He had arrived two days ago.
No one had detected him.
He had made out his targets and set a plan of action.
It was time to begin.
* * *
Nicholas Cavanaugh walked along the corridors of South Port to the human quarters to get a sandwich. He had forgotten lunch completely -- again -- and now he was hungry. He briefly wondered whether he had had breakfast or not, but he couldn't remember. Probably not. West Central was halfway through completion and soon the first areas would be up and running, though the only really important area right now was the power room, and that was what Nicholas was working on. He and Perceptor did everything necessary to get all the power generators and related stuff completed in record time, but Nicholas was only human, as many of his friends had told him before. He might have unusual abilities for a human, but he still needed sleep, food and general rest now and then. And if it weren't the human workers who reminded him, it was his Interface partner.
West Central was only on the outside almost complete. Inside it looked different. No power lines had yet been connected because the raw power stored all over Cybertron couldn't be accessed and processed by conventional means and Rodimus had decided that relying on energon to run the new base would be foolish. Nicholas had been named the 'Guy In Charge', as he called himself most of the time, of the new transformers and generators, as well as power conduits and conductors. He was trying to fit the generators to process the energy, which wasn't an easy task. It took up all his time and required him to travel frequently between his office, his lab and the actual construction site to confer with the Constructicons. In the beginning there had been problems because none of the Decepticons had accepted a human in charge, but that had changed slowly but surely when Scrapper and Hook had been confronted with Nicholas' abilities as an engineer. Whatever they threw at him, his mind seemed to process it immediately without a need to look through technical manuals or reference books.
Glancing automatically around the spacious corridors Nicholas suddenly discovered a new face. It was a tall robot colored in gold and red, looking around. He was approaching one of the restricted areas, those in need of special identification.
"Hey!" Nicholas called, abandoning his idea of food.
The robot turned and Nicholas saw that he was a Decepticon. The symbol was slightly faded, which gave the human a first idea of how old this robot was. Maybe he was one of the recently surfaced underground fighters.
"Sorry, but that's a restricted area you are entering," Nicholas went on. "Who are you?"
"My name is Firebird," the robot said, looking curiously at him. "What are you?"
Okay, so he is new, Nicholas confirmed his suspicion. "I'm a human. I work here. You are one of the Underground, right?"
Firebird nodded. "I came here to see if you needed help...."
"Not right now, thanks." Nicholas had an itchy feeling about this guy, but he couldn't put his finger on it!
"Oh, okay. I'll be on my way then." And with that, Firebird left.
Nicholas watched him leave, frowning. He felt Tornado's questioning poke at his partner's sudden wariness, but he dismissed it. Maybe he just needed something to eat and a good night's sleep.
* * *
Windraider smiled at the tall robot and had to hold onto herself not to hug him. They had not seen in each other in .... too long.
The bright red and golden Decepticon smiled. "Hello, Windraider. Ready to go?"
She nodded and both left South Port. Firebird had arrived here a week ago and they had met by chance. Windraider had surfaced about one standard year ago and found the rumors of an alliance were the truth. She had met many of her old associates and friends and since she was a medic, she had soon found a place in the large lab complex below South Port. She liked her work, gruesome as it was sometimes. First Aid, as well as Chaos who was on Nebulos, were trying to find a cure for the Nebulan contamination and Windraider did a lot of research concerning the effects and the different areas in the organic body it attacked. Windraider was mainly concerned with the infected humans -- well, human. Spike Witwicky was the only one infected though there had been rumors of more humans on Nebulos. It didn't interest Windraider right now. She had her job.
And then Firebird had popped up. He had been off planet for millennia and she had to confess she had missed him. Like herself, Firebird was a special robot. Windraider had been constructed with supra-light metal, able to fly faster than anything and go anywhere. She looked a bit Fay-like, transparent wings rising behind her back and her crystal clear eyes were subject of a lot of fascination. But she had never been a warrior. She had always been a medic. And she had belonged to a group called the 'Elements', consisting of four robots. She had been the representative of the element wind.
Firebird was fire and had been built to withstand even the highest temperatures. There were small openings at his wrists and ankles through which he could set himself spontaneously on fire for protection. He didn't burn, he simply burned. Through the Third Cybertronian War they had lost touch of each other and also of the last two members of the Elements group, which had been nothing but an experiment and never a real team. Earthbound hadn't been able to work with females and Seasong had had his differences with Firebird.
Now Firebird was back.
She hoped for good.
* * *
As always, Perceptor was working in his lab. This time he had taken apart one of his latest, not-working doohickeys and strewn all those little parts over his work bench. He didn't hear Disaster enter, nor did he hear him coming closer.
"Need a magnifying glass?" Disaster asked loudly.
Perceptor jumped, startled, and dropped the part he had just tried to fit to his experiment. "Disaster!" he reproached the other robot.
Disaster grinned brightly. He just loved to tease Perceptor. The scientist scowled, then turned back to his work. Disaster sighed. It was hard to get Perceptor to think of something but his work and somehow, he had made it his personal quest to try and make him. As much as Disaster was a scientist, there were other important things as well. He leaned over the other robot's shoulder and studied the experiment. "Whatcha doing?"
Perceptor jumped again and gave Disaster an annoyed look. "I'm trying to re-calibrate the delta macro-circuits of the multi-task back-up system and to strengthen the ..."
Disaster would have rolled his optics if he could have. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry I asked."
The scientist gave him another annoyed look. Disaster understood everything Perceptor had said, he just wished he'd stop being so stiff!
Since surfacing, Disaster had been happily cooped up in science work. He was a warrior, but his scientific streak was quite strong. Calamity was always teasing him about it, but he mostly ignored it. And since she hung out with Overload lately, he had been left in peace. Catastrophe had been missing for some time now and he had decided that after he was done with the power conductors, he'd go and search for her. She was still his commander and though their small team had reintegrated into the society Above, she was still a bit hesitant.
Well, nothing gained by thinking about the past. Disaster continued watching Perceptor, coming up with small ideas on how to get him to loosen up. He had a lot of training concerning Catastrophe.....
* * *
It was time. He had chosen his target. Coshoff smiled cruelly as he watched Windraider while they walked past the half finished structure of West Central. The area was off limits for everyone not involved in constructing it, but Coshoff had already made out the weak spots. The Cybertronian was so trusty that somehow it was all too easy. He always enjoyed a challenge, but this hadn't proven to be one. Maybe if he had chosen another one of the robots instead ...?
No. He shook his head. Windraider had been the prime target right from the beginning. She was the only one who knew Firebird around here and she considered him her closest friend.
"Okay, that's it," Windraider said and smiled at him. "It will be much better when everything is finished."
"It sure will," Coshoff agreed.
Together they left the construction site.
"This is amazing," he went on, looking around. "I never thought the alliance was true ..... and now we also have another new base."
Windraider nodded. "I can show you so much more...."
He smiled at her. "Lead the way. I'm dying to hear all the news."
Inside his prison, Firebird cried in denial.
* * *
The Monolith hovered in a stable position above the small planet. Ultra Magnus stood at the view port and regarded the innocent world; yes, innocent. Until a few years ago. Now it was a dying world. From up here it was still peaceful and innocent, but down on the surface, death reigned. Nothing they had come up with had helped yet. No cure could be found. Chaos was working non-stop on a solution and on Cybertron, First Aid and his staff did the same, but it was of no use.
Nebulos would soon be dead.
"This just came in," Chase interrupted his thoughts and handed Ultra Magnus a small note.
The commander read it and frowned. "Are you sure?"
Chase nodded. "Positive. Magma picked it up on our last sweep. We have yet to find an explanation as to how it managed to get past our warp gate sensors, but we are at it, sir."
Magnus nodded. "All right. Change course to planet's proximity and begin active scan. The ship has to be still here or we would have picked up the exhaust trail as well."
Chase agreed and then relayed the orders. The Monolith changed course and homed in on the planet. Magnus patched himself through to the surface and contacted Strafe, If there was an unauthorized ship anywhere near them, the Technobots might find it sooner than the Monolith's scanners.
* * *
Megatron sat at his desk and read the report over and over again. It didn't change. It stayed the same. Sparks watched him from a safe distance. Megatron's mood was shifting slowly but steadily from bad to worse. His eyes were a deep red, his hands clenched into fists, his jaw set.
And then the computer terminal died a quick and violent death, its innards splattering all over the floor. Sparks shook her head, wondering what it was this time.
Cyclonus, who had been silently standing in front of the desk, looked at his leader. He understood him. He had felt the same.
Trypticon was gone. Abducted. Kidnapped. Most likely killed.
The Decepticons had lost a valuable fighting force to the enemy and there was no chance they'd ever be able to retrieve Trypticon. Even if they found his body shell, the core would be dead.
"Counterstrike is ready, mighty Megatron," Cyclonus now said calmly.
Megatron's optics burned into him. "Targets?"
"We have found a suitable one," Cyclonus reported. "Soundwave has located a small Tji supply depot. Not very well guarded." He smiled darkly. "We can move whenever you order us to."
Megatron forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand. "Team three and five. No stunts, no unnecessary risks. Get in there and destroy the base, then report back."
Cyclonus nodded, then cast Sparks a look and left. Sparks sighed deeply. She was stuck with Mr. Personality now. Oh, fun!
* * *
It was very quiet at South Port. There was no real night on Cybertron, but the cycles of day and night were somehow kept nevertheless. Many had gone into recharge, but there were still robots and humans around. It was never totally quiet. The shadowy figure sneaked through the lab door and walked straight towards the lab bench where the new power converters for West Central lay. The intruder looked around but saw no one. Perceptor was in the other lab and oblivious to everything but his work. He looked closely at the conductor shells, which were about his own size. Frowning, he fetched a tool and loosened some screws. Taking the lid away from the converter's control panel he peered inside and then disconnected two circuits. Screwing the converter shut again the figure left the lab, closing the door.
* * *
Ralyk felt itchy.
It had felt like this for the last days but it had no idea why. Everything was in order, but something was wrong.
And it had no idea what it was!
The situation was intolerable and annoying, but there was nothing it could do except to watch and wait.
And so it did.
* * *
"Adjust the streams!"
Disaster adjusted the energy stream and watched the power conductor light up more. It hummed softly, channeling the raw energy, the one kept in the storage tanks, and converted it smoothly into useable energon. "Just a little more and now .... "
"Output is almost at optimum level," First Aid reported and stepped closer to the conductor, reading off the figures displayed on the control panel's screen. "Everything is holding." First Aid was working on two projects at once, though he left most of the research concerning Nebulos to his staff while his talents were needed here.
"Hm, looks like we finally found a conductor that handles this raw energy," Nicholas remarked and sounded very satisfied. He should be. He had had his part in discovering how to make the machine work without melting down into scrap because of the alien power and it had been a real challenge for the human.
Suddenly the machine started to shake and rattle. It crackled dangerously and smoke came out of several slits.
"What the.........??" Disaster stared at the machine which had started to bulge outward as if it was a balloon. "Get down!" he screamed as he realized what was going to happen, hitting the ground.
Nicholas didn't lose a second's thought about the why. He simply followed the order.
First Aid, who was closest to the trap, stared at it with scientific fascination. The converter gave a final screech and exploded. The explosion shook the ground and debris flew through the room. Sharp metal shrapnels cannoned through the room, one of the pieces burying itself into Disaster's thigh. Smoke billowed around them and when the Decepticon looked up he saw nothing at all. Coughing, his oxygen intakes battling the smoke, he waited for the dust to settle down. Then he got to his knees and looked around.
"Nicholas? First Aid?"
Nicholas blinked dazedly and tried to focus on the voice. There was a cut on his cheek, but it didn't bleed much. Something must have just grazed him.
"Disaster?" he asked.
"Yes, it's me. How are you?"
Nicholas rubbed his forehead. "My head .... I think I need an aspirin. Otherwise I feel fine. What happened?"
"The conductor exploded," Disaster simply said. Then he realized that First Aid had not answered him. "First Aid?"
"Exploded? It shouldn't have done that." Nicholas sat up gingerly, then frowned as First Aid still didn't make himself known.
Suddenly the door was flung open and several robots ran inside, Tornado among them. Disaster realized that the whole affair must have transmitted through Nicholas' Interface link.
"What happened?" Kup demanded, surveying the still smoke-filled room.
"First Aid!" HotSpot had found his combiner friend and now knelt at his side. First Aid had been right next to the exploding conductor and he lay face down on the floor, not moving.
Nicholas got to his feet and stumbled over to the medic. "Oh no......"
HotSpot was joined by Blades and both Protectobots turned their friend around. Blades cursed softly in Cybertronian as he saw the damage.
"Get him over to med lab!" HotSpot decided swiftly. Blades complied, helped by Groove. He looked at Disaster, who was still shocked. "And you need some attention as well."
The Decepticon shook his head. "No, I'm fine." He followed the other Protectobots toward the lab. "First Aid needs help now." He tried not to limp, but it was obvious that the shard had hit more than just the skin.
"I checked the conductor," Nicholas muttered, touching his bleeding cheek. "The circuits were functioning perfectly." He stared at the little crater the explosion had left in the ground with evident amazement.
"Maybe you overlooked something," HotSpot volunteered.
The look in the gray eyes made the Protectobot wish he hadn't said that. "I did not overlook something, HotSpot."
"Well, whatever it was, we shouldn't continue the experiments," Kup decided.
Nicholas nodded slowly.
"You better rest a bit, Nicholas," Tornado said, trying not to sound worried, but everyone knew that the relationship between those two had grown into a fully-fledged Interface. Tornado liked to act as if Nicholas wasn't more than just another friend, but it was really just a facade.
"I'm fine," Nicholas muttered and walked through the debris, looking around. He picked up some circuits. "I've work to do."
Tornado shrugged, but the expression in his silver optics was clear. He decided to stay around a bit.
"I'll send a clean-up team over," Kup said and then went over to the intercom to call off the alarm and get some help to the lab.
* * *
Daniel sighed and closed the office door behind him, relishing the thought that the weekend had finally arrived. The week had been hell on Earth and there was no sign that it might get better. He locked the door and stepped out into the street. Arcee was already waiting, transformed into her vehicular mode, and he got in, letting her do the driving. It was a relaxing experience.
"Bad?" she asked.
"I've to be at the former Metroplex site Monday morning. Some government representative wants to take a look at how well we removed the city, or something like that."
"But Autobot City and Metroplex are gone!"
Daniel sighed. "Yeah, I know. And they know. I think it's just another method of power play. I've been fighting officials since this mess began and since they won't get any further with their offers, they are now getting on my nerves with different methods."
"I see. Optimus called and asked how we are doing. I guess we should file a report and tell him about this latest development."
Daniel nodded slowly. The Autobots still owned the land Autobot City had stood on and Optimus was denying the government to buy it back. They had bought it for 200 years and they would own it as long as that. It stirred up more negative emotions, but there was no way for the USA to break the contract without making fools of themselves. Autobot presence on Earth had been reduced to a minimum. Through it many companies had suffered reductions and were now complaining to their respective governments. Daniel knew that this was what Optimus had planned on and hoped for, but it didn't change the fact that moods were changing for the worst.
As Arcee pulled up in the driveway, Kimberly already awaited him. Daniel kissed his wife, reading worry out of her eyes.
"Bad day?" she asked.
"Yeah. Does our weekend still stand?"
She smiled. "Yes. I called your mother and she said she'd be delighted. I already packed and we can leave the moment I get Dana out of the garden and under the shower."
"Good luck," Daniel laughed.
"Why, thank you, Daddy!" Kim replied with a mock sincere frown.
They both went into the house and three hours later, the Witwickys and Arcee were on their way.
* * *
"This is impossible." Nicholas Cavanaugh stared at the dismantled power conductor -- or what had been left of it after the explosion -- and his eyes held a look of utter disbelief.
"What did you find?" Raoul leaned over his shoulder and peered at the circuits.
Raoul had relocated with many of the human workers and employees of Autobot City. He was mostly doing consultant work now, leaving the actual 'work' as he always said, to his teams. Raoul was no longer the youngest around, but even with his nearly sixty Earth years of age he was fitter and quicker than many of his colleagues. Like the Witwickys he had profited from constant space travel, though not as extensively as Spike and Carly. He was supervising the construction of the power conduits to West Central and was also a kind of liaison between the humans and the Cybertronians.
"The feedback circuit and the security chip are not connected. Through it the power conductor overloaded and exploded. But it's impossible. I connected the two circuits myself!"
Raoul frowned. He had the utmost confidence in his friend and colleague, and when Nicholas worked on a project, everything was planned and perfectly outlaid. Nicholas would never run a test if he wasn't convinced it was really safe. The control panel which had exploded could no longer be examined because all the parts were scattered in a large radius. They had found bits and pieces, but nothing which might have been a clue. So Nicholas had taken one of the other three conductors apart.
"Maybe the connection broke under the strain," he ventured, taking the panel and studying the two circuits closely.
"I tested the circuitry myself," Nicholas said a little stiffly. "It was strong enough to withstand twice the strain and pressure it was under at our latest test. And even if it would have broken - which is really highly unlikely - it wouldn't look like that."
Raoul saw what the engineer meant. The circuits were neither molten nor scorched. They were simply not connected. This conductor had not been used, but the circuits were disconnected!
"But ...," he began when a frightening thought hit his mind. "But if you're right this could mean ..." He shook his head. "No, I don't believe it."
"I know, Raoul, but those circuits were tampered with. Somebody disconnected them on purpose. The conductor would function perfectly until the input reached a certain level and then it would collapse under the strain."
"But who could have done it? You finished the conductor tests only the night before and no one entered the lab!"
Nicholas frowned. "Are you sure?"
"Sure of what?" Disaster could be heard, coming into the room.
"Sabotage," Raoul said calmly.
Disaster's red optics flared slightly. "Are you sure?"
Nicholas pointed at the enlarged picture of the tampered circuits on the screen. "All of them look this way. I might believe one disconnected circuit or a faulty board -- but four?"
"Who?" Disaster asked.
"I don't know. But before we think about who it might be, we have to check the other conductors and back-ups for other faults. I need your help to do it."
Disaster nodded slowly. "We have to inform the others."
"Okay, you do that. I'll get ready to take these babies apart."
* * *
Margch had watched the humans work, talk and sleep. They had been here for about seven Nebulan months now and were driving from one city to the next, talking to the representatives of the small communities of survivors -- of dying people, Margch added silently to himself. Like many of his kind he didn't believe that there was a cure for this deadly radiation. He had heard rumors that this was a genetically engineered contamination, attacking Nebulans and even minute quantities were deadly, though it might take longer. The Tji had set out to kill everyone and they were succeeding. And now, while the population was dying, the humans had come to take this planet for their own. Margch felt angry, but he had also needed the money they had paid. He wanted to get off the planet and it took a lot of money to pay one of the space ship captains to try and break the quarantine. It had been only for money.
Now, months after they had arrived, one of the humans had suddenly fallen sick. Margch recognized the first symptoms of stage one.
"Nonsense!" the leader of the team snarled as he told him. "We aren't Nebulans. We are immune."
Margch didn't object because he knew it would still be dismissed. He had heard about the human ambassador who had been here throughout the attack and that he was dying. That was why every human had been taken off-planet and checked. None of them had fallen sick yet. But those humans on the planet had.
No wonder. They've been traveling without correct protection, they keep entering the bomb zones and several of them have hurt themselves while taking rock samples.
Another three weeks after that it was clear that the humans had contracted the radiation sickness. Many of them were now in stage one, including the leader. Margch, suffering from his own first symptoms but much better off than any of the humans, knew he had to get help.
* * *
First Aid lay impatiently on the examination desk, making it increasingly difficult for Skywolf to treat the shattered optic sensors and scorched and scratched head of the medic.
"Will you stop it!" the Sentinel medic finally exploded.
First Aid stopped his fidgeting. "Can't you hurry up?" he asked. "I'm needed."
"Sorry to tell you, First Aid, but you are not. We are perfectly well able to do some amount of work on our own."
The Protectobot frowned. He had come around about an hour ago and since then, he had been a pain in the diodes. He did the very thing he always complained about other patients did: he was fidgeting and he was extremely nervous!
"You need rest," Skywolf continued. "You left optic has been shattered by a shrapnel, your right optic needs readjustments and you have a bad cut over your audio circuits. You need recovery time."
Skywolf frowned, though First Aid couldn't really see it. He still had no visual. "No buts. No complaints, no protests, no wails, no cursing in unknown languages."
"I don't curse," First Aid muttered with indignation.
Skywolf chuckled. "Right. Now, as I said before, lie back, relax and let the others do the work for now."
The Protectobot medic sighed deeply, but he behaved for the rest of the delicate operation.
* * *
Monday morning had come too fast and Daniel had dreaded the day. He had been right. The government official was as stiff as they came and he looked at everything so closely, Daniel expected him to count the sand grains. Thomas McClure was mainly checking for environmental problems, remaining debris or leftover parts. There was nothing and there had never been anything. Everyone had made sure that the land would look completely unused and they had succeeded. Beachcomber had supervised the whole project and he had done a perfect job.
"Everything seems to be in order," McClure now said and made some last notes. "Thank you, Mr. Witwicky. I'll call you if I have any further questions."
Daniel summoned up a smile. "Of course."
They shook hands. The moment McClure was in his car and on the way back, Daniel's smile was wiped off his face and he hissed angrily.
"Idiot!" he murmured.
Arcee laughed softly. "Yes, but you made it through the whole procedure without losing your cool. I'm proud of you."
Daniel laughed. "Thanks, but if I never see this guy again it will be too soon!"
His smile vanished as he looked at the empty landscape around him. Not too long ago, almost exactly six months ago, this place had been bustling with life, robotic and humanoid. At that time it had been Autobot City, home of Metroplex and the biggest representation of Autobot presence on Earth. It had been employer to hundreds of workers, trading partner for companies and generally a good sign concerning relations with Cybertron. Now there was nothing left. The sub-terranean structure had been removed and the giant crater filled with new ground. The street leading to the city, as well as the bridge over the river, had been demolished and removed, the land turned back into what it had been before: sand, rock, a bit of grass and some trees.
Daniel felt sadness rise inside of him. He had been born in the human city not far from here, grown up in Autobot City or on Cybertron, wherever his Dad had had to go, and generally seen this place as home. Now his home was gone, leaving no reminder, no trace. True Autobot City was currently relocating in earnest, getting a new name and a new purpose on Cybertron, but it was not the same. West Central would never be the same. He sighed.
"Let's go, Arcee," he said sadly.
He got into the pink and silver car and Arcee drove off. Daniel knew they'd have to file the report to Optimus when they got back. Not a happy thing, but somebody had to do it.
* * *
"What?!" Rodimus stared at the two scientists, one human, one robotic. "Say it again, please! I think my audio receptors had a little problem deciphering what you just said."
"Somebody tampered with the power conductors for West Central," Nicholas repeated tiredly. "I don't know who it was or how he could have done it. The machines were in the lab and it is a restricted access area."
"Did you check the access codes?"
"Kup did," Disaster told him. "No one entered while we were not there, except for the regulars like Perceptor."
"Someone broke into the lab?"
"No signs of that either."
"Kup is working on it," Disaster added.
"What'll we do now?" Nicholas wanted to know.
Rodimus frowned. This was bad news at the worst of times. "We'll put a full security detail around the lab," he decided. "Each and everyone will be checked. How is First Aid?"
"Almost back to normal. He gave us quite a scare," Disaster answered. "He wants to go back to work ASAP. Skywolf told him to rest until we get the lab back into working order." He smiled a bit. Rodimus knew that the lab was already back in working order.
He nodded. "Good. Keep me informed."
The two left and left the young commander alone.
Sabotage! He couldn't believe it. Who would do that? And why?
* * *
A week had gone by since the explosion of the power conductor and nothing had happened since. Kup was looking into the matter but didn't get any further. Whatever leads he had found, they all had dead ends and the security chief was getting more and more frustrated. Work in Perceptor's lab continued as usual, though there were security guards around now, keeping an eye on the lab. Nicholas ignored them most of the time, just like he ignored Tornado's well-meant advice to get some rest. He was obsessed by the reconstruction of the conductors and the ongoing connections of West Central. They had a schedule to match to get the power lines up and running because the Constructions were ceaseless in their efforts to build the main structure of the secondary base.
Nicholas wiped sweat from his brows, then switched on the new model. He eyed the power conductor warily, expecting it to explode, but nothing happened. Disaster was on stand-by, his optics fixed on the read-outs, his audio receptors open for the slightest wrong hum. When nothing happened throughout all phases of the test, Nicholas nodded and gave Disaster a thumbs-up.
They were back in business!
* * *
Coshoff watched things slowly settle down, though the investigations were still going full. He knew they'd never find him. He was too good. And he had a perfect cover.
Windraider provided it even more. She didn't suspect a thing and since they hadn't seen each other in millennia, she accepted that he had changed -- just like she had.
Oh, it was all so easy. Maybe too easy. Where was the fun in it?
Coshoff walked away from his latest sabotage act and grinned.
* * *
"And that's the situation."
Optimus Prime had a neutral expression on his face as he looked at the screen. "Thank you, Colonel," he said calmly.
"Sorry I couldn't give you better new, Optimus Prime," Colonel Tracker of the EDC HQ told him and he sounded genuinely sad.
"I expected something like this. Thank you again for your time."
With that Optimus ended the conversation, then leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers under his chin.
He looked up and shook his head. Megatron's features grew, if possible, even colder than before. His optics expressed a hatred and rage that didn't come without reason. The situation on Earth was getting worse by the minute and Tracker had just relayed the latest developments.
"We are relocating everything, if possible," Optimus decided.
"You will give in further to those fleshlings?!" Megatron exploded. "They have no authority over us!"
"They have authority over the fate of their planet," Optimus told him calmly.
"The fate of their planet will be certain death if they continue to harass our people and demand we remove our presence!" Megatron hissed.
The Autobot leader smiled slightly at the 'our people' wording, then shook his head. "They are afraid. Nebulos is almost dead and the virus can attack humans as well. We don't carry the virus, but the fear sits deep, just like the fear of a Tji attack."
"The Tji would have been beaten at Nebulos if those worms had had sufficient early warning systems and defenses!"
Only too true. And Earth had those systems and defenses, but they were falling into the same trap the Nebulans had: they thought removing all Cybertronians from Earth would save them. Optimus was too tired to argue anymore and he knew that if Rodimus saw one more glimpse of an ambassador from Earth, he wouldn't hesitate to shoot.
"You know that, I know that, maybe even Earth governments know that, but they don't want to admit it. They fear what might come."
"You Autobots gave them the stars!" Megatron growled. "You saved their worthless hides several times and that's how they repay you."
And that was true as well. It might be a way to blackmail Earth Gov. into letting the Cybertronians stay, but it would result in more bad blood among them.
"I want to let the matter rest until we have dealt with the Tji, Megatron. After that, we'll see."
Their optics met and Megatron finally nodded.
"How is Counterstrike proceeding?" Optimus then changed the subject matter.
"All teams have successfully completed training," the Decepticon leader told him, accepting the change though from the look in his optics he was far from done. "The Com Center has a list of possible targets and I have chosen one, Prime."
Optimus nodded. "Good." He thought about West Central and the revelation about the sabotage. Megatron knew about it as well and from Sparks' remarks, Megatron had transformed yet another shelf into a pile of debris at the news.
"Let's hope we can stir the Tji up a bit and make them nervous," he said calmly.
Megatron's smile turned pure icy evil. "Oh, we will."
* * *
There was an explosion.
A very subtle one.
It was barely detectable on any scanner, but it had a devastating effect.
A small bomb had been planted near one of the foundation pillars of West Central. The skeletal structure was ready to undergo fortifying and armoring soon and the Constructicons were working overtime. Except for the occasional recharge they never left the premises. They knew that the new base was important and that they had to get it up as quickly as possible without making mistakes in the construction.
Bonecrusher was checking one of the outer walls when it happened. He thought he heard a little rumble, then there was a creaking. It didn't sound good -- not good at all! If there was something a Constructicon hated to hear it was the stressed creaking of metal, especially after a rumble! The base's plans had been drawn and then realized to make West Central strong enough to survive a planet quake!
Suddenly somewhere someone screamed. No, it wasn't someone. It was Hook. Bonecrusher broke in a run and followed the noise that suddenly erupted. He burst into one of the smaller rooms of the inner building, the one that was also housing a foundation pillar and stopped. He stared at the scene in front of him.
Hook lay on the floor, his body covered by what had been the pillar and which was now a still creaking and groaning mass of metal, slowly slipping further and further.
"Bonecrusher! Get over here and help us stabilize the ceiling!" Scrapper ordered.
Bonecrusher complied. Since the foundation was gone, half the ceiling threatened to cave in, right on top of Hook who hadn't moved an inch. The remaining five Constructicons tried to get the pillar halfway back to stability, but it was a loosing battle. The weight of the ceiling rested on the destroyed foundation.
"We have to get Hook out!" Scrapper yelled. "Mixmaster! Pull him out of there!"
Mixmaster quickly darted over to his unconscious -- or worse -- comrade and tried to free him. "He's stuck somewhere!" he yelled back.
Scrapper cursed softly.
Suddenly half the ceiling was ripped away and a large hand reached inside, plucking Hook out of the debris and lifting him. The other Constructicons scrambled to get out of the way of more falling debris and when they were outside, the other hand that had held the ceiling, let it crash down. The room and with it the foundation, caved in, taking half of West Central's South wing with it. But that was not important. What was important was the next problem the five combiner members had to face.
Scrapper felt his energon pump miss a beat. He had heard about Omega's return to Cybertron after he had been off planet for ages and he had dreaded the day they would meet again. Today was the day and it wasn't the best of days it could have happened. The other Constructicons apparently felt the same because they stared at the giant Autobot, ready to retreat but kept in place by Hook's fate.
Omega's eyes fell on the five individuals in front of him. They were so much smaller than him .... he could squash them so easily and end his emotional torment. He could right what had been done wrong. He looked at the limp Hook in his clawed hand. His lower body was smashed, the armor cracked and energon bleeding out of some of the cracks. So easy.....
Have revenge for Crystal City. -- That wasn't their fault! Megatron changed them!
Revenge for his lost life. -- They had no control over themselves!
Revenge for the torment. -- Didn't you continue to torment yourself?
Sirens could be heard and in the distance the Protectobots could be seen. Omega Supreme battled emotions with logic and finally logic won. As Groove pulled up, closely followed by HotSpot and First Aid, he slowly placed Hook on the ground. Scrapper allowed his energon pump to beat again.
The giant robot turned and walked away, not having spoken a single word. Scrapper looked after him and sighed softly, then his full concentration was on his injured comrade.
* * *
Coshoff felt a bit of disappointment rise inside of him when he watched the ambulance depart, followed by part of the Cybertronians. Some stayed to search for the cause of the cave-in. Coshoff hadn't planned for the Constructicon to get hurt -- he had planned for him to get killed. But it hadn't worked that way. With a shrug he settled back and pondered what to do next. With one of the Constructicons out of action for the time being and the construction of West Central delayed, he had time to target something else -- someone else. It would be so easy......
* * *
Grapple sighed deeply as he looked at the damage; Hoist simply stared. One bomb. One small bomb had done this. Most of the southern wing of the new base had caved in and the foundation had cracked. The skeletal structure had been planned to be strong, reinforced by the walls who should have been erected soon. And one bomb had done this!
Hoist walked around the mountain of rubble and debris. "Well, back to the drawing board."
Grapple nodded. This little incident had shown them what a small detonation device could do. They'd have to go over the plans again.
Not far from them, on the other side of the collapsed wing, another person was investigating the incident as well, though from another point of view.
"What exactly happened?" Firestar asked, looking around. "You said there was an explosion..."
Scrapper gave her a brief idea of the incident and the female Autobot frowned a bit. She had been put in charge by Kup to get a closer look into this latest problem while Kup was still busy with the power conductor incident.
"Did you check your equipment if it has been tampered with?"
Scrapper shot her an acid look. "Our equipment is in perfect working order, Autobot. All we found is that." He presented her with a molten heap.
Firestar took it. "Any idea?"
"Not yet. Give us half a day and we'll take it apart."
She shook her head. "You better take this mountain of debris apart and get going with your work schedule. I'll get this back to South Port."
With that she transformed and drove off.
Scrapper looked after her disappearing form and muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath, then walked to the other Constructicons. It was time to get to work!
* * *
Ralyk's itchiness had turned into fully-fledged ill foreboding. Something was here and it had no idea what it was. Something was happening and it had no control over it. Someone was here.....
* * *
Chaos shook her head and put her theory into the bin -- more or less literally. Again another one of her ideas had turned out to be exactly right.... until she had keyed in a few more digits and it had been totally wrong. She sighed and slumped down on a chair.
"Another dead end." It wasn't a question, simply a statement.
Trciza walked up to her and studied the print. She realized immediately where Chaos had gone wrong. Trciza sat down on a Nebulan-sized chair and inhaled deeply. She was in the middle of stage one contamination, which was spreading slower in her than in others, but though they had examined her immediately, there was no indication as to why she died more slowly. No help there, but Pipes and Windraider were working on that particular lead on Cybertron.
"Yeah," Chaos answered. "I feel so helpless, Triss. I can't do anything, not even slow it down. Whatever we throw at this virus, it keeps working without suffering from what we do to it."
Trciza nodded slowly. "We might have to face the possibility that there is no help."
"No!" Chaos protested. "There has to be!"
The Nebulan doctor smiled softly. "And if there isn't? Chaos, we have to face this, all of us. You might be fighting a losing battle."
Chaos' red optics flared. "There is a cure! I know there is!"
Trciza bit her lip. "Maybe...."
Outside, rain beat against the container settlement.
* * *
"I want you to stay away from West Central as long as we don't know what exactly is going on here."
Rodimus had seen the reaction to his words built up in Nicholas as he was speaking. The human's eyes held a dangerous light as he jumped up and stared at him.
"What's that supposed to mean, Rodimus? Are you canceling my contract?"
He returned her angry stare with a sad look. "No. I want you to be safe, Nicholas."
"Safe? Rodimus, whatever is going on here, do you think anyone is safe anywhere?!"
The Autobots' second sighed. "I know. But as it seems, West Central is the target. We're reducing personnel to a minimum and tuning security to a maximum. Kup has no idea how someone could enter the lab without anyone seeing him or her and as for the accident at the construction site .... no clue. The heap of metal Scrapper found could be anything. Perceptor it analyzing it right now."
"So you want to chain me to the lab -- where the accident happened?" Nicholas asked pointedly.
"No, I want you away from anything concerning West Central until we know what's going on."
"Rodimus!" Nicholas protested. "That is total rubbish! I could as well be a target in my office! You need my help! And do I have to remind you that you put me in charge?"
"No, you don't." Rodimus knew that but he also didn't want to take unnecessary risks. "My decision is final, Nicholas. West Central is under high security. The moment the situation is under control, you're back in business."
Nicholas rolled his eyes, muttered something under his breath, then left Rodimus' office. Rodimus sighed and shook his head. He knew it had hit Nicholas hard, mainly because he was so absorbed in his work at West Central. It was a challenge for his extraordinary mind and he sometimes even had to consult a chart to check his own calculations, which rarely happened to Nick.
[He'll bounce back] Shanygn told him.
He grimaced. Shanygn was busy in South Port's library, but she wasn't too busy not to eavesdrop.
[You were broadcasting, my friend] she told him with a mild smile. [I could have heard you a light-year away!]
Rodimus harrumphed and went back to work.
* * *
Omega Supreme had not left Cybertron as he had intended to do after his encounter with the Constructicons. He had stayed. Watching. His former friends were back to full strength and working non-stop on getting West Central's damaged south wing cleared and re-erected while investigations were running on full. Omega had difficulties figuring out his emotions. The alliance had been nearly too much for him. Suddenly the Decepticons were back in peace, living and working and fighting with the Autobots, for nearly a quarter century now. The peace agreement had turned out to work because of this larger threat. They had all grown together, though there were still smaller rivalries, fights and bad blood. But nothing serious. They had to stick together or perish.
The former guardian of Crystal City watched the Constructicons. Every time he saw them he was reminded of what had happened to him ..... to them. They had been victims, his logical side told him. They had been unable to fight the changes. Even now, with the alliance, they were still the same, still Decepticons. They would never be what they had been. He sighed deeply and walked off. As much he wanted their friendship back, too much had happened.
* * *
Disaster was deep in thought as he took apart every circuit board destined to control any part of the power relay station between South Port and West Central and every security shut-down mechanism main board, checking for tampering or sabotage. It would take hours to get over all the circuitry and even more time to check all their equipment. But he had to do it. He found help in a rather grumpy Nicholas Cavanaugh, who had apparently been pulled off the West Central project, at least any part hat required him to test untested equipment or go out in person. Disaster understood Rodimus' decision, but he also felt with Nicholas. The human was incredibly talented and they worked well together.
Rodimus had changed his decision concerning Nicholas non-involvement concerning West Central a bit, allowing him to work on everything that was non-experimental or consisted of disks and paper. Nicholas had swallowed another protest and simply accepted it.
The door to the lab opened and First Aid stepped in. He had come out of the repair bay a short while ago and was now ready to aid Disaster in any way he could. Hook's injuries had been repaired and the Constructicon would be back at the construction site by tomorrow. Most of his lower body had been squashed and it had been a long repair session. Hook needed energon replacement, which he was currently getting.
Disaster acknowledged his presence with a nod. "How's Hook?" he wanted to know.
"Okay. He'll be back tomorrow."
Nicholas chewed on his lip as he connected two circuits and then entered the connection into his notebook. "Where's Perceptor?" he wanted to know as he looked up.
"He and Skywolf are going over the power core for West Central again."
"But we inspected the core only two weeks ago!" Disaster said.
"As we did the power conductors," Nicholas reminded him and Disaster sighed.
They continued their work until a new interruption came in. It was Jill McKennan. She was carrying something looking suspiciously like coffee and sandwiches. Disaster hid his a grin as Jill pointedly placed the food beside Nicholas and raised an eyebrow. The dark-haired human looked up and straight into Jill's smiling face.
"How are you doing?" she asked as she looked over the dismantled proton accelerator main board.
"I can't say right now. I have to check the circuits and chips and all the connections. The cables, too. It'll take some time."
"Then you might take a little break before launching into this new challenge and eat."
Nicholas grimaced. "I don't have the time."
"You do," Skywolf's Interface partner told him firmly. "You look like hell and you haven't been seen in or around the mess hall for ages, not to mention anywhere else. And I bet if I ask any of the two here, they can't remember you taking a second off."
Disaster nodded seriously and First Aid concentrated on not smiling, though it would have been an impossible task.
"Drink your coffee or I'll tell Shan!"
That worked. Nick's face turned a slight pink and Jill gave a silent cheer. Everyone knew or strongly suspected that Nicholas was interested in Shanygn and Shanygn was returning the interest, but neither of them had yet made a first move. Jill had once talked with Kayla about it, but both had then decided to let the affair develop naturally. Both people were special. Shanygn's past made her special, though in a negative way, but her relationship with Rodimus gave her a position where she had to keep her mind on the job -- mostly because she had Rodimus as an Interface partner, who could be more demanding than a temperamental Midnight. And Nicholas, as Tornado's Interface partner, was not only what Jill thought could be called a mutant -- because of his extraordinary skills concerning technology -- but also someone who was either cooped up in a lab or on Mernan with his partner.
Whatever, the little threat had helped and Nicholas chewed on his sandwich, casting Jill a dark look, which she returned with a grin. Then she went over to the other three mainboards that needed checking. She grabbed one of them and placed it on the second, human-sized table in the back-up lab. It was next to Nicholas' office and nowhere near the test labs.
Nicholas shot her an inquiring look. Jill simply raised an eyebrow.
"I might hold a physician's title, but I know how to handle a screwdriver."
Disaster smiled as he watched Jill rummage through a drawer, coming up with the wanted tools. Then she set to work and Disaster was only mildly surprised by the professionality with which Jill undid the safety clips of the shell of the mainboard and started to go over the circuits. It was true, Jill was a medic, but living your life with robotic life forms for the last millennia had taught her about circuit boards.
Concentrating on the work at hand Disaster turned back to his own work, sometimes looking at Nicholas, who was multi-tasking right now: drinking coffee, chewing his sandwich and still working on the board. He grinned a bit.
* * *
Throughout the next two weeks, West Central's destroyed wing was rebuilt, the armored walls were added and the power core was installed. Metroplex went through the first test routines. Nicholas was not present, even though he had protested loudly, but Disaster and Perceptor had told him all about it. Nicholas had gone back to checking already completed work for small errors and watching the whole hook-up and connection operation through an on-line camera. He was miffed about this caution. He had even tried to convince Tornado to go there with him phased inside the Seeker, but Tornado had told him in quite clear words what Nicholas would not go near any part of West Central in any state.
West Central was under guard and special care was taken of the power core room. Rodimus allowed himself to relax just a little bit now. Kup was still working on finding the saboteur and he was slowly getting a lead. He hoped it was a good lead and that they would soon find out who had done this and why.
Rodimus sighed. Otherwise there would always be the danger of the saboteur striking again and again.
* * *
Nicholas had really fallen asleep throughout his work. When he woke, his head resting in an uncomfortable position on the desk, it was close to 9 a.m. Cursing himself for sleeping so long he got up. He took a quick shower and then went down to the kitchen in this part of the humans' quarters in South Port.
"Mornin', Nick. You look dreadful."
Nicholas grimaced. Just who he had been looking for as breakfast company. "Morning, Jill." He accepted a cup of coffee from Kyle who was manning the coffee machine and oven and settled down on a chair, feeling tired and still sleepy even after the night's rest.
"How's work proceeding?" Jill asked conversationally.
"Pretty good." Nicholas stirred his coffee, debating whether to have breakfast or not. He settled on not. "I'll be back in the office after this breakfast. I'm not allowed anywhere near West Central and all I do is diagnostic work from a distance. Rodimus' orders." He grimaced.
"You call coffee breakfast?" Kyle raised an eyebrow. "You are working too hard, Nick."
"This is important."
"I know it is, but you've been working on Mernan like a mad man to get all systems up, even though you had help, and now you are burying yourself in new work." Jill sighed. "Nick, a person can only hide for so long."
He gave her a sharp look. "Hide?"
Jill smiled around her coffee cup, then got up and walked away.
"What do you mean?" Nicholas called after her. He then turned to Kyle, who was just loading his plate with pancakes. "What did she mean?"
The medic shrugged. "If you don't know, I don't for sure." But the look in his eyes told otherwise.
Nicholas growled and took his own cup, leaving the kitchen. If she was trying to fix him up ..... bad luck! Then again..... He sighed. It wasn't that he didn't have an interest in Shanygn, but he somehow had no idea how to approach the alien woman. She was a lot like a human woman, but then again .... different. He knew there was a dark past behind her and that was why she was not responding to small attempts to get closer. Nicholas respected that and kept his distance, but it hurt the longer he did it.
Sighing, he opened the door to his office and surveyed his work; the work he had left after Disaster had nearly pushed him off to bed. Nothing had changed. Placing the cup on the work table he cracked his fingers. Back to work.
That was how Shanygn found him several hours late. Nicholas was bent over some gizmo or other, fully concentrating on the multitude of circuits in front of him. Shanygn looked around the office and shook her head. It looked like a bomb had struck --literally. One area of the floor was littered with print-outs, maps, diagrams and plans, the walls were equally covered with technical stuff, most of them colorful print-outs, and the work table was nearly breaking down under disks, reports and folders, as well as assorted technical gadgets. A small stack of disks tethered dangerously at the left corner of the desk.
Chaos, she decided. No other description for it.
Nicholas didn't hear Shanygn coming closer.
He jumped backwards, his chair hitting the floor, and he moved away as if she had just bitten him. His eyes were wide and she saw how blood-shot they were.
Nicholas blinked. "Shanygn!" he managed. "Don't do that! You nearly gave me a heart attack! Did no one never teach you to knock before entering a room?"
"Knock, knock," Shanygn said immediately, smiling, then placed the cup of coffee she had brought him onto the table where she found a small, unoccupied spot.
"What are you doing here?" he wanted to know, trying to focus on her. His eyes were burning from too little sleep and too much concentrated work again.
"Keep you company? You are on the missing persons list, you know."
"Uh. Aha." Inside his mind, Tornado seemed to chuckle, but it was hard to tell. He rubbed his eyes tiredly.
"Since when are you up?" Shanygn wanted to know.
"How long did you sleep?" Nicholas looked embarrassed and Shanygn nodded. "Thought as much. C'mon, Nicholas, let's give you some life back."
"I don't bite."
Nicholas wasn't so sure about that.
"Nicholas......" There was a definite warning in her voice.
"They won't fall into total disorganization without you," Shanygn told him forcefully, looking pointedly at the mess he called his office.
She grinned. "How about a sandwich?"
Nicholas looked at his watch. It was almost eleven! P.m.! "Okay," he surrendered, then followed Shanygn.
* * *
The shadow whisked through the main lab housing the new power core and took in what he saw. There were so many possibilities and he had to concentrate not to loose sight of the immediate goal at hand. He picked up one of the discarded tools and set to work at the cable. This was the last preparation he had to make before he could hit the main target.....
* * *
The power core sat snugly in its new room, connected to all vital systems as well as a control unit to monitor the currents flowing into it. Hoist had only hooked the power lines to one storage tank, ready to finish a complete hook-up the moment the power core was tested and ready for hundred-percent operation under all conditions. Perceptor was reading off the latest numbers and made notes on his note pad. Everything looked just perfect. As the scientist jotted down his last notes he suddenly heard a low, growling noise. He stopped, looked up from the screen he was reading and frowned at the power core. It was still running and nothing alarming showed, but the growling noise continued.
Then a light began to blink.
And another one.
The growling turned into an electrical sizzle.
An alarm went off.
Perceptor reacted automatically and lunged for the emergency shut-down controls. His hand hit the button marked 'Emergency' and the power core, glowing brightly, went dark. The low background noise of the operating machine died down, replaced by the sound of sparks and the distinct smell of something burning. Perceptor stared at the power core in shock.
Someone ran into the room. It was Hoist.
"What happened?" he demanded.
"I ... I have no idea....."
Hoist took a closer look at the machine, frowning. What has gone wrong this time? he wondered. And was it an accident or sabotage again?
Perceptor sat back in his chair. The power core control board was on his work bench as he went over it again and again. He couldn't really believe what he saw. Somebody had sabotaged it. And very subtly indeed. If Hoist hadn't hooked the storage unit up to it with full power, it wouldn't have exploded at all. But they had channeled a lot of energy into the power core and the faulty circuit had collapsed, feeding power from the storage unit into the transformation unit, thereby destroying the safety mechanism and nearly exploding it. It was pure luck Perceptor had been in the room and had noted the strange noise. It was pure luck no one had been hurt. And it was even more luck that the power core had only suffered a molten and scorched control board and nothing worse. Whoever did all this, he had a very good grasp of the mechanics of their equipment. That made Perceptor frown.
The scientist was slightly startled by Disaster's voice.
"Found something?" the combiner asked.
"I found the faulty part." He explained quickly and added that whoever sabotaged them, knew a lot about the workings of the new equipment.
"I don't like the sound of it," Disaster muttered. "What now?"
"I want to go over the spares and then have a look at the power core again."
Disaster nodded. "I'll take the spares. You can start with the core. That's much more important right now. Scrapper said they want to get the core room fortified by tomorrow." He didn't want to think of what hell would break lose if the containment field of the core malfunctioned for real. It would be a catastrophe. West Central and a good part of Cybertron would be gone.
Perceptor nodded and rose from his chair, leaving for West Central. Disaster grabbed the spares and went to his work area.
* * *
Alpha-Trion watched Ralyk move, coiling around him, flooding through the space of Vector Sigma like a tidal wave. It was agitated, unable to see what was going on and it drove it crazy.
-- They are here! -- it growled.
The answer was another hiss and the distinct feeling of failure to protect.
Alpha-Trion suddenly had a pretty good idea what might have happened and it left him with a cold feeling.
* * *
Coshoff felt uncontrolled anger rise inside of her. Again! Again they had escaped the death trap he had constructed. How could he have failed? Snorting and calming down by sheer force, he tried to think of a reason why his plan had gone wrong. Then again, maybe a close call was even better than failure.....
Rodimus Prime had ordered security to be reinforced around West Central, which left his target open and vulnerable. Good.
Maybe even better than planned.
* * *
Two days later the power core went on-line again and this time there were no further incidents. The core worked perfectly well and processed the raw energy into useable energon without problems. Disaster gave Skywolf a high five as the first areas of West Central were powered up.
Rodimus ordered security to be tightened even more and except for the normal incidents, nothing further occurred. But still, no one relaxed even for a minute and if possible, everyone worked even harder on finding out what might be sabotaged as well and who had done it.
Metroplex was about to be connected to West Central and would then get control over the new complex. He would be the brain of the base. There was still much more to be done before everything would be up, but everyone was on his best way.
* * *
He finished his last preparation, something that would keep the Cybertronians occupied while he made his retreat.
It was time to move.
He would be successful and panic would spread.
Panic and fear.
* * *
Nicholas rubbed his eyes, feeling immensely tired. The sandwich dinner with Shanygn had been ... a long time ago, he decided, unable to catch a clear thought. He hadn't slept much lately and this whole sabotage mess was getting more and more complicated. Who was next? Nicholas didn't want to see any of his friends killed by this mysterious saboteur. He frowned. Did he really want to kill them? All had been accidents -- accidents which could have been much worse but which had proven only to be harmful, not fatal. Maybe the person behind it all wanted to put them out of business for the time being, not kill them.
Perceptor and Disaster were talking about the technical problems they had. Nicholas listened with half an ear as he pondered the possibilities of whether they were a target to kill or a target to lay on ice for some time.
"Nicholas?" Disaster's voice let him return back to reality and he blinked.
"What did you say?" he asked, suppressing a yawn.
Disaster looked reproachfully at him. "You should sleep, Nicholas. You're dead-tired."
"No, I'm not."
"You worked nearly all night on the circuit charts."
"And I still have the containment field to check."
"You think somebody might try to sabotage the containment field?" Perceptor asked. Everything was closely guarded and security was up and running completely now.
"Right now I believe everything is possible. I'll set to work and get it done by tonight."
"No, you don't," a serious voice interrupted him.
Nicholas looked up and was faced by his Interface partner. Silver eyes bore into his.
"You are going to get some sleep now or I'll lock you in your room until you are finally awake enough to see a difference between a diode and a light bulb."
The dark-haired human sighed and slipped off the chair. "All right, all right. You are a pain in the behind," he growled.
"Thank you," Tornado answered pleasantly.
Nicholas shot him a look of pure acid, though it was a tired look. and trudged out of the lab. Tornado smiled and followed him, keeping a very close optic and an open Interface link on him.
Tornado had felt his partner's tiredness through the link and the exhaustion had translated into sudden tiredness attacks for Tornado. Finally he had made a decision to no longer stay out of Nicholas' life and act. Since he couldn't reach him through the link without getting a half-aware mumble or some dismissive 'later' comments.
"You are overreacting," Nicholas muttered.
Tornado watched him nearly walk into a human-sized water fountain and sighed. He shook his head and simply lifted the dark-haired human up.
"Ey!" Nicholas protested.
Nicholas gave him a startled look.
"Nick, you've been working too much lately," the Seeker leader said softly. "You need rest."
Nicholas sighed and settled back in the gentle hold. Maybe, just maybe, he had really worked too much lately.
"What day is today?"
The question startled him. "Huh?"
"You heard me," Tornado said. "What day is today?"
Nicholas wrinkled his forehead in a frown. "Uhm...." To be completely honest, Nicholas had no idea at all. He hadn't had much time to look at a calendar -- or a watch -- lately.
"And when did you last have a normal day, consisting of breakfast, lunch, dinner and a good night's sleep?" the robot partner went on.
"Uhm, I had all of it.... some time."
Tornado's silver optics grew very serious. "Nicholas, you are not a robot. You can't recharge like we do. You need nourishment and rest more regularly! You are destroying yourself. I'm worried...."
Nicholas shot him a quizzical and partly surprised look. He knew Tornado was not very outspoken concerning his feelings and whenever he said something like this out loud, it was serious. He sighed once more.
"Okay, I promise I'll get some sleep."
Tornado smiled a bit. <<Not only some. You have the next days off, my friend. I'll take care of that>> he sent.
Nicholas' protest died on his lips and he surrendered as Tornado added what he would do if his partner didn't comply.
* * *
Optimus Prime was in his office. It was late and he should be in recharge, but the work didn't do itself and throwing it into the waste disposal unit had been only a fleeting idea. Frowning at the reports he decided he hated politics. That was nothing new though. He had just gotten the latest reports in from Daniel and the situation on Earth was nothing to be happy about. It was slowly going from critical to catastrophically critical to maybe dangerous for everyone down on Earth and associated with the Cybertronians. Optimus had had many appeals from companies to reestablish trade links, but without a base on Earth, he was reluctant to do so. And, as mentioned before, it was dangerous for both parties involved.
He sighed. The work wouldn't do itself and he had a meeting scheduled with Rodimus on Nebulos matters. He better get going.
Several hours later he was done. At least with the box marked 'In'. His 'Out' box was full and ready to get sent off. Optimus' optics fell on a third box and a small grin stole over his face. It had been Rodimus' 'gift' after Optimus had silently cooked and steamed because of some stupid trade deal where no party was coming or going anywhere. It was a box like the other two and marked 'Unnerving. Do later'. Currently it contained the companies' appeals, which still hadn't ceased. He had time to deal with it later, as it said. And it was true.
Leaving his office, the Autobot leader walked down the corridor, deep in thought. He nodded at passing Cybertronians who gave him a short greeting, but he never stopped to talk. If he got caught up in a discussion here, he'd never get to his meeting. Because he was so deep in thought, Optimus didn't realize he was followed. He left the command staff wing of South Port and crossed the inner yard, then entered the other wing of the complex from the backside. The doors closed behind him.
..... and something was wrong.
The doors had been open for longer than it had taken him to pass through and go out of range of the sensors. Someone was with him.
Optimus turned and discovered a tall robot just behind him. No one else was around since most of the attention was currently focused on West Central and South Port was undermanned, and especially without its normal security. But that had been no reason for a concern. The complex was well-secured....
The stranger closed the distance and Optimus discovered that it was one of the lately resurfaced Decepticons, though he didn't know him by name.
And he never would either.
Something glinted in the light of the corridor.
Optimus tried to dodge the blade, but the other one was incredibly fast, faster than he should be by any laws of gravity.
The blade struck the Autobot leader, going through the armor, severing circuits and tubes as it twisted inside him, then started to burn. It slashed sideway and cut a deep wound into him. Optimus' optics flashed in surprise and then pain, locking on the emotionless features of the Decepticon.
How.... how had he been able to be so fast?
He gasped in pain as his circuits finally relayed the pain and he collapsed. The stranger let him crash to the ground, smirking slightly. He then got out something looking like a detonator and placed it on the wall.
"Time to say good-bye," he told Optimus, who had his hands pressed against the bleeding wound in his abdomen. The Decepticon had known exactly where to strike to hit the energy pump and every beat deprived Optimus of the vital energy.
"Who are you?" he rasped.
With that the red and golden robot turned to leave -- and stopped.
"Firebird!" Windraider exclaimed, her hands flying to her mouth in shock. She stared at the severely wounded Optimus Prime, then at the robot she had thought was her friend.
Firebird smiled darkly and materialized his gun. Optimus struggled weakly, but he was unable to move an inch. Firebird aimed at the female and pulled the trigger before she could react. The blast tore through her lightly armored body, tore off her wings and threw her against the corridor's wall.
"No!" It should have been a scream, but it was only a weak whisper. Optimus stared at the dying female Decepticon in horror. Windraider's crystal optics flickered and she was bleeding copiously. Her hands twitched and she looked at Firebird, unable to comprehend what he had just done.
The Decepticon stowed his gun and turned to Optimus Prime. "Time to go now. It was nice meeting you."
"Who are you?" Optimus whispered.
The Decepticon smiled cruelly. "You really want to know?" He knelt down beside the dying robot. "Of course you do."
And he touched his forehead.
Optimus screamed in agony as something cold and slimy invaded him, tore through his mind. White-hot pain raced through him and his circuits screamed as they were overloaded by an energy he didn't know. He thought his memory circuits were bursting and something slipped into his body.
"Yes!" he heard the other one whisper. "Tji."
The Matrix revolted, first recoiling, then fighting back, pushing the invader away. And then the robot let go of him. The evil presence withdrew and left him alone. Weak and dying.
Optimus could only see Windraider, whose energon was pooling around her. Her optics flickered one more time, then died. He cried out in anguish, but no sound could be heard.
* * *
Tornado had really made sure Nicholas was no longer in any way involved with West Central, getting only a report here or there so he had an idea what was going on. And Nicholas had to confess he felt better. He was more alert, he didn't need three attempts to focus from a diagram on a cup of coffee and his eyes were no longer either blood shot or underlined by dark rings. But with more free time for everything beside work, he also started to think more seriously about his private life. He evaded it by hanging around the other Interfaces. Right now Nicholas stood together with Kyle, who was discussing some kind of new method for repairing fuel-pump damage without hooking the Cybertronian in question up to an outside feed throughout the whole operation. Nicholas was fascinated by the new theory and idea and he knew Kyle would want to try it one day.
"Hey, are you listening?" Kyle asked and waved a hand in front of his eyes.
Nicholas blinked. "Hm?" he muttered, dragging his complete attention back to his friend. "Oh, yeah."
Kyle shook his head with a grin. "I know you are not into reading stuff and learning it, Nick, so tell me if I'm boring you."
Nicholas shook his head. "You aren't. I was just .... distracted."
Kyle frowned. "Stress again or Interface problems?"
"Neither of the two," the dark-haired engineer laughed. "Tornado finally came to terms with this 'condition' and we've been working on it ever since. No problems. The workload is moderate as well -- thanks to my partner."
Kyle laughed. He knew what Tornado had done. "Then what?"
"Oh, nothing really. Listen, ah... I've to check something." With that he walked off.
Kyle shook his head with a grin.
Nicholas walked along the corridor, his mind for once not puzzling about an engineering problem. It was something else; well, someone else, to be more precise. It was Andrea Shanygn, Rodimus Prime' Interface partner, a good friend for many years and .... He tried to force down the feelings rising inside of him. Why? he asked himself. Why now? He had known Shanygn and worked with her for years and all the time she had been nothing but a very good friend! He had thought about trying to start a relationship, he had to confess, because she was an attractive woman and he loved her sense of humor, her whole person, but he had always told himself that since she was Interfaced she was as immortal as Rodimus was and the relationship would end with him dying and leaving Shanygn behind. Now he was Interfaced as well -- for quite a time now -- and a relationship was likewise impossible, at least with a non-Interfaced woman. But Shanygn was Interfaced.
Nicholas sighed and tried to concentrate on something else, like the latest report. It was hard, but he managed.
* * *
Ralyk screamed in pain and rage.
Alpha-Trion was slammed hard against the wall of Vector Sigma's world, his ectoplasmic body nearly ripped apart by the enraged entity.
And Ralyk moved.
* * *
Shanygn wasn't blind and she wasn't insensitive. She had noted the changing relationship between Nicholas and herself, and she had to confess that she was pleasantly surprised by it. But her mind told her that there was no chance for a relationship with anyone. It wasn't because of her Interface; it was her handicap. The implanted exo-skeleton gave her a greater freedom than the full-body suit ever had. She could go without the suit for a long time and even if it was for days, she could still move, though with less grace, and, most important, live. But it was still there and it still meant she was handicapped. And she had never had such a relationship before -- because of the exo-skeleton and because her own kind had thought of her as a nothing but an invalid, not an individual, a woman who had dreams and desires.
Now someone was interested in her.
For the first time.
Shanygn bit her lip, deciding it was time to face this. She entered Nicholas' office and really found him there. He was shuffling papers in an absent-minded quality. A lot had happened lately and he had gone back to work despite Tornado's protests.
Shanygn knew she had to talk to Nicholas. They had to get this out in the open and clear it before it became really serious and before Nicholas was too much distracted from his work.
Isn't it already serious, girl? she asked herself and dreaded the answer looming just behind the question.
"Hi, Nick, got some time?"
He jumped up, staring wild eyed at her. His chair hit the floor again, bouncing twice. "Shan!"
"Oh, forgot: knock, knock...." She grinned.
He smiled. Shanygn shivered a bit as she saw the smile. It touched her deeply.
No, no, no, it can't be! she told herself. It would never work! But she couldn't deny a certain attraction. A definite attraction. She tore her eyes away from him.
"I think I'll come back later," Shanygn said quickly, deciding this had been the dumbest of all her ideas ever. And Rodimus would probably agree if he got wind of it.
"No!" he exclaimed, holding her back. "I'm fine, really. Why did you come here?"
Shanygn felt something tickle along her skin as he touched her and their eyes met again. There was no denying a definite attraction to the human. He wasn't of her kind and Shanygn didn't even mind. She no longer thought of herself as a member of her race and family after they had abandoned her, declared her as a inferior because of her handicap. And their races were not so different, if looked past her light blue skin color and dark blue hair.
"Because...." she tried, her voice suddenly desperate. "Nick, I know there is something and it ... I don't think we could...." She was at a loss, looking into his grey eyes, his compassionate expression.
"I think I understand," he said and she heard how he tried to keep his hurt feelings out of his voice.
"It's not because of you!" she added quickly. "It's because of me! I could never start a relationship the way you want it!"
"They way I want it?" he echoed slowly.
Shanygn managed not to blush too deeply and she looked away. "Nicholas, I'm dependent on an exo-skeleton!" she stuttered.
"But I don't care!" he exclaimed. "A relationship is not based on ... on ... you know... alone!" He shook his head. "Shanygn, I love you for what you are, not because I think we would be great together! I'm not that kind of person!"
"I didn't say that," she answered, feeling a bit insecure. "But I know that bodily attraction is involved as well and would result in .... frustration soon."
Nicholas met her eyes. "I think we can work that out in time," he told her. "Just give it a chance!"
Shanygn swallowed. "I just mean..."
"I know. Please give it a try?" he asked softly.
"What if it doesn't work?"
"Then we'll part as good friends."
Shanygn nodded. "Just give me time to get used to it," she said. "This is so new for me...."
Nicholas smiled. "Of course. Uhm, listen, how about dinner? I mean, real dinner. Not just sandwiches."
Shanygn grinned. "Sure."
Rodimus grinned and felt like making a scratch somewhere. Finally! Finally Shan and Nick had started to pursue their relationship and it was the best that could happen to his Interface partner.
[It's about time!] he sent her way.
Embarrassment flooded back. Everything had leaked through the shields and he felt her strengthen them.
[Took you long enough] he added gleefully and Shanygn sent the feeling that she'd love to strangle him now. [For a human, at least] Rodimus chuckled.
Shanygn kicked him out.
And then suddenly something burned into his chest, erasing all his happy thoughts and satisfaction he felt that Shanygn had finally made a first step. Rodimus gasped, doubling over, falling against his desk. His hands reached out to stabilize himself and he nearly slipped off. Another wave of agony passed through him and it felt as if someone had just impaled him. Rodimus' blue optics flared as he recognized where this feeling was coming from.
He was out of his office and racing down the corridor before he could even think about doing it.
* * *
Perfect execution of his plan, Coshoff thought pleasantly. No problems at all. The Autobot leader was dead and if he played his cards right, it would launch an avalanche of fear and disorientation. He only had to get off the planet now and get in contact with Ath'antheia. The Tji armada could attack now. Cybertron would soon be ripe for the taking. He was almost at the space port when he was suddenly facing a complication. A dark blue and black complication who stared at him with burning red optics.
"Hello, Coshoff," Nightmare said pleasantly, though his voice was icy. "Want to play?"
* * *
On Earth, things had stopped boiling at a certain point and Daniel was glad to finally be able to come up for air. He had more family time and it helped him get his bearings back. Not that there wasn't any work to do. There was tons. It never seemed to cease.
On Nebulos, the work never ceased as well, but there was no breathing space for either of the medical team. Chaos was working non-stop on finding a cure, trying to be oblivious to the death around her. But it was impossible -- especially since the two separated Headmasters reminded her of it every time they met. Chromedome and Highbrow were taking it well, from a medical point of view, but their emotional condition was undecided. And their biggest problem was Hardhead. He was MIA and no one had an idea where he might have gone to. Every team out in the field had been alerted and they were keeping an eye open. Chaos knew she had to treat Hardhead soon or it might be too late. If the contamination of Duros started to affect Hardhead's mind....
He might go insane.
Another, smaller problem was Brainstorm. He was the only one still unaffected and as it seemed, there were no changes happening at all. Brainstorm had been injured in the battle over Nebulos, but his armor had not been breached. Nothing had leaked into him and subsequently Arkana was not dying. Brainstorm was feeling guilty -- a survivor's guilt. He saw his friends die and he continued to live unaffected. It drove him into working harder, helping where he could and generally taking less care of himself. Chaos was doubling as a nurse maid for him as well and it ate at her. The Technobots were doing what they could to lighten her load of work, but she was the medic around here. She had the expertise in Nebulan medical problems and her Nebulan staff was dying.
Trciza was helping as best as she could but her condition was now declining. She had had a longer incubation period, as it seemed, hinting that the contamination was truly more or less a genetically preprogrammed virus attacking the victim, but now she was suffering with the same speed.
The door to the container opened and Strafe walked in. He looked so serious that Chaos' mood sank two more points. She turned away from her logging work at the computer, bracing herself.
"We have some more patients," Strafe told her. "Needlenose found them. Humans."
"What?!" she exclaimed.
Strafe nodded. "Looks like they broke through the barrier, landed here and tried to buy mining rights and all from the surviving Nebulans. They even promised taking them off planet.
"Gods...." Chaos muttered.
"We are bringing them in. All have been infected and they are in various stages of contamination. I've to call Magnus and tell him he can stop searching."
"They knew there was a private ship here?"
"They had detected the exhaust trails and had started a planet sweep. Before they could lock down the coordinates, Needlenose stumbled over them. Their guide, a Nebulan, was relieved to see him," Strafe explained.
"I can believe that," Chaos muttered. "They are here now?"
"Almost. About an hour away. I prepped a separate container. We can't get them off-planet because it might spread."
"I know." Chaos sighed. "Any idea where they are from?"
"Evans Mining Co," Strafe told her. "Big company on Earth with a dozen sub-companies. I guess Optimus is going to have word with Mr. Evans....."
Chaos nodded. "Let's leave that to him and concentrate on our new guests. Do you already have scans of their bodies?"
Strafe gave her a small file Needlenose had sent him and she set to work. They started to go through the routine and were soon quite busy.
* * *
Kyle was in his lab, working on some of the Nebulos files Windraider had asked him to review. He switched on the main lab's computer and called up his files. As he read over the latest entries from Pipes and Windraider he felt a strange warmth emitting from the terminal. He frowned. Maybe something had broken. He shoved back the chair and then knelt on the floor, tying to get the panel off. The surface was too warm for normal operational heat.
"What the ...?"
The pain came all of a sudden. It ran up and down his body like liquid fire and Kyle screamed. His whole body seemed to glow and the pain was unbearable. An invisible force hit him and he was thrown through the room, connecting with the opposite wall. The wind was knocked out of him and he went down, gasping for air, unable to breathe for a second. Half conscious he lay on the floor, coughing and wheezing.
Jill McKennan, alerted by the scream, stormed into the room A strangled, pain filled gasp made her flinch.
"Kyle!" she called, running over to the blond man and kneeling down beside him.
Kyle's eyes were closed and he was breathing heavily. When Jill touched him Kyle whimpered.
"Kyle?" she asked.
"Jill?" he croaked. His eyes opened and Jill saw the pain he was in. Kyle licked his lips and inhaled deeply, wincing again.
The door opened abruptly and Voodoo stormed in, his normally subdued patterns swirling wildly. His optics were visible behind the mask-like visor that covered most of his face and gave him an unreadable expression. Not so now.
"What happened, Kyle?"
"I ... I don't know." Kyle tried to sit up, but managed it only when Jill gave him a helping hand. "I feel like I ran into a wall. I wanted to access the file concerning our Nebulos research but suddenly ......." He shivered. "I'm not sure," he whispered, cradling his arm in his lap. "Something burned."
Voodoo knelt down beside the two humans, clearly agitated. Jill knew the two partners were linked now because Kyle showed signs of quieting down. Then she noticed Kyle's hand and grabbed his wrist. Kyle ouched and tried to pull his hand out of her grip, but the white-haired woman held on.
"Damn," she muttered and examined the hand. It was covered with first and some second degree burns. Kyle winced when she turned it to get a better look.
"We should get this cleaned up. You got some nasty burns there."
"I am a doctor," Kyle muttered. "I can take care of it.".
"Now you are the patient. I'll call med bay," Voodoo decided, sounding a bit shook up.
Kyle stared at his right hand as if he saw it for the first time. It didn't hurt now, but it sure would later. And it had hurt - everywhere - when he had touched the computer. The computer! He stood up abruptly and swayed a bit, his body aching everywhere. Jill steadied him.
"Easy there! That was one nasty collision you had."
"We'll check it. Come on, let's get that burn cleaned up and bandaged."
Voodoo gave Kyle a little push and the medic walked over to where the first aid kit was, followed by Jill who expertly gave the injury a first treatment. Voodoo contacted security.
* * *
Rodimus was the first to arrive in the corridor and what he saw made his fuel pump miss a beat. Windraider, the slender female Decepticon, lay in a pool of her own energon, most of her mid-section missing, her crystal eyes dead. Optimus lay not far away, equally bleeding, but his optics were still flickering, showing signs of life.
"Optimus!" Rodimus gasped, feeling the Matrix space contract in shared pain. He stumbled a bit.
First Aid was only a short distance behind him and immediately knew he had his job laid out for him. He pushed past the young commander and knelt down beside Optimus. First Aid had seen with one professional glance that Windraider was beyond help.
That was when Rodimus saw the small device attached to the wall. It gave off a low beeping sound and there was a number display, with the numbers steadily growing smaller. From the rate the numbers declined ... zero was about to approach!
"What the....? Great Cybertron!" He whirled around. "First Aid, no time for anything! Get him out of here! It's a bomb!"
First Aid's head came up and he stared at the younger Prime, then acted. The problem was, Optimus was pretty big and heavy. He couldn't carry him out.
"On my trailer!" Rodimus commanded and transformed.
First Aid managed to lift the heavy body, then dumped it on Rodimus trailer. Rodimus shot out of the corridor, nearly running over Kup who had come racing here as fast as possible.
"Bomb!" Rodimus yelled. "Go for cover!"
Kup's optics flew from the badly injured Optimus Prime on Rodimus' trailer to First Aid racing after the younger leader and made his decision a split second later. The corridor burst into flames, the wave of hot air washing over them. The other Protectobots took care of the situation the second they arrived while Rodimus simply raced back to South Port, closely followed by First Aid.
* * *
Nightmare had come to Optimus Prime's office to talk to him about a doorway problem, but had found the office empty. Since the Autobot leader had already locked everything down, he had departed for the day. Nightmare had briefly considered what to do and then asked Blaster to track down the Autobot leader. Blaster had come up with Optimus' position a second later and Nightmare had set out after him. This was important and Optimus had to know.
And then he had seen the shadow. He had immediately known something was wrong. There had been accidents lately and rumors about sabotage had surfaced. Nightmare didn't know whether or not they were true, but mysterious shadows sneaking along corridors were not something to take lightly. And he didn't like it that the shadow was in the same corridor as Optimus Prime.
Nightmare was too late to prevent the assassination attempt and the Assassin inside of him had to confess that the robot had executed the hit nearly flawlessly. He had even gotten rid off the witness. What he hadn't done professionally was his retreat. He was gloating and as he heard the voice and the words, he knew who and what he was facing. Nightmare had followed the Tji to a place where he could take him out without a problem.
A Tji. And his name was Coshoff. Nightmare knew Coshoff, a ruthless warrior whom he hadn't liked while he had been on the space station. Coshoff had been a bodyguard then and had hated the robot life forms with all his heart. Nightmare had ignored him because he had had his own problems with his rebirth and what the Veneran expected of him. He couldn't ignore Coshoff any longer.
"Nightmare," the Tji hissed.
"So you recognize me. Good. How did you get in here?"
"I used a shuttle flight," Coshoff replied pleasantly.
And then he attacked.
Nightmare was surprised by the strike that nearly hit him. The movements of his enemy were near to perfect! There was a definite grace behind them, a grace only an Assassin could master after years of training. Nightmare was nearly too surprised to dodge the attack. How could Coshoff have been so fast? Tji couldn't master a robot body like this.... could they? And why had no one ever detected him? Why had Ralyk not felt the Tji presence? Come to think of it -- why did this body shell look so normal? No gray film over the skin, no dead optics, no robotic movements.
Something had happened and Nightmare didn't like it.
And Coshoff attacked again. Again Nightmare was just barely able to get out of the way of the strike, which had been aimed at his head. But he couldn't evade the next blow which hit his mid-section. He staggered, evading another blow, but getting hit by the next. Nightmare growled and decided he had played punching ball for long enough. His foot shot forward, slamming into the middle of Coshoff's chest. The fiery red robot staggered back, dark red eyes glittering in a cold, silvery fire. Nightmare looked at him in amazed silence.
The fight dragged on, with neither of them gaining any ground. Coshoff was good and Nightmare was still a trained Assassin, but he was also under time pressure. Optimus was dying not too far away and though Nightmare had called help, he knew he had to take out the Tji quickly. Suddenly something seemed to flow into the open field where their battle was taking place; something incredible old and powerful.
Coshoff gave a gasp of surprise and retreated from a bruised and dented Nightmare, looking not so good any longer himself. Ralyk growled and materialized into what seemed to be a bluish-white cloud of energy.
-- You! -- it roared.
Coshoff looked around in panic, unable to think of what to do next. He felt the anger and the rage Ralyk projected and moved back, instinctively afraid of the ancient entity. He knew what Ralyk was and what it could do.
-- You have done enough -- Ralyk hissed.
"If you kill me, you will kill this robot as well!" Coshoff yelled, voice wavering a bit.
Nightmare stared at him. Did he mean that the personality of this poor shell was still active? Great Cybertron.....!
-- You already killed him, Coshoff --
-- He is dead --
"He is alive and sees and feels all I let him!" the Tji cried. "And you will kill him if you touch me."
-- I know --
Nightmare felt cold inside at the words, but he knew there might not be another way. The Tji had to be inside the robot's body, tightly lodged everywhere to exert control in such a perfect manner as he had shown, and to remove him meant to destroy the body shell so it was completely unusable for him. And destroying it also meant the robot's death.
Coshoff moved back again but Ralyk followed him. "You can't..." the Tji stammered.
-- Watch me! --
And with that the cloud moved.
Nightmare averted his eyes as the entity struck but he couldn't close off his audio sensors to the terrible scream.
Ralyk's anger knew no boundaries as it charged and penetrated the robot's body. It encountered shields, surrounding the Cybertronian's core like a steel wall, keeping him locked up in a small room, frightened and horrified at what had happened. The Tji rolled back from the angry mass. Ralyk knew it had to help the Decepticon to free himself from Coshoff's control, but with Coshoff still in the body, it would destroy the robot mind immediately. And getting the Tji out.... Ralyk shuddered. It had no other choice. There was only one way to help him.
-- Forgive me, child --
The entity lashed out with its mental energy, destroying the first shield while also crushing and burning the body shell. Coshoff shuddered, unable to either stop Ralyk or leave. He was trapped in this body because he had to pull himself out of the restraining metal first before he could flee. Again and again Ralyk attacked him until the last shield splintered and broke. Every time the robot self shuddered as well, feeling the pain of the attack. And then his self was free, free to come back to the world around him. A world of pain. The shields had kept the pain away from his sensor centers, but now those signals were free to travel, zeroing in on his mind.
Firebird screamed, but for the first time since his possession he was free and he savored this feeling, short as it would be for him. He would die. He realized this with a start, but also with immense relief. He would die, but his body would not be under control of this monster anymore. He had hurt so many, had done so much damage, that the guilt had nearly crushed him in his prison. And Coshoff had taunted him, laughed at the horror the Decepticon had felt, and he had let him be prime witness to all deeds, unable to intervene.
Then Coshoff had attacked Optimus Prime, nearly killing him. He had savagely entered the Autobot leader's mind, ravaging it, hurting the dying robot even more, and he had killed Windraider.
Firebird sobbed as the events all came back. Yes, he was glad he was dying now too. He had been so weak..... so incapable of preventing all of this from happening, he didn't want to live anymore. He wouldn't be able to live with the guilt.
-- It was not your fault -- Ralyk's gentle voice suddenly touched his mind. The touch took away the pain and he winced as only understanding surrounded him.
-- You had no control --
-- You never had and never would have had --
He stared at the entity in awe, unable to speak. "Who are you?" he finally stammered.
Ralyk showed him and Firebird gasped.
-- You will not die --
-- Your body will perish, as will your mind, but in a way you will live on -- it told him softly.
Then it left him, taking with it the pain.
Something heavy hit the ground and Nightmare turned back again, he saw the smoking remains of a once healthy body. The optics were still alight, though.
-- Coshoff is dead -- Ralyk said with satisfaction.
Nightmare walked carefully over to the dying robot shell -- now back under control of its real owner. He knelt down.
"You are Firebird, right?" he asked softly, finally remembering where he had seen this Decepticon before.
"Yes," was the weak answer. "Thank .... you .... for ... releasing me."
Nightmare felt his fuel pump miss a beat at the words. "We can save you...."
"No. Can't. Fail safe. Dying," Firebird whispered, coughing. "Changed ... me. Prevent it.... from .... happening again. Promise!"
"I promise," the former Decepticon Assassin vowed sincerely.
Ralyk hovered over them and gently stretched out a tentacle.
-- Child -- it whispered.
Firebird stared at Ralyk. Nightmare saw the energon that was his life bleed away and felt helpless.
Ralyk touched the mutilated shell and then the Decepticon died. Nightmare bit his lip. It was over..... but then again, it had only just begun.
* * *
Everything was quiet and peaceful, filled with soft light and vague, relaxing sounds. He felt at peace with himself, though memories surfaced which disturbed him sometimes; memories of a war that should not have happened. But they always disappeared just as quickly as it had come. He drifted back into the dream-like state of his existence. Then something jerked at him, dragging him slightly away from where he had found his resting place. Confused he tried to find his stability and peace again. After a short time, which might have been eternity for others, everything grew calm again.
Hardhead stumbled through the ruined landscape, his optics glowing feverishly bright. He was unable to catch a clear thought, but he somehow knew he had to get away.
He had no idea.
Just keep on running; move; don't let them catch him. He was tired and he hurt, he was low on energon and he was confused, but he wouldn't stop. Now and then he slipped into strange moments of absolute peace, then he was once again assaulted by feverish dreams, by hallucinations, by spasms.
Hardhead no longer realized that the infection of Duros had spread to him.
He had no idea that the partnership to his Headmaster who had already slipped into a coma, was driving him insane.
He only knew that no one would ever get him.
* * *
Rodimus paced the room and finally stopped when he heard Shan's exasperated cry in his mind. He turned his optics back to the examination room again, which was currently occupied by Optimus Prime. First Aid was checking him, repairing the extensive damage done to Optimus' body. Shanygn was leafing through an age-old magazine one of the human doctors had left here once. It was all they could do: wait.
Finally the door opened and First Aid stepped out, his face a mask of weariness and worry.
"How is he?" Rodimus immediately asked.
"Physically he is nearly fine again. I replaced the energon, repaired the ripped-up energon pump and reconnected the obliterated circuits. But that's not the real problem here. I'm more worried about his lack of response to any outside stimuli."
"He's comatose, Rodimus," the medic said softly. "I don't know what happened to him, but his current condition is not natural. It is artificial and I think he has done it himself. He has retreated into what he thinks is safety: a coma."
"Coma....." Rodimus stared at him. "Can we get him out of it?"
"I'm not sure. I have yet to find a way to get to his consciousness and every outside force we used had the same result: none at all." First Aid shook his head. "He will come out of it eventually, but I can't say how long it might take."
"Thank you, First Aid," he and when the medic was gone, he cursed loudly.
Shan lifted one corner of her mouth into a smile as she heard the string of unprintable words.
"What has happened to him?" Rodimus finally exclaimed.
"I think I can answer that," a deep voice said and the young commander whirled around. Nightmare stood in the doorway to the med bay, looking a bit singed and scratched, but not really too badly so.
"What happened to you?" he exclaimed.
"Not what ... who. Rodimus we have a critter problem."
"Roaches?" Shanygn asked, smiling despite the serious situation.
Nightmare had to smile as well. "No. Tji."
* * *
Ralyk felt satisfaction at Coshoff's death and devastation at Windraider's and Firebird's. They were innocent victims -- like so many -- and he had been unable to stop Coshoff from inflicting so much damage. Most of the damage had been repaired, but two lives had been taken and there was no way to resurrect them. And then there was the problem that Ralyk had not felt the Tji arrive. He had slipped through the protective shields! Ralyk didn't understand it and it would have to look into this more closely. In the meantime, the shields would be powered up and every new arrival would be scanned close enough to number his molecules.
Ralyk stretched out a tentacle and touched Firebird's dead body, currently locked in a secure room. It had to know how the Tji had done it before something similar happened again.
* * *
First Aid was at a loss as to how to get Optimus out of his coma. The longer the Autobot leader was under, the more worried the medic got. All systems were running just fine, but the mind was wrapped up tightly in protective shields against a long gone threat.
The Protectobot medic turned and looked into the worried blue optics of Rodimus Prime. "Nothing yet. I can only theorize about what the Tji did while he had contact to him."
"There has to be a way we can reach him!" Rodimus hissed angrily ....helplessly.
He wasn't worried by the sudden burden of leadership resting on him again; it was a deeper worry about his friend. He didn't care if everything suddenly crsuhed back down on him like it had decades ago when Optimus Prime had died at the hands of Megatron; he just didn't want him to end up as a comatose patient permanently.
"The Matrix," Shanygn suddenly said. "Y are connected through the Matrix. You could reach him through this link."
Rodimus stared at her as if this thought had never occurred to him. And it hadn't. Of course they were connected because he had felt Optimus' pain and his cry for help through the link that was now also his Interface link, but actually trying to contact him....?
"You did it before ... in a way," Shanygn went on. "You know the Matrix would react to your presence and would let you in. It's risky, of course."
"And the only way," Rodimus told her, nodding. "I want to try it. Optimus might not have another chance." He turned to First Aid. "Get a second bed in here. I'm going in."
First Aid looked like he wanted to say something, then he simply nodded.
[I'll be here to give you a beacon back] Shan said, her voice wavering a bit.
Rodimus smiled at her, summoning up some more optimism. [Thanks, Shan]
[Hey, what are partners for?]
* * *
Nicholas had come racing into med bay when he had heard about the assassination attempt and nearly collided with Nightmare as he entered.
"What happened?" he asked, out of breath.
"The Tji infiltrated Cybertron," Nightmare told him straight away.
"What?!" Nicholas stared at him, then his eyes flew over to where Shanygn sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed.
"Optimus got nearly killed," the large Gatekeeper went on. "They are currently trying to get him back. The Tji touched his mind." Nightmare then proceeded to give Nicholas the whole story as it had been pieced together so far. They still didn't know everything until they had interviewed Optimus, but Kup had found out enough.
Nicholas paled. "Anything I can do?"
"No, they already repaired the physical damage. It's the mind everyone's worried about."
"How did this Tji get in here?"
Nightmare's red optics shadowed. "I wish I knew."
Nicholas' brows drew together. "You still have the body?"
Nightmare looked at him. "What are you up to, Nicholas?"
The dark-haired engineer grinned. "Have a look at it. I want to know how this could have happened. Ralyk should have warned us about the Tji. It can sense them."
"I know that."
He smiled. "Of course you do. But how do you explain this then? I'm sure Ralyk didn't have a short-circuit or something. The Tji found a way to hide inside a robot body, keep the robot alive and then move among us without ever getting detected."
Nightmare looked over to where Shanygn was. She hadn't moved yet. He didn't want to leave her here alone since everyone else was in med bay. As if on cue, Kup suddenly walked in.
"Any news?" the old warrior asked, face drawn in worried lines.
"Not yet. Kup, could you have an eye on Shanygn while I accompany Nicholas down to the secure room?"
Kup's optics widened an inch. "What? What for?"
"Body check," Nicholas quipped.
Kup frowned down at the human.
"He is dead, Kup. He can't hurt me and I have Nightmare as back-up," Nicholas added patiently.
"And you want me to do what here....?" the security chief asked again, sounding wary.
"Watch Shan. She and Rodimus are linked but not Interphased," Nightmare explained to him. "Just keep her from keeling over or hurting herself."
"Hurting herself?!" Kup exclaimed. "What's she gonna do? Go spasmic on me?" He had never been totally secure around Interfaces and every time someone had phased or shown linking openly, he had felt freaked but had hidden it well. And that Rodimus had linked with such an Interface had spooked him completely.
"No. She might collapsed or suddenly jump up," Nicholas told him. "Just be there for her to get her bearings, to have a focus."
"All right," he grumbled and walked over to where Shan still sat motionlessly on the floor. He sat down beside her and shot Nightmare and Nicholas a dark look.
Nicholas only smiled, then gave Nightmare an impatient clap on the leg. "Let's go."
Nightmare followed him, muttering 'Work-o-holic'. He took over the lead and they went down to the secure room.
* * *
Rodimus was racing along a brightly lit tunnel and finally stopped inside what seemed to be a hall, lit in soft blue colors. He looked around and discovered that there were many different shades of blue, some so very light that they were almost white, others nearly black. He drifted through the room and tried to find a trace of Optimus. He knew he was inside the Matrix and he knew he had to search for a way from here to Optimus' mind..... It was so peaceful here, though sometimes he thought he could see dark, threatening shadows at the edge of his vision. Every time he turned, the shadow was gone, replaced by soft blue colors. This was the Matrix.... a part of the Matrix he had never entered before, but which felt familiar. The only time he had gone deep inside, willingly gone inside, there had been all kinds of colors, swirling in a maddening pace, then had flashed into a luminous tunnel where he had found the truth behind the Quintessons. Well, this certainly wasn't it!
Something seemed to pull at him and he drifted with it, not resisting. He was floating right toward one of the medium-blue patches -- and through! Rodimus blinked. This was definitely new and definitely not like his prior experience. This was unlike everything! He found himself in a dark, cave-like room. There were no blues anywhere. They wavered behind him like a living wall and that was exactly what they were: a wall; protection; safety. He looked around. No one was here except him. As he walked through the room it lit up wherever he went while the rest stayed dark. And then he saw him.
Rodimus held no doubt who the other figure in the room was, though he was far from his robot self. Optimus appeared more humanoid, less square..... and two blue eyes looked at him out of a pain-etched face.
"Optimus, it's me," Rodimus said gently and approached the lonely figure.
Optimus moved away and his body seemed to fluctuate, seemed to be inconsistent. "Stay away," he rasped.
Rodimus winced at the pain and fear in the normally strong and deep voice. "It's okay," he said calmly.
Optimus shook his head. "No," he whispered. "I can feel him.... he's still here."
"You feel the memory, but the Tji is definitely dead. Nightmare killed him."
Optimus moved away from him, shaking his head in denial. Rodimus felt anger rise inside of him. The Tji couldn't have touched Optimus longer than a second, but he had shaken him so badly that the Autobot leader didn't trust anyone anymore. Rodimus was reminded of Starscream and also of Sphere. The former Decepticon had gone AWOL after his experience, which he had survived, losing it; Sphere had been in a coma for over six months and she had changed considerably. True, both had been in Tji hands longer than Optimus, but the presence in their minds had been enough to change them.
How much had it changed Optimus?
"Op.... please," he begged. "I wouldn't be here if the Matrix hadn't let me in!"
The Matrix. It had protected Optimus from dying at the touch, but it had not been enough to deny the Tji access for those crucial seconds.
"I'm real," he said softly, pleadingly. "I came through the Matrix. You can feel the Matrix, can't you?"
Optimus hesitated and suddenly he started to tremble. "I ...can...." he managed.
"You can feel my link, I know it. You know that I'm real," Rodimus went on, his voice intense.
Anguished blue eyes locked with his. "Yes," was the rough reply.
The young Autobot approached his older friend and stretched out one hand. Optimus stared at him with a mixture of wary hope and the desperation to survive.
"Trust me?" Rodimus asked softly.
He held his breath as the figure shifted slightly.
Optimus hesitantly reached out for him.
Their hands met and Rodimus was suddenly flung back the way he had come. He was greeted by a whirlpool of sensations and emotions -- and memories.
The birth of Optimus Prime.
His passion to win this war.
His helplessness concerning the death of others.
His death at Megatron's hands.
Rodimus gasped as he was confronted with a lot of personal memories, also concerning him, and he tried to shut them out. This was private. This was nothing he should see.
His eyes widened as he was treated to a knowledge Optimus had hidden from him for years.
Optimus had been with them when Shanygn had relived her past; when she had shown Rodimus what had happened to her; when he had found out the truth.
Optimus had seen it all, felt it all, heard it all. He had been angry, in pain and desperate; he had suffered with them and felt Shanygn's relief at finally telling her partner about her past prior to Alean.
And he had never told.
He had shut up about something that had shook him down to his very core -- but he had never mentioned it. He had been pulled into this whirlpool of horror and hope by the Matrix link, unable to get out in time.
Rodimus felt Shanygn's presence, her calmness, her understanding.
[Not his fault]
[I don't blame him!] Rodimus protested, still holding on to Optimus' hand. "You never told!" he whispered.
"I couldn't," Optimus replied, sounding ashamed. "It was your personal life...."
Before Rodimus could say something, the blueness around them increased.
Suddenly everything subsided and he was left with only Shanygn's presence in his mind. It took him a second to get his bearings and then he sat up, his optics immediately drawn to the still prone body of Optimus Prime on the bed beside him. First Aid was fussing over the Autobot leader and looked up as Rodimus swung his legs out of the bed.
"He went back on-line," the medic told him, his voice heavy with relief.
Rodimus felt the same relief sweep through him. "How long until he is conscious again?"
"Not much longer," First Aid replied.
As if on these words, Optimus Prime's optics lit up and a tremor ran through him.
"Optimus?" First Aid asked.
Optimus struggled to sit and the medic helped him. "I'm okay," he coughed.
"Why don't you let me decide this?" First Aid asked gently. "You just sit here and let me do the work." He turned to get some scanners.
Optimus sighed and then looked at Rodimus. There was incredible, undisguised relief written over the younger Autobot's face.
"Good to see you back," Rodimus said with one of the smiles usually associated with Hot Rod.
Optimus smiled, the smile reflecting in his optics. "Thank you for your help."
Rodimus managed to look embarrassed, then got himself under control. "Uhm..... Since you are up again ... I think I'll get back to work. Somebody gotta keep this place up and running...." He slipped off the bed and left the room.
Optimus watched him, the Matrix pulsing softly in his chest, relaying to him what had happened in the short time Rodimus had been with him inside the alien construction.
The Autobot leader sighed softly. He had always known that one day would be the day it would be revealed, but he had hoped it to be different than this. Well, he had to talk to his second-in-command..... the moment he was out of here and had an idea what exactly had happened in the meantime!
* * *
It wasn't a pretty sight, Nicholas decided as he looked at the body in front of him. Firebird's skin had nearly all burned off, leaving the original color open to imagination. Firebird had not been set on fire, but he looked like it. His chest was fused shot and he showed severe bruises and dents from where Nightmare had hit him.
The secure room looked suspiciously like a pathology department to Nicholas. Okay, so it was a special room close to the main lab, but still.... He expected it to smell strangely and the greenish white room with the metal tables and the medical instruments didn't help lessen his imagination. Nicholas was an engineer, not a medic. Nightmare lifted him onto the table with the burned body and Nicholas sighed deeply. He had a lot of work to do and he wanted to start with the core unit.
"Okay, big guy, you gotta help me here," he told Nightmare. "I need to force the chest plate open."
Nightmare grimaced, but he assisted him. He opened the chest plate, burned skin flaking off, the metal creaking. Nicholas had stepped back a bit. When he had enough access, he went to work, Nightmare watching him and lending a hand now and then.
* * *
Though First Aid had insisted he should rest for some time, Optimus had left med bay and walked to one of the many conference rooms which had been turned into a mission control room of sorts. He checked on what had happened while he was out and in med bay, nodding as his people greeted him, welcomed him back. He told them all to send in the reports and then walked back to his office. As the door closed after him, he felt suddenly safer.
Optimus knew what had happened to him and it scared him more than he wanted to admit. The alien presence touching his mind for only a few seconds had inflicted such a core-deep horror that every time he thought about it, he felt his fuel pump clench. The Tji had been so cold, burning himself into his core, going through his mind like it was an open book..... Optimus clenched his hands into fists. Another presence in his mind .... feeling his emotions, reading his thoughts; it was frightening.
And every Interfaced robot experienced it. Rodimus experienced it on a daily level. Optimus shivered. He wouldn't be able to take it. Not like this. He had touched another mind long ago, a humanoid mind, and it had died seconds later. It had been terrible for him as well, but mostly because it had perished with him privy to its pain. At the time he hadn't known that it was still there inside him, as a program, which would later become Silhouette. At the time he had been crying for the dead mind which had saved his own sanity.
He was startled out of his thoughts and his head snapped up, optics widening as he saw Rodimus. He hadn't even heard him come in!
"Yes?" he asked, cursing his wavering voice.
"We need to talk," Rodimus said calmly.
Panic spread through the Autobot leader. He didn't want to talk. Not about that anyway and he knew that it was exactly what Rodimus had meant.
Damn, his voice was still unstable.
Rodimus looked seriously at him. "About what happened..... yesterday and some time ago."
Optimus was confused. "Some time ago?"
"When Shanygn nearly died," Rodimus said bluntly.
If it had been possible, Optimus would have paled. So he simply put on a mask. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said, voice rough.
Rodimus leaned forward, fixing him with a blue stare. "You do. You were here. I know that now. I pulled you with me and you saw it all, felt it all, heard it all."
"No...." Optimus protested.
"You were assaulted with her and my fears, anger and pain and you had no idea how to handle it: Especially since there were human emotions involved as well," Rodimus went on remorselessly. "I dragged you along because of our Matrix link. You couldn't get out without making your presence known, so you stayed. You suffered it all as well."
"Yes! It all happened and you never mentioned it."
Prime's optics became icy as he looked at his second-in-command. "Thank you very much, that would be all," he ground out, trying to dismiss Rodimus.
But Rodimus wasn't easily dismissed. They knew each other too well and he was too set on his task to get Optimus to talk to be impressed by his superior.
"No, it isn't. You have to face what happened!" he said firmly. "You always told me I've to face what I've become and I took this advice! Now listen to yourself!"
Optimus shook his head and evaded Rodimus' optics. He had buried this painful experience deep inside him, unable to process the load of emotional backwash. The Tji's touch had brought it back. All of it.
"I didn't want it...." he then said softly.
"I know. I don't feel like you spied on us, Optimus. I always wondered when my Interface might bleed through the Matrix link to you. In many ways, Shanygn is linked to you as well .... with me in between. You just never feel it."
Optimus stared at the desk, a shiver passing through him at the thought of being linked to another mind. He and Rodimus were partners through the Matrix space, but a human mind....? No!
"She can't actively reach you," he heard Rodimus' reassuring voice. "And she would never hurt you."
That made him flinch violently, giving Rodimus a good idea what was wrong.
"How deep did the Tji reach?" he asked, voice gentle but firm.
Again the optics became icy, dismissive. "None of your damn business!" Optimus said in such a low and dangerous voice that even Megatron would have been speechless for a second.
Rodimus leaned forward. "It's my damn business down to every little detail, Optimus Prime Sir," he replied with the same tone of voice, holding the icy stare. "You are the Autobot leader, I'm your second-in-command. It's my damn business to see you are in control of all your faculties and not likely to get a nervous breakdown at the slightest whiff of a Tji. You are responsible for a whole civilization here, leader! Of course there is the Council, but you are the Autobot leader. And don't tell me that's why I am Rodimus Prime. I am because of a stupid decision I made myself and I'm perfectly willing to sit back and watch and not take over." Rodimus would never do this and Optimus knew it, but that was beside the point. "You have been injured. You have been hurt. You are in pain even though you won't admit it." His optics bore into the older Prime's. "And I will stay here until you admit it!"
Optimus stared at him, the words 'I created a monster' racing briefly through his mind. This was a far cry from the insecure young Hot Rod he had appointed second-in-command over two decades ago. This was the person behind the facade of careless happiness Hot Rod had so valiantly tried to project to be what he had been before the Matrix had chosen him. This was Rodimus Prime and Optimus had to smile briefly.
"He went too deep," he finally whispered, touching his head. Even now he thought he could feel the slimy tentacles, probing, finding .... the triumph and superiority.
Rodimus knew the Tji had inflicted emotional damage because otherwise Optimus would not have gone comatose on them, but he also knew that these wounds had to heal fast.
"The Tji is dead. Nothing like this will ever happen again."
"I know," Optimus muttered. "But ... knowing and believing is two different things." He inhaled deeply. "I don't know how you can stand a presence in your mind," he suddenly said and Rodimus knew if they had not been alone right now, Optimus would not have opened up like this.
"You can't compare the touch of a Tji to that of a partner," Rodimus said firmly. "It doesn't hurt.... it doesn't invade.... it makes you more and gives you security. The Tji are not Interfaces. They demand, they take, they hurt. Optimus, you Interfaced for a few seconds.... did it hurt?"
Prime looked at him, startled. When he thought past the initial pain of losing the other mind because of the cruel experiment, he couldn't really say it had hurt. It had been unexpected .... a touch on his mind .... never invading. She had not read his mind, simply reacted to his nightmares..... kept him alive.
"No," he said hesitantly. "It didn't...."
"And it was an Interface. The Tji wasn't. He hurt you, Optimus, but the wound will heal," Rodimus went on. "You are strong enough to heal it. There will always be a reminder, but don't give in to it. It will hurt.... a lot of things hurt...but if you surrender, the Tji have won."
Optimus looked at his younger second, smiling slightly. Rodimus had gone through a lot since he, Optimus Prime, had returned, and he had only grown stronger. Optimus was used to pain and fear because of the war, but this new war had taken on a gruesome edge, demanding too many victims, hitting them so hard that without support, many would have faltered. Sometimes, when he was alone, Optimus felt the crushing effect of the events. It was then when he wished Aleeta were still alive, to talk to, to help him go through another day. But she was dead and he had buried her memory, trying to let it rest; let her rest. Still, he had people to help him. Rodimus understood him better than anyone and he felt free to let his guard slip around the younger leader. Rodimus knew what being Prime meant; he had carried the Matrix himself; he had gone through the same as Optimus. Prime was grateful that his second-in-command understood. And then there was Silhouette, who had touched his mind and continued to be a mental pillar of strength, helping him.
"Thank you," he only said.
Rodimus smiled, knowing what he meant. "And to keep your mind off it," he continued and grabbed a box off the floor, something he must have carried with him and Optimus hadn't seen as well, "here's the latest on paper and disk."
Optimus shot him a mock-annoyed look but Rodimus only grinned broadly.
"Gotta go and check on the progress in the lab!" he called cheerfully and then retreated quickly out of the office.
Optimus had to chuckle softly, then opened the box. Yep, that was enough to take his mind off anything for the next weeks!
* * *
It had been eight days now since Firebird's death and the attempt to kill Optimus Prime, and something akin to normality had settled in, but only on the outside. Rodimus Prime kept an eye on West Central matters and he was very relieved to see that everything proceeded so smoothly. Metroplex had been hooked up completely now and was running the computers through the routine, adding new programs and functions as they came along. Still, if there weren't some all-important decisions, then there were a ton of minor things to handle, and through it all his mind was still occupied with the Tji intrusion, going over it again and again. Shanygn had told him to give it a rest for some time until Nicholas was done with his investigations into the matter. He had been joined by First Aid now, both of them taking Firebird apart circuit by circuit.
Perceptor steered toward him like a hawk descending on his prey. Rodimus smiled politely.
"What can I do for you, Perceptor?" he asked.
"I need your approval for the construction of this new improved plasma energon converter," the scientist told him. "I have everything here that you need to see and ..."
"Thank you, Perceptor," Rodimus interrupted him, stopping the explanation of the intricate workings of his latest experiment. Perceptor, fresh off from working on the old power core, had already developed new ideas. Rodimus took the memo file. "I'll get right to it and tell you what I think."
He walked on, leaving a slightly baffled Perceptor behind, but right now he didn't care. Rounding one corner he nearly ran into Blaster.
"Hey, Rodimus!" the communications expert called cheerfully. "What's shakin'?"
Blaster and Soundwave were working in the Com Center in shifts, only manning it together when something needed thorough attention.
Rodimus smiled. "Hopefully not much in the near future," he answered and tried to walk past.
"While I'm seein' ya, there's still this matter with the new memory unit," Blaster reminded him and hurried after his commander. "You got our request file, right?"
"We need more capacity...."
Rodimus nodded. "I know, Blaster, I know. I'll get back to you."
"You got it."
Rodimus walked on to his office.
[Roddy?] a female voice echoed in his mind.
[What?] he asked, his voice reflecting more irritation than he had intended.
There was a short silence inside his mind, then Shanygn asked carefully, [Are you okay?]
[Yes, fine, fine]
[Too much work again? Everyone bothering you with their problems?] his Interface partner stated the obvious.
He sighed deeply. [In a way. Listen, Shan, I ....]
[Oh, I didn't want to disturb you, Roddy. I just wanted to tell you that I'm off to Earth to visit Mel and her family]
[Okay. Say hello for me]
[Will do. And, Roddy?]
[Get some time off, will ya? Relax, put your feet up, maybe even blow off some steam! You're grumpy!]
Grumpy? He groaned and opened the door to his office, retreating to its relative safety. As the door closed after him, it also seemed to close off a whole lot of problems -- but only for a few seconds. As he walked to his desk he found several personal messages on his answering machine and a stack of papers. Just perfect, he thought sarcastically.
Rodimus had just taken his place behind the desk when the door chimed. "Come in," he said, his voice reflecting the frustration he valiantly tried to suppress.
His visitor looked a bit curious as she entered. "Am I disturbing anything?" Silhouette asked.
"Hi, Sil," he greeted the female Dinobot, rubbing his forehead. "No, no, you are not disturbing anything." He gave her a smile. "But it was calmer around here while we had a saboteur on the loose than now."
Silhouette smiled back, but it didn't really reach her optics. Rodimus felt his energon pump shudder.
Silhouette knew Rodimus hadn't really approved of her choice to belong to Counterstrike, but he would never tell her what to do and where to go. He wasn't dictating her life, just trying to be part of it. That she had now been chosen to hit the Tji supply base made her proud but it would also let Rodimus worry about her. And he worried about everything else enough already. She sighed.
She had to tell him.
His reaction, after she had told him, was less explosive than she had thought, but his optics reflected his emotions. He didn't want to let her go there and get herself into danger, but he accepted it.
"Good luck," he said softly.
Sil smiled. "We'll pay them back for what they did," she vowed.
They looked at each other for a second, then Silhouette nodded and left. Rodimus looked at the closed door and sighed softly.
He hated this war.
And he knew he would end it ....one way or the other.
* * *
Optimus Prime looked at the well-dressed human on the vid screen, wishing he were here in person so he could strangle him. Then again, better not create an international incident.
"Your people are suffering late first stage and early second stage symptoms, Mr. Evans," he told the company boss calmly. "One of your men is already in a coma. They are all infected."
Evans' cheek muscle twitched. "I'm sending a shuttle to pick them up."
"You won't, Mr. Evans. Your people are in quarantine on the planet."
"You can't imprison them there!"
Optimus regarded him coolly. "You didn't have to send them there."
Evans glared at them. "There were no signs...."
"There are buoys all over the place and coming out of the warp gate you had to dodge several EDC vessels, who would have stopped you. The planet is under strict quarantine and it is broadcast on all frequencies, Mr. Evans. There is no way your men couldn't have known. You went there on purpose. We have a Nebulan witness who your men hired."
Evans snorted. "So sue me. By the time you get to court your witness is dead!"
Optimus' optics flashed dangerously. "And so will be your men, Mr. Evans. Was it worth it?"
Evans glared back, then terminated the connection. Optimus knew that the EDC was on to him, but they wouldn't be able to prove anything. He would wriggle out of it and his people were dying. There was no chance to get those severely infected humans off planet now. Spike had been a different case. He had fallen sick off planet and they had been able to contain the infection, though he was still dying.
Optimus sighed as he thought of Spike. First Aid and Disaster were working on something they had found in the files Midnight had retrieved; something called Protogen. It might be the solution for a problem Prime had seen coming from the beginning: Spike turning into a robot. Protogen seemed to be more, though it would still be an artificial body and still mainly metal. But different. Both scientists still had to discover what Protogen really was but Spike was willing to try it. If it worked, it might be a chance for Nebulos as well .... maybe the only one.
And they just had to be fast enough before every hope to resurrect the dying race was lost.
* * *
Nicholas typed up his report. His face was set in a concentrated mask as he did so. He was rather good at typing and fast -- unlike Kyle, who used the One-Finger-Search-The-Key-And-Hit-It system. Nicholas finished and saved it all on a disk, then pocketed it and left his office. He was almost too late for the meeting and he ran down the corridor.
He slowed down as he approached the conference room and he tried to get his breathing under control. He nearly ran straight into Tornado.
"You could have jumped," Tornado told him with a fine smile.
"That would be intruding, my friend," Nicholas replied, knowing fully well Tornado was a bit uneasy where phasing was concerned.
"You could have asked."
Stunned, he looked at his friend. Tornado had changed, he knew, but those changes were no longer subtle. Acceptance had banished the fear and Nicholas felt a bit relieved.
"Next time," he grinned.
He walked into the room and Tornado lifted him on the table. Part of the conference table was set deeper so the human taking part in a conference wouldn't be standing on the actual table top like a presentation. Only Rodimus, Optimus Prime, Midnight and Tornado were present. Megatron was off planet and would get a report.
"I finished the examination of Firebird," Nicholas started when the doors closed. "All the medical data is on this disk," he held it up, "and will be in your 'In' boxes by now. To make a long and complicated explanation short, the Tji altered Firebird's core unit. His personality was kept alive in a part of his core, giving him access to sight and sound, keeping the body shell alive. He wasn't in control, but he was there. The Tji had access to everything and had settled down in the body. That's why he couldn't body-hop."
Optimus' optics expressed what he felt. The Tji had still been able to leave enough to attack his mind.
"I theorize that through the still present personality, the Tji was shadowed from scans. Remember Twilight. He was joined with Jaimaa. True, it was on a molecular level and it was a voluntary bond, but it still hid her from scanners. Ralyk couldn't see the Tji until it really surfaced."
"I understand," Optimus said slowly. "What are the chances of more of those possessed and alive shells walking among us?"
"I can't say. I can't scan for them."
-- There are none -- Ralyk suddenly whispered.
Everyone in the room flinched. Their feelings toward the entity had changed massively and though it protected and helped them, neither trusted it completely. Not anymore -- but then again, no one ever had.
-- There never will be --
-- Ever again --
"How could it slip by you?" Midnight growled, making no secret out of his boiling anger toward the entity.
-- Coshoff hid well --
-- But they won't hide like that anymore --
-- I know the trick now --
"Good for you!" the Sentinel hissed.
"Which also means they will find new methods," Rodimus said slowly.
Optimus nodded. "Most likely. Is there any way to work on a protection for the core unit, judging from what you saw, Nicholas?" he then asked the engineer.
Nicholas frowned. "Maybe against sudden intrusion .... maybe ...... but not against someone tampering. They had Firebird for long enough to break him, I think. They worked out how to enter without killing him, pushing him back, then using the body. And sudden intrusions ..... we might protect the core but they will always be able to attack the mind."
Optimus flinched. Nicholas bit his lip as he realized what he had just said and mumbled, 'Sorry'.
"It's okay, Nick," Optimus told him calmly. "And I know what you mean, but we should keep this idea."
-- No Tji could ever take you over -- Ralyk whispered.
Optimus was glad it wasn't using the links or he would have screamed. His nerves lay still open and he knew that if something like Ralyk would try to touch his mind, he'd snap.
"But others they can!" Midnight hissed. "Too many of us are in their clutches, dead or held prisoner!"
-- True --
With that Ralyk departed. Midnight muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath.
"So what do we do now?" Tornado asked, speaking for the first time.
"Continue as planned," Optimus decided firmly. "West Central is operational, Counterstrike is ready and we have a list of targets. We strike back."
* * *
A wild, beautiful landscape stretched out to the horizon, with tall grass, far away mountains and the occasional boulder. A forest of strange trees stretched into the other direction. The trees were tall with a dark, nearly black bark. The leaves had a bluish tinge and were shaped like triangles. Among the wilderness sat an artificial structure. It had been a research lab once ..... before it had been taken over by Tji. They had turned it into a storage building, keeping supplies there, mostly spare parts -- but no imprisoned body shells. And even if there had been shells, they would be dead and blowing them up would be a release.
A shadow moved through the tall grass blades. It was a large reptile, the striped skin making it nearly invisible against the grass. It moved stealthily, quietly, gracefully. Cyclonus almost missed Silhouette as she moved away from the base and he smiled darkly. She was good. She noiselessly left the cover of the grass and approached him. Cyclonus got an 'all clear' from the second team who had placed their own charges at the other side or the large beginning.
As he shot his team mate a look, Sil nodded. She transformed. Cyclonus smiled and transformed into his fighter mode and she got in. They shot away from their target and as they gained height, the storage facility blew into a bright mushroom of destruction, showering the landscape with debris and fiery particles. Tiny explosions ripped the building to pieces. Silhouette smiled. That was only the beginning.
* * *
Rodimus Prime was alone in his office, working on a file he had never mentioned to anyone. He had asked casual questions about his project but no one would ever be able to find out what exactly he was working on. And no one ever would as far as he was concerned, least of all Shanygn because she was his project. Rodimus was looking into her past, but not concerning what had happened to her but where she came from. Rodimus knew about the planet and he knew someone who had been there: F/X.
The Sentinel had answered his questions willingly, seeing no danger for anyone in telling where he had landed, what the system's name was and other things. And Rodimus knew where he had to go .... one day. He would go there and he would .... he stopped. Do what? What would he do?
Rodimus looked at the blinking coordinates with a slight frown. He would have decide that when he eventually got there.