Croix Insepency ch 10
INCOMING MESSAGE #6.
PASS CODE REQUIREMENT.
Alt: MASTER-DIRECTOR CAPHUS
EARTH DATE: SEPT 2, 2041
"...window would have been completed ... lined... head..."
"...window would have been completed ... lined... head..."
The Decepticon lieutenant returned to life with a soft groan, stiff joints and a glaring headache. Dimmed lights welcomed him to a cubicle devoid of company and a room filled with voices. Too bad there isn't a stake or a pin in my head, Cyclonus thought grimly. At least I might relive the pressure in my cranial chamber. He lay still a few moments longer.
"...window would have been completed ... lined... head..."
"...window would have been completed ... lined... head..."
Reactivating his optics, Cyclonus attuned his unfocused visuals and audio receptors to the voice's point of origin. His digipad flickered off and on, demanding attention. Rather than sitting up, the Decepticon fingered the floor under his flat until he found the digipad.
INCOMING MESSAGE #6.
PASS CODE REQUIREMENT.
Alt: MASTER-DIRECTOR CAPHUS
"Now what?" he growled. "Haven't been down for more than..." Cyclonus did not finish the sentence. He slowly sat up and reread the message. He patched a comline to Jazz.
"Hey, Cycs, I was just about t' call you, man! What's playin' on yer side?"
Cyclonus hesitated long enough to wonder why he liked how Jazz talked to him. The Autobot was honestly friendly unlike many other Autobots who faked their attitude around him. "I just received a message on my digipad."
"Ditto!" Jazz's voice fell distant a moment while he spoke to someone else then returned to Cyclonus. "Ya wanna meet, greet 'n compare notes, compadre?"
Cyclonus laid a hand on his forehead. "Let me destroy the jackhammer in my head, first. The Virus extracted a good deal of energy."
Jazz quietly snorted in good humor. "Hey, you come on to the comm building and I'll take care a' that jackhammer for ya."
A small smile escaped Cyclonus' otherwise stoic expression.
Cyclonus stretched enough to wring a few kinks from his tired body. He failed to recall what exactly landed him in a small quiet room, other than the fight between he and the Virus. He did beat that monster, didn't he?
Disembarking the Razor Lady, Cyclonus braved the chilled temperatures cast over the asteroid. He searched the heavens above for a familiar constellation of any sort. But the stars only told him they were far, far from home. Not that we've had a home for a long time, anyway, the Decepticon Lieutenant told himself. He and Galvatron wandered far and wide across the galaxy and Cyclonus thought it might be good to just settle at a base for a while.
He crossed the entryway into the communications building and dodged Bumblebee as the Autobot raced outside in automode. Fastlane and Highbrow approached him, their conversation teeter-tottered in a heated argument. They halted abruptly and stared at Cyclonus with flaring optics.
"You got business here, Decepticon?" Fastlane hissed.
"I do." Cyclonus answered with leveled tones.
Fastlane drew a laser pistol. "Fastlane to Ultra Magnus. Just thought I'd ask whether or not the Decepticons are allowed to walk freely, sir." Without an outward expression, Cyclonus enjoyed the Autobot's wince and guessed that Ultra Magnus just chewed the clone up one end and spat him out the other. "Aye, sir," Fastlane ended with an apologetic voice. "Excuse us, Cyclonus. Ultra Magnus said you can go right in."
Cyclonus ever so slightly bowed and silently excused himself between the two. He ignored the quiet, rude comments and entered. Jazz waved Cyclonus welcome from a spot under a small view screen one o'clock of the Decepticon's position. The lieutenant lightly stepped over two microprocessors, three boxes of tools and Blue. Heedless of the Decepticon's near-collision, the femme continued to hum to herself as she lay under a power transmitter, adjusting its output.
Jazz sat at a low-leveled table made from a discarded panel. Two thin slabs of metal lay on either side; presumably one for Jazz himself and the other for Cyclonus. Miniature energon cubes decorated the slabs in soft colors.
Jazz sipped from a cup of light oil. "Hope y' don't mind sittin' on the floor," he said with a smile. "Couldn't find restaurant-type accommodations."
"This will do," Cyclonus accepted. He sat at the other side and laid his blinking digipad on the floor. He paused a moment: "this reminds me of a visit I had with Princess Akishino in 2008."
Jazz's mouth dropped and he froze in one place. Cyclonus did not seem to notice. "Y-you knew Princess Kiko?"
Cyclonus met Jazz's optic visor. "Princess Kawashima Kiko, to be exact. But she earned my respect and I did not use her informal name." the Decepticon sat straighter and realized he did not answer Jazz's question. "Yes. After a battle with Ultra Magnus, I found myself unable to fly back to Charr. So I remained in Japan for a short while. She was most charitable."
Stunned, Jazz stared a moment longer. "Sorry, Man. I just... I didn't think that... uhh..." He slightly shook his head, incapable of escaping the awkwardness of his predisposed judgement. But the slight smile Cyclonus gave him put him at ease and once again Jazz had to marvel at the one Decepticon for whom he found respect.
"I am a warrior, not a murderer. What honor is there found in the senseless disposal either of a benefactor or a non-combatant? Princess Kawashima Kiko was most hospitable and I can afford short bouts of benevolence." Jazz had to cough down a bubble of laughter. Cyclonus caught the expression and leaned forward a little. "Why do you find that amusing?"
Embarrassed, Jazz popped two small cubes in his mouth before answering. "Guess it's that I've been assumin' that you saved me from 'em Sweeps way back when." the former city commander tried not to shrug and gulped down more oil.
Cyclonus's optics narrowed before he too ate something. "You are correct," he admitted. He did not meet his companion's gaze. "Not that I was trying to be a hero so much as I knew how it'd grate against Scourge. He and I aren't exactly... friends."
Jazz wanted to express his gratitude in laughter and high-fives and do something that communicated the overwhelming feeling in his core. He swallowed it all down, however, difficult as it was. He nodded respectfully. "I owe ya more 'an one, Cyclonus, Man. I'd a' been a used Decepti-doggie chew toy."
"You were a little worse for wear," Cyclonus agreed. Jazz said nothing to that but a few seconds later a chuckle escaped the Autobot's poorly guarded sensibilities. A few seconds after that, Cyclonus quietly laughed, too.
They finished their communion meal then set their respective digipads head-to-head. Cyclonus started first.
"I've received only fragments of a message after the initial salutations." he opened the file and handed it to Jazz who muttered the words and slid his pad into his companion's hands. Cyclonus examined Jazz's findings.
"... realigned... Skorponok... Marfak..." After the audio transmission, a window fizzled in, snowed with static and a disfigured image.
Jazz perked. "So, what we need is a pass word?"
"Well, we jes happen t' have usselves a native who might throw us a clue 'r two."
Cyclonus peered around Grotesque and Sodius where their captive Quintesson surgeon (eighth class) floated in an energon cage. "Mmm... I suspect our guest is disinclined to cooperate."
Jazz tapped a finger on Cyclonus' pad. "How about we televise it loud 'n large?" he grinned.
Between the scientists, their assistants and equipment, Jazz and Cyclonus found themselves hard put to claim any space close enough to the main view screen. Naturally they tried to discuss the matter with Magnus, but the Major-general was already dealing with seven types of crisis. Twenty minutes later, Jazz lost his patience and decided to use his own body as an adaptor between the main viewer and the bridged digipads. Several main lights shut themselves down and most of the crew moaned or griped in surprise. The room fell silent when the two transmissions aired on the big screen.
INCOMING MESSAGE #6.
PASS CODE REQUIREMENT.
Alt: MASTER-DIRECTOR CAPHUS
"...window would have been completed ... lined... head..."
"...window would have been completed ... lined... head..."
"... realigned... Skorponok... Marfak..."
Unamused, Ultra Magnus stomped to the main viewer and glowered at Jazz. "What is this?" he demanded.
Cyclonus spoke for his partner: "each of us received fragments of transmission earlier today. We are trying to figure out what it says. Unfortunately, your new pet might be the only one who can give us the right pass code to open the entire message."
Jazz smiled sheepishly. He connected both his arms straight into the communications board while ribbons of adaptors threaded from his hips and ankles.
Magnus sighed heavily and rubbed his temples. The crew labored twenty-six hours straight with no breaks and no energon. He supposed this was as good a time as any to send them off for an hour or so. "Fine," he surrendered. "Everyone take a break," he declared. The room froze, all optics on him, uncertain. "You heard me!" Magnus shouted. "Get some rest!"
Only five Autobots left.
"NOW!" Magnus thundered. The room cleared in ten minutes and Magnus pasted on his best "DO-NOT-SCREW-WITH-ME" expression.
Not intimidated by the Major-general's threatening presence, Cyclonus turned to Rysar Phayron-Zeta. "Can you give us the pass code for this transmission?"
The Quintesson bore his gaze into the Decepticon. "Maybe," he answered coldly. "What's in it for me?"
"A few more days' worth of life as opposed to a few more hours," Cyclonus returned.
The Quintesson scoffed. "We are not afraid of death."
The distressing incident in the command center left Rusti exhausted. She wanted to return to hers and Optimus' private quarters on the Crested Moon but Rusti chose to find a place in the Hanibal's Mark. She didn't expect to find anything fancier than a remote corner far away from everyone. Ten minutes into a quiet drift of shallow sleep, someone approached. Irritable, Rusti greeted the intruder with a wordless glare.
The alien female's tag declared her as 'Stephanie'. Light blue stripes raced from her high cheeks into her dark blue hair. She crouched before the young lady with a wry smile. "Hello there," her voice carried a soft resonance. "Security informed me you were here, trying to sleep. I thought I'd offer you a more comfortable place."
Sliding her gaze right and huffing a sigh, Rusti blinked with dry eyes before speaking. "I just want some solitude. I don't want to sleep in the commons room. It's never quiet enough."
Stephanie nodded once and tried to smile through dry, cracked lips. "Well, if you promise not to steal anything, I'll let you use my quarters. They're just down the hall."
Accepting the offer with gratitude, Rusti claimed the room, intending to sleep only a few hours. She shrugged off her oversized jacket, flopped on the bed, squeezed the extra pillow beside her and passed out.
"I said, greetings."
"Go away," Rusti said into her pillow. "Trying to sleep."
"Yes. I can see that."
Just when she settled back into the cradle of rest, the muttering voice came back, attempting to sound friendly. "correct me should I be wrong, but you are Rusti, are you not?"
She sighed stiffly and sat up glowering. "What the hell do you want? Oh." Void stood nearby the door, staring.
The Virus tilted its head right and blinked a set of dragon's eyes. "I've only come to speak with you."
"Dammit, Void! I'm trying to sleep! Go play leap-the-frog with a quasar!"
"If you are that tired, Human, sleep away. I will stand here and watch."
"What?" Now fully awake, Rusti gave the creature her sleepless attention. She sat up and scrutinized Void through the dim sub-lighting.
"Let's skip the introductory and get to business, shall we?" Rusti only stared, baffled over the Virus' fluent syntax. "I find you of great curiosity. There is something different about you."
"Your species. You, in particular. What species are you? Are you Amuune, Ishabae, Vox, Wapoon, Palequane, Orvony?"
Rusti studied the Virus, perplexed and a little disturbed. "Human," she returned. "You should know that. Why are you talking weird?"
"But you can't be human-not fully human, anyway."
Rusti scoffed. "Okay. Well, I'm not a sardine, either, asshole. Now go away, I need to sleep."
"You ARE asleep, little girl."
Rusti gasped with a start. Her skin crawled with goosebumps. The Virus closed the distance between them then stretched its neck so that it turned thin like a ribbon and wrapped itself loosely around Rusti. Void's usually featureless face zoomed into hers close enough to bite her nose off. She held absolutely still, almost daring not to breathe.
"Fascinating, but you are a curiosity, are you not? I sensed many things about you the moment I laid eyes on you. There's something lying within you, within your skin, within your soul. Tell me what it is. I'd do an autopsy, but as you can see, I have no hands."
Rusti lost her fear and stared into the thing's dragon eyes. "You're not Void," she said softly. "Void doesn't talk like this. Void's never tried to touch me. What are you?"
The Virus unwound itself and stepped back. "That is irrelevant."
She stood, indignant. "YOU asked first! YOU started this! Now answer me, coward!"
"As anticipated, the calculated 76.4 percent chance of an emotional reaction proved correct. Congratulations. You are human."
"And that's important... why?"
"It informs me on the intellectual scale your mental capacity barely reaches beyond the paramecium. I find it amusing you can tell the difference between night and day. Humans are an embryonic species barely advanced enough to develop lungs. The pity is, you are puppets whose thoughts and opinions are easily swayed by lies, half-truths and empty promises. Humans are self-righteous, hypocritical and conniving. They are well known for worshiping their own reproductive organs. Humans expect something for nothing. You blame environment or other outside factors for influencing bad decisions. You are a flawed and hopelessly disgusting species."
Rusti blinked, her expression nonplused. Then realization flashed in her head. She summoned courage and filtered it through sarcasm: "well! I suppose that about sums it up. How about taking your turn, Quintesson?" she stood and the false Virus stepped back. "Humans may be flawed, pathetic and barbaric. But your species..." she shook her head, "I don't have vocabulary vile enough to describe the atrocities your ilk has committed. Humans have waged war for power, money, land and slavery. But YOU have annihilated entire solar systems! You have soaked the galaxy with bloodshed like no other civilization, planet or species. Genocide. Slavery. Parasitic practices. Sapient cannibalism. And my favorite: bio-desecration."
A frosted smile spread across the Virus' 'face'; a smile with crooked lines along the parted mouth. The smile without teeth revealed a darker black than Void's outer appearance. Rusti shuddered and her teeth lined when the Quintesson spoke: "how is that any different than your personal faults?"
Rusti froze and blinked. Her mind turned vacant.
Pleased with her wordless response, the Quintesson maneuvered its Virus-guise to her left. "Let's explore that, shall we? Irrational. Judgmental. Anti-social. You hate your parents and your brother. You envy your sister. You are undisciplined and somewhat short-tempered. You have a... unique tendency to disobey. Quite the list."
At first guilt washed over Rusti. She never fully admitted how she felt about her parents but now that the monster touted the sin before her, she had to claim it. Undisciplined? Yes. Short-tempered? Yes. Judgmental? Yes, that too. She filled her lungs with fresh air and held the monster in her sight. "Says the devil with five faces," she returned. "If I'm only a step above a paramecium, then what's it matter what I'm like? What about you?" Rusti squeezed her eyes shut when she realized her reply was as childish as some kid in a school bus arguing about his bad characteristics with a peer.
"We have found that females of most sapient species will have intercourse with anything if properly aroused. You have a unusual relationship with the Autobots. And while I am still calculating and formulating the how and why, it is clear you are attracted to the robots; one in particular..."
That sparked her ire and Rusti hardened her expression. "Dream or not, that's none of your business!"
"...which is why I find your attraction to the Autobot leader of some amusement."
He ignored her: "I have sensed your sexual frustration since I first saw you. You know your desires will never be fulfilled. So, subconsciously or not, you have considered finding a 'substitute', someone who will-" the Quintesson smirked, "-aha, fill that gap. However, you have not done so because you cannot find it in yourself to rationalize such an adulterous act which in turn creates more frustration. I almost pity you."
"Fortunately," he continued, "my associates and I are working to disengages ourselves from our present self-imposed exile. We have plans to sterilize Bare Anches of all sapient life forms. We are currently discussing the possibilities dead Autobots present to us. We will require a new work force. We can reprogram them and sell them to some of our more influential clients."
"Not going to happen," Rusti said under her breath.
The monster paused as if in thought and the false Virus lifted its head and tilted left. "Now that I consider your plight, I might try to convince my colleagues to spare your precious Optimus Prime. He is, after all, quite popular. Everyone would welcome him with open arms, with grand celebrations and parades. Then, in the midst of their joyous occasion, he'd detonate atomic weapons and paint the landscape with their blood and organs." the monster dropped its eyes upon the girl, pleased to see tears on her cheeks. "A fate worse than death," he concluded. "We controlled him once, we will take him back. And we will use him over and over and over; a dried husk, a firebrand with which we will set the galaxy aflame with conquest."
Rusti shot off the bed, heart hammering, face soaked with sweat and tears. She gripped her hair and pulled hard. "NO! NO!" She grabbed her jacket and left the Hannibal's Mark in a blur of rage and single-minded direction. The image of Optimus, a cold, dead form painted like a cheap puppet, scarred her insides. Rusti railed for the central building, an off-track locomotive on a fiery path toward destruction. She did not greet anyone within sight nor did she pay attention as the shield doors grinded open. In two breaths, the furious redhead appropriated a spot before the Quintesson's prison.
"SHUT UP!" her venomous roar echoed across the chamber and forced everything to a standstill. The air constricted with tension.
For three unbreathable seconds, the room held fast until Magnus' voice dispelled it like the first thunderous raindrop of a cloudburst. "Rusti-"
She stabbed him with a set of blown pupils; her voice barely an octave lower that before: "WHY IS THAT THING STILL ALIVE?! WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU?! ARE YOU CRAZY OR STUPID? HAVE YOU ANY IDEA THE KIND OF HELL THESE FUCKING THINGS PUT OPTIMUS THROUGH?! KILL IT!"
"Calm down and tell me what this is all about."
Rysar answered in the young woman's stead. "Is it not clear, Ultra Magnus? The female is rather upset. No doubt the Virus attacked and somehow I am to blame for her loss of sanity-"
"HE WASN'T TALKING TO YOU, AFTHOLE!"
As surprised as he was amused, Magnus softly berated her- "Rusti!"
Rysar turned his heads this way, that, as if in pity. "No doubt her instability will worsen. Frantic mentality often disintegrates when tormented." Phayron-Zeta surged forward and scoffed at the diminutive girl before him. "I and my associates often encountered such pathetic, dispirited sapiens before. We put them in their place: the trash compactor. For the moment, however, I find your emotional discomfort amusing."
With a roar, Rusti pointed her finger at the bastard and shot out his right eye. The Quintesson squealed in pain and rubbed at the wound.
"ENOUGH!" Magnus shouted. "Someone escort Miss Witwicky to her quarters!"
"IT'S NOT ENOUGH!" Rusti countered. "It's NEVER ENOUGH! You've not watched helpless as these freaks murdered and tortured living things! You weren't there to see what they did to Optimus! To Cody! You hold him here, thinking he'll be of some use, but I'm telling you, Ultra Magnus that you have the devil in a cage and he's MOCKING YOU!"
As if to demonstrate Rusti's accusation, Rysar cackled behind his energon fence line. He switched to his Face of Hate and approached them again. "What have you brought before me, Ultra Magnus? Hmm? You, who are old as the rotation of the galaxy, lower yourselves to the words of this possessed organic? At what point has another creature ever claimed to speak for the Matrix? What species other than yours has ever communicated with the very instrument of your sapience? Has science taught you nothing? Have you fallen so astray so that you fail to question things not of the norm? Who is this sub-creature that it claims a place at your side?"
From his place next to Jazz, Cyclonus tuned his audio reception toward the Quintesson's corner prison. Eavesdropping on the irate conversation between Rusti, Magnus and the Quintesson, Cyclonus deduced the Quintesson said something that set the girl off. Then Cyclonus caught the word 'Matrix' and a sharp sound like heat lightening crackled the air. The Quintesson screeched and Magnus again ordered Rusti to her quarters.
As the girl clearly stated her case and cause, Cyclonus' digipad bleeped for his attention. The Decepticon reluctantly answered it before crossing his gaze with Jazz. They silently traded pads but Cyclonus' pad slipped out of Jazz' grasp. It hit the edge of their makeshift table and clattered on the floor. All view screens at the comm boards flickered off then on followed by a smooth feminine voice:
INCOMING MESSAGE #6.
PASS CODE REQUIREMENT.
Alt: MASTER-DIRECTOR CAPHUS
Magnus growled at the sudden distraction. "What the hell is it NOW?" he rounded the consol separating Phayron from the rest of the room and stared at the multitude of monitors. "Jazz?" he called.
The former city commander smiled sheepishly. "Sorry, Mags. Slip of the fingers."
Rusti's awareness of the Matrix stirred deep within her. Rather than taking over Rusti's conscious mind, Pyrzhak shared her awareness so that Rusti experienced everything twice. What? She asked the alien entity. What's wrong?
Images dropped into the young woman's mind like photographs spilt from their album. Vector Sigma, purchased from another powerful alien with the guarantee of flawless simulated intelligence. Vector Sigma, installed with the greatest utmost care, attended by a specialized species enslaved by the Quints. They worshiped Vector Sigma.
The robots, somehow, became sapient. The Quintessons declared war upon their own creations and lost. They endlessly plotted and attempted to regain control of the factory planet but the robots, now able to think on their own, learned how to defend themselves and with each new generation, they became more creative.
Millions of years later, Quintesson High Lord Caphus invented and released a plague upon the robots. Little did they realize that the plague was naught but a distraction while the Quintessons slipped past Cybertron's security and corrupted Vector Sigma. Although the party of scientists were caught and executed, the damage was done. The Quintessons who died took the truth with them to the Pitt. By the fourth generation of newly-created military hardware, the robots divided themselves, took on new racial identities and fought one another for control of their homeworld.
All that history poured into Rusti in the matter of six seconds. Trembling and disoriented, Rusti half staggered to the dividing console and leaned against it. Magnus cranked out a number of commands, mostly at Jazz and Cyclonus. Then Rusti heard him say her name and two EDC officers pushed through the crowd as they gawked at the screens and landed their hands on her upper arms. Rusti did not resist them.
But Pyrzhak did. She gave each man a hardened gaze. "Stop," she ordered. "This is important."
"No," the muscular man on Rusti's right argued, "you're coming with us, Witwicky. You've been more than enough trouble for everyone. Come along quietly. I will handcuff you if I have to."
Magnus growled. "Young lady, you WILL go with them! Don't make me send you to the brig for insubordination!"
With a powerful right cross to one officer and a kick to the diaphragm of the other, Pyrzhak forced them to release her. She lifted her voice: "I am NOT the girl that you will speak to me as such, Ultra Magnus." she spun about and faced Rysar Phayron-Zeta with flaring blue eyes. "The transmission was for Caphus. Where is he?"
"Ah! I was correct. You have hidden yourself within the organic female's confines," Rysar sneered. "Tell me, Pyrzhak That Chamronsyn, do you not find it cramped in there?"
"The pass code, Quintesson," she replied.
"I have no authority to divulge such sensitive information. Especially to the Autobots."
Magnus watched, confused and apprehensive. He wanted to intervene and get the situation back under control. But for the moment, the Matrix held the room under its wonderment. Now everyone in the room knew of Rusti's connection to the Autobot's most sacred possession. He knew trouble would come of this. But the whole ordeal was out of his hands.
Rusti's hand faced Rysar palm-out then made a quick fist as if she were grabbing a fly in mid air. The Quintesson gagged and struggled against an invisible force. Pyrzhak fixed her stern gaze on the abominable creature behind the energon field. "This woman-child inherited telemechanics from her paternal forebearer. Unless you wish to be ruthlessly dissected, I suggest you disclose the password."
Rysar continued to struggle against the powerful, constricting hold. He grunted and growled. "What species of abomination stands before me that it-that she holds such terror? Pyrzhak! Tell me of the girl! What is she?"
With a yank, the Matrix dragged her prisoner forward and fried his visage against the energon field.
"Nnnnngggghyy! Enough! Enough!" Phayron-Zeta cried. Pyrzhak released him and he skittered back, trembling. "The code. The code: 'Intrepid is the mask that offers peace for the price of power'. Now leave me be!"
Cyclonus watched the Quintesson retreat to the farthest area of his round prison. "I would never have guessed that," the Decepticon muttered.
"Patch it in," Magnus ordered. They wasted enough time. With one optic trained on Rusti, the Major-general eyed the monitors as static hissed and snowed the main viewer. Magnus waited with skeptical, anticipatory silence while obscure shapes faded through the static. The screen blinked and a black background faded in with the familiar initial greeting:
INCOMING MESSAGE #6.
PASS CODE REQUIREMENT.
Alt: MASTER-DIRECTOR CAPHUS
Cyclonus typed in the access code and hit enter. Again the screen blinked and the images blurred before the transmission streaked into vertical lines. Gradually the images cleared and all ocular sensors beheld the face of a rare species of single-faced Quintesson. All but two people in the room gasped in surprise.
"This transmission is submitted strictly to members of the Icarus Syndicate and is not to be repeated to those outside the Dark Sphere."
A video of the Sol System zoomed into view. The camera encircled Earth once before it 'warped' through the asteroid field, bypassed Uranus, Neptune and Pluto and focused on a distant Cybertron.
"The transaction between Dol-Urmon Limited and T'Datik Sur has reaped a bountiful income, exceeding our initial expectations. In return, the Continuum has laid plans to take control of the Ipatchan System located in the distant Coma Berenices."
The camera panned close to Cybertron. The Autobots watched in silent despair as monster ships of Inouxian design sliced deep gouges into the planet like a laser cutting into a piece of fruit. The same ships utilized powerful tractor beams and slowly... mile by aching mile, removed huge chunks of Cybertron.
Magnus dropped all pretense. His great shoulders sank. Arcee covered her mouth and turned away. Cloudstreaker sank to her knees. Gryph dashed out the room. Jazz watched in horror as a single tear escaped his visor and trickled over his face.
The Quintesson continued, rattling on like some car salesman counting his earnings. Each section of Planet Cybertron sold for different amounts of currency. Paratrons and Autobots who survived the dissection were counted as slaves and sold separately.
Pyrazhak was not unaffected. She watched the Autobots and the Decepticon with an undefined sadness.
The Quintesson narrator finally summed up his tally and shifted topics: "The Continuum, naturally, are aware of the time bubble in which Space Station Bare Anches resides. Although manufactured according to agreed specifications, the bubble was initially designed to protect Quintesson interests in lieu of potential customers, and naturally, those interests pertaining to the Quintesson species as a whole. Never the less, the Continuum does require, and expects updates from the Board of Directors, scientists and inspectors every seven cycles.
We are, naturally, taking into account the time shift that recently occurred, due to interference as caused by Ambassador Koontah. The Continuum remain patient. However, it is strongly recommended that you send us word soon."
Magnus huffed, amused. No one would ever hear from the science station again.
The screen switched backgrounds and the face of Ambassador Koontah appeared in profile view. The unknown Quintesson narrator faded in; his visage watermarked the Wancheeah's photo: "On note regarding the Wanakian ambassador, Koontah: Be certain to ask, question and interrogate all guests and clients regarding the ambassador's activities and possible travel arrangements. Had the ambassador not intervened when he realigned the time lines, the new warp gate would have been long since completed.
Due to the catastrophic fallout from the ambassador's meddling, we have fallen behind schedule by three years and eight months. A bounty has been set on his head. Please inform our allies and customers that we will pay handsomely for his pelt."
The Quintesson messenger paused a moment while a recording of a night surveillance camera displayed a group of humans scrambling from the shadows. They planted three bombs and dashed away before the building of their assault blew apart.
The Quintesson sighed irritably. "Efforts to quash the rebellion on Earth are redoubling. All attempts, however, to collect on the rebel leader, a diminutive Human female by the name of Dezi Witwicky, have proven... difficult. We welcome suggestions regarding this present issue."
A photo of the standard Decepticon symbol and Skorponok's scorpion mode flickered behind the Quintesson. In turn, the messenger switched to his Face of Deceit.
"Although we have received no new information regarding the whereabouts of Optimus Prime or Galvatron since the destruction of Monicus, Darrak Lyne Ard has informed us of intercepted transmissions to Cybertron. Current Decepticon leader, Skorponok, has requested permission to use star gate Aries 77.402, located in the Marfak system. Lord Queat Pictor of Sonicus granted Skorponok permission to use the gates. The Decepticons are currently passing through the Tegar System and we expect them to arrive in Sol in four and a half Earth months. Queat Pictor has been executed for this act of treason.'
'Lastly, it is necessary to inform you the creature known as Ellipsis has been located in Corona Tao, twenty-five AU from your coordinates. We strongly suggest redoubling your shields and weapons array as this abomination, born of pure Matrix energy, devours all Quintesson and other transorganic life forms. Do not openly engage with this creature. Do not attempt contact, scientific or otherwise. Obliterate on sight."
"This has been Tol Al Armanue from Space Station Mechanix Pi. Signing off."
The screen blacked out and left the room devoid of movement and conversation.
The screeching sound of an alien bird scraped against dead silence. The air bled, the sky melted and the landscape dehydrated under the unnerving noise. Sideswipe awoke shivering. His eyes froze on the dark ceiling while his meta-circuits scrambled to recover memory and a sense of place. He strained for voices and footsteps. But silence held the air stiff by lack of occupation.
Scratch. Scratch; the sound of high-grained sandpaper against metal. Scratch. Scratch; like a squirrel digging against a tree. Scratch, scratch; like a metal brush scraping hardened mud off the bottoms of his feet. Sideswipe continued to listen until the pattern annoyed him enough to move. He rolled over and scanned his environment. Tall, long walls supported a cold metal ceiling. A clean hard floor supported those same walls. Were it not for the faint glow of Sunstreaker's form under thermo-scan, Sideswipe would have found himself alone in a metal tomb. He watched his deranged brother as Sunny scratched graffiti into the wall before him.
Sideswipe rolled up and cast light upon Sunny's artwork.
"ALL I CAN SEE IS THE BREEZE AND THE WIND. ME AND MY SHADOW TWIN. TWO HEADS, ONE MIND. ME, MY SHADOW AND THE WIND."
Sideswipe reread the inscription and shuffled his head for the reference. Seventy seconds later he recalled the phrase and his face twisted with bewilderment. "Sunny, what's all this? This was... this was from the notes Streetwise had on the Doppleganger case."
Sunstreaker nodded enthusiastically and pointed to the poem. His optics brightened and when Sideswipe met his brother's gaze, Sunstreaker's faceplate split in half and the freakiest smile Sides ever saw expanded beyond the boundary of Sunny's face; as if his new mouth were pasted in mid air. Disturbed by the sight, Sideswipe slowly recoiled. He drew back and lowered his light.
"You... um, you remember the Dopplegangers, Sunny?" Sideswipe struggled to control his fear-coated voice. To his relief, the grotesque smile faded and the faceplate returned to its normal state.
Sunstreaker nodded, suddenly solemn. "Jamison," he said with his body's own badly reverberating voice.
"Th-that's right," Sideswipe tried to keep his treble light. "She was the psychic to helped solve the case. She-uh... remember? She died like two years later to save Ultra Magnus?"
Sunstreaker tipped his head slightly right. "Chapronites. All the hospitals."
"Yes, that's right." Sideswipe nodded vigorously. "The Chapronites were harvesting DNA. They set a trap for Ultra Magnus and Police Chief Jax Tolomsky and Mrs Jamison intercepted the trap."
"They doubled her... yeah?" Sunny said with a tone much closer to his own voice than Sides heard in too long a time.
Sideswipe nodded again. "They were trying to duplicate Ultra Magnus and harvest his meta-DNA. But she... she saved him." Sideswipe paused two beats. "Sunny, you know all this. Why's it important? What made you remember it? And how did you know about the poem?" Sunstreaker held up two metal-framed fingers. "Two?" Sideswipe asked. "Two what? Two people? Twins? Us?"
Sunstreaker arched his back and dropped his head behind his shoulders. A gurgle bubbled from his neck. Torn between fear of the unknown and fear for his suffering brother, Sideswipe froze in place until Sunny's form bridged face-forward where he doubled over, arms bent at the elbows and his head tucked inward. Sideswipe's gasp caught in his vocalizer and he scampered backward as a shape, blacker than their surroundings, partly emerge from Sunstreaker's tinker-toy form. Long arms and hands stretched forth and an eyeless face opened its mouth so that the chin expanded to an unrealistic length.
A second form, a duplicate of the first, twisted off the top portion. It stretched like gum but failed to fully separate itself from the first. Enraged by its failure, the shape snapped back into Sunstreaker who pushed himself to his knees, optics focused on the ceiling and he screamed.
"Sunny!" Sideswipe called over his brother's siren-call. "Sunny! Let's get back to camp. Okay? They're bound to find some way to stop this. Honest! Sunny?" Ignoring his heartbroken brother, Sunstreaker stumbled to his feet and ran off. "SUNNY! SUNNY!" Sideswipe shoved himself to his feet, transformed and drove after his brother who ran faster than Sideswipe's best speed.
Rusti sat atop a metal box, nervous and ashamed. Staring at the dark floor, she mulled over her behavior and every stupid decision made in the past several hours. Magnus did not exonerate her impudent loss of self control. But his long list of problems did not include her. Instead, Magnus he sternly ordered Rusti to stay in one place or find herself staring at her father from another cell.
Every now and again, Rusti caught someone-Autobot and/or humanoid-staring in her direction. She tried to ignore their judgmental gazes and refused to answer their questions regarding Rysar's accusations about possession. But the damage was done. The Quintesson's words cast doubt into the minds of everyone around her. And naturally, her violent reaction did nothing to convince them otherwise.
No one pitied the injured Quintesson, however. Rusti wondered how many people knew or cared that she tortured the monster in their midst. Although the Quintesson tucked his pain from public view, Rysar's dark blood stained the metal flooring and filled crevices between the plates. Magnus ordered someone to power wash the floor. No one, however, volunteered to enter the electro-prison and retrieve three severed tentacles. Rusti knew her actions were inexcusable, but frankly, no one else cared.
As she waited for Magnus, Rusti thought about the newscast sent to the station on a low-frequency hyperspace connection. She projected a vacant stare; shocked by heavy-hearted tidings. Her sister was alive-Dezi was alive and a pain in the Continuum's collective ass. Rusti's heart beat with subdued joy. At least one member of her family, other than her estranged father, survived the destructive invasion. After months-actually, four years-of not knowing, Rusti found hope. Earth was not entirely lost. But Cybertron... Cybertron was gone, lost to invaders and age-old enemies. How would Optimus ever take the sad news? Of course, the Autobot leader considered Earth his home. But his own homeworld, long since gifted to the Paratrons, hung in space like a dead bee's nest. The scruff-klink of large footsteps approached her and Rusti frowned.
Delta knelt on the floor beside the young lady; invasive and unwelcome. "Hello, Dear." The femme produced a datatablet and texted a quick message before directing her gaze at Rusti. Unwanted visual contact, Rusti thought to herself, please go away! She did not return the femme's gaze. "My, such a sad expression! Now tell me, hon, why are you hanging here when there are better places to be at the moment? Don't you think the hydroponics building is more interesting than this dreary room? Much better lighting there. And there's birds and small animals to be seen."
Rusti focused her eyes toward the front of the room where Jazz rewired a computer panel under the largest view screen. "Just waiting for Magnus to give me a tongue lashing, I guess."
Delta stared, dumbfounded. She waited for Rusti to explain herself. But after a moment or two she chose to fill the blanks herself. "Sounds like he's a little upset with you." Rusti only shrugged; her business, not Delta's. "Well," the femme pressed on, "I just arrived to help Blue set up a table-top lab. I have a moment or two. Did something bad happen? Would you like to talk about it?"
"Just news," Rusti replied dismissively.
"I see. Sounds like it was not good news."
The young lady shrugged.
"Is that why the sad eyes? You've all but folded in on yourself, Dear."
"Worried about Optimus." Optimus and Rodimus were always a good diversionary tactic.
"Oh. Uh-hu. Certainly, we all are. But to be sure, you have a special... something with him, do you not?"
Rusti did not want to share anything with this mechana-broad. Once again, Rusti considered the Autobots' behavior toward their leaders an irritable subject. No one stopped to remember that Optimus and Rodimus disappeared two days ago. "I keep hoping Ultra Magnus sent someone out to look for them."
Delta huffed a soft laugh. "Now, Dear. There's no cause for bitter concern. After all, the Primes are quite capable of caring for themselves. Otherwise, they could not be leaders."
Rusti wanted to punch the femme just for using the word 'dear'. She found it distasteful. Then to her relief, Blue called Delta across the room-as in now.
Delta laid a hand on Rusti's left foot. "We can talk later about this, Dear," she promised. The Paratron departed; Rusti wanted to wash her foot.
All lights and power snapped off and plunged the communications center into darkness and sudden quiet. Magnus spat several unsavory words in his own language then shifted to American English. "NOW WHAT?!"
Rusti saw it first and gasped, her cry choked by immediate dread. A flicker of blue energy snapped across the com center. Another zapped from right to left. Two more electrical squiggles zipped through the room before a six-inch line of light opened into a thirty-foot tower of static. Its width expanded by fifteen feet and all those in the vicinity beheld millions of ghostly faces. A robotic shape emerged, teetered and staggered out the window of static like a zombie. Every person within its circumference stepped back, unable to turn away, unable to run. The robot's optics flickered, pale red as a hot summer morning.
From damaged lip components, the rickity robot spoke. Its voice reverberated much like Sunstreaker's. Its face, devoid of emotion, stared like the dead. "Echno. Enchavno. Sorbe en anchanbro."
Chills prickled Rusti's dry skin. She cautiously climbed off her perch, unable to take her eyes off the robot. The pathetic mechanism stumbled in a haphazard, bloody path toward the Quintesson.
"Echno. Enchavno. Sorbe en anchanbro." It repeated the phrase with each injured step. "Echno. Enchavno. Sorbe en anchanbro."
"STOP!" Rysar Phayron cried. "Where did that thing come from?! What is it? KILL IT!"
Magnus tightened his facial expression. Rysar Phayron had good reasons to fear. "It comes from memories of the Matrix. Perhaps you'd like to tell us about it. How do we destroy the Virus? How do we put an end to this thing?"
"I know nothing of this project, Autobot! KILL IT!"
"KILL IT," Roddi's tenor tones filled the airspace with a double voice. "DEAD. UNLIFE."
The memory window flickered and rounded backward like a piece of paper. The dying robot collapsed one yard shy of Ultra Magnus. Its body fell to pieces, disintegrated into a pile of ash then vanished from sight. Magnus resisted the urge to recoil.
The window of static, now a cylinder, rotated. Scenes from memories; faces, places and events played out like a roll of cinematic film; each 'frame' portrayed a different scene. Magnus recognized the terrible fight between he and Optimus megania ago. Jazz cringed at a memory reflecting his first face-to-face encounter with the Decepticons. Cyclonus identified the dissection of a captured Quintesson. The torment and anguish he, Soundwave and Shrapnel inflicted upon the living creature, bathed his conscious with remorse.
A face pushed through the rotating window. Colorless, it viewed the real world with muted blue eyes. It spoke but no voice came. A hand reached forth. An arm stretched downward and the hand touched the floor.
Rusti gasped, horrified. Her eyes shot wide as Rodimus' lightless form crawled out the cylindrical window. Her mouth turned dry, unable to voice her fears or draw the breath necessary to do so. Roddi's shape, blacker than shadow, blacker than memory of eternal damnation, rose from the floor and advanced with the same stagger as the unknown robot.
"Looking for you, Ladyfriend."
"No." Rusti whispered. Her heart pounded. Every ounce of rationality inside her screamed the thing before them was not Rodimus. But there he stood and neared ever closer. Magnus shouted at her to step aside, move away, run as the Virus' embodiment of Rodimus Prime approached her.
"RUSSSSTIIIIII. I KNOW YOU HEAR."
"NO!" she denied. "You're NOT RODIMUS! You FREAK!"
The communication center morphed around her. Equipment disappeared. Walls faded from creature-crafted metal into an otherworldly environment. Dark crumbling partitions revealed adjacent rooms and other walls; a dark world lit in soft blue and black light. The world around her reminded Rusti of the Matrix. The temperature dropped and from the distance, Rysar Phayron muttered then screamed incoherently in his own tongue. The Autobots froze when time stood still and contained them as lifeless statues. Their optics stared forward, dimly lit and nonperceptive. With the room frozen of activity, Rusti faced the Virus on her own.
She could not stop shaking. Her voice carried the same fearful tremble, no matter how she fought to summon her courage. "What do you want with me? Please, please let him go. Don't hurt Roddi."
"BABYBIRD." RODIMUS' DOUBLE VOICE TONED SOFTLY, ALMOST IN SONG. "JUSSSST ONE. NO WINGS OR FEATHERSSS. THEY SAY 'BIRD'. BUT THERE IS NO BIRD. ONLY HER."
Rusti's heart constricted. Her skin crawled. The landscape flickered; the walls disappeared as if masticated by an invisible creature. Then the word 'bird' surfaced to her rationality and Rusti blinked. "Babybird," she whispered. "You're confused about the name."
Rodimus-Void descended upon his thorax and slithered toward Rusti until kissing-close. "BIRD," Void repeated. "NO WINGS OR FEATHERS."
"It-it's a love-name. When you love someone, sometimes you give them a name that only you call them." Rusti drew a shuddering breath to calm herself. But faced with an evil imitation of Rodimus, calm held little meaning.
Her lips turned dry. "I can't explain it to you. You are... you have no soul."
Void-Rodimus stared. Roddi's optics narrowed with confusion. "LOVE. UNLIFE. GOD. SOUL. EXPLAIN."
"Invisible," Rusti whispered. "Ideas. Belief. Intangible, non-corporeal expressions and powers of the soul."
Roddi-Void's voice changed, now stern and edged with annoyance. "EXPLAIN 'INTANGIBLE'. EXPLAIN LOVE. EXPLAIN GOD. EXPLAIN UNLIFE. EXPLAIN SOUL-"
"NO!" Rusti shouted. "You have nothing! You ARE NOTHING! You are a BUG made in some petri dish in a Quintesson laboratory. The very fact that you exist is against all physical laws of nature! YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOU! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU?!"
The thing wavered like a snake. "I. AM. THAT. WHICH. IS. VOID. AND. DESOLATE! I AM THE DARK."
Rusti only stared. Her skin chilled with sweat. "You are a disease wrought of hate. You are the embodiment of horror and suffering. You are greed in freakish form. You have knowledge but it is not your knowledge. You say 'I' but you hold no rights to it. You are no more a person than a coffee maker!"
Rodimus-Void backed away and stood very still. Little by little Roddi's darkened shape faded, leaving the new biped form of the Virus standing before Rusti. Its head tilted downward, indicating it maintained focus on her. Then in a quiet tone all its own, it mused to itself: "GIRL ALIEN. NOT ALIEN. AUTOBOT. NOT AUTOBOT. PRIME. NOT PRIME. OPTIMUS. NOT OPTIMUS. GIRL CAN'T EXIST."
In spite of the bizarre situation, Rusti laughed. "You are here in front of me, holding a conversation, asking questions and expecting answers and now you doubt I exist?"
Void spoke, but not to her: "PRIME. NOT PRIME. MATRIX... MAYBE."
Taken aback, Rusti found nothing to say. The Virus turned from her to the floating, static-faced cylinder. Rusti's heart pounded and her skin flushed with anxiety. "Wait!" she called. "Wait!" it turned to her, so human-like and so alien. "Please tell me you haven't killed Rodimus! Tell me Optimus and Roddi aren't unalive! Tell me you haven't eaten them!" her throat constricted; fearful.
The biped leaned over and morphed into the four-legged animalistic shape. It approached her, stretched forth its neck and around Rusti and opened its vertical mouth. "NOTHING WON. NOTHING CONQUERED UNTIL THE MOLECULAR LEVEL."
Fear seized her heart like a hammer pounding on an anvil, solid, massive, final. Void licked the side of her face. Its rough tongue removed all her emotional walls. All her strength drained and all hope faded. A terrible chasm hollowed out her heart and Rusti wept. The Virus disappeared as she sank to her knees. The world faded back to life. Light and sound surrounded her but Rusti saw only the dark. She gasped for breath then screamed.
Pervasive darkness faded to soft lighting. Sideswipe, clueless of his whereabouts, crept in automode, lights on. The world, steeped in silence, reluctantly opened for him one corridor, one grand room at a time. Sideswipe searched two and a half hours with no results. He repeatedly called his wayward brother; his own voice sounded as foreign as his surroundings. Fear ate his insides like cold acid. Sideswipe wanted his brother back. He simply did not think he could go through life brotherless and alone.
The Autobot warrior shoved those thoughts aside and shifted scanning frequencies. He refused to face the possibility that he might lose his family. He refused to give in to despair. The Virus will have to choose someone else to snack on!
Sideswipe's search ended at a set of heavy doors, taller than Skyfire. He braked and shifted to robot mode. One door hung open, wide enough for Sunny's slim form to pass through.
"Sunny?" Sides called. Caution kept his voice low. "Sunny? Hey, Bro, comin' t' getchya." Sideswipe peered through the open doorway and shuddered at the weighted dark before him. Reluctant to enter the unknown, he ticked off the seconds and tried again. "Sunstreaker... eaker... eaker... eaker?" several echoes bounced his voice. Now he really did not want to go in.
"Can't be a coward now," he told himself. Sideswipe stepped into the bleak emptiness and shuddered. The unmoving environment stagnated with a clean, metallic smell. Sideswipe produced a flashlight and panned it left to right. The magnesium illumination gave the Autobot snapshots of a room stretching beyond his scanners.
"I hate this place," the Autobot muttered to himself. "Too fraggin' creepy." He traveled along an isle paved with a non-slip surface. Incubators stood at the left and right of the isle. Four rows over and at least two hundred long as far as Sideswipe's scanners indicated. Shriveled skin over dried bones were all that remained of the occupants. Most babies were of an unknown species-several species.
What by Cybertron were the Quintessons doing with babies? Why would those five-faced bastards leave them to die? Not that Sideswipe was surprised. After all, Quintesson arrogance cared for nothing but results. The Autobot approached one such incubator and a holograph flickered to life displaying a medical chart and a Quintesson's Face of Deceit.
"Subject ST-245-79C. Signs of receptive DNA implant look promising. Subject continues to form eyelets while femur and ischium bones continue to fuse. Likewise, the phalanges and metacarpal bones are deteriorating at the rate of twenty-six layers per day. Blood tests have not yet returned from Laboratory Delta-Tango."
Sideswipe was no doctor-mechanical or otherwise. But he knew the meaning of 'fusion'. He slipped his hand into an opening and grasped the blanket then hesitated. He needed to ignore this and find his brother. On the other hand, it might be good to know what exactly the Quintesson scientists were up to.
Sides drew a breath of cold, stale air and snapped the blanket off the body. He shuddered. The baby, whatever species it resembled, slowly mutated prior to its death. Its thighs fused into one section. Its toes and fingers merged into stubs. In spite of his indifference toward babies in general, Sideswipe felt awful. This was a living creature and the Quintessons played with it like a piece of clay.
"I'm sorry, little guy," he mourned.
The soft clang of metallic feet echoed far ahead. Sideswipe covered the baby, transformed and drove down the isle, passing row after row after row of incubators. If there were any justice in the universe, Sides hoped the Quintessons paid dearly for these atrocities.
A four-way intersection invited Sideswipe into a section of soft red light. He paused and scanned the three entryways surrounding him.
Sideswipe's auto form teetered to the right. He shifted to robot form before he rolled. "Sunny!" He cried.
Or not. Sunstreaker, or rather what remained of the body, bled and creaked. Whole chunks of his skeletal self gushed life blood and other fluids. Sunstreaker growled like an alien animal.
"No! Sunny, it's me! It's your bro!" Sideswipe barely kept his mad brother's fearsome face away. "Come on, Sunny! You've GOT to fight this thing! You can do it! SUNNY!
"EXPECTATIONS FOR FAMILIARITY HAS BEEN DENIED!"
"SHUT UP! SHUT UP YOU FRAGGING SHIT!" Sideswipe gathered all his strength and threw his body to the right. Sunstreaker tumbled off him and Sides leapt to his feet and several yards back. "Let my brother go!" he shouted. "He's done NOTHING to you!"
Sunstreaker-Void crept on all fours, faceplate split. Two rows of jagged teeth chattered like an oversized stapler gun. "COMMITTED ACTS INCONSEQUENTIAL. DESIRES, INCONSEQUENTIAL. ONLY THE HUNT. ONLY THE HUNGER. ONLY THE HUNGER FOR THE HUNT INCURS THE NECESSITY FOR CONFLICT!" Sunny-Void lunged and rolled head-over-feet when Sideswipe dodged. He growled, charged again, missed and coiled like a snake. "SSSS...SSSS... NNNN... MINE. NO TAKE-BACKS."
Sideswipe wrinkled his face in confusion. "What?"
The Virus-possessed Autobot crept to the right. Its optics flared and darkened. "SSSS..."
Sideswipe shivered. The phrase, usually found in children's vocabulary, made him wonder if the Virus spent time with the children in the fleet. Where else would it pick up something like that? "Of course there's take-backs!" Sides retorted. "Every game has take-backs! You can't keep Sunny! He's MY BROTHER!"
"RRRRRRAAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHH!" Sideswipe had to cover his audio preceptors. The floor under him vibrated with Void's tantrum. "NO. GAMES! NO GAMES! I PLAY NO GAMES! LIFE. UNLIFE. LOVE... INTANGIBLE! YOU SAY TAKE-BACKS AND THEY SAY UNLIFE AND SHE SAYS INTANGIBLE! ALL INCONSEQUENTIAL!"
"IT'S NOT INCONSEQUENTIAL YOU FACELESS, DEMONIC FREAK! You took my brother and you have NO RIGHT! I WANT MY BROTHER BACK NOW!"
Sunny-Void lunged and flew through the air like a cat. He tackled Sideswipe with the force of a cannonball and the brothers rolled over one another thrice before Sunstreaker took dominance. He sat atop Sideswipe and landed one battering right-cross after another.
"STOP!" Sideswipe cried. "Sunny! You have to stop! You have to fight this thing! I won't fight you! SUNNY!" The abuse landed on Sideswipe's face one terrible blow after another until Sideswipe's face cracked and bled, his helm dented so that the outer layer of his left optic cracked and leaked.
Sunstreaker's hands wrapped round Sides' neck and started to squeeze the life out of him. Either die or live to save Sunstreaker. Sideswipe did not need to think twice. With remaining strength, he flipped his body upward and tossed his brother's rickety shape overhead. His peaceful retaliation failed to dissuade the Virus from finishing its murderous intentions. Sunstreaker rallied strength from his possessor and attempted another tackle. Sideswipe transformed and rammed for speed. He tried not to panic when Sunstreaker chased after him, leaping along the walls on all fours. The corridor ended abruptly. Sideswipe braked and tried to drift to the right. But his velocity carried him too far and he smashed his left side into the wall. Sunstreaker caught up in three leaps. Sideswipe transformed and braced for impact.
But Sunny's collision hit his brother with such terrible force that both brothers smashed through the wall. They tumbled into another dark chamber. Sunny pummeled Sideswipe until Sides, angry, frustrated and fed up, landed a punch of his own, sending the mad Autobot into the darkness.
One second, no sound. Two... three and Sunstreaker crashed into glass. Alarm klaxons pierced the dead quiet. Emergency lighting shot on. Computer voices talked over one another. Something shot Sideswipe and incapacitated him. The same thing shot Sunstreaker. He howled like an animal before screeching with the Virus' own voice.
As the computer continued to sound off warnings of containment breech, the eyes of three hundred persons snapped open and one by one stasis chambers shorted out.
Grandma laid out a blanket by the riverside. Dezi sat first, book in hand. Resonna cast her eyes upon Fort Max, wondering why Optimus could not come with them. She begged but he gently told her other people wanted to spend time with him. With a heavy sigh, the little girl settled beside her grandmother and accepted the sandwich wrap and juice.
Resonna spoke against the warm spring wind. "Grandma, will I be as smart as Dezi when I grow up?"
"You can be."
"Will I be as smart as Grandpa?"
"Maybe." Carly Witwicky smiled proudly.
The little girl nibbled on her sandwich thoughtfully. Her sister, now age twelve, barely noticed the world beyond the pages of her books. "I don't think I'll be as smart as Dezi," Little sister decided.
Grandma Carly handed her a cookie. "Sweetheart, everyone has a special talent. It takes time to find it, that's all. You don't have to be as smart as Dezi. You can be as smart and witty as Resonna."
"There's something more to your Talent than empathy, Rus. I'll bet there's a power there that even you are unaware of. R'member you said that Earth said you were a gift?"
Gift? That forced her weary eyes open. "What about it? I probably just imagined it..."
"Rus, you were able to reach out to me. You took me on that tour. Most empaths are more selective, more limited than that. What you did, now that I think about it, requires a great deal of power. I mean, how were you able to stop the two Autobot leaders from killing each other? What did you do?"
Rusti's eyes shot open. "Cody? Cody?"
A smile in the dark; blond hair now blue in the shadows. A voice, vaguely familiar spoke in tones not heard since Rusti's fourth birthday. "I'm sorry, Sweetheart. Cody isn't here any longer."
Rusti sat up in a bed and tugged at a number of lines reading her body's rhythm. "Grandma?" An ageless face emerged from the room's unlit portion. Carly Witwicky didn't look a day over thirty. Rusti stared before she found her voice. "Grandma, you're supposed to be dead. Why do I keep seeing you?"
"Because I know where you will go when you leave the temporal life, Sweetheart. I will be here to bring you home."
Rusti's eyes expanded. "Am I dying?" Rather than offer an answer, Carly kissed her granddaughter's forehead with all the tenderness of a new mother. "Wait," Rusti's mind raced, jumping from one thought to another so that she could not verbalize all of it. "What's going on? What happened to me? Grandma, what's wrong with me?"
Carly faded, "no matter what happens, I will be waiting for you, Sweetheart. I'll be right here..."
Rusti reached for the woman who was more a mother to her than Netty ever was. "Wait, Grandma! Wait!"
"Dr. Zornoy, we have two more patients who have come down with fevers. One has the rash on her right shin."
"Mizz Candice. Most appreciative if I might have but ten minutes to tend to this young lady! I will look-see the new patients in a few moments. Meanwhile, find me some eggs!"
Rusti returned to the present world with a brain made of cotton, fog and pixy dust. Her clumsy hand attempted to rise but it collapsed, every bit as exhausted as the rest of her.
"Ah!" Zornoy's voice came from her left side. "Long and last, our young patient comes back. Yes, yes. Hello, my dear." Zornoy's cheer rang like a wind chime; clear and soothing.
Rusti wanted to speak. Her mind raced with one question after another so that her mouth bottlenecked with words. Optimus. Where was Optimus? Where was Rodimus? What happened to land her in sickbay? (Again!) What was with the fevers and rashes? What happened? She searched her memory, fragmented and sparse. Zornoy said something more; maybe more of a question than a statement. Confused and frustrated, more and more questions crowded her mind so that she choked on tears.
"Oh, that's better," Zornoy wiped her eyes and nose. "There's always worry when the mind locks up. But here, Miss Witwicky, you just give yourself time. Yeah? You are very brave. Even strong men, I know, would have needed a change of panties."
From the doorway Candice cleared her throat. "I'm sorry, Doctor. Men do not wear panties. I brought your eggs and some juice for your patient." She served each then stepped back.
Zornoy devoured his plate piled with eggs and two slices of toast. When Rusti did not touch her juice, Candice stepped forward and helped her with the straw. Zornoy pointed at his assistant. "You mind staying with our young patient here?" he asked. "Ten minutes are over. She's up and alert."
"Yes, of course, Doctor."
"Tissues, music and quiet for Miss Witwicky. Check every twenty minutes. Brain scan and blood sample." Zornoy set his empty plate aside. He grasped Rusti's hand and squeezed it gently. "Rest first, my dear. After that, I'll allow someone to visit you and answer all the questions-"
A masculine voice cut the doctor's sentence: "DR. ZORNOY! THE BABY'S COMING!"
And the doctor whisked off. Candice set the drink aside and tested Rusti's temperature. She chose a needle from a zip-pack and drew blood. Rusti lay like a doll, numb, exhausted and puzzled.
"Miss Candice?" her voice cracked with effort. "What's going on?"
"What do you mean 'what's going on'?" Candice marked the hypo and set it on a tray. She activated the wall panel behind Rusti and tapped a series of keys on a tiny device.
"I mean... I mean something's not right. Nothing feels right."
Candice did not drop her brown eyes to meet her patient's stare. "There are a number of things going on at once. Are you asking what happened to you?"
An overwhelming sense of sadness struck Rusti. It constricted her lungs as an unknown darkness emptied her heart. "What's wrong with me?" her voice squeaked and Candice handed her a box of tissues.
"I really don't know. I'm sorry."
"Does Dr. Zornoy know?"
"Miss Candice!" a girl, scarcely in her teens ran into the private room. "They said Monique D'verr... you gotta come lookit this!"
Candice released a long-suffering sigh. "I'm sorry, Miss Witwicky. I can't stay. Just call if you need anything. Alright?"
Rusti watched the medical assistant and her assistant leave in a rush. Something was going on. Rusti scratched her dry arms, leaned against her pillow and concentrated on her surroundings.
"There's something more to your Talent than empathy, Rus."
Rusti swallowed against the pain in her heart. She wondered why Cody's statement came to her at a time like this. Why was his statement so important?
"I'll bet there's a power there that even you are unaware of."
The young lady snorted. Right; a power or talent for finding and getting into trouble. "Optimus," she whispered. She planned to search for the Primes herself before all... before... she blinked. Before what? Before they were in the communication center? Before they heard news from Earth; before...
A faceless thing appeared in her memory. Void? Void?
...The flashing sensation of falling made her jump and Rusti realized she fell asleep.
Did she have a concussion or something?
"Hey, Doll." It was Roddi's voice. But it wasn't Roddi's voice at all. Just like her grandmother a few minutes-or hours ago-Rodimus stepped from the shadows, arms folded, eyes darkened by possession. He crouched beside her. "Glad to see me?"
Rusti swallowed. "Which one are you?"
Rodimus closed the distance between them, his face a little too close for comfort. "What do you mean 'which one'? You should know who I am."
"Not at this point," Rusti returned carefully. "You could be Void. You could be Roddi... you could be my Roddi." she paused and broke visual contact. "You could be a Matrix memory."
Rodimus did not answer. He sat at her bedside on the floor and just stared. Rusti froze, unable to decide to talk or stay quiet. Her lips trembled. She lifted her left hand when Rodimus tucked the blanket closer to her shoulder.
"I know something is bothering you, Ladyfriend," he said finally. "I know it's all scary. Change comes all the time."
"Not like this," she interrupted. "It's eating you and..." her breath shortened as panic fought against her control. "I know it's after me." She swallowed to maintain control but tears escaped her anyway.
Rusti did not see Rodimus smile gently. "I know you have a captured Quintesson. Nasty thing. Why is Magnus keeping it?"
"Um," she swallowed again. "Um, Rysar Phayron?" she shook her head. "Wait a minute. How do you know about that?"
Roddi smiled again and shook his head. "Never mind. I only heard about the Quintesson. I have not seen it."
Rusti mutely nodded. Her demeanor slumped and a pang of guilt tugged at her insides. She shivered but not from cold. Naturally Rodimus noticed her behavior and gave her four seconds of silence. "What's on your mind, Rusti? Something is bothering you."
She tilted her head slightly right and did not hide her distress. She swallowed hard, opened her mouth and forced the words out. "We-the Autobots-Jazz and Cyclonus-didn't have the code for the rest of the transmission they received. The Quintesson knew the code but, of course, wasn't going to cooperate." Rusti's next breath required effort and her hands turned clammy.
Rusti's eyes froze at the distance. Her mouth turned dry. "The... information..." she frowned and sent her focus left, but did not look Rodimus in the optic. "It was me. I did the-I cut off its tentacles... I damaged his eye and..." she swallowed harder as regret surfaced in her voice. "I was so mad, Roddi! I hate it! I hate all of them! I wanted that thing to hurt as much as I did, as much as Optimus... I wanted it to be sorry for-" regret cut off her voice. Rusti clenched her teeth as anger and bitterness spiraled inside. Tears fell and anger burned in her; anger at them, anger at the situation, anger at herself. Several breaths later, guilt came back and regret followed. She swallowed another onslaught of tears. "You can't put something like that back." memory of the severed tentacles blinked in her head. She recalled how the injured creature (freak) held its wounds. "You can't make it better," her breath shuddered. "I mean, it's not like 'gosh, I'm sorry' will make it alright again." she paused. "I doubt the Quintesson would accept my apology, anyway."
Rodimus nodded. "It would be considered a sign of weakness-at least to them." Rusti nodded and fell silent. "You know, Ladyfriend," he added a moment later, "revenge is like a cup of coffee. It has a wonderful smell. It's warm and strong and inviting. But the moment you put it in your mouth, it's bitter and the taste stays with you for a long time. I get what you're going through. Been there, done that. But all that anger and all that hate and bitterness... it'll eat you alive. And it'll eat until it's all that matters and when it's done, there's nothing left in your life. I know it sucks out loud that the cosmos is filled with disgusting, arrogant, hateful people. But you gotta let it go. It's hard. It's unfair. But there's so much more, so much... wonderfulness that deserves your attention."
Rust swallowed hard. "You're suggesting I forgive them."
Again Rodimus let the seconds slip before he answered. "I'm saying, Ladyfriend, that you can't change the past. What happened, happened in the past and at some point, you simply have to leave it there. And that, Rusti, my dear, came from a Decepticon." he skipped a beat. "Alright?" she wearily nodded. "Good." Rodimus stood and stretched. "Well, Sweety, I have to go. I need to collect a few... volunteers for a job." he bounced his head down then up. "Get some rest."
Galvatron rose from the depth of unconsciousness to the dark world around him. He groaned, rolled off his face and stared into the surrounding bleakness. He never did learn to keep an extra optic on his five-o'clock position; where his arm cannon held a small blind spot. How Rodimus knew about it... well, Galvatron had to credit the Autobot leader with enough intuition to read body language-Virus infected or not.
TWENTY MINUTES. Not more than twenty minutes of peace and quiet reigned on the alien world when Rodimus got the better of him, slipped out his hands and played dodgeball with his head.
Galvatron silently swore never to tell Optimus. His wounded chest hurt. The floor under him slipped with spilt fluids. He wasn't going to admit this to Cyclonus, either. The Decepticon lieutenant may look and act stoic. But in private, Cyclonus was as jovial... well, not jovial exactly. Amused might be a better term for Cyclonus. Galvatron struggled to conjure another word for his friend; long suffering?
He tossed that train of thought aside and scanned the ever-present state of silence and dark for a wall or a door or a blackhole-there was a wall three feet from his location. Excellent! Nothing like progress after losing a fight with a punk Prime. Galvatron shoved himself to his feet, found the wall.
"Lost," he said aloud as he followed the wall, "one former Decepticon leader with the navigational instincts of a broken transmission line. About thirty feet tall, handsome with a proclivity to losing Autobot leaders. Ten American dollars reward. Thirteen if brought in laughing. Oh, lookit this." A right-hand corner invited the Decepticon into either a chamber or another long-aft corridor.
Galvatron groaned. "How many Primes does it take to give a Decepticon a headache?" he raised his voice: "YOU OWE ME FOR THIS ONE, RODIMUS!" Galvatron's voice dropped, "punk."
A subtle hum reached his audio preceptors. Galvatron switched frequencies and determined the source droned several yards to his left. He followed the sound, hoping it might lead him out the labyrinth. He encountered, however, something better; a long, long wall, surreal, not more than fifteen feet high and softly illuminated from the floor.
And there lay Optimus. Relief made Galvatron forget the last billion hours of struggle against an infected Rodimus and the annoying constant lightless world. Three long strides brought him beside his friend. Galvatron laid gentle hands on Optimus and examined him for injuries. The Autobot leader did not respond or move. Galvatron probed his feet, chest and finally his head for damage. He hoped not to encounter another bout of madness. Perhaps, however, this was worse than dealing with an infected Rodimus; Optimus lay completely unresponsive. Galvatron's heart hurt, just as it did during their visit in Concentric City.
Optimus bled from his optics and faceplate. A deep puncture wound marred his left hand and leaked profusely. As Galvatron further examined Optimus' left arm, the Autobot leader came to, barely conscious enough to recognize he had company. He tried to speak and failed. His optics dimmed on, their light scarcely brighter than the soft illumination from the floor. Galvatron settled under him and gently smeared the blood from his faceplate. "I got you, Optimus," he said softly. "I'm here. I'm here."