimus restrained his smile. "That's what Daniel Witwicky is for."

Magnus huffed, tired and cranky. "Are the two of you going to just stand there, your thumbs up your afts or are you going to get me down from here?"

Rodimus could not resist. He folded his arms and tilted his head, "Hmm. I dunno, Mags. You make an interesting conversation piece. Can I hang you up in my quarters on the Gabriel Genesis?"

"If you were ever ON your damned ship, Rodimus I MIGHT take you up on it! NOW GET ME THE HELL DOWN FROM HERE!"

Rodimus turned to Galvatron with a closed fist. "Rock Paper Scissors?" Galvatron silently laughed and bounced his fist in time with Roddi's. Both popped up Paper. "One more time."

Magnus growled impatiently. "What the hell are you two DOING down there?"

They bounced fists in air. Rodimus redid paper, Galvatron used rock. Galvatron stepped back. Rodimus drew his weapon. "Not to worry, Mags," he said smoothly. "Galvatron and I were just... negotiating your release."

Ultra Magnus grumbled under his breath then it dawned on him as Rodimus changed the settings on his rifle. "Wait!" Magnus tried to move. "Don't cut the-"

He landed with a sickening squelch and a thud. He growled and quietly set loose a string of foul words. Galvatron stepped back beside Rodimus. "Does he have... Prime insurance for such occasions?"

"Who, Mags? Doubtful. But what he lacks in finesse and paperwork, he makes up for with word and temperament."

Galvatron settled his hands on his hips. "Does that include Optimus?"

"Optimus?" Roddi studied him half a second. "No. No. Optimus is an entirely separate policy. Never quite as expensive."

Magnus pushed himself up with trembling arms. "I am going to kill the both of you myself." he snarled.

"Good to know, Magnus!" Rodimus answered cheerfully. "But for the moment, we need to take care of the plant. Its name is Ogbower and-"

"You talked to the plant?" Magnus' optics flickered bright, his face wolfish with ire.

Rodimus feigned discomfort. "Well... it was Galvatron's idea, actually."

"It was the root," the Decepticon interjected.

"He used a root to talk to the plant-"

"RODIMUS!"

"What?"

The alien plant slowly withdrew from the corridors, nooks and crevices around the ship. It could not, however, clean up those areas where ship personnel, passengers and Ultra Magnus hacked, burned and pruned. Most of the algae disappeared, also, but those floors slicked with its gooey substance still had to be mopped and waxed.

Meanwhile preparations were underway in shuttle bay two for Ogbower's hopeful departure. The alien plant requested the use of one shuttle; a means by which propelled itself through space in searched of a planet of its own choosing.

Ogbower produced apricot colored pods and instructed the Autobot workers to squeeze the contents along all the walls and ceiling in the shuttle bay area. The icky, foul-smelling substance dried and hardened into a crystalized shell.

It took a day and a half for one crew to hose down the shuttle bay with the nasty organic substance and much longer for three other crews to clean all the messes made throughout the Sagittarian Mozart.

Just as he told Galvatron, Rodimus assigned Daniel to clean the corridor where they found Magnus. Daniel didn't do the entire place alone, but he worked alone under guarded supervision. After verbally and physically assaulting two supervisors, Rodimus chose to supervise the madman himself.

"You really should be grateful for this, Dan-o." Roddi said absently. He sat on the cleaner part of the floor with a stack of digipads in front and either signed or read them.

"Oh, I'm supposed to be excited over slave labor?" Daniel sneered.

"Don't think of it as slave labor, Dan-o. think of it as time out of your cave."

"Ah, gee, Wreck-a-mus," Daniel sneered. "I feel so special. You wanna rape me, too?" He bowed clear over so Rodimus had a good view of his buttocks.

Rodimus smiled, though his optics stayed on the pad in hand. The mechanical 'diaper' was a stroke of genius and Rodimus wondered if there might be a market for them. "No thanks. Your butt is far more useful when it's worked off." Daniel only snorted and kept mopping.

Rodimus signed the current pad, authorizing minor repairs and improvements for Autobot personal quarters on the Alvarez. He set that on the second stack of finished work, picked up another pad and found it in safe mode. "What the hell is this?" he muttered. Rodimus cut communication between the pad and the fleet's intranet before he shut it down for reset. Rodimus waited thirty seconds and watched Daniel scrub his assigned panels. The digipad toned and Rodimus waited while it loaded.

The digipad toned again and at the top, the mini computer blinked:

USER AQUARIUS B94-1025-1018 REQUEST ACCESS DENIED.

With another glace at Daniel, Rodimus input his access code and requested report update on the pad and a table of entries. The digipad requested a waiting period while it compiled the necessary files. Rodimus thought it a little suspicious, but it might be that someone made an entry error and did not know how to correct it.

USER AQUARIUS B94-1025-1018 TO REQUEST SCHEMATICS FOR AUTOBOT ENGINEER KLASP.

USER AQUARIUS B94-1025-1018 REQUEST ACCESS DENIED.

Roddi's optics dimmed and narrowed. He internally contacted Magnus.

"Better be good," Magnus grumped.

Rodimus ignored his mood, "Mags, whose access code is AQUARIUS B94-1025-1018?"

"Uhhh... Redial's. Communications on the Crested Moon. Why?"

"Can't answer that. Not here and not over any channels. Meet me in my-hold on." Rodimus switched comlines. "Yours Truly," he sang out loud. He grinned at Daniel who shot him a death-glare. "Okey dokey!" he switched back. "Mags, I'm bringing you a present. Op wants me and Galvatron to check on something."

The Dancing Siren

(Author's note: please read "A Streak of Sun" before continuing with this part of the story)

Perigee's rounds started at 03:00 and did not stop until 22:00. The two hour break allotted her was barely enough time to rest and take a little snack. Sometimes she'd review patient charts while she ingested her tasteless rations. On her list of rounds, a total of eighteen patients lay in stasis lock. Two days ago, that list held twenty-three. The deceased slipped through her fingers like sand. The death rate and suffering ate away at her like a chronic rust infection. Perigee functioned on emotional and mental fumes.

No one said why the fleet had not moved out of the asteroid in a week. She wasn't sure if she cared. Her patients didn't care.

Among the worst was Sunstreaker. He used to come to medlab on occasion with a dent or two and shamelessly flirt with her. Now the same mech lay bound to the flat, his optics lost to the edges of pain and despair. Perigee visited Sunny first and again during the middle of her rounds and at the end of her twenty-two hour shift. No change. No change.

At least yesterday. Today he watched her movements. She spoke, telling him of the latest gossip, news from the Vertical Horizon and whatever she heard of Rodimus' activities.

"...why bother so much?"

At first Perigee wasn't sure she heard.

"You're so stupid, pretending you can save the world with a smile."

She turned, smile intact. "Oh, you did say something! Hello there!"

His faceplate moved but he said nothing else at first. Sunny's optics dimmed as he turned his head from her to the ceiling. "Cut the happy crap, Perigee. It's irritating."

"Well! Aren't you joy wrapped in a package. "The femme tried not to glare when Sunstreaker grunted. "I'll notify your brother as soon as I finish your progress chart."

Silence expanded between them. Sunstreaker tried to move his right foot. It moved, but the bearings ached; far from a smooth motion. He hated his body. "Progress, my slagged aft," he snarled at the last. "And I don't want to speak to Sideswipe."

"He'll want to speak to you, Sunny," Perigee did not look up from her digipad. "Besides, he'll kick my aft into next week if I don't tell him."

"It's not about you," Sunstreaker answered softly. "I don't want to talk to him. I don't want anybody to look at the new freak."

She scowled. "You're not a freak, Sunny."

"Yeah," he scoffed, "you have to say that. You helped put me here! Couldn't you have done a better job? Given me something that looked like a Transformer? Huh? You mock me, bitch!"

"That's enough, Sunstreaker!" Perigee answered firmly.

"THAT'S ENOUGH?" he shouted at the top of his vocalizer, "I'LL TELL YOU WHAT'S ENOUGH, BITCH! I'M LYING HERE LIKE A DISCARDED GARBAGE DISPOSAL! GET THE SMELT AWAY FROM ME! GET AWAY FROM ME!"

Sunstreaker bucked and jerked. Perigee prepared another hypo while security guard Epsilon Di stepped through the open doorway.

"Is everything okay?"

"Nope," Perigee all but sang. She aimed the laser injection at Sunstreaker's chin when his jittering body dropped quiet. She hesitated, uncertain. She counted to three when his optics shut off. The life signs monitor toned as all graph lines dropped. Perigee swore and patched into First Aid.

"I need help! Sunstreaker has flat lined!"

The Crested Moon

Rusti borrowed a sweater and jacket from Captain Littlefield. The Sunset Kummya's captain had a slightly larger build and her jacket wore dust and grease and bloodstains. But a jacket was a jacket. The last person she borrowed the brown jacket from died that morning and to honor her death, Rusti gave it to the officer's closest friend.

"You look good in uniform." Optimus observed.

The young lady grinned as she latched on a thigh halter bearing a scanner and small data tablet. "You're killing me, Optimus."

He silently laid in front of her and took her hand with his finger. "I am leery of you going there. We're still waiting-"

"Optimus, you're coming too."

"That's not what I mean."

"I know. But between you and Galvatron and Roddi, I'll be just fine." she studied his optics and found concern there. "What is it, really? You're edgy."

"Sunstreaker. He's not well."

"Perhaps you should visit him."

"There's nothing I can do for him, Rusti. He's losing his mind."

"What about the alien ship? Was there anything on there that was useful?"

"Not for us, no. The life forms were apparently silicon-organic."

She blinked and thought it through. "Kinda like your morphobot pet plants?"

"Shh! That's still a secret."

Rusti laughed. "Okay."

Cloudstreaker piloted the shuttle off the Hannibal's Mark to the derelict ship. Rodimus sat beside her at navigation and made funny noises for each button he pressed. He glanced sidelong at the shy femme and smiled. She tried to keep a straight face and barely succeeded.

Roddi sat back and left the driving to her. But after two point nine minutes, he swerved his seat so that he faced her. Cloudstreaker dithered slightly under his scrutiny. Easy prey. "So!" he exploded in an easy-going voice. "Come here, do this often?"

She skirted a glance at him. "Sir?"

"Shuttle craft." he answered. "You know; bussing people to Point B and back?"

"Uhhhh..."

"I said 'bussing', not 'bossing."

"W-well, not normally-"

"Right! Cuz you're usually the bus yourself... so to speak."

"Hu?" confused, she gave him a little more attention.

Rodimus let loose a short laugh. "You talk too much, Cloudstreaker. Honestly, I can't get a word in to save my sanity." Rodimus got his reward. She smiled fully and relaxed.

Cloudstreaker nodded, understanding that he was messing with her. "I guess I'm worried about Arcee, Sir."

"Oh yeah? What of her? Is she in medbay?"

"Med-? No. No. It's Daniel Witwicky."

Rodimus set an elbow on the navigation consol and rested his head against his hand. "Oh yeah? She misses him?"

Cloudstreaker quietly huffed and shook her head. "No, Sir. He won't leave her alone. Don't tell her I said anything. She's... I'm worried about her."

"Oh yeah? Why so?"

"He has a knack for finding whatever digipad or tablet she's currently using and sends her nasty messages. She tries to erase them, avoids opening them. But..." Cloudstreaker shook her head and shrugged a shoulder. "I mean, I've helped her a time or two-"

Rodimus did not like what he was hearing. They already severely restricted Daniel from social activities. He'd almost hate to take electronic communication away from the bastard. But if Dan-o can't play nice...

"It's just that Daniel Witwicky is resourceful, I guess."

"Too resourceful, from the sound of it, Cloudstreaker." Roddi concurred irritably. "What exactly did you do to help out?"

Cloudstreaker stared straight ahead, clearly nervous. "I... well, I mean, it only worked for a while, long enough for him to find another digipad-"

"What did you do, Lieutenant?" Rodimus sat up, suspicious.

"I... I set up a virus that recognized only Daniel Witwicky's personal codes so that when he used more than one foul word, the digipad or data tablet would explode in his hands. Well, not really so much explode like a bomb, since the tablets aren't designed-and I know I'm going to be reprimanded for planting a virus, but I was only trying to protect Arcee-"

Rodimus crossed his arms and bore holes into her with his optics. "Cloudstreaker," he said firmly.

She winced, knowing her confession landed her in serious trouble. "Aye, Sir."

"Can I have your autograph?"

An hour later Cloudstreaker smoothly tucked the shuttle into the alien craft's docking bay. Rodimus gave her all the scanning readouts and she expertly guided the aircraft in with no visuals.

"Niiice!" Roddi praised. She smiled, grateful for the praise. Rodimus stood while the crew of seven gathered their equipment and prepared to board the ship. "Oky dokey, everybunny, listen up! Pairs of two. 'Cept Galvatron. He can go alone-and first- so if we hear him scream like a little girl, we'll know there's something dangerous on the ship."

Rusti turned shocked and annoyed. "Rodimus!"

Galvatron behind her double checked his weapon. "Not to worry, Mizz Rusti. I can take the abuse-"

She turned to the Decepticon, "Don't interrupt me when I'm defending you!"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"And you're with me."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Wait a minute!" Rodimus objected. "You're leaving me alone with Optimus?"

Rusti nailed him with hard grey eyes, "No. You can wait in the car."

She led Galvatron off the shuttle craft and Rodimus looked to Prime. "What are you laughing at?" Roddi sharply asked.

Optimus nodded toward the exit. "Game of wits with a twenty-one year old. You lost."

Rodimus and Optimus traveled with Cloudstreaker while Highbrow and Pontiac from the Hannibal's Mark headed for the bridge.

Rusti did not need a guide to point her to the bridge. She treaded long corridors utilizing her exosuite's scanners to guide the way. The ship's interior spoke of disuse, slightly frosted by the temperatures in space. Rusti paused a moment and closed her eyes. The ship felt old, as though it floated through space for ages uncounted. Yet the vessel's physic bespoke of a well-preserved piece of equipment. She touched the wall to her right. Images and equations shot through her head and Rusti blinked twice before pulling away. She could not describe to herself exactly what it was.

"There are laser burns along these walls," Rodimus observed. "But I don't recognize the power signatures."

His remark brought Rusti back to the moment. She stepped aside when Cloudstreaker approached and took a reading. The femme shook her head. "I don't... I don't quite know..." She did not shy away when Galvatron leaned over and read her findings.

"Tri-polar electromagnetism."

Cloudstreaker studied the Decepticon's optics. "How's that possible? Electromagnetism only has plus-minus."

"An additional inverted proton can be used. But it's temperamental. I have no idea what kind of weapon this is."

Rusti ignored the ensuing conversation. She heard Optimus and Roddi mention how that finding was not in the report. Someone's head was going to roll over that one, the young lady mused. She continued down the hall, knowing the party of 'adults' did not need her useless input. Rusti dragged her hand along the metal wall, hoping the ship sooner or later might notice she was trying to establish contact.

Zeta-trilithium charging boosters.

Rusti paused and lightly tapped her fingers on the wall, waiting. The bridge lay just around the corner. The landing party still conversed eight yards down the hall.

Galvanized titanium outer plating reinforced with braided isotopes...

Static disrupted Rusti's connection and she flinched. Her eyes climbed the wall before her. Metal fatigue revealed itself in the patches of rust; a reaction to the deep freezing temperatures. The lack of light forced her to rely more on her helmet's scanners than her own eyes and Rusti wished she could see better. She switched scanners two then three times before realizing her readings shifted between frequencies.

"I think I found something here," she called to her companions. She stepped back as they broke up their conversation and approached.

Cloudstreaker scanned the wall. "I don't read-wait a minute." she lifted her arm higher and the scanner blinked with enthusiasm.

Rodimus came to the forefront and dug his fingers into the panel seams. He tugged and grunted and tugged further while everyone else stood back and watched. He released the panel, took a step in reverse and shot the seam with a low setting from his arm weapons. The plating cracked in a spider-web fashion. Flakes of metal plinked and shattered as they hit the floor. Rodimus tackled the panel again and this time it fell to pieces under his grip. He shot out of the way as a body crashed on the floor like a slab of petrified wood.

Rusti swallowed her scream and flinched. Cloudstreaker cast a light on the frozen figure and revealed an alien with a sad and frightened expression. His huge hazel eyes stared into nothing. His thin lips drew tight with fear. He clutched a bronze cylinder in his arms. Bandages wrapped his left arm and his clothing offered clues of a fight his crew did not win.

Rusti could not look away. The image disturbed her in ways she could not describe. A presence tugged the young lady's senses and Rusti listened in while Cloudstreaker deduced the cylinder contained data crystals and chances were, she could play and translate them on the ship's bridge. Rusti searched the dark and the ship, tuning out dialog and working hard to decipher the ship's alien dialect.

"Out from the air. Out from the air. Crew died first. Terrible fight. Life support systems collapse. Call for help! Call for help!"

Rusti mentally pulled away. "Optimus, the ship's name is the Imperium. It says the invaders, or pirates, phased onto the ship from nowhere. They attacked the crew first then the passengers and eliminated all life support systems. The ship doesn't know why the pirates only took the crew and passengers."

Rodimus nodded. "Well, that's a good start. Shall we find the bridge?"

Rusti overheard Optimus communicate with Highbrow and Pontiac through general comline channels. They confirmed all was well but found body parts strewn across the flooring. Some sort of iced goo frosted the safety rails and stairs leading to the engine core-or the doohicky that contained the engine core. They promised there was a good chance the ship's engines might still work.

Rodimus and Cloudstreaker led the team forward. The corridor wound into an open room furnished with computer consoles, chairs and three decomposed bodies. Cloudstreaker immediately took the seat in front of the navigation panels. She wiped iced dust off the board and scrutinized the controls. In three switches, she powered on the lights and most computerized equipment.

"Nicely done!" Rodimus praised. "What TV channels does this thing get?"

Rusti could not help herself: "PBS, Rodimus. All of them. And they're playing Antiques Roadshow."

Rodimus didn't skip a beat, "Well! Kup, Optimus and Magnus should enjoy that. They're all older than most of the stuff shown anyway-"

"I got something!" Cloudstreaker declared. She took a data crystal and slipped it into the navigation board. Tweaking the controls, she televised the picture of an alien sitting in a chair, talking.

Roddi approached the consol, smirking. "What's that, Cloudstreaker? This guy doesn't speak either English or Autobot?"

Rusti half listened to Rodimus, half to the ship. The Imperium complained of disjointed and unbalanced equipment. A constant ache in the lower decks radiated from a foreign source along the starboard bulkheads.

"We... all of us... landed..."

Rusti, Galvatron and Optimus watched the main viewer while Cloudstreaker worked to translate the alien language. Optimus turned away and contacted Highbrow for a status report. Galvatron examined the weapons and security consol at the left side of the bridge.

"We...all of us... landed... tried...psychic assault..."

That got everyone's attention. Rusti's eyes shot wide and she wondered if that's what the Imperium meant.

A soft thrum vibrated through the Imperium and all the bridge's lights and control panels came to life. Rodimus praised Pontiac and Highbrow for good work then turned back to Cloudstreaker.

The ship's main comline bleeped Pontiac's voice wavered with fear. "Optimus?"

"This is Prime," Optimus automatically answered.

"Sir, we need to get off this ship and as far away from here as possible. Immediately."

Rusti thought about the warning. "They planted something here," she deduced.

Rodimus gave Optimus a puzzled look. Optimus stared at the screen as Cloudstreaker waited for the computer to complete the language compilation. "What is it?"

"A gravitational singularity signature, sir the seed of a black hole. We don't know its exact location, but we're getting feedback responses from it."

"Evacuate the ship," Optimus ordered.

"Wait!" Cloudstreaker cried out. "I got it!

"I, Captain Igduthannal, warn all people who board my ship. Turn the power off. Go back the way you came and never return or attempt to save us. We have seen the face of the devil. We are, all of us, regretful. We landed in the quiet of Hell. We lost many friends when we tried to escape. But the place was haunted and we suffered sore distress from psychic assault. Go back. Go back now and never return this way again."

Rodimus flipped off the video. "Okay, you heard the guy. Let's make like a bird-" he stood straight and answered an internal call from his ship, the Gabriel Genesis. "Roddi!" he sang.

As Rodimus listened in, Optimus and Galvatron crossed optics and inched toward the exit.

Rusti wanted to pretend she did not know the ship's pain spread further and more quickly. Optimus scooped her off the floor and they headed to the shuttle. The other two members of their team met them there.

Pontiac packed six crystals into his containment box and nodded to Rodimus. "We shut everything down, Sir. But it's not stopping."

Rodimus nodded. Cloudstreaker boarded the shuttle first. Rodimus climbed the plank while Galvatron stood behind Optimus.

A deep cold tugged at Rusti's spine. She breathed in the dark. Her vision tunneled and Cloudstreaker screamed.

To Be continued.

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