Distant Early Warning

Series: Children of Primus, part 1 of 3

by Phantom

Author's note: This fanfic takes place only a few years after Come What May, well over a century after the episode Rebirth.

Chapter One

The being smiled to itself – a large, predatory smile. At last, at long last! It had been alone for so long, trapped and denied sustenance. But that was about to change. Its insubstantial body wavered in excitement. Soon. Soon now….

* * * * *

“Brace for crash-landing!”

Loud curses filled the ship as Decepticons raced back and forth, securing loose articles and strapping themselves in. The battered cruiser seemed ready to shake itself apart as the pilot jockeyed for control. Cries of pain echoed as the ship's underbelly made violent contact with the moon-sized asteroid. The damaged cruiser skidded across the pockmarked surface, banging around its crew relentlessly, before finally shuddering to a stop. The silence was punctured only by a few moans, accompanied by the hissing of ruptured coolant lines and the crackling of a few scattered electrical fires, which would not last long for lack of atmosphere.

Motormaster groaned as he pushed himself to his feet, brushing off the debris that coated his frame. “This is another fine mess Galvatron's gotten us into!” he growled.

“Yeah!” Runamuck exclaimed. “That crazy leader of ours botched a simple hit-and-run energy raid! There's no way we're gonna make it if he can't keep it together!”

“Your words are traitorous, Runamuck,” rumbled a sleek purple form. Cyclonus lifted his fire extinguisher and attacked some of the dying flames. “Galvatron is our leader! All Decepticons must follow him.”

“Ha!” Onslaught exclaimed. “He's leading us right into the Inferno. And if you're not careful, we'll throw the both of you in!”

“FOOLS!” An enraged, much bulkier and more powerful purple chassis stumbled and staggered its way out of a mountain of junked components. “I am Galvatron! I am destruction incarnate! None can stand in my way!”

“That would be why the Autobots stomped all over us and shot us down without straining a circuit between them!” Swindle snorted derisively. “This was supposed to be a stealth mission to steal energy, but you just *had* to go and open fire the minute the Autobot insignia came into view. Another failure, delivered courtesy of Galvatron.”

“SILENCE!” the crazed Decepticon leader thundered, grabbing the Combaticon by the throat and squeezing.

“My lord!” Cyclonus protested. “You cannot kill him; we need him to form Bruticus!”

“rrrrAAAAAGH!” Galvatron raged, throwing Swindle into his second-in command, the two falling to the floor in a tangle of limbs. “I have no need of Bruticus! I have no need of *any* of you! I am Galvatron, destroyer of Autobots! And if none of you are up to the task, I'll have to do the job myself, after I've finished with you!”

The group of battered and bruised Decepticons cringed, all too familiar with Galvatron's brand of “discipline”. To their surprise, however, the insane purple Decepticon stormed out of the damaged shuttlecraft, heading off into the distance on his own. The others breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that they had been granted the briefest of reprieves.

“Concentrate on repairing the shuttles,” Cyclonus ordered with customary calmness. “All must be in readiness for our liege's return.”

“I dunno why Cyc puts up with that guy's slag,” Rumble muttered as he held a panel in place.

Frenzy fired his arc welder, sealing the panel to the wall. “Dunno. But one of these days Galvatron's gonna be history. I just hope I'll be around to see it!”

* * * * *

“Fools! All fools!” Galvatron raved as he stormed away from the shuttle, leaving large footprints in the brownish dust that lined the asteroid. “I am Galvatron! I have no equal! The universe shall tremble in fear at the sound of my name!” He allowed the rage to cloud his thoughts once more, his muttering becoming incoherent. At last, the anger began to cool (as much as it ever did), and some semblance of rational thought began to return. He discovered that he had wandered far away indeed from the shuttle, and if it hadn't been for the clear trail of footprints he had left, undisturbed for lack of wind, he could have become very lost indeed.

“Yesssss,” a sibilant voice hissed.

Galvatron froze, every circuit in his being tingling with dread. Had he truly heard the voice, or was it, like so many other things, only inside his head?

“Come cloooosssssser,” the voice hissed again. Despite his instincts, which were screaming at him to flee, he found himself drawn ever closer to the voice that held him in thrall. He stumbled and realized that he had nearly stepped in a large hole in the asteroid. Dark grey smoke began to pour upward from the hole, and he jumped back involuntarily when a pair of glowing red eyes formed.

“No! What are you?” the Decepticon cried, feeling an alien emotion – fear.

A mouth formed in the cloud, curving into a cruel smile. A chuckle emanated from somewhere within, and then the gray mass hurled itself at Galvatron, disappearing inside his head. The Decepticon leader cried out incoherently as his very mind was breached, violated!

“Yessssss,” Galvatron hissed, his voice bearing a very unfamiliar tone. At last, it was able to feed again! It had been alone on this deserted asteroid for countless eons, but now it had sustenance once more! It plunged itself deep into Galvatron's mind, nourishing itself on the robot's crazed, intense hatred. It felt itself grow bloated on the powerful emotions as it tore into the layers of diseased consciousness. Years upon years of rage and torment filled its senses like a heady elixir. It bit deeply, heedless of its host's weak mental struggles. Then, suddenly, a gigantic mental fist slammed into it, knocking it loose.

'By the dark one!' it thought wildly. 'There is a deeper consciousness here!' It bared its mental fangs and lunged at the core consciousness, but found to its utter astonishment that it could not penetrate. The 'new' consciousness delivered another violent blow, and it retreated with a frustrated shriek. This could not be!

Galvatron stood slowly and deliberately, brushing off the asteroid dust. He strode purposefully back to the shuttle, his massive steps eating up the distance. His thoughts were clearer and more orderly than they had been in a long, long time. He held his head high as he entered the nearly repaired shuttle. 'Cyclonus does good work,' he observed with a calculating optic.

“Galvatron, you grace us with your presence,” his second-in-command began his usual groveling.

“No.” The mighty purple Decepticon held up his hand, cutting of Cyclonus' words. “I will never be called by that hated name again. I am Megatron and no other. That hated abomination is no more.”

The shuttlecraft was filled with a pregnant silence. “Can it be true?” Cyclonus whispered finally. “Have you really returned to us, Lord Megatron?”

“Yes, I have.” Galvatron smiled broadly, and for once there was not a trace of malice. He turned and addressed his assembled troops. “Hear me, loyal Decepticons! No longer must you silently endure Galvatron's ravings and abuse! That shameful chapter of the Decepticons has drawn to a close. Now, united under the proper rule of Megatron, the Slag Maker, we will finally rid the universe of those abominable Autobots!”

This announcement was met with a brief, shocked silence at this most unexpected turn of events. Finally, Cyclonus broke the spell by kneeling down before his ruler. He clasped a fisted arm to his chest and called out, “All hail Megatron!”

“Hail Megatron! Hail Megatron!”

None noticed as a smoky apparition filtered its way into the ship. A pair of blazing red eyes gazed with malevolent intent at the ship's occupants. This breed of robots did not make very easy targets for its feeding pleasure, but through the purple one's memories, he had learned of another, very similar breed of robot who would serve him well, and they held an object, a mystical object that could sustain him forever…. Its – his-- eyes gleamed. Patience, he cautioned himself. It would soon be his.

Chapter Two

“The world weighs on my shoulders
But what am I to do?
You sometimes drive me crazy
But I worry about you
I know it makes no difference
To what you're going through
But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you”
-- “Distant Early Warning” --Rush

Rodimus hesitated as he passed by the office of Optimus Prime, noting the light shining from underneath the door. It was nearly 3:00 a.m. Earth time, and the Autobot leader was still awake and toiling away. A scowl crossed the features of the second-in-command. Optimus had a bad habit of pushing himself too hard, and lately he had become nearly impossible to deal with. The Decepticons, after well over a century of fighting narrowly successful or outright failing battles, had resorted to fighting just to survive, but all that had changed several months ago. Suddenly the disorganized and squabbling Decepticon forces had banded together and struck forcefully at Earth and Cybertronian outposts alike. Their forces had gathered strength and unity, and their raids were always lightning-quick and successful. Rodimus hated to think how many shuttles and cubes of Energon they now had in their possession.

Optimus Prime was even more tense and nervous than his second-in-command, spending hour upon hour poring over the Decepticons' latest attacks and trying to anticipate what would come next. He had mentioned once, with a look of dread, that this new strategy was much more reminiscent of Megatron than Galvatron's crazed, harebrained schemes. Galvatron had been a loose cannon, making him both extremely dangerous and unpredictable, but it had also kept him from scoring too many important victories. Rumor had it that he had even beat up on his own troops, and they had nearly mutinied several times. Galvatron had none of Megatron's charisma and ruled only through brute force. If Megatron's original personality had indeed resurfaced, it could spell nothing but trouble for the Autobots.

Resolving to harass his friend into getting some much-needed rest, Roddy pressed the door chime. “Come,” a weary voice answered, and the door slid open to admit him. Rodimus had to shake his head when he took in Prime's worn expression and slumped posture. “You look like slag,” he said point-blank.

“Thanks,” Optimus said ruefully, rubbing a fist across his bleary optics. “What are you still doing up, Roddy?”

“Party,” Roddy grinned. “It was great. You really should've been there.”

Optimus shook his head good-naturedly. “I'm not wanted at those things, Roddy. I'd just put a damper on everyone's fun. No one wants to let themselves go when their commander is standing over them.”

“That's where you're wrong!” Roddy exclaimed. “They'd love to have you join in, but since you never show they think you're above that sort of thing. I'm their leader too, and that's never stopped me from having a good time.”

“It's different for you.” Optimus briefly studied a data pad, then sighed and tossed it aside. “You're young, and you know how to relate to them. You have such a good rapport, even with the lowest-ranking ground assault forces. I just can't seem to bridge the gap between myself and the others.”

Rodimus wagged a finger accusingly. “That's your own damn fault, Prime! You're the one that let the distance grow, and now you don't know what to do about it. You isolated yourself, and now almost nobody knows how to approach you on a personal level. You've sealed yourself off and become inaccessible. I know you were just trying to set a good leadership example, but I think you've succeeded all too well. They all love you so much, and I think it hurts them sometimes that you're so distant.”

“They see me as some sort of demigod, Roddy. I can't possibly fulfill their expectations.” Optimus gazed at him with a sadness that pierced him.

“Why don't you let them see the real you for a change? They think that you're perfect and infallible because that's the way you've portrayed yourself. They haven't seen any other side of you. What could be the harm of relaxing your guard around them? They've accepted me for who I am, and I'm sure they'd do the same for you. They're really a great bunch of 'bots, just give 'em a chance!” Rodimus was nearly pleading. He hated it when Optimus locked himself away so deep that it was hard for even Roddy to reach him. The elder Autobot leader had a very powerful public presence but preferred to keep his private self cut off from the rest of the world. What Rodimus could not make him see was that it was hurting both Optimus and those that followed him.

Optimus sighed, realizing that he was too tired to argue, much less continue his work. “Could we please continue this discussion later, Roddy? I need to get some rest.”

Rodimus gasped and put a hand on his chest, feigning shock. “Optimus Prime, admitting to needing a rest? This must be the work of Primus himself!” Optimus scowled at him sourly from under his battle mask. He was not in a joking mood.

The joking smile faded from Roddy's face. “Say, something's really wrong, isn't it? I mean, besides the mess with the Decepticons. Don't try to deny it, I can always tell when something's getting to you.” He had many characteristics that made him a good Autobot leader, and perceptiveness was one of them.

Optimus looked down at his desk. He really hadn't wanted to get into this, but talking with Roddy always seemed to help. Besides, he was just too tired to argue about it. “It's Andromeda. Things between us have been… somewhat strained, of late. She was patient at first, but now she's really fed up with the long hours I spend at the office. When we finally do manage to get some time alone, I'm usually too tired to do much. And I can't seem to stop worrying about what the Decepticons will do next. She says I even mutter about it when in recharge mode. I know she's completely fed up with me and my moods, and I worry that our relationship is really suffering, but I don't know how to make things better.” His finger traced a random pattern on the desktop, finding the topic of his private love life very awkward.

Rodimus shot him a sympathetic look. “I'm really sorry. All this crap really interferes with our personal lives, doesn't it? Tell you what – I think I can manage to give you a second day off this week. I'll have to cancel my orgy,” one optic flickered in a wink, “but it'll be worth it.”

Optimus stared at the desk morosely. “I can't ask you to take on more responsibility, Rodimus. You've already covered for me so many times when I needed time off. I can't ask you to do it again. Besides, I'd only waste my time worrying. I'd much rather be here in the office, actually doing something.”

Roddy shrugged. Optimus was notoriously stubborn about taking time off, and while he had actually *gasp* taken a few days off here and there to spend more time with his ladylove, this renewed threat required both of their undivided attention and concentration. “The offer still stands. Look, I gotta go crash now, or else I'll never be able to haul my aft out of bed for my shift. You go get some rest too. Just remember I'm here for you if you need me, okay?”

“Thanks, Roddy. I appreciate it.” The orange and red Autobot grinned and sauntered out of the office. Optimus watched him go, a twinge of envy in his spirit. Rodimus had undoubtedly changed a lot and suffered much since his earlier days as Hot Rod, but he had somehow managed to hold on to most of his youthful optimism and boundless energy. 'I was like that once…' he thought sadly. 'But that part of me is lost forever. And a part of me still dies every day this war rages.' When will it ever end?

Chapter Three

“Any progress?”

“Yes, Megatron,” Scrapper confirmed, consulting several data pads strewn in front of him and his fellow Constructicons. “We have come up with several possibilities to restore your original body shell. To reconstruct you entirely would require precious resources, which would drain our newly acquired stockpiles. There are several radical and risky alternatives, and naturally we have selected the least threatening option.” He held out a pad with the information in question. “There is something called a 'well of transformation' on the planet of Talara that has the ability to change a being's molecular structure. Once the subject is immersed in its waters, he only has to imagine a form, and his molecules will arrange themselves into that form. I hope this meets with your expectations.”

“Talara?” Megatron said, perplexed. “Wasn't that under control of the Decepticon Empire at one point? Yes, I remember, that insufferable Deceptitran was weak and the planet was lost to us. So that was how the natives were able to defeat us!”

“Indeed,” Hook drawled in his cultivated tones. “This is surely your best chance to regain your original form, Megatron. There is very little risk involved. If it fails, you are no worse off than before.”

“Agreed,” Megatron said, a grin spreading across his face. He activated his communicator. “Bridge! Set course for Talara. The well of transformation awaits!”

* * * * *

The planet was exactly as he remembered it. Just another mudball like Earth. He ignored the natives scurrying around him. The foolish Autobots actually believed that these beings were Transformers, merely because the water of this planet had metamorphic properties that allowed them to change form. Absolute rubbish!

“This way, Boss!” Rumble cried, indicating the obscured entrance to a cave.

“Excellent!” Megatron chuckled, stepping through the cave entrance and into a cavern, water lapping at its edges. The well of transformation. He eyed the liquid a bit warily – he had seen it work on the Talaracons, and on that insufferable Seaspray, but would it work for him? Was it true that he merely had to think of his original form, and it would be granted?

“Careful, Boss,” Rumble warned. “Those fish-faces tricked me into thinking of a tree, and I turned into one! Don't let yourself get distracted, or Primus knows what ya might turn into!”

“Never fear. A pool of water cannot harm me!” the proud Decepticon boasted, squashing the flutter of nerves firmly. He waded into the well, then sank down slowly until he was lying on the pool bottom. Then he began the procedure outlined very carefully by Soundwave: first he pictured the endoskeleton, then his internal schematics, and then finally his outer body shell, in as minute detail as possible. To his utter amazement, he felt the change happening, felt his essence divorce itself from his body and become nothing more than a glowing green sphere. Then the green orb began to shift its shape to create the form pictured in his mind. The procedure, unlike the reformatting undertaken by Unicron, was painless and stress-free.

“Mighty Megatron, you may emerge,” Soundwave intoned in his characteristic melodic tone.

The Decepticon leader stood and emerged from the water, carefully keeping his mind blank as Soundwave had advised until he had cleared the water. Then and only then did he dare to glance downward. The sight of his own silvery-white body shell and polished black fusion cannon was enough to make him want to weep tears of joy. He held his ebony hands up, inspecting them as if he had never seen them before. All of it was exactly as he remembered. Gone was the hated form twisted into slavery by Unicron! He was his own now, restored to his former glory!

He exited the cave to the cheers and roars of approval of his minions. Their accolades filled his very spark, driving away the eternal chill that Unicron's influence and Galvatron's subsequent madness had left behind. “Hear me, Decepticons!” he spoke, pausing to relish the way they straightened to attention. Galvatron had nearly torn his troops asunder, but Megatron would unite them into a force to be reckoned with. “Megatron is back, in body and spirit alike! Let nothing stop us from attaining our former glory! Cybertron will be ours, and woe will befall any Autobot who stands in our way!” The answering roar was all the approval he needed.

Over the next few months, the Decepticons executed well-planned strikes, continuing to build their energy stockpiles. In one smooth, precise attack, they managed to gain control of Goloran, a small, uninhabited planetoid. It had nothing to benefit the Decepticons, save its close proximity to Cybertron. It would make the perfect staging ground for a strike on the planet, once the Decepticons managed to find a way past the Autobots' planetary defenses. There was something to be said for Goloran – it was, by far and away, a better base of operations than Charr had ever been.

His warriors were well-energized and happy, just raring to jump into battle. “Calm yourselves, bide your time,” he advised them. “Soon the Autobots will come to us, and then we will see who has the upper hand.” The Autobots simply could not afford to let the Decepticons station themselves so close to the homeworld, and they were sure to react to their presence on Goloran. In the meantime, they contented themselves with taking potshots at passing Autobot cruisers.

Then one day Dirge, who had monitoring duty, saw something of interest. “Mighty Megatron!” he yelled with as much urgency as his monotonous voice could muster. “Autobots are approaching the planet!”

“How many?” the silver robot asked, hurrying into the communications room.

“Looks like two massive battle cruisers,” the jet replied with more enthusiasm than Megatron had thought possible.

“Excellent!” Megatron hissed, clapping his hands together. Not enough to leave Cybertron defenseless, but enough to show that the Autobots considered the Decepticons to be a renewed threat. He reached for the base's public address system. “Attention, Decepticons! The moment we have been waiting for is now at hand! Repel the Autobot attackers and avenge the Decepticon name!”

Astrotrain and Thrust manned the base's exterior defenses, firing on the shuttles. One of them soon sported a satisfying hole in its side, smoke pouring from the gap. It lurched as its pilot struggled to compensate for the damage. A lucky shot from the other ship, however, blew off the barrel of one of the large perimeter guns, rendering it useless. The two Decepticons cursed but were not overly upset. In fact, they had been itching for a good hands-on battle for some time.

The Autobots obliged them by pouring from the shuttles as soon as they had touched down. Decepticons charged from the base at lightning speed, taking the strike team by surprise with their ferocity. It had been far too long for the proud warrior race since they had been able to engage their foes on an equal footing, and they relished the chance at payback. The Autobots, on the other hand, had trained for this possibility but had lost the razor-sharp ever-ready battle edge.

Ultra Magnus soon had his hands full with a rampaging Cyclonus. He managed to wrest away the Decepticon's weapon but soon found his own skittering away across the desolate powder that comprised most of the planet. Rather than make a futile dive for it, he lowered his head and charged the purple robot, the two clashing in a blaze of sparks and bending metal.

The two Primes emerged from the chaos, each taking deadly accurate shots at the fuel-thirsty Decepticons. “Come out, Galvatron,” Rodimus taunted, blasting Astrotrain, who had sought to take Springer unawares. “Or are you too afraid to face us?”

Laughter rang across the battlefield. Familiar, cutting laughter from their nightmares. All combatants paused in their hostilities; the Autobots in confusion, the Decepticons in relish. None of them wanted to miss this!

An all-too-familiar figure stepped out of the shadows. The light of the pale, weak sun glinted off of his newly constructed silvery-white chassis. “Welcome, Autobots! It has been too long since I faced you in combat.”

“No! It *can't* be!” Rodimus exclaimed, nearly dropping his rifle. Optimus merely stared at the apparition in mute horror. He had known, some part of him had known this would happen! He had an uncanny insight into people and events, but this one time he wished he had been wrong.

The living nightmare turned to the two horrified Autobot leaders. “Optimus Prime, how wonderful to see you again!” he exclaimed, somehow managing to sound genuinely delighted by his old nemesis' arrival. “And the young one – Rodimus, is it? Forgive me, but Galvatron's memories are far from orderly. Nevertheless, I shall take great pleasure in destroying you both.” Megatron's mind struggled to bring back memories of this young Prime but only succeeded in grasping at a few fractured images. Two Prime units?! Optimus was bad enough, and he refused to lie down and die! Now there was another one? No matter, he himself had proved quite difficult to kill. He was a Decepticon; it was his destiny to triumph!

“You'll never win, Megatron!” Rodimus cried, finding painful memories floating to the surface. He remembered watching the two opposing leaders clashing all those years ago in a stunning fight to the finish. Optimus had won, but Megatron had been inching for a weapon, a weapon Optimus hadn't seen… or so Rodimus had thought. Looking back on it years later, he realized that Optimus couldn't simply destroy a defenseless foe, but by grasping a weapon, Megatron would have forfeited any mercy that he sought, and Optimus could destroy him with a clear conscience. And then Hot Rod had intervened. Perhaps it was fate, but it still seemed like an awful, stupid mistake!

Rodimus' mind replayed the images like a slide show – his leaping in to tackle Megatron; the Decepticon using him as a shield as he blasted away at a weakened and vulnerable Optimus Prime; Optimus falling, fluids leaking at an alarming rate, his side sparking; Megatron gloating as he prepared to make his final shot; Optimus rallying and knocking Megatron to his doom with one mighty blow; Optimus collapsing as Hot Rod begged for forgiveness for the unforgivable.

With an inarticulate cry, he jerked his weapon up and began firing, peppering his hated enemy with laser fire. Then he launched himself at Megatron, raining blows on his head and chest as fast as he could work his fists. The Decepticon winced at the damage, then managed to shove the frenzied Autobot aside and fired a blast from his fusion cannon, catching Rodimus in the shoulder. The red and orange Autobot gritted his mouth plates and clutched at the wound, fluids leaking around his covering hand.

A laser rifle blast struck Megatron square in the chest, causing him to stagger back. Smoke drifted lazily from the wound. “Leave him alone, Megatron,” the elder Autobot leader spoke calmly and evenly, expertly hiding his worry over his second-in-command. He felt Rodimus' warring emotions through their Matrix link, as well as the biting sting of the shoulder wound, but pushed them aside. There was no time for such distractions. “Your fight is with me.”

Megatron fixed him with a chilling smile. “My fight is with any Autobot who opposes me, but I have missed sparring with you. Let's have it, then.” Optimus did not like making the first move, but he stowed his weapon in subspace and leapt for his adversary. Megatron easily deflected the strike and lashed out with a powerful punch, which Prime just barely ducked.

Rodimus hauled himself painfully to his feet, forcing the pain in his shoulder to the back of his mind. The leak had already slowed considerably, and he had no time to waste on it. His Autobots were failing miserably around him, and he sprang into action, firing on a crowd of 'Cons that had Goldbug surrounded. Ultra Magnus managed to escape Cyclonus' clutches, who had been giving out a pretty good thrashing, and joined Rodimus' side. “This is a losing proposition!” Magnus observed, knowing a defeat when he saw it.

Rodimus watched the violence before him with despair. They had had well over a century of peace and prosperity with the Decepticons posing little more than a nuisance. Was their tenuous peace lost forever? How had the Decepticons managed to become so powerful in such a short matter of time? The answer was all too obvious: Megatron. He didn't know how or why, but it was plain to see that their old archrival was back. And the reprieve that the Autobots had enjoyed was gone.

Everywhere he looked, his Autobots were being cut down by Decepticon weapon-fire. The Autobots had thought that this would be an easy strike and had grossly miscalculated. Now the soldiers were paying for their leaders' misjudgment. Rodimus felt seared to the core with guilt. This was all his fault! He should have anticipated this!

He nearly choked on the words exiting his vocal processor. “Autobots, retreat! Retreat to the shuttles!” He and Ultra Magnus both laid down some cover fire, giving their troops the chance to disengage and head for safety.

Optimus looked up in surprise as the order for a retreat came over the common Autobot radio band. A quick glance around answered his unspoken question. The Autobot troops were in disarray, overwhelmed by the sheer savagery of the Decepticon counterattack. Nearly all of them were wounded, a few critically so. He was glad that their soldiers had obeyed Rodimus' command unquestioningly, without a single complaint or turning to Optimus for confirmation. Rodimus had come into his own some time ago, and everyone had come to accept him as Optimus' equal, though he technically held the rank of second-in-command.

Optimus prepared himself to give Megatron a disorienting blow, earning him enough time to get clear and coordinate the retreat. But the Decepticon leader merely stood aside with a gloating smirk, having heard the order. Optimus hesitated for a split second, torn between feeling grateful for the chance to avoid more violence and feeling outraged by the condescending way that Megatron was treating him. He pulled himself out of his brief paralysis and raced over to Rodimus and Magnus, who were covering the last of the straggling Autobots. Once everyone was safely in the shuttles, the three officers headed to the ships, only a few scattered shots opposing them.

Rodimus risked a glance backwards, his fuel boiling in rage at what he saw. The Decepticons were laughing at them! “Later, Roddy!” Magnus exclaimed, hauling his friend into the shuttle. The pilots lost no time in getting their ships airborne. Optimus watched the planet recede below them as the shuttles headed back to Cybertron. Megatron had let them go, simply to mock them! This had been a test, and the Autobots had failed miserably.

The mood aboard both attack cruisers was grim. All of the attack force had survived, but some had just barely escaped with their lives. Rodimus had tended to his shoulder wound himself, refusing further treatment until the more serious casualties had been dealt with. He and Optimus did not exchange a single word. Each felt the stinging humiliation of failure and defeat, and the awful responsibility that they both shared for it.

Aboard the second shuttle, hidden in a dark corner, drifted a cloud of gray smoke, nearly imperceptible in the dim light. Its red eyes glowed as it soaked up the rioting feelings of helpless rage and bitter defeat. Now this was more like it! It was closer now to its objective, so close it could taste it. Just a little longer now….

Chapter Four

Rodimus kicked at a small pile of debris as he wandered around the outskirts of Iacon. A few hours of breakneck driving had helped him to work off most of his frustration, but his mood remained bleak. Their defeat at the hands of the Decepticons weighted heavily on his mind. They had been in worse positions, to be sure, but to have experienced a sort of peace, only to have it snatched away… it was unbearable! It was starting all over again, and he was powerless to stop it.

He and Optimus had been locked away in their offices since the defeat, formulating various battle strategies and defensive measures. There was no doubt in either of their minds that Golaran was merely a staging ground for an attack on Cybertron. Neither Autobot leader had been fit company – Rodimus had been short-tempered and cross, while Optimus seemed preoccupied and melancholy. Their troops had been loath to approach either one. Both of them had spent nearly every waking moment trying to anticipate the Decepticons' next moves. They had taken to recharging in shifts in the office or in either one's quarters. In fact, they had been together so much that Andromeda accused Rodimus jokingly of stealing away her man and having his way with him. It was the first time all week that Rodimus had actually laughed out loud. His amorous reputation was legendary within the Autobot ranks. Optimus had once even teasingly mentioned using Rodimus' notorious “skills' to lure in new recruits.

The faint smile that had been forming faded as Rodimus thought of his dearest friend. Optimus had not been taking the Decepticon resurgence well at all. On the outside he seemed as composed as ever, having held the Autobot army together at times through his unshakeable stoicism, but Rodimus knew him better than that. The countless millennia of war and strife had eaten away at Optimus, eroding his state of mind. Only a tiny handful of his closest friends knew of the sometimes-debilitating attacks of depression that would come over the elder Prime. Optimus was either too proud or too afraid to seek professional counseling, so Rodimus had filled the role as best he could. The problem was, the deeper his depression grew, the more likely he was to draw away and isolate himself, so that Rodimus would have to forcibly attack and tear at his friend's defenses until they crumbled. It was a painful experience for both of them, but it had to be done, and Rodimus knew that Optimus was secretly grateful for the chance to exorcise some of his mental demons. Still, Rodimus knew that he had only scratched the surface, that there was much more, thoughts and memories that were so agonizing that Optimus could not bear to share them.

How his opinion of Optimus had changed! When he had been Hot Rod, he had seen Prime the way most everyone else had: a hero, a legend, a nearly godlike figure who could do no wrong. Optimus was the beacon of hope for the Autobots, his strength and wisdom matched only by his compassion and charisma. He had been almost too good to be true, and his death had been a crushing blow to the Autobots. When he had taken over as Rodimus, he felt ineffectual, unable to live up to his predecessor's example. He simply could not be Optimus Prime. It was not until Prime's resurrection and his own return as Autobot co-leader that Rodimus had learned the truth. Even Optimus Prime was not truly what others believed him to be. He was a truly inspiring leader, but he also had his moments of doubt, and far more pain and misery than any one being deserved. He had made his position look so easy! Roddy had always wondered in the early days of his own leadership why he was having such difficulty, but now he understood. It wasn't easy at all; Optimus just made it seem that way. The mantle of leadership was every bit as crushing for Optimus as it was for Roddy himself, he had just learned to bear it gracefully, never letting on how he suffered for his people.

After so many years of hardship, of watching his friends die, he had been loath to let anyone close, and had succeeded in pushing away even Ultra Magnus, but Rodimus had refused to be shoved aside. The Matrix link that allowed them to share any strong emotion or experience had been difficult for them to accept at first, and it had made for quite a few awkward and downright embarrassing situations, but it had also brought them much closer than either of them had thought possible. Optimus had become very adept at hiding his emotions, but the link had made hiding from Rodimus nearly impossible. So Roddy had filled Alita's old position as confidante, finding that, deep down, Optimus was exceedingly grateful for someone to confide in, someone who truly understood how draining his job could be.

Now, despite Roddy's best efforts, Optimus was beginning to sink into despair. It would not affect his duties, but it would take a great personal toll. Roddy felt a brief flash of anger – why couldn't they just be left alone? Why did Fate always deliver a slap to both of their faces? They had both suffered so much already, and sometimes it was all they could do to drag themselves forward, for the sake of those that believed in them. It seemed, at times, that the Autobots were a cursed people. Would there ever be a moment's peace?

A sudden chill down his center support cable shocked Rodimus out of his thoughts. Something was nearby… something unutterably evil. He had learned to trust his instincts long ago, so he took heed of the mental alarm that was wailing within him. “Who's there?” he snapped, optics probing the buildings and shadows around him. He suddenly thought of the reports that had been piling up of Autobots collapsing for no known reason. There had been no clues to their affliction, save for their depleted levels of energy, and stimulated CPU readings. When they had finally awoken, the victims could only describe a grayish cloud of smoke that had come upon them, and then a painful intrusion into their very minds. Already overburdened, the two leaders had set these reports aside for later investigation, confident that the medical team would find the answer, suspecting already that this was the result of the recent of what had become a series of defeats at the hands of the Decepticons. Now, realizing suddenly how alone and exposed he was, Rodimus wasn't so sure.

Soft laughter echoed within his head, but it had a malevolent edge. Rodimus went completely stiff and still, mentally quailing away from the sound. “Roooodimussssss,” a voice hissed, and the Autobot was unsure whether the sound had come from the outside, or from within his own mind. His instincts were screaming for him to run, but he was rooted to the spot. To his astonishment, a sort of grayish fog emerged from the shadows and swirled in front of him. It coiled up around his legs, and he flinched – the sensation was like a soft wind, but it chilled him to the core. A sort of head formed, bobbing right before his face. Two blazing red coals of eyes came into focus, and, even more incredibly, a mouth stretched into a cruel smile, rows of razor-sharp teeth flashing in contrast to its dark, smoky body. “What – what are you?” Roddy stammered, dread rising within him.

It chuckled. “You'll know soon enough. I've been waiting for you, Rodimus Prime. You have something I want.” It pulled back a tendril and plunged it deeply into his chest. The young Autobot cried out against the intrusion and thrashed within its grip but was held in thrall by its powerful mind. It hesitated, seemed to frown, then plunged a second tendril into his head. Rodimus screamed, feeling it breach his very mind, ripping into his thoughts and memories. He could feel it actually smile and swell as it fed on his moments of pain and despair.

His darkest memories began to flash unbidden through his mind, and he tried to squelch them, press them back into his subconscious, but the creature tugged on them, pulling them to the forefront of his mind. “No!” he whimpered as it forced him to relive every terrible sensation as Megatron held a young Hot Rod captive with one arm as he blasted away at a battle-weakened Optimus Prime. A terrible sense of guilt flooded through him – no matter how many times Optimus had reassured him that it was not his fault, Roddy could not let go of the self-blame. The creature – Rodimus could only think of it as a vampire – bit down deeply, drawing the emotions into itself, feeding on it as if it were the finest elixir.

It sifted through his memories, pulling out the more striking ones, examining them as if they were precious jewels. He was scarcely more than a newling, lying lost and alone, everyone on the communications base brutally slaughtered. He was frightened – the bad people were gone, but they had killed everyone that he had known and loved, and they might return! Rodimus recognized this memory as one of his very first, and despite the age of the memory, the vampire-creature seemed to be quite taken with the simple yet strong memory-emotions of the newling. Rodimus continued to struggle, but he grew weaker as the creature fed on him. Drops of liquid seeped down his faceplate, betraying his agony, and the creature formed a tongue of sorts, lapping them up, relishing the misery that had shed them. “Stop, please!” he managed to choke, but the only response was a vibrating chuckle in his head.

He tried to pull away and slam up a mental shield, but the vampire merely shredded right through it, causing the young robot to wince at the pain. Once again it sunk its mental “fangs” into his mind, drinking in his despair as it pulled his thoughts apart. With great glee, it showed him the face of every soldier that had ever died under his command, laughing as Roddy wept. It found a particularly guarded memory and picked at its seal until it came free into the forefront of the assaulted Autobot's mind. “No, no! Don't make me look!” He tried to turn away, but it thrust the memory at him. Firebolt, his Targetmaster component, lay before him, broken and bleeding the green lifeblood of his Nebulan race, having been nearly torn apart by a Decepticon concussion blast. He looked up at Rodimus, face lined with agonizing pain, and begged Roddy to do him one last favor, to take his life and spare him any more needless suffering. Rodimus had known that the Nebulan would not survive his injuries and was beyond all hope of healing. He would last no more than a few hours, and those would be filled with nothing but blinding pain. Rodimus loved life above all else, and that included quality of life. He hated to see any being suffer needlessly, much less one that he had worked so closely with. Pushing his emotions firmly deep down, he caressed Firebolt's face gently with a fingertip and whispered a goodbye, hoping fervently that his friend would go on to a better place. Then, as gently as he could, he snapped the Nebulan's neck, putting an end to his pain, and his life.

Rodimus was near-hysterical now with grief, his spirit trembling and sobbing. He recoiled with horror as the creature forced itself deeper, crowding him into a tiny corner of its mind. He cried out in protest but was too overcome to put up a fight, as it filled his body with its own essence. Roddy's optics flickered unsteadily a few times, then began to glow with a reddish haze. His lip components curled into an eerie smile. This one did not have what it sought, but through his memories, it had been able to determine that there was another that did. And soon, very soon, that one would come to him.

* * * * *

Optimus Prime sat bolt upright in his office chair, the data pad in his hand clattering to the floor. Garbled emotions flooded him – it was hard to make sense of it, but one thing was clear. Rodimus was experiencing something terrible! He frantically tried to raise his second-in-command over the comm. link, but there was no response. He sent a query down the Matrix link, but that also was ignored. Consulting the perimeter scanners, he was able to determine Roddy's position on the outskirts of Iacon.

The elder Autobot leader stroked his chin out of habit, running through options rapidly in his mind. Rodimus did not seem to be in physical pain, but was certainly suffering from emotional overload. Optimus was loath to call for help for his friend, for he himself knew how private emotional pain could be. Rodimus had always acted with tact and discretion when Optimus was in a fragile state of mind, something that he had always been grateful for. Optimus stood and hastened out of his office. Rodimus needed his help, and he would go alone. This was nobody's business but their own.

A sense of dread came over him as he approached Rodimus' position. Something was wrong here, very wrong! Every circuit screamed at him to stay away, and he wanted nothing better than to follow his instincts, but he couldn't abandon Roddy if something was indeed wrong. He rounded a building and saw Rodimus staring off into space with a grin tingeing his faceplate. Roddy slowly turned to face him, and a wave of unease swept the elder Autobot. The look on his face was simply bizarre, especially since he had been radiating such distress just a short time ago. “Hello, Optimus,” Rodimus fairly hissed. His tone was deeper and throatier than Optimus had ever heard. “I've been waiting for you.” He stepped forward, his grin broadening, but there was such a feeling of *evil* to it that it froze Prime's servos.

Frantically, he probed the link, searching for an explanation for such an extreme change. The feeling that he got from the other end was sheer malevolence, something that existed only to destroy. A muffled scream came across, which was swiftly cut off by the other being. Rodimus looked at him, his optics glowing with a horrible reddish haze. Optimus felt his primary fuel pump stop cold. This was not Rodimus!

Through the Matrix link, he saw it. Saw what it was after – what Rodimus currently did not possess. But he did. And, at all costs, it not must get it! He hated himself, he felt guilty beyond measure, but he knew he had no choice. He turned and ran.

Chapter Five

Optimus rubbed a hand over his face as he piloted the small shuttle towards Goloran. He had most certainly frightened the technician who had been inspecting the shuttlecraft in the launch bay. He had stammered nervously about needing flight orders, and Optimus had regrettably had to show him the business end of his laser rife, which the tech had accepted as very good orders. He had heard the tech radioing Kup for help as he had fired up the shuttle's engine. The grizzled old security officer had tried repeatedly to raise him on the shuttle's radio, but he had ignored that as well. He wanted no distractions.

He activated the shuttle's comm. system as his craft began to penetrate the planet's atmosphere. “Decepticon base, this is Optimus Prime. I must speak to Megatron! Hold your fire, I come in peace!”

Despite his pleas, the base's guns opened up on the small craft, weakening the shields. “This is Optimus Prime. I come in peace. Cease fire!”

Remarkably, the guns were silenced. A few agonizing seconds passed, then Megatron's visage filled the shuttle's small communications screen. “This is Megatron. What sort of Autobot trick is this?”

Optimus fixed him with a frank gaze. “It's Optimus Prime. I need to speak to you urgently! Please, grant me an audience! I am alone and will disarm upon landing.”

He watched nervously, practically seeing the thought process whirring away in his old enemy's mind. Megatron muted the audio output and conferred briefly with his officers, all brandishing their weapons. It was clear what their thoughts on the matter were. Megatron waved his hand dismissively, and they saluted. Then the audio feed was restored. “Very well, Autobot. You may land. But I warn you – cross me and you will not live to regret it!”

Prime sagged slightly in relief. “Thank you, Megatron. I assure you that this is of the utmost importance.”

He guided the shuttle to a clearing near the base. He allowed himself a brief pause to compose himself, then stepped outside, slowly raising his hands. As expected, he was surrounded by Decepticon snipers, their sights zeroed in on his fuel pump. Two of them stepped forward and entered the shuttle, conducting a brief but thorough search for any concealed Autobots. They exited, shaking their heads. Under their expectant gazes, Optimus reached into his subspace pocket, withdrawing his rifle. Very slowly, he knelt and set it on the ground.

Megatron stepped forward, taking care not to block the snipers' line of fire. “Here I am. So what's this all about?” he asked, unable to hide his curiosity.

Optimus clasped his hands together, choosing his words carefully, needing to persuade Megatron of his sincerity. “The Autobots are in grave danger. A threat has appeared on Cybertron, the likes of which I have never seen. I know you have no reason to help us, but if my hunch is correct, the Transformers as a race are doomed!”

Megatron frowned deeply. “You are correct in that I have no reason to help you. So why have you come here and put yourself in such danger? What is it that threatens Autobot and Decepticon alike?”

Optimus spread his arms wide, needing to make Megatron understand. “I do not profess to understand what is at work, but Rodimus has been possessed by some evil force. This is what it is after.” He reached for his chest plate, and the snipers instantly tensed their trigger fingers. But all thoughts of violence were instantly forgotten when Optimus reached within his structure and withdrew the glowing Autobot Matrix of Leadership. “It was only pure luck that Rodimus was not carrying the Matrix. I have felt its thoughts, seen its intentions. It hopes to gain control of the Matrix through its bearers and twist it into a force of evil. If it succeeds, there is no hope for our survival. The Transformers are as good as dead.”

Megatron found himself captivated by the glittering blue crystalline orb, cradled within its casing. “I still don't see how this affects the Decepticons. It has been said that a Decepticon cannot open the Matrix.”

Optimus too seemed entranced by the object in his hand. “That is precisely why I am entrusting it to your care.” A collective gasp went up from the Decepticons, none louder than that of Megatron himself. “If this creature can control Rodimus or myself, then it can gain control of the Matrix. But you, Megatron, have no affinity for the Matrix. It can be in no safer hands than yours. The Matrix may be held by the Autobots, but it is a positive force in the galaxy, benefiting Autobot and Decepticon alike. I have never known of a Decepticon that could use the Matrix, but that could one day change. Primus sired both of our factions as one whole. We were the ones that created the split. The essence of our god has protected the Transformers twice already, and without it we are lost.”

Optimus Prime held out the Matrix, and Megatron took it numbly, scarcely aware of his actions. He secured it within his chest plate. Nothing. He felt absolutely nothing. That, he supposed, was what Optimus had been counting on. He had no connection to the Matrix, and thus whatever was on Cybertron could not get to it through him. “I'll protect this Matrix, Prime, though I can hardly say why.” His mind could scarcely comprehend what had just happened. After jealously guarding the Matrix for over nine million years, the Autobot had simply handed it over to his greatest enemy. Megatron held it within him right at this moment!

A smile shone through the gentle blue optics that beheld him. “You have my gratitude, Megatron. Guard Cybertron's greatest treasure well. It is the key to our salvation. Now, if you will excuse me, I am sorely needed on Cybertron. I have already stayed too long. I only pray that I am not too late.”

Megatron watched in a trance as his greatest enemy retrieved his weapon and left. He knew that he had a golden opportunity to capture his enemy and cut the Autobots off at the knees, but he didn't think he could stop Optimus if he tried. He certainly didn't envy the Autobot leader right now, and some perverse part of him wished the brave Autobot luck.

Chapter Six

No sooner had Optimus Prime stepped out of the shuttle than Kup practically jumped at him. It was no less than the Autobot leader had expected, and he breathed a silent sigh. “Just what in the Pit did you think you were doing, making off with a shuttle like that?” the security officer ranted. “And threatening that tech, to boot! Have you gone completely mad?”

'Thank you, Kup, for questioning my judgment in front of your security staff,' Optimus thought irritably, noticing how Kup's underlings followed the exchange with open mouths. He should know better! Exchanges such as this were best kept behind closed doors. Kup, in his anger, did not stop to realize how this could undermine the others' trust in Prime. Rodimus questioned the senior Prime's decisions on a regular basis, and sometimes their arguments got quite heated, but it never left the sanctity of their office. There was a time and a place to discuss such issues, and this was neither. Aloud, Optimus said merely, “It could not be helped, Kup. Time was of the essence.”

“Just where were you going that warranted such a big rush?” Kup snarled, sounding like a petulant boy whose favorite toy had been taken away. Optimus knew that he was just doing his job, but he most certainly did not like his methods. Later, when this had all blown over, they would have a serious talk. He still felt a touch of anger at Kup's threatened court-martial several years ago. It would take more time before he could face Kup with anything more than cool civility.

Optimus spared a glance back at the craft as Kup steered him out of the shuttle bay. His security force was already entering it, no doubt downloading and analyzing the flight log. “I think you'll have that answer soon enough.”

“Dammit, what is *wrong* with you, Prime? This isn't like you at all!” Now Kup looked genuinely worried. “What is going on?”

Optimus stopped in his tracks and fixed Kup with a long, searching look. Finally, he confessed, “Rodimus is possessed.”

“How? By what?” Kup was gaping. He knew better than to say it, but from his leader's recent actions, it seemed more likely that Optimus himself was possessed.

Prime shook his head. “I don't know. But I do know that it is malevolent and will do serious damage if it isn't stopped.”

The aged security chief clearly thought that Optimus had flipped his lid. “How do you intend to do that? By walking up and asking it to leave? Or can the Matrix defeat this thing?”

Prime knew better than to tell the ever-judgmental Kup about the Matrix's current whereabouts. “I'm not sure I can do much at all. But I've got to try! I can't leave Rodimus in that thing's clutches. Perhaps Rodimus will be able to fight it from within. No matter what, I've got to save him. Now tell me, Kup, where is he?”

Scowling to show his opinion of the whole harebrained “plan”, Kup pulled out a small data pad and consulted it. It was tied in directly to Teletran Three, which could pinpoint the location of any Autobot within Iacon's walls. “He's in the training room, Prime. Doesn't seem to be doing anything in particular, though.”

Optimus shook his head grimly. The thing was waiting for him. He would face it alone, to eliminate the risk of injury to anyone else. “I'm going to take care of this situation right now. I need you to blockade the corridors around the training room and make sure that no one goes near it, and that Rodimus does not try to escape from Iacon until this creature has been purged from his systems.” He turned and left, ignoring the words that were trying to splutter from Kup's vocalizer. This was his private mission, and no one else could intervene.

He kept his thoughts neutral as he approached the training room, not wanting to give whatever-it-was any more information than it already had. A numb hand operated the door mechanism, and he stepped warily inside, fearful of what he might find. To his relief, he saw that Rodimus was merely standing there, the holo-projectors that could create any scenario standing inactive. It chuckled merrily as he approached, but the sound grated on his sensors, sending a chill through him. “I knew you would return, Optimus Prime. You are quite predictable. You would never abandon your young friend.”

Optimus cast the Rodimus-body a scornful look. “I have loyalties, yes. Now leave Rodimus alone. He doesn't deserve what you've done to him!”

The Rodimus-body roared in laughter. “That makes it all the better!” Then, faster than the optic could see, he whipped his rifle from subspace and fired.

Optimus ducked and rolled, easily avoiding the shot through millions of years of training. “Don't make me fight you!” he growled. He had gone through this scenario before, when Rodimus was infected with the Hate Plague. This was the same situation – Rodimus was not in control of himself, and Optimus needed to bring him down before he hurt someone. Then, as now, he was at a decisive disadvantage. He did not wish to harm Rodimus, but Roddy could most certainly harm him.

Tossing the rifle aside with a scream, Rodimus attacked. Optimus ducked the punch aimed for his head but did not see the second one, and it connected solidly with his midsection. Pain burst from the impact, but he ignored it and knocked Rodimus away from him, giving him the scant seconds he needed to recover. When the red and orange Autobot attacked again, Prime was ready, kicking at Roddy's legs and spilling his attacker to the floor. He then dropped an elbow on Roddy's exposed back, wincing sympathetically as his friend cried out in pain. 'Don't fall for it!' he warned himself. 'It's trying to manipulate you into feeling sympathy!' He had to incapacitate Rodimus as quickly and painlessly as possible. But given Roddy's extensive training and battle savvy, this would not be an easy task.

Rodimus reached out for his leg and yanked, throwing the red and blue Autobot off-balance. His arms pinwheeled, and he fell to the floor with a loud and painful clang. Roddy was on him in an instant, one hand squeezing his neck as the second raked at his optics, in an eerie imitation of Megatron's attack that day at Autobot City where Optimus had lost his life. Prime caught the hand at his face and wrenched it at a brutal angle, causing its owner to scream in agony and let go of his throat. This being, now that it had occupied Rodimus' structure, was now attached to his pain sensors. It might enjoy inflicting pain, but it didn't seem to enjoy experiencing it much. But every successful blow hurt Optimus just as much, for he knew that Rodimus was still inside somewhere, feeling the pain that he was delivering.

Instead of attacking him by hand again, Rodimus surprised him by darting to the far wall, where a vast array of weapons from across the galaxy were displayed. Grabbing a Klingon bat'leth, he began to swing it around him in a deadly circle, stepping as graceful as a dancer. Optimus edged towards the wall warily, noting with half-surprise, half-dread that the creature was allowing him to select a weapon of his own. He grabbed a second bat'leth, turning it over and over in his hands, holding the curved area close to his body as the sharp bladed prongs faced his adversary, his closest friend. Rodimus had learned this deadly yet nearly artistic form of combat on some distant Klingon outpost, in exchange for some detailed star chart. In turn, Rodimus had taught the skill to Optimus, a fact that was not lost on the elder Autobot now. He did not rate his chances very highly.

Rodimus thrust the sharpened blade and Optimus parried neatly with his own, repelling the attack. He could see that the blade was sharpened to a keen edge and could easily penetrate even the thick armor plating of a Transformer. He stepped to the side, brought the weapon up in a half-arc, then struck out. Rodimus anticipated the move and blocked it, then abruptly sliced down. Prime dodged but still caught the tip of the leftmost prong in his right hip and thigh. The predatory grin on his friend's face sickened him – that thing was no doubt feeling his pain through the Matrix link and was enjoying it! He blocked it as best he could, knowing that the link would be unaffected by the absence of the Matrix itself.

A soft cutting of air reached his audials, and he ducked, the tip of his left audial receiver neatly severed. This was not going well at all! He noticed, with a sort of bitter satisfaction, that Rodimus was no longer twisting the blade with as much ease as before, due to his wrenched right arm. Hating himself deep down, he pressed the advantage, taking swing after swing at Roddy's right side, forcing him to work the injured arm harder to defend himself. Some tricky maneuvering placed Optimus just in the reach of an extended strike, and Rodimus obliged him nicely. Prime stepped gracefully backward as Roddy overextended his injured arm, crying out as muscle cables were stretched painfully beyond their scope of movement. The elder Autobot swiftly kicked the bat'leth out of his friend's grasp and struck out with his own, impaling Rodimus in the chest with the sharp blades. It was a calculated blow, enough to incapacitate his opponent to the point of shutdown, but not deep enough to seriously injure him.

Optimus approached his felled friend, remorse coloring his features. It was done. Now he would have to restrain Rodimus before he awoke. Then and only then could he concentrate on how to separate this vampire-creature from his beloved friend. He knelt and took Roddy's head gently in his own. “I'm sorry,” he whispered, allowing the guilt to wash over him unabated.

The link stirred, and Roddy's voice frantically screamed through it, “Optimus, NO, it's a trick! It's YOU it wants!”

Optimus recoiled and tried to back up, but the Rodimus-body powered its optics up swiftly, a twisted grin of triumph marring the beauty of Roddy's face. “Fooled you!” it cried, then delivered a mighty, debilitating blow to the back of the elder Autobot leader's head. Prime slumped to the ground, the world around him fading to black, aware of nothing but the scream of horror that traveled through the link.

* * * * *
Megatron suddenly stiffened in his command chair, his fusion cannon and polishing rag falling to the floor unnoticed. An urgent, frantic pulsing was emanating from his chest! Something was pulling him, urging him on, beckoning him. There was trouble!

“The Matrix!” he gasped. It was communicating with him! Something must have gone terribly wrong on Cyberton, and Optimus Prime was in danger! But what did he care? Optimus was no friend of his, though after so many years of studying his adversary and learning how he thought, it seemed that he knew Optimus quite well.

Again the Matrix swelled with urgency, filling every one of Megatron's circuits with a frantic need to act. He tried to stifle the sensation. He was Megatron, the greatest Decepticon of all, and this glowing ball meant nothing to him, save a means to wrest control of Cybertron from the Autobots! But he knew that he could not control it. Only Optimus and that whelp Rodimus could. He had the horrible gnawing sensation that he would need both of them alive. Why, he could scarcely say, and could not rationalize it, no matter how hard he tried. Well, he told himself lamely, it would not do for anyone else to kill Optimus Prime, would it? That was his pleasure, and his alone! “Cyclonus, Soundwave, prep that stolen Autobot shuttle! We are going to pay Cybertron a little visit!”

Chapter Seven

Author's warning: This has some graphic descriptions of violence and pain. Do not read this if you have difficulty reading about such issues.

Prime's senses returned to him slowly and grudgingly. He realized dimly that he was standing, held upright by an appendage of some sorts, the other appendage clenched around his throat. He was in danger! The events of the past few minutes returning to him, he batted away the cobwebs in his mind, forcing himself to full alertness, trying to ignore the dull throbbing in his head.

The first thing he realized was that his mask was gone. The second was that his codpiece had joined it.

He made a startled exclamation and locked gazes with a billowing, translucent gray cloud. Red eyes, burning with gleeful malice, held him spellbound, no matter how hard he fought to regain his motor control. “You don't like being stripped nude, do you?” it murmured to him in a conspiratorial tone, actually closing one red orb in a wink. “It's been one of your pet nightmares. I know. I know everything about you now.”

“Who are you? What do you want?” Optimus forced his tone to remain even and stern, struggling to regain his composure despite his very compromising situation.

The creature laughed, exposing a set of white, gleaming teeth, sharp as knives. It seemed oddly out-of-place on such an ephemeral creature. “Now, now, Optimus, that would be telling! Now hush, I'm feasting.” With that, it thrust one smoky tendril into the Autobot leader's head. Optimus sucked in air as the unbearably cold intrusion sliced into his very mind.

“Fascinating!” it purred. “You have a very unique mind, Optimus Prime. Dark and cramped, filled with so many twisting corridors and sealed doors. I felt your despair as soon as you drew near the Rodimus-mind. Mmm, you will be a fine meal!” It plunged the tendril deeper, relishing the choking sounds of its victim. After so many episodes of torture at the hands of the Decepticons and other adversarial creatures, Optimus had become inured to it, and found it difficult to scream after training himself to hold it back for so long. He now appeared indifferent to pain to friend and foe alike, but it wasn't that he didn't feel pain, it was that he could no longer express it.

“So many secrets. So many disappointments, so many failures, such pain!” it chanted to itself, enthralled as it took the dark emotions into itself, gorging on what to it was a gourmet meal. “Tell me about them; share them with me!”

Optimus twisted weakly in its grasp. It held his mind in thrall, and he had little control over his body. All his strength and power, useless! He tried to pull away mentally, but the creature held him fast, reaching into his memories, searching for a tasty morsel. “You are close with this young one, yet you still hide so much. Let us see what it is you have to hide!” It grasped a memory and pulled it into its victim's conscious mind. Optimus tried to turn away but was forced to watch helplessly as his mind played back his attack on Rodimus over a century ago. The Quintessons had reprogrammed him, brought his body back to a mockery of life. He was granted only the smallest amount of self-awareness, forced to bend to the Quints' will. He winced and felt ashamed as his memory-self punched and kicked Rodimus, then grabbed him from behind, pulling until his chest tore from the stress, bubbling fluids.

The creature greedily absorbed the guilt and shame, already searching for another memory, prying at the closed doors in its captive's mind. A sore spot caught its attention, and it pulled it into view. Optimus suddenly found himself lying on a medberth, the life draining out of him. He knew that he had cheated death too many times, and this time it had found him. Sensation dimmed; his body grew cold and weak. Weeping reached him, and then there was a great nothingness. “Stop!” he cried, squirming in the evil monster's grasp. He was reliving his own death!

Rodimus stirred weakly, agony filling him. His head hurt as if Trypticon had stomped on it and ripped out its innards, and his chest was a blaze of agony. A bolt of pain, fear and misery pierced him, and it took several seconds to realize that it wasn't his own. Optimus!

He managed to force himself into a kneeling position, horrified beyond words to see Optimus in that demonic creature's grasp. “No, let him go!” he begged. He wobbled to his feet, then collapsed, catching himself with arms braced against the floor. “Torture me if you must!”

The creature scarcely spared him a glance. “You are no longer of any interest to me. You, who hold back nothing. But this one has millions of years of repressed memories just begging to be harvested!” Roddy found the strength to stand once more, and the creature threw up some kind of mental force field. The young Autobot pounded on it, to no avail. He was powerless to stop what was happening.

“It's good that you are awake,” it spoke to him, all the while delving into Optimus' buried memories. “He has been keeping things from you. Did you know that he occasionally uses sedatives to calm himself? You can bet he doesn't want to share that with anyone!”

Rodimus felt shame and embarrassment through the link. Optimus looked away, unable to meet his sympathetic gaze. “It doesn't matter what he keeps from me! What he shares with me is his choice! I'm not here to judge him. I'll always be here for him, no matter what you show me! Just leave him alone, damn you!”

The wispy entity laughed at his entreaties and showed him the numerous times that Optimus had so very nearly taken his own life. Prime struggled to raise a mental shield between himself and Rodimus, but the creature batted it aside like it was nothing at all. It reached back into Prime's scarred psyche, searching for something particularly damning, prying at the locked and bolted doors that concealed a treasure trove of misery. He gleefully wrenched open one of those doors and plucked out its contents, holding them out for display. Optimus drove down a winding paved road on Earth, snowflakes falling in a white curtain, blanketing him in its chill. Without warning, around the corner careened a battered white van, filled with four riotously laughing humans. The driver wore a look of loopy joy as he suddenly jerked the wheel, bringing the van into the lane of oncoming traffic. He plainly wanted to play chicken with the red semi. Optimus was not about to take any risks, so he slammed on the brakes, but the abrupt motion caused him to skid out of control, unused to the slipperiness of ice. The driver, in his stoned state of mind, finally realized that this was a stupendously bad idea and frantically twisted the wheel and pumped the brakes, but he could not stop the vehicle as it impacted brutally with the sentient eighteen-wheeler. Optimus transformed, rushing over to the van, which had spun around 180 degrees. He could tell instantly from the amount of red liquid and the unnatural angles of the bodies that all four humans were dead. He covered his face with trembling hands, moaning in despair and terrible guilt. He had killed them! He, who had sworn to never harm one of their kind in his life! Back in the real world, Optimus finally managed to scream, writhing in the gray thing's grasp.

Rodimus struggled to cut through the overwhelming sorrow and self-loathing that came at him. “It wasn't your fault!” he yelled. “Those humans were using some kind of drug, and the ice made everything treacherous! It wasn't your fault at all! Don't blame yourself, just let it go! I forgive you!” But Optimus turned his mental self away, a sob escaping, unable to face Rodimus.

The door to the training room began to buckle under weapon fire and blows dealt to it from the Autobots on the other side who had heard the scream and came running. Finally, with a shriek of rending metal, the door caved in and the small group raced inside, weapons at the ready. But nothing could prepare them for the scene within. Rodimus knelt on the floor, beating at some kind of invisible barrier, fluids oozing from several neat puncture wounds in his chest. Optimus was held in the clutches of some kind of bizarre swirling gray cloud, tears forming in the corners of his optics. They could actually *see* his expression of agony. His mask and codpiece lay discarded a short distance nearby. Most of them had not even realized that the mask was removable! The few assembled Autobots were momentarily paralyzed at the sight of their leader stripped in such a degrading fashion, helpless as the creature-cloud did something unfathomable but unmistakably painful.

“Hey! You there, whatever you are! Just let him go and step away, real slow.” Ultra Magnus, who had been on Cybertron working out the transfer of several Autobots to Metroplex, fixed this unknown hazard with a threatening glare. He began to reach for his weapon in subspace but suddenly found himself paralyzed! He breathed a curse and struggled mightily, to no avail. Those around him, mostly members of Kup's security force, found themselves in the same predicament. Kup himself pushed past the assembled bots. “Why are you all just standing there gawking?” he scolded, then discovered for himself. “Of all the Primus-cursed, diode-blowin'…!” he growled, finding himself unable to move. Optimus was mere feet away, and nobody could get to him to help!

The emotion-vampire turned back to the being it held in its clutches, immensely enjoying the overwhelming shame that flooded Optimus at having been seen in such a state. Oh, it was even worse than his nightmares! This whole situation was like his worst nightmare come to life! He tried to mentally withdraw, to present his familiar poker face, but the creature laughed and seized him, not allowing him to escape. It taunted him with Alita's memory, how she would never be with him again, how horrible her death at Unicron's hands must have been. Optimus squeezed his optic covers down tight and cried out, pushing against it, but it held fast, plunging its mental “fangs” even deeper, tearing away at the fabric of his mind. The pain seemed to fill his soul, and he screamed until his vocal unit ached. “Stop! Stop it, please!” he begged. “What do you *want* from me?!”

“I want you!” it hissed, grasping his head and planting a forceful kiss on his exposed lip components. Prime's expression contorted in unspeakable disgust and revulsion. “I want your mind, your very soul! I will have all of you!” To prove its point, it bit down deeply into his psyche.

“Please, no! Stop, I'll do anything! Just don't hurt me any more!” The ever-growing cluster of Autobots gasped. Optimus never, ever cracked under torture! He was their hero; he was untouchable! But Optimus was well beyond caring what such an open invitation could produce. He just wanted it to leave him alone. His very mind was being ripped to shreds!

“The Matrix. What have you done with the Matrix?” It caressed his cheek with an icy-cold tendril, and Optimus shuddered.

“Gone! I don't have it!” he stammered.

“Where is it? Tell me! Or I will make you very, very sorry.” The being exposed its collection of teeth threateningly.

Prime cringed, more afraid of its mental fangs than anything else. “The Decepticons have it!”

“You lie!” it hissed. It twisted its hold on his mind, tearing through the layers of mental fabric.

“No, I swear it! Megatron has it now! Just *look* at the memory! I'm not lying!” He was oblivious to the cries of shock and disbelief around him. He wanted so desperately to get free of this awful, awful demon!

It probed his mind roughly, almost viciously, pulling out the fresh memory and prodding it to verify its authenticity. Seeing it was true, it shrieked in fury and lashed out, delivering a stinging slap to Optimus' exposed cheek. Though it seemed to be made up of smoky wisps, the blow ruptured the metal-alloy skin, causing a trickle of lifeblood to run down his face. Enraged, it plunged into the violated robot's mind, ripping and tearing at the barriers that protected Optimus from the countless painful memories that he had pushed to the dark recesses of his mind.

He had long ago learned to suppress and bury his painful memories, whether it was harmful or beneficial. It was his defense mechanism; it helped to keep him sane. He had to force himself to continue on, to press on as if nothing had happened, for the sake of his Autobots. If he faltered, they would be lost. He could not afford to indulge in his many regrets, and time after time, he shoved the painful incidents to the back of his mind and locked them behind a solid door. If he did not, they would soon overwhelm him and drive him crazy. Now this demon-creature was ripping through his finely-crafted defenses, bringing a tangled jumble of excruciatingly painful memories to the forefront of his mind. Optimus struggled to rise above it, but they all pulled at him, demanding his attention all at once. He arched his back and screamed once more, fists clenching so tight that they left dents in his hands.

Rodimus reached out with what strength he could summon, trying to help his dear friend keep ahold of himself as the sudden backlash of explosively released memories thundered down upon him. He pounded away at the invisible barrier, realizing that he was the only one that could move at all. He could see the others just barely managing to twitch as they fought to get free and save their tortured leader. Magnus looked particularly haunted – Optimus was one of his closest friends, and it was pure agony to see his mind torn apart piece by piece. They all felt so helpless!

Optimus had lost all awareness of the outside world, crying as hard on the outside as he was on the inside. He had never thought it possible to feel such pain, such violation! He gathered his shredded psyche as best he could, drawing it into a tight, protective ball. The being pulled open another door, this one spattered with Transformer lifeblood, and unleashed a jumble of names and faces. It happily paraded each before Prime's beleaguered mind, every one of them provoking a sharp stab of guilt. Like Rodimus, Optimus remembered each and every Autobot whom had died under his command. Some of the faces were somewhat blurred due to time and unclear memory, but others were razor-sharp. “I'm so sorry!” he whimpered, wanting so badly to apologize to the accusing faces that crowded him. He would gladly give his own life to give them another chance!

The *thing* reached into Prime's violated mind, finding another delectable memory that he had kept from Rodimus. This one was over a century old, but that was quite recent by Transformer standards. They had responded to a distress call from a small Autobot mining colony, only to find that most of the workers had disappeared. The rescuers had gone into a large cave to investigate. Optimus and Rodimus had gone ahead of the others. Rodimus stopped to investigate a pool of congealing lifeblood as Optimus continued on. Suddenly the elder Autobot leader bolted from the small chamber he had been investigating, grabbed Rodimus, and forcibly dragged him into another, larger chamber a safe distance away. Then he had turned away, ripped off his mask, and was violently ill. Roddy had been sick on several gruesome missions, but Optimus had always remained impassive and told him, with some bitterness, that he too would become hardened to such situations. Prime had refused to say just what had gotten to him so badly. In a slightly quavering voice, he had called for a demolitions team to come and blow up the cavern, and under no circumstances were they to enter it. In addition, contamination-warning buoys were to be placed around the planetoid. Then he had left the cave and refused to ever speak a word about it again. Now the creature finally gave Roddy the answers he had sought. In horrible, vivid Technicolor, what Optimus had seen passed through their link to him – bulbous, translucent, slimy creatures had pinned the Autobot mining crew to the walls and were slowly devouring their bodies. Some of the partially digested robots appeared to be harboring larvae of the creatures, maturing as they ate away at their hosts. Rodimus wished whole-heartedly that he had not discovered what Optimus strove so hard to keep from him. A pang of guilt stabbed at him – that was no way to feel! Optimus should not have had to bear this alone!

“Optimus!” A horrified female voice cried out, but he was oblivious. Andromeda managed to push her way to the head of the frozen crowd until she was also overcome with paralysis. “Gods, what's happening to you?” Rodimus looked over at her, regretting that she had to see her mate in such a state, but hoping all the same that she could make some kind of difference. But he feared that Optimus would no longer respond to stimulus from the outside world. He had even begun to shy away from Roddy's gentle emotional embrace. Cursing, the young Autobot began to punch and kick at the unseen barrier. He could do nothing to help!

The demon-creature had glutted itself on the most delicious agony it had ever tasted. He had been quite correct – Optimus Prime's labyrinthine mind had provided it with delights beyond measure. Never had anyone presented such a challenge! It looked around the mindscape with pride. Every door had been ripped nearly off its hinges, and the corridors lay spattered with blood, which oozed from cracks in the very walls. Only one barrier remained. At the very back of the cramped hallway lay a massive, red door, with iron bars nailed across its surface. It reached out slowly, caressing the barricade with almost orgasmic delight. It had already indulged in the most delightful feast it could recall, but the most succulent nugget still lay unclaimed, just waiting to be taken. “Don't touch that; please don't!” a weak, plaintive voice whimpered. It smiled cruelly. This pathetic creature should know by now that to beg would only increase its enjoyment! It reached out and began to rip away the bars that stood between it and its prize. Optimus, in the waking world, twisted violently in his tormentor's grip. “STOP!” he screamed out, his vocal unit shorting out from the sheer volume and force of the desperate cry. There was something behind that door, something so awful that it had been locked away a lifetime ago. It was Orion's memory, he knew, but that was all. Whatever it was, it was so horrendous that he had erased all traces of it from his conscious mind. He knew that that door must not be opened! His mind screamed in frantic protest as the door was ripped clear off its hinges and flung aside, the creature pulling the buried memory into the searing light of day. Nononononono!!!

He was no longer Optimus Prime. He knew nothing of war, nor did he care. Orion Pax was a young, spirited robot who had his entire life ahead of him. Yes, he currently held a menial job at the docks, but he was studying to be a doctor and had just completed his first semester. And Lord-Governor Imperious wished to see him. Him! Orion cared nothing for politics, but he had just happened to meet the leader of the governing Cybertron Head Council at a rally that Magnus, his longtime friend, had dragged him to. Imperious' optics had scanned him from head to toe, and though it had left him with a distinctly uneasy feeling, he had still relished the attention. He had been invited to the governor's private quarters to discuss his future. He had left for his destination that day with his optics shining. But things had gone so terribly wrong….

He had thought that it was a joke when Imperious kissed him. He had laughed and pushed the Autobot elder away. But Imperious had shown him that this was no laughing matter, and if the young Autobot was not willing to give him what he wanted, then he would take it by force. Orion was robbed of his innocence, the older robot heedless to his pleas to stop, the searing physical pain ripping through him, betrayal eating at him like acid. And later, when it was finally over, he was smothered by a sense of overwhelming shame. Had he done something wrong? He had given the wrong impression, brought this on himself somehow! Surely such a great Autobot elder, the powerful Council leader, would not do this without provocation! It was all his fault, all his fault!

Rodimus watched helplessly, a hand clapped over his mouth, tears rolling unheeded down his cheeks. No! Poor, poor Optimus! This simply was too awful to be true! He had lived with this all his life, stuffed down so deeply that it had become buried but surely never completely gone. How had he managed to go on? More than ever, Rodimus admired his strong spirit. Optimus was a survivor, more so than anyone had ever imagined.

Prime's voice was hoarse and raspy, his vocals damaged. “No! It's not true; it never happened! It was just a bad dream! Please, dear Primus, let it all just be a dream!”

“But it's not,” the creature murmured almost seductively. “That filthy pervert raped you, hurt you, betrayed you! You trusted him and he tore away your innocence! You have lied to yourself about it your entire life! Imperious raped you, and you can never change that! All the wishing in the world won't make it go away.”

A collective gasp went up from the few Autobots that actually had made sense of the creature's words. Ultra Magnus could only stare miserably, a cold fright spreading through him. Everything suddenly made chilling, horrible sense. He hung his head. He should have known, or at least suspected, from the way Orion had behaved that terrible day! Part of the blame was his.

This latest blow was simply too much to bear. Optimus simply shut his mind down, fleeing into its farthest recesses. His body slumped, lifeless, optics going dark. The demon creature had done what no one before it could – it had succeeded in breaking Optimus Prime. Now it was unopposed, and it poured its smoky essence into the limp body in its clutches. The Autobot leader's optics began to blaze a frightening red. It smiled, enjoying this powerful, sleek new body. Optimus was his, body and mind. It had won.

Chapter Eight

Sneaking past the Autobots' planetary defenses was surprisingly easy. Didn't they make note of their stolen shuttles? Either they had become complacent, or the Autobots had more pressing concerns at the moment. From the way the Matrix was flaring within him, Megatron strongly suspected the latter.

Cyclonus skillfully guided the shuttle into the docking bay. He and Soundwave, the only two selected for this mission, exchanged glances with Megatron. The Decepticon leader forced his nerves to be still. He now saw what courage it had taken Optimus to enter the heart of the enemy alone. “Remember, no weapons unless absolutely necessary!” he warned. The two nodded. They obviously thought that Megatron had gone mad once more, but as two of his most loyal followers, they would stand by him.

He opened the shuttle hatch cautiously and the trio stepped out, only to be promptly confronted by a small band of Autobots, brandishing weapons. The landing of an unscheduled shuttle had caught their attention after all. “Don't fire!” Megatron said quickly. “Unless you wish to risk damaging this!” He reached into his chest and pulled out the glowing Matrix, sending out intermittent flashes of distress.

“It's a trick; don't listen to him!” one yelled, lining Megatron up in his sights.

“Fools!” Megatron had no patience for this. “Your leader is in trouble! He gave me this for safekeeping, and it has summoned me here! Stand aside!”

“Yeah, right, like Optimus Prime would really hand over the Matrix just like that!” another scoffed.

The attention of the small band was diverted, however, by the sound of running feet. “What's going on?” another Autobot asked, poking his head out in the hallway.

One of his comrades paused as he ran by. “Optimus Prime is in trouble! Kup just summoned us to the training room. Something's up!”

Holding his head high, Megatron pushed his way past the grunts that stood before him. Shocked that his prediction had proven true, none opposed him. Autobots did double-takes in the hall has he hurried past, his two underlings hot on his heels. The Decepticon held the Matrix before him, as a warning to let him pass unimpeded. A chilling scream echoed from somewhere down the corridor. It took several moments for Megatron to recognize the voice as Optimus Prime's. Never had he heard the Autobot scream like that, no matter how severely he had been tortured! The Matrix blazed in sympathy.

He had to push his way through a throng of Autobots blocking the entrance to the training room, whose doors seemed to have been forcibly breached. Megatron wondered at the inactivity of those he shoved aside, then he realized that they seemed paralyzed, unable to move on their own. With an effort, he fought through the motionless crowd, until he was free and clear.

The sight before him chilled him to the core. Optimus Prime stood before him, hands on hips, chuckling in a deep, threatening way that he most certainly did not like. The first thing he noticed was that the Autobot's lower face was exposed – all these long years, he had been wearing a mask! And his lower coverings were missing as well. Megatron did not have the slightest clue what this meant. Then he noticed how the Autobot's optics blazed with a glowing red malice. Suddenly everything made sense.

“Megatron!” The cry caught the silver Decepticon's attention, and he turned to see a weak and injured Rodimus standing not too far away from the smirking Optimus.

Rodimus could not help but gape at the appearance of the Decepticon leader. Prime's words had proven true, and he did not know what shocked him more – that Optimus had actually given Megatron the Matrix, or that Megatron had actually shown up with it to help. He discovered one thing – whether it was due to Megatron's presence, or that of the Matrix, he could suddenly move! He backed away from the possessed Optimus, coming to stand next to Megatron.

“So, Autobot,” Megatron gestured to the apparently well-satisfied creature, “what do we do about this? Your mentor saw fit to entrust me with your Matrix. Can it be used against it somehow?”

Roddy's gaze darted from Optimus to the Matrix in Megatron's strong ebony hands. “It's a damn good thing he gave it to you, or we'd all be lost! You see, the demon would have gotten control of the Matrix if Optimus still had it. Optimus and I can both channel Matrix energy, and the creature could tap into that and twist it into something evil. But since you have no affinity for the Matrix, it's safe in your hands.” He rubbed his head in frustration. “To answer your question, yes, the Matrix energy could destroy it, but not while it is still within Optimus. Prime would only allow the creature to absorb it and feed off of it. We need to get it out of him, where it can't channel the energy.”

“Meeegatrooooon!” the Optimus-being hissed. “I remember you…. I have touched your mind before. You, who resisted me! You will not defy me again!”

Megatron stared, a memory stirring to life. “That thing that attacked me back on the asteroid! You wanted to warp and possess me like you did to the Primes! Nobody does that to me! Nobody!” Rage welled up in him and he shook with it. He would never be controlled again! Never!

Rodimus looked positively delighted with this bit of news. “Megatron, you're immune to this creature! You can help me lure it out and destroy it! But to do that, we need help from within. I only hope that I can reach Optimus and persuade him to help us!”

Megatron turned to address his two underlings, who where the only others unaffected by the paralysis. Something about the Decepticons – the formation of the neural net, the different charge of the Energon they consumed – prevented the demon-creature from gaining control over them. “Cyclonus, Soundwave, seize Optimus Prime and hold him!” The two Decepticons surged forward, knowing that it was a task easier said than done.

As the possessed Optimus turned to battle his adversaries, Rodimus closed his optic covers and concentrated, trusting Megatron to watch his back, a part of him ruefully wondering at how this had all come about. He felt along the Matrix link, sending out a powerful wave of love and comfort. 'Optimus, please, come back to us!' he begged. 'We need you! Don't let this creature win! It will destroy us all!' A weak response came back to him. Optimus was afraid, curled up tightly in the far reaches of his mind, too terrified to move. 'You've got to fight it! Please, Optimus! I need you!' Realizing that he needed help, he spoke aloud. “Andromeda! He loves you and will listen to you! Please call out to him!”

Megatron turned in surprise to study the lithe dark-blue female in surprise. He had not known that Optimus had taken another mate! “Female! If you care for him at all, tell him so now! There is no other way to reach him!” The Matrix was communicating with him now, no doubt to guarantee his cooperation, showing him how thoroughly evil this demon was, and what needed to be done to stop it. He and Rodimus would have to work in conjunction to defeat it.

Shuddering, trying to halt the tears, she pressed her hands to her chest and began to sing. It was an old Earth tune that Optimus had taken a particular liking to. “And I would be the one to hold you down, kiss you so hard…. I'll take your breath away, and after that, wipe away the tears. Just close your eyes, dear.” Her voice was clear and strong, her melodic tone ringing throughout the room. She had sung to Optimus on occasion, and he never tired of hearing it. The malice in Prime's normally clear, kind optics faded slightly, and an uncertain look crossed his features. Deep inside, something stirred, remembering the sound of that voice, how it had sung to him and kept him alive several years ago when he had nearly slipped away into death. It called to him now, beckoning him to return. But he was so afraid! *It* was waiting for him out there!

Rodimus concentrated harder on the link, strain showing on his sculpted, strong features. The demon had hurt Optimus with painful memories, but perhaps pleasant memories could bring him back. He searched his own mind for such memories and, as gently as possible, presented them to the shivering mind-spirit at the other end of the link. He fondly recalled wrestling in the mud with Optimus; a spirited snowball fight in the Arctic; the endless pranks he'd pulled on his friend; the one time they'd gone fishing and Optimus had gotten tangled in the line. He recalled how Optimus had stayed with him all night the time he'd tried mixing several different kinds of high-grade and had gotten a royal case of Energon poisoning; the time they had fooled Ultra Magnus into thinking a massive spider was crawling on his back (the brave city commander had screeched like a femme and did a bizarre dance around the room); the day they had gone exploring in the woods and happened on a pair of baby deer frolicking in a meadow. He had teased Optimus for an entire week when he caught him eating a whole package of Terellian Enersweets, his secret vice. He recalled Optimus comforting him after a particularly vivid nightmare; how he had held Roddy tightly and let him cry for days on end after Firebolt's death. “Optimus, please come back!” he pleaded. “I can't do this without you! Don't leave me alone here!”

The lifeforce at the other end of the link brightened, then rallied, shoving against the invasive alien presence in one mighty thrust. The being shrieked as it felt itself being thrust out of its host body, whipping out tendrils to try to hold it in place. Megatron saw part of the creature emerge and seized it, surprised that he was able to grasp something so insubstantial. He pulled on it as hard as he could, and the creature risked being ripped apart if it did not release its hold. With his other hand, Megatron thrust the Matrix in the thing's face, forcing it to behold the pure energies within. It hissed and tried to turn away from the blindingly pure light. The energy within the Matrix was not being released, so it could not absorb and pervert it, but its restrained yet very pure presence was enough to sear it. Rodimus turned to help, but Megatron shook his head firmly. Once this creature was out of Optimus, it would be all too happy to take Rodimus as its host once more. Finally, with a protesting screech, it was dragged entirely from Prime's body, which faltered and collapsed to the floor. Only then did Rodimus hasten forward, placing his hand on the Matrix in Megatron's grip. He could harness and master its energies without opening the case; a touch was enough to summon its power. Concentrating, his optics narrowing, he channeled the Matrix energy through his form, directing it out through his fingertips like a bolt of lightning. The demon screamed in agony as the blue streaks of energy connected, actually burning parts of its body away. With one more howl, it was entirely consumed, a pillar of energy shooting up and eradicating all traces of it.

Autobot and Decepticon leader alike shared a moment of silence as they regarded each other. Cybertron was safe once more. Wordlessly, Megatron placed the Matrix in Rodimus' hands, knowing that it would be of no more use to the Decepticons. He then knelt and touched Optimus on the forehead. The stricken Autobot was lying on the floor, optics glowing a hazy, unfocused blue, shivering in shock. At the touch, the light went out of his optics entirely, and his body went slack. Megatron keeled over, slumping to the floor, as lifeless as the form next to him. Rodimus looked from them to the Matrix in his hands, praying that everything would be all right. Primus help them both!

Chapter Nine

Megatron carried the limp form of Optimus Prime through dark corridors that seeped with lifeblood. He wasn't quite sure where he was, but he knew he had to get Optimus to safety. Gradually the walls became wider and the blood disappeared, but they seemed to swirl, occasionally punctuated with bursts of energy. As he walked, he noticed that his footfalls made no sound. Gentle white-blue light illuminated the corridor. Just when he had begun to wonder if he was actually getting anywhere, a branch formed off to the right, leading into a large chamber. The glow was stronger here, and the room seemed to give off a comforting feel. It seemed like a good place to rest.

He studied his adversary with a grim look. Optimus Prime was now somehow wearing his lower coverings, but his face remained exposed. An unexpected pang of sympathy hit him. He had too once been overwhelmed by an attack that had invaded his very mind, twisting him into a pawn. The Autobot was comatose, his optics glowing faintly, but showing no other response to the outside world. Without his mask, he looked younger and much more vulnerable. Covering his face had been an excellent tactical maneuver, making Optimus Prime essentially expressionless and more imposing. He was every bit as cunning as Megatron had suspected. A bit hesitantly, the Decepticon reached out, caressing the exposed cheek with a fingertip. “It's okay. You're safe here.” He didn't know why, but he felt he had to protect Optimus, and this strange place seemed safe and secure.

Why had he been acting so strange lately? First he had let Optimus leave Goloran without a fight instead of capturing him, then he had actually risked his own life to save Optimus and return the Matrix. Now he was protecting him again! Had something unexpected happened to him upon his return as Megatron? Had his perspective changed? Had the Matrix influenced him somehow? Perhaps it was a little of everything. Or perhaps, just perhaps, he sensed that something was going to happen. Something bigger than their squabbling factions.

A prickling sensation formed at the back of his neck, and he turned his head. Another robot stood behind him, regarding him silently. Megatron started slightly – he had not heard him enter. He had nearly mistaken this new arrival for Rodimus Prime at first glance, but on closer inspection, he noted several differences. This Cybertronian had a somewhat more slender build, and his exostructure was more red than orange. The face, however, was almost exactly the same. The main difference was in the symbol that graced his chest. Instead of an Autobot brand, there stood the swirling Cybertronian word-symbol for creation.

The newcomer knelt and took Optimus Prime gently in his arms. He spoke, and Megatron found himself mesmerized by his soothing tones. “My poor child. Again you have been abused.”

The Decepticon stared, captivated. “Who *are* you?!”

The robot looked up and fixed him with an enigmatic smile. “I think you know already.” Then he turned his attention back to the stricken Autobot in his arms.

Megatron watched, feeling like he was intruding. There was something undeniably familiar about this stranger. The answer fluttered around his neural net, but somehow just managed to evade him. The red-orange robot seemed to have some sort of whitish aura around him, and as Megatron watched, awestruck, it flared out and extended to form around Optimus Prime. He put one hand on the Autobot's forehead, murmuring inaudibly as he slowly rocked him. Optimus seemed to relax in his embrace, the glow in his optics strengthening. His mouth twitched in a tiny smile.

After an interminable amount of time, Prime's optics lit with consciousness, and he groaned softly. His gaze focused on the being that cradled him, and his optics grew wide with shock. “Primus!” he breathed. Had he died once more?

At first, Megatron thought he was merely making an exclamation… then it slowly dawned on him that Optimus had meant it as a name. It hit him like a sledgehammer. His mouth moved soundlessly. This was their god! This was their creator! He sank to his knees, his legs threatening to collapse. “You!” he gasped. Questions crowded his mind – there were so many things he wanted answered!

The god smiled at him in reply, then turned his attention to his creation lying in his arms. “I have healed the damage to your mind as best I could. I'm very sorry, but I can't change what happened, or take away the memories. I am not permitted to interfere to that degree. There are very strict rules that I must obey, or risk altering this reality.” His expression grew sad. “You have suffered so much for your people. You have been set on a path that has only brought you pain and strife. I have been unable to change it, but I have given you as much comfort as I could.”

Optimus stared up at his creator, the meaning of those words slowly sinking in. How many times had he cried himself to sleep, alone and desperately afraid for the future of his people? It was at those times that he called out for a reprieve, for mercy, for help. And he would dream of a comforting embrace that gave him love and courage, and upon waking in the morning he had found the strength to continue. He had often wondered how he could manage to push on, time after time, tragedy after tragedy. Now he knew – he had never truly been alone.

Primus then looked up and indulged Megatron with another smile, which only made him shiver. This was just too unreal! Perhaps he was dreaming. “My proud warrior,” he addressed the Decepticon, “you are strong and passionate, but you have strayed from your path as Cybertron's defender. This civil war has diverted you from your true purpose.”

Megatron stiffened in anger. He would not allow this being to preach to him! He was not some kind of tool! “You care nothing for us! The Decepticons were forced into subjugation while the Autobots glutted themselves on high-grade Energon and forced us to duel for their amusement! You stood by and did nothing, and you have not lifted one little finger to stop this war! Do not tell me of my true purpose! I make my own destiny!”

“So you do.” Primus actually looked amused at his reaction. “Hear me, Megatron. Your life is your own, to use as you see fit. I created the Transformers to compensate for the threat of evil that has continually threatened life in the galaxy. Vector Sigma was my tool, and the Quintessons were merely the beings that implemented my designs. I knew there was a risk in granting my creations self-determination, but I felt that it was worth it, to grant them a true chance at life. Ever since, I have not been able to influence your development except in small ways. To do so would betray the trust I had placed in you. Everything that has happened since your creation was of your own people's doing, and yours to resolve. It is not my place to interfere.”

Optimus looked up at him questioningly, still unwilling to move from the comforting embrace, though part of him felt that he should kneel and show his respect. “But why, my lord? Why have you chosen to interfere now? Why appear to us, after all this time?”

Primus touched his forehead once more, and his optics dimmed, a feeling of love and well-being spreading through him. He clung to it desperately. “I will answer that in a moment. But first, there is someone missing who must be summoned.”

* * * * *

Rodimus Prime stood watch over his violated friend, Ultra Magnus by his side. Both Optimus and Megatron had been unconscious for nearly two days. It was understandable for Optimus, who had been dealt such a cruel blow, but there seemed to be absolutely nothing wrong with Megatron. Rodimus was quite certain that the both of them were in the Matrix. For what purpose, he could not guess. Cyclonus and Soundwave were kept under constant armed guard as they kept vigil by Megatron's bedside. Rodimus hoped that he would wake up soon, before the other two lost patience and tried to forcibly bring him back to Goloran.

He looked down at the fresh weld marks on his chest. As in battle, the situation with Optimus had caused him to block out the pain of his severe wounds, running on an adrenaline high of sorts. Once the crisis had passed, he had collapsed and had been rushed to medbay. The wounds had been severe enough to shock him into unconsciousness earlier, and had caused him to lose a good amount of fluid, but nothing too essential had been severed. He was already healing. He was very glad that that creature, whatever it was, had been defeated before it could do any more damage. Rodimus had no doubt that, once it had gained the Matrix, it would have killed Rodimus to eliminate any other Matrix-sensitive threats, then it would have used the tainted Matrix energy to wipe out the rest, Autobot and Decepticon alike.

Optimus was his main concern right now. Magnus had not left his side since he had been brought in, finally replacing his missing armor and restoring some of his dignity. Andromeda had stayed for several hours, but Magnus had seen how worn she looked and ordered her to her quarters for rest. He had promised to contact her the moment Optimus awakened.

“I can't believe it!” Rodimus whispered, looking at Optimus' lifeless form. “To have had something so awful happen to him when he was so young….” He shuddered.

“Imperious!” Magnus hissed, his hands curling into fists. “I wish that lecherous bastard was alive, so I could beat him to death all over again! Megatron did us a favor by killing him. He deserves to know what it feels like to be violated!” Rodimus put a hand on his shoulder in sympathy. Magnus' shoulders slumped. “I bear part of the blame for this, Roddy. I took him to that rally where he met Imperious. I had a funny feeling about their appointment together but had no concrete worries to address. And when Orion returned, I could tell that something had gone horribly wrong, but that…! I never guessed what had happened, but maybe I should have. Orion locked himself in his quarters and would see no one for days. And when he did finally let me in, I was shocked at how horrible he looked. He hadn't recharged well in days, or energized much either. He refused to talk about what had happened. Stupid me, I thought that Imperious had just said something hurtful. And a few days later, Orion was back to normal, as if nothing had happened. I thought he had finally resolved whatever had been bothering him. But now I realize he had just buried the memories and convinced himself that it never happened.” Magnus bowed his head in grief. “I should have done more, Roddy. I should have been there for him, found out what had been bothering him and helped him through it.”

Rodimus pulled up Magnus' chin and stared him in the optics. “None of this is your fault, Magnus. I saw exactly what happened, and believe me, it would have hurt too much for him to talk about. If it had happened to me, I would've blocked it out too. It was terrible beyond words.”

Magnus sighed, glancing over at the still form on the medberth. “I just wish there was something I could have done for him. We didn't find out until much later, when the war had started, exactly how corrupt the Council had been. And Imperious was the worst of the lot.”

Rodimus gave him a kind smile. “Just be there for him, Magnus. That's all we can do for him. I know he's pulled away from you a bit, but it's just a self-defense measure to protect him from more hurt. He needs us now, more than ever.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but he suddenly fell forward. Magnus cried out in surprise and caught him. Roddy's optics were dark. The city commander groaned and carried his friend over to a spare medberth. Whatever was going on, it looked like Rodimus had become a part of it.

* * * * *

Rodimus suddenly felt the world receding, and he was falling…. He put his hands out to catch himself, falling to his knees. Once he had managed to reorient himself, he looked around him. He recognized his surroundings immediately – he was in the Matrix! Megatron and Optimus were indeed there, but there was someone holding Optimus…. A sudden wave of dizziness struck him as he beheld the other. He looked so much like him it was eerie! He had his very face! And the creation symbol on his chest left no doubt to his identity. “So it's true, then,” he said, feeling numb all over. Optimus Prime may have unwittingly been the one to create his spark, through his spontaneous and quite uncharacteristic tryst with Phantasma, but Primus had been controlling the entire event. Rodimus Prime was truly the son of Primus.

His creator smiled at him, and Rodimus was utterly speechless, feeling overwhelmed. “Welcome, my chosen one,” he said softly. “You are quite right. I created you to be my emissary, to guard against the evil that I knew one day would return to threaten my creations. And so it has come to pass. But the threat has once again returned to Cybertron. The demon that attacked you is known as a Voracian. Normal circumstances would not allow me to repair the damage that it has wrought, but this is a special situation that warrants my intervention. The Voracian was sent by a dark god to find my children, cripple the leaders, and corrupt the Matrix that holds both my essence and the sparks of those creations that have rejoined me in death. You know this entity as the Chaos-Bringer, destroyer of life.”

“Unicron!” Rodimus cried, touching his lips with trembling fingers. Could it possibly be? Had the Chaos-Bringer had a hand in this?

“No!” Optimus whispered. Please not that! Hadn't they already suffered enough? Couldn't they ever find peace?

“Your young friend is quite right.” The light-god looked at him with a sorrowful expression. “You have been strong and brave, Optimus Prime, but I know of the burdens upon your soul. You ache to rest and fight no more, but you are needed now more than ever. And things will get much worse.” Optimus closed his optics and turned his head away in misery. There would never be any peace for him! “But you will not be alone in this endeavor. You will have help.” Megatron most definitely did not like the way Primus looked at him at that moment!

Heedless of Megatron's perturbation, Primus explained, “Unicron gains strength by the day, and while he cannot create life, he can twist and corrupt it. He has taken much pleasure in doing so to
my warrior-child.” Megatron growled and clenched his fists tightly until the metal began to bend. Unicron would pay dearly for what he had done! “He will send other creatures that have allied themselves with him. You must prepare yourselves, my children. Unicron seeks to wipe out all life as we know it, creating a void of nothingness. If you fail to stop him, life as we know it will cease to exist. Now go, and prepare!” With a clap of his hands, their surroundings seemed to fade out into a soft yet powerful white light.

Chapter Ten

Magnus lifted his head in surprise when Rodimus stirred and sat up. A moment later, Optimus did the same. Magnus dropped his data pad and rushed over. “Take it easy, both of you!” he warned, looking very relieved to see both of his friends awake once more.

Optimus sank back wearily into the medberth. How he wished he could stay in the Matrix forever! Facing the real world was a very daunting task. Primus had repaired the damage that had been done to his mind, but it was still very raw and sore from the invasion. His memories had been returned to their former position behind sealed doors, but he could just feel them crowding each other, waiting to burst out and overwhelm him. A gentle touch came through the link and he flinched. It quickly withdrew, and he looked at Rodimus guiltily. He appreciated the kindness, but it was just too much for him to have another mind touch him right now.

His optics dimmed in sorrow. He had wanted so badly to ask Primus for a reprieve, to let him stay in the Matrix for at least awhile longer, but he knew that would be a very selfish request. He had had his time of rest in the Matrix after his death, but that had made it all the harder to leave paradise and return to the land of the living. He wanted so badly to curl up and stay locked away in the safety of his own mind, but he was needed now more than ever. He would have to be strong, for his people's sake.

Optimus looked up in surprise as a strong hand reached out and took his own. Magnus offered him a somewhat bashful smile, and his soul was warmed by the simple, affectionate gesture. He squeezed the hand in gratitude. Roddy beamed, seeing that Optimus did not pull away, physically or emotionally. He took Prime's other hand, giving him all the support and strength he could. Optimus was privately very relieved. He dreaded facing the others after what had happened to him, not wanting to see their questioning glances or feel their pity. But Roddy and Magnus were different. The wounds were too fresh for Optimus to discuss them just yet, but Rodimus and Magnus would be there for him when he was ready. The three sat in companionable silence for quite awhile.

Some time later, there was a knock at Megatron's room in medbay. The Decepticon leader was not overly surprised when Optimus Prime stepped inside. The two shared a long, meaningful look. With a gesture, Megatron signaled for his two underlings to leave the room. This conversation was private. Cyclonus and Soundwave obeyed grudgingly, reluctant to leave their newly-returned commander alone with the enemy leader. From the looks of the Autobot guards outside, they weren't happy with the situation either.

Optimus remained motionless, watching him, as Megatron sat on the edge of his medical berth. Several long seconds ticked by. Finally he spoke. “I just wanted to thank you for your help. Things would have turned out much differently if you had not intervened.”

The silver Decepticon snorted derisively. “Don't bother. I regret it already.”

Prime looked unsurprised. He studied Megatron for several more moments, making him distinctly uncomfortable. “Why?” Optimus asked finally.

“Why what?” Why was Optimus being so enigmatic?

“Why did you help us? Why did you protect me?” At last, he directed his gaze to the floor. “Of what consequence is my pain to you?”

Megatron's mouth was set in a firm, hard line. “I know what it is like to have my body usurped, my mind breached and twisted to serve the will of another. I was a slave to Unicron, and subsequently a slave to the madness he induced upon his supposed destruction. I did not want to see anyone else suffer the same fate. Not even you.” It was his turn to look away. “Especially not you.”

That penetrating blue gaze returned once more, studying his profile. No further words were necessary. Through so many years of ceaseless combat, constantly trying to anticipate the other's actions, to determine how each other thought, had created a very bizarre sort of bond between them. They each had the utmost respect for each other and their abilities. They had worked together on several occasions in the past, setting aside their disputes for the greater good. Now, it seemed, they were being called upon to do so once more, on a grand scale.

Optimus coughed slightly, a biologically unnecessary gesture, but it served to break the tension. “I have ordered a shuttle to be prepared for your return to Goloran. It won't be first-class accommodations, but it is space-worthy.” He waited, but Megatron's only response was a nod. He greatly feared that Megatron was already dismissing their creator's warning. It seemed farfetched to him as well, the encounter already taking on a dreamlike quality, but to be lulled into a sense of complacency would be tantamount to suicide.

Megatron stood and solemnly held out his hand, which Optimus clasped firmly. He watched as the Decepticon walked out, no doubt very relieved to be leaving unopposed. He would see Megatron again soon, but under what circumstances? Would he be friend, or foe? And if Megatron discounted the approaching threat, what would become of their race? He turned and left the room, feeling a very heavy burden weighing on his shoulders.

* * * * *

For the next few days, Optimus had constant company, his friends trying to keep up his spirits and bolster his fragile state of mind. They were afraid to leave him alone for prolonged periods of time, lest he slide into despair. Andromeda had done an admirable job of comforting him at night after the inevitable nightmares. Rodimus had restricted him to desk duty for the next week, giving him only mundane and low-stress assignments. He knew that the elder Prime wanted to throw himself into his work and bury the painful incident, but in his weakened condition he could easily become overwhelmed.

The two of them sat on the recharge berth in Roddy's quarters, each toiling away on a pile of data pads. The informal surroundings seemed to put Optimus more at ease, and Rodimus had to admit that it was a nice change of pace from his office. Things had become rather awkward for Prime lately – he felt a little uncertain and insecure now that the others had seen him in such a weakened position. As ever, he continued as if absolutely nothing had happened. Rumors ran rampant about exactly what had happened to him. Many stared at him, and a few actually seemed angry with him for betraying his demigod image by showing vulnerability. The few that had actually made some sense out of the ordeal were a whole lot nicer to him, wanting to reach out to him but somehow unsure how to bridge the massive gap between them and reach beyond the barriers that he had erected around himself. Optimus wished he could be an Earthen turtle, able to pull his head inside a shell and hide away from the world.

Rodimus was engrossed in his work, typing out an entry on his pad, when he felt a gentle, shy touch at the link, a silent entreaty. Without looking up, he sent out a wave of comfort and affection, feeling Optimus drew it around him like a warm blanket. It was the first time since his possession that Optimus had instigated any contact through the link. A few minutes passed. “Roddy?” a quavering voice spoke hesitatingly. This time he did look up. Optimus was looking at him with a very strange expression. Rodimus recognized that look instantly – Prime was on the verge of tears. Roddy gently folded him into an embrace as a sob escaped, muffled against his chest. He was very relieved that Optimus had chosen to reach out for the comfort that he needed, instead of trying to brave it alone. He needed to let out some of the misery that surrounded his spark with an icy grip, or else it would suffocate him. He had already repressed so much that needed to be released.

Rodimus held his friend closely, sending out as much comfort and reassurance as he could. Optimus' whole body heaved with sobs that seemed torn from his very soul. He tried to speak, but the words were unintelligible. The mess of emotion that came through the link was just as garbled, but Roddy was able to catch some of it: shame, fear, regret, pain. “It's all right,” he murmured, unwittingly rocking Optimus very much as Primus had done. “None of that was your fault. Don't blame yourself for anything! It's in the past. Let it go.” He realized that Optimus was ashamed that Rodimus had witnessed his very private, very painful memories. “I always knew that you were keeping secrets from me, but I respected that. I understand why you chose not to share those memories with me. You have nothing to be ashamed of. I am proud to share your burdens.” How he wished he could get Optimus some real help! He was afraid to press Optimus to talk about what had happened to him so long ago, since the memory was so painful that he needed some more time to come to terms with it. If Prime had this much trouble confiding in someone who knew him so intimately, how would he be able to discuss his problems with a complete stranger? He knew he couldn't send Optimus away now for specialized treatment, just when they needed him the most. Once again, Optimus would have to pay a great personal price for their continued survival.

Once his rather violent emotional outburst had quieted, Prime sat quietly in his arms, soaking up the gentle comfort like a sponge. He hated feeling so needy, so dependent. It was unfair to place such a burden on Rodimus. He was weak for not being able to stand on his own, and a coward for not seeking the help he knew that he needed. He had to be strong in the coming days; so much depended on it.

Finally, he pulled away and tried to find some semblance of composure. “I've got something here which may cheer you up,” Rodimus said brightly, reaching for one of the myriad data pads on the bed. Optimus eyed it warily, hoping that it wasn't anything “adult-oriented”. “We've been invited to a party!”

“You mean you've been invited. I'm hardly wanted at those things.”

Roddy shook his head. “No, this specifically requests both of us to attend. In fact, the party is being thrown for us. Jazz says something about us being 'the coolest leaders a bot could ever hope for'. I'll tell him we're both coming, alright?”

“No. I never felt less like going to a party.” Optimus fixed him with a serious look.

Roddy wasn't hearing any of it. “Optimus, please, you really need to come. It will be a real insult if you don't show to your own party. You know that this is really for them; they need to see that we're all right. Look, just make an appearance. You can always leave early if you feel uncomfortable.”

Optimus actually appeared to be giving this some thought. “I know what people say about me,” he whispered. “They think I'm stuck-up and above everyone else because I don't spend personal time with them like you do. But it's just that I don't feel comfortable in those situations. If you were there with me, Roddy, I think I could give it a try. Tell Jazz that we'll both be there.”

Roddy whooped and began to frantically type a reply on the pad. This was gonna be great!

As the time for the party approached, Optimus grew more visibly nervous. Rodimus laughed when he came across Optimus breaking out the special polish that he used for special occasions. “This isn't some grand ceremony, Optimus! You don't need to spiff yourself up. Just relax. You're acting like you're going to a funeral here!” He was very glad that Optimus had decided to do this. Some of their soldiers said some downright cruel things about him, just because they didn't understand him. Optimus, ever observant, heard a lot more than he ever let on. He pretended it didn't bother him, saying that everyone had a right to an opinion, but he couldn't quite hide the hurt in his optics. Roddy hoped to show them a different side of Optimus tonight. A little high-grade Energon would go a long way to loosening him up and getting him to have a good time.

When Roddy finally announced it was time to go, aiming to arrive just late enough to be fashionable, Optimus looked like he was about to jump out of his armor. Roddy took his arm and guided him to the function room where the party was being held. He gave his arm one last reassuring squeeze, then opened the door. “Hey, guys! Here we are!” he hollered joyfully.

Thumping, pounding music greeted Optimus the moment he stepped inside. It was quickly overshadowed by another sound – that of cheering. He threw Roddy a baffled look, who responded with a shrug and a grin. They were cheering for him! They were actually glad he'd come! He touched his chest, feeling suddenly shy, yet undeniably pleased. They were happy to see him here, and he found it touching.

Rodimus lost no time in dragging him toward the Energon bar for some liberating high-grade. Optimus allowed himself to relax and actually enjoy the experience. There might not be an opportunity for another party for a long time, and he was determined to experience this one to the fullest. Such moments like this were fleeting, and he would cherish them as long as he could. Right now it just felt good to be alive.

The End

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