Author's Note: This is Dark Storm Rising Chapter 12, not a stand-alone story. Due to the extensive length, it was necessary to make Croix Insepency its own title with sub-chapters. Warning: psychological and medical horror.

Croix Insepency

ADAGIO

The spiritually dead cursed the name of their creator and defied laws specified against generating new species. Anything wrought of the spiritually dead came devoid of soul; the initial definition of 'monster'.

The First Ones, the Old Ones, had the power and permission to procreate and breathe life into all things insentient. But many of the Old Ones, led by Son of the Dawn, counted the laws unfair. They were, after all, endowed with gifts. In their arrogance, they chose rebellion and brought forth Things from the darkness of their own soul.

Old Ones such as the Randuuth Alveem and the Eeiithuu birthed into the universe abominations such as the Oco Dygaluu (called The Burd) and Pryth, the alter on which sacred things were sacrificed.

Unsatisfied with their insentient creations, the Old Ones tore archways into other dimensions. They encountered Nameless Things, bred with them and issued forth the Ah-Raun, the Mornorth and the Inoux.

The Inoux lived outside the light; their souls long burnt by the deeds and teachings of their parent races. Against the governing of their conscious, they traded arrangements and pacts with other species of similar ilk such as the Whrog, the Therskani and super creatures such as the Randuuth Alveem.

One such arrangement included the black market trade of DNA. The Randuuth Alveem never disclosed the reasons behind their desire for specimens. But they always paid well.

No timetable exists to pinpoint the moment when the Randuuth-Alveem, the Quintessons, successfully created the one life form they believed capable of life-force destruction.

The Virus resembled a blob of dark blood. It ate. Pleased with the results of thousands and thousands of laborious years. The Quintessons implanted their corrupted anti-life form into a life-giving entity.

They waited several years.

It sat, dormant, adjusting to its new environment while life force energies bathed it with life and breath. It ate.

It ate. Then it took breath.

Little by little, the Virus devoured light and it breathed in those things of the soul. The Virus, now affected by the breath and the light, learned. It grew and learned and rather than eat, the Virus stole and devoured.

At what point did It take on a name?

It was not a name but knowledge of Its occupation. For the object grew and touched by life, it became aware. It was Void and Darkness; a hole in the light, a parasite. It understood.

It knew the Matrix and thrived and devoured each spectrum of light, took in every breath until It knew Optimus Prime.

And Void grew; a thing wrought of evil intent planted in the womb of an entity possessing self awareness.

It knew Rodimus Prime.

Void learned movement and control and slipped from space to space. It played in the shadows and crevices of those areas now devoid of Matrix energy. The Virus devoured and grew, festered and disrupted thought. The Virus secreted sadness and fed on despair. It tore holes in hope and joy and gorged on the blood of a broken heart.

Then Void encountered a Human.

Not that the Virus knew anything of flesh and blood. It had no capacity or vocabulary with which to deal with an alien. Void was not initially programed to deal with other life forms or possible encounters. So it did nothing but stare and struggle to ponder. After all, its feeding ground lay along Cybertronian life force frequencies.

And because of that very fact, Void waxed strong and stepped outside it hunting grounds. It learned and expanded and upon its expansion, discovered the rich smell of despair, self loathing and depression.

The Virus found for itself a new ground upon which to feed. Oh, it tasted quite different from Rodimus Prime and Optimus Prime. Very different, but no less fulfilling.

It neither annoyed nor frustrated Void that It could not pronounce Sunstreaker's name.

"Choth, ime pyr croix insepency."

"Choth, ime pyr croix insepency."

"Choth, ime pyr croix insepency."

Jasmine Goodwin sat in her customary position and rocked back and forth. Her long, unkempt hair hung limp over her shoulders and back. Her eyes, reddened by lack of sleep, stared into nothing. Her ashen face resembled a death mask.

The lanky woman did little more than sit and rock, repeating the phrase over and over; a mantra from lips so thin, they almost lost their color.

The alien female, assigned to care for the quieter half of Jasmine shook her head, sadly frustrated. Ms. Bla'Antha was visiting Fort Sonix when death and hades rained on Earth. She lost everything and volunteered to watch over the unfortunate human lady whose body, mind and soul split during the ion storm on Cratis. It broke Bla'Antha's heart to watch day by day as Goodwin faded from life and reality. The EDC officer's case study, now logged into the files of Autobot science journals, promised to tell of her memory as a curious phenomena. But the journals said little of her suffering. Whatever hell Goodwin endured, articulated or not, lay between the soft-spoken repetition of her quieter half and the ear-shattering screams spewed through spasms of insanity by the other.

"Choth ime pyr croix insepency."

"Jasmine, hon, I managed to find some fruit juice for you. I'd really hate to inject fluids into you again, Dear. But you need something. Jasmine?"

"Choth ime pyr croix insepency."

Bla'Antha offered a watery smile, her large green eyes batted back tears. "How about you and me go for a short walk? It'll do you some good."

"Choth ime pyr croix insepency."

It hurt Bla'Antha to admit that Jasmine, who walked and talked not more than two days ago, wasted to nothing. The alien care provider wondered everyday if that day was the one she'd find Jasmine dead. "Hon, I-I'm going to be right back, all right?"

Bla'Antha left the cell. The door clanged cold behind her; the sound echoed in Jasmine's mind. She stopped rocking. A vision shot through her mind as if she traveled through time. She stood in a room filled with cages and prisons. Light flooded the place devoid of occupants.

"Criox..." Jasmine froze. The vision shifted to walls and floors painted in blood. Distant screams demanded help or the cessation of torture.

"Croix..." other voices called, alarmed over an untranslatable event.

"Croix..." Jasmine heard the cacophony of klaxon alarms, people cried in terror.

"Croix..." some invisible force swallowed them, not just the sound, but their whole selves, vanished from existence.

All strength and life drained from Jasmine as her breath left her. "Croix insepency."

The insane side of Goodwin stopped shrieking and died with her eyes wide open. Jasmine's quieter side flopped bonelessly to one side.

The singularity emanated from the alien ship shot forth and enveloped the entire Autobot fleet in a burst of light, gravity and quanta-dimensional radiation.

Magnus woke first. Pain tapped across his form like billions of heated needles jammed into his sensors. He struggled against the fire and writhed along the floor. He lifted one trembling arm toward the closest wall, seeking reality in the form of physical stability. "Mozart," he weakly called, "release... release... the fire extinguishers... code Senior Alpha, fourteen... chan."

RECOGNIZE CODE SENIOR ALPHA FOURTEEN CHAN

Soothing, fire-retardant water bathed the walls and floors in the bridge and along the main deck. Magnus rolled onto his back and reveled in coolant half a moment before sternly ordering himself up and at the controls.

"Ambient, up and at it, Soldier. Now."

The communications officer stifled a moan as she forced herself back into her chair. She winced and lifted her face toward the coolant. "Sir?"

"Contact the other ships. Get me Jazz, first."

"Aye, sir."

Magnus patched into the ship's main system and ordered coolant released on all decks. He patched into ship-wide communication: "This is Ultra Magnus. Report to your deck supervisors immediately. I want status reports in ten minutes. Science officer, report to the bridge. I repeat, science officer, report to the bridge."

"Sir," Ambient twisted round as she forced herself to keep moving. "All ships computers responding under duress, sir. The Dancing Siren is reporting engine failure." she paused, head bowed then met her commander's optics. "I have Jazz, sir."

"Good. I want you to access all other ship's computers and order coolant release on all decks." Magnus forced himself to stand as he faced Jazz on the main viewer.

"What the hell jes' happened?" Jazz's frame smoldered. His navigation consol snapped with damage.

"Jazz, are you receiving us?"

"Yeah, I see your ugly mug, Magnus. An' I gotta ship full of overheated Autobots and three dead Eurians." Jazz unexpectedly slumped in relief as his ship's coolant systems rained on all decks. "Oh, that was an awesome idea," he mumbled.

"I need your help, Jazz."

"I'm already there, Big-M. Gimme ten an' I'll get ya reports from my side a' things."

Jazz signed off and Magnus slumped just enough to soften pain. "Ambient... contact Optimus, if you can."

"Working on it, Sir." Her fingers typed along the console while Magnus claimed his seat.

Magnus undid a small compartment in his chair and produced a datatablet just as the bridge doors swished open.

"Pyrite reporting, sir," the young Autobot declared.

Magnus did not look at him. "Why weren't you on the bridge to begin with, Pyrite?" he asked dangerously.

"Investigating a case of power crystals from the alien ship-oh, Primus."

Magnus shot a glance in the science officer's direction then followed his shocked gaze to the main viewer. An object swiftly approached their trajectory. "What the Pitt...?" All the stars vanished as a rocky grey object neared the fleet. Magnus took to his feet while Pyrite flew to his station. "Ambient," the Major-general called, "get me Optimus Prime."

"Trying, sir. But I have a lot of electromagnetic interference-"

"Pyrite!" Magnus' impatience ate at him.

"On it, Sir! It's a solid mass comprised of nickel, agate, brannerite and... and gold, Sir. But um, more than that..." Pyrite magnified the object in question, "...it's an asteroid with what looks like a science station." Silence followed Pyrite's report. The image depicted a series of circular buildings and a large glass dome. Landing pads stretched in three directions, clearly illuminated with phosphate and magnesium lighting.

Navigation officer, Traffik gasped and punched his controls. "Tractor beam, Ultra Magnus! We're being pulled in!"

"Reverse thrusters! Ambient, have you-"

"No, Sir. We're being hailed by the Hannibal's Mark."

"On viewer."

Gryph's frightened optics came up. "Magnus!" Static distorted her voice and face.

"Gryph, what's wrong?"

"All 'r weapons... been disabled... 'peat, wea-ns dis..." Her voice faded out.

"Traffik, get me an outside view of the Mark." Magnus waited point six seconds and the bridge crew watched as the powerful Autobot ship, the Hannibal's Mark lost all power and raced for the science station.

"Sir!' Ambient cried, "I got something on subspace frequencies, but it's not Optimus Prime-"

The Sagittarian Mozart lost all her power. The bridge snapped into darkness and the ship rammed though space out of control.

All things hungry hunt. But not all hunting is from the hungry. Can't choose. Hungry? Or just hunt? Can't choose.

Optimus stared at the Virus as it sat in front of him, legs folded in a relaxed manner, too much like a cat. "Why are you asking me?" He felt no fear for the moment. The freakish creature displayed no ill intent.

We consider... we ask... we... Void tilted its head and though Optimus read no expression on the faceless monster, he suspected the Virus struggled to reason, if that was possible among the insentient. We can't choose.

"You mean you do not know if you hunt because you are hungry, or that you're hungry because you hunt?"

Explain.

"If you hunt because you are hungry, you are fulfilling need. If you are hungry because you hunt, you are fulfilling desire."

Desire. Need. Same thing.

"No. Need is survival. Desire is lust."

Lust.

"Something you want but do not need." Optimus watched Void as the creepy dark Virus rose upon thin legs and scratched the floor. It settled back down and to Prime's horror, he saw a set of burnt red eyes open along its folded facial rims. They did not glow.

Hunger for sustenance. Hunger for death. Hunger for fear. Hunger for control. All hunger. All desire. All lust.

"No," Optimus objected. "Hunger for sustenance is survival. Survival is not wrong. Lust is wrong."

Explain.

Optimus hesitated. "... explain what is wrong, or explain why?"

"Ssss...sss...nnnn. Sssss. Sssss...nnnnn. He said 'go-and-die'. We think wrong. We object."

Again Optimus hesitated. "Explain."

Confusing.

Optimus thought it through and realized what the Virus attempted. "You are trying to reason. But you can't. You have no soul. Concepts such as morality, right verses wrong are beyond your ability to comprehend. You understand death as only something to fear. You see death as unlife. You have no concept of God. You are not even at the level of an animal and that makes you an abomination-"

Explain concept. Explain morality. Explain right and wrong. Explain death, explain abomination. Explain God.

Optimus did not answer. The dialog unsettled him. If the Virus were planted in the Matrix, chances were, the Matrix breathed enough life into it to give the Virus abilities and a limited mentality. But soulless, the monster's conceptual reality only reached the point of its initial DNA programming. It tried to learn more, like a five year-old looking at a university-level medical text book. The child saw the pictures and diagrams, but could not read or understand the text.

Void stirred again, unruffled by Optimus' silence. "Ssss...nnnn. Sss...nnnn spoke 'go-and-die'."

"Death." Optimus corrected.

"Death."

"Unlife."

Unlife. Death. Unlife. Death. Unlife is death.

"Yes."

Void stilled itself for a very long time until it stirred again. Hungry from hunting makes unlife. But hunting from hungry makes unlife, too. Both unlife.

"But one of them is wrong."

Why?

"You do not need to hunger for the hunt."

HEAD-ON COLLISION TO COMMENCE IN SIX POINT TWO MINUTES.

RACING BEAST... CLOSING IN ON RAZOR LADY...

...DO YOU COPY?

...CAN'T CONTACT!

"Choth, ime pyr croix insepency."

"Choth, ime pyr croix insepency."

Rusti rolled over with a weak moan. Her face and hands hurt. Her ears and eyes burned. "Shut up," she muttered.

COMMUNICATION AMBIGUOUS. FREQUENCY CONFUSION. NO KNOWN LANGUAGE. DATE AND TIME INCOMPATIBILITY. ATTEMPTING TO COMPENSATE.

In spite of a throbbing head, Rusti forced herself upon hands and knees. The Autobots around her lay in the web of unconsciousness. The shuttle offered no light, emergency or otherwise. Rusti had no idea how her exosuit still functioned when everything else lost power.

She staggered to her feet and cast her eyes upon the plank. They never even left the alien craft.

"Hey!" someone waved in her direction. "Come and play with me!" The sound of a bouncing ball followed the invitation.

"What?" Rusti leaned against the hatchway and searched the docking bay. At first her scanners picked up nothing. Then her eyes spotted the unmistakable figure of Trevor Tolomsky. He grinned and bounced the ball again.

"This can't be right," Rusti told herself. "I'm dreaming, aren't I?"

"You think too much, Girl," he jeered. "Come and play with me."

"I don't normally play with hallucinations or ghosts." she replied dully.

"You know what your problem is, Rusti?"

"This should be good," she again said to herself.

"You deny the possibilities of things, people and events outside your experience." he approached the plank but did not step onto it. Trevor looked every bit as alive as the last day she saw him. He even tossed her that weird lopped grin guys used in a light hearted greeting.

"I don't see how that's your concern, even if it were true. And why am I dreaming or imagining you?"

"Because if I looked like Cody Greydon, you'd freak out." he nodded toward the ship's bridge. "Come on. Come play with me."

"Not until I've rationalized this through," Rusti stubbornly replied. "What do you think I am, anyway, twelve?"

"No," Trevor answered simply. "You're a mature seventeen year-old Human female. Physically, you're about twenty-one. And you're wishing you could have sex with the Autobot with whom you exchanged vows."

Rusti's cheeks burned brightly. "Whoa! Okay! We are not where we thought we were, are we?"

"Nope."

"So... who are you and were are we?"

Trevor grinned and again nodded toward the bridge. "Come and play with me first, then I'll tell you."

She smiled in spite of her embarrassment. "Okay. As long as you promise not to eat me or suck me into a black hole or turn me into something-anything-gross."

Trevor laughed. "Not my style, Rusti. Come on." She followed him to the bridge but hesitated to follow him to the navigation bar. He turned, puzzled. "What's wrong?"

"You're neither a ghost or a hallucination," she deduced. "What are you?"

He shrugged. "I'm a psychic projection. I knew you were here and I wanted to communicate. You're very smart and you're trained enough I felt I could trust you."

Rusti looked cross. "Trust is an issue dealt in time. And instead of giving me an answer, you created more questions." She caught the ball when he tossed it her way. She spun it once then tossed it back.

"I'm sorry you're even here, Rusti. I really am. There's nothing I can do for you, no way I can help you except to greet you and tell you how nice it is to meet someone different."

She caught the ball again. "Well, that's a start. So, where am I?"

"The one place no one wants to be."

Rusti threw the ball so that it bounced once before reaching Trevor's hands. "Okay. That's not so clear. That means we're either in a black hole in space or dead."

Trevor quietly smirked. "Or worse than either; a laboratory."

She caught the ball and hesitated. "A science lab?"

"Bare Anches."

Rusti's blood pressure dropped to her feet, her eyes shot wide. "That's... that's what... No! Oh no!" She ran off even as Trevor called after.

Optimus found Roddi sitting on the grassy knoll out along the western acres several yards from the football field. He marched up to one yard from his peer and stood still.

"Hey," he hailed uncharacteristically.

"Hey," Roddi bounced back. He twirled a twig between his fingers as he watched clouds along the horizon drift across the lazy springtime sky. Optimus settled beside him and stayed quiet.

They watched a brown hawk sail into view. It circled the valley several times, flapped its wings and softly called to the winds. It disappeared long before Rodimus broke the communication silence.

"I miss this place. The river, the valley, the predictability, such as it was."

"Approximately twenty-five years of it," Optimus softly added.

"Yeah." Roddi dropped his side of the conversation for several moments. Optimus swept his optics north along the mountain range. "You know," the Second Prime finally said, "even if, or when, we get back, nothing will be the same. For all we know, this valley doesn't exist any more."

"Change is the only constant, Rodimus."

"Yeah. I know. But sometimes I wish the universe would just hit the pause button, you know?" He did not need to see Optimus nod to know the Senior Prime agreed. Rodimus wanted to share something more, something deeper. And while he knew Optimus understood the necessity of confidentiality, sometimes Rodimus feared his friend's response. Not that Optimus ever threw anything in his face. Ever. But that often Optimus' silence hurt more; the emotional distance irritated him. On the other hand, Rodimus supposed he deserved it from time to time. If he and Optimus were two peas in a pod, they'd be different colors.

"Our time is running out," Optimus said to instigate the conversation anew.

Rodimus sadly nodded. "I left instructions for Magnus, Jazz and Kup." he paused. "You know what kicks my aft in all this, Op?"

"You never got that new paint job?"

Rodimus half-glared because the remark was funny but he wasn't in the mood for a light-hearted conversation.

Optimus tilted his head toward his friend. "I know," he said instead of apologizing, "wrong time and place."

Roddi smiled anyway. "Not at all. It's just that it sounds like something Rusti would say." he watched the Senior Prime drop his head with a single nod. "What I WAS going to say, smart ass, is what kicks my aft is how I survived so much before, only to be taken down by something I truly can't control. It's like the Hate Plague all over again. There are no answers, only more questions. And the questions make my head spin. And events move so fast that when it's over, when the storm is over, I'm lying in the middle of a highway wondering what hit me."

Optimus nodded again but did not meet Roddi's optics. "I get flashes of the Quintesson faces. They speak, but never to me. They converse in muttered tones, drowned and distorted. I actually hate their native language."

Rodimus found no words strong or sincere enough to comfort his friend. Besides, how could he comfort Optimus when he himself found none? He leaned over, head bowed. What were they to do? What could they do? He and Optimus stared insanity and death in the face, their people: extinction.

Optimus spoke again, slow and sad. "You should-and need to know, Rodimus, that the Hate Plague was not your fault. Sometimes things go horribly wrong. I am not here because you were incompetent, but because you were resourceful and solved a problem by thinking outside the box. You are who and what you are long before the Matrix chose you as Prime. I believe that even without the Matrix, you still would have been an Autobot leader."

At first Rodimus brushed off Optimus' comments as nothing more than a sympathetic pep-talk. But a strong sense of deja-vu struck him and Roddi's insides turned to ice. Where could he have possibly heard Optimus say something like that before? He kept the Deja-vu-thing to himself and sent Optimus a wry smile. "You're my chum, Op," he said in as casual a tone as his heart mustered. "When I die and end up in the Pitt, I'll be sure to tell everyone that I'm the luckiest SOB in the galaxy." He nudged Prime's arm then turned serious. "I'm glad you're willing to forgive me."

Optimus hesitated. "You don't think you deserve it?"

"Op, you have no idea what I did under the influence."

"I see. So you think your deeds and sins are so bad they can't be forgiven? As if I were any better?"

Rodimus shot him a glare. "We both do it," he kept his voice quiet because he did not want to start an argument.

Optimus nodded. "Yes we do."

Awkward silence held the air between them before Rodimus spoke again. "So, have you forgiven yourself for everything you've done?"

Prime did not answer right away. He lifted his optics to the darkening horizon where the storm brewed dangerous along the mountains. "I have moved forward, but I have not forgotten."

Rodimus shook his head. "It doesn't make any difference." his expression turned from somber to pained. "It's all too late..." his voice drowned as his color churned from happiness to grey. From grey to black Rodimus' body melted. The sky brooded in abysmal dark and Optimus choked with grief.

Rodimus sat up as though a circuit shorted, shocking his system out of the Matrix dream. His intake closed incorrectly and he choked and coughed. Movement in the dark caused him to shiver. Not that he was afraid, but that Optimus' slow-motion movements gave tell-tale signs of something not completely him.

The Senior Prime spoke to a fallen and rattled Cloudstreaker with soft, deep tones. "Are you damaged at all?"

"No," came her wilting reply. "I don't think so. Someone-ow! Someone sucked everything out of me and something shocked-ow!" she whined in pain, as though burdened and tormented. "I just... I just need to rest, I think."

Rodimus' head cleared and forced himself to his feet. Optimus helped Cloudy and Pontiac while Roddi opened the shuttle's access panel. A mental image of Void's head slipping through the back wall flashed through the Autobot leader's mind. He tried to resist glancing over his shoulder but did so anyway. He was not amused when Optimus stared at the very same area at the same time. They crossed glances but said nothing.

Galvatron stirred, sat up with effort and languidly pushed Highbrow off his legs. He winced and rubbed a dented shoulder. "Erm... where's Rusti?" he received both Prime's surprised, highly-lit optics.

"Optimus," Roddi called.

"I'm on it," Optimus answered instantly. But he didn't have to do anything. Rusti ran back to the shuttle, shouting incoherently. She climbed the plank and almost ran into Rodimus.

"Get this thing out of here! We have to leave NOW!"

Rodimus stepped back, almost as surprised as she when the girl almost ran into him. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Calm down there, Girl! Deep breath, clear your head and speak in slow-mo."

Rusti stared hard into his optics. "Somehow we ended up at Bare Anches. We HAVE TO LEAVE."

"Okay," Roddi sang. "Just ah, shrink us down, grow wings and fly us back into space."

Optimus caught Cloudstreaker when she stood and wavered. He set her in the navigation chair. "Rusti where did you go?"

She heard 'Sweetheart' in that phrase, though he did not say it. "I... uh... a hallucination asked me to go play with him." Of course, they all stared at her, either baffled, confused or in disbelief.

A tall shape flickered out of nowhere. Rusti gasped while Galvatron and Rodimus pointed weapons at the source. The light vanished and the group held their proverbial collective breath. The light flickered to life again and the static image of a Quintesson appeared in perfect three-dimension.

"Greetings, visitors. We welcome you to our new, fully-equipped space lab. For your convenience, we have installed a series of visitor's quarters and added many creature-comforts we hope will be to your liking as you tour our facility. We are confident that you will find something here you'd either like to invest in or purchase right from the hands of our friendly and courteous staff. If you have further questions, do not hesitate to ask. We look forward to serving you."

The image vanished. Optimus studied the dead craft's control consol while Rodimus stowed his weapon away.

"I think we took the wrong flight to China."

Optimus did not turn to Roddi [we need to contact Magnus.]

A rumbling clang echoed through all metal walls and tossed the Autobots off balance. Galvatron shoved Highbrow off with a dirty look. "I have a feeling we just landed," he groused.

"Landed?" Rodimus glanced in Pontiac's direction, making sure the techie was okay.

"On the science station," Galvatron clarified. "The alien ship was hijacked and used as a ruse and a rendevous point for the more scrupulous customer."

Rodimus sent him a cold glare. "Why am I not surprised you know so much about Quintesson operations?"

"Cuz I subscribed to their newsletter, Tentacle Quarterly. Even saw a recipe for roast Prime. It calls for too much radium, if you ask me."

Rodimus opened his mouth to make a retort but Optimus intervened before a sound came forth: "It does us no good to sit here with a powerless shuttle. You two, Highbrow and Pontiac will make a cursory reconnaissance. Cloudstreaker, Rusti and I will remain here and try to reach Magnus and get this shuttle operational."

Rodimus waited for the other three to disembark before turning to Prime and communicated internally. [You should not have come along.]

Prime glanced at him, ignoring how Rusti watched their silent behavior. [Sometimes I need some fresh air.]

Rodimus slightly shrugged. [fair enough.] He joined the recon team and Optimus turned back to the shuttle's control consol.

Cloudstreaker grunted with frustration. "I can't get the engines online, Commander. There's not so much as a blip of response."

"Let's forego the engines at the moment, Cloudstreaker. What's the first thing you do when stranded and alone?"

"Shelter."

"No."

Cloudstreaker stared at him for a moment, confused. "Medical assessment?"

"Not unless it's life-threatening," Optimus answered as he tried several options to get the computer working again.

She watched his movements before the answer dawned on her. "Communications."

"That's correct."

"I can get back-up battery power." she watched him nod in approval before exiting her station and tearing into a bulkhead panel along the bow.

Prime glanced back at Rusti who sat quietly against the wall, watching him with slight trepidation. "Rusti?" She forced on a smile, indicating she was willing to help. "I need readings; something that will give me a clue as to what's going on around us."

With a silent nod, she pushed off the floor and listened to everything around them. The shuttle itself had nothing to say except a complaint about Cloudstreaker breaking into a sensitive area. Rusti left the shuttle but thought it wise to stay within the Autobots' scanning range. She paced around the ship and reached out, listening to the Imperium. But all the alien ship had to say was that it was home and now waited for further orders.

CONNECTING...

Rusti blinked, still taken aback by the indescribable sensation. She understood what the ships said, but didn't know how she understood. It frustrated her that she could not tell which vessel spoke.

ATTACHING POWERLINES...

She watched the shuttle, waiting for more information.

INITIATING BACK-UP BATTERY. SYSTEMS RUNNING. SYSTEMS ONLINE. POWER OUTPUT: SIXTY PERCENT.

That was the shuttle. Rusti lifted her eyes upward. The Imperium's shuttle bay ceiling rose higher than her exosuit's visual range.

COMPILING INFORMATION. COMPILING INFORMATION, TWENTY PERCENT. FORTY PERCENT. NINETY PERCENT. UPLOADING. DEFRAGING... DEFRAGING COMPLETE. AWAITING DOWNLOAD AND COORDINATES.

That had to be the Imperium. Who or what was it speaking to? Rusti wandered twenty feet from the shuttle. "Hello?" she whispered. "How long have you been here and doing this? Do you intentionally abduct people, or are you just doing a job?"

A glimmer of light flickered to her left but by the time Rusti turned, it was gone.

Screams from the tormented captives shot through her head like the flash of a camera. Rusti flinched as though someone pricked her with a needle then yanked it out. "How long have you been here?" she repeated. "Years? Decades? Centuries? Megania?"

The Quintesson's demonic Face of Hate blinked just as fast through her mind and Rusti yelped with surprise. The Imperium communicated in spurts of photo-memory. Rusti hugged herself tightly. "They must have tortured everyone on this ship before killing them," she said out loud. Deciding standing anywhere by herself was not such a good idea, the young lady retreated to the shuttle and breathed a short sigh of relief. She lined her lips in an attempted smile when Prime turned to her. "When do you think we'll be leaving?"

He did not return her smile but faced her wholly while Cloudstreaker kept working. "You're not leaving," he answered deadpan.

"What?"

"We keep all the finest specimens for breeding."

Rusti jumped with a gasp and found herself sitting against the shuttle's bulkhead, tucked into a dark corner. Optimus and Cloudstreaker worked on the control panel, not noticing a single thing. The young lady slumped forward, chilled by the nightmare.

Prime found her and slightly tilted his head in concern. "Are you all right, Rusti?"

"Ask me again when we're off this ship." She met Cloudstreaker's confused gaze but said nothing more. The shuttle's control consol hummed to life. All scanners coordinated and fed information on the main viewer.

"...in... this is the Sagittarian Mozart, do you read? I repeat, Autobot shuttle Hydroza, this is the Sagittarian Mozart. Come in, do you read me?"

"This is Hydroza, Optimus Prime speaking, Sagittarian. Over."

"Oh! Optimus. Thank Primus. We've been trying to reach you for thirty minutes. Ultra Magnus-"

"Ambient, give me a status report," Optimus ordered without preamble.

"We've gone dark, Optimus. We're feeding off back-up reserves. The Hannibal's Mark was on a collision course with the asteroid the last time we spoke with her. Then the Dancing Siren lost all power. I can't raise anyone else. Ultra Magnus-"

"Steady at the helm," Optimus ordered. "Do not leave your post."

"Aye, sir."

"Stay on this frequency and inform me the millisecond you hear anything from the other ships."

"Aye, sir."

Optimus paused communications. "Cloudstreaker, what are you doing?"

"Well... we have no visuals. I thought if I were to patch into the navigational controls on the Imperium, we'll at least be able to see what's going on outside." Cloudy tugged herself out from under the control consol, stood and leaned against it. Doubt crossed her visor when she gazed at Prime.

"Do it," he said.

She pressed six buttons rigged to perform the new task. At first nothing happened. Then the main viewer flickered. Lines zipped up, down and horizontal before a picture faded forward from the snow. Sound followed. Static hissed and a blip-snap hiccupped. An agonizing masculine shriek bellowed. Cloudy shuddered. Rusti covered her mouth, horrified.

A deep, panicking voice sounded over the screams. "Melice adar! Melice adar! Ahban toi chatran: melice adar!" The zap of a laser weapon cracked the air and the voice came back with a quiet growl, "Croix insepency."

The static snapped off, replaced by a series of hangers and towering buildings, signs and a well-lit landing pad on which the Imperium now rested. Prime, Cloudstreaker and Rusti stared at the view screen. The moment flipped as though someone changed channels on a TV.

Cloudstreaker's quiet voice filled the shuttle. "What did we just see?"

Optimus stirred in his chair as though waking from a shallow sleep. "A ghost transmission, I believe. We used to see them during the war on Cybertron; the last transmission before a ship or a facility exploded."

"Ghost transmission," Cloudy repeated. "That's a little... unnerving."

Optimus did not reply. He turned toward Rusti and stared. She returned his look but neither of them said a word. Cloudstreaker attended the board and sifted through transmission frequencies, hoping to hear from Rodimus and Galvatron soon.

Rusti sensed Optimus' inner conflict. He wanted to stay, he needed to go. By the sixth moment, Rusti pursed her lips. "Me and Cloudstreaker will stay here in the Hydroza, Optimus. Just let us know when it's safe to come out."

"None of us are safe, Rusti," he answered in a foreboding voice. That caught Cloudy's attention. She glanced, but said nothing. Prime stood and double checked his rifle. "Well, then. You ladies stay here. I'll contact you if I cannot immediately return."

Rusti watched him leave and forced fear back down her throat. The whole fiasco was her fault, even if no one said anything.