Croix Insepency chapter 13

TEMPORAL FACTOR

Galvatron dozed off now, again and three times more as he attempted to plan their escape. Time melted into unaccounted increments. Optimus rested in his arms. But plagued with nightmares and pain, Prime's sleep hovered in a shallow depth. His hands twitched and his breathing hitched. The fact that the Autobot leader drew in air indicated overheating. Galvatron sealed Optimus' left hand and regretted his inability to repress the lifeblood seeping from his friend's optics.

Galvatron's logical side screamed for action. Sitting there, in a strange place, delayed medical attention for both. Galvatron would have carried his friend through the labyrinth of halls and chambers if it meant getting them back to the Autobots. The damage in his chest mocked all other ideas. The extent of his wounds required more than a few hours of rest.

"We make a lively couple, don't we, Optimus?" he said softly. "You and me." His voice faded into the same soundlessness they resided in for hours. Prime's right hand twitched again, fingers flexed and retracted as though reaching for something. Galvatron took that hand and held it. He did not know how much time passed; he refused to check his internal chronometer. For all he knew, days slipped away and they may very well be alone on the rock, abandoned by the Autobots who finally escaped.

It's okay, he told himself I'm okay with that.

Not long thereafter, Optimus' breathing grew deeper until he coughed himself to life. Galvatron adjusted his seating position to make his friend more comfortable. Then Optimus stopped breathing. His head dropped back and his optics narrowed darkly. Galvatron tried not to panic. He gripped Prime about the back, twisted him so that Optimus' head rested on his shoulder. Galvatron slipped his arm under Prime's left and pressed hard into the Autobot's back as if to embrace Optimus. It worked. Optimus coughed again, his breath returned in hard gasps. Gradually he relaxed and Galvatron lowered his arms.

Galvatron tugged a smile over his weary features. "I'm sorry, Optimus," he whispered. "I did not stop to think that you might not want to..." the Decepticon roved his optics off his friend's because what he meant to say hurt too much to verbalize. "I'm a coward," he said instead. "I don't want you to go. Very selfish, wouldn't you say?"

Optimus weakly lifted his fingers and brushed his fingers at the edge of Galvatron's wounded chest. When he spoke, Prime's voice breathlessly whispered. Galvatron did not miss the sad undertones. "R'ssssti." Optimus drew a shallow breath. "You'd take care of her?" tears gathered at the corners of his optics. His hand lost strength and dropped with dead weight. "Should not have... should never have... I couldn't help it. I loved... I loved."

Galvatron mustered his resolve and chose not to rebuke his friend's loss of faith. "We're going to get out of here," he said gently.

Prime's voice lost volume again. "Sss...ssstreaker. He's gone. He's gone." Grief burdened Optimus' heart. He wanted to blame himself. He wanted to take responsibility but his tattered rationality held firmly in place so that no choice was given the Autobot leader except to accept the truth. Sunstreaker's death had nothing to do with war or desertion; nothing to do with Optimus himself. It simply happened.

Galvatron bowed his head. "Bury the dead and feed the living, Optimus," he answered in the same gentle tone. "I will not bury you. Not today. Not tomorrow. I want you to stay with me."

Galvatron's voice diminished as Optimus submerged into the depths of slumber. Pain followed him and sadness lagged not far behind. How does it feel to be eaten alive from the inside-out?

You don't feel it at first. You're fine, life goes on. Then little by little, strength leaves you. You have no balance. Working, moving, thinking becomes toilsome. Sleep is bliss. Soon, everything requires more energy than you produce, even if it's just taking a step or two. You fade into the shadow of a person you once were. Fade. Fade.

As if from afar, Optimus observed Galvatron sitting on the floor, holding onto the motionless form of his dying body. Was this a dream or the breath-space between realities? The soft light about them dimmed until all Optimus perceived only the silhouette of Galvatron's form. The Decepticon gazed back at his friend, as though aware. Locked in the same minute world, the two mechs regarded one another through the shadowed barrier of life and death.

Were those tears marking Galvatron's face? Do Decepticons cry? "Stay with me," the whisper touched the air like a feather on a dandelion. "I don't want you to go."

"There is no place," Optimus answered. "I have no place. Roddi's... I don't have Rodimus."

"Then fall to me, Optimus," Galvatron's voice strengthened enough to express his resolve. "I am here for you." his words alighted back to the whisper: "Fall to me. Fall to me."

Then fell the dark. All existence narrowed into a single moment. For Galvatron, the universe held its collective breath as a tiny spark fell slowly, descending like a microscopic comet upon its death. Galvatron opened his hands and received a gift for which he was not worthy. Clasping his hands about it, the Decepticon silently swore to keep it and protect it with all his life.

A burning sensation streamed down his chest and roused Optimus from the dark. He drew a breath to counter the heat and activated his optics. The quiet comforted him, though the Autobot leader could not say how or why. Or perhaps it wasn't so much the quiet, but the soft sound of a vibrating power core.

What happened? Optimus recognized nothing of his surroundings. A gentle light illuminated the area, though Optimus saw neither ceiling, nor wall. The fingers of his right hand leisurely stretched and contracted. The hot fluid, whatever it was, gave him enough strength to test his mobility. He flexed his right foot. For the most part, his diagnostics indicated no damage. However it failed to test anything further than his extremities. Internal components reported nothing more than static. That did not mean Prime's awareness of his body fell short of his internal diagnostic. He knew he was dying.

Galvatron's voice, usually like sandpaper, sounded lighter. "Prime. Awake?"

Optimus only moved his fingers again. No words came. His foot moved on its own again as if to confirm his hopes.

"Actually," Galvatron continued, "I am not surprised it took this long. I'm sorry if it burned. There was nothing else I could do. We're not exactly in an energon supermarket."

Optimus turned his right hand and ran his thumb over finger tips. "'m con...fused," his own voice barely reached the air.

"Naturally," the Decepticon returned. "You're not where you're supposed to be. Fortunately for you, I got lost and my Optimus-radar zeroed on you. Don't worry. I won't tell anyone."

Information finally clicked in Prime's head: oh, it's Galvatron. "Tired of dreams," he said more to himself. "Where's everyone?"

"Not here. Just you and me." Galvatron paused for several seconds then added, "how do you feel?"

Optimus thought his answer through carefully. He missed Rusti. He missed home. He missed rainy days and Sunday drives. He worried for the Autobots, for Rodimus, for Earth. "Tired," he summarized. His answer drove Galvatron into a lengthy silence. As he waited for his companion to reply, Optimus realized Galvatron held him comfortably. He was comfortable and the feeling invited him to sleep again. No! No sleeping! Wherever they were, however they arrived, only meant distance between they and the rest of the refugees.

That in turn woke something deep inside Prime; a sense of urgency, a sense that demanded his immediate attention. They needed to find their way back to base camp, or die trying. Optimus spoke with a strong voice this time: "we cannot stay, Galvatron."

The Decepticon nodded. "I found you and could not just leave you lying on the floor. They're fresh out of Optimuses-Optimi?" Galvatron's face distorted with the question. With a shake of his head, he brushed it off. "Anyway, I have one of my own here. So I sort of scraped you off the floor."

Prime smiled lightly while he scanned their surroundings. "Seems to be an exit at one-thirty of our position. I don't suppose you could fly."

Galvatron hesitated and set his lip components in a straight line. "I... I... the transfusion, Optimus. Sorry."

Disbelief empowered the Autobot to half sit and half turn to face his friend. "What did you?" he scrutinized his caretaker.

"Saved your Virus-infected aft. What else do you think I did? That burning sensation? Yes, Prime. There is no room service down here."

The sudden movement made Optimus woozy and he nearly tipped over. He fought to maintain his strength and gradually the dizziness abated. "Galvatron, we must try to get back while I still have strength."

Galvatron gripped Prime's shoulders and hauled him up in one movement. His expression grim, determined, did not hide his concern. "I am here for you, Optimus," he repeated, "we will find our way out."

At first Optimus managed to walk so long as he leaned against Galvatron's strength. Twenty minutes later Galvatron simply swept his friend off the chilled metallic floor and carried him to whatever destination awaited them.

"Not sure why the Virus affects you and Rodimus differently," Galvatron muttered after a while. Using radar, he traveled one corridor then another, easily avoiding walls and doors as they came into sensory range. "Perhaps the Virus affects different parts of the meta processor. Know what's really spooky? It knows me." Galvatron paused in his monologue, piecing one shard of fact to another. "Even you probably don't know Zh'Xn, do you, Optimus? I've heard its music. I hear it even now. It's calling to me."

A soft, broad beam of light illuminated the end of the next corridor and Galvatron hoped they found the exit. He approached, quiet as a cat in spite of Optimus' weight in his arms. When a huff of relief escaped the Decepticon, Optimus understood they found the exit. The entry/exit yawned before them with an ascending ramp. Galvatron carried Prime until they reached leveled footing. Outdoor lighting gave them full view of the hydroponics building to the right and central communications two yards at the left. Gravel and a few twisted purple shrubs stretched between buildings, inviting Galvatron to take his path along something softer.

Drawing three shallow breaths, Optimus summoned enough strength to speak: "I think I can walk again..." (breath) "...Galvatron."

"You can barely say my name. What makes you think you can use your feet?" Galvatron spotted something, or rather, he thought he did. Shadows skittered along the walls like phantoms, here then not. He remained motionless, breathless, waiting.

"You see something?" Optimus asked ever so quietly.

"Perhaps." several seconds ticked off before the Decepticon slowly set Prime on his feet. He did not move or tear his optics away, determined to be certain. Thirty seconds later rewarded Galvatron with another fleeting image. Abstract and incomplete, it still blinked a set of eyes before the grey shape rounded the far corner and vanished.

Galvatron decided not to give chase. He changed his mind when a familiar dark figure appeared from nowhere, bearing a formidable weapon. The former Decepticon leader darkened his optics with uncertainty. "Prime," he said in low tones, "how possible is it that an Inoux stowed away on one of the ships?"

"I don't know. If it utilized a personal, limited-ranged force field, it's possible. Scanners can't detect everything."

"I don't want to go chasing ghosts-"

"Safer than sorry," Prime finished.

"Right. Stay here. Do not move from this spot. I'll be right back." Galvatron eyed his friend critically and when Optimus nodded, the Decepticon took up the chase. He kept close to the ground without stirring dust; silent as a snake in water. Silently turning the corner, he laid optics on the mystery shadow: an Infantry-class Inoux. Galvatron assumed it an illusion projected by the Matrix Virus. If that were the case, however, should there not be a 'window' someplace nearby?

Drawing his rifle from subspace, Galvatron set the weapon on high-frequency. "Who are you?!" he declared, "And you'd better not be for-real!" he expected the image to vanish or ignore him entirely.

The faceless figure turned. "Scout," it answered. "Looking for those missing. You are not Autobot. Galvatron, perhaps?"

"You can't be real," Galvatron denied. "We passed into uncharted space, into a time anomaly."

It sputtered in creepy laughter. "Decepticon knows naught of dimensional travel. Understands less than it boasts. Not to be concerned. You are found."

Galvatron did not know if arrogance got the best of him or if his head were clouded by determination to protect. Something inside goaded him to approach the Inouxian scout. "You're lying, Void" he growled. "I know your propensity to treachery and deception. It won't work with me."

The Inoux struck Galvatron like a cannonball the size of a starship. Galvatron slammed against the wall and left a perfect imprint. It took .04 seconds to clear his head. Tugging himself out the shallow dent, Galvatron fired eight shots in rapid succession. The Inoux ducked and dodged, leapt and rolled, easily avoiding the line of fire.

Six minutes into their fight, Decepticon and Inoux were joined by Kup and five Autobots. Just as smoothly and easily as the alien avoided Galvatron's attacks, it avoided theirs. With an additional, slick movement, the Inoux flung several bladed stars at Kup and his mechs. The incoming Autobots all hit the ground. Boulder, however, nearly lost his right arm. Kup caught a bad slice to the right shoulder. Two throwing stars pinned both Jacket's shoulders; one dug deeply.

Galvatron crossed glances at Kup. With a nod, the older Autobot warrior set Recoil's power on high. "HEY!" he shouted. KRAK-AK, KRAK-AK, the bursts of hydro-chloric acid slapped the Inoux's exoskeleton like globs of goo. "If yer hoping for a fight, yer LOOKIN' at it!"

The dark alien fell for the ploy and turned from Galvatron. It shot Shark's left arm clear off and missed Jacket's knee by inches. Galvatron body-slammed the Inoux from the right and the Infantry class lost its weapon. The two thundered to the ground; the Inoux jumped up first. It kicked Galvatron hard in the left thigh and tried to impale the Decepticon with its footless legs. Galvatron caught the leg and gripped it like a vice. With a great heave, Galvatron, still on the ground, turned all his weight and strength to the right and slammed the freakish thing onto its own back. He rolled toward the Autobot squad as they showered the alien with another barrage.

"Shit," Galvatron hissed. He needed to get back to Prime, not hold a death-dance mono-e-mono with something that looked like burnt toothpicks with a head. Regaining his feet, he allowed Kup and his mechs to intensify their aim. But the Infantry leapt over them, hit the ground and landed a fist into the Decepticon. Galvatron dropped, sprang back, and rammed into it with everything. The force, yet again, toppled the Inoux off balance. Kup and other Autobots peppered it-this time with an assault of tightly-compressed negative ion pulses.

The Inoux screeched; Galvatron doubted it vocalized pain so much as anger. In fact, the creature did not show so much as a bruise. It bent slightly over as the Autobots advanced. Galvatron opened his mouth to warn them of their proximity but the alien moved faster than he acted. It snapped up and in a single movement, kicked all weapons from their hands. The Inoux barreled for Jacket, ran him down then charged for Galvatron.

Reclaiming their weapons, the Autobot guard aimed and waited for a clear shot. The Infantry whaled on Galvatron like a ninja on steroids. Galvatron's best option: duck and parry until his back met the wall. Ducking further, the Decepticon used the wall as a loader and sprang from it. He rammed his head square into the Inoux's mid-section. No damage, however, the impact flattened the Inoux for a full minute.

Out of energy and ideas, Galvatron heaved in air; hands supported his knees. The Autobot squad moved in three steps-

SKREEEEE...BOOOOM!

A vehicle crashed into the building's facing.

Kup half lowered Recoil. "What the lopped, short-circuited, empty-headed...? Siren, Hackstraight, find out what the Pitt's going on over there! The rest of you, on my count!"

From three-thirty of Galvatron's position a male psychic pounded the metallic ground at a hard run. "STOP!" he cried between breaths. "You can't kill it! It won't-" the Inoux sprang in a backroll and screeched at the humanoid with a high-pitched crow. The psychic flinched, his white hair whipped about his face. In turn, he faced his right palm outward and two dark golden rings flashed a streak of hot-blue. It missed Galvatron by precise millimeters and shot the Inoux.

The alien staggered back and clawed at its mid section. It chittered and squawked as the psychic shouted a litany of unknown words. The Infantry burst from the middle and disintegrated into a pile of fine black dust.

Jacket shivered under shock and awe. "Wow."

"Hey!" Recoil declared from Kup's hand, "where'd Galvatron disappear to?"

Galvatron didn't think it required genius-level IQ to guess the humanoid knew what it (he?) was doing. Taking no further interest in the clean-up process, the former Decepticon leader rounded the corner to investigate the crash. Siren and Hackstraight stood by and watched as some crazed Autobot chased someone round the building's front support structures. Galvatron did not need to guess who was in trouble.

"Rusti, Darling," not just an Autobot, Galvatron surmised; a femme. "you and I can go to the mall. We can do some window shopping, maybe see a movie."

Leaping between the target and the hunter, Galvatron lightly landed in front of Rusti as Delta in vehicle mode steered for her. The femme should have seen him; Galvatron wasn't hard to spot, even at her speed. Venting his anger and frustration, Galvatron slammed his fist into her incoming fender and grill. Delta's auto mode tipped forward and rocked back. She transformed, sore and confused.

"Galvatron!" she greeted after five seconds.

His mood allotted no cheerful recompense. "A good reputation is better than great riches. Hello, Delta. How are the fish biting today?" he doubted she realized her fortune that Rusti still breathed air. In her bewilderment, Delta blathered, whining and whimpering. Then she raised her voice: "WHY WON'T YOU DIE?" she yelled at Rusti. "Optimus is mine. Optimus has always been mine, you little tramp! I had him first!"

Galvatron snorted and opened his mouth to feed her a condescending wise crack. He stopped short and watched in disbelief as black liquid rained upward, slipping through the fissures and borders along the metal flooring. It wisped up and around the femme. The liquid stretched thin then rearranged itself into Void and for some reason, Delta did not acknowledge it presence behind her. Galvatron posed to strike, squaring his body between the Virus and Rusti.

Void hissed, reared its elongated head and punched through the femme's mid section like a bird's beak through an eggshell. Its neck stretched and turned so that it faced its latest victim. Galvatron swore he'd never forget Delta's scream, much less how the Virus' mouth expanded to impossible proportions. It devoured Delta's upper half in one bite, the rest of her in the second.

Galvatron froze as the thing retracted its neck and cleaned long teeth with its forked tongue. The Virus lifted its right leg and nibbled along it like an insect. It did not react to the incoming sound of several sets of robotic feet headed toward them. Galvatron held out his left hand to ward off further movement. "Wait, Cyclonus," he said softly. "Don't move." he held still and glanced at the girl. Rusti lay unconscious behind him. Her life readings skipped erratically.

Cyclonus kept his voice down, "Galvatron, the girl."

"I know. I do not want to provoke it, however." He raised his voice: "Void, why did you kill the Autobot? She did not appear infected."

Setting its leg on the ground, the Virus' creepy physical visage studied Galvatron first then Cyclonus and those Autobots behind him. "WE SPOKE. THAT AND I."

Galvatron flinched. "I again?" he paused. "Erm... by 'that', I assume you mean the femme? And why do you use 'I'? What does it mean to you?"

"ME. VOID. WE SPOKE."

"You and Delta?"

"SHE LIKED THE DARK. SHE ASKED. WE ANSWERED. SHE ASKED MORE. SHE ASKED OF... OF GREATER. SHE ASKED THE DARK TO MAKE HER MORE. WE DID NOT UNDERSTAND. THE DARK PROMISED NOTHING. THE DARK VISITED. THEY SPOKE."

"So... you ate her because she spoke with the Dark?" he waited a beat for an answer but the Virus said nothing else. "All right." Galvatron frowned.

Cyclonus approached, fascinated yet uneasy. "It seems, Galvatron, the dialog between Delta and the Virus was one of a request for greater power. To make her 'more' indicates she was dabbling-" he cut himself off when Void sank into the ground and disappeared. The two mechs stared a moment longer before Cyclonus spoke again. "I suppose it was bored with our conversation."

Galvatron walked off. "Get the girl," he briskly ordered. "Tell them I'm bringing Optimus in."

Carefully retrieving his fallen friend, Galvatron carried Optimus through the darker recesses and curving architecture within the Quintesson command center. A number of controls and comlinks bedecked the broad corridor. Long, sturdy piping snaked along the ceiling, supplying the building with oxygen (or nitrogen) and water. Galvatron did not miss the subtle borderlines marking the walls; lines which, no doubt, allotted for transformation upon command. Just like the Autobot ships, he thought.

Two sets of doors growled open and the Decepticon stepped forth. His optics swept the huge room and found Magnus, Cyclonus and another Autobot he did not recognize.

"Bring him here, Galvatron," First Aid directed. The Autobot medic flipped several switches as Galvatron laid Prime on the appointed table. Safety borders slid into place around the flat and clamps clicked over Prime's arms and feet. Galvatron glared at the Autobot medic. Taking the Decepticon's reaction in stride, First Aid did not look at him. "It's a precaution only, Galvatron." he said softly. "We cannot take any more chances now."

Galvatron folded his arms. "Fine. But do not expect me to just walk off and leave." He paused two beats. "What about Rusti?" Galvatron glanced at the unfamiliar Autobot who picked up a chart and scribbled.

"She's been returned to the Racing Beast under quarantine." First Aid met Galvatron's optics as if to challenge any objection.

Galvatron turned solemn. "Is there anything I can do?"

Before anyone answered, the lighting snapped out. First Aid, Magnus and two others spiked the room with foul language before a few emergency lights countered the darkness. The main entry doors opened and light from the entryway backlit a figure standing at the threshold, arms spread as if to keep the doors open.

"MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY!" Rodimus' grin made a caricature of his face. The activating power of several laser weapons responded to his greeting. Rodimus' optics flashed in the same direction. "Aw! Now don't be that way!" He stepped in and all lights flickered on. Wiggling his finger side to side, Rodimus glanced at Fineliner, Postfix and Rabbit before finding Kup. "Well there you are, Kuppers! Been all across the cosmos looking for you." he flashed a set of teeth that should not be there.

Galvatron watched the exchange and scrutinized Rodimus' body language. With a glance at Magnus and Cyclonus, he made certain they too were ready for anything.

Keeping frosty and on alert, Kup thumbed Recoil, signaling his Targetmaster companion for a high setting. "Been up here all this time, Rodimus," he answered. "Where, by Cybertron, have you been?"

"To London. To see the queen. Tell me, Kuppy, why haven't you been doing your job?"

The room froze like a single breath before plunging into cold waters. Rodimus took one step, two, then stopped. "See, I have it on good authority that you failed to find a few missing persons." The Autobot leader shot his optics toward the ceiling and fingered his chin. "Of course, we're always losing persons. Kinda par for the courssssssse. Wonder... do you think we can change that?"

Kup offered an apologetic expression. "We've been looking, lad," he said gently. "We've been looking for you and Optimus-"

"You didn't look for Searchlight, did you?" Roddi snapped. He did not see Magnus signal to Wolfen Tagmar. "Poor Searchlight," Prime continued. "He was such a loser, no one noticed he was even missing. See? It's exactly that kind of sloppy work that's got you on Op's shit list. Well... mine, now. Cuz Op's a little busy. So it's up to me to handle the situation. He was going to tear you apart. Guess something interrupted him or other, I don't know. Well, hiya, Mags!" Rodimus turned and Ultra Magnus tied all his emotions down.

"Rodimus," the Major-general cordially greeted. "Glad you made it back."

"Liar."

"Where have you been?" Magnus stepped closer to the main front consol beside Jazz and Cyclonus.

"I thought I already answered that question," Roddi eyed the city commander with dark suspicion. "You aren't going to make me repeat myself, are you? You know how much I hate that."

Magnus decided to try a different approach: "Rodimus... we're working as fast as we can to eradicate the Virus. How about, uh, helping us out?"

"What if I don't want to?"

A deep-throated, nasal chuckle clucked from the right side of the room. All optics and eyes turned to the energo-cage containing the Quintesson. With a grin pasted on like a mask, Rodimus lightly made his way around monitors and tables. He bypassed Optimus as if his counterpart weren't even there. Peering through the energy net, Rodimus stared like a child with a new-found bug. "What's this?" he asked like a three year-old. "It's laughing. Looky, Mags, the monster is laughing. Hi, laughing monster! Wanna come out of your house and play with us?"

Rysar Phayron neared that side of the net, his Face of Hate stared the Autobot leader down. "Your pretentious play at innocence is amusing, Rodimus Prime. I see into your cranial chamber all things you plan for now and hereafter. you will see nothing of your hopes for the future. Your union with the Matrix Virus was destined for one thing: death of your species."

Roddi acted as if the Quintesson said nothing. "Seems you have some boo-boos. Did you fall down and go splat?"

In spite of the inability to communicate emotion through its fixed face, the Quintesson conveyed a frown. "You'll not leave Bare Anches alive, Rodimus Prime. The Virus will see to it."

Rodimus flinched, glanced at Magnus then back to the monster. "So uh, how did you come by Mr. Doom an' Gloom? Not very cheerful at all. I don't recall granting permission to keep pets, Mags."

"The Virus, Rodimus." Magnus reported, "It chased him here, through one of the monitors. We've been trying to glean information but he's not exactly forthcoming."

Rodimus wheezed a laugh. "Ha! So Puppy's the one that gave you the boo-boos?"

"My wounds are a topic of no consequence, Autobot," Rysar Phayron hissed. "Knowing that soon all Autobots will fall into piles of junk, ready for plunder and destruction is enough to keep me silent."

Rodimus stared at their captive nine seconds before he shook a finger at Phayron. "You're a sassy one. No wonder the Dark and Desolate wanted to nibble. Tell you what, frat boy: you play nice with Mags and I promise your death will be swift and painless. Okey dokey?"

The Quintesson regarded the infected Autobot leader with darkened eyes. Magnus and Galvatron watched the silent battle of will and wit, uncertain and uneasy. However, knowing Quintessons as he did, Galvatron wagered on Phayron's insolence. The Decepticon lost control of his smile as it crept across his lip components.

"Your word is worthless, Autobot. Your life is forfeit, a sacrifice made to appease the indignance your entire klomp committed against your creators."

What started as a huff turned into a snigger and then a cackle until Rodimus bowed over. His whole body shook with laughter. The entire room stalled from movement and chatter. Only Galvatron guessed what Rodimus found so amusing. The Autobot leader dragged in a breath to stabilize his internals and he faced Rysar Phayron again. "Oh, Primus, that's... that's too funny. You're the one in the cage and you're spitting threats. I'd applaud you except that I find it more amusing than admirable. Let's try this again: how about you tell us how to put the Virus into a birdcage and we'll make sure you die instantly."

Rysar gurgled, producing a repulsive sound that made half the room's occupants wince. The Quintesson spat a disgusting dark green glop of goo that sizzled on the energy cage.

Rodimus smiled like a cat. "That's alright," he answered, "I'll just eat you myself." Here his voice dropped and the creepy double-voice often utilized by the Virus emphasized his words: "and don't think This above such actionssssss. Devoured many. Many. THE FLOOR WILL FAIL TO HIDE YOU FROM THE DARK."

From the center of the room, Tagmar's small firm voice came through Arcee, startling Rodimus: "Do NOT impart the parasite any space in your mind, Rodimus Prime! You must maintain control at all costs-"

Rodimus spun around and as he did so, a computer control consol slid aside as if pushed by invisible hands. He and the psychic stared eye-to-optic. Rodimus hissed, his face darkened, optics flared. "Stay out of my mind, SHRUUGYIA PRIESTESS!"turning wholly from the Quintesson, Rodimus took two steps and framed his posture with an authoritarian pose. His voice returned to normal. "I have been fully aware of your presence since our arrival on this rock. We are Prime. We know of your exploits, Wolfen Tagmar. We know that you and your punk psychics worked with the Quintessons to break Optimus." Rodimus' expression did not change even when Tagmar paled with embarrassment and shame. Not that Rodimus cared, as Magnus and Cyclonus noticed. Prime took his accusations one step further: "we are also aware of the conversation you had with Rusti. And let me warn you of one more thing, prissy missy: my people are off limits. Don't make me repeat myself."

Galvatron bounced his optics from Rodimus to the head psychic and slightly winced. "Awkward," he said under his breath.

"That being said," Rodimus continued, "everyone in this room is ordered to concentrate on one thing: getting off this rock."

Galvatron tightened his grip on the railing at the foot of Optimus' flat. "We're not leaving until the Virus is contained," he growled.

Rodimus turned, composure stoic as the former Decepticon leader never saw it. "I don't recall asking for options or opinions, Galvatron," he responded with icy tones.

"Didn't need to," Galvatron smoothly countered. "These, your people, will not survive your death. You know this better than I. There are enough people here. We can concentrate on both."

"There is no cure for this thing, Galvatron! I will not allow it to spread and take more lives! Optimus and I will remain-"

"You say that as if you have no faith." Galvatron growled. "You must give them a chance."

Rodimus took two steps toward the sunken area. "As we stand here picking lint out of our filters, the Ellipsis closes in on this station. Everything in it and on it will be destroyed."

Cyclonus flinched. "How do you know this? Are you speaking of-"

Rodimus spared him a glance. "The unknown object you've been tracking. Yes." Roddi paused a second. "I've been aware of it. At least when I'm in my right mind."

"But How?" Cyclonus stilled the inclination to flinch when Rodimus' darkened optics turned on him.

"Because the Ellipsis is born of the Matrix, the final product before I was infected."

Ultra Magnus tugged on a calm facade, though his mind raced with fear-imposed options. "Cyclonus, Jazz, how much time do we have?"

Cyclonus allowed Jazz to answer in his stead while he maintained silent, visual contact with Galvatron. Jazz glanced at the telemetry readouts. "Looks like we got just a turn under eighty-four Earth hours, Mags."

Rodimus clenched a fist and pointed at the farthest computer consol in the room. "Shut down that damn tractor beam and get everyone off this station!"

Mnemonic lost his patience "WE'VE BEEN TRYING!" he shivered when Prime's optics zeroed on him. "...Sir," he nervously amended. "The tractor beam won't recognize any security codes. I-it's voice-activated only. We've been trying to find the right frequency... Sir."

"He's right," Galvatron interceded. He squelched rising disquietude as Rodimus looked down from the main floor. "The time it will take to escape Bare Anches can also give us time to take the Virus on. Besides, even were we to leave you and Prime, there is no guarantee the Virus, or some part of it, won't ensconce with us. It must be contained. This is the only place technically advanced enough to do so."

"The Virus will not be caged like some wild animal, Galvatron," Roddi snarled. "It is of no known physical substance."

"No," the Decepticon agreed, "however, it is energy and energy can be contained."

Fed up with the impending fight, Ultra Magnus himself growled with impatience. "Look, you're both right. Let's just settle this by some sort of procedure!"

"STAY OUT OF THIS, MAGNUS!" both Rodimus and Galvatron shouted.

Wheeljack slammed his tablet on a consol. "ENOUGH! ALL OF YOU!" he barked. "We got work to do. Arguing about priorities ain't gonna accomplish nothing! And you, Rodimus, oughta be lying down. Your core temp is almost 1500 degrees." Rodimus radiated a nasty glare and crossed his arms. But 'Autobot X' (as Galvatron named him) remained resolute. Wheeljack returned Prime's glare. "I agree with Galvatron on this," he added. "If you and Prime stay, I stay."

Galvatron looked to Cyclonus with questions in his expression as Rodimus spat his objection. A verbal volley between Prime, Magnus and the unknown Autobot bounced from one to another for twenty more seconds.

Wheeljack, Cyclonus answered over their private comline.

Galvatron tilted his head: oh really?

Whatever else the three Autobots exchanged in verbal shouts and reasons ended with Rodimus surrendering. Angry yet wordless, the Autobot leader took his place at the other flat. Security straps lapped over Rodimus' wrists only. Defiant as ever, Rodimus lifted his head and dished another hot glare at the scientist. "Don't think this fight is over, Wheeljack," he spat. "I'm doing this for the sake of logic."

Wheeljack cackled. "You don't scare me, Rodimus. The Optimus Prime where I come from was way worse. 'Feisty' doesn't begin to describe him. Now lie still and let First Aid get some readings."

With Rodimus subdued (at the moment), Magnus divided their best science officers among the tasks at hand. One team dealt with disconnecting or dismantling the tractor beam. Another team, headed by Blue, dealt with manufacturing the new Virus-chip, or as she called it, the Phase Box.

Wheeljack and First Aid closely monitored Optimus' and Rodimus' life signs while the Autobot leaders lay under the spell of stasis.

Galvatron watched as the room, occupied by engineers, professionals and brainiacs drifted into their assigned groups. He kept one optic on Blue's team and another on Arcee and her psychic mistress. The second he thought about Wofen Tagmar, the powerful alien female laid stern eyes on him. If it came to a test of wills between she and he, Galvatron would gladly give her something to think about. He was less than fond of psychics. He did not miss the icy glower she sent in his direction.

"Did you have something to say to me, Galvatron?"

Oh yeah. She was definitely watching him. He answered her, keeping his expression tucked away: "no. I think you've said it all, flesh creature."

His attention shifted from the squishy "paper tiger" to Blue's corner where four members raised their voices in a heated argument. Cloudstreaker stepped away, closely clutching her digipad. She dragged her optic visor from her peers to Optimus. Cloudy knew something; Galvatron read it on her face. Lack of self-esteem, in the face of her more belligerent peers, kept the femme silent. Galvatron remembered her from the meeting on Cratis; a femme who was brilliant but shy. Galvatron left Optimus' side for the moment and quietly approached Cloudstreaker with a light smile. He nodded toward the four as they bickered and challenged one another. "Noisy, aren't they?"

Cloudy offered a nervous smile. "They're trying to decide what shape to make the chip. I think-I think they're approaching the situation the wrong way. A flat surface won't hold."

He nodded. "Why are you not talking to them, Cloudstreaker? I know you're smarter than you look. Say something."

Her gaze flitted between he and they. "I can't. Arguing is pointless. And, um, I don't do well in group arguments. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings."

The Decepticon leaned against the nearby console. "Do you think your idea deserves to be heard by the chimpanzees over there?" She nodded and lowered her gaze. Galvatron glanced their way then back. "Do you think your idea will work?"

Cloudy opened her mouth, irresolute. She closed it. "Yes. I've... um, I've been working on it since Cratis, actually. I've double-checked all the theory work against the math."

He stared for three seconds. "Raise your voice, girl. Make yourself heard." Cloudstreaker remained hesitant. She took a third glance toward Magnus who remained heedless of her stare. Galvatron rudely tapped the femme's left shoulder. "This way, Cloudstreaker," he redirected. She turned to him with slight consternation. "Listen. This is not the time for you to hide behind your personal disposition. This is not about you, it is not about your peers and it is not about social standing. This is about saving the lives of your leaders. If you have the answer and say nothing, you are just as guilty of murder as you would be to take an energo-sword and hack their heads off. You must take charge and fight for the Primes. Their lives are in your hands."

Cloudstreaker lifted her optics as her paradigm shifted. She gazed at Optimus while Wheeljack and Perigee redressed the wound across his chest. Dragging her attention back to Galvatron, she nodded, shouldered the responsibility and joined the group.

"...I'm telling you," Blue said sternly, "the angled shape won't work. There's too many vantage points for cracks. And the rectangular shape is out of the question."

Brainstorm reentered data in his datatablet. "I firmly disagree, Blue. A disc-shaped chip will contain the Virus. A circular design will enforce all energy to curve in on itself.

Blue shook her head: "the cylinder should work just fine. All energy is forced from one end or the other. There's no ability to concentrate on both ends."

Cloudstreaker found the right moment to cut in: "Um, excuse me, if you use a cylinder, the velocity will rebound on itself. It will weaken at one point and gain strength on another. It'll get to the point where there is enough strength at one point and weakness at the other that one side will break like the top of a sealed vial. With a sphere, there are no walls to bounce off because a sphere, no matter where you are, is curved and the curve slides momentum around so that fast or slow, the momentum remains the same."

"See?" Brainstorm crowed, pointing to Cloudy. "I'm telling you, a disc is the way to go-"

"I didn't say 'disc', Cloudy corrected. She almost flinched when all optics turned to her with annoyance. Instinctively she found comfort in Galvatron's supportive presence and Cloudy picked up her courage. "We're not dealing with a program or some sort of faulty wetware. We're dealing with an entity. The Virus thinks independently and knows how to solve problems. We have to create a problem it can't solve." She opened a window on her digipad and showed them a diagram of her plans.

Brainstorm scrutinized her with a deep frown. "A crystal? A spherical crystal? What makes you think that will work?"

Cloudy fidgeted with her digipad. "Well, um, a crystal is absolute three-dimensional. The structure of a crystal is flawless and multi-faceted. The structure will act like a maze with no beginning or ending."

Brainstorm snorted and laid a hand on Cloudy's shoulder to placate her. "Listen, Cloudy, I'm a big fan of your work. I've read some of your papers. But this isn't theorems on electro-magnetic frequencies. We're dealing with a virus-"

Cloudstreaker found her inner strength and refused to let her peers brush her off. "Will you shut up and listen to me? You're going to kill them! I know what I'm talking about! We use a spherical crystal and lure the Virus in by baiting it with Gamma life force frequency radiation. The outermost layer, the shell, will be reinforced with negative protons matching Decepticon life force frequencies. The Virus is repelled by Decepticons. I've seen it happen more than once."

Brainstorm and Blue exchanged looks. The Headmaster scientist crossed his arms. "If the chip is spherical, it means it cannot be connected to the body by any means. It would still require its own power source. So what do you suggest?"

Cloudy couldn't look at him. "I-I don't know. I haven't had the time to work on that."

Grotesque and Cyclonus watched and listened as everyone else laid out their ideas on a 3-D projector board. Only three people actually examined the tractor beam. One, Jazz, tried to question Rysar Phayron-Zeta regarding its specifications. Once again, the Quintesson was less than forthcoming with information. Mnemonic and Fineliner scrawled all over the board, mapping the tractor beam's main components and detailed power structure.

Magnus grunted as he read and reread the specs. "There just doesn't appear to be a release switch or program anywhere in those designs."

"Naturally," Cyclonus replied quietly. "Quintessons do not release prisoners. They eliminate them."

The Monsterbot approached the board and tapped at the power source. "There's more we didn't considered," he said. "Even with the tractor thing-a-majig off, there's the bubble we're trapped in. None of the ships have phase-crossing capabilities. They got warp speed. They can slide through subspace and surf a wormhole. But slipping out a fractured time bubble? Not something anybody thought of when the ships were drawn up. Even them ships picked out from Lunarphyte don't got that ability."

"Okay," Magnus pointed to the rough sketch to the right side. "What if we were to forget trying to sever the tractor beam? Let's pretend there is no tractor beam holding us. Is there another way off this rock?"

The group fell very quiet. Each person mulled over the question until Jazz looked up with a start: "yeah," he drawled. "Thinkin' on it, Mags, I think there might be. When I visited Wheeljack after he first woke up, he told me 'bout his time spent here, some 'o the stuff them Quintessons were doin'. Seems the lot of them's experimented on teleportation. An' I don't mean like Earth-to-moon stuff. I'm talkin' one universe t' another." Jazz wistfully searched the ceiling a moment. "If only Rusti were here t' help out. She talks t' the science station itself, you know."

Magnus' great shoulders dropped slightly. He didn't even know whether or not Rusti would live to see them escape Bare Anches. He was glad Optimus knew nothing of her dire condition. "Fineliner," he said, redirecting concentration, "what exactly is the tractor beam's power source?"

The Autobot engineer tapped at the quick-and-sloppy rendering of the power components. "From what me, Vector and Fission could tell, the entire thing's powered by black light frequency six." Magnus shook his head, clueless. Fineliner wiped off part of the drawing and penned a long mathematical equation. "Ultraviolet light frequencies that are at the lower end of the spectrum tend to be more powerful than those of broader ranges. Somehow the Quintessons have managed to attain a UV frequency so low that it can be directed through dilithium and thereby used as a power source that recycles itself every five to-the-tenth-power micro-cycles. This is technology that is so advanced we can't determine how it works.

Fineliner's answer swept so far over Magnus' head that the city commander reeled just so slightly. He understood the numbers, however; five-to-the-tenth was staggering. It clearly stated that the Autobots had no chance in the Pitt of escaping the tractor beam. "Jazz," he quietly called, "what was it that Wheeljack said again?"

Heavy darkness faded to grey like a cloudy September morning echoed by a fog along the highway. Words, movement and smells blared then died around Optimus. Too much input then not enough and he failed to recognize his current surroundings. One thing was clear, however, he sensed the presence of psychics. He sensed Rodimus nearby. There was Magnus and Galvatron.

Was Rusti nearby? Was she okay?

His leaden body refused to allow him to speak. Sedated? comatose? Vacation? No. Not Vacation. His work schedule prohibited any time off.

Shadows of death by possession encroached the boundaries of his sanity. Optimus wanted space and freedom. He thought of those dear to him, all those long since vanished into eternity. Elita. Sweet Elita, strong like platinum, brilliant like crystal. He missed her. Shalatta. Beautiful, gentle Shalatta. She who was his secret love held a sacred place in his soul.

...And no sooner had she said it than another pair dipped down from above the door. They were purple with red hem and flowers embroidered on the back pockets. She took an instant liking to them and tried them on.

"Have you ever been in love, Optimus?"

"Once." He admitted quietly.

"I'll bet she was really pretty. And I'll bet she was smart, too. Was she? Where is she?"

"She was beautiful. One of the kindest people I ever knew in life."

"But... she's not alive anymore, is she? Did she die, Optimus?"

"Who?"

"Your lady-love."

"Yes. She died a long time ago."

"Did Megatron kill her?"

"No, Rusti. She never knew Megatron. I met her when I was not on Cybertron."

"Do you think I'll fall in love?"

"Inevitably, Rusti."

"Probably only once."

Why did her statement make him sad? She was only nine back then. Cody did not come into her life until high school.

"People can't fall in love three times in their life, can they Optimus?"

He did.

Optimus gazed upon the huge room from the ceiling. All the monitors and computer readouts indicated the Autobots raced against time. For him, that was a race he ran all his life. He watched Galvatron speak to Cloudstreaker.

Galvatron. The very thought of the Decepticon set Prime's teeth on edge. His right leg itched and Prime nibbled on it, gnawing off static and debris. A salted-metallic smell drifted toward him. Optimus gazed left and breathed in. The Quintesson's scent poured through his body with the promise of juicy, salty meat. He chose to wait. The yellow robot he devoured earlier left him hungry for more, for something of greater substance. There were more Tentacles; all over the place there were Tentacles. Hunger demanded a hunt. Wait. Wait. Optimus' tail twitched at the tip. He anticipated something good.

Prime shot back to life and struggled against energon bonds that strapped him to a flat. "No! No! No!" he thrashed, drawing everyone's attention.

"Quiet him down!" Wheeljack ordered.

"Doing it," Perigee returned with a laser hypo.

Prime resisted the infusion. He bellowed with fear and frustration. Wheeljack talked through the noise while Perigee scrambled to action. As the scientist and his assistant rushed to calm their patient, Galvatron quietly approached and laid a hand on the Autobot leader's hand then his chest.

"Optimus," he did not need to speak any louder, any harsher than his usual voice. Prime calmed and focused on his friend. "We're safe. You and I. We made it back. They're working to save you and Rodimus."

At the sound of his name, Roddi lolled his head right. He managed to make out Optimus' form, but the tranquillizers messed up his visual acuity. "Sweet Primus, Op. You're making a worse scene than a two year-old abandoned in a fun house. Of course, seeing Galvatron first thing in the morning is bound to ruin anyone's day. Shut up, Galvatron. No rhetoric, smart or otherwise, from you."

Galvatron snorted, but kept his lip components closed. A few yards off, Cyclonus lifted his face in a subtle smile.

Optimus' awareness eroded to a world entailing three things: pain, memories and Galvatron. Unfamiliar sounds washed in and out of his sensors.

The Virus spoke, not so much by words as by innuendo; wordless hints that translated into a language Optimus did not realize he understood: "EVEN IF YOU WERE TO SURVIVE THE DEATH OF DARKNESS, YOU'D LIVE ALL YOUR LIFE WITH CAVERNOUS SCARS. WE WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN."

Prime's optics utilized enough light by which he faced a darkened sky-or was it a ceiling? The eyeless countenance of an imitation life form tilted its head so that light from below caught the lines of its face. For the first time, Optimus perceived texture on the Virus' exoskeleton. Mottled brown, black and patched with flecks of dark gold, the monster's outer shell appeared dragon-like save for the pattern of scales.

Evil destroys all in its path, like a terrible storm. That is true, Prime mentally answered. Eventually wounds heal, scars fade.

UNLIFE FAILS. THERE IS NO RETURN. YOU WILL NOT RETURN. SSSSS...NNNNN. SSSSS...NNNN... THAT ONE FAILED TO RETURN. THE UNLIFE TOOK HIM."

YOU took him," Optimus corrected. YOU did that. You stole sapient life. You are a monster.

Darkness against dark faded into the lighter shadows of the ceiling. The Virus appeared, though undetected by the occupants below it. It hissed, despising Optimus' accusation. "MONSTER, NOT MONSTER. SAPIENT, NOT SAPIENT. CREATURE, NOT CREATURE. MATRIX, NOT MATRIX. NOT MATTERS ONE THING TO ANOTHER! THEY MOVE. THEY BREATHE, THEY SPEAK. YOU SAY LIFE, I SAY PREY. YOU SAY MURDER, I SAY GAME. ALL.

Shut the hell up! You're not a life form! No one gave you the right to exist! You are not sapient! You will not claim one more person! I will die here and take you with me!

Completely unaware, Optimus snapped all bonds securing him to the flat. His optics flared hot blue. He screamed and wrestled against Wheeljack, Galvatron and Brainstorm as they struggled to pin him down.

Perigee screamed suddenly and all eyes and optics shot to her then followed her line of sight. The huge room, filled with forty-four occupants, dropped into shocked silence. Between Optimus and Rodimus stood an alien. A set of horns rose from the top of a triangular head. A visor etched across the creature's face. Its mouth, hung wide open, never closed. Neither torso nor arms joined the head to its long, pointed legs. Poetically speaking, it resembled a scream on two kneeless legs.

From her place with the Phase Box group, Cloudstreaker spotted the phenomena. She swept up a scanner, dashed off and stopped just shy of two yards from the figure. The femme circled counter-clockwise as she took readouts on all frequencies. Upon Cloudy's approach toward Optimus in her clock-walk, the figure turned in her direction.

Magnus' core surged. "Be careful, Cloudstreaker," he said with a cautious, even voice. She lifted her visor in his direction and nodded once. Everyone else held their breath. Cyclonus stepped beside Magnus with noiseless footfalls.

"What is that thing?" he asked ever so softly.

"We, uhm, we encountered someone who said it was a psychic projection, an al-d'shoonee. We don't really know much about it. It's appeared before, when the Virus first made contact."

Cloudstreaker adjusted and readjusted her scanner. Between the erratic energy readings and the output produced by the figure, she deduced the creature consisted of negative energy. The femme lifted her chin, optical visor trained on the largest viewing screen in the room. She recalled the lightning during the battle on Cratis and the spheres of dark energy each strike left behind. So absorbed in her work, the femme did not see how all optics and eyes watched as she stepped from the al-d'shoonee back to her group.

"Negative energy," she said to herself, "absorbed by anti-protonic life forms... there was also a deposit of metallic hydrogen... acted as a conduit into a subspace pocket..." she pivoted her toe and gracefully turned round and met Magnus' optics. "I need to find a way to contain this creature."

"Impossible," Blue blurted. "You cannot simply pour energy into a container as if it were a liquid."

Wheeljack entered the conversation: "she's right. Not only is that thing strictly energy, it's negative energy. There's nothing we have that can contain it. Everything here is based on positive frequencies."

"No," Cyclonus argued, "everything we have is positive. However, the Quintessons own a full pantry. All we need is to find it."

Paratron engineer Vector claimed a seat at one of the communications terminals and started hacking. He encountered a security barrier. Jazz gave him three password choices. As Vector and Jazz hacked further and further into the Quintesson system Magnus ordered everyone else back to work, counting every precious moment.

Quarter of an hour later the center's double doors slid open and psychic Ameria stepped in. "I need to speak with the Quintesson Rysar-Phayron." Magnus wordlessly pointed in the right direction. She set hard eyes on him, expecting more. When she realized her attitude did nothing to advance her position, she approached the wounded and uncooperative Quintesson.

Rysar's voice oozed, "Hello, Ameria. Finally attained the freedom you swore you'd take from us. Shamefully enough, you did not acquire it yourself."

The psychic held her gaze stern and steadfast. "Tell me about the virus that is killing the humanoid females."

"What virus?"

"Rashes, fevers, hallucinations, polyps. All of which look just like you." She waited for an answer... and waited. Rysar simply floated there, tentacles waving about its body. "TELL ME!"

Rysar's Face of Greed smiled upon her. "Croix Insepency. Croix Insepency."

Ameria shivered and struggled to control the horror and fear surfacing on her face. "You will die here," she said with a slight tremor to her voice. "And that phrase, that horrifying phrase, will never be used again."

"Perhaps," Rysar concurred. "However, so long as one person who has been here survives to escape the science station, the phrase will be remembered. All living things create. All living things perpetuate their own species. Why should we be any different?"

"You are evading my question-"

"I am not obligated to give you answers, Ameria. Suffice it to say we succeeded."

"No. You won't. All your work, all the torment will end here."

Rysar wheezed a little laughter and switched to his Face of Hate, yet unhealed from damage Rusti inflicted upon him. "You look upon me with scorn, psychic. The ugly truth is I mirror you and your species. How many worlds did your people obliterate-or rather-relieve of their sapient occupants? You demand answers and solutions. I am not obligated to assist you. I am currently a prisoner of my species' creation. I am the victim. As you can see, the last person who demanded answers from me stooped to tactics of a more barbaric mind. I am neither upset nor surprised by such a reaction. Deep down, all sapient life forms torture, maim and kill for their needs; sentient and sapient alike. So please, continue with your little demands and threats. I shall amuse myself with the knowledge that I am a victim of base retaliation, frustration and unfulfilled expectations."

Ameria stared, unable to invent an immediate comment; clever or otherwise. Her eyes fell upon Rysar's injured tentacles and the next moment she smiled. "Well, then, Rysar-Phayron Zeta, I suppose I'll just have to take a few samples. Try to hold still."

Due to someone's sense of humor they elected Cyclonus to head the scavenger hunt. That wasn't so bad; he liked the idea. Then Magnus declared Blaster and Rewind to tag along. Cyclonus didn't find that either reassuring or amusing. And were it not for Blaster's skills and Rewind's... Cyclonus suspected Rewind accompanied them simply to keep the mouthy twit busy. Cyclonus hoped Galvatron might join them. But his friend chose to stay. Optimus lay in the throes of a fever and he heard only Galvatron's voice.

The reluctant scavenger trio crossed the long multi-windowed bridge from communications to science and medical. Winding their way down Level Two, they found the science station's provisions pantry through a short, broad corridor. The search party followed a map of suggestions scrawled partly by Jazz and haphazardly by Blaster himself.

"Wait, dudes, wait," Blaster paused, "Something I gotta contemplate."

Rewind scanned their present location, a four-way stop with two corridors large enough for a Decepticon to fly through. The other two hallways stretched tall and narrow; presumably for creatures such as the Chapronites to pass through.

Cyclonus crossed his arms. "I suppose we're lost."

Blaster laughed nervously. "No man. Even in this good lighting, I can't read my own writing."

Cyclonus grunted and bounced his optics off the ceiling.

Rewind turned 150 degrees and followed his scanner two yards. "I'm receiving strong indications of energon cubes in this direction," he declared. "But they're not exactly what we're after. I think... I think those cubes are filled with liquid coal." Rewind shook his head. "Not what we need." Cyclonus wordlessly scowled over the Autobot's obvious statement.

"Yeah," Blaster announced a moment after, "The directions say left this way, down the second hallway." the communications officer led them into a partly-lit corridor. It expanded into a chamber wherein several one-person vehicles sat under great sheets of plastic. The mechs passed them by means of a long steady catwalk. In three glances, cyclonus counted fifty-two anti-gravity vehicles and three larger all-terrain transports capable of seating twenty bots comfortably. Escape vehicles? Merchandise? The former Decepticon lieutenant thought it wasteful to leave such valuable assets behind. He wondered why Magnus' 'shopping party' did not find them earlier.

"You know," Redial suddenly spoke, "according to Paradigm, the first energon cube was not discovered or invented by the Decepticons but by another species; the Aorians from Plazis Two in the Virgo Sector. The Quintessons traded a large number of their products-much of which consisted of robots-for the technology. Unfortunately some of that technology was lost during the middle of the Second War during the reign of Decepticon Maximus Thrax. Then at the start of the Third Cybertronian War, Aquarii Theta found a vault stashed under Kapatus III, the city ruins in the 23' Parallel of Level Seven. He discovered the Quints were responsible for using energon cubes on Cybertron millions of years before. He lied and declared himself the inventor. Naturally, it was discovered later that the Quints not only used the cubes first, they learned how to change the fields so that the cubes were no longer limited to one type of energon."

"Huh," Blaster returned, "them Quints always take hints from other science stints. You jes Gotta hand it to 'em, they know how to find a bargain gem."

Ten long moments later the three mechs descended into a circular landing bay. From what his internal scanners indicated, Cyclonus deduced the bay opened from above, right through Level One. The left wall invited the search party into another wearisome maze and five large, dark rooms. Neither Decepticon nor Autobot sensors indicated anything they needed.

Six more rooms and three private quarters later, Rewind's scanners picked up a frequency matching Cloudstreaker's description. The trio raced with excitement only to discover three cubes damaged and filthy with static, organic compounds and dust particles. Cyclonus silently bemoaned the fact that, unlike Soundwave, constructing cubes was not among Blaster's more refined gifts.

They pushed forward and Rewind resumed chatter on the next subjecta: ancient energon cube theorems. His glib conversation droned in Cyclonus' audios with endless cycles of raised and lowered volumes.

"You know," he piped after a moment's pause, "what amazes me was how the early Autobots managed to keep the Matrix a secret from their Quintesson masters before the Great Rebellion. Think on it, Blaster. Before there were Autobots or Decepticons, all robots, all Consumer Goods and Military Hardware, had to somehow work together. Take Prima for instance. How did he know that the Matrix was something the Quintessons could never know about? How did he know who to bequeath it before he died?"

"Mighta been Alpha Trion," Blaster answered, "He was the only bot they could rely on. He was the 'answers dude', the 'great-grandpa' of our robotic brood."

"Maybe so," Rewind concurred, "but even Trion never mentioned how the Matrix came into Autobot hands. Not really."

Blaster smiled. "Well, we all got an eye on Trion. But he didn't have your mind, Rewind."

They entered another great chamber, stilled by deep, uneasy quiet and dim, near non-existent lighting. cyclonus set his internal scans near and far, and far they reached; nearly a mile in longitude and latitude. He stopped a moment to take in the expanse, awed by the labor and time required to build such an elaborate isolated science station.

Rewind, however, chattered on heedless of their whereabouts. "Now that I think on it, Blaster, I do vaguely recall a legend from Ptakus in Taurus about seven objects called the Eden Stones. Each stone is said to have the power to instill sapient life. The story seems to have some validity to it because the Quints mentioned in a journal about an encounter with a species of single-celled creatures. They studied them for thousands of years and concluded the creatures were indeed sapient. They never figured out how. Furthermore, a similar legend written in the Book of Eyes from Lunarphyte stated how two Stones were stolen and given to-"

"QUIET!" Cyclonus hissed. "We're running out of time and I grow weary of your flippant, undisciplined prattle. You should be scanning and listening!"

Both Autobots flinched like children scolded for misbehaving. Rewind gave Cyclonus his best silent treatment and tuned into their environment. Blaster compared their location to his map and followed Cyclonus as quietly as possible. He wondered how the Decepticon managed to make almost no sound at all.

"Whoa," Blaster called quietly. "Wait just a minute. Got a bleep then, didn't." Cyclonus faced the Autobot communications officer and brooded patiently. Blaster pivoted right and faced empty space stretching three quarters of a mile. A few moments later, Rewind and Cyclonus heard it also. The sound of softly lapping liquid tickled the silence.

They waited forty-five seconds before Cyclonus attached a flare to his weapon and shot it high above them. The flare bathed the chamber in cold magnesium light and hung suspended. Rewind drew air upon the vast sight before them. A huge body of liquid pooled in a rectangular cache three quarters a mile across and half a mile in length. Black as used oil, the liquid reflected nothing along its surface. Even the magnesium flare failed to cast a mirror image of itself.

Blaster knelt at the edge of the abyss-like pool and stretched his hand. "What is this?" Cyclonus caught the Autobot's appendage before Blaster's fingers disturbed the surface.

"Do NOT touch it," he warned. "It's black energon."

Rewind raced through all his memory banks, flipping across centuries of manuals text books, information crystals, scrolls and his small collection of alien writings. "I-I almost have nothing on it; just a brief mention of it in the Sectonian Scriptures of Pythus. How do you know about it?"

Before Cyclonus answered, the energon rippled and slapped at the tank's borders. All three Transformers stepped back. As they did so, an abomination broke the surface. Four webbed tentacles snaked up then returned to the abyss. A long neck plated with great spines arose and Cyclonus, fearful of nothing, drew back in unmitigated horror. The head, the size of Jetfire, emerged into the light and stared at the three with a Quintesson's Face of Hate. The Face, long since grafted or purposefully grown as part of the beast's DNA, stared at them with hungry eyes. Clearly the creature was not Quintesson; it projected not a single flicker of intellect. The thing, the monster-if that were strong enough a word-was naught but pure animal.

Rewind stumbled back and tripped. He landed hard on his backside, optics not once leaving the face of wordless horror. "Oh Primus," he softly swore, "I think I'm going to be sick."

Cyclonus assumed the flare attracted the beast's attention. The black energon, however, allowed no passing of light below its surface. The Decepticon recalculated and realized their footsteps echoed through the fluid. "Just... do not make any sudden movements," he warned.

Blaster's lip components twitched at the edges. "I'll try not to panic. Uhh... do you think it's trans-organic?"

Cyclonus merely shot him a bitchface before daring one step left. He froze and ascertained the monster's reaction. When it did not move, Cyclonus stole another. Noticing the Decepticon's subtle, quiet movements, Rewind followed and inched along the floor like a toddler on his rear. At his fifth movement the abomination sunk into the tank, not to be seen again.

Blaster bowed over, hands on knees. He dragged in air to cool himself. Cyclonus gazed at the flare and calculated the amount of light left. "Let's keep moving," he ordered. "The light will last another ten minutes." He walked ahead while his companions took four clanking steps; their footfalls echoed across the chamber. The Decepticon snapped around. "Keep quiet!" he snarled. Cyclonus again turned away then spun back to them: "oh, and Blaster, one more rhyming phrase from you and I'll weld your mouth shut."

Blaster flinched with surprise and snapped his lip components closed.

As Cyclonus calculated, the flare died in 9.85 minutes. Undeterred, the Decepticon simply retained his pace. He hoped his companions might get a solid reading on more energon cubes. As his luck would have it, four moments later Rewind's voice cracked the quiet like a blast of circus music.

"I got it!" he cried, "I got I-"

"SHH!" Blaster and Cyclonus hissed at the cassette Autobot from both sides.

Rewind flinched with a nervous smile. "Sorry," he whispered. "I found something. It's like... 1,609 meters from us-" no sooner had the words left his vocalizer than Cyclonus floated up, intending to fly. "Wait!" Rewind called. "Me and Blaster can't run that fast!"

Cyclonus alighted to the floor before he realized what Rewind meant. He threw his gaze to the ceiling with a groan. "I should have known this was going to happen," he muttered. "We do not have the luxury of you two dawdling behind me. And you are not riding inside; you'll simply have to hold on." The Autobots mutely stared at him like two little boys told to ride on the roof of a car. They watched as Cyclonus shifted to jet mode. Several seconds passed before Blaster's voice twanged with realization.

"Oh, you mean you'll let us ride piggy-back!"

Cyclonus slowly rolled forward on his landing gear: "Five. Four. Three..."

Realizing he meant to leave them behind, Blaster and Rewind scrambled onto the jet. Cyclonus meant what he said: no passengers in the cockpit. Blaster discovered his height made sitting on the jet awkward. He jumped, transformed into radio mode and landed in Rewind's hands.

"Hey!" Rewind whined, "I can't see with you in front of me like this!"

"Can't help it, Dude," Blaster snarled back.

"How about we just tie you to the rudder or something?"

"Only if you volunteer to dangle from the landing gear!"

Rewind huffed. "Seriously, Blaster, I can't see!"

Both Autobots squealed in terror when Cyclonus abruptly took off. Rewind held fast to Cyclonus' plating with his right hand while he gripped Blaster's handlebar with his left.

"Don't drop me!" Blaster begged.

Not in the mood for niceties, the Decepticon gave the two the same treatment he did for Rusti-only the twists, turns and one loop were not necessary as he raced through three corridors, down one level and right. He pulled his nose up, the Autobots fell off and Cyclonus gracefully landed before them. His antics did not amuse Blaster. The Autobot communications officer transformed and hotly glowered at their 'aerial benefactor'.

"That was not funny!" Blaster boomed. "You tryin' to kill us or something?!"

With complete composure, Cyclonus turned from them. His answer bounced off the walls: "You arrived quickly and unharmed. Quit bitching."

With a roll of his head, Blaster followed their not-so-gregarious comrade. "You know," he snipped, "I don't think it'd hurt you to be more user-friendly. We're all supposed to work together and you treat me and Rewind here like we're three year-olds. You might be happier with yourself if you'd just lighten up!"

Cyclonus jarred his form to a stop, pivoted about and met Blaster's optics with his own cool red. The Autobot met his gaze, unintimidated, even though he stood a head shorter. "Autobot," Cyclonus growled. "This is not some trip down a yellow brick road. We are not traipsing through Candy Land and we're certainly not out to attend a birthday party. Your leaders' lives are at stake and your glib, distracted attitude accomplishes nothing. Were it not for me, the two of you might have endured a less than desirable encountered with the Quintesson beast. I did not accompany you to be your friend nor did I accept this mission to learn a lesson in happiness. Should we survive this, I might consider joining you in picking daisies, baking petroleum cakes and dressing chihuahuas up like baby dolls. Until then, shut up and focus."

Blaster clammed up as told. Now he understood why Rodimus called Cyclonus 'Mr. Spock'.

The party of three continued their search in somber silence. Cyclonus ignored his irate companions as they ascended a long ramp. Rewind's scanner picked up three readings. With some doubt, Cyclonus led them through a short corridor, slick with spilt fluids. Blaster helped Cyclonus force open two sets of heavy doors before an acrid, bloody stench blew in their faces. Blaster and Rewind coughed and moaned while Cyclonus entered as if he smelled nothing. At step three, the lights flickered to life and revealed a small room beset with scattered tools, dried clay and graffiti smeared along the walls. Two Autobot chassis slumped in a far off corner as if discarded like trash. Someone or something removed their legs and arms and part of one of head. The other lost his chest plate.

"Oh Primus!" Blaster exclaimed, "that's Searchlight! Dude He's been missing almost since we landed here! And there! That's Inset!"

Neither Rewind nor Cyclonus had words for the sight. On a table to his right, Rewind discovered the mangled bodies of three humanoids, all of whom were reported missing from the Gabriel Genesis. "What happened here?" Rewind's voice pitched with sorrow.

"This," Cyclonus answered grimly. He tugged a ratted plastic sheet and revealed the sculpture of an insect with multiple legs, supported by a long curling tail and sharp mandibles protruding from either side its head. Blaster and Rewind nervously approached the macabre statue. After eight seconds, Rewind turned away and hid his optics. Blaster stared, shocked, sickened and sad.

Cyclonus watched their reaction and guessed they knew what it was and most likely who made it. He knew what the graffiti said on the wall and considered it far more disturbing than the sculpture. The ravings of madness must never be taken lightly nor should they scrutinized by the public eye. While Blaster and Rewind pulled themselves together, Cyclonus searched for the energon cubes that initially brought them here. He found three under a make-shift recharging flat and made for the door as Blaster and Rewind covered the bodies of their fallen fellows with the tattered sheet.

They stood and stared a long moment, testing Cyclonus' patience. Rewind shook his head. "We-we can't just leave them here like this. We can't abandon them to this place. Can't we take them along?"

Cyclonus schooled his patience into neutral. "The dead are gone, Autobot. Our job is to care for the living." He waited while his companions made their silent good-byes. Had time allowed, Cyclonus would have torched the room.

"So one day I woke up and realized you didn't have a sense of humor; never have. I'd ask Cyclonus, but I'm afraid he might agree with me. I hate that, you know. You know why? cuz it's painfully obvious to me that Cyclonus is the smartest person among us."

Galvatron sat up and realized he dozed off for four minutes. No word from his friend or Blaster. Although Cyclonus could be trusted with the lives of the two Autobots with him, Galvatron hoped they did not drive Cyclonus to homicide. The Decepticon allowed himself a slight smile. Cyclonus' patience amazed him and he wondered, not for the first time, what he did to deserve such a friend. The former Decepticon leader settled his optics on Optimus. No change. That was good and bad.

Galvatron gazed at Rodimus whose fingers twitched and optics faded and brightened even under sedation. Galvatron privately admitted Roddi's semi-conscious state disquieted him. He knew, too, it was Rodimus who spoke to him in his sleep.

The soft click-whir of a blaster drew Galvatron's attention to his four o'clock position. The Al-d'shoonee silently moved and stood directly behind him. Behind it, Jazz held his gun, trigger finger set. With a gentle squeeze on Optimus' left arm, Galvatron stood and faced the silent apparition. "Jazz," he said quietly, "put your weapon away. If it wanted to attack, it would have done so upon appearance." He paused half a beat. "So, seems to me I have a fan club." Galvatron cut his gaze toward Cloudstreaker who pointed her scanner at it once again. The room, buzzing with quiet activity a moment before, froze. All eyes and optics watched with uncertain anticipation.

Galvatron lightly touched the psychological phenomena. Ripples of harmless energy waved outward at his fingertips. A cool wave of air swirled around his hand. Other than that, the Decepticon sensed nothing.

A siren wailed unspoken emotion. The scream drowned all noise, pierced all auditory sensors like a hot-white dagger to the mind. Nearly everyone-including Ultra Magnus-dropped to their knees. Two humanoids flopped bonelessly. Blood dribbled out their ears. Galvatron slapped his hands tightly about his helm. And berated himself for such a careless act.

Rodimus lurched, wriggled and strained against his bonds. He growled deep, deep and spoke with the viral double-voice "I AM. THAT. WHICH IS. VOID. DESOLATE. VOID. DESOLATE. VOID. DESOLATE."

The Al-D'Shoonee split down the center as though sliced with an invisible blade. From the two halves stepped the Virus in its slender biped form. It struck Galvatron back-handed and sent him flying.

Rodimus roared, arched his back then slammed his head on the flat. "NNNOOO! YOU WON'T BREAK ME!" he shouted. "YOU WON'T BREAK ME!" he bucked and gagged as if choking. As First Aid called for a tranquilizer, Wheeljack grabbed two short-wave energy barriers and posted the blocky objects in front of Optimus' table. He switched them on the second the Virus reached for the Autobot leader.

Rodimus broke free and dropped off the table, distracting the Virus.

Wheeljack shouted at Blue: "Get me a tripod containment field!" he ordered. "NOW!" His laser core held still as he fearfully watched the Virus watch Rodimus, distracted by Roddi's inner turmoil.

Rodimus trembled and dragged his languid form in an aimless direction while his colors faded grey, faded grey. "BURRRRRDZZZ." the double-voice slurred the consonants in a slow, crisp sound. "BURRRDZ AND BURRRDZZ. NO WINGS. NO FEATHERS. JUSSSST... HERRRR. VOID? VOID? IT SAYS 'NOKTU."

Making no sudden moves, Galvatron forced himself half up and slowly crawled toward Rodimus. He heard Magnus and Jazz exchange ideas. Everyone else, Autobot and Humanoid, either spoke in hushed voices or hid under equipment. Focused entirely on the Autobot before him, Galvatron read Rodimus' every move. Fully aware the Virus watched, Galvatron kept his fighting options open. He froze three feet of Roddi and listened intently as the Virus spoke through the Autobot leader.

Rodimus' monolog pitched in pitiful tones, as if the Virus were a child, lost in the throes of loneliness. "VOID HEARD NOKTU AND ASKED AND ASKED AND NOW VOID IS NOT. THERE IS NO VOID. WHERE DID VOID LEAVE? THERE, NO VOID, NO VOID. JUSSSSSST DESOLATE! BURRRDZ. BURRRDZ."

The large doors growled open and Blue ran in carrying a field tripod in her hands. She shook her head at Magnus. "This was the only one we could find. Mnemonic is looking for two others."

"Galvatron," Magnus called, "I wouldn't get too close if I were you." Magnus scowled as he kept one optic on the Decepticon and glanced at Blue. "Check the Vertical Horizon..."

Galvatron ignored the rest of Magnus' chatter. He scrunched another five feet closer and studied Roddi's prone form. "I do not see Dark," he said quietly. "You told me 'Void and Dark and Desolate. You are Desolate?"

Rodimus breathed out carbon dioxide. He softly clawed the floor, lifeless optics fixed on nothing. "Sssss... sssss..."

Galvatron took an inch closer. "Where is Dark?"

Roddi's voice softened to a bare whisper: "DAAARK. DAAAARK. WE HAVE DARK. WE HAVE DARRRRK."

"Yes, I'll bet you do," Galvatron replied. "But Dark is not here. And if there is no Dark and there is no Void, then there is only Desolate. And Desolate is all alone." He paused then repeated: "All alone." Galvatron glanced at the Virus and wondered if the Virus actually spoke through Rodimus, or if he were speaking to another... "Oh crap," he muttered.

Rodimus sprang to hands and knees, his optics dripped with contaminated energon. "DARK HERE, SON OF ZH'XN" he snarled with the double-voice, "WE WAITED. ABANDONED. FORSAKEN. WE WAITED."

"You waited," Galvatron prodded. "You waited for Void-"

Magnus roared across the room: "GALVATRON, GET AWAY FROM HIM!"

"-but Void isn't coming, is it?"

"THERE IS NO VOID! THERE IS NO VOID! ONLY THE DARK AND THE DESOLATE!"

Seven seconds. The human eye blinked twice. It took Magnus seven seconds to push Blue aside, draw his weapon and charge for Rodimus.

Seven seconds: Galvatron watched in abject horror as Rodimus' form stretched; his arms tapered and he arched backward. Galvatron scampered backward while Rodimus' head tipped up, his neck stretched, blackened and stretched further. The back of Roddi's head elongated and it too tapered to a point. His face broadened, darkened and his optics disappeared. Unlike Sunstreaker's distorted, mutated form, Rodimus-now half Virus-stood on two legs.

"KILL IT!" Magnus shouted at the Decepticon. "KILL IT, SHITHEAD!" Galvatron caught Magnus as the Autobot leapt from the upper floor. Magnus and the Decepticon both crashed against the steps before Magnus kicked Galvatron off. "WHAT THE FUCK IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?!" Magnus demanded.

"Rodimus is still in there somewhere," Galvatron growled. Magnus tackled him as the Al-d'Shoonee sealed itself together and blared another deafening shriek. The Virus turned in its direction and uncharacteristically back slapped the apparition.

Galvatron and Magnus rolled once, Magnus held the upper hand. He delivered three punches, each of them exerting the force of a wrecking ball. Galvatron caught the fourth blow before Magnus delivered another jaw-cracking hit.

"You've lost your rationality, Magnus! GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF!" away. Before either mech regained ground, the al-d'shoonee screeched four short bursts of sound. That drew their attention back to the Virus. It wrapped the tips of its fingerless arms around the apparition's 'neck'. The screams turned to pitiful wails until Galvatron fired at the Virus.

It released the potential victim and hissed at the Decepticon. "DARK, DESOLATE SEE YOU, SON OF ZH'XN. WE HUNT AND MAKE UNLIFE. YOU WILL HAVE UNLIFE."

Galvatron pointed at the solid black form of the Virus. "And you are Desolate." he looked to Rodimus, now half himself, half Virus, "and that makes you Dark."

Magnus nearly failed to suppress his shudder. Rodimus's face molded into the Virus' head. Then anger hardened the Major-general's face. "Rodimus or not, we MUST kill it!" he hissed. "That thing will spread and then there'd be no hope-"

"There'd be even less hope if we lose them!" Galvatron snarled in turn. He pointed to Optimus, "They've held out this long, Magnus! Were the situation reversed they'd do everything in their power and wait until the last microsecond to save you! To kill them, you will have to put me down first!" he waited a moment while the room stood motionless, "at the moment, the Virus is confused. Void is gone, changed-"

Magnus spilt his anger into his question: "What the hell does that mean?! What are you talking about?"

Galvatron narrowed his optics, mulling through the dialogs between he and the Virus. "I believe the Virus is more than one personality. I don't know if the three personalities can be considered replicas... as Optimus once suggested. But I am certain that part of the Virus has changed and no longer recognized by the other two."

The electric barrier between Optimus and the Virus flared and strengthened as though given a booster shot. Desolate stepped back, cautious and uneasy like a dog in an approaching storm. The al-d'shoonee floated closer to Optimus and melted into the shield. The breath of a second later, the shield dipped black, deep like a vortex. It flashed golden-white and a set of feline jaws stretched forth and snapped at Desolate. Instinctively, the Virus made a retaliatory strike-bad move. The energy jaws caught Its arm and thrashed the biped Virus like a flag trapped by the emotions of a hurricane. The Virus squealed and struggled against Its attacker.

Rodimus dropped; deadweight to the world of the living. All of Roddi's contaminated segments shrank and disappeared, leaving Rodimus bleeding but whole. He coughed when consciousness brought him to life. Rodimus laughed as Desolate narrowed its form into a flat surface and escaped between floor panels.

"Oh," Roddi's laughter died, "oh Primus, Optimus. You never did play fair. Someone get me off this filthy floor."

Wheeljack recovered from shock and jogged himself into action. "Hurry!" he called to his assistants. "Get Rodimus back on the table!"

As activity resumed with renewed vigor, Magnus approached Galvatron with an obvious mood that geared everyone else to scamper with urgency. Galvatron, however, remained steadfast and unintimidated. He slipped his weapon into subspace as the Major-general set his face nose-to-nose with the Decepticon.

"When Optimus and Rodimus are not around or incapacitated, I am in command. Is that clear?"

"You hold no authority over me, Magnus. Technically speaking, authority over me and Cyclonus was not given to you, nor did you take it when it was voted on. As far as the Primes are concerned, they are my only concern. I will do anything necessary to protect them, even if it means protecting them from you." Galvatron let that sink in half a second before continuing: "as you might have noticed, the Virus has no appetite for Decepticon on the half-shell. How about this: you handle all the details regarding our escape. First Aid attends to them-" he nodded toward Optimus, "and I will keep the Virus off your backs. I won't get in your way. I am not here to take over, if that is what you're so worried about."

With a hard glare, Magnus silently withdrew. Logic conquers all, Galvatron thought grimly. He was not happy with the confrontation; he relied on Magnus as an ally.

Reclaiming his spot beside Optimus, Galvatron kept a watchful gaze around the chamber. Bit by bit all occupants in the room resumed their work, concentrating on their assigned projects. Even Magnus cooled down as he aided Fission and Mnemonic. Galvatron brought his attention back when Wheeljack ordered a weak infusion of energon into the Autobot leader's systems.

Galvatron checked the screen displaying Prime's physical status. Then he happily noticed 'someone' watched him. He smiled with relief when Optimus activated his optics. "You slept in, Prime," Galvatron said quietly. "Everyone else has been awake, had breakfast and now doing chores." He waited a moment for a reply and when the Autobot leader said nothing, Galvatron prodded: "so what have you been doing while sleeping?"

"Dreaming about dancing girls and really big dogs," Prime returned in a soft voice. Galvatron only held his smile. Optimus' optics dimmed then brightened again. "Status report," he said slowly, "What's going on?"

Galvatron answered with caution: "We have Rodimus with us. "We have one group working to disengage the tractor beam. Another group is raiding the entire science station and a third group is racing to create a nice motel room for the Virus."

Prime lay still and simply stared at Galvatron. First Aid called Wheeljack to help him with Rodimus. Optimus was so mentally confused, he did not think to ask about Wheeljack. In fact, other than Galvatron, the Autobot leader could not tell one person from another. Then his slow processors caught up with Galvatron's report. "Wait a second. Did you say tractor beam?" he finally asked.

Hesitating with puzzlement, Galvatron tilted his head slightly left. "Prime, do you even know where you are?"

"In a room. You're here. Rodimus is over there. Magnus..." he shook his head. "Magnus is ticked off for some reason. Where's Rusti?"

Galvatron hoped he did not have to answer that question. He did not want to lie, although, the truth might hurt more. "She was not well," he finally said. "So they took her to the Racing Beast."

Optimus' optics reflected the burden of sadness and concern. "The Virus?" he guessed. "Has the Virus gotten to her-"

"I don't know," Galvatron quickly answered. "I don't really think so." he recalled the disconcerting moment Void attacked Delta.

"Rodimus..." burdened with wearisome sadness, Optimus pronounced the name slowly.

The former Decepticon leader frowned. "I... I don't know. About the same as you, but different."

"No." pause. "He's fading from me, Galvatron. I'm losing him. He goes... me too."

Galvatron had to look away then forced a smile. "I'm not really fond of your relocation plans, Prime. I've heard some pretty bad rumors about this neighborhood."

"Dark." Optimus paused to draw air. "Dark... seen it?"

Galvatron hesitated. "Yes."

Prime's optics narrowed, their light flared and dimmed. The Decepticon hung closer to his friend as Optimus whispered: "Replication, Galvatron."

Galvatron straightened as his fuel lines chilled. "You expressed the same concern during our date down below. But how can you be sure? How do you know it's not two sides of the same monster?"

A bellow from Ultra Magnus disrupted the quiet. "NO! Not acceptable, Fineliner! You find me a third option. There is no way in HELL we're leaving anyone behind! Try it again!"

"You ask the impossible!" Fineliner retorted with equal volume. "The goddamned tractor beam can't be shut off except by voice command and guess what? Nobody here has that voice! The tractor beam is lined on a temporal flux which also means we can't deactivate it except in a manufactured subspace bubble!"

"The word 'impossible' does not exist in my vocabulary, Mister." Magnus returned sharply. "TRY IT AGAIN!" Galvatron grunted and decided to mind his own business. Magnus slowly cracked under pressure. The Major-general, overwhelmed with emergencies and problems, had not recharged since their arrival.

Cloudstreaker and Blue approached Optimus. Cloudy nervously smiled at Galvatron. Wheeljack returned from Rodimus' side and changed out Prime's fluid support for a fresh infusion he greeted the femme, expecting a question. She produced a forked, black tool with a yellow light that zoomed back and forth. "Um," she slid her attention between the two mechs. "We need to measure his subspace differential EM chronometer." They stepped aside as she and Blue gently removed Optimus' chest plating and cautiously bypassed fuel lines, circuitry, vital components and removed the laser core boilerplate.

Wheeljack watched them closely then handed them a copy of schematics for both Primes. "How is it coming?" he asked quietly.

"Slow," Blue returned deadpan. "Growing crystals is difficult at best. But we're operating on a time frame and I'm nervous. The crystal spheres may not grow properly-temperature, pressure or movement of any sort could compromise the process."

Wheeljack nodded. "Listen, if you need anything-"

"Prayer," Blue answered instantly.

Time ticked off twenty minutes. Ten more passed before the comm center's main doors slid open. Blaster stepped in followed by Rewind and Cyclonus. Galvatron smiled whole-heartedly as his friend handed three small energon cubes to the communications officer and made straight for Galvatron.

"Under two hours, Cyclonus, I'm impressed."

The Decepticon lieutenant dryly smiled. "And without killing my cohorts, Galvatron."

With a nod, Galvatron glanced askance then back. "I'm sure they enjoyed your company."

Cyclonus shook his head. "Doubtful. The trip was not without incident. This place makes me twitchy and irritable. There are... things I'd rather have never seen."

Galvatron laid a hand on Cyclonus' left shoulder and glanced across the room where Rysar-Phayron Zeta nursed his lost dignity. The psychic's lack of discretion regarding his 'vulnerable assets' left the mouthy braggart somberly wordless.

"I got it!" Fineliner proclaimed. "Yes! It'll work!"

"He's right!" Monsterbot Grotesque concurred.

"WHAT." Magnus struggled to keep the impatient growl out of his voice.

Fineliner practically floated toward the commander, two digipads in hand. He snapped them together and held them before Magnus like a child with a new drawing. "Lookit this: we can utilize Quintesson teleportation technology! We transmit the teleport field from one beacon to another, connecting them like a constellation completely around the camp-ships and everything. All we need to do is use the containment field activators, keep them in line-of-sight and dabba-doo!"

Magnus stared at the Autobot engineer officer, impressed. "Wow! Great work, Fineliner," he praised. "contact the Aerialbots and get those activators up. Wait. What kind of power will that require? Have you calculated that factor in your ideas?" Magnus watched Fineliner and Grotesque shake their heads. "Well, keep working on it. I'm sure someone will come up with something."

Twenty minutes passed. Communication between Magnus and the ship captains ping-ponged in regular intervals while the Aerialbots placed one transmitting activator after another. Just as they rounded the Crescent Moon, Silverbolt delivered bad news.

"We're out of containment activators, Magnus. We've looked everywhere."

Magnus stared at the view screen. "Look again," he ordered. "Or make some I don't care, Silverbolt, you get the rest of those activators up!" Magnus cut communication and leaned heavily against the consol. A headache buzzed through his cranium like a deeply serrated circular saw. The pain inched from the back of his head to his shoulders and down the middle of his back. What more could they do at this point? The ships could not take off. Optimus and Rodimus were down. And the Ellipsis encroached ever closer every moment. Ultra Magnus drew air to reduce his rising impatience. "Galvatron," he called quietly. "I-I'm going to step out for a moment." He appreciated that Galvatron only nodded rather than give him a hard time. Once again Magnus was glad they had Galvatron and Cyclonus. He need not worry. And he knew he owed the Decepticon an apology. Not now, he frowned.

Everyone recommenced work once Magnus cleared the room. Galvatron watched Rodimus who squirmed and banged his head on the flat. He could not tell if the Autobot leader fought an internal battle, or if Rodimus struggled for freedom. The Virus had a strange way of affecting its victims in vastly different ways.

Vector, a young Autobot from a far region of Cybertron, approached Cyclonus with some discomfort. He rotated the digipad in his hands. "Um." he glanced at the floor, "Um, we-we think there's another problem. I know you and Commander Jazz worked on the comm station not too long ago."

"What do you need?" Cyclonus kept his tone light and glanced at Jazz who labored intensely on the transmission ray for the containment field activators.

"We need the coordinates for Yolthanis III. Well... not just the coordinates. We need..." he warily glanced from one Decepticon to the other. "We need the hyperspace trajectory. Without it, we could aim for Yolthanis and end up in the Pitt."

"Hyperspace?" Galvatron echoed. "We landed in hyperspace, didn't we, Cyclonus?"

"I was trying to forget that incident, Galvatron. Thank you."

"It might not be what you think," Vector inserted. "It's kinda like a space bridge but not like subspace-"

Galvatron held up a hand. "I get the picture." he produced his hematite box, forgotten from the moment they landed on Cratis. With a smirk he tossed it in the air, hoping the Autobot was quick enough-and he was. Vector caught the device and scrutinized it. "A toy I picked up from Radio Shack on Quintessa," Galvatron joked.

Cyclonus half snorted. "Don't pay attention to him, Vector. We were never on Quintessa."

"Yeah, but it's Quintesson made," Galvatron lightly argued. "Says so right on the toy: Made in Quintessa." Galvatron did not need to see his friend to know that Cyclonus scowled at him. It wasn't the time for funny and Galvatron knew that; he just couldn't help himself. "Sequencing:" the former leader explained regarding the device. "Blue sets the designation. White for time of departure. Black for distance. Don't get them mixed up. If you must push a button for no reason at all, push blue. Blue is good. Blue works. We learned to like blue."

Cyclonus pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. He was glad the Autobots did not need assistance in figuring out how the device works. He'd never want to see Galvatron attempt to teach them something he knew nothing about himself.

Rodimus stirred again. He groaned then growled and struggled against the force field. His optics flashed on and stared at nothing. He did not respond to Apogee's kind voice nor did he react to First Aid's stern tones. Rodimus muttered then whispered. He whined then muttered again. First Aid shook his head when Galvatron gave him a puzzled look.

"I don't know what he's saying," the medic admitted. "It's not in any language that I know-"

Rodimus erupted in a terrible scream that cut First Aid off. Apogee covered her audios and bowed in pain. Rodimus thrashed and repeatedly slammed his head on the flat.

"Get him under control!" Wheeljack shouted. He grabbed a laser hypo and raced to Roddi's side. He waited for the half second when Rodimus collapsed dead still. They dropped the force field and just as the Autobot scientist raised the hypo, Rodimus thrashed, fell on the floor and bounded to his feet. He speared Wheeljack and dropped the scientist on his back. Perigee screamed when he barreled in her direction. Cyclonus headed Rodimus off his path and the two tumbled, taking turns slamming each other into the floor. Rodimus attained the upper hand and pinned Cyclonus. The possessed Autobot leader roared as his face cracked apart and several long black teeth emerged.

Anything but helpless, Cyclonus slammed his fist against Prime's chestplate and shot straight into Roddi's lasercore. Rodimus flew off with impact and landed hard, fully unconscious. Apogee ran for her sister and held her close. Cyclonus froze in place and watched with twitching fingers. Galvatron, too, waited, wary and ready. Both Decepticons dropped their jaws when a black shape crawled out of Rodimus' form. At first it looked like a shadow, filmy and translucent. As it crawled away on hands and knees, it grew opaque. Cyclonus aimed to fire again when Galvatron stood between it and his friend's rifle.

"No," He half turned to see if Rodimus awakened yet. "You might hit the computers. We sort of need them."

The heavy chamber doors parted and Magnus returned. A few workers tore their attention off the entity to glance as the Major-general. From their corner in the room, Arcee/Wolfen Tagmar copied everyone else's action and looked to Magnus. Neither Autobot nor psychic detected the shadowy form as it shifted from humanoid to animal and skittered across the room on four legs. As it neared Wolfen and her puppet, the Virus hissed Someone cried a warning but not in time. It slammed into Arcee and enveloped her with its legs. Wolfen Tagmar shrieked. Everything made of solid glass shattered. Tagmar yanked at her hair, clawed at her face and dropped to the floor, writhing as though demon possessed. Then she stopped moving; not so much as a breath.

"HURRY!" First Aid cried, "get her secured! Get her secured!" Three people responded, grasping anything with which to tie her down. They did not make it before Tagmar started slamming her head on the floor.

"USE ONE OF THE CRYSTALS!" Vector cried. "We've got to contain it!"

Brainstorm reached for the tray containing the small, unfinished objects.

"No!" Blue objected, "they're incomplete!"

"They'll have to be," Brainstorm argued. He swept up the small tray and took three steps before the al-d'shoonee appeared from nowhere. Startled, Brainstorm dropped the tray and covered his audio receptors. The two-dimensional apparition screamed as the crystal spheres shattered on the floor. Without a second thought, Cloudstreaker snatched up an empty black energon cube and held it before the al-d'shoonee. To her surprise, the apparition did not resist and the cube locked it tightly within.

The room fell still, the occupants gradually collected their wits. At the corner where Blue and her team worked on the phase box, Brainstorm whispered in soulful tones. "Sorry. Oh Primus, I'm so, so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm s-I'm so sorry." He carefully gathered the shattered crystalline pieces and reverently placed them on the tray.

Magnus bowed his head. A setback: the last thing they needed. He lifted his gaze and found Blue as she leaned against her station consol, pissed but silent.

The femme stepped from her group. "Everyone take a break," she ordered. Magnus followed her outside where she clasped her hands, faced the wall and pounded it once. She smacked her forehead against it and shut off her optics.

Magnus gave her a moment before saying something: "These things happen, Blue. We still have time."

Without moving her body, the femme looked at their substitute leader. "You don't understand. The crystalline matrix we used came from encapsulated psychic energies gleaned from Matrix life force frequencies-pure Matrix life force frequencies."

Not that the Major-general understood how Autobot science developed a way to place such energy into a physical form, he simply knew they had more than one source of such energy: "Rusti-"

"Rusti Witwicky was the initial donator," Blue quickly interrupted. "But she's fallen ill and... we can't risk taking another sample from her; not when it's possible she's infected."

"With the Matrix Virus?"

"Yes, that and the Q-virus." she turned round and leaned against the wall, head bowed. Magnus followed suit and stared into nothing. They remained so for seven long minutes.

"What about Galvatron," Magnus suggested.

Blue did not move, head yet bowed. "What about him?"

"He's been in contact with the Matrix more than once. Isn't it possible that he might have some of that energy within him?"

Blue held quiet another long moment as anger diluted into disappointment. "He's a Decepticon, Magnus. The Virus finds him repellent... like some of us. His anti-proton life force frequencies cannot be used as bait to trap the Virus into the crystals." Three minutes of awkward silence passed into five before Blue spoke again. "Listen, Commander, I'm sorry if I'm ragged along the edges. I'm tired. I'm tired of dealing with the Virus and I'm tired of running away. I'm sick and tired of fighting and losing." Blue maintained visual contact with the ground and shrugged her shoulders. "I want to end this, Magnus. I want to see something accomplished. I want my life and my work to account for something more than our day-to-day struggle to survive."

"You will, Blue," Magnus returned in similar tones. "We will return to Earth and I have every confidence that you will find a way to end the Virus. You're brilliant; right up there with Perceptor-"

She spun left and faced him, her expression firmly set. "I don't want to be like Perceptor. I want something more! Perceptor is good at what he does; analyzing and applying everything first-hand. I am not just an officer in applied sciences, Magnus. I'm a warrior, too. I want my life to count for something more than the next great invention. And all this time, since we left Earth, I've been little more than an automobile repairman."

Magnus struggled to find something encouraging to say; nothing came to mind. He looked to the doorway as Perigee stepped out.

"Commander, sir? Um, the psychics are really upset. They want to talk to you."

Magnus frowned. "Well, I could tell them what they could do with their 'upset' but it would instigate a riot." He turned to Blue, "let me know if there's anything I can do." She nodded without looking at him and Magnus followed Perigee inside.

"All of this is clearly unacceptable!"

"No one warned us the Virus could jump species!"

"What are you going to do about Tagmar?"

"You can't just leave her in this state!"

"My, my!" Galvatron clucked. "Little people certainly know how to make a big noise. Now that I think on it, that's about all you have done... still."

Magnus hung back a moment to see if Galvatron might do or say something more. It would be nice if someone else were to handle the 'white elephant committee'.

"We didn't ask for any of this," came a whiny, weak retort.

"Copout," Galvatron sang.

Magnus inconspicuously smiled at the Decepticon's answer. The Major-general reminded himself to personally apologize for attacking Galvatron. That was not one of his better moments.

A different voice raised Magnus' attention. He entered the control room to assume responsibility and watched as the psychic Samiko approached her peers. The group surrounded her like lost goslings. Magnus claimed a spot beside Galvatron and watched the humanoids move, tilt their heads, stare at the floor. Some of their faces turned down in wordless anger toward their colleague.

Magnus opened a commline between himself and Galvatron. "I'm guessing they're communicating telepathically."

"Yes," Galvatron returned. "I've seen it among some Quintessons."

That made Magnus nervous and it struck the memory of his not-so-wonderful first encounter with the Quints; a situation too close and too personal.

Samiko turned to Magnus with a voice that chimed with consideration. "I apologize. It was rude of us to talk and exclude you from our conversation."

Her graceful manner floored Magnus and he knelt before her, glad that someone had a sense of reasoning. "Uh... I don't know... um..."

Galvatron stepped up: "he's trying to tell you that we're sorry about your... peer. The Virus is unpredictable at best and we do not know why it jumped and attacked you leader as it did."

Samiko searched around her companions and stared at the Psycade leader's fallen form. She straightened, checked to see if everyone paid attention and nodded sadly. "It would seem the Virus was not after Wolfen Tagmar at all." Murmurs and quiet objections rejected her conclusions. The psychic calmly held up a hand and waited for the others to quiet down. "From what I can read, the Virus was after the femme, Arcee. She bears emotional scars. Is that not what attracted the Virus to the other femme?" her eyes settled on Galvatron.

Magnus shook his head. "I don't know." He too looked to Galvatron. "Delta, wasn't it? I did not know the Paratron personally. Why would it be attracted to someone with emotional issues? I thought the Virus lived off of Matrix energy."

Samiko scanned the room and found Optimus and Rodimus. She proffered her hand in their direction. "May I?" Magnus nodded in consent. Samiko descended the shallow steps into the area reserved for the Autobot leaders and stood between them. Everyone else held back. Galvatron glanced at Cyclonus who silently tapped his left wrist to indicate their time grew shorter.

Samiko lifted her chin then spread her arms. "This is who the young lady meant by 'family." Samiko dropped her arms and returned her eyes to her fellows. "Part of this is our fault," she announced. "If they are left to die, the extinction of their species will be on our heads. We did this to him," she pointed to Optimus. "We agreed to comply." Her gaze, now on Magnus, took on the light of sympathy. "I am so sorry. If it weren't for us, I have no doubt none of this would have happened."

Befuddled, Magnus struggled to figure out what she meant. Then he remembered: "th-the Quintessons? You mean the psychic attack? I remember Rodimus saying something-"

"We were told to destroy him. The Quintessons threatened to destroy our home worlds if we refused to cooperate. We... we weren't expecting them to lock us in suspended animation. We've been conscious all this time, working." Samiko paused, "at least until the accident."

Magnus frowned. "Well, that nice to know. But it doesn't solve our situation. Unless we can turn the tractor beam off or transport off this rock, we'll be destroyed with everything else. Something, a creature, we think, is on a collision course with Bare Anches." Magnus paused. "The only means of entrapping the Matrix Virus is here. We don't want to leave them behind..."

"But you can't take them with you and risk spreading the Virus." Magnus nodded, grateful she guessed the rest.

Blue rounded Optimus' med scanners. "There's nothing we can do. The seeds we used to build the crystals are broken. Gone."

"She's right," Wheeljack verified. "Without psycho-kinetic energy at the exact frequency, there's no way we can bait and trap the Virus."

Magnus did not want to think about it. The accident sealed their fate. The only thing he could do: get the Autobots off Bare Anches and abandon their leaders. "Cyclonus," he called. "How much time until impact?"

"Just under nine hours."

From Cyclonus to Fineliner, Magnus rotated his attention to avoid thinking about the impending disaster. "Fineliner, report."

"Well, uh, although the Aerialbots put together the needed number of homemade activator tripods, there's no guarantee they'll work."

The room idled in silent hopelessness. Wheeljack picked up his digipad and poked around his notes. Fineliner resumed work. First Aid stared at Rodimus. Just when he thought they were going to win, fate or the universe decided against them in favor of their demise.

Samiko's small voice penetrated the room's atmospheric despair. "You know, there are those of us who know how to restructure our psychokinetic energy."

First Aid: "what do you mean?"

She hesitated. "It means we can take on and become an alternate life force energy. We are, after all, psychics and some of us are psychic and empathic to the point of shifting our life force to mimic someone else's. It's... it's how we slipped past Optimus Prime's internal defenses." Her eyes dropped in shame. "I... I could, in effect, become Matrix life force energy. But it means I'd have to siphon a source that projects the energy patters."

Wheeljack's jaw dropped. "Y-you can do that? Seriously? I've never heard of such a thing!"

First Aid shook his head. "Unfortunately, we do not have another source of Matrix energy. At least nothing that hasn't been contaminated."

Samiko turned her dark eyes on the Protectobot. "It is life force, am I not right?" She continued when he did not answer. "The Matrix instills life. So anyone born of the Matrix will have that same energy pattern." she searched the huge room with her humanoid eyes. "Your communications officer, for example. He is a child of the Matrix. This procedure, however requires a volunteer. Otherwise, I will not do it."

Blaster scoffed. "Not to worry! No sir-" he caught sight of Cyclonus' 'evil eye' and smiled sheepishly, "...ee. Ahem. Um, don't worry about it, Little Miss. I'm just hangin' round doin' nothin' anyway."

Samiko shook her head. "You don't understand. Siphoning this energy will diminish you, age you. You might lose the ability to transform. You could even lose your life."

"Hold on here!" a male psychic called. Samiko looked at him, confused. Refusing to speak aloud, he communicated telepathically: "Samiko, what are you saying? Have you any idea what you're doing? You're condemning yourself to an eternity of imprisonment! Forget these people! We're free. Let's go home."

Samiko's shoulders fell. "Kahlis, some of us don't have a home to return to. Duvay's home world was destroyed hundreds of years ago. My people no longer exist. Sare's planet died when their star went supernova." she shook her head. "Where will you go? How will you get there? What do you hope to find? The Quintessons traveled back in time to abduct you."

Kahlis' lips trembled and his cheeks lit red. He swallowed hard as tears dripped over his pale face. "Then I won't let you do this... not by yourself."

Another female psychic stepped beside him. "You shouldn't do this at all, Samiko. You have rapport with these strangers. I will go in your place."

The doll-faced psychic nodded sadly and looked to Ultra Magnus. "Kahlis and Iesha said they will take my place to empower... what are you calling it?"

"A phase box," Blue murmured.

Magnus did not like the idea. "Your people should not have to sacrifice themselves like this, Samiko. There has to be another way."

She shook her head. "You have seven point twenty-five hours left. It will take time for the crystals to grow. With one person as a power source in each crystal, we may not even make it in time. Nor do we have a source of projected Matrix energy."

"Yes we do," Blue suddenly said. "Me."

"No!" Magnus objected.

"Yes," she insisted. "I am a child of the Matrix."

"You don't understand," Samiko warned.

"Yes I do," Blue insisted. "You're saying I will lose my life. Optimus and Rodimus would do nothing less for any of us. Including the Decepticons. If this means saving them to save everyone else, then... let's get on with it."

"Blue-"

"YES, MAGNUS! I'm dead serious! And don't you DARE utter a word, Blaster! This is mine. I've devoted my life to serving my people. You'd do nothing less. So don't... don't make my decision for me." the Autobot femme dropped her voice, "I received life through the Matrix. It's only fitting I return it so that someone else will live." her optics focused on the Major-general. "This is what it means to be a soldier."

Her words hit Magnus in the core. He flinched with overwhelming emotion and struggled to keep quiet.

Blue's group set to work without another argument. Magnus requested current status from Fineliner who confirmed Samiko's estimated time frame. Magnus privately doubted they'd be able to capture the Virus in time. He ordered all ship captains to prepare for immediate lift off.

With all things set in motion and nothing left to do, Magnus answered questions and granted personnel reassignments. He listened to chatter on one frequency then another. He watched Jazz work in sync with Cyclonus as they determined the precise trajectory. He listened to Brainstorm as he and Cloudstreaker set the crystal solution. He slightly smiled when Cloudstreaker stole a glance his way. She used to be so shy and now she worked with confidence and accepted Brainstorm's corrections with ease.

Two hours slipped by. Fineliner's group tested the Aerialbots' makeshift tripods. Three of them blew to pieces. Fineliner kicked the nearest wall then punched it. "I don't care what you have to do, Silverbolt!" he exclaimed, "you get SOMETHING up!" Then the Autobot engineer glowered at Magnus. "Magnus, even if we get this together and ready for teleport, we still do not have a power source. At least, no power source strong enough to send us to a planet let alone some far-off star system."

Magnus did not answer right away. He glanced at their leaders and a scant glimpse at Galvatron. "Know what, soldier? The definition of 'fight' is to keep going. The true death occurs when you give up. We might fail. We may not escape. We may end up destroyed. Do you think that's enough a reason to just drop your arms, sit down and wait for it?"

Fineliner considered it with a frown then shook his head and dropped his optics to the floor. "No. No, sir, I don't suppose so."

Magnus nodded. He did not need to say anything more.

"Oh Primus..." Apogee's voice carried from where she stood beside Rodimus. She stepped back slowly, her optics fixated on the Autobot leader. Magnus left Fineliner as Roddi's color darkened.

"OMK ZH'VVUPTEEN." the words uttered with a double-voice sent surges down Magnus' back. "OMK ZH'VVUPTEEN." Rodimus repeated the phrase two more times while the fingers of his right hand clenched and stretched.

The room fell quiet, disturbed by Rodimus' Viral-influenced voice. Magnus turned away and tried to hide his consternation. Why was that phrase so important to the Virus? What was the meaning behind it?

Cloudstreaker interrupted his brooding moment, "Ultra Magnus." she waited as the Major-general glanced in Rysar Phayron's direction then looked to her. "We're ready for the uh, for the transfer." Magnus followed her to their station where Brainstorm clasped the final connections between Blue and the volunteer psychics.

Magnus' chest tightened. Although he, Optimus and Rodimus have all sent volunteers on suicide missions, it was never easy to just sacrifice someone's life. This was one of the ugliest aspects of his job. So he knelt beside Blue as she laid on the ground.

"You don't have to do this, Blue," he whispered sadly. "No one will think you a coward if you decide-"

She gripped his wrist. "I know what I'm doing Ultra Magnus. Believe me. I'm going to be okay. I'd rather do this, knowing it's going to save someone's life. It has to be done. Someone has to do it. I'm perfectly okay with it."

Magnus had no further words. He remembered Afterburner's sacrifice. Blue was right; no one would do anything less in her place, least of all Optimus and Rodimus. The Major-general stepped back as Kahlis and Iesha each hugged Samiko and took a place on either side of Blue.

Samiko stepped beside Magnus and wiped tears from her eyes. She laid a hand over her heart and bowed her head. The Quintessons stole everything from her. Now she surrendered strangers who became her friends to an eternal state. "Y'nadda akk t'chan," she whispered in Wanakian.

Cloudstreaker set a tray of crystal solution next to Kahlis while Brainstorm did the same for Iesha. They respectfully took a moment of silence before Cloudstreaker produced her digipad and laid her hand on its surface.

Blue's back arched as her body levitated a foot or two off the floor. Hot white electrical ribbons danced around her body and trailed across fiberglass tubes where it struck Kahlis and Iesha. The psychics screamed until the electro-magnetic field dissipated from Blue's body. She flopped on the floor, dead. The psychic volunteers remained still. Their bodies glowed, resembling humanoid light bulbs. Brainstorm carefully disconnected one fiber optic at a time. Magnus turned away and tried not to think what either Prime would say if the phase boxes worked.

He knew they'd be pissed.

Rysar Phayron-Zeta's panicked voice disrupted the moment: "What are you looking at, you freak! Get away from me! I command you to obey me! Get away from me!"

Those who did not attend their work lifted their optics toward the far end of the room. The Quintesson behind his energon cage retreated from a dead-black biped figure as it neared the prison. It paced slowly and palmed the cage's electric surface and tracing the borders, searching for a weakness.

"SEARCHED FOR VOID," its voice sounded like someone drowning in oil, as deep and chilling as a grave. "FAILED. SEARCHED FOR THE GIRL. FAILED. SEARCHED THE DARK. FOUND. DARK AND DESOLATE KNOW. THREE AS ONE, NOW TWO. WE SEE THIS. WE SEE... HIM." the Virus stopped half way round the prison, bent over, clawed hands on leg joints. It peered at Phayron-Zeta as one would a new curiosity. WE KNOW THIS NAME. WE SMELL THIS FROM FAR.

Magnus searched out Brainstorm without communicating. The Autobot scientist noticed and shook his head, indicating the crystals yet unfinished. Magnus nodded once as Cyclonus and Galvatron quietly neared the Quintesson's end of the room. They held their weapons, now connected to their own power cores. They closed in and stood still, just watching.

Dark hissed and spoke but did not look at the Decepticons. "REMEMBER YOU, SON OF ZH'XN. YOU HEAR ITS MUSIC. YOU SING. YOU STAND HERE. WE HAVE NO FEAR."

"Perhaps," Galvatron replied evenly. "But neither do I. I stand, I and mine, between you and the Primes, between you and the Matrix." he paused, held like a spring barely held in check. "Where is Void?"

VOID?! VOID?! HSSSSSS. THIS WAY. THERE. NOT THERE. HERE. NOT HERE. LISTENED TO THE GIRL. VOID...NOT VOID. Upon the end of it sentence, Dark stood straight and its mouth opened unnaturally wide. A forked tongue snaked out and the Quintesson quailed.

"Magnus..." Grotesque's voice uncharacteristically trembled. "Ma-Magnus..."

The Major-general turned in time to watch as black liquid oozed from the ceiling. Some of it formed a puddle between Optimus and Roddi. Some of it hung suspended as if either frozen in time or unable to decide where to land. Other black blobs dripped, one or two, at first then it rained. In a panic, everyone scurried and ducked under tables and computer stations or barely dodging. chairs and tables toppled under their haste. Digipads fell and broke. One of Fineliner's humanoid assistants screamed as a Virus blob trailed after her. She ran around one table, then a station, another table until the blob split in half and caught her. No one moved as she screamed until she gurgled, enveloped by darkness.

Rysar Phayron's luck also ran out. Black ooze dripped through the cage's negative spaces and plopped on his bulbous head. The Quintesson screeched in unnatural tones. The biped Virus attacked Galvatron and shoved him into a databank.

"Brainstorm, Cloudy!" Magnus shouted, "whatever you're going to do, you need to do it now!"

Brainstorm reached for the unfinished crystals when Cloudstreaker slapped his hand away. "What the Pitt are you doing, you stupid femme?!" Brainstorm cried.

"They're not closed!" Cloudy yelled.

"It will have to work!" he reached for them again and in her fight/fright mode, the femme shot him in the side and kicked him away.

The building trembled and those who felt the quake searched high, low and around. The Virus, too, paused in its activity. The building shook again and rumbled with a chest-deep sound.

"Jazz!" Magnus barked.

"On it!"

Galvatron fired at the Virus as it attacked two Autobots.

Cyclonus jumped to Cloudy's side and struck two black amebas as they encroached.

Fineliner dodged his way from one table and work station to another. He nearly slipped once, catching Cloudstreaker's attention. "LISTEN TO ME!" he shouted above the screams, "you have the ability to transfer power from one source to another, don't you?"

Cloudy ducked as Cyclonus fired at a blob above her. "What? Yes! What of it?"

"We need enough power to light up a quarter of Cybertron to transport us off this rock."

She barely heard him. The Virus eked into the walls around them and shorted several lights. Cyclonus grabbed her without warning and dragged her from the corner station as the Virus oozed through the panel borders. The Decepticon lieutenant swung about, facing Fineliner. "We found a vat filled with dark energon nearby the same location as the cubes." he shot at another blot of ooze. "It might be what you need!"

Fineliner squatted on the table as Grotesque transformed to his half-feline, half-bat mode. The Monsterbot dodged an attack when the Virus rose from the floor like a disembodied head. Its maw opened wide but missed the Autobot. Grotesque landed on the table, shifted back to his robot mode and stared over Fineliner's shoulder. They studied the digipad a few seconds before Grotesque looked at Cyclonus and shook his head.

"Black energon is organic-based!" he shouted. "It won't work in hyperspace."

Jazz spun from the computer console and spotted the Major-general as he and Mnemonic struggled to open the doors, now shorted by the Virus. "MAGS! The Elipsis! It's here! It's chewing through the asteroid's shields!"

He did not hear Magnus' unrepeatable reply. Although the Virus did not bother him, it partly melted the flooring so that he and Mnemonic failed to attain a firm grip.

Then Dark shifted the floor under Galvatron and caught him under melting panels.

Vector fell victim under Desolate.

Another quake struck the science station. Part of the eastern wall split asunder.

Wheeljack hauled himself upon the edge of the barrier between Optimus and Rysar's prison. "Cloudstreaker!" he called, "there's no more time! We either implant the crystals NOW, or we'll all end up Virus-bait!"

"Cloudstreaker!" Fineliner shouted at the same time, "we might be able to use the tractor-beam's power source for the transporter!"

No, no! She thought, the crystals aren't grown enough! There's not enough time for me to adjust to the power source! She skittered her optic visor between Wheeljack and Fineliner, unable to decide what to do.

Dark dropped Galvatron like a dead dog and inched its way toward Cyclonus and Cloudstreaker. Cyclonus shot at the Virus two, three, four- losing power. "Go!" he told the femme. "I will deliver the crystals!"

She opened her mouth to object when the building tipped and the south side cracked up and up and fell away. She and Cyclonus lost their footing and landed face-first. Cloudy caught the precious phase boxes before they smashed. She placed them in Cyclonus' hands with a prayer on her lip components.

The room around them splintered, smashing the floor, injuring one person after another. Wheeljack implemented a force field around Optimus and Rodimus while Cloudstreaker ran toward Fineliner.

Cyclonus picked himself up, took two steps before a blade of acid sliced into his back. He swung about, breathing hard as Dark walked toward him, as assured of itself as an Inoux. Cyclonus made it to Wheeljack just as Dark cut into him again from the upper back.

Wheeljack handed one crystal to First Aid and he and Perigee planted theirs into Optimus.

Cloudstreaker received directions and instructions from Fineliner at such a speed she almost did not catch them all.

Then she thought it too late. The floor opened into nothingness. The atmosphere echoed a sound so deafening she thought the galaxy erupted in death.

She did not remember hitting a latch release or Magnus calling for her.

She did not remember the blinding light enshrouding all occupants in the room.

She did not see the ships phase out of reality.

Ellipsis pierced the asteroid's atmosphere, penetrated the science station's subspace bubble and devoured everything.

To be continued in chapter 13: Yolthanis III

70