Broken Circle

by Phantom (phantom1313 at tfrid dot com)


Prologue

Optimus Prime beamed down at the massive throng of Cybertronians gathered before him. Rodimus and Megatron flanked him on either side. Since he was reputedly the best public speaker, he had been elected to share the news, the result of many weeks of harried and intense debate. Time and again it seemed like this would never come to pass, but at last everything had been resolved. “Autobots and Decepticons, members of the Alliance,” he began. “It is my great honor and happy duty to inform you that a permanent peace treaty has been signed between the Autobots and the Decepticons. The civil war is officially over!” His next words were drowned out by a raucous cheer.

Unnoticed in the shadows, a lone figure scowled. His worst fears were being realized. Fortunately, he had prepared well for this eventuality. “The sky is falling,” he murmured into his communicator. “The sky is falling.”


Chapter One

Nearly two months later, Megatron sat in his private chambers atop the highest spire of Darkmount, admiring the splendid view. The proud fortress once again stood majestically, a testament to Decepticon engineering. Still, none of this would have been possible without Autobot materials. The Alliance had been a most unexpected development. Neither side had ever thought it possible to trust the other, but Unicron had united them in a common purpose. And, even more astonishingly, their loose affiliation still held. Make no mistake about it, there were days when Megatron simply wanted to throttle the Primes, take up arms once more and seize the planet. But such fits of pique were thankfully few and far between. He was under no illusion as to exactly who controlled the planet. The Autobots had also provided some badly needed assistance, saving the Decepticons from certain destruction at the hands of Unicron's minions. At that point, they had been at the Autobots' mercy, dependant on them for energy and materials. With the help of their former enemies, they were able to restore the fortress to working order. Since then, the Decepticons had strengthened their presence on the planet, creating other structures such as bunkers and generators.

Megatron allowed himself a slight smile as he sipped at his Energon, his laptop open before him, displaying the latest news of the quadrant. It felt very good indeed to be back on Cybertron. The planet had been dealt several brutal blows by Unicron that would take a very long time to repair, but it was a challenge that he met head-on. This planet belonged to the Decepticons every bit as much as the Autobots. The repairs on the planet and enhancement of the security measures seemed to content their warrior race, at least for the time being. The Constructicons especially seemed to be in their element.

He turned to his laptop, enjoying another long swallow of Energon from his cube. A bright flash in the corner of his optic caught his attention. He turned his head, dropping the cube and leaping to his feet as he saw a bright fireball reach for the heavens. An explosion! He activated his communicator and called for his disaster recovery team, already making his way down the many floors of Darkmount.

Rodimus arrived on the scene a short while later with his own team. “What's going on?” he asked, looking a bit winded. “What happened here? Why is the area roped off?”

Megatron gestured to Soundwave, who was meticulously gathering evidence. Rodimus was slightly surprised to see the Decepticon communications officer. Soundwave must really be an incredible jack-of-all-trades, his unique and versatile skills indispensable in any number of situations. “Our weapons depot has been sabotaged.”

“Sabotaged?!” Rodimus echoed in shock. The depot was meant to arm Autobot and Decepticon alike. Who would want to sabotage it? “Are you sure that it wasn't an accident? Maybe there was a spark that ignited the ammunition.”

“Not much chance of that,” Scrapper said grimly. He was quite chagrined at the destruction of the depot – the Constructicons had been particularly proud of it. He held a partially melted and exploded object. Rodimus looked closer, then gasped. It was clearly a bomb casing.

“Commanders!” Scavenger called, his voice quavering nervously. He knew that he was viewed as something of a nuisance, even by his fellow teammates, and thus hesitated to call attention to himself. But this was important! “I think you'd better take a look at this.”

Rodimus Prime and Megatron alike carefully ducked under the red tape that cordoned off the blast area, picking their way around debris and other pieces of potential evidence, trying their best not to disturb the crime scene. “What *is* that?” the young Prime breathed as he rounded the corner.

Megatron stared, dumbfounded. On the ground, very close to the building and partially obscured by chunks of the fallen wall, roof, and melted and twisted weaponry, was a large scorch mark. After allowing Hook to photograph the area, Scrapper and Scavenger carefully cleared away the rubble, revealing a perfectly round burn mark.

“Is that natural? Perhaps part of the explosion?” the Deception leader inquired.

“Not likely,” said Hot Spot, bending over to trace the mark lightly with a fingertip. The Protectobots, like the Constructicons, had also had more than their fair share of examining such explosion sites. “This type of incendiary device would not leave such a circular mark. Besides, the device was found within the depot, while this mark is outside, and part of the wall still stands between it and the bomb.”

Blades appeared and knelt by his commander's side. “This was made deliberately, most likely before the explosion occurred.”

Rodimus rubbed the back of his neck, feeling a headache coming on. There was always something going wrong! “Why is it here?”

Megatron frowned. “It's a sign. A message of some sort.”

The young Autobot groaned. “Terrific. But what does it mean?”

Megatron had no answer for that.


Chapter Two

Optimus groaned as his second-in-command deposited a small pile of data pads on his desk. “So how many attacks have there been so far?”

“Five,” the young Prime said grimly, drawing up a chair in front of the desk. “Three bombings and two break-ins. Plus a few security violations here and there. I just wish I knew what they wanted!”

Optimus frowned behind his mask as he glanced briefly at each pad. Another supply depot had been hit, their Energon storage facility raided, and some crucial files had been deleted, altered, or simply perused. “And this mysterious symbol has been found at each scene?”

“That's right.” Rodimus nodded. “I thought that it could possibly be caused by the explosion at the first site, but it's shown up at every subsequent attack. It has to symbolize something. But what?”

“Hmmmm,” Optimus rumbled, more to himself than anything. He leaned back in his chair, folding his hands across his abdomen and staring at the ceiling. Anyone else would find his behavior bizarre, but Rodimus was used to such a sight. Optimus was in a mode of deep thought, and he had come up with some of the Autobots' most brilliant strategies after such a session. Not that Roddy was much of a slouch in the innovation department either. Finally his optics focused once more as his thoughts returned to the here and now. Rodimus waited patiently. “Maybe we're thinking about this too hard,” the elder Prime explained. “Maybe the circle represents their organization, and nothing more. Like how the Autobot and Decepticon brands indicate our faction.”

Rodimus placed his elbows on his knees, and his chin in his hands. “So this terrorist group wants to be known as the Circle?”

“It's the best I can come up with,” Optimus sighed. “A circle can represent unity. And it seems that they are unified against us.”

“Against the Alliance?!” Rodimus was horrified. The violence had only just ended! Why would someone want to start it all over again? “Who do you think could be responsible?”

The red and blue mech tapped a pad against his desk. “That's very difficult to say. We're going to have to study the evidence very carefully and do our best to stop this terrorist group before it strikes again. They have declared war on us, Rodimus.”

The orange and red Autobot stared at the floor in despair. Were they cursed to fight forever? They had finally, after nine million years, managed to eke out a tenuous peace of sorts. Now someone was out to destroy it.


* * * * *
“Sometimes I like awake night after night
Coming apart at the seams”

--“ I Go to Extremes” -- Billy Joel

“Hush, little baby, don't say a word
And never mind that noise you heard
It's just the beasts under your bed
In your closet, in your head”

-- “Enter Sandman” –Metallica


Late that night (or rather, early the next morning), Andromeda woke up to see a faint light coming from under the bedroom door. She rubbed at her optics and groggily walked into the spacious living room of her mate's quarters. His apartment was considerably larger than her own, and had more privacy to boot – Rodimus was the only neighbor in the entire secluded command wing. With all the daily headaches and hassles they went through, the two leaders more than deserved a private and comfortable place to relax and unwind.

Although she did not make a sound, Optimus Prime turned around at her approach. “I'm sorry,” he said apologetically. “I didn't mean to wake you.”

“What are you doing up?” she murmured drowsily. “Come back to bed; you need your rest.”

Optimus sighed inaudibly. “I couldn't sleep,” he confessed. “This business with the Circle is really disturbing me. The only way I could calm down was to get up and start working on it.”

His mate looked chagrined. He got such little rest as it was! She swore that sometimes he ran on fumes alone. But Optimus was a big boy, and no amount of nagging would change the way he was. She could cajole him a bit and show her concern, but he would only get irritated if she pestered him beyond that. She had known when she first became involved with him that he was never truly off-duty. It was one thing for an emergency summons to come in the middle of the night, but another thing entirely for him to get up and voluntarily subject himself to stress and recharge-deprivation. Sometimes she really worried about him. But he was, as the human expression put it, “stubborn as a mule” and occasionally drove himself to the brink of collapse. And she was helpless to stop him.

She gave him a tired but loving smile. “I'm going back to recharge now. Come join me when you're finished with whatever it is you're doing.” Optimus was very careful to keep his confidential projects under wraps, and she would never dream of prying. It would not only jeopardize their personal relationship, but Autobot security as well, and being a security officer herself, she knew the risks all too well. She could very easily pose a conflict of interest for Optimus, and they each took pains to keep their professional and private lives separate.

The mighty red and blue Autobot watched her disappear into his recharging chamber, looking after her with an expression of affection mingled with sadness. 'Coward!' he told himself accusingly. 'Why can't you just tell her the truth?' But he knew the answer to that. He didn't want to cause her any more worry than she already felt. He had had fuel-chilling, frame-shaking nightmares nearly every night since Unicron's attack. The threat of the Chaos-Bringer and the momentous task of forging the Alliance had occupied him for the past several months since the attack of the Voracian demon-vampire, but now the crisis had passed. Granted, there was still plenty of work to be done in repairing the damage that Unicron had wrought, and even more in further cementing the sometimes-shaky Alliance, but the real crisis had passed. Once his attention had been diverted from the acute threat, the nightmares had come on full force. He knew without question that the demon had opened doors in his mind that were much better left closed, but try as he might, he could not seal up the traumatic memories. He needed to confront them, stare them down and come to terms with them once and for all, but he was afraid. Deathly afraid. If he pulled out one memory to focus on, they would all fall down like a house of cards and overwhelm his already somewhat fragile psyche.

Night after night he would wake up, a scream of terror lodged in his throat, unable to tear itself free. He felt that it would be a relief if he *would* scream and let out some of the fear, but it didn't come, and by the time he was ready to express it, he noticed Andromeda beside him and simply couldn't do it. The image of the smoky apparition-like demon was burned forever in his memory, and its smile, filled with cruel knife-like teeth, seemed so real that he constantly searched the shadows of his recharge chamber, convinced that it was about to jump out and assault him. And yet he managed to hide it from everyone he knew. Even Andromeda didn't know how bad it had gotten. He had promised her after she had recovered from near-death that they would bond in a ceremony that united them for eternity in the eyes of Primus, but he was fearful. Not of the sacred vow, though that did scare him a bit. No, he was very much afraid of his own state of mind. Andromeda deserved better than a shattered shell of a man, which was sometimes exactly how he felt. He couldn't condemn her to that fate. And still, a part of him simply could not surrender the deeply entrenched fear that she would leave him, find somebody else and abandon him to his mental ghosts. Whatever happened, he wouldn't stand in her way. He wished her all the happiness in the world, and while he desperately hoped that it would be by his side, he could not tie her to him if she would be miserable. He would let her go if it was what she wished. It would be like tearing out his own spark, but he would do it, to save her.

There was one person that he could not hide from, whose knowing gaze burned into him always. Rodimus. Rodimus knew. From him, he could hide nothing. It was all laid out before him, echoing through their link forged by the Matrix, as plain as if Rodimus himself walked among his thoughts. And yet he could not bring himself to reach out and take the comfort that Roddy would so willingly give. If he gave into his half-formed, shadowy fears and ghosts of distant memories, he would totally collapse. It was as if the Voracian demon was still with him, waiting for a moment of weakness, a slip of his eternal vigilance, to claim his mind. He knew it wasn't so, but he couldn't afford to relax his guard, not even for Rodimus. He told himself repeatedly that it was his problem, and he would have to deal with it alone. He did his best to protect his dear friend from the worst of it, but his shields were weak and flimsy while he slept, and a good deal of it leaked out. From the dark smudges and hollows around Roddy's optics, he wasn't recharging well either. That gave Optimus a searing stab of guilt. He felt terrible that Rodimus had been dragged into his private mental war. It made him all the more determined to handle it on his own.

He turned back to his laptop and neat piles of data pads, making notes to himself here and there. Once again he had pressing matters that demanded his attention. He simultaneously loved and loathed his job. His Autobots were the best troops a commander could ask for, hard-working and loyal. They did their best to please him, and he returned the favor by looking after them, giving him as much of his attention as he could afford, sometimes holding the army together (so it seemed) through sheer force of will. They brought out the best in him. But his job *was* his life. Many Autobots found it unimaginable that he had any sort of private life at all. It was, in fact, very difficult to do so. His time alone was so short, and his duties often left him weary. Rodimus Prime helped to ease the burden considerably, and provided him with a confidante, but the workload had doubled with necessary planetary repairs, security upgrades, new recruits, and trade negotiations with countless species. It was up to him and Rodimus to be up to speed and on top of all of it. Sometimes he felt as if his CPU would simply overheat and shut down with the immense load of information he had to memorize. And the public eye was always on him. He couldn't go anywhere off-planet without being swarmed by the media. It seemed that every little thing he did was fodder for the gossip mill. Many found him to be a bit cold and standoffish, for he guarded his privacy very jealously.

Lost in thought, Prime stood and crossed the room, taking an old holo-cube in hand and activating it. He looked wistfully at the images that were projected – images from over nine million years go. Orion Pax. Here he was, goofing off with a younger and smaller version of Ultra Magnus. Another picture showed him playfully kissing Ariel's cheek. What could have been? What would have become of their lives if the war had not interfered? And what if the war had come anyway, but events had taken a different turn? What if he had joined the Autobots, but only as a grunt soldier? Would he have been happy? Could he have led a normal life (as normal as one got for an Autobot), or would there be something lacking, his true destiny thwarted? His shoulders sagged as he turned off the cube, overwhelmed by bittersweet memories. Such thoughts were foolish. Being a Prime was what destiny had ordained for him. There was no escaping it, and thoughts to the contrary were both foolish and painful.

He shut down his laptop and organized his data pads in two neat stacks, knowing that he would revisit them in just a few scant hours. He headed into the recharge chamber silently and slid onto the bed next to Andromeda's peaceful form. He wasn't tired but had suddenly grown sick of looking at all the reports of the latest crisis to strike. There was always something, wasn't there? Something that stopped him from relaxing, from “having a breather”, as the humans said. It helped occupy his mind when he was troubled but kept him from truly finding time to himself.

He studied his mate's slumbering body with a look of affection tinged with sorrow. He reached out to touch her but stopped, his hand inches from her face. She looked so angelic, and he couldn't bear to disturb her. She deserved so much more than he could give. And yet she had stuck by him, even when he had brought her so many disappointments. He turned to sit on the edge of the bed, picking up his battle mask and studying it as if he had never seen it before. Ever since his rebirth as Optimus Prime, it had been a part of him. It had become much more than just a part of his armor – it was a part of him. It had become a tangible representation of his public persona. Rodimus was right; it had become a façade that he wore to keep the rest of the world at bay. Sometimes he felt as if he were two different people, his inner self buried under the front he presented to the outside world. Maybe it was cowardly, but he was a very private person, even more so due to the lack of privacy that his position required. He was afraid to open up and trust people with his true self. He was arguably the most well-known and respected Autobot, but sometimes he was so very lonely. Rodimus seemed to have a much easier time in this department. He socialized with the senior officers and the grunts just as easily, never allowing his rank to drive a wedge between him and those he commanded. Perhaps it was Optimus' own fault that he could not relate to them. He had cut himself off from the rest of the world in his efforts to be a respected and esteemed leader. Perhaps he had done the job a little too well. He had changed to become what they needed, and in the process had lost touch with a part of himself.

Such deep thoughts for three in the morning! Everything had taken on a surreal edge. Optimus forced himself to lie down and relax his knotted muscle cables. An irrational part of him imagined that the demon-creature lurked in the dark corners of the room, just waiting for him to lower his guard. It would be a long, long time before sleep would claim him once more.


Chapter Three

Rodimus ran a hand over his bleary optics as he forced his attention back to the silently accusing stack of data pads. So much work to do, and such little time to do it in. It didn't help that both he and Optimus weren't exactly at their peak. Once more the darkness had invaded the elder Prime's mind, tormenting him nightly, and Rodimus was the victim of the spillover. He did not blame Optimus one bit, for he knew that his friend's pain was very private and he would much prefer to keep it to himself. As the Autobot leader, Prime felt he had to present an invulnerable front, and he was loath for anyone to know when something was the matter. No torment could make him speak of what plagued his mind. But Rodimus was not so easily fooled. He had come to know Optimus very well this past century and a half, and he could now read all his subtle mannerisms like a book. But the link was the real clincher. It meant that the proud Autobot could no longer bury his tangled emotions and profess that nothing was wrong -- not that he didn't make the effort anyway. Sometimes Roddy wanted to smack him. Bottling it all up was making it worse!

Frowning, he opened the connecting door between their offices and stepped in silently. Optimus was staring out the window, watching the bustle on the streets of Iacon, clearly unaware of his presence. His concern for his friend rose another notch; the elder Prime had an unfailing sense of his surroundings that seemed to border on the psychic, and his current obliviousness was an ill sign. Many considered Optimus to be rather unfeeling and emotionless, and it was true that the Autobot leader kept his composure under the most trying of circumstances, but to anyone who knew how to really look, there was an enduring pain that haunted his optics. A pain that spoke of countless soldiers that had died under his command, millions of years of ceaseless combat over rapidly dwindling resources and a rapidly escalating arms race. He had outlived nearly all of his friends, been to the other side of death and back, seen countless horrors that would paralyze a weaker 'bot with catatonia. And he hid it well, so well that even Optimus himself was nearly convinced that nothing was wrong… until his mental skeletons tumbled out of the closet and buried him. Feeling the melancholy atmosphere that seemed to emanate from Optimus like a beacon, Rodimus came up behind him and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

Prime's shoulders slumped and he bowed his head in silent despair. A stab of guilt struck him to the core. Once again he was letting his personal problems show. Rodimus had more important things to worry about than his state of mind. Dammit, he should be stronger than this! He turned his face away, unable to bear Roddy's look of concern. The guilt was replaced by a burning, pervasive shame. How could he possibly hold the Alliance together when his own mind was coming apart at the seams?

Rodimus felt a similar despair, but it was for Optimus' sake. How he wished he could help him! He'd give anything to reach out and wipe away the tormenting memories, or at least put Prime's demons to rest. Even the link was not enough if Optimus kept shutting him out. But in the end, this was Optimus' problem, and he was the only one who could decide to get the help he needed. In the meantime, Rodimus would be there for him, as much as he could. Of course, that was easier said than done.

“Talk to me.”

Optimus stiffened imperceptibly. It was such a simple request. So why couldn't he respond? Why couldn't he confide in his closest friend? All his half-formed fears and anxieties sat on his chest with a crushing weight. And yet he could not manage to unburden himself. He was ashamed of his cowardice, his emotional weakness. Rodimus would never judge him, but he held very high, strict standards for himself. The Autobots depended on him to be strong. Anything less than that was inexcusable.

“I'm sorry, Roddy…. I just can't.”

Rodimus' hands clenched reflexively into fists, showing his frustration. “Dammit, Optimus, what in the hell is wrong?! If you can't talk to me, then who else can you confide in? Personally I don't care if you talk to an amoeba, so long as you find someone to unburden yourself to! Because if you keep going on this way, you'll destroy yourself!” The moment the words were out he wished he could take them back. Optimus needed him to be patient and caring, not short-tempered and cross!

“Maybe you're right.” The words were spoken so softly that Rodimus almost thought that he had imagined it. Amazing! His little tirade had done more than all of his gentle cajoling and prodding put together. Optimus looked shamefaced as he spoke. “I know I need help, Roddy. I've known that for a long time. But when I've got so many others to look after, my own problems seem of little consequence.”

Rodimus was awestruck. Did Optimus actually admit that he had a problem? That everything wasn't just fine and dandy? It was a painful but crucial step, and he hoped that it would bring his friend closer to finding absolution. “Don't you see, Optimus?” he said as gently as he could. “They need you. They need you to be healthy and whole. The humans have a saying of 'physician, heal thyself'. It means that you have to iron out your own problems before you try to help others. If you have a mental breakdown, you won't be able to help anyone.”

Prime merely gazed at him with a tormented look. Emotions flickered on his face too quickly for Rodimus to read. It was plain to see that he felt trapped. After so many years of suffering in silence, he wasn't sure that he was able to open up to anyone. Rodimus gave him as much reassurance as he could through the link, and Optimus clung to it like a lifeline.

The door buzzer sounded, and Rodimus actually saw the emotional mask slip back into place. Suddenly Optimus Prime wasn't uncertain, scared, and hurting. He was the mighty Autobot leader, omnipotent and perfectly in control of everything that went on under his command. This was the persona that the Autobot army was familiar with, the one that had gotten them through countless crises. This was how his people needed him to be. Rodimus felt equal parts of relief and disappointment. He was upset at the interruption just when they were making progress, but he was glad to lay off of Optimus for awhile. Forcing him to confront his demons was obviously very painful, and Rodimus was content to pursue it another time. “Come in,” Optimus spoke calmly, and the younger Prime marveled at his composure. He'd never be able to tell that, moments ago, Optimus had been feeling such anguish.

Prime's rigid posture relaxed slightly when Ultra Magnus entered the office. Rodimus looked palpably relieved -- Magnus was one of the very few who knew Optimus on a close, personal level. Their friendship went back to the Golden Age. Few knew Optimus better than Ultra Magnus.

Magnus took in the entire situation in one glance. He knew without being told that Optimus was having problems once more. He couldn't say he was surprised -- after what that demon-creature had put him through, Optimus was lucky to have a mind left. Of course, his lifelong friend had had problems long before that, reaching back to his assumption of leadership. Optimus Prime had changed a great deal after his transformation from Orion Pax. If it weren't for very rare flashes of his old personality, Magnus would never believe that the two robots were related in any way. Poor Optimus -- in accepting such a massive responsibility, he had lost a good chunk of himself. But Rodimus had recently told him a fantastical tale of Orion Pax as an emissary of Primus, serving to lead him and Megatron to the mystical Sword of Primus. If that were true, then Orion could not be truly dead. His spirit lived on, somewhere, buried deep in the psyche of Optimus Prime. If Optimus could accept that part of him once more and resolve the conflict within his own mind, then maybe he could be whole once more.

Magnus couldn't help but feel a little jealous of Rodimus' closeness to his old friend. Magnus had known Optimus for millions of years, but Optimus and Rodimus had become so tight that it was hard to imagine one without thinking of the other. He knew that he couldn't hold it against Roddy. Roddy wasn't trying to take his place at all. In fact, Magnus and Rodimus had grown close after Prime's death, when Roddy had sorely needed some moral support. But it still hurt to see them always whispering together, and how one always seemed to know when something important had happened to the other without the need to communicate. It was the link, of course, that had brought them so close. Magnus supposed he should be grateful for that. Optimus had distanced himself from everyone who cared about him upon his return to the land of the living. It had been very unhealthy, and despite his best efforts, Optimus kept shutting him out. If it hadn't been for Rodimus, Optimus might have completely fallen apart by now. The worst part was that Magnus felt so helpless over it all! He never had any idea of what to do when Optimus slipped into one of his dark moods. He was always terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing and making it all worse. Rodimus, on the other hand, seemed to know exactly what to do to comfort Optimus. No doubt he empathized with what Optimus was going through due to the Matrix link, but that was not the entire reason. Rodimus was just a caring, compassionate person who easygoing nature won him many friends. Magnus knew that he and Optimus both were very lucky to be close to such a unique and special person as Rodimus.

“Hello, Optimus, Rodimus,” the city commander said a bit hesitantly, looking at each of them in turn. Rodimus gave him a concerned look, and Magnus knew that things were indeed grim.

“Hello, Magnus,” Optimus said, his demeanor businesslike. It was clear that he did not want to discuss personal matters. The Major General could not help but wonder exactly what had been discussed between the two leaders before his arrival. It could not have been anything pleasant. “How have things been going on Earth?”

“Quite well,” he replied with pride. It was rare that things ran so smoothly on Earth, or Cybertron, for that matter. Some crisis was always brewing. “The glitch mites in Metroplex's processor have been entirely removed, and his circuitry has remained clear for over a week now. The latest batch of recruits has proved quite capable of following orders, and their training has been rapidly progressing. The Technobots have been working closely with the EDC to repair a malfunctioning warp gate, but they seem to nearly have the problem licked.” During his informal report, Magnus and Rodimus held a silent communication through brief, darting glances. Clearly something had to be done. Optimus could not go on like this for much longer. It had been a long time since Optimus had confided in Ultra Magnus about whatever emotional problems plagued him. Magnus would hate to force the issue, but it was better than watching Optimus slowly self-destruct.

“Optimus,” he began somewhat awkwardly, “we've been friends for a long time, right?” Dammit, he was so inept at these things!

“Yes, we have.” Optimus looked mystified. Where was this leading?

Ultra Magnus shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “And you know you can always come to me if you have a problem….”

Optimus immediately stiffened. He did not want to get into this right now! Why couldn't he be left alone with his problems? “Magnus, I appreciate your concern--”

“Please, hear me out!” Magnus finally felt his emotional paralysis shatter. He gripped Optimus strongly by the shoulders. “I'm worried about you! We both are! Dammit, Optimus, stop pushing me away! I don't pretend to understand what you're going through, but I do want to be here for you. We used to be close….” He trailed off and looked away, his arms falling limply to his side, a sense of frustrated helplessness seizing him. It hurt to feel the distance between them.

“Magnus… I'm sorry….” Guilt was written all over the elder Prime's features. He hadn't realized that the gulf between them had grown so wide. He had allowed his comparatively new friendship with Rodimus, compounded with the increasing demands of his position, to drive a wedge between himself and his longtime friend. Now he felt the strain in their friendship acutely.

As bad as Optimus felt, Ultra Magnus felt even worse. He hadn't meant to lay a guilt trip on Optimus! He had only wanted to give him a mental shake, trying to get him out of his fog and to see reason. He did want Optimus to reach out to him, but not out of remorse. He kicked himself mentally. He was only making things worse!

Rodimus watched the entire exchange wordlessly. Neither of them seemed to realize that he was even there. The tension was palpable. He wanted to shatter it with a lighthearted remark -- but that was what the old Hot Rod would have done. Rodimus was more mature and knew the difference between relieving a tense moment and intruding on an emotionally charged one. It was not his place to intervene.

The strained atmosphere was finally broken by the urgent beeping of Ultra Magnus' communicator. The expression of relief on his face would have been comical if the situation hadn't been so bleak. He turned and walked a few paces away to respond, holding his side of the conversation in a hushed but clearly worried tone. “No, I'm here with them both. I'll tell them.” He wrapped up the communication and turned to face the commanders with his mouth set in a grim, tight line.

Rodimus leaned forward, his friend's somber mood causing him no small measure of anxiety. “Magnus, what's wrong? Has something happened?” Optimus folded his arms, preparing himself for whatever bad news that Magnus was about to deliver.

Ultra Magnus pressed his hands together to stop them from trembling, either from anger or distress. “It's Metroplex.” His tone was flat, emotionless. He was clearly in some form of shock. It was plain to see why. Metroplex was *his* domain, *his* city. Ultra Magnus took all matters that concerned the city-transformer very personally. His hands clenched into fists as he spat out the words, the anger finally reaching him. “He's been sabotaged.”


Chapter Four

“I still can't believe it!” Rodimus murmured. He had accompanied Magnus on a very hurriedly prepared shuttle ride back to Earth. Now they both stood before a large, smoking section of the city. They both had had several hours to adjust to the idea, but it still hadn't really sunk in. Seeing the mighty Metroplex brought low was a very sobering experience.

Magnus suddenly felt a foreign emotion -- vulnerability. If these terrorists could take out the mighty Autobot so easily, how safe was he? How safe could any of them be? The city commander busied himself by inspecting the structure personally, jotting down notes and listening intently as numerous repair technicians briefed him on the scope of the damage. Fortunately, it wasn't quite as bad as it looked. The terrorists (having once again left their trademark) had targeted the great city's power turbines, sparing most of the inhabited portion. Still, there had been several injuries, and three humans lay in Medbay with third-degree burns and serious contusions. It was those near-casualties that weighted most heavily on Magnus' conscience. If only he had posted more guards! If only he had stepped up the surveillance around the city! If only…. His shoulders drooped. The truth was, he had become complacent. Despite the terrorist attacks on Cybertron, he had never suspected that they would strike on Earth, and definitely not on his turf. He had, in fact, tightened security after the strikes had begun, but not as much as he should have. In the final analysis, the blame could be placed nowhere else.

Currently the expansive city was running on backup power provided from numerous emergency generators and several additional “pipelines” from the nearest human power plant. It wasn't an ideal solution, for the lights flickered erratically from time to time, and power outages were frequent, but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances. Metroplex had been knocked unconscious for several hours, and the process of reviving him was long and complex. The city-transformers had complicated psyches of a massive scope, and in Metroplex's case also branched out to fully dependent extensions, such as Slammer, and ones that were mind-linked to him, like Scamper and Six-gun. If his consciousness was brought online too fast, the shock could be too great, and he could shut down completely. Since the great city controlled nearly all of his own functions, any number of things could go wrong. Several specialists in cybernetic personalities had been called in for this endeavor.

Once the large Transformer had been prepped, the assembled techs flipped the master switch, and Metroplex's groan reverberated through the master control chamber. Cheers erupted from the assembled weary robots. Metroplex had always been their symbol of strength; as long as he still functioned, there was hope for the Autobot cause. He was virtually untouchable. To see him incapacitated had struck fear deep in their hearts.

As the massive Autobot slowly regained full consciousness, Ultra Magnus paced about impatiently. He had insisted on being present for all of the delicate repair work and kept a very sharp eye out for anyone who didn't belong. Security in this area had been stepped up dramatically since the incident where Starscream and Scourge had stolen Metroplex's eyes and planted a bomb in his brain unit. Still, it was obvious that there had been weaknesses remaining that the terrorists had fully exploited. And for that, there was no one to blame but himself. He had failed both Metroplex and those under his own command.

He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and paused in mid-stride, giving Rodimus a harried look. The second-in-command gave him a reassuring smile. “Magnus, you have to relax, or else you'll give yourself a CPU fault! I know you feel responsible for this, but nobody saw this coming. There was no reason to believe that the Circle would strike here. Optimus and I both believed that they would limit their activities to Cybertron. Besides, these guys seem to find their way into some very secure areas without being seen. They're damn good, Mags. Honestly, I don't think there's anything any of us could have done to stop this.”

Magnus felt his spirits lift slightly in spite of his better judgment. Rodimus always knew just the right thing to say. How far he had come from those early, angst-filled days! Back then, Roddy had been practically scared of his own shadow, afraid that his slightest order would result in disaster. Magnus had felt the crushing weight of the mantle of leadership for a very short time and understood all too well what the young leader was going through. He was much more comfortable in an advisory role as second-in-command, giving Rodimus direction and providing him with moral support. It had always been plain to him that Roddy was a natural leader; he just lacked the confidence to back up his decisions. And when Optimus had returned, it had seemed like a blessing to them all. Primus knows, Rodimus couldn't get rid of the Matrix fast enough. But Ultra Magnus had realized that something fundamentally good had been abruptly aborted. The young Rodimus' methods had been more radical than his predecessor and had taken some getting used to, but change was essential to keep their race moving ahead. Optimus had represented a return to the static old ways, the same practices that had kept the war at a stalemate, at best, for nine million years. They were tried and true, but some new blood was sorely needed. And what of Rodimus? Hot Rod had pretended to be his carefree old self, but Magnus saw through the façade. He was hurting without the Matrix, stung that Optimus had taken his place so easily. A part of him had been lost that he needed to regain.

The news of Roddy's origin had struck like a thunderclap. It had cast Hot Rod's relationship with Optimus in a whole other light. There was no real precedent for their relationship as father and son, since a spark had not been created by a Transformer couple since the days of Quintesson rule. Magnus had watched from the sidelines with concern as Optimus tried to do the fatherly thing and impose his values on his creation, and Hot Rod had fought back in the most rebellious way he knew how. Things finally came to a head, but with Magnus' intervention, it all worked out for the best. The return of Rodimus Prime corrected a grievous wrong and made for a very nice balance of leadership. It hadn't been easy: the Autobots had to adjust to two very different styles of leadership, and there were many departments that had to be rearranged, but it was all to their benefit. Magnus seemed to be the one to make the transition the best, already familiar with each Prime's methods. Of course, there were some pitfalls. One major unexpected development had been the emotional link fostered between the two Matrix bearers. It had been a huge shock for both of them, one that was very difficult to deal with. Rodimus was able to cope with it somewhat better, being younger and more accepting of change, but Optimus found the whole ordeal to be very stressful. He was a private person and hated sharing his most intimate emotions. He had denied it and tried to shut Rodimus out, making for some rather painful headaches on both sides. But the link also brought them closer together, and they became a very tight pair, a force to be reckoned with.

“He's ready,” one of the techs beckoned, and Magnus tore his thoughts away from the past. He needed to be sharp for this. He patted one of Metroplex's consoles in a reassuring way. “Metroplex? How are you feeling?”

The groan was soft but his booming voice was still awe-inspiring. “Ultra Magnus? What has happened to me, Commander?”

Magnus growled low in his throat. Metroplex knew that sound all too well. The city commander was royally pissed. The large Transformer almost felt bad for whoever was on the receiving end. Almost. The splitting headache he had tempered the sympathy. “It was sabotage. Your primary and secondary turbines were very badly damaged. We've got some emergency power routed to you right now, but it's not very steady at the moment.”

Metroplex ran a self-diagnostic and heaved a sigh at the readout. This would be a glitch to fix! At least his autonomous units were fully functional, if a bit disoriented. He promptly dispatched them to help the repair crews. Ultra Magnus grudgingly described the sketchy details through a vocal module strained with rage, and the large city did his best to focus despite the pounding in his cranial unit and numb sensation coming from where his turbines had once been located. Thank Primus the repair crew had properly disengaged his pain receptors.

“Ah, would ya look at this?!” a gravelly voice rang out. Magnus and Rodimus both turned with relief to greet the Autobots' Chief of Security. Kup gave them a perfunctory nod, all business.

“What do you make of this, Kup?” Rodimus asked gravely. Any detail the old warrior had spotted could prove invaluable. And if the evidence was there, Kup would find it. When working a case, he had the tenacity of a bulldog.

“It's not good, lad.” The grizzled old campaigner paused for effect, glancing around to make sure that no unauthorized personnel were within earshot. “I think the Decepticons were behind this.”

“The Decepticons?!” Rodimus and Ultra Magnus echoed, their shock evident. “But Kup… how could that be?” Rodimus spluttered. Magnus took a more active approach as he hastily situated himself in front of Metroplex's control panels. He listened with half an audial as he began to search through the large city's security records.

The gray-green mech sighed in frustration. “There's no doubt about it. It had to have been them, son. The incendiary device that was recovered had Decepticon written all over it.”

Rodimus was speechless. No! No, this couldn't be happening! Peace had been so close! Could it really be that their foes had decided to renew the hostilities? He forcibly grabbed hold of his self-control. Innocent until proven guilty, he reminded himself. But still, the seed of doubt had been planted. “Kup, that hardly proves anything,” he protested, the argument sounding weak even to him. “Each side now has access to materials that the other has developed. It would be easy for an Autobot, or even a neutral or alien to get their hands on Decepticon explosives.”

Magnus flipped nervously through the digitized security recordings, looking to either corroborate or refute Kup's accusation. He hoped fervently to do the latter. If the Decepticons had decided to start the war all over again… he couldn't even process the thought. He came to the timeframe he had been seeking and exclaimed in shock. Kup and Rodimus hastened to his side. The city commander's jaw worked as he pointed, unable to vocalize his findings. Rodimus did it for him. “They're gone! The security vids for the attack are gone!”

Kup shook his head, his expression solemn. “Then the Decepticons have gained even more access than I originally thought. We must act quickly, change the access codes and, once Metroplex is repaired, have him transform to battle station mode. It will be a lot easier to defend.”

“Don't I have a say in this?” Ultra Magnus protested irritably. This was his city, and he would be the one who decided what happened to it! His resolve was further strengthened by the recent terrorist attack. Metroplex was his responsibility, and he would make sure that everything would be done to protect him. “First of all, Kup, I don't see how the Decepticons could have gained access to Metroplex in order to wipe his files. Furthermore, how often do the Decepticons come to Earth anyway? How do we know they're here at all?”

Rodimus groaned inwardly. “Megatron sent a small group of them here to gather energy and supplies. Under our terms, of course. So there were Decepticons in the area.”

Magnus addressed the massive Autobot in which they currently stood. “Metroplex,” the city commander spoke, trying his best to keep the irritation out of his voice, “do you recall seeing any Decepticons in the area before the attack? Do you have any idea who accessed your security files?”

The great Transformer took a moment to think it over. “Indeed, Commander, I did see a group of Decepticons within fifteen Terran miles of my city limits over the past several days. However, I cannot specify who deleted my security records. That information was erased as well.”

Kup nodded curtly. It was enough evidence for him. Rodimus and Ultra Magnus were a lot less convinced, but they couldn't deny that the Decepticons were their prime suspects. The realization was sickening. Had all of their exhaustive efforts building up the Alliance been for nothing?


Chapter Five

It was several days until Optimus and Rodimus Prime both found the time to hold a brief conference between themselves over their comm lines. They had been limited to communicating with brief, terse e-mails and pager messages. This meeting had a dual purpose -- not only could they have a chance to bring each other up to speed on current events, they could also test out Blaster’s new pride and joy. He had been working tirelessly for over a month on a new communications grid with enhanced security for top-secret communications. If it proved to be a success, it would be used to forge a comm-net between high-ranking Alliance members. It was the first time that anything of the sort had been attempted. The Private Channel, or P-chan as it had been affectionately dubbed, would allow Autobot and Decepticon to contact each other in a secure medium to communicate matters of the utmost urgency that concerned the welfare of both factions.

Rodimus sighed inaudibly as he adjusted the volume on his communicator. He was hoping that this P-chan could be expanded to cover video conferencing as well. He much preferred talking to people face-to-face. Whether friend or foe, it helped immeasurably to see who he was communicating with. He had learned to gather an awful lot of information just from a being’s mannerisms. And where Optimus was concerned, the slightest tilt of the head or gesture of the hand spoke volumes. The elder Autobot leader had unfortunately become all too adept at crafting his persona of unflappable calm. Rodimus sometimes wished he could have that sort of control, but he had seen what years of emotional repression had done to his friend. It simply wasn’t worth the price. Besides, that wasn’t who he was. He couldn’t censor himself if he tried. And that, surprisingly enough, according to Optimus himself, was one of his best qualities.

“So how has the restoration been going?” the bass voice rumbled through the channel, businesslike but never brusque.

This time Roddy sighed aloud. “We’ve got the bulk of the damage repaired. All that’s left is some cosmetic touch-ups. The major hassle is the security upgrade. Kup’s been on our backs to modify or completely replace pretty much everything we’ve got. I’m ready to rip apart my housing, it’s so frustrating!”

There was an answering chuckle from the other end of the link. The sound brought a tinge of a smile to Roddy’s faceplate. It was nice to hear Optimus express some form of amusement. “Same here,” the red and white Autobot replied. “He’s been shuttling back and forth between Iacon and Metroplex, getting the entire security and maintenance forces in a lather. If the situation weren’t so serious, I’d tell him to turn it down a notch or two, but I haven’t had a chance to even talk to him since the attack on Metroplex.”

“Yeah, maybe he could stand to lighten up a bit…” Rodimus muttered. He just couldn’t bring himself to tell Optimus about Kup’s theory. This was his friend’s dream, to finally unite their warring race under the banner of peace. He had put his whole spark into holding the often tenuous Alliance together. It would break his heart to see his vision fall to pieces. Fate had already dealt him too many cruel hands.

Deciding to change the subject, he asked gently, “How are things with you? Are you recharging all right?”

There was a brief silence on the other end. It was this uncomfortable moment that discouraged most others from prying. But Rodimus knew that there was little to hide between them. Optimus Prime just needed a moment to adjust to the sudden personal nature of their conversation. “No,” he finally sighed. Roddy had of course already known that, but it was good to have Optimus confirm it. “Every time I power down my optics, I have the most horrible visions. And the nightmares are worse. I’m not ready to discuss that part just yet… but I just wish I could have a peaceful night’s rest.”

Rodimus frowned, grateful that Optimus couldn’t see his expression. “Well… I’ve managed to get my hands on something that would help. I’ve heard that Somnulent has worked wonders for those experiencing insomnia.” Oh boy, he was *definitely* glad he couldn’t see the look on Prime’s face.

“Somnulent?! Rodimus, have you gone completely out of your processor? Good Primus, the side effects—”

“—can be avoided if taken only occasionally. Yes, I’ve looked into it. Believe me, I’m not happy with the concept either, but I can’t really think of any other resolution at the moment.” Privately, he thought that a psychiatrist or mental health counselor would go a long way, but not only would Optimus avoid it like the plague, the situation could very well end up splashed across the intergalactic papers. The elder Prime needed to appear at his best. Once again, Optimus was being asked to make sacrifices for his people, and Rodimus hated it. If it wasn’t for the stupid Circle, he could let Optimus have some time off. But as things stood, they were much vulnerable now than they had been during the civil war itself.

“And just where did you get such a controlled substance?” Optimus’ voice was soft but Rodimus heard the implied threat just the same.

“Don’t worry, Op, I didn’t just walk up to Ratchet or First Aid and ask for it. I also didn’t order it from some fly-by-night provider either. I got it from a reputable source and am confident of its purity and potency. You know I wouldn’t give you anything dangerous. Please, just think about it, okay? You can’t keep going on like this.”

A heavy sigh. “I’ll think about it. That’s all I can say.”

Rodimus smirked. The battle was as good as won. “That’s all I’m asking for.”

* * * * *

That night, Optimus sat on the recharging berth, the unassuming brown package in his hands. He forced down his trepidation and opened it. Inside was an equally unassuming container containing innocent-looking little green caplets. He read through the instructions thoroughly, very much ill-at-ease over the whole situation. Side effects included headache, irritability, difficulty awakening, and addiction with long-term use. Just wonderful. He had become dependant on anamorphine a few years ago when he had been dying from the cosmic rust plague, and curing himself cold-turkey had been murder. If there was any other way… but that was the problem, there wasn’t. Not that he could think of. He needed to get some rest somehow or he really would go out of his mind. He would give it a try. All he needed was a decent night or two of rest and he would be back in form.

He lifted the green capsule and prepared to insert it into an Energon cube to dissolve. He had been concentrating so intently that he didn’t hear the door slide open. “Optimus, you won’t believe the day I’ve had! It’s been a total madhouse, and Kup….” Her voice trailed off as she entered the recharging area. “What is that?”

Prime jumped guiltily and tried to grab the bottle from the dresser, but she was too quick for him. “Somnulent!” she exclaimed in outraged horror. “What are you doing with this? Don’t you know how dangerous this stuff is? One of my friends OD'd on this stuff back when we were just recruits.” She snatched the packaging from the floor as well. “This didn’t come from Medbay either! What on Cybertron is going on here?”

Prime sighed heavily. He hated to see her upset, but a small, selfish part of him wondered why he had to appease her. Didn’t he have enough on his mind? “Ani, please calm down. I’m perfectly aware of the drug’s reputation. No, they didn’t come from Medbay, but I’m certain that Rodimus got them from a reliable source—”

“Rodimus!” she shrieked, becoming even more enraged. “You’ve got Rodimus getting controlled medication for you? I don’t understand it. I know you’re under immense pressure, Optimus, but this isn’t the way to go. Look, I know a great mechano-therapist on Thera Five. He’s very discreet and has a lot of experience—”

“Absolutely not!” Optimus thundered, standing up to loom over her. “Andromeda, I appreciate what you are trying to do, but in the end it’s my decision.” Despite his own misgivings about the drug, her arguments made him feel all the more stubborn. “All I need is a good night’s recharge and I’ll be back to normal.”

She gave a hysterical laugh. “Do you really believe that, Optimus? Because I sure as hell don’t. You haven’t been what most would call normal for quite some time. These pills will help you get rest, but at what price? You’ll take them once or twice and feel great, and then what next? You won’t be able to function without them. You’ll need more to get the same effect, and who knows what will happen next? You’ve got to address the root of the problem. You can’t recharge because you’re upset about something. Something so awful that you won’t discuss it with anyone. You’ve got to get your worries out in the open, or pill or not, they will consume you!” She hiccupped and wiped away an errant tear. “I thought you valued my opinion, but I guess I was wrong. I guess I was also wrong about us as well. You’ve barely spoken to me in months. If you don’t want to bond, fine, just say so. But at least be honest about it.”

“Look, I’ve got more important things on my mind than bonding rituals! I’m trying to hold this Alliance together, and it could fall apart any day now. I thought you understood that.” Prime could see from the look on her face that that was the exact wrong thing to say, and a part of him was kicking him for being so insensitive, but right now he didn’t really care. He had so many things to worry about, and right now his personal relationship ranked rather low on the list.

She bit her lip. “I’m going to stay with a friend tonight. I just can’t be around you right now.” She dashed out the door, and Optimus fought down the urge to call after her. Better let her cool off.

He flopped back onto the recharge berth, flinging an arm over his face. Just when he thought that things couldn’t get any worse. Okay, he knew that she had a valid point. The drug was dangerous. He also supposed that he hadn’t been paying much attention to her either. But he was the Autobot leader, and his first responsibility was to his troops. He had do whatever was necessary to keep them safe.

He had lain in the dark for what seemed like hours when the comm. line beeped. He dragged himself out of the recharging berth. “Yes?” he said a bit tersely.

“Op, it’s Roddy. We’ve got a bit of a situation here.” So what else was new? “Megatron was scheduled to meet with the Zabini chief to discuss an arms purchase, but he’s gone in for a maintenance checkup. He was supposed to be done ages ago, but apparently he had more damage than Soundwave thought, and he won’t be released anytime soon. I’d gladly send Magnus or Kup, but the Zabinis insist on only dealing with the top brass. I figured I’d go in his place, but I wanted to keep you updated on the situation.”

“No, Roddy, I’ll go. I need to get out for awhile anyway. Just upload all the pertinent information to my hand-held, and I’ll get going right away.”

A pause. “Sure, Op, if you’re certain. The shuttle’s waiting in Bay Three. Have a good trip.”

Optimus grabbed his hand-held unit, threw a few supplies into a container, and dashed out the door. He still knew that he needed rest, but at least this mission would distract him from his worries, especially his fight with Andromeda. He would have to make things up to her on his return (he had been rather harsh with her), but he too needed time to cool off.

The maintenance tech on duty saluted him, looking a bit surprised at his appearance, as he jogged into the shuttle bay and boarded the ship. It looked like it had already been inspected, and the engines were warmed up and ready to go. The bay doors slid open and he guided the shuttle into the depths of space.

He felt himself beginning to relax a bit as his journey progressed. He was by himself, with no other pressing duties or demands, save for his upcoming meeting with the Zabini chief, MgGurk, which was really just for show. The deal was as good as done. Perhaps all he really needed was a few days away from Cybertron. He knew his problems would be waiting for him when he returned, but he could forget about them for a few days. He wasn’t quite ready to wave a white flag to Andromeda yet, but maybe he’d find something nice to give her anyway.

He was so wrapped up in his peaceful thoughts that he was oblivious when the bomb detonated. There was a brilliant flash of orange and white light as the shuttle was shattered into oblivion.


Chapter Six

Springer stepped outside of his quarters in Metroplex, a silly grin plastered to his face. Things had been kinda heavy lately, so he thought he’d pop by and get in a few yuks with Roddy while he was on Earth. Primus knew they both needed it. He hesitated outside the command center, still torn between the silly string and the rubber chicken, when a fuel-curdling scream came from within. All sense of merriment forgotten, Springer dashed inside the office and was struck dumb with horror. Rodimus lay sprawled backward in his seat, optics staring sightlessly at the ceiling, screaming like a banshee.

“Roddy! Roddy, what’s the matter?” Springer yelled, shaking him viciously. Rodimus jerked like a puppet on a string, still staring blindly past Springer’s shoulder. It was as if he didn’t even know anyone was there.

“Optimus!” Rodimus wailed. “He’s dead! Oh god, something’s happened to him! OPTIMUS!!”

Springer was very confused. Rodimus was the type who kept a cool head in danger, and he saved any emotional reaction until afterward. He had seen his old friend upset plenty of times, but never like this, not even when Optimus had been dying of cosmic rust. Besides, what could have possibly happened to put Prime in danger? As far as he knew, Optimus hadn’t been scheduled for anything more sinister than endless negotiations, overseeing repairs, and the usual massive paper trail (which really was a fate worse than death, once he thought about it). He tried to calm Rodimus down long enough to talk. “Roddy, you’ve got to get a grip! Come on, talk to me! I can’t help unless you tell me what’s going on!”

“Nnnn… nnn!” The young Prime seemed unable to break out of his trance, transfixed in horror by something that only he could see. Springer was certain that it had something to do with the Matrix. Rodimus always got all weird when the Autobots’ mystical artifact was involved. He’d found the connection it forged between the two Primes to be creepy in the extreme, but he couldn’t deny that it made them a force to be reckoned with.

“Aw, hell!” There was no reasoning with him. “Look, Roddy, stay calm, okay? I’ll try to figure out what’s going on.” He activated the vid screen and opened a channel to Cybertron.

Jazz greeted him with a big smile. “Springer, m’man! Long time no see! How can the Jazzmeister help you?”

Under other circumstances, Springer would have been glad to shoot the breeze. “Sorry, Jazz, no time to chat now. Can you get me in contact with Optimus Prime? I imagine he’s busy and may have his comm. line off, but I need to have a quick word with him.”

“Sure thing!” Jazz tapped a few buttons on his console and frowned. “Huh. That’s funny. Teletran Two isn’t registering Optimus inside the base. Hold on a sec.” He turned aside and opened a comm. channel. “Jazz to Optimus Prime. Come in, Optimus Prime.” There was only the hiss of static.

“Blaster!” Jazz yelled across the room. “Are the comm. lines working properly? I can’t communicate with Optimus!”

“All systems go, Jazz!” Blaster called from off-screen. “The lines look good to me, but I can’t reach Optimus either. Maybe his comm. unit is down. I’ll just locate him and go… wait-a-tic, ‘Tran says he’s not here.”

The uncharacteristic frown on Jazz’s face was unsettling. “We can’t reach him, Springer. We’ll have to get back to you.”

Springer frowned back. “Let me know right away if you locate Optimus. I’ll see what I can find out on my end.”

Once he had shut off the vid monitor, he turned back to Rodimus, who was still rocking back and forth. Thankfully he had been quiet during Springer’s quick chat. There was no need to alarm Cybertron before it was necessary, but the need may arise soon. “Listen, Roddy, you’re the key to all of this. If you know what’s happened to Optimus, you’ve got to tell us right away.”

Rodimus looked at him glassily. “I can’t sense him anymore. I feel nothing.” His lip trembled and he began to sob.

Springer threw his hands in the air. The whole situation was rapidly becoming what Roddy himself would call FUBAR. He truly felt for Rodimus, but he had to get to the bottom of what was going on, and Rodimus was being more of a hindrance than a help. He patted his friend’s shoulder awkwardly as he activated his comm. line. “Springer to Ultra Magnus.”

“Magnus here.”

“Praise the Matrix. Look, do you know anything about Optimus Prime’s whereabouts? Cybertron can’t locate him and Rodimus is in hysterics.” Wailing and moaning could be heard in the background

“What the devil is going on over there?!” Ultra Magnus roared in top Major-General form.

Springer fought the urge to roll his optics. “I don’t want to ‘cry wolf’, as the humans say, but I think we may have a situation on our hands.”

There was a long silence. “On my way.”

Magnus reached the command center in record time, much faster than Springer thought the big guy could actually move. In tow was Kup, glowering at the duo as if they had pulled some dopey prank. Well, maybe they had given him reason to be suspicious in the past, but right now this was no laughing matter.

“What’s this nonsense about Optimus Prime being AWOL?”

Rodimus took one look at Kup and began screaming once more. “He’s dead! Great Primus, he’s dead!” The other three shared a baffled look. Ultra Magnus also tried patting his shoulder, to no avail. “Did something happen to Optimus? Come, Rodimus, you must tell us what you know.” The young Prime seemed far beyond rational thought. The city commander opened a line to Medbay. “Ultra Magnus to First Aid. Emergency on command level. Please respond immediately.”

Springer had always been a fan of the direct approach. He pulled back his hand and slapped Rodimus squarely on the face.

Rodimus blinked and stared at him with a hurt look. It was an improvement over the screaming, but the silence took on an eerie quality. Finally First Aid arrived and analyzed the patient quickly, diagnosing acute hysteria. He injected the mech with a sedative, and the young Prime immediately fell into a relaxed slump. Magnus grabbed Rodimus’ face and held it still, forcing the emotional mech to look at him. “Rodimus,” he said softly. “Now that you’re a bit calmer, please tell us what’s wrong.”

Rodimus shuddered. “Optimus. He… he was on the shuttle. Something happened to it. I – I felt it. Dammit, he shouldn’t have been there at all! I can’t sense him at all! He’s dead, I know it!” He whimpered, clutching his chest, and then slumped forward onto the desk as the tranquilizer took effect.

First Aid, Springer, Magnus, and Kup all stared at each other blankly. Rodimus had said something about a shuttle…. Springer fumbled for the console and mistyped his search three times before he was finally able to bring up the flight roster. There was the usual list of supplies and grunt troops, Megatron’s scheduled flight to the Zambini homeworld, and a small mining group heading to the Toreli sector, but he couldn’t see anything for Optimus. Another dead end. “Slag on a shingle!” he growled, throwing his hands up in the air. “I don’t get it. I can’t find any flights for him at all.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of this, lad, don’t worry,” Kup said in what was probably meant to be a soothing tone. “Ultra Magnus and I will leave immediately for Cybertron on a priority flight.”

“Not without me you aren’t!” Springer snapped. “If something’s gone wrong with a flight, then it’s my responsibility to investigate.” He lifted Rodimus’ limp form and bodily slung him over his shoulder. “I’m taking Rodimus to his quarters first. He’ll be best off there.”

“Fine, lad, fine,” Kup sighed in exasperation. “We’ll go prepare for the flight. You meet us when you’re ready. But don’t dawdle!” He dashed out of the room with Magnus hot on his heels.

First Aid frowned. “I really think that he should be taken to the medical bay.”

Springer shook his head. “Under normal circumstances, I would agree. But whatever this is, it’s best kept out of the public eye. Rodimus is going to be out of it for awhile, and until we get this mess sorted out, it would be better to tell people that he needs some rest. And for him to do that he’d need to stay in his quarters.” He sighed at the frustrated look on the medic’s face. “Look, I know you’re busy and it would be easiest for you to monitor Rodimus from Medbay. But all he needs right now are some extra tranquilizer shots and someone to watch over him, am I right?” First Aid nodded. “Then I’m sure we can get Nova to fill that role.”

Springer slung his comatose friend over his shoulder in a fireman carry hold. The one good point about this whole situation was that it was nighttime on Earth and the corridors were nearly deserted. He managed to lug Rodimus all the way to his quarters, where First Aid keyed open the lock with a medical override. Between the two of them, they finally got Rodimus positioned on the recharge berth. He looked like a train wreck. Springer wished fervently that he could stay with him, but if what Rodimus said was true, then they had a much bigger crisis on their hands. He activated his comm. unit one more time. “Arial Defense Commander Springer to Private Nova.”

“Yes?” Nova sounded surprised and confused. She was still little more than a recruit, and though he was one of Roddy’s friends, she wasn’t much used to talking to him in a professional capacity.

“Listen, I’ve got no time to explain. You’ve got to get to Rodimus’ quarters and keep an optic on him. He’s been sedated and shouldn’t be by himself.”

“What? What’s hap—”

“Never mind that!” he snapped. “I told you I’ve got no time! Just get over here! First Aid will let you in and fill you in on the details. There’s something that I’ve got to take care of. I just pray that Rodimus is wrong.” She tried to speak again, but he cut off the connection.

He jogged to the shuttle bay, cursing all the while. If this was a wild goose chase, he’d kill Roddy! And then once he was alone, he’d fall to his knees and thank Primus that it had all turned out all right. But when had their luck ever been so good? Millions of years of war had taught him that things could always get worse.

He spent the shuttle ride swiveling back and forth in his seat anxiously. Even the patented Ultra Magnus Glare of Death wasn’t enough to quell him. Slagit, he wanted to move, wanted to charge in and demand answers, even bust some Decepticon heads (hey, it may not have anything to do with this situation, but it sure would make him feel better). Magnus was bent over his handheld unit reviewing reports, but it was obvious that he wasn’t making much progress. Kup, however, was working like a madman, making what looked like sweeping and radical changes on some security blueprints.

The shuttle had radioed in for landing coordinates just minutes before it arrived, taking Cybertron by surprise. Jazz and Blaster had rushed to greet them as they touched down, but the shuttle occupants barely spared them a glance. Springer caught the shuttle maintenance tech just as he was getting off shift, and a few pointed questions told him all he needed to know.

Springer cursed a blue streak, reaming the poor grunt for not correcting the flight logs. Dammit, he was the aerial defense commander! It was his duty to be kept informed of flight schedules! How could he possibly do his job if the log wasn’t updated with crucial information? The whole Optimus situation could have been resolved much faster if the record had been updated to reflect the change in pilot.

Cursing some more for good measure, he quickly conferred with Magnus and Kup. Meanwhile, Blaster had tried to raise the shuttle on the comm. link without success. Now that he knew that Optimus had in fact boarded the shuttle, he was able to access the flight plan and plot the ship’s trajectory. The shuttle was outside of sensor range, and it did not respond to any hails. The group reached a consensus and gave Springer the green light to assemble a search and rescue team. He prayed that it wouldn’t end up being a salvage operation. This time, Springer left nothing to chance. He did the pre-launch check himself and verified that his ship was in top condition. Then he boarded the ship with his team and sped toward Zabini space at breakneck speed.

* * * * *

He returned fourteen hours later, scratched, dirty, weary, and angry beyond endurance. Worse yet, he had a briefing with the Gruesome Twosome, as he liked to think of Magnus and Kup. Well, Mags wasn’t so bad, once he removed the stick from his tailpipe, and Kup was alright when he’d had a few cubes of hi-test, but when combined they were at their stodgier-than-thou worst. All he wanted was to return to Earth and curl up with a cube of hi-test in one hand and his beloved ‘Cee in the other, but duty called.

He dragged himself into one of the briefing rooms and threw himself into the nearest seat, settling into a comfortable slouch. He waited. One, two….

“And?” Magnus arched an optic ridge.

Right on schedule. He forced himself to straighten up and display some semblance of decorum. “Aerial defense commander’s official report, sir! Shuttlecraft was destroyed by an incendiary device at approximately 2300 hours. Blast was in a radial pattern and destroyed the majority of the craft. There is little worth salvaging.”

Kup held out his hand, and Springer passed him the data pad. “Analysis of the detonator device indicates it is of Decepticon origin.”

Springer sighed. “Yeah, that’s the sum of it. Doesn’t mean much, though. This type of explosive is common around the quadrant. The ‘Cons traded them for weapons and supplies.”

Magnus folded his hands, trying to conceal a tremor. “And Optimus?” he said, his voice curiously flat.

Springer’s gaze fell to the table. He drew out Prime’s handheld palm-pilot, now nothing more than a twisted hunk of metal and plastic. “We didn’t find much. Hard to say if that’s a good or a bad thing. There were a few scraps of armor and some spilled fuel, but that’s about it.” He felt an odd sort of lump form in his throat. “Either he was v—vaporized, or his chassis was salvaged as scrap by the space pirates. Would explain why there wasn’t much left in the shuttle. At any rate, he’s lost to us. Rodimus was right,” he choked. “Optimus is dead.”

Magnus shuddered. “The pirates know that we would want to put Optimus to rest. If they had his body, they would have contacted us. Even if he had been taken prisoner, his captors would be eager to negotiate with us. And if he were still alive, I’m sure we would have gotten word of it somehow. Optimus is a rather recognizable figure in this quadrant. I think you’re right, Springer. He is likely lost to us.”

All three bowed their heads and spared a moment of silence for their fallen leader and dear friend. The shining beacon of the Autobots was gone. What could they do to stop the downward spiral into chaos?

* * * * *
Rodimus groaned, his optics flickering online. His hand collided with a lump on the bed. The lump moved. “Rodimus? You're awake!”

Roddy winced and pressed his hand to his throbbing head. “Yeah, unfortunately. How long have I been out?”

“Two days,” Nova sighed, curling against him. “You were out of your mind; First Aid had to sedate you. Are you feeling all right now?”

Rodimus performed a diagnostic scan. All functions were within acceptable parameters – except, of course, the pounding in his head. “As good as can be expected physically, anyway. Except for a crushing headache.” Emotionally, he felt as if a vacuum cleaner had sucked out his insides. He was empty and numb. Compared to the earlier hysteria, perhaps it was for the best.

Nova smiled slightly. “It’s a side-effect of the tranquilizers. First Aid warned me that it may happen. He left this for you to take.” Rodimus made a face as he gulped down the headache remedy. It tasted vile but was remarkably effective. Once the pounding in his skull ceased he asked, “Has there been any news?”

Nova shrugged. I've been here with you the whole time. I have no idea what's going on. Although you did say some rather disturbing things in your sleep. You talked about Optimus a lot.”

Roddy slumped back against the cushion. “Well, there's no doubt in my mind now. You’ll probably hear about it soon, so it may as well come from me. Nova, I wish to the gods it wasn’t true. Optimus Prime is dead.” The admission gave him a pang, but it didn't hurt nearly as much as it should have. The cocoon around his heart would burst at some point, but for now it gave him some welcome distance.

Nova gasped, clapping a hand over her mouth. She had spent the whole time at Rodimus’ side, but she still had known that something had gotten the command in a huge lather. Springer, Magnus, and Kup had all stopped by to check on Rodimus but had refused to answer any of her questions. First Aid had also visited occasionally to examine his patient and to administer more medicine, but he too had left her in the dark. From Rodimus’ babblings, it hadn’t been difficult to guess that Optimus was somehow involved. Still, she had thought that he had only been injured or was in danger. She had never dared to imagine the worst.

Just then the speakers outside his quarters crackled to life. “Attention, all Autobots. This is city commander Ultra Magnus speaking. I have an announcement of the utmost gravity.”

Nova and Rodimus looked at each other. The subject of the announcement was of no surprise to them. A sudden horrible thought occurred to him. “Has anyone thought to tell Andromeda first? No, you've been here with me, you wouldn't know. Dammit, this is just the sort of thing that Mags wouldn't think of!” Nova's optics grew wide. She had held some hard feelings toward her father for many eons, but surely he couldn’t be that thoughtless? Yet Rodimus was right -- Magnus wasn't exactly a people person, and warning Andromeda wouldn't have been at the top of his list.

"Find her, Nova! Go quickly, and run! She shouldn't be alone!" Nova darted out the door as fast as her legs could carry her. Meanwhile, Rodimus heaved himself up with a groan. Once he reoriented himself, he headed to the command center with breakneck speed.

* * * * *

The security forces on Earth had been gathered for a briefing by Kup when the announcement came in. As one, they toward the vidscreen, where Magnus' face appeared, looking stern and a bit sorrowful. “Attention, all Autobots,” he began, and Andromeda felt a feeling of dread settle in her stomach. She had been relieved when Kup had enthusiastically accepted her abrupt request to spend several days on Earth. She had needed a few days away from Optimus and Cybertron, and the change of scenery had helped. She was also glad to pitch in where bots with her expertise were sorely needed. And then something had gone majorly wrong; she'd suspected it for days, but none of the top brass had breathed a single word about the problem. Everyone had been running around frantically beefing up security, gathering reports from all over Cybertron, and investigating a mysterious shuttle accident. Neither Optimus nor Rodimus Prime had been seen during this time, which could only mean trouble. This time, she knew, something disastrous had happened. Could it have been another terrorist attack?

“Undoubtedly, you will have noticed the increased security and intelligence gathering of the last few days. We had wished to wait until we were certain to inform you of our findings. The Autobots have suffered a terrible, incalculable loss. It is with a heavy heart that I must inform you of the passing of Optimus Prime's spark into the Matrix.”

Andromeda made a small choking noise. She had suspected that someone had died, perhaps even someone that she been close to, but had never in a million years imagined that it could have been Optimus. She could barely make out Magnus' words through the dull roar in her head. “Optimus Prime boarded a shuttle that was subjected to a terrorist bombing. He did not survive the attack. We have not only lost a great leader, but–”

She could listen no more. A scream tore itself from her throat. “NO!” she wailed, covering her face with her hands and sobbing. “Optimus! No, no! It can’t be true!” Gods, everyone was staring at her and she knew she was making a huge scene, but she just couldn't help it. She stumbled to the door and bumped smack into a body. Slim arms wrapped around her. “Come with me,” a familiar voice whispered. Nova dragged the hysterical femme down the hall and into an empty storage closet, where her friend could vent her sorrow in privacy.

Meanwhile, Ultra Magnus continued on with his speech, only the slightest of tremors in his voice. “Optimus could never be replaced, but we will work hard to honor his memory. Please have faith that we are all looking out for you and your safety. Although Rodimus Prime is currently—”

“Right here,” he said firmly, and stepped in front of the vid screen. The look of gaping shock on Magnus’ face would have been amusing under other circumstances. “We are working around the clock to put a stop to these attacks. Be assured that the ones behind the group calling itself the Circle will be dealt with. As you well know, it will mean extra duty and sacrifice. However, it does *not* mean that anyone should take vigilante action. We are your leaders – please trust in us to do our jobs.” His voice grew soft. “The details for a memorial service have not been set, but I promise that you will all be kept informed. I suggest in the meantime that you pay your respects to Optimus at the prayer shrine. Never fear, the Autobot army will come through this stronger than ever, if we stick together. Until all are one.” The monitor went blank, and throughout Iacon and Metroplex, silence reigned. Despite Rodimus’ brave words, no one believed that things would improve. With Optimus Prime gone, the bright future of the Autobots and the Alliance itself seemed to dissipate like smoke in the faintest breeze.


Chapter Seven

“Oh, god, I just can’t believe it! I can’t believe he’s really gone.”

Nova hugged Andromeda tight as the blue femme tried to wipe the streaks of fluid from her face. She looked absolutely wrecked. Nova shook her head. “I can only imagine what you’re going through. I’m in shock that Optimus is gone, but I didn’t really know him all that well. I know how special he was to you.”

Andromeda hiccupped. Her emotional outburst had drained her, and she now felt weary but a bit calmer. “We knew that it could happen. We both have dangerous jobs, and it was very likely that one of us would die in the line of duty. We discussed it, but I could never truly believe that he would die. It was just unthinkable. He was just so strong, so powerful, so in control…. He’d been dead once, and I nearly lost him several times. Still, every time he’s in danger, it’s like it’s all happening for the first time. I can never get used to it. Silly, isn’t it?” she sighed self-reprovingly.

“No, it’s not silly at all!” Nova said soothingly. “Rodimus and I haven’t been together as long as you two have, but I feel exactly the way that you do. I’m terrified that something will happen to Roddy, but at the same time I can’t bring myself to believe that it will. My fuel pump just about stopped when Primus possessed his body to fight Unicron. I was positive that he’d be killed, but I couldn’t accept it. We want to believe that our men are invulnerable.”

“And sometimes it’s the opposite for them.” Andromeda gave her a watery smile. “Optimus knows in his head that I can take care of myself, but his heart says that I need to be looked after. I had to scold him a few times for being overprotective until he backed off.” Nova nodded. Her illness had evoked the same reaction in Rodimus. Just because she could be dying didn’t mean that she was going to let life pass her by.

Nova had always been grateful for her friendship with Andromeda. They both had found themselves in the uniquely awkward position of dating Autobot commanders. Rodimus was flamboyant and a bit of a player, while Optimus was reserved, but they were still revered leaders. Andromeda ranked higher than Nova and had more responsibilities, but they were nowhere close to the Primes on the command totem pole. It had sometimes been impossible to separate the men’s public and private personas. This had lead to some embarrassing and frustrating incidents. Nova had found Ani’s advice and experience invaluable.

“Do you know what the worst part is?” Andromeda whispered, staring at her hands as another tear tricked down her cheek. “We had a fight just before we left. We didn’t say anything too nasty or irrevocable, but it was bad enough for me to come here until it blew over.”

Nova had wondered why Andromeda had shown up at Metroplex all of a sudden, but she had assumed that it had been on Kup’s authority. She squelched a feeling of morbid curiosity. Optimus and Andromeda always seemed to get along so well, although they had their share of ups and downs. She desperately wanted to know what had sparked the argument, but now was not the time to ask. She could tell that Ani wasn’t ready to rip open that particular wound so soon after Prime’s death. “Andromeda, you know that Optimus cared about you. A silly argument won’t change that.”

Andromeda made an odd choking sound. “It’s not the argument that bothers me. It would have blown over soon enough if we had given it a chance. It’s just that I never had a chance to say a proper goodbye. My last words to him were that I couldn’t stand to be around him at the moment. It’s an awful way to part.”

‘Ouch,’ Nova winced mentally. “When I was a little girl, my mommy would talk to me sometimes about the Autobots. The Lithonians didn’t know a lot about the Autobot heritage, but they were able to pick up pieces here and there. My favorite tale was about the Matrix. Legend has it that when an Autobot dies, his spark goes into the Matrix to be at peace and to become reunited with those that came before. Is that right?”

The other femme nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Primus watches over the sparks in the Matrix and protects them with his essence. They make each other stronger. And since Primus watches over his children, those inside the Matrix remain close to us as well. Although we cannot contact them, they are still with us, in a sense.” She shook her head. “It’s comforting to think that Optimus is still out there, but I’d give anything for just one more moment with him, to say I’m sorry.”

“Maybe you can.” Nova tugged on her arm. “Let’s go to the Temple of Primus to pay our respects.”

* * * * *

Ultra Magnus barely recognized his Autobots anymore. The change that had come over them was astounding and more than a little frightening. Andromeda had become little more than a wraith, haunting the Temple of Primus at night, leaving a sacrifice of tears. In the daytime, she drifted through her duties with an air of detachment. The quality of her work had fallen dramatically, but even Kup had not been able to find it in his heart to reprimand her.

The most blatant change was within Rodimus Prime himself. Rodimus worked like a ‘bot possessed. No complaints, no jokes, no quips. Rodimus was at the height of production, accomplishing more than a day than Magnus and Kup combined. Kup approved of the productivity, but it left Ultra Magnus feeling uneasy. In the initial stint as Autobot leader, Magnus had found him to be unmotivated and occasionally sloppy, but Rodimus had made up for it with heart. Experience had worn down the rough edges, as Magnus had known it would, honing the young Prime into an exemplary commander. He had been the perfect foil for Optimus. Roddy was young, brash, and outgoing, while Optimus was more laid-back and cautious. Now the spark that made Rodimus so special appeared to be extinguished. Ultra Magnus hoped that it was only temporary. He had seen Rodimus bounce back from personal tragedy, but this was definitely a new low for them all.

Surprisingly, Kup was the one who needed a short leash. Many of his plans were logical and sensible, but the majority of his suggestions involved radical changes to the infrastructure in Iacon’s Autobase and Metroplex on Earth. While it would undoubtedly make the Autobots stronger, they simply didn’t have the resources to invest. Kup’s solution was simple: cut the Decepticons off from sharing the Autobots’ supplies. All well and good, if they were looking to start another war. Occasionally Magnus wondered if that was exactly what Kup wanted. Sometimes the old campaigner got an odd glint in his eye when he talked about the old days of battle.

As for him… Magnus wasn’t sure how much more he could take. He was used to losing friends on the battlefield, people that he had cared deeply about. He had learned to work through the pain, and eventually he had stopped reacting. War had a way of sapping one’s spirit. But Optimus had been different. He had been one of Magnus’ oldest and most trusted of comrades, and he had been a shining beacon for them all throughout the darkest days of the war. When Optimus had disappeared on the fateful shuttle run all of those millions of years ago, the Autobots had been hard-pressed to hold the line without him. And when Optimus had resurfaced, it was as if a god had walked among them. Optimus made his people believe in the impossible, simply through his strength of conviction.

And now that he was gone… well, things didn’t look so promising. The war was over, yes, but would it stay that way? Fingers were being pointed and accusations were flying. Mutters and angry glances could be observed from even the most pacifistic Autobots. There had been several skirmishes between individual Autobots and Decepticons looking to work out their aggression, but thankfully they had quickly been neutralized.

Magnus frowned as he passed by Iacon’s command center. It was well past midnight, but the light under the door still shone. Rodimus needed to get some recharge in, or else he’d collapse and then the Autobots would have neither Prime to lead them.

* * * * *

Rodimus set aside the last datapad on a towering, haphazard stack and rubbed his optics. He had plenty of information, but precious little clues on what the Circle was and where it would strike next. If only he could find something that he’d overlooked; if only he could foil their next plot, then maybe lives would be saved. A tiny, nasty little voice whispered within, ‘If only you’d figured it out sooner, then Optimus might still be alive.’

He shook his head, finding himself slipping into a recharge-deprived stupor. Magnus was right; he was no good to anyone like this. Next he might start falling into a depression like Optimus. He squelched the restless feeling that he should be *doing* something productive and blearily made his way toward his quarters.

He collapsed upon his recharge berth and flung an arm over his optics. The past few weeks, he had only been able to grab snatches of recharge here and there, with his over-stimulated mind refusing to fully shut down. At this point, however, he was too worn out to stay awake, and he gratefully slipped into the fog of slumber.

* * *

Balls of light. They were brilliant and dazzling to see. He knew instinctively that the brightness should be painful, yet he felt no discomfort. Three. One large and red, the others smaller and yellow.

Then seven. Seven round spheres, not bright like the first three. One brown, one reddish-yellow, one a vaporous green, one a vibrant hot pink (he paused to look but was pulled onward), one blue with yellow rings, one grey, and one a stripy blue-brown-yellow.

He was drawn to this last one, and as he came closer it grew until it filled his entire vision. Then there was darkness. No, not quite darkness. Someone was there.

A female. He did not know her. Had never met her kind. Though it was nearly dark, he could see her skin. Violet, with accents of lavender here and there. Avian, for he could see her wings. Sad. She was sad and troubled but trying to help. He reached out to touch her, and reality shattered.

* * *

Rodimus sat up with a small cry. His hand was outstretched, as if trying to touch the creature in his dream. He had had odd dreams before, but this was truly bizarre. What could it mean?

Nothing, of course. It was nothing but an assorted jumble of images that his fatigued mind was trying to catalogue and make sense of. Anyway, what did it matter? He had more important things to worry about. He rolled over and frowned at his clock. It was nearly 10h00. He was grateful for the lie-in, but he had work to do. Nose to the grindstone and all that. He smirked slightly as he dragged himself from his recharge berth. While disturbing, he couldn’t deny that his dream had been a bit comforting as well.

He headed into the command center and gave a nod to Magnus. The red, white and blue Autobot came to join him. “Rest well?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. Thanks for giving me the extra recharge, though we shouldn’t be making a habit of it.” Rodimus nodded at the omnipresent tower of datapads. “Find anything new?”

“Unfortunately not.” Magnus’ frustration was palpable. Rodimus seconded it entirely. Somewhere out there was a terrorist threat, someone who had actually managed to kill the Autobots’ most revered leader, and they were no closer to catching them. He was glad that he had gotten some extra recharge. He didn’t handle stress nearly as well as Optimus did. He’d already shouted at Magnus a few times, primarily about forgetting to inform Andromeda of her beloved’s fate. Nova had also torn a huge chunk out of the city commander as well. Magnus felt horrible about the situation as it was, and he had apologized to Andromeda several times. There was nothing to be gained about harping over it, but when tempers frayed, anything could spark a big argument.

“Look, Mags,” Rodimus said heavily. “We’ve been over the data a million times, and I don’t know about you, but my head is spinning. Let’s give it a rest for a little while. I’ve got something crucial to discuss with you. I’ve been trying to avoid it, but I guess that’s just silly and selfish of me. It’s time to discuss a memorial ceremony for Optimus.”

Ultra Magnus looked relieved. He had tried to broach the subject a few times, but Rodimus had curtly cut him off in the past. Magnus had known Optimus for over nine million years, but he hadn’t felt the emotional connection to their fallen leader like Rodimus had, even thought he city commander had borne the Matrix himself for a short time. It was a wonder that Rodimus was holding up. “Tell me what you have in mind.”

The young Prime opened his mouth to speak as the door slid open. Kup walked in, bringing a fresh stack of pads. He looked at both Autobots in curiosity, knowing that he had interrupted something important. “Something I should be concerned with, lads?”

Rodimus blinked. There was an edge to Kup’s tone, as if he felt left out or felt that something was being kept from him. Kup was a control freak; his job as security chief demanded it. Well, now was as good a time as any to tell him. Roddy would have appreciated the chance to discuss his ideas with Magnus alone first, but speaking to both Magnus and Kup together would be more efficient. “I think it’s time that we arranged a memorial service for Optimus. He meant so much to all of us, and we need a way to recognize that. We need a chance to find closure and say goodbye.”

Kup nodded. “Well, I don’t argue with that, son. Where were you thinking of holding it?”

“I think Cybertron would be best. It’s where Optimus was created, and it’s the place he fought for so long to protect. Earth was his second home, but Cybertron just seems more significant.”

“I hear what you’re saying, lad, but I don’t know if it’s such a good idea. Earth would be a better choice. We have fewer targets to defend, and it is easier to restrict Decepticon access.”

“On the other hand,” Magnus commented, “Metroplex is still recovering from the attack. He got up to operational status in record time, but he’s not prepared to host an event of this magnitude. We know that both Iacon and Metroplex are both somehow vulnerable, but Iacon is in better shape at the moment.”

The security chief’s frown was evident. “Don’t forget that the Decepticons are here. Cybertron gives them a perfect base for an attack.”

“You’re right that Earth is a less visible target,” Rodimus conceded. “However, I trust Magnus’ judgment about Metroplex. Plus, if an attack is imminent, we would be putting the humans in danger as well. Their defenses are immeasurably better than they once were, but I can’t in good conscience paint a target on that planet again.”

“I agree. Cybertron’s the best option. We can always beef up security at the ceremony. The Decepticons and the Circle alike would be fools to attack if we brought out the big guns.”

Kup sensed defeat. “All right, you two do have a point. However, we have to work out the duty rosters ahead of time. We need skeleton crews in certain strategic areas. It would be laughable to fight the Circle this far and then practically invite them in by leaving high-security areas undefended.”

“I’m sure we can work something out,” Magnus said in a placating tone. “We’ll talk about it later in the day.”

After that, the arrangements were surprisingly easy. Plans were made, schedules were rearranged, and it all fell into place. Luckily those that were stuck at their posts did not protest much. The ceremony would be televised for those who could not attend, and everyone understood the need for endless security. For someone who had been putting it off, Rodimus was relieved that it was finally happening. Maybe the finality of the ceremony would help to close the aching void in his spark.

Choosing the honor guard was a harder task. They had far too many volunteers and choosing the most able and deserving was a grind. He had hesitated to select Andromeda, but she actually came to him and requested it. For once she seemed alert and determined to do her duty. She was given the highest honor of all: to stand at the foot of the funeral bier as the primary guard. The bier would be empty, but its presence was symbolic. She would guard his memory in death as she had guarded him in life.

Cybertron did not have much in the way of weather. For this, Rodimus was grateful. He usually enjoyed the changing cycles of rain, snow, wind and sun on Earth, but today he wanted no distractions. A cheery, sunny day would have been unbearably depressing.

He took a moment to survey the gathering from a small alcove.

It always surprised him at just how big the Autobot army was. They jostled for position as quietly as possible, respectful of the somber tone of the event. Some of the larger 'bots were kind enough to give smaller ones, such as the Minicons, a boost. There was also a small, raised platform where other "vertically challenged" robots could assemble for a decent vantage point.

The honor guard was assembled around the funeral bier, weapons propped against their shoulders in ceremonial respect. Andromeda had been given a special place at the foot of the bier itself. Flags with the Autobot symbol fluttered at the outer corners of the amphitheater. Although the bier was empty, the guards were determined to protect it with their life. Rodimus knew without a doubt that nearly every 'bot would be packing heat. If the Circle dared to show its face, they would be confronted with Autobot vengeance. While Roddy had been working hard to discourage any vigilante acts, it made him proud to see his people ready to stand up for themselves and what they had lost.

Enough woolgathering. It was time. He headed towards the raised dais, and the crowd fell silent. For a mad second he wished he had a pin to drop, simply to see how loud it would be. Brushing the feeling aside, he stepped onto the dais and addressed the gathered crowd.

“Greetings, Autobots. I regret that it is a sad occasion that has gathered us together today. A time of celebration and unity has turned to one of tragedy and loss. Today we are gathered here to bid farewell to one of our own. Optimus Prime was very much the heart and soul of the Autobot army, and his passing has been a heavy blow. Not many beings have the dubious honor of being eulogized twice,” there were a few nervous titters and he cracked a small smile himself, “but then again, Optimus was always unique.”

He waved a data pad. “I came here with a prepared speech. I was going to tell you all about Optimus Prime the warrior, the noble leader who sustained us in time of doubt and defeat and led us to victory. But you all know that Prime already.” He tossed the pad over his shoulder. “I’d like to talk about Optimus Prime the person. Let me tell you, it takes someone out of the ordinary to be Prime. It is a full-time job that is all-consuming with little time off. It is a responsibility that Optimus bore gladly. Few of us can remember back from the beginning of the war, but those that do will know that Prime had the same rocky start that I did. Some may say that great leaders are born, not made, but there is definitely a learning curve involved. Optimus faced the nearly impossible task of creating and training an army against the rising Decepticon threat. If not for him, we would have lost before we had even begun.

“For the past nine million years, we have depended on him for leadership and guidance. Prime had certain qualities that made him shine both as a leader and friend. He had genuine compassion and worried about even the lowliest cadet. I’m sure that some of you remember him pausing in his duties to trade a few pleasantries or to check up on progress. He judged people on their personality, not their rank. The major battles were certainly crucial, but it was the small things that he did that really made the difference. He often sacrificed personal time for the good of his people. It can be lonely at the top, but it was a burden that he bore without hesitation. He was all heart, and that is why we all loved him so much. When you think of Optimus, recall the major battles and victories, but also recall the personal touch. Remember Optimus Prime the person as well as Optimus Prime the leader.”

He stepped aside to let others speak. The rest of the memorial service passed in a blur. Ultra Magnus had eulogized Prime the first time around. Rodimus had not known the elder Prime very well and had felt more than a little guilt over his death. Roddy had had no idea what to say, so his rehearsed speech had turned out stilted and not at all what he had wanted to convey about his closest friend. He knew that speaking from his heart had been the way to go. He had been able to restrain his emotions while delivering the eulogy, but as he now watched Magnus at the podium, he felt himself getting choked up.

The funeral made Prime’s death all too real. It was a relief to acknowledge his passing, but the void within him ached all the more.

He jerked out of his reverie to realize that everyone was staring at him expectantly. He gave himself a mental shake and approached the dais once more. “Optimus Prime built this army from the ground up, with a little help, of course. There were times when all seemed lost. Through the worst of it, he boosted our flagging spirits and gave us the courage to carry on. He was a beacon of hope shining through our darkest hour. Just at the time of our triumph – unity of the Transformers race and peace in our time – darkness threatens once more. I beg you, do not let that darkness consume all that we hold dear. We must be strong and continue on in Optimus’ memory, honoring all that he worked so hard to achieve. His spark has been extinguished, and it is now up to us to keep the light alive. Each of us have our own bit of light to give. If we all work together, we can light up the universe.” He activated his headlights, the twin beams radiating into the crowd. One by one, the assembled Autobots followed suit until the amphitheater was flooded with dazzling brilliance. In the center of the lights, the funeral bier’s engines ignited and the empty container launched into space. The assembled Autobots saluted as one, honoring the passing of their greatest leader into the Matrix.

On a distant hilltop stood a lone figure. As Iacon was illuminated with thousands of points of light, he saw the funeral bier reach for the heavens. The solitary figure saluted as he fired his fusion cannon in the air. A fitting sendoff for an honored warrior.


Chapter Eight

Life went on. The funeral had given the Autobots a chance to mourn their leader, and it hurt to go on without him, but there was still so much to be done. They pressed on grimly, throwing their efforts into construction and security projects, as if wanting to forget the painful loss that they had suffered.

Rodimus had found the past few weeks difficult. The memorial service no longer loomed in his thoughts, but the antics of the Circle still kept him preoccupied. There had been no further strikes since Prime’s death. Either that event had somehow disrupted the group, or they were lying low. He strongly suspected the latter.

The one bright spot was Nova. He had no idea how, but she had managed to wangle a day on Cybertron with him. Magnus had come up to meet with Cyclonus, and Kup wanted to give his security upgrades yet another review, so she had hitched a ride. Rodimus cleared his schedule for her, but things were still a bit strained. He still felt the fathomless ache of Optimus’ loss, and his workload had doubled due to the absence. Nova was concerned for Andromeda. They tried to talk about happier things, but their thoughts dwelled on the same depressing subjects. Before he knew it, their day together had ended. He snuck a kiss before she boarded the shuttle. His optics followed it until it disappeared amongst the stars.

He was heading back to his office to catch up on some neglected paperwork when shouts rang out. “Traitorous bastards! We never should have trusted them!”

Rodimus poked his head into the room. “What’s going on?”

Cliffjumper shook his fist. “Damned ‘Cons! They stole some classified data!”

Oh no. Not another disaster.

“Not the ‘Cons,” Blaster said quietly. “The Circle. See?” He pushed aside a metal cabinet, revealing a small burnt circle on the wall.

“’Cons, Circle, it’s the same thing!” Cliffjumper was apoplectic. “Check the energy signature of weapon that made that mark. It was made by a ‘Con!”

Rodimus rubbed his temples, feeling the throbbing begin. “Get Perceptor down here to analyze it. Blaster, summon a security force to guard the room. Make a list of all compromised and missing data. I want it on my desk, on the double!”

“Wait! Where are you going?” Cliffjumper sputtered.

The look on Rodimus’ face was terrifying. “Where I should have gone in the first place. To talk to Megatron.”

He transformed as soon as he was clear of the base, his tires squealing as he rocketed down the little-used throughway. Ahh, it had been too long since he had raced like this! Why hadn’t he done this much sooner? The towns were bustling and the major highways were congested, but the back roads were deserted. Out here he had nothing but the purr of his engine for company. A half-mad cackle erupted from his vocalizer.

For months they had been held hostage to fear and uncertainty. The Circle had struck deep and true. Now they would be cowed no longer. Rodimus was going to put a stop to all this nonsense. He had felt hollow ever since Prime’s death, but now a simmering anger had taken hold. He coaxed it until it was an all-out boil. Rage sizzled through his circuitry and fuel lines until it felt like the very flames painted on his chassis had come to life. There was no stopping him now.

He roared up the main road to Darkmount, gravel spewing from his churning tires. Decepticon guards came racing over to the perimeter. Rodimus waited until he was practically on top of them until he transformed. His rifle appeared by his side, not aimed in threat but ready to use at a moment’s notice. He glared defiantly at the numerous weapons pointed at him. “Take me to Megatron.”

The guards cast doubtful glances. One of them stepped away and opened a communications channel. He nodded in confirmation, and no less than three of them fell in like to escort the Autobot inside. He smirked as they hustled him past no-doubt sensitive areas to Megatron’s office. My, wasn’t he getting the special treatment?

The door swished open to reveal the Decepticon leader standing behind his desk. His fusion cannon lay on the desktop. Clearly he had gotten the message that this was not to be a friendly meeting. But he was still ready to talk. If he hadn’t been, the cannon would have been leveled at Roddy’s head. The guards hesitated at the doorway, but Megatron waved them away.

Rodimus glared. Megatron folded his arms and waited. “Explain this!”

Megatron caught the data pad that was flung at him. He thumbed through its contents idly. “Is there some point to this?”

“Sensitive data stolen! A Decepticon weapon used at the scene! By Primus, isn’t it obvious?! The Decepticons are behind these attacks, and I want to know why!”

Megatron’s lips twitched into a cold smile. “Is that what you think?”

Roddy planted his hands on his hips. “Yeah, it’s what I think. The data speaks for itself. Cyclonus came to meet with Magnus, and while he was here some top-secret data goes missing. Coincidence?”

Megatron fixed him with an eerie stare. “Cyclonus. Report to me immediately.”

The door opened just seconds later. Cyclonus had probably been waiting nearby, no doubt to intervene if things got ugly. The second-in-command entered, looking at his leader warily. Megatron gestured toward Rodimus. “Give the Autobot your weapon.” Cyclonus looked flummoxed but did as he was ordered. Rodimus took it gingerly, as if it was rigged to explode.

“Does it look as if it has been recently fired?”

“No.” The charge was full. “But it could have been recharged after he returned here. It means nothing.”

“Does the energy signature match the one you found at the scene?”

“…no.” Cyclonus had a Targetmaster weapon, which had a significantly different energy signature. “But he could have had another weapon on him. Or someone else could have snuck in with him and done the job. A Decepticon weapon was used during the theft, and that’s all there is to it.”

Megatron waved his hand once more. Cyclonus took his weapon and left, casting a questioning glance over his shoulder. He would no doubt be waiting outside in case he was needed.

Once his second-in-command was gone, Megatron leaned over the desk, allowing the Autobot to see the carefully restrained anger in his optics. “You are forgetting something, Autobot. The energy signature matches a Decepticon weapon; more precisely, a basic model used by grunt troops. We willingly supplied you with nearly fifty of these weapons. Perhaps you should search your own munitions stocks before accusing us.”

Rodimus’ fists clenched. Dammit, he had forgotten all about that! Still, there had to be more to it. “I’m not buying it, Megatron. There’s more than just an energy signature linking your troops to these attacks. For nearly every one, Decepticons were reported in the area or Decepticon equipment was found at the scene. I allowed my faith in the Alliance to blind me. Kup was right. We never should have trusted you.”

Megatron snarled, his fists leaving dents in the desktop. He looked like he would like nothing better than to wrap his fists around Prime’s throat and squeeze. “How typical. The Autobot sees what is before his optics and looks no further. Isn’t it a little convenient that Decepticons were in the area every time? And how perfect is it that Decepticon weapon signatures and other paraphernalia were found at the scenes? You know yourself that we have been sharing technologies and manpower. Can’t you see that someone is setting us up? Someone *wants* you to think that the Decepticons are behind it! Someone is trying to tear apart what we have worked so hard to build!”

Rodimus was practically screaming now. “You used us to gain a foothold on Cybertron! You took our Energon and our resources and now you’re trying to start a war again! Well, I won’t have it, Megatron! I won’t allow you to destroy the Autobots! This is exactly the sort of thing that your people would pull!”

“It should be obvious that we’re not behind this!” Megatron’s optics were glowing a fiery red. “You know we’re bred to fight, to face challenges and conquer them. We are a warlike race and make no apologies for it. But we are not prepared to stand on our own. The years in exile on Charr and the battle against Unicron have weakened us. It is in our best interests to ally ourselves with you so that we can survive as a race. If we were more independent, perhaps these attacks would make sense coming from us. But these clandestine attacks are not our style. They are cowardly and without honor.”

“That’s slag and you know it! The Decepticons will do anything to get an advantage, even resorting to subterfuge. And what of Optimus’ death? Who but the Decepticons would want to kill him? My best friend is dead and the only one to blame is you!” Rodimus saw red. Optimus should have died in battle, or peacefully in his recharge chamber of old age, not in a cowardly shuttle bombing! But at least he could achieve vengeance on those responsible. He lifted his weapon and pointed it at the Decepticon leader.

Megatron followed suit, leveling his fusion cannon at the irate Autobot leader. But he did not pull the trigger. “You are an even bigger fool than I suspected, Rodimus Prime. I have fought Optimus on many occasions, and the only honorable way to defeat a foe of such magnitude is in hand-to-hand combat. Surely you remember that little skirmish.” His lips twisted in a parody of a smile as Rodimus looked sickened at the memory. “Yes, I thought so. For most of my life, Optimus was my archenemy and should only be vanquished by my hand. All of my warriors know this. They could do whatever they liked to whomever they liked, so long as they left the killing blow to me. Do you think a bomb would have satisfied me? It would have gotten rid of my foe, but it would have left me without glory.”

“Hah! The Decepticon code. Don’t make me laugh. Maybe you didn’t pull the trigger, but if Optimus died on your orders than he may as well have been killed by your hand.” The weapon in Roddy’s hand was trembling.

“Then think about this, Autobot!” Megatron roared. “It was supposed to be me on that shuttle. Me! If you could wrap that feeble processor of yours around that idea, then you’d realize that this whole Circle business is an inside job! Someone on your side wanted me dead and had the means to do it. This entire Circle operation is a frame-up. The Circle wants to destabilize the Alliance and have the Decepticons take the fall for it. Well, I’m nobody’s scapegoat. You want to fight me, Autobot? Well, that’s fine with me. Peace never sat very well with me anyway. But you’d better fight for the right reasons. Think long and hard before you pull that trigger.”

Rodimus’ weapon drooped in his suddenly numb hand. The truth hit him like a sledgehammer. Gods. Why hadn’t he seen it before? Optimus was never supposed to have been on that shuttle. It should have been Megatron all along! Someone was trying to kill *Megatron* and Optimus was an unintended victim. And who else would want Megatron dead but an Autobot? “Who knew of the switch?” he asked in a choked voice. “How many people knew that Optimus was going in your place?”

Megatron narrowed his optics at him and ever-so-slowly lowered his fusion cannon. “Only Soundwave. He was the one that was overseeing my repairs. Besides him, the only other person I told was you.”

“And I only spoke to Optimus. So the only ones who knew about the change were you, me, Optimus, and Soundwave.” Rodimus felt his throat constrict. “Are you certain there’s no chance of Decepticon involvement?”

The Decepticon leader looked pensive. “It could be possible. Decepticons are ambitious by nature, and there have been many who wish to take my place. Starscream was my biggest competitor, but he’s been long gone. There could be another would-be usurper, but I cannot think of any who would stoop to a shuttle bomb. The most honorable way to challenge leadership would be a direct confrontation. A bomb would be seen as cowardly. Besides, a Decepticon would have been proud to take credit for the death of the Autobots’ greatest leader. The fact that no one has stepped forward is very telling.”

Prime nodded. “I see. Well, you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about.” He took a step backwards. “Perhaps I should go now.”

“Wait.” Rodimus tensed as Megatron approached. The fusion cannon was still in his hand. He reached out, and it took the Autobot a moment to realize that it was the open, empty hand outstretched. He grasped it firmly. An offering of peace, then. He stepped outside the office and barely noticed when Cyclonus appeared to escort him outside. It was an utter relief to transform to vehicle mode and burn rubber back to Iacon. He could not believe how close he had come to shattering the Alliance.

It was lucky that he had chosen the back way, since he could have easily run someone off the road and not even notice. Megatron had turned everything he had thought on its ear. Why hadn’t he conferred with Megatron before? He knew that Optimus had traded a few words with the ‘Con leader on the situation but Rodimus had never cared to follow up on it. At the time, it seemed best to give the Decepticons as little information on the situation as possible.

He wandered back into Autobase, lost in thought, and nearly collided with Perceptor. The scientist began chatting enthusiastically. “Here’s the report you asked for, sir! A standard laser Decepticon weapon was used to make the mark on the wall. I believe we have quite a few in the armory if you would like to compare.” Damn. If he had consulted with Perceptor earlier, he could have saved himself a lot of embarrassment. Perceptor showed no signs of slowing, so he said, “Thank you, Perceptor. I’m sure everything I need is here. I’ll let you know if I have any more questions.” He left the scientist scratching his head, muttering, “Erm, of course, Prime, ahem.”

Now that Megatron had turned his investigation in a new direction, it was time to get back to work. He looked at the mounting evidence of the Circle, reviewing the same old pattern with a different slant. Each time there was an attack, it had either been on Autobot or shared Autobot/Decepticon territory. Not once had the Decepticons alone been targeted. And each time, a Decepticon had either been in the vicinity or Decepticon materials had been used. Everything seemed to point directly at the Decepticons. And yet there were holes to this theory. How was it that they were never actually caught in the act? Most of the attacks were in high-security areas. It would be extremely difficult to enter and exit such areas without being seen. Certain ‘Cons such as Soundwave could manage it, no doubt, but even he couldn’t thwart all their security measures. That meant it had to be an inside job. Someone clever, someone who was familiar with the Iacon and Metroplex bases.

The more inquires he made, the more it made sense. Rodimus had a quick word with Magnus and confirmed that the Major General had been with Cyclonus the whole time. The Decepticon wouldn’t have had a chance to commit the break-in, and there was little chance that one of his cohorts had slipped in. It would either have to be an Autobot, or someone closely allied, such as the humans.

Rodimus headed to the armory, a knot in his gut. There was only one way to be sure. He would need to find proof. Inside was nearly every conceivable weapon, from lasers and blasters to mortars and projectile weapons. They were still used to protect the planet and maintain an army, but it was Prime’s fervent hope that they would never again be needed for war. That hope may now be in vain.

Five rows back, to the right, sat row after row of generic laser rifles. Generic Decepticon weaponry, on loan to supplement the weapons that were destroyed in the battle with Unicron. Rodimus tapped a button on the wall, and the row slid out. He examined each rifle in turn until he found what he was looking for. The rifle on the far right in the very last row had a partially discharged power cell. It could mean anything, he tried to tell himself. It could be a faulty cell. Someone could have used it for training and not recharged it. At the same time he knew he was deluding himself. If the cell was faulty, it would be completely dead, and if someone had used it last, they would have recharged it. Such negligence was punished with demerits and a training session with Ultra Magnus. Few were foolish enough to forget to recharge their weapon a second time. There could only be one explanation. Since each rifle was inspected upon return, this one had to have been removed without authorization and returned quickly to avoid detection. There may not have been time to recharge it. Rodimus decided to take the rifle into his custody as evidence.

He lay awake hours later in his recharge berth, unable to rest. The new revelation of the Circle kept racing through his mind. Who could be behind it? There had to be more than one person to wreak the amount of havoc that had occurred. Who was their leader? Who could be involved?

If it was an Autobot, it could be virtually anybody. Magnus? He certainly had no love for the Decepticons, but he was a strong supporter of the Alliance and seemed to get along fairly well with Cyclonus. He couldn’t see Magnus as a Circle member. Springer? He also had a reason to hate the ‘Cons, but the triple-changer seemed to enjoy peacetime. Andromeda? She knew that the Alliance was Optimus’ baby and surely she would support it, but who really knew anything for sure? Nova.

Oh god. Nova.

Nova had wanted to visit out of the blue, which had seemed unusual in and of itself. The theft had occurred around the same time. Had Nova been behind it? She had minimal security clearance, but she was clever and with the proper training and tools could probably have pulled off such a stunt. Nova’s hatred for the Decepticons was infamous, and she had even once tried to assassinate Megatron in a fit of rage. She also had a thorny relationship with Ultra Magnus. Could this possibly be her way of getting back at them both? But she loved Rodimus, or said she did. Maybe her relationship was also a way to further infiltrate the Autobots for the Circle. No, that couldn’t be it. They had been together long before the Alliance and the Circle had formed. But that wouldn’t have stopped her from joining the Circle when it was created.

A realization came to him that chased away all possibility of recharge. He couldn’t trust anyone at all. He was completely on his own.

Several more weeks passed. Rodimus did his best to maintain a friendly façade while avoiding everyone as much as possible. He attended meetings as infrequently as he could manage, and when his attendance was mandatory, he shared as little information as possible. Dammit, the Decepticon civil war had been easy compared to this! At least then he could be certain who was on his side. People began to give him strange looks (well, more so than usual) but they attributed his standoffish attitude to stress and mourning. The only one he could deal with was Andromeda. Every now and then she would drop by with damp optics, and Rodimus would give her a shoulder to lean on. She would vent about how she hated being stared at, the poor "widow" of their greatest leader. She could barely function as it was without the gawkers making it worse. She sometimes spoke over guilt over his death, and a small, treacherous part of Roddy's mind wondered if it was because she could be part of the Circle, not just because of the fight she had had with Optimus. If he was suspecting her, maybe he truly was losing his mind. It felt good to commiserate with her over their mutual loss, but he was also glad to see her go. Nowadays, he could only relax when he was truly alone.

Inevitably, Ultra Magnus got fed up with his delay tactics and practically ordered him to report to Metroplex for several days of briefings. He had kept his arrival a secret, but when he heard Nova's happy squeal, for a moment nothing else mattered. He wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her up, watching her laugh joyously. Then the dreadful suspicion and doubt came crashing down on him, and he set her down and stepped back slightly. Her smile faded to one of slight hurt and confusion. "Roddy? I - I didn't expect to see you here."

"I, um, have some business in Metroplex. I thought I'd keep it a surprise." His smile felt forced and he cursed it. "How have things been down here?"

Nova shrugged, scuffing her toe on the floor. "Same old, same old. Everyone still misses Optimus, of course, but we're managing to keep things afloat. 'Plex's repairs are coming along really well. Kup's been foaming at the mouth to get security upgrades in place as we go along." Rodimus gave a genuine chuckle, and she looked relieved. "You'll probably get a better update from our illustrious City Commander. Speak of the devil."

Rodimus turned and saw Magnus gesturing impatiently. "Duty calls. I'll see you later, okay?" He nearly winced at her eager expression.

His visit to Earth was just as torturous as he expected. Magnus kept trying to pump him for information, and Roddy tried to be as elusive as possible without being obvious about it. Finally the Major General gave up and flung his arms in the air. The young Prime busied himself with inspecting the repairs and surreptitiously checking for Circle activity. He was able to find more evidence that Autobots were behind the attacks. For instance, how could the security logs have been erased unless by someone intimately familiar with Metroplex's workings and security protocols? The realization was chilling. He could only hope that Kup's upgrades would put a stop to some of the break-ins.

The first night was the worst. He lay awake, staring at the darkened ceiling, trying hard not to think of the huddled figure next to him. Nova knew that something was wrong. He tried, but he just couldn't bring himself to be intimate with her. Not with the knowledge that she may very well be a spy, thief and saboteur. She said she understood, thinking that his sorrow for Optimus and the pressures of his rank were affecting his mood, but she was hurt all the same. He had always confided in her before. Even if the specific details of his problems had been restricted, he could discuss his feelings and she could provide solace. Now there was some sort of barrier between them.

He was relieved beyond words when she invited Andromeda to stay with her. Two birds killed with one stone, as the humans say. Andromeda would have someone to take care of her, and she could regain her wits in a different setting. Plus Nova would be preoccupied with her friend and no longer be able to spend the nights at his place. He couldn't take another sleepless night.

Finally his time was nearly up, and he was set to return to Cybertron. It was a shame, really. He loved Earth and his friends were stationed here. He and Optimus had had rotating shifts, but they tried to work it so Op remained on Cybertron and Roddy on Earth. He had happy memories here, but now with all the doubts and suspicions that plagued him, he couldn't get away fast enough.

He was standing in the communications room, frowning at one of his datapads, when Smokescreen approached him. "Here, sir, the report you requested."

Rodimus looked at him as if he'd sprouted an extra head. "What rep-?" He glanced down at the proffered data pad. It said: We are being watched.

"Ah, yes, I remember now." The Autobot leader nodded, gesturing Smokescreen to come closer. "Forgive me; I've had a lot on my mind. Yes, this information is very important." Smokescreen was right. He could feel optics boring into him, and it wasn't just the usual idle curiosity. He typed on the pad: So I see. What's going on here?

Smokescreen nodded. "I figured you'd want it right away." He reached over and typed some more. "This in particular may be of interest." I am a member of the Circle.

Well. Rodimus certainly hadn't been expecting *that*. He felt several conflicting emotions at once. Rage that one of his Autobots could be behind this. Fear that he was standing so close to a member of a terrorist group. Fortunately the sensation was fleeting, and he was then able to recognize the gesture for what it was. An offer of help and information. He forced the words out of a constricted throat. "You're quite right. This information is essential to some of our new projects. Listen, Smokescreen, I really need to discuss this report with you, but I'm due in a meeting right now. I'll be in my quarters later trying to get some recharge in before I return to Cybertron. Perhaps we can meet before that."

"Would twenty-hundred hours be good?"

"Twenty-hundred hours would be fine. I'll see you in my quarters then." Smokescreen nodded and walked away. Rodimus clutched the pad until the plastic began to creak under the strain. Here was irrefutable proof that Autobots were behind the attack He just knew that he would be useless for the rest of the day until he got his chance to speak to Smokescreen and find out what he knew.

By the time 2000 hours came, Roddy was a wreck. He was pacing back and forth and wringing his hands. It was better than destroying something, but not by much. This was going to be bad, he just knew it. He knew he was going to find out some awful truths, but it would still be better than living in ignorance. He had managed to snatch a few precious moments of recharge, but his dreams had been filled with the odd sensation of floating through space and the image of a violet female being that meant absolutely nothing to him.

The buzzer sounded, and he squawked and jumped in the air. How Springer would have laughed if he could have seen him then! But of course there was no way he was going near Springer until he could figure out what his allegiances were. He sighed. Hopefully this little tête-à-tête with Smokescreen would shed some light on that subject. He was suddenly glad that he had decided to meet in his quarters, rather than his office. His office was supposed to be one of the most secure locations in Metroplex, but lately the thought wasn't very reassuring. His quarters were less likely to be compromised.

He opened the door and smiled in what he hoped was a casual manner. "Hello, Smokescreen. I hope you can shed some light on the information you provided."

"Oh, I certainly can," Smokescreen replied, stepping inside.

Once the door had shut, Rodimus pulled out a small device and placed it on the table as they each had a seat. It began to flash a small red light, indicating that it was jamming any listening devices. He stared at his visitor somberly, all traces of friendliness gone. "Tell me everything you know about the Circle."

Smokescreen's shoulders hunched. "I'm afraid I may not have as much information as you hoped."

"Why is the Circle trying to start the civil war all over again?"

"That's not our primary goal." Smokescreen shook his head. "We know that the Decepticons cannot be trusted, and it is essential to make sure that we are ready for when the betrayal comes. These attacks serve two purposes: to make the Decepticons look untrustworthy, and to force security upgrades in vulnerable areas. We don't want to provoke an all-out war again, but we also realize that such an outcome may be inevitable."

Rodimus rubbed his temples, feeling the hint of an imminent headache. "So all this is to essentially put us on our guard."

"Yes. The last time of real peace was the Golden Age. The Autobots allowed themselves to become complacent. When the Decepticons began their attacks, we were completely unprepared. This time we must maintain our vigilance."

"But why the subterfuge? Why not just openly request tighter security and changes in policy? Surely it's obvious that we made such changes when the Decepticons became our allies." This just didn't make much sense to him.

Smokescreen shrugged. "I guess our leader thinks that our message needed to have a major impact. He's right that words alone are not enough to get his changes through. He has some radical ideas of how things should be."

Which lead to a crucial point. "Exactly who is your leader?"

The other mech sighed. "I knew you were going to ask that, and I don't have a good answer. The fact is, I don't know. The Circle has been built on secrecy. We know as little about its missions and members as possible. We communicate with this." He held up a tiny spherical transmitter. "This is how our leader reaches us. Under no circumstances are we ever to meet face-to-face."

Damn. Smokescreen was right. This wasn't going to be as easy has he'd hoped. Still, he had already gained a lot of useful information. "What is your role in this whole thing?"

Smokescreen looked awkward. Rodimus felt no pity. "I joined the Circle because we've fought too hard to let the Decepticons take everything away from us. Make no mistake; they'd do it in a second if they could. Even sharing the same planet with them makes me edgy. We can stand alone; we don't need them.

"I haven't been involved in any of the bombings, in case you were wondering. My main function is to recruit others to our cause. I have a gift for talking to people and determining where their loyalties lie. There are a lot of us out there who don't like the direction things are going in. Of course you'd like to know who's involved in the Circle. Again, I don't have many names, due to the amount of secrecy. For certain, Cliffjumper, Topspin, Twin Twist, and Slag are members." Cliffjumper. Damn. It may be possible that he pulled off the data theft himself. "Bluestreak and Powerglide are possibilities but I can't say for sure."

Rodimus was perched at the end of his seat. The next question nearly made his fuel pump seize up. "And what about Nova?"

"Nova?" Smokescreen looked surprised, then realization dawned. "Oh, yes, I'd forgotten about your relationship...." Roddy's glare indicated he had strayed into forbidden territory. "No, she's not a member. She would be perfect recruit. I sounded her out about it, without her realizing of course. She seemed interested but didn't want to betray something that you had worked so hard for."

"What about Ultra Magnus?"

Smokescreen snorted. "You mean Mr. Straight-and-narrow? He'd never be part of a terrorist unit. This Alliance is one of his pet projects. Besides, do you really think he'd bomb his own base?" It did sound rather silly, come to think of it. Still, these days, one couldn't be too careful.

After nearly an hour of questioning, Rodimus was finally ready to bring it to a close. "One more question. Why did you come forward to me? You could have continued working for the Circle in secret."

The other mech nodded emphatically. "That's an important part of my story. You see, Optimus was never supposed to die. We had been gunning for Megatron instead. Without their leader, the Decepticons would be weaker than ever, and it would be easy to drive them to the corners of the universe. But Prime ended up a victim. It was then that I took a step back to really see what we were doing. We aren't accomplishing much good with our actions. If innocent people are being hurt, then it isn't worth the price. The Circle has to be stopped."

Rodimus smiled grimly. "I'd like nothing better."

An hour later, the shuttle took off as scheduled, on a heading for Cybertron. Rodimus watched from the shadows with a feeling of icy anger. There. Whoever may have been watching would believe he had left. It was time to put his plan into action.

He had taken a calculated risk in approaching Blaster. Smokescreen had kindly loaned him the special communicator provided to him by the Circle leader. Roddy had shown it to the communications officer, watching very closely for any sign of recognition. Blaster appeared to have never seen its kind before and was very eager to examine it. Rodimus had promised him a field day sometime in the near future, but right now he needed the unit intact. Blaster had determined that it used a communications band that wasn’t normally monitored by either the Autobots or Decepticons. Fortunately, once they knew what to look for, it was very easy for them to devise a way to monitor and track transmissions on that wavelength.

From his hiding spot, Rodimus gave the signal. Smokescreen opened a channel with the tiny communicator that had been returned to him for just this purpose. The Autobot leader tapped into the frequency and listened intently to the conversation. “Number fifty-seven to Leader One. Come in, Leader One.” Fifty-seven? Did that mean there were at least fifty-six other Circle members? And who was this Leader One?

“This is Leader One.” Rodimus powered down his optics to better focus. The voice was clearly disguised with some kind of modulator. It was rather rough-sounding, and Roddy wondered if that was a quality in the speaker’s normal voice. “You know you’re not to initiate contact except in emergency. What’s going on?”

“I think you’ll find this is worth it.” Smokescreen sounded excited. “I met with Rodimus Prime tonight. The sucker actually let me into his quarters. While I was there, I noticed a few data pads with classified information. I was able to copy a few of them, but even the copies are encrypted. I can’t tell what’s on them.”

“Leave that to me.” Rodimus pulled out the homing device. Just as Blaster had promised, he was able to pinpoint the source of the leader’s transmission. As luck would have it, it wasn’t far from his current position. Praying that Smokescreen could keep Leader One talking, he began to sneak towards the bright blip on the screen. He mentally summoned a diagram of Metroplex. The signal was likely coming from one of the storage hangars. Roddy reached the area in record time, and sure enough, one of the hangars had a security seal activated. Very unusual, since he knew for a fact that nothing dangerous or high-security was kept here. In no time he was able to break through the seal while deactivating the warning alarm. His time as Hot Rod had served him well. Of course he could have used his ID to simply turn off the field, but that would also alert the occupant.

For such a large being, he found that he could move nearly silently when the situation called for it. He stole inside and crept forward, taking shelter behind a gigantic container. His optics adjusted to the minimal light inside. In the corner knelt a shadowy figure. He was unable to identify it from its current hunched-over position, but it seemed familiar. The vocal modulator still disguised his voice. Rodimus was still no closer to knowing his identity.

Well, there was only one way to find out. He came up behind the figure, who was still deep in conversation. Brandishing his weapon from subspace, he pressed it into the leader’s neck. “Game’s up.”

The figure turned with an expression of surprise. But it was nothing compared to the utter shock that Rodimus felt at seeing his face. At first his processor simply refused to accept it. But there could be no doubt. Kneeling at his feet was his mentor, the one that had trained him and Optimus both as warriors and as leaders. The hero of several successive wars. His oldest friend. Kup.


Chapter Nine

For a few paralyzing seconds, no one moved. Then Kup began to rise, and Rodimus grabbed him by the arm in a crushing grip, hauling him to his feet. "Don't move," he hissed, keeping his gun pressed to the old warrior's neck.

Kup looked wounded. "Come now, lad, be reasonable," he cajoled.

"Reasonable!" he thundered, and Kup actually winced.

"Reasonable?! Was it reasonable to steal our own data, to bomb our own cities? Was it reasonable to kill Optimus? I think not!"

"Look, son, that part was an accident. No one meant for Optimus to get hurt."

"And killing Megatron would have been okay? Look, a few years ago I would have thrown a party, but those days are gone. As much as I may want to plant my foot into his rear access port, he's valuable and we need him."

Kup shook his head. "I wanted to involve you, Rodimus. I wanted to work together, like we always have, to eradicate the Decepticons and make the universe safe once more. But I could see that their pretty words had turned your head. You became blinded and could not see the truth that was staring you in the face. I had to take matters into my own hands."

"No, you didn't. You could have come to me and we could have discussed it like rational adults. Don't treat me like a kid, Kup; those days are gone too. The fact is, you knew I wouldn't go along with your plans because they are just plain wrong. I have no objection to increased security and changes in policy. But what you are doing is against everything we stand for. Eradication? That is not the Autobot way. We kill only when we must, and even then we usually regret it.

You've been trying to stage a coup." Kup opened his mouth to speak, but Rodimus waved his gun threateningly. His old friend was a terrorist and was going to be treated as such. "You may not have wanted to seize power directly, but your motives were similar. You wanted change and you wanted it your way. You didn't want to go through the proper channels. You wanted to use fear and hate to shape the Autobot army and its bases to your specifications. Maybe you'd be generous and allow me to remain as a figurehead, but you'd steadily eat your way through the ranks until I had no real support left."

Kup looked chagrined. "That was not my intention, lad. I just wanted to make sure we were safe. You've been a great leader and I am proud of you." It was Rodimus' turn to wince. The kind words from a betrayer were like salt in an open wound. The old 'bot looked sad. "So what are you going to do with me now?"

Roddy's expression turned grim. "We are going to the brig. I'll decide what to do with you later." To his relief, Kup did not resist. It was rather late in the day, so traffic was light in the halls, but there were still plenty of people around to notice if there was a scene. Rodimus was certain to confiscate all communications equipment to ensure that Kup could not transmit any secret message. He wanted to keep the capture of the Circle's leader under wraps. At the moment, he wanted it to look like he was having a friendly chat with his security officer as they walked down the hall together.

They reached the brig soon enough, and Streetwise saluted as they walked inside. His jaw dropped as Prime led the grizzled campaigner to the last cell and locked him in. The look on the Autobot leader's face was terrifying. "Keep him here. He is not allowed to speak to anyone or have anything but Energon rations delivered to him.

His incarceration is top-secret, so if you so much as make a peep about this, I'll have you working the waste dispensers. That goes the same for everyone on duty here." Streetwise nodded emphatically, not trusting himself to speak. This was bigger than big! The security officer arrested and held in his own brig! The urge to talk was maddening, but he squelched it. He knew better than to cross Roddy. He had no idea how he'd keep this from his fellow Protectobots, but he'd manage somehow.

Now to break the news. He pounded loudly on Magnus' door, no doubt interrupting the city commander just as he was going in for recharge. Sure enough, the door slid open to show a glaring, bleary-eyed mech. Rodimus ignored the pointed glare and pushed past him. He pulled out the jamming device and activated it. Sure enough, that got Mags' attention. "What's this all about?"

Roddy's expression was carefully blank. "I've captured the leader of the Circle."

Magnus looked delighted and relieved. "You have? Well, that's great news! Who is it?"

"Kup." He fairly spat the word.

"Kup?"

"Is there an echo in here? Yeah, it's Kup."

"Rodimus, are you certain? Kup's been working hard to put this place together after all the attacks."

Prime's tone was bitter. "How do you think he knew where to attack in the first place? Trust me, Magnus, I caught him red-handed communicating with one of his underlings. He's behind all this."

Magnus collapsed into a chair, his legs no longer able to support him. "My god. Kup. I never would have believed it."

Rodimus laughed shakily. "Yeah, me neither, if I hadn't seen it with my own optics."

Magnus rubbed his forehead. "It doesn't make sense to me. Why would he want to sabotage us, when he's been working so hard to protect Earth and Cybertron? " He noticed Rodimus' dark expression. "There's a lot you're not telling me."

"Oh, think about it, Magnus. It's so damn obvious; I don't know why I didn't see it before. All the clues were there. I just needed to know the motive. Kup has been fighting pretty much his whole life. He's seen massive carnage at the hands of the Decepticons, and I can certainly understand why he wouldn't be willing to trust them. But rather than working with us to make sure that we are properly defended, he turned against us. He thinks that the Decepticons are poisoning our minds with the promise of peace and truce while they prepare to take over the planet."

Magnus looked hesitant. "You know, he does have a point there."

Roddy sighed. "Of course he does. We both know that. But that's not the idea. We knew going into this that it might turn out badly, but we decided that peace was worth the price. We've taken the proper precautions. But rather than helping us to strengthen our forces, Kup decided to take matters into his own hands. He pointed out our weaknesses in the most brutal and destructive method possible. He knew that we would never accept some of his ideas unless there was a desperate need. The terrorist bombings gave him the perfect excuse to redesign our bases to his specification."

Magnus felt ill. "Where was all this going? Do you understand the Circle's long-term goals?"

He shrugged. "Not really. Even now it's hard to tell where they were headed. They definitely wanted to paint the 'Cons as the bad guys and cause mistrust. They also obviously wanted us to be self-sufficient and eliminate the Alliance itself. Kup and his minions also wanted to see certain changes in building code, policies, et cetera, that were implemented due to these attacks. I'm not sure how far it actually goes. If the Circle got enough followers at a high enough level, they could have infiltrated the Autobots even further and eventually taken over."

"Wow." Magnus was very glad that he was still sitting down.

His view on the Circle had been entirely different. Admittedly, he had been thinking just what Kup had wanted him to think - that the Decepticons or an outside party was responsible. After all, what sense would it make for the Autobots to attack themselves? Well, maybe it made sense to the Circle, but it made absolutely no sense to him. And if Kup was indeed behind this, he would pay dearly. "Congratulations, Rodimus. You've broken the Circle wide open. How did you manage it?"

Rodimus waved away the praise. He didn't feel it was deserved.

"We actually have an informant. I'd prefer not to give away the details just yet. It's too early in the game. I'm sorry I can't tell you more just yet, but until a few hours ago, I wasn't certain that I could trust anyone at all. But I can tell you this, since I'm going to need help in this department. There is a way to identify members of the Circle.

They all carry these communicators." He held up the tiny device. "I used this to monitor their communications and capture their leader.

They may come in handy again."

Magnus reached out to touch it. It was an amazing piece of technology. "Monitoring communications may not be the best way to capture all of the Circle members. We may be able to get a few of them, but they may eventually realize their communications are compromised and simply stop using the units. Then we would have nothing to identify them."

Roddy nodded. "Let's speak to Blaster and see if he has any recommendations. He was just itching to get his hands on one of these again."

Sure enough, Blaster proved indispensable. Rodimus vowed to give him a bonus as soon as this whole thing blew over. It turned out that the small communicators had a special type of battery. It would actually glow slightly when viewed under an ultraviolet light spectrum. The young Prime was already equipped with such a visor. He was clearly able to see the glow. He also eyed Magnus and Blaster, who came up clean.

Magnus and Rodimus discussed the situation between themselves.

Roddy was relieved - it felt so good to trust again. Together they came up with a plan. It wasn't ideal, but hopefully they would be able to pull it off. At the moment, Rodimus was sitting in Metroplex's central Energon dispensary. He was truly shocked at the number of Autobots carrying the communicators. His spirits lifted every time one showed as clean, but they plummeted as soon as he caught sight of another small yellow glow. Springer, Perceptor, Magnus, Blaster, Arcee, Sludge, and most of the combiners were loyal to the Autobots. Cliffjumper, Bluestreak, Broadside, Slag, Slingshot, and Blurr were all Circle members. Rodimus wondered what this would mean for the Aerialbots and Dinobots. Tight-knit teams were about to be torn apart.

A team was quietly sent off to Cybertron as Rodimus prepared a group to strike at Metroplex. Then the 'fun' began. Roddy began to summon Circle members to a supposedly deserted storage hangar. As they arrived, they were arrested and escorted to the brig, leaving the room free for the next wave. The brig filled very quickly, so they eventually resorted to keeping their prisoners in the storage hangars.

They had the element of surprise on their hands, and the roundup was swift and successful. There may have been a few that caught on and hid or destroyed their communicators, but Rodimus and Magnus were both confident that they had caught the majority of the Circle.

Their sense of triumph was short-lived. Nearly one-third of the Autobot force was incarcerated. Could they manage to function with a reduced staff, while keeping so many 'bots captive? It was a daunting task, but it was one that Rodimus was certain he could handle. He wasn't sure what he would do exactly, but at least the Circle was no longer a menace.

Kup was proving uncooperative, as he feared. He refused to discuss anything about the Circle except his personal motives. He would not give away any names or future plans. They managed to turn up most of the stolen data and equipment, but some was still missing, and the former security officer refused to talk. Rodimus was heading over to the brig for another friendly chat when he heard shouting. He brushed it off, thinking it was just another angered prisoner, but to his surprise, there was someone outside Kup's cell. Someone screaming and cursing like an intergalactic tradesman.

"Son of a whorebot! I'll tear you a new waste-disposal unit and then shove you inside, one piece at a time! I'll rip off your head and give it to the Dinobots for basketball practice! And then I'll feed the rest of you to Unicron!" Andromeda was in fine form. Her optics blazed as she pounded on the energy bars with her fists. She caught sight of him and she became eerily calm. "Rodimus! Let me in his cell. Please.

Just for five minutes. For Optimus' sake. He has to pay."

"Of course he does." Roddy's smile was cruel. "But it's my turn first. And I think Magnus would like to have a go as well."

Andromeda walked away, looking happy for the first time in months.

Rodimus renewed his resolve to never cross a femme.

He went to bed early, finally able to recharge in peace. He still had no idea what to do with so many Circle members, but at least he knew that they were safely behind bars. Soon he would return to Cybertron and secure matters there, leaving Magnus to hold down the fort in Metroplex.

He dreamed again. Three balls of light, dazzling to look at.

Then seven spheres, not bright, but colorful, each beautiful in its uniqueness. Then a place. The same violet avian woman. She was no longer worried. Her patient had survived. He was awake and thriving.

He spoke to her now. She did not understand many of the things he said, but she listened. That's what she was here for.

Rodimus stood behind the purple woman. He felt not even the slightest flicker of remembrance. She smiled at her companion - her patient? - and his jaw dropped. He was familiar, achingly so. It was a robot of red and white and blue, with slight damage here and there.

There was a fresh coat of paint and new weld marks here and there, so he had clearly undergone major repair work recently. His visage was hidden by a heavy battle mask, his optics glowing slightly in the shadow cast upon his face by the dim lighting.

The mech looked up and his optics grew brighter. Although it had to have been impossible, Rodimus felt as if the robot was looking straight at him. The Matrix, which had been so disturbingly still all this time, flared to life with a massive pulse of sensation. The connection opened wide, flooding him with emotions that were not his own. Pain - confusion - loss - sorrow - loneliness.

The shock propelled him from his sleep, and he sat bolt upright, the words bursting from his lips.

"OPTIMUS!!!"

Optimus was alive!


Chapter Ten

Rodimus darted from his chambers and raced down the corridors to find Ultra Magnus. The Matrix connection was now faint. He was tempted to write it off as a silly wishful dream, but every now and then a stronger surge of *something* came through. His connection to Optimus had been restored, although it was unstable and tenuous.

He pounded on Magnus door, hoping that this would not become a habit. Once again Magnus answered, grumbling and looking quite put-out. "Really, Rodimus, what is so blasted important that you have to interrupt my recharge cycle?"

Rodimus fairly beamed at him. "Optimus is alive!" he sang out, overjoyed.

Ultra Magnus looked at him as if he'd sprouted an extra head.

Not an uncommon reaction from the city commander, actually. "How can that be? We saw the wreckage of the shuttle. You said you felt him die through the Matrix. How could he possibly be alive?" Despite all his skepticism, he couldn't help but feel a tiny seed of hope take root.

Roddy shook his head. "I don't know! But my connection to him is back now. It's weak but definitely there. If I concentrate, I can feel it."

"Rodimus, if this all turns out to be in vain-"

The glare was foreboding, but the young Prime was too excited to care. "Come with me to the command center! We need to find a way to locate him!" He hurried off without waiting for a reply, and Magnus was forced to tag along.

By the time the city commander caught up with his wayward leader, Rodimus was already surveying the star charts. "How will we know where to look?" Magnus asked, his weariness quickly evaporating.

Rodimus powered down his optics and concentrated. Three glowing balls of light. Three suns. "Metroplex, display a diagram of all trinary star systems in the area." The large city obliged. There were seven possibilities.

Prime thought back again to his dream/vision. One large and red; the others smaller and yellow. A red giant and two yellow stars. That left three possibilities. He thought harder and recalled the seven round spheres, which were not bright like the suns. Seven planets. "Metroplex, display all systems with three suns and seven planets."

There were two. "Put both on the display."

He studied the Ganges and Verderon star systems. Both could fill his criteria. Three suns, seven planets, both systems far away. They knew very little about either system, save for the very basics. The planet that had captured his attention in the dream was a stripey blue-brown and yellow. This was the planet he needed to find. The seventh Ganges planet was red with hazy sulfurous gases hovering in the atmosphere. However, Verderon VII was definitely blue-brown with dashes of yellow. That was it, then. He had found where Optimus was recuperating.

"Metroplex, bring up all available information on Verderon Seven."

Several files flashed on the screen. The city dutifully reported, “Verderon Seven is the seventh planet in the system, located near the Kobalis Nebula. The planet is renowned for having the most advanced medical facilities in the quadrant, focusing on a holistic mind-and-body combination healing.” Medical facilities? Sounded like a promising place to look for someone who was injured. “Several indigenous species inhabit the planet. The dominant species is rumored to slightly resemble a Terran bird.”

Avian creatures? “That’s it!” Rodimus whooped. “That’s where Optimus is being treated! Prep a shuttle immediately. I’m going after him.”

“Whoa, wait a minute there!” Magnus held up a hand in warning. “One minute you’re mourning him, the next you’re running around like you’ve lost your mind. Listen, if you’re right, then I’ll be the first to celebrate. But if you’re wrong….”

“It would be disastrous to raise our people’s hopes, only to dash them again. And there’s so little we know of what is truly going on here.” Rodimus shook his head. “The nature of my mission must remain a secret.”

Magnus sighed. He could see that talking Rodimus out of his harebrained idea was useless. “There’s so much of this that I don’t understand. How could Optimus have survived the explosion? And how was it that you didn’t sense his spark through the Matrix until now?”

“Good question. Somehow he must have been rescued or picked up by a passing ship. I felt him dying, there's no doubt about that. The Matrix must have severed the connection due to the intense pain. It either became overwhelmed or tried to spare me the worst of it. We know so little about the Matrix, but proximity may also play a part. Long distances do not seem to affect it much, but the separation by several galaxies may very well weaken the connection.”

“And you’re sure there’s no way I can talk you out of this?” Magnus did not look hopeful.

“Definitely not. Since I’ve got the Matrix, I’m the only one who can sense where Optimus is, roughly speaking. And since we’ve got to keep this a secret, we can’t involve anyone else.”

“At least take Ratchet. If Optimus has been injured, he’ll need an expert on his systems to take a look.”

“Sure, sure,” Rodimus waved his hand distractedly. “But no one else!”

Magnus clasped Roddy’s hand. “Good luck then. And be careful. This army can’t deal with the loss of two Primes.”

“I will,” Roddy replied solemnly. “You just keep things afloat here until I get back.” Magnus saluted and exited the command chamber.

Rodimus grabbed a container and began tossing data pads in haphazardly. The journey would no doubt take almost a week, and he could at least take advantage of the tedious downtime to get some paperwork done. Just as he turned to go, the room’s comm. channel beeped. It was the P-chan, which Blaster had integrated with the Decepticon communication grid to facilitate Alliance communication. “Megatron?” he said breathlessly. “I was just on my way out. What’s up?”

“We need to meet to discuss the situation with the Circle.”

“I’ll have Magnus contact you. Normally I’d insist on being involved, but something urgent has come up that I need to address. I may be gone for several weeks.”

“Oh,” the Decepticon leader said flatly. “Very well, then.”

“Wait!” Roddy exclaimed. “Listen. I owe you a huge apology over this Circle mess. You were right all along that it was an inside job, and I would have seen it sooner if I hadn’t let my suspicious cloud my judgment. If I had pushed things just a bit further, we’d be back on the battlefield trying to shoot each other’s head off. I just wanted to thank you for keeping the Alliance together, even though I nearly destroyed it.”

“Spare me your Autobot sentimentality,” the Decepticon leader snorted, though he sounded pleased despite himself. “You would have discovered the truth eventually. Besides, you weren’t entirely wrong. That’s what I was calling to tell you. I’ve discovered that quite a few Decepticons were members. I’ve got them confined to the brig.”

He choked. “Decepticons? Members of the Circle?! I thought the whole point of the Circle was to make the Decepticons look bad and destabilize the Alliance.”

“The latter part of your statement was why they joined. Remember, the Circle was a very shadowy and mysterious organization. No one knew who the leader was, or even who most of their fellow members were. The Circle was ostensibly about destroying the Alliance, and as you can guess, the concept of the Alliance did not sit well with many of my people.”

Rodimus shook his head. It seemed that this Circle business had thrown him for yet another loop. Just when it seemed that he had this thing figured out! “That’s amazing. Do you mean to say that Autobots and Decepticons were working together within the Circle to wipe out our Alliance of Autobots and Decepticons?”

“Pretty much,” Megatron chuckled darkly. “They formed an alliance, unbeknownst to them, to destroy our Alliance. You’d better believe I’m driving home the irony to them. You can bet they would have never knowingly followed an Autobot’s commands.”

Roddy could not contain his curiosity. “So which Decepticons were members?”

“I’m not surprised by the majority of them. It’s mostly people who either don’t like my rule, or don’t like the idea of the Alliance, or both. All of the Predacons and Seacons are members. Motormaster and Wild Rider of the Stunticons are as well.” The Autobot leader winced. Another combiner team separated. “If Starscream were still alive, I’d have no doubt that he would have joined. I’m just grateful that Soundwave and Cyclonus weren’t members.”

“It’s good to have ‘bots to count on,” Rodimus said meaningfully, trying to underscore his apology. “Look, I really do need to get going, but I’m glad that you contacted me with the update. I’ll have Magnus get together with you right away.”

“Have a good trip.” The words were polite, but rather stiff. Rodimus realized that it would take more to restore trust between them.

The young Prime hesitated. “Listen, Megatron. I’ve got some amazing news, something that no one else but Ultra Magnus knows. Optimus may still be alive.”

Dead silence. “Optimus Prime, alive?”

“…yes…” Rodimus realized that Optimus and Megatron had been archenemies since time immemorial. But the time had come to start trusting. If he couldn’t trust Megatron with this information, then they might as well dissolve the Alliance right now.

“That’s wonderful news! If anyone can hold the remnants of the Alliance together, it would be Optimus. We need him now more than ever.”

Rodimus breathed a sigh of relief. He had known that trusting Megatron was the right thing to do. “I’m leaving now to see if I can locate him. I’ll let him know that you said hi.”

Megatron laughed, and Roddy couldn’t help but grin. It was good to have hope again. “You do that, Autobot. ‘Till all are one.”

“Till all are one.” Prime severed the comm. link. Truer words were never spoken.


Chapter Eleven

“Would you cut it out? My vision stabilization circuits are on overload!”

Rodimus ignored the complaining medic and kept pacing. Which wasn’t very far. Ten paces to the left, turn, then ten paces to the right. After nearly a week of flying in stealth mode with the majority of the systems powered down (both to save energy and escape undesired detection), the Autobot leader was ready to tear out his servos. And while Ratchet was generally an easygoing guy, there was only so much that he could take.

Roddy turned to the last handful of data pads he had left to work on. The stillness was maddening! He had used the opportunity to get caught up on mounds of backlogged paperwork (though Primus knew there would be a fresh pile awaiting him, despite Magnus’ best efforts), but he could no longer concentrate. The sense of Optimus’ life-force was growing ever-stronger through the Matrix, and the anticipation was becoming unbearable.

The vidscreen was filled with a bright glow, and the two Autobots turned to stare in awe. The three suns of the Verderon system shone dazzlingly. Even to these creatures who have traveled the galaxy countless of times, it was striking. Rodimus paused to enjoy the beauty. His dream had been surreal, but now that he was seeing the galaxy in person, he could appreciate it. Amazing how the Matrix had sent him these images over such a long distance. He wondered again about its mysteries.

His introspection was long-lived, for nervous energy began gnawing at him again as the seventh planet approached. He was so close now… if anything were to go wrong, he wouldn’t be able to bear it. He had good reason to be pessimistic, judging by recent events. Ratchet gripped his armrests and growled as Rodimus bounced them through a speedy and rough landing. “Shouldn’t we contact the local authorities?”

“No. Best to keep a low profile.” After so many conspiracies lately, Rodimus was taking no chances. Besides, judging from the way the inhabitants gawked at him as they made their way into the crowded streets, the Autobot name was not a familiar one in this quadrant. The ruling powers wouldn’t know him from a hole in the ground.

“This is what you call a low profile?” the medic griped a short time later as Rodimus plowed ahead, his footfalls clanging loudly. The Autobot leader did not even seem to hear him in his haste to begin the search.

The two robots scanned their surroundings. On the horizon lay a humongous building which seemed to be a hubbub of activity. This seemed to be the most promising place to start. Rodimus tried not to gawk too openly at the passerby. Mingled with the usual spacefaring folk were the native inhabitants, covered in small feathers from head to foot and bobbing with pigeon-like movements. Some were grey and red, others were yellow and green, still others were violet and white. All closely resembled the being from his dream.

“Excuse me,” he said politely to one of the pedestrians. “Is that the medical center up ahead?”

The creature’s eyes grew huge as it ruffled its feathers. Rodimus looked baffled. He hadn’t said anything offensive, had he? The being squawked, and the Autobot cursed inwardly. The Verderon language was unfamiliar to his universal translator (probably had something to do with unusual sentence structure and syntax), and it was strained to its limits.

“Hurthealplace?” it finally squawked.

Roddy sighed in relief. “Yes, is that the hurthealplace?”

“Hurthealplace is there. Bewell stranger.”

“Bewell.”

“Just great,” Ratchet groaned. “As if this mission wasn’t complicated enough!”

“I don’t know.” Rodimus almost felt like smiling. “Their language is almost poetic.”

“I don’t think I can take much more squawking though!”

Rodimus felt the stress of the past few months fade into the back of his mind as he observed his surroundings. Too often he was preoccupied with saving the galaxy and never had a chance to actually appreciate what he was defending. Each world had its own unique race of beings with their own distinct style and culture. He was so wrapped up in his covert observation of passing Verderons that he almost walked right past the building they had wanted to enter.

“Come on, space case,” Ratchet grumbled good-naturedly. “Let’s see what we can find out.”

They approached the receptionist in the lobby. “Greetings, gentlebeing. I am searching for a missing person. Could you point me in the right direction?”

This time Rodimus was not taken aback by the feather-ruffling. The Verderon made several peeps and coos. “Missperson?” it looked baffled.

“Yes, a missing person.” He tried to speak slowly and clearly. Curse the universal translator to slag!

The receptionist mumbled to it(her?)self “Missperson… missper…” Its eyes brightened. “Unknown?”

“Yes, an unknown. Where can we look?”

It shook its head fiercely, and Rodimus inwardly groaned. He should have known. Bureaucracies were pretty much the same throughout the cosmos. “Cannot look. Must stay here. Papers complete.”

“Papers? I’ll --” Ratchet’s restraining hand brought him back to his senses. “Very well. Is there anyone we can meet with afterwards, to discuss the situation?”

“Papers first.” Roddy groaned, and the medic forcibly dragged him away.

The two Autobots pored over the provided documents. The usual red tape, worsened by the near-illegible Verderon language. It looked to Rodimus like a bunch of chicken scratch. “You stay here and fill out the forms,” he whispered to Ratchet. “I’m going to have a look around.”

“No!” the medic snapped. “We are strangers here. Judging from the way that people are staring at us, they’ve never seen a Transformer before. We’d be rather conspicuous trying to sneak around. Let’s try to play by their rules first… as much as it pains me to say it.” Roddy cracked a grin. “If that doesn’t work out, then I’m all for playing secret agent.”

Nearly two hours later, Rodimus was strongly considering striking out on his own. The paperwork had been submitted, and the receptionist had let him know (as best she could) that someone would be over to speak to them… at some point. He drummed his fingers impatiently on the armrest in the waiting room, earning a cross glare from Ratchet.

“That’s it!” the young leader snapped, jumping to his feet. “I’ve had enough of waiting around. I’m going to…”

“Autobots!” a voice exclaimed.

Rodimus peered down. “A human! I had no idea there were humans this far out.”

The woman grinned. “I’m a rarity around here, as I’m sure you guys are.” She was rather young and pretty by human standards, with rich brown hair and twinkling eyes. She was also dressed in what seemed to be the regulation red hospital scrubs, with a green chevron. The same symbol adorned the entrance to the “hurthealplace”, so Rodimus assumed it was some sort of hospital or medical symbol. “I’ve always wanted to study medicine, but nothing seemed to challenge me. Then I was injured on a deep space assignment and was taken here.” She held up her hand, which appeared to be normal at first glance, but with a compositional scan Rodimus could tell that it was a bionic implant. “This place was so different from home, and they really appreciated my skills, so I decided to stay on.” She peered at them curiously. “So what brings you guys to this neck of the galaxy? Are any of you injured?”

Ratchet shook his head. “No, we’re okay, but we think that one of our friends is being treated here.”

“Hm. I definitely haven’t seen any Transformers around here. But it’s a huge complex, so he could be in another wing. I mainly treat organic beings.”

“Look,” Rodimus sounded a bit desperate, “we’ve been waiting for ages. Is there any way you could help speed things along?”

The woman grinned. “I’ll see what I can do. I’m Mariel, by the way.”

Roddy grinned back. “I’m Rodimus Prime, and this is Ratchet, our medic.”

“A Prime? I’m honored! And it’s nice to meet a fellow surgeon.” Ratchet bowed, and she giggled. “Let me try to get you some visitor passes.”

A few minutes later, loud squawking echoed down the hall. Rodimus could not suppress his curiosity – he poked his head around the corner. The human was doing a fair approximation of the Verderon language, complete with shrieks, chirps, and peeps. She seemed to actually know the language and was not relying on a translator. Looking closer, he now noticed that the woman wore an amulet around her throat which probably enhanced her vocal capabilities. Her companion, a large blue-and-grey avian, was bobbing his head. Rodimus could not tell if it was in agreement or just part of their natural movement. The Verderon’s scrubs were red with gold striping, so this was clearly someone of considerable importance.

“Awwww-tooooo-baaaaawt?”

The woman nodded vigorously, gesturing with her hands. The Verderon gestured to the receptionist, who grumpily handed over several passes. Rodimus exited the room when it was clear they were headed his way. “SkrEEEbo, newfriend Rodimus Prime. Rodimus Prime, meet, Skreebo, chief medical officer.” Skreebo bowed his head and scraped his right foot across the floor. After a questioning gaze at Mariel, Rodimus echoed Skreebo’s movements. Apparently satisfied, Skreebo handed the two their visitor passes. Rodimus discreetly applied a magnetic coating to the back and stuck it to his chassis.

Mariel gestured the pair to follow her and Skreebo. “We don’t think your friend is in this particular wing. We’ll take you to the inorganic trauma unit. Normally Skreebo doesn’t handle this sort of thing, but he’s curious about you. He loves meeting new species.”

Skreebo opened his beaklike mouth in what Rodimus hoped was a smile. “Welcome newfriend Awwwwtooobaaaawt. Find hurt unknown.”

“Um… thanks.” Mariel began chatting with Ratchet as Rodimus walked with the avian CMO. “You must treat a lot of patients here.”

Skreebo bobbed his head. “Many hurt. We heal. Healhurtplace here longtime.”

Mariel guided them to a set of tubes at the far end of the corridor. Skreebo turned to follow but was halted by a beeping sound, followed by the muted thunder of running feet. “Urgent hurthelp needed. Bewell newfriend Awwwwtoooobaaawt.”

“Pleasure to meet you too. Bewell newfriend Skreebo.” Skreebo fluttered a wing in farewell as he hastened down the hall.

“In here.” Mariel stepped into a capsule. It was not very unlike the transportation system on Cybertron. Fortunately, the Verderons were used to dealing with beings of all sizes, for there was an elevated platform for smaller humanoids to stand and avoid the tramplings of larger beings. As it was, Rodimus and Ratchet had to stoop. They gripped the handles as the capsule door slid closed. The contraption moved at a very fast rate, but the inertial dampers were excellent, and the trio barely had the sensation of movement.

After a few minutes, the capsule opened. Mariel hopped down but nearly lost her balance. “Are you all right?” Ratchet asked. Rodimus smiled at his companion’s concern. Despite the medic’s gruff exterior, he had a tender heart.

The human smiled weakly. “I’m a bit dizzy,” she confessed. “I’ve been on my feet all day, plus it’s not easy keeping up with you guys.”

“I’m sure a snack wouldn’t be amiss either,” Ratchet chided gently. “Is there any place to get some food?”

“Just up ahead. I don’t think they’ll have Energon, but they may have some other fuel source that you can convert. Let me inquire about your friend first, then we can make a detour.” She paused briefly to exchanges coos and chirps with another doctor. “Good news, guys. She thinks she’s seen a large robot around here somewhere, so we’re on the right track.”

“With your permission, ma’am.” Ratchet held out his hand. Mariel climbed up nimbly and he gently perched her on his shoulder. “Coming, fearless leader?”

Rodimus shook his head. “Nah, I’ll wait here. The view is spectacular.” He gestured to the bay window, which looked out on a magnificent vista, complete with three suns shining in the sky. The sense of urgency had subsided, and he suddenly found himself wanting to enjoy the moment alone. Ratchet gave a mock salute and strode off with his human companion.

Rodimus stepped over to the window and peered out. There was the usual hustle and bustle of activity, but he somehow found the view calming. He was far away from home, far away from responsibility. All they had to do was find Optimus and bring him back. It seemed simple enough. He shook his head reprovingly. He should have enjoyed the trip here, but he had been so jumpy he didn’t know what to think. Conspiracies around every corner had made him paranoid. Now that he knew that Optimus was relatively safe, it was a load off his shoulder struts. Maybe he could finally relax. Sheesh, and he said Magnus was the one that was too uptight!

A blur moved in the corner of his optic. Instinctively, he cocked his head. It was red… and white… and blue. Light glinted off of a shiny surface. His fuel pump stuttered, then began hammering forcefully. He was moving before he even made a conscious decision, instinctively following the figure. “Hey, wait! Wait up!”

The figure turned, and Roddy’s face split with a massive grin. “Optimus!” he yelled joyfully, running up to the towering robot.

Optimus shook his head. “I’ll be with you in just a minute, sir. Please wait in the triage center and I’ll get to you just as soon as I can.”

Rodimus grabbed his arm and spun his friend around. “We’ve been looking all over for you. Thank Primus you’re all right!”

The robot gave him a politely confused look. “I’m sorry… do I know you?”


Chapter Twelve

Roddy’s broad grin faded. “Optimus, don’t you recognize me? It’s Rodimus Prime. I’ve come to find you and bring you back home.”

“You must have mistaken me for someone else. My name is Orion Pax.”

Rodimus felt his fuel pump plummet. “That used to be your name. You changed your name to Optimus Prime a very long time ago.” The robot looked doubtful. “Please, Optimus, you *have* to remember! There are people that need you. *I* need you.” He looked at the floor. “Here,” he said in desperation, grabbing Prime’s hand and placing it on his chestplate, where the Matrix rested beneath. “You can’t tell me you don’t feel that!” Roddy felt the Matrix practically pulse with energy.

Prime looked uncertain, and Rodimus let the hand go. It fell limply at his companion’s side. “I don’t know. I *did* feel something. I honestly don’t remember you, but I feel that I can trust you. Besides, I haven’t seen any others of my kind around. If you say you know me, I’ll believe you, as crazy as it sounds.”

Roddy noticed a green chevron adhered to Optimus’ chassis. “Have you been working here?”

“Yeah,” Prime shrugged. Rodimus was taken aback by the casual attitude. “The Verderons did a great job of patching me up. They had a sudden slew of patients, and since I have some medical training, they let me pitch in and help. Beats sitting around all day.”

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Roddy asked gently.

A pause. “I remember being attacked by a Decepticon. Afterward, I woke up and Alpha Trion told me that my spark had been transferred to a new body. Things are rather fuzzy after that. I guess somehow this new body got damaged too.” He gestured to the fresh weld marks on his upper arm and torso. “There do seem to be some gaps in my memory, so I guess what you say is true.”

“There you are!” Ratchet exclaimed. Mariel was by his side, apparently refreshed by the snack. “The caf had some delicious fossil fuel biscuits. With a bit of adjusting to my energy filter, I was able to ingest them with no problem…” he trailed off. “Optimus! You found him!”

The elder Prime grinned at the approaching medibot. “Ratchet! What are you doing here? It’s great to see you!”

Rodimus nearly pouted. “You remember *him*?!”

Ratchet looked blank. “Why shouldn’t he?”

“Because he thinks he’s Orion Pax!” Roddy spat.

Optimus slung an arm around Ratchet. “We met in medical school. Used to cram for our exams together.” Ratchet raised an optic ridge, looking pointedly at the arm. Rodimus shrugged.

“So you only remember being Orion Pax?” Ratchet asked incredulously.

“Yeah, though this guy says I changed my name to Optimus Prime. Why would I want to do that?”

Ratchet sighed. “It’s a long story. Nine million years old, in fact. That’s how long you’ve been known as Optimus Prime.”

“Nine MILLION years?! I figured there were a few things that I had forgotten, but that’s just incredible. I must be more damaged than we thought.”

“Oooooriion,” a voice trilled. It was another Verderon doctor. “Newfriends?”

“Hello, Aree.” Optimus beamed. “Yes, these are friends of mine. At least, one of them is. I don’t remember the other one, but I’m sure he’s a friend as well.”

Aree bowed her head and scraped her foot against the floor. “Self is Aaarrreeee. Happy to see newfriends.” Having observed Skreebo previously, Ratchet and Rodimus knew to return the gesture in kind as they introduced themselves.

Rodimus straightened up from his greeting. He then stopped short and stared at the being in front of him. She was very familiar… violet feathers… a somewhat sad look.... “I’ve seen you before!” he exclaimed. “You were in my dreams!”

Aree folded her wing over her breast and hooted. “Honored! Special to share dreamlink.” She gestured toward the Matrix in his chest. “Newfriend and Oooriion share mindheartlink too.”

“That’s right…” Rodimus looked stunned. “How did you know?”

Mariel explained, “The Verderons are empaths. Aree is particularly gifted in healing mental and emotional trauma. If your friend has experienced memory loss, she would be the best choice for healing him.”

Mental and emotional trauma…. “Ratchet, why don’t you walk around with Optimus and help get him caught up on current events?”

Ratchet took the hint. “Let’s go, buddy. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

“Hey, listen, guys,” Mariel spoke up. “It was really great meeting you, but I’ve got to get going. Skreebo gave me his blessing to escort you over here, but I’ll be in for it if I don’t hurry back.”

“No problem,” Optimus said. “Ratchet and I will walk you back to your wing.”

“Is there someplace we can talk in private?” Rodimus asked once the others had departed.

“Newfriend Rodimus follow. Alonespace ahead.”

He followed the alien through several corridors until arrived at a small room. “Friend Ooooriiion place,” she explained. He looked around. It was nice enough – Optimus was lucky to have gotten a room with a view. It was rather bare, though, as hospital rooms tended to be. Rodimus felt a pang. Optimus should be back on Cybertron, with his friends and treasured belongings. As good as the Verderons had been to him, it was time to bring him home.

“How has he been?” Rodimus asked.

Aree shook her head, her feathers rustling in a halo around her. “Friend Ooooriiion arrived at hurthealplace very hurt. Lifeforce almost gone. Healers fix bodyhurts. I help with mindhurts. Mindhurts very big, some very old.”

“Yes, he does have some very old mental traumas. Orion Pax is actually an old name from an earlier period in his life. It was a peaceful, happy period. But then a war broke out, and Orion was nearly killed in an attack. His body was rebuilt, and he was given a new name and a leadership role. There has been nine million years of fighting and stress for him. He is now known as Optimus Prime and is revered by our people, but I think he gives too much of himself and his mental state suffers for it.”

Aree hooted softly. “Yes, I see same. Old hurts, sadfeelings. Alone when not alone.” Rodimus nodded. For a woman who had only known Optimus a short time, she knew him a lot better than many of the soldiers that had served by Prime’s side for their entire lives. Optimus was indeed surrounded by crowds but emotionally lonely. “I see recent hurt. Mindscape torn. Mindscreams. Mindvasion. Newfriend Rodimus toohurt.”

“Of course! The Voracian demon! You’re absolutely right. Optimus and I were both attacked by a mental vampire awhile back. Things have been so crazy lately that I forgot all about it. It was really awful. The creature attacked our minds and took control of our bodies. I’ve been able to recover fairly well, thanks to a few sympathetic ears of my friends, but I should have known that Optimus was still suffering.” Aree was bobbing her head, presumably in agreement. “To tell you the truth, he’s seemed to be depressed for as long as I’ve known him. He doesn’t deal with his emotions or personal needs well, and in trying to deny them they end up overwhelming him.”

“Self healed some mindhurt, still more mindhurt. Body nothurt. Ooooriiion and Op-tee-muus selfunknowns.”

Rodimus pondered that statement. Prime’s body was healed. His mind was still suffering (no surprise there). But what was she saying about Optimus and Orion? Selfunknowns… he didn’t know himself anymore… or one was a stranger to the other? Yes, that made sense. “So in other words, Orion does not want to acknowledge the part of him that has become Optimus. Do you think he wants to remain Orion and hold on to the part of himself that was carefree?”

“Newfriend Rodimus knowledgefeels!” Aree waved her wings excitedly. “Op-tee-muus mindhurt. Ooooriiion mindimage nothurt. Optimus go, hurt go.”

He groaned. “Then we have a problem. I’m all for letting Optimus enjoy himself free of worries, but he’s got a whole life that he’s trying to forget. Hiding that part of himself won’t make the pain go away. I’m hoping that remembering who and what he is will be a step in the right direction.”

“Op-tee-muus and Ooooriiion twosplit. Should be samesame. Mindscape not bleeding, still torn. Must selfheal now.”

“Listen, I really appreciate all you’ve done. I don’t think Optimus would’ve made it this far without you. I really wish we had someone like you on our medistaff.” Aree ruffled her feathers again, looking flustered but rather pleased. “What do you think the best thing for him would be at this point? Can you help him any further here, or would he be better off at home?”

“Heal little more mindhurt. Twosplit cannot heal. Ooooriiion must samesame Optimus.”

“And for Optimus to reunite his Orion and Prime personas, it would be best if he was back on Cybertron, seeing familiar people and surroundings. With your permission, I’d like to leave with him tomorrow.”

The woman chirped. “Morrow good. Give medicine, hurtcovers,” bandage plates? “then home go.”

They chatted for awhile, making plans for Optimus’ pending release. Despite their language barrier, Rodimus could sense Aree’s impressive skills and concern for her patients. She had gotten Optimus to trust her with his mental well-being, something which had eluded nearly everyone close to him. She had gone a long way toward healing the damage over the years caused by Optimus’ self-imposed isolation as Autobot leader, as well as the more recent wounds caused by the mental vampire. They both agreed that Prime’s amnesia may have originally be caused by trauma, but there was no longer any physical reason for it to continue. The elder Autobot may be using his younger persona to shield himself from the painful memories and experiences of Optimus Prime. Rodimus couldn’t help but feel glad that Aree freely discussed Prime’s condition with him and was open to his suggestions. He wholly approved of patient confidentiality, but when it came to Prime, it occasionally seemed to be counterproductive.

They decided to take a walk on the complex grounds, where they discovered a very pleasant surprise. Mariel rushed up to them, grinning ear-to-ear. “I’ve got great news! Skreebo talked to the planet’s elders, and they want to meet you! I know you probably want to get going soon, but they’ve found a really nice place for you to stay the night. And I’ve been dubbed as an official ambassador so I can help communicate!”

Rodimus looked at Ratchet, tailing behind her, and they exchanged a shrug. Rodimus had been enjoying the break away from his leadership duties, but first contact with a new species’ government was extremely important. Fortunately, it went much better than Roddy expected. The elders were all pleasant, and though they had to follow the usual greetings and customs, there was little pomp and circumstance involved. Several elders spoke a better version of Standard, which facilitated communications greatly, though Mariel was on hand to translate if needed.

The Verderons put on a small function, exhibiting some native clothing and dances. The Autobots were presented with several parting gifts and the use of an executive suite for the night. Best of all, their expert stellar cartographers were able to indicate several warp gates in the area that would shave days off of their journey.

They were finally also able to get answers as to the aftermath of the shuttle explosion. After some inquiries, the Verderon elders learned that a group of “salvagers” had been trying to expand into new territory. They had come upon the shuttle wreck and gathered anything useful, including spare parts and metal. They had also found Optimus but did not know precisely what he was. Assuming that he was some sort of droid, they brought him back to their home sector to sell.

Fortunately, their first stop was Verderon Three, where an inhabitant of Verderon Seven was visiting, looking to acquire scrap metal. The Verderon’s empathic powers told him that the being recovered from the shuttle was in fact sentient and alive, although his lifeforce was nearly extinguished. The Verderon brought the injured being back to his home planet for treatment. Rodimus was doubly pleased to learn that this Good Samaritan was in fact Aree’s lifemate. The Autobots finally returned to their suite, exhausted but pleased with the way that their first contact had gone.


Chapter Thirteen

The next day they prepared for their departure. Roddy found himself strangely reluctant to leave the planet. The Verderons were such a friendly and giving species, seemingly unconcerned with politics and rank. He vowed to establish a liaison between the Transformers and the Verderons, and also promised to handsomely reward Aree and her lifemate, though they seemed embarrassed by the offer and steadfastly refused.

Optimus bid farewell to his healer with some amount of sorrow and turned to follow his fellow Autobots. Sensing his apprehension, Rodimus and Ratchet tried to be as kind and patient with him as possible. They spent their journey showing Prime holoimages of his closest friends, and used the ship’s computer to display Cybertron. Optimus had no trouble recollecting memories and events from the Golden Age, but anything afterward was lost to him.

Rodimus began to feel worry, his old friend, begin to gnaw at him once more. How had something so simple gotten so complicated? Dammit, all he was supposed to do was get Optimus and bring him home! He couldn’t let his people see their leader like this. He discussed the situation with Ratchet in stage whispers as Optimus gleefully played a video game. After some digging in the ship’s supply room, they came up with an eletro-disrupter like the one Mirage carried, capable of bending photons and rendering its carrier invisible for short periods of time.

Rodimus opened a secure channel to Magnus, who had traveled to Cybertron to await Prime’s return. The young Prime requested that Magnus himself meet the shuttle and clear out all nonessential personnel. To get Optimus to cooperate, Roddy told him that they were going to play a game, sneaking him through the corridors. Prime thought it was a great idea! He had trouble smothering his giggles while waiting for his turn to exit the shuttle.

Magnus gazed at Rodimus inquiringly, who shot him a sharp look in return. “Hey, Mags!” Optimus yelled, but Ratchet landed a lucky blind kick that reminded him to be silent. They led the invisible Optimus to his former quarters. The corridors were thankfully mostly deserted, although a sharp-audioed bot glanced around suspiciously when Optimus bumped into a pillar.

Rodimus unlocked Optimus’ quarters with a sigh of relief. They hurried in just in time as the electro-disruptor ran out of power. Optimus looked around himself with a look of wonder. Spotting himself in a holoimage on the wall, he said, “Whoa! Is this my place?”

“Yes, this is your room. Listen, Optimus--”

“It’s great to see ya again, Mags! Wow, you sure have changed. Wanna go play hoverball?”

“No. Optimus, you have to understand the gravity of the situation… what are you doing?!”

Optimus grinned as he jumped up and down on the recharge berth. “This thing is huge! Remember my old quarters? What a dump! Do I have any roommates?”

Rodimus ground his jaw. Patience. The ‘bot has been through a lot lately. “You frequently have a lady friend staying with you.”

“Really? A girl? Is it Ariel? I remember she got hurt in the same attack that destroyed my old body. Gosh, I hope she’s all right.”

“Somebody put this kid on a leash,” Ratchet muttered. “Were we ever that young?”

Magnus stifled a chuckle. “Apparently so. It’s nice to see some enthusiasm around here, though it does tend to grate a bit.”

Ratchet sighed. “Well, I don’t need to hang around for this. After being cooped up the shuttle, I need to stretch my servos and then get a full night’s recharge. Bring him by the medbay early tomorrow morning so I can give a complete exam.”

The younger Prime groaned. “How are we going to get him there without being seen? The electro-disrupter was just barely adequate tonight. There’s no way that it will stay powered long enough through an exam.”

“How about we borrow Hound’s holo-projector? This way we can hide him in full view.”

“Brilliant!” Magnus exclaimed. “We’ll also need something to disguise his voice. I’m sure we’ll come up with something simple.”

“Bring it by here tomorrow,” Rodimus instructed. “I’ll deal with Mr. Second Childhood in the meantime.” He grabbed Prime’s arm. “C’mon, let’s explore a bit. Maybe something in here will jog your memory.”

“Good luck,” Magnus nodded as he left, Ratchet hot on his heels.

“I’m gonna need it,” Roddy sighed.

The next few hours were spent pawing through Prime’s possessions. It felt like a violation to Optimus, even though the ‘bot was sitting right next to him. They chatted as they worked, and Rodimus learned a whole lot more about the elder Prime’s past. Roddy hadn’t realized that Optimus had previously been a “lowly” dock worker. That job had been rather menial, but Orion had been studying medicine in the hopes of becoming a doctor. And while Ratchet had completed his studies and eventually attained the rank of Chief Medical Officer, destiny had had different plans for Orion Pax.

They flipped through Prime’s holocubes. Optimus did recognize several people, but only through Orion Pax’s memories. Nothing after his resurrection as Optimus Prime seemed familiar. Prime seemed awed at the places he’d been and the people he knew. Rodimus narrated as much of Prime’s life as he could, using the images as examples. Optimus listened attentively and could repeat information but did not actually recall the events they were discussing.

Rodimus located Prime’s personal log behind a hidden wall panel. He had originally come across it upon assuming Prime’s title as Autobot leader, but had left it in place out of respect for his predecessor. Optimus, of course, no longer had a clue as to what the password could be. Fortunately, Rodimus had snagged one of Kup’s encryption breakers – a tiny metal rod that overrode passwords and security lockouts. For obvious reasons, the rods were guarded with the utmost protection.

Optimus devoured the log with wide options, gasping out loud at certain places. Roddy felt an irrational anger rising in him. This was someone’s life, not a glorified tragic novel! The private logs were supposed to jar Prime’s lost memory, but right now they seemed to be some form of cheap entertainment. “Anything familiar in there?” he said with an edge to his voice.

Optimus looked at him. “Not much. Nothing new, anyway.” He sounded slightly uncertain, and Roddy realized he was being unnecessarily harsh. The anger was replaced by guilt. Prime was holding up surprisingly well. Roddy was certain if he had lost all his memories of Rodimus Prime and reverted to Hot Rod, he wouldn’t be handling the situation nearly as well.

Roddy slapped him on the back. “Let’s go to my place. We can play a few games and veg out to some movies.”

Optimus beamed. “Sounds great!” Roddy grinned. A little rest from poking at Prime’s memories couldn’t hurt. Besides, the mind sometimes seemed to work best when presented with distractions.

A few hours later, Rodimus shook his head at the still figure on the floor. The poor ‘bot was exhausted, still healing from his wounds, and had slipped into recharge while watching movies from Terrus Prime. Optimus had the right idea, Roddy decided blearily. Sleep now. Worry later.

He awakened the next day feeling remarkably refreshed. He should spend more time just hanging around and relaxing. The new/old Optimus reminded him things about his Hot Rod side that he thought he had forgotten.

After some grumbling, Roddy finally managed to rouse the sleeping lump on the floor. Magnus appeared at the door with Hound’s holo-projector. They had some difficulty choosing an appropriate image. Nothing too short or spindly, nothing too aged or weathered. They needed an image to go along with the bot’s youthful personality. Prime wanted to resemble his original Orion Pax form, but Magnus nixed that idea immediately. There were only a few people who recalled Orion Pax, but it would only take one to start raising some unwanted questions. They finally decided on a stocky body with red and yellow coloring. A vocal modulator was enough to complete the illusion. Optimus now looked and sounded completely different.

Rodimus and Magnus were both extremely grateful for the camouflage, for Prime gaped like a raw recruit as he was lead through the halls. People cast him the odd look here and there, but no one seemed particularly concerned. Fortunately, the medbay was nearly deserted, and Ratchet ushered his old friend over to a spare berth. He pulled the curtain, and Magnus deactivated the holo-projector, though he left the vocal modulator active, for Optimus did have an easily recognizable voice.

Ratchet ran scan after scan, mumbling to himself as he rearranged his equipment. Optimus even helped him set up and insisted on perusing the data, proving that he wasn’t just some dumb kid. Roddy was definitely impressed. Hod Rod had been a decent soldier, but away from the heat of battle, his main interests were racing and having a good time. Orion Pax may have been young and perhaps a bit foolish, but at least he’d held down a job and had aspirations in life.

Finally Ratchet shrugged and said, “Everything checks out physically. Optimus still needs time to heal his remaining wounds, but he’s in amazingly good shape for what he’s been through. He should be as good as new in a week or so.”

“Except for the amnesia,” Magnus said pointedly.

Ratchet sighed. “Except for the amnesia. Not much I can do about that, I’m afraid. Since the physical trauma has healed, we’ll just have to wait for his memory systems to reassert themselves.”

“I was thinking of giving him a tour of the planet, see if anything stirs his memory,” Rodimus offered.

“Great idea!” Magnus said a little too heartily. Roddy suppressed a smirk. Clearly Magnus wasn’t nearly as fond of his old friend in this incarnation as he was in the past.

Optimus looked a little disappointed. “I guess I’ll see you later, Mags.”

Magnus now looked guilty. “I have some free time coming up tonight.” Rodimus knew he didn’t, but he vowed to pick up the slack. “We should get together and talk. Maybe I can help fill in the gaps between your most recent memories and now.”

“And while Magnus is being a fuddy-duddy at work, we can be out having fun.”

“Sounds great!” Prime still looked a bit hurt but still seemed eager for some sightseeing. He engaged his holo-projector and they headed out to explore.

Roddy found that he was genuinely enjoying himself. Prime’s youthful edge began to invigorate instead of irritate him. Optimus was a fount of information from the Golden Age – virtually a walking history book. In turn, Roddy introduced Optimus to his old favorite haunts. It was fascinating to see what had stayed the same, and what had changed since Prime’s youth. The pair enjoyed some fizzy cubes at a popular hangout, then wandered around until they found a hoverball court and indulged in a few games. It had been untold ages since Rodimus had just kicked around doing nothing of importance. Amazing how a fun-filled stress-free day had lifted his mood.

Prime had enjoyed reminiscing about his past (not-so-distant to him), but they were still no closer to fixing his memory. Next, Rodimus walked him through Optimus’ office and conference areas. Seeing an unfamiliar face in such high-security areas *definitely* raised a few optic ridges, but since Rodimus was accompanying the newcomer, no one appeared unduly concerned. Nothing fun had reawakened Prime’s memory, and nothing work-related had either.

That night, Magnus met up with the two of them. Rodimus went to go, but Prime asked him to stay. Roddy shrugged mentally and settled back down in his seat. The daily grind could wait for another few hours. They sat around and chatted, sometimes about the Golden Age, sometimes about the war, and sometimes about the Alliance. Optimus seemed to have calmed down since his hyper outburst the day before, and Magnus warmed to his old friend.

They continued in much the same vein for the rest of the week. Rodimus, Ratchet and Magnus each took turns visiting Optimus and trying to spark his memory. They’d all had some good times, but no substantial progress had been made.

During another one of their evening hangouts, Mangus finally announced, “I’d better head back to Earth. Perceptor has been great holding down the fort, but they are starting to fall behind on the backlog of work.”

“Earth! That’s it!” Roddy exclaimed excitedly.

“What’s it?” Magnus looked baffled.

“Earth. Maybe that’s just what we need to snap Optimus out of his amnesia. He never visited Earth as Orion Pax, so he won’t have any old memories. If anything about Earth sounds familiar, it will be due to Prime’s memories.”

“I think you may be on to something,” Magnus said admiringly. “Good idea, Rodimus! Earth was Prime’s second home, so it’s bound to jog some memories. I’ll take him with me tomorrow.”

“I’m coming with you,” Roddy said determinedly. Magnus opened his mouth to protest, but Rodimus waved his arm impatiently. “There are a few Circle-related details I’d like to clear up at Metroplex. There’s actually not much work waiting for me – for once – so I might as well help out over there.”

“Where’s Earth?” Optimus asked. “It sounds like fun.”

“It is,” Roddy grinned. “We’ll take you with us tomorrow.”

The next day, they had boarded a shuttle and were well on their way to Earth before Rodimus had one of those “ohcrap!” moments. Andromeda had returned to Earth shortly after Prime’s funeral service, unable to face the memories that she and Optimus had built on Cybertron. And now they were bringing her love back to her… but he had no idea of who he or she was. They had hoped to keep Prime’s identity a secret, but since he was coming to Earth, it may be helpful to have Andromeda’s assistance. She had already suffered a blow by being kept in the dark about Optimus’ death; it was only fair to let her know about his survival before anyone else.

Magnus agreed to take Optimus on a tour of Metroplex while Rodimus went to find Andromeda. After a brief and fruitless search, he discovered her in the dispensary, draining an energon cube and chatting with Nova. Nova stifled a squeal and gripped the chair arms, physically restraining herself from jumping at him with joy. Roddy grinned at her, but something in his appearance appeared rather strained. Nova looked at him questioningly but knew better than to press the issue.

“Andromeda, may I speak to you?” he asked.

Now Andromeda was the one to look surprised and somewhat concerned. She nodded jerkily and stood, almost knocking over her cube. Nova wiggled her fingers in farewell, and Rodimus nodded in return. He took her back to his office, since it was one of the most secure places in Metroplex. She pulled up a chair and gazed at him expectantly.

He hesitated. “Well… it’s going to sound a bit clichéd... but I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“I’d like the bad news first.”

He sighed. “The bad news is part of the good news, so you’ll have to get the good news first. Optimus is alive.”

Andromeda gasped, her optics going wide. “Optimus, alive… but how?”

“He was rescued from the shuttle explosion by a group of scavengers and eventually ended up in a medical facility. The natives did a great job of patching him up, and at this point he’s just about fully healed.”

She narrowed her optics at him. “So what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is that he’s lost his memory. He doesn’t remember anything about his life as Optimus Prime. He still thinks he’s Orion Pax.”

“But he’s going to get better, right?” Andromeda tried to keep a note of hysteria out of her voice. “You said he was healing.”

Roddy sighed. “To be honest, we don’t know. He’s physically healed, so there’s no injury or remaining trauma affecting his mental state. It may be that his mind is still recovering and he’ll snap out of it on his own. But so far, nothing has helped him remember the past nine million years.”

“That’s all right.” Andromeda looked determined. “I’m sure we can help him. Just point me in the right direction.”

Roddy grinned. Now there was the old Andromeda! “Right this way, milady.” He radioed Magnus, asking him to bring their “new friend” to the “meeting place”. Magnus knew to bring Optimus to the elder Prime’s quarters within Metroplex.

Magnus and Optimus ended up beating them there. Once Andromeda entered the room, Prime deactivated the holo-projector, allowing her to see his true face. She clapped a hand over her mouth and looked ready to cry. “…Optimus…?” she whispered tremulously.

He seemed to smile at her. The expression was rather vague, the way strangers may smile when meeting in a public place. There was no recognition in his expression. “You must be Andromeda. I’ve heard a lot about you. I do have to say that you look even prettier than in your pictures.”

Andromeda looked flustered, rather pleased at the compliment but upset at the lack of recognition. “Um, yes, I am Andromeda, and we’ve been together for a little while now. I like to think that it’s the quality rather than the quantity of time that counts.”

“Well, I’ll just let you kids get reacquainted,” Roddy said with forced cheer as he and Magnus began to back out of the room. Andromeda shot them a nervous gaze. Rodimus couldn’t help feeling bad for her. He fervently hoped that meeting with his old girlfriend would snap Optimus out of his amnesiac state.

Andromeda threw herself into her new project with abandon. She had resumed light duty with the security forces, but all her spare time was spent trying to reacquaint Optimus with his past life. People noticed and started to gossip, until Rodimus surreptitiously spread the word that an old friend was visiting to raise her spirits.

Rodimus was pleased to be back on Earth. Earth currently needed much less maintenance than Cybertron, which had been damaged in Unicron’s attack and countless millions of years of war. And… well, all right, the fact that Nova was stationed there didn’t hurt either. It was great to relax and spend some quality off-duty time with her, especially after the unbelievable stress of the past few months. Nova had let Andromeda stay with her so she wouldn’t be alone in her grief. Nova was now spending all her free time with Roddy, but Ani was so wrapped up in reaching out to Optimus that she didn’t even seem to notice.

Nova and Andromeda got together one night to hang out in Nova’s quarters. Rodimus was off on some sort of official business, and Optimus was off exploring Earth’s natural wonders. “So, how’s Optimus doing?” Nova asked as she leaned back in her chair, tossing an Energon sweet into her mouth.

Andromeda smiled. “He’s fascinated by Earth; just like he always was. Ratchet and First Aid have given him a clean bill of health. He’s doing great, just great.” She then surprised them both by bursting into tears.

Nova jumped out of her seat, scattering treats everywhere. “Oh! What’s wrong?!” she exclaimed, hurrying over to her friend, who was doing her utmost to hide her face and curl up in a ball.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” Ani wailed. “I should be happy! Optimus is alive; it’s more than I ever hoped for. I should be grateful that he’s here, and I am; believe me, I am! But… but…”

“It’s not the same,” Nova said sadly, wrapping an arm around her shoulder.

“No,” Andromeda sniffled, “it’s not. I’ve been trying to make the best of it, but I can’t help wishing for the old Optimus. I’m so ashamed!”

“Don’t be. You have a right to grieve for what you lost.”

Andromeda hiccupped slightly and tried to wipe the fluid from her cheeks. “He’s nice and funny and all, but he’s just not *my* Optimus. I want him to kiss me and hold me like he used to. I want him to take me to bed. It’s like a stranger has taken over his body, and sometimes I just want to scream. But I try to be patient, waiting and hoping he’ll come back to me.”

Nova patted her back awkwardly, not knowing what to say. Words alone would not make this any better.

Later that night, after Andromeda had fallen into a fatigued recharge mode, Nova visited Rodimus in his quarters and relayed her friend’s distress. “What do we do?” she asked, twisting her hands nervously.

Rodimus shrugged. “I don’t know. Seems to me we’ve tried everything.” Privately, he had started to wonder if Optimus regaining his memories was a good thing. The elder Prime seemed much more carefree and happy. Just the night before, Rodimus had visited Prime while he was reading more of his journal. Optimus had closed it with a sad look and remarked softly, “I don’t want to read this anymore.” Clearly the unpleasant experiences were too much, even in written form. If Optimus was enjoying himself, what was the harm in letting him stay the way he was?

He sighed mentally. Optimus had the right to be happy, and it wasn’t right to force Prime to be his former self simply for the sake of the Autobot army. But Aree had been quite clear that in suppressing his memories, Optimus was denying a crucial part of himself. His amnesia was clearly hurting those that cared about him, but ultimately he had to heal himself for his own reasons. Roddy pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off a headache. “I don’t know if there’s anything more that we can do. We can only hope that Optimus will regain his memories in his own time.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

Rodimus had no answer for that.


Chapter Fourteen

“Hey, Mags!” Springer yelled. “You’ll never believe this one. Megatron is here, requesting entrance.”

Magnus’ optics flickered in surprise. Megatron made no secret of his dislike of Earth, sneeringly calling it a mudball and occasionally mocking Optimus for his irrational love of the planet. He wouldn’t voluntarily set foot on the planet unless it was something important.

“Dispatch a guard to escort him. Rodimus and I will set up conference room three.”

Springer nodded. He knew without question to select the guard carefully: someone who would both protect Megatron and keep the Decepticon leader out of trouble. Just because they were allies didn’t mean that Meggie had to know *all* their secrets.

Scant minutes later, Andromeda appeared to guide Megatron to the meeting place. Megatron acted causal, but his appraising glances indicated that he was impressed with the massive city. “You look familiar,” Megatron mentioned.

“My name is Andromeda. I’ve served on several Alliance security details.”

“Andromeda! You’re Prime’s girlfriend.”

“Yes.”

“Optimus was never one to speak much of his personal life, but when he spoke of you, it was always with fondness.”

She bit her lip. Megatron wanted to pump her for information but knew the sensitivity and secrecy involved with that issue. She led the way to the conference room in silence. Just before he stepped inside, he thought he heard her whisper “thank you”.

“So what’s the good word?” Rodimus asked, forcing all thoughts of the dark blue femme from the Decepticon leader’s mind.

“I’ve got something better than words.” Megatron set the privacy and security settings to maximum. Magnus and Rodimus exchanged raised optic ridges. Once the room was secured, Megatron reached into a storage container hidden within his chassis. The two Autobots gasped as he withdrew a few crystals. They glowed with an eerie light, and Megatron cradled them carefully. All present recognized the powerful and unstable Death crystals shed by the now-deceased Chaos monster. “They must be worth a fortune!” Magnus gasped.

Megatron smirked. “I had to trade some valuable weaponry and blueprints, but believe me, I got the better half of that bargain.”

Rodimus’ appreciation of Megatron rose even higher. In the past, Galvatron had tried to use the crystals as a weapon. However, the Decepticon leader’s more rational mind recognized the vast potential as an energy source. Now they could revitalize some of the destroyed and derelict sections of Cybertron all the faster. Granted, Decepticon territory was in worse shape and would benefit the most from the crystals, but the fact that Megatron chose to use the crystals to rebuild instead of destroy was striking. Roddy wished he had a camera to take a picture of Magnus’ gaping face. Though Roddy’s concerns of Megatron’s loyalty had been banished, Magnus still had some lingering doubts. Clearly the city commander was seeing the light. If Megatron had wanted to start another war, all he would have had to do was hold on to a few of those crystals, and the battle would be half-won.

The Autobots set about finding a safe place to store the crystals. Metroplex had experienced the least amount of upheaval due to the Circle, so Megatron had figured that it was a better location for the crystal for the moment. Afterward, they devised a rough plan to harness and direct the crystals’ energy. They’d need to consult a scientist such as Perceptor, but they had a rough idea of the crystals’ potential and how to harness it.

Once that business was over, they found themselves exchanging small talk. The tense near-hostility caused by the Circle was nearly gone. “So how is Optimus doing?” Megatron asked. He’d received tidbits of information here and there, but they hadn’t had a chance to sit down and discuss the situation.

Rodimus shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “No progress. He still seems stuck in the past, and nothing we’ve done has been able to jar his memory.” He’d had a flash of inspiration the night before, after Nova had left. Optimus had placed the Matrix inside himself, and Roddy had waited, fidgeting in anticipation, but… still nothing. The disappointment was palpable.

Magnus nodded. “We’ve covered almost half of Cybertron, and his favorite places on Earth as well. But there’s not even a hint of recognition toward anything he’s experienced since his days as Orion Pax.”

“We’ve pretty much tried everything,” Rodimus agreed.

Megatron was silent for a long moment. “Maybe I should visit him.” He’d deliberately kept his distance to allow Optimus some time to recover without awakening bad memories. The two leaders certainly had a lot of bad fuel between them over the millennia. But it sounded like they were running out of options.

Magnus and Rodimus shared a long look. “Why not?” Magnus finally decided. “We really are fresh out of ideas.”

Rodimus agreed. “We’ve tried reminding Optimus of pleasant things, treading very carefully with his past memories, and it’s gotten us nowhere. Perhaps he needs a rather unpleasant wakeup call to the reality of his past.”

“Then let’s waste no more time. Lead me to him.”

They guided the Decepticon leader to Prime’s private chambers. All three had a sense of trepidation, but if they were going to do this, they should do it now. Rodimus unlocked the room and ushered Megatron inside. Magnus went to step in, but Roddy pulled him back and engaged the security lock and privacy soundproofing. Megatron had not betrayed their trust yet, but being alone with his former archenemy might just be too much of a temptation. Both of them could not help feeling a twinge of dread. If something went wrong, if Optimus called for help, they would not hear. But this Alliance was based on trust, and they were willing to let Megatron exercise whatever plan he had in mind.

Optimus looked up in surprise as the Decepticon entered. They had deliberately kept this visit a surprise to maximize the shock value. “You look familiar,” he said slowly. “You’re… you’re one of those flying robots, aren’t you?”

“Yeeeessss!” Megatron hissed in his most intimidating manner. “I’m pleased to see you remember me. My name is Megatron.”

“Megatron.” Prime frowned slightly. “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” The wary look on his face indicated that some fragment of memory had survived.

“Indeed we have. Though I barely remember the incident. You were just an insignificant bug to be squashed under my heel.”

“YOU!” Optimus exclaimed suddenly. “You attacked us! Left me and my friends for dead!”

The Decepticon leader chuckled. “True. And had I realized exactly who you would become, believe me, I would have been certain to finish the job.” The Autobot began backing away slowly, searching the room for a weapon. “Oh, don’t bother,” Megatron said casually. “I’m not going to hurt you. This time. I’ve come to talk.”

“Talk?” A sneer twisted Prime’s face under his faceplate. “Since when are Decepticons ever interested in talking?”

“Ah, so you DO remember our previous interactions! Not as amnesiac as we’d like to think, are we?”

Prime faltered and looked uncertain. “I – I don’t know why I said that. I don’t really know any Decepticons.”

“Oh, come off it!” Megatron lost his mock-playful manner. “You and I have been butting heads for nine million years! There’s no excuse for your memory loss. Your mewling puny friends have told me that you’re all healed up. So there’s no reason for your memories to not return.”

“Look, I’m trying my best, alright!” Optimus put his fists on his hips. “A lot has happened to me. I nearly died! So cut me some slack!”

“Oh, *big* deal! You’ve had so many near-death experiences that the Matrix is practically a revolving door for your spark! I refuse to believe that your injuries are to blame for your current state. I’ll buy that they may have initially caused the amnesia, but you’ve had plenty of time to recover.” Megatron leaned in until his face was right in front of Prime’s. “No, there’s only one explanation. You, Optimus Prime, are a coward.”

“A coward!” Optimus yelled. “How dare you? You don’t know anything about me!”

“On the contrary; right now I know you better than you know yourself. I made it my business. After all, the best way to defeat your enemy is to understand how he thinks.”

“So we are enemies then.”

“We were. Interesting, isn’t it, how two people who are struggling so mightily against each other can come to understand each other so thoroughly. I know you well, Optimus Prime. Or at least I thought I did. There was a time in my life that I hated you with every fiber in my being. And yet I respected you. You had your principles and you stood by them, no matter how silly or inconvenient they may have been. You were also a formidable foe who always kept me on my toes. It was an honor to have you as an adversary.” He shook his head. “I have called Optimus Prime many things, but never a coward. Pity. I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Stop calling me that!” Prime yelled.

“Why should I?” It was Megatron’s turn to sneer. “That’s what you’ve become. A weak-willed coward who is afraid to face the reality of life. Isn’t it convenient? You get a little bump on the head and suddenly you’ve got a free pass to shirk your duties. No more playing nursemaid to the sniveling, whiny troops who cry on your shoulder, who get boo-boos and beg you to kiss it all better. Who probably wouldn’t know how to load their own guns if you weren’t there to lead a shining example. Not to mention the paperwork. You Autobots are so in love with the paper trail, I’m surprised your desk hasn’t caved in yet.” He snorted. “It’s far too much for any one being to bear. So what do you do? Instead of admitting you’re overwhelmed, you hide from it.”

“I’m not hiding from anything!”

“You’re hiding from yourself!” Megatron spat. “Your friends and loved ones may be gentle and sugarcoat the truth, but I won’t. You’re hurting them, Prime. They’re far too slagging caring and polite to show it, but they’re miserable. You’re forcing Rodimus and Magnus to delay their work while they try to bring you back to your senses. And have you taken a close look at your girlfriend lately? She’s coming apart at the seams! And for what? For a weak-willed wussbot who can’t own up to the demons in his head!”

Prime looked like he’d been slapped. “I – I didn’t realize… I’d never meant to…”

“Oh, SPARE ME!” Megatron roared. “As I said, I have no tolerance for cowardice. You place the universe on your shoulders and then try to hide when it threatens to crush you. Frankly, it’s nauseating. You brought this on yourself.”

Optimus winced at the harsh words. “But Rodimus--”

“Rodimus has the same burdens you do, but he knows how to blow off steam and enjoy himself. He knows how to ask for help when it becomes too much for him. Not you. You keep pretending everything is fine, while the pressure crushes you from the inside out. You have few ways to safely release it, and you know what? That’s *your* fault. No one expects such high standards from you except you. The Autobots expect you to be a tireless leader because that’s what you’ve shown them you are. From the start, Rodimus has shown himself to be a great leader, but he is still only mechanical and lets others see his faults.”

“But I’m not perfect and never claimed to be! If I make a mistake, I admit it.”

“You might as well be perfect. You’re so busy setting a good example for the troops and trying to hold the Autobot army together, you almost never take time for yourself. You are the perfect automaton, doing your job and precious little else. Admit it, you love your job but sometimes you secretly despise it. It’s gotten to be too much for you, but now you’ve got the perfect alibi and don’t have to do a damn thing anymore. Admit it, Prime. You don’t *want* to remember!”

“I do! I do!”

Megatron leaned in until his forehead was nearly touching Prime’s own brow. “No. You. Don’t.”

“Shut up! Just shut *up*!”

“Come on, Prime. Remember. The bad along with the good. Remember how I nearly killed you and your puny friends. Remember how both factions drained the planet dry in our war. Remember your simpering love for the the mudball Earth. Remember your sickly-pink Alita One and how Unicron snuffed out her life like a cheap flare. Remember Andromeda, who tries so bravely not to cry when you’re around.

“No…” Optimus whimpered, covering his optics. “I don’t want to....”

“Remember, curse you!” Megatron yelled, yanking Prime’s hands away and shaking him by the forearms. “Face your memories head-on and accept them!”

“NOOOOO!” Optimus screamed. He clutched his head in both hands, a tortured scream erupting from his vocalizer. He dropped to his knees as the memories flooded his mind, overwhelming him.

* * * * *

Rodimus paced nervously in his quarters, throwing an anxious gaze at the door from time to time. Magnus sat in a chair – to the casual observer, he would appear calm and serene, but Roddy could see the tension in his frame.

“Roddy.” Magnus rose and put his hand on his arm. “Relax. Let’s find something to distract ourselves. Who knows how long they’ll be in there.”

Rodimus nodded his head jerkily. “Sure, let’s put on a holovid. Anything’s better than this.”

* * * * *

Several hours later, Magnus powered up an optic as he heard a commotion in the hallway. He kicked Rodimus, who muttered blearily. They both had slipped into recharge and were now struggling to awaken. Roddy stumbled to the door and stopped short, his jaw dropping. Megatron and Optimus both staggered down the hall, holding onto each other for dear life. They both seemed over-energized. Rodimus decided his optic sensors must be malfunctioning, for both of their faces seemed damp. “Thanksh, Meg… Mega…” Optimus slurred.

“I gotschta get going,” Megatron muttered, tripping over his own feet.

“You’re not going anywhere in your condition,” Ultra Magnus scolded, redirecting Megatron to nearby guest quarters.

Rodimus looked at Optimus sharply. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”

Optimus looked him straight in the eye, and despite the tipsiness and teariness, Rodimus could see the change. “It’s me, Rodimus. I’m back.”


Chapter Fifteen

Optimus’ return had kicked events into high gear. Rodimus made Optimus sit until he had sobered up a bit, and though he did not elaborate, it was clear that Megatron had found a way to reach him that the others hadn’t. Who could’ve imagined that the Decepticon leader had been their last, best hope?

The first thing Optimus did, after his mind had cleared, was to dash off and find Andromeda. With a squeal, she was swept off her feet and spun around in the air; he then kissed her so passionately that she was certain she was melting.

The next order of things was to announce his survival to the masses. Magnus opened a channel and addressed the Autobot army with a serious expression. After a brief speech with vague references to the Autobot army and valor, Optimus stepped casually behind him. As anticipated, the throngs went wild.

He smiled behind his faceplate. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” He went on to give a brief recap of his survival and recovery on Verderon Seven. “Although I am feeling much improved, I would still like to take things slowly as I ease back into my role. I appreciate your concern for me and your desire to wish me well, but please have some patience with me. There is only one of me and so many of you.” The Autobots laughed appreciatively.

Despite Prime’s request, he found himself sought after everywhere he went, from those who simply wished to greet him and congratulate him on his recovery, to those who insisted on meeting with him and briefing him on every detail of every project that had progressed since his disappearance.

Once Rodimus and Magnus were certain of his full recovery, they scheduled a meeting of the head Council members. Megatron and Cyclonus joined them in Metroplex’s secure conference room. They were gathered to discuss the remaining issues about the Circle.

“But what do we *do* with them?” Rodimus asked, propping his head on his hand, supported by an elbow on the table. They had debated the issue for hours and were still no closer to a resolution. “There’s so many of them! We can’t keep them locked up forever.”

Magnus nodded. “But at the same time, I don’t think we can just release them as if nothing had happened. They behaved like terrorists and betrayed everything the Autobots stand for.”

Cyclonus frowned. “The Decepticons that participated have also betrayed our kind. Such treachery cannot be forgiven or taken lightly.”

“The question is, of course, how to proceed.” They turned to look at Optimus. “I also do not wish to forgive or forget. The Circle is a manifestation of the hatred and mistrust between our factions. Sweeping it under the carpet, as the humans say, will not resolve the underlying problem. Violence will continue to erupt unless some kind of understanding can be reached.”

Megatron snorted. “I say we ditch them all on a deserted planet and let them fight it out amongst themselves.”

The elder Prime smiled grimly. “Bravo, Megatron. I think you’ve really got something there.”

The Decepticion leader stared. “I was joking. I didn’t think for a minute you’d take me seriously.”

“I don’t advocate fighting it out, as you mentioned, but the rest of the suggestion is sound. The Circle members that cannot easily be re-integrated into our armies must be sent away. Decepticon and Autobot participants alike will be stranded on a remote planet and will have to depend on each other for survival. We could divide up the supplies so each group has items that the other one needs. If they work together, then they should be able to do quite well for themselves, and once they have proved their inter-faction cooperation, we will welcome them back with open arms.”

“And if they don’t?” Megatron arched an optic ridge.

“Then they die.” Magnus looked grim. “The prospect is not exactly thrilling.”

Rodimus sighed. “What other choice do we have? Optimus is right. This has to stop *now*. We’ve fought so hard for peace, and we cannot let the Circle or any other like-minded individuals or groups sabotage it. We won’t provide any weapons, but we will give them ample supplies – if shared, survival should not be a problem.”

“All in favor?” Optimus asked. There were no nay-sayers. The fate of the Circle was decided.

* * * * *

Optimus stepped into his quarters after yet another busy, hectic day to find Andromeda sitting on the recharge berth, staring into space. He smiled at her and came up from behind, wrapping his arms around her. She jumped slightly, then settled into his embrace.

“I have something for you,” he murmured as he nuzzled her neck.

“I’ll bet you do,” she said teasingly, leaning back.

“No, not that!” he chuckled. “This.” He handed her several metal strips.

She laughed and took them from his outstretched hand. Her smile faded as she examined them. “What’s this?”

Prime smiled teasingly behind his mask. “I would have thought that was obvious.”

“They’re tickets to Risa.”

“Yes.”

“Why do you have tickets to Risa?”

“Again, I thought that would be obvious.” He waited, but Andromeda still stared at him blankly. “My memory lapse has caused me to rethink the way I am living my life. Megatron told me that I was hiding from my problems, and he’s right. It’s time to confront my demons and stop burying them with piles of paperwork. I will no longer allow myself to get overworked and overwhelmed. I have accrued many hours of vacation time over the years, and Rodimus has threatened to revoke them if I don’t start using them. So I thought a little trip was in order.”

She stared at him, mind-boggled. “You? Going on a vacation? With me?”

He chuckled. “You make it sound like it’s a novel concept.”

“For you, it is!”

He removed his mask and smiled at her tenderly. “I’ve decided to stop taking the good things in my life for granted and start enjoying them. Starting with you.” Her response was swallowed by a kiss.

* * * * *

Andromeda laughed as her mate chased her back to their room they had reserved on Risa. This had been one of the most amazing weeks of their shared lives. They had played some energetic rounds of hoverball, lounged by the shore of a sparkling lake, and enjoyed massages by the internationally-renown masseuses. Some days they did not leave the room at all.

While they got up to much mischief, they were serious at times. To Andromeda’s boundless joy, Optimus decided to keep in touch with Aree. His mental health had drastically improved, but he would likely still need professional help from time to time, and he could think of no one he trusted in that capacity more.

Andromeda threw herself on the recharge berth, and Optimus joined her. She stopped laughing abruptly as his expression turned serious. “Andromeda…” he began uncertainly.

“Yes?”

“We may not have been together for as long as other couples… certainly not as long as Alita and I were… but I do feel that we have something special together, something worth keeping. Well… I….” Words failed him. If her fuel pump hadn’t been pounding so furiously, she would have found it amusing.

Wordlessly, he sat up and parted the hinged opening that ran along the front of his chassis. She gasped in wonder as a glowing white sphere was revealed. The Matrix was also secured within, its multi-faceted crystal sparkling, but she barely noticed. Optimus reached within his chest cavity and withdrew his pulsing, dazzlingly bright spark.

Tears coursed down her face as Andromeda fumbled with the catches on her own chest cavity. They sprang free, and she offered up her own spark in response.

Prime’s face was equally tear-streaked as they moved their sparks together, gazes locked on each other’s face, until the lifespheres merged, energies crackling and throwing a whitish light on the couple.

Both gasped and became perfectly still as they were overwhelmed by the other’s memories: Optimus receiving his commendation as Autobot leader, Andromeda watching fearfully as Optimus leaked nearly to death after the excavation cave-in, Optimus making love to Alita (Andromeda felt his love for the departed femme but did not feel the stab of jealousy that she expected), Andromeda kissing Optimus for the first time, Optimus and Megatron locked in a stranglehold, Andromeda fleeing across Cybertron with the ‘Cons in hot pursuit, Orion being pushed to the ground by Imperious (Andromeda gave him a mental hug and turned him away from the painful memory)… the flashes grew too fast to follow, but their love was constant, an eye in the midst of a raging storm.

Time seemed to stop. After an interminable length of time, they pulled apart and their spark separated. They looked at each other, still holding their life essences, and smiled. They were now Bonded. They were as one. They had no secrets from each other, and nothing would tear them apart.

THE END

Author’s note: This fanfic was begun in 2002 and finished in 2007, so it’s amazing to me to think that it’s even older than my eldest child. This story has been a labor of love, but I am relieved to finally lay it to rest. Please forgive any plot holes or inconsistencies – I’ve written several long fanfics, and this last one has been neglected for so long that I have forgotten some details.

Fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine may recognize the Circle concept. There were several episodes featuring a xenophobic group whose motto was "Bajor for the Bajorans", and their symbol resembled a circle, hence the name. I used the name and a similar symbol, but the rest of the concepts in this fic are my own.

I am sorry to say it, but this will likely be my last Transformers fanfic. Never say die… I may change my mind at some point; the Transformers movie inspired me enough to at least complete this fic, but my muse has moved on to other fandoms. I still remain a Transformers fan and hope it is a part of my family’s life for years to come. Hope you enjoyed reading!

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