As he watched the beautiful display, words came to him, out of the dim and distant past. "When a Spark is extinguished- the universe weeps." Despite the gentleness in those words, they filled the wanderer with fear, and desperation.
"It's got to be here," he told himself. "I have to find it!" Suddenly his gaze was caught by a glimmer in the corner of his eye. Turning, he found a familiar Spark hanging nearby, almost wistful as it bobbed up and down.
"At last," the searcher breathed, reaching out gently to the Spark. "It's okay now," he continued, assuring both the ball of light and himself. "We're going home."
The Spark bobbed again, its colors dimming. Then, with an almost subliminal whisper- Good-bye- it rocketed off into the darkness and was lost again.
"No... NOO! OPTIMUS!"
As Cheetor climbed out of bed and readied for his day, he tried fervently to convince himself that his self-assurances were true. The dream had been only that, an expression of just how badly losing Optimus had frightened him. It had not been one of those true dreams that haunted his sleep occasionally. He'd had more than enough of those- they always predicted disaster.
Putting that firmly out of his mind, Cheetor left his quarters and headed for the bridge. On the way, he ran into Rattrap, who quickly moved to catch up with his taller shipmate.
"Hey, Spots," the rodent saboteur greeted him. "Hey, you feeling okay? You woke me out of a sound sleep with all that yelling."
"Oh, sorry, Rattrap," Cheetor replied, embarrassed. "It was just a nightmare."
"Huh. Must have been a doozy."
Despite everything, Cheetor couldn't help but smile. Rattrap was obviously worried, and fishing in such a way so as not to reveal himself. However, despite his stealth abilities, in personal matters Rattrap had all the subtlety of a fusion cannon.
"Major bad dream," Cheetor agreed, a glimmer in his eyes. "You were in it."
Somewhat reassured by the normality of Cheetor's response, Rattrap snorted in mock affront.
Still not quite convinced, Cheetor noted. A wicked smile broke out on his face as he prepared to play his next card. "You know, when you do that, you kind of sound like Dinobot."
THAT did it. Cheetor walked the rest of the way to the bridge with the comforting sound of Rattrap ranting in his ears.
As the two Maximals made their way into the bridge, Optimus looked up from the computer, obviously alerted by the sound of bickering. A small smile crossed his face as Rattrap, without missing a beat in his tirade, walked over to the security console and took Rhinox's station on watch.
"Cheetor. Just the bot I wanted to see. Your new form has a flight mode, right?"
"Yeah, Optimus. I'm a jet-powered kitty now." Too bad it's too late to have taken that pod. "Why?"
"Scanners have detected a stasis pod down, several hundred klicks northwest of here. Silverbolt is already out on patrol, so I thought you and I should check it out."
Cheetor nodded. "Roger that. Don't want Megs getting any more of an advantage than he's already got. I'll be outside, whenever you're ready." With that, Cheetor headed to the lift, descending to the terrain outside.
Exchanging a glance with the other two occupants of the bridge, Primal raised an eyebrow. "Now what was that all about?" the Maximal commander wondered.
"Have you forgotten that you DIED recently?" Rattrap asked, looking up from the console.
Rhinox nodded. "It hit all of us pretty hard, but Cheetor took it worse than any of us."
"Hmmm," was Optimus' response. "Hopefully, all he needs is time. If not- well, maybe we can get some talking done on this trip. Hold the fort until we come back, all right?"
What started the conflagration is unimportant. Maybe a rabbit startled a piece of rock against a flint outcrop. Maybe a tiny piece of unstable energon picked that moment to go off. Whatever the reason, a fire soon started that was raging though the grasslands when Optimus and Cheetor arrived.
"WHOA!" the younger Maximal cried, pulling up short as he saw the flames. "Tell me the stasis pod is not in there, Big Bot," he pleaded.
Optimus checked his scanners. "Sorry, Cheetor. And apparently, it's still online. We'll have to go in and get it, before the flames totally destroy the protoform."
"This heat is intense- we'll never be able to just plow right through," Cheetor protested. Suddenly his eyes lit up. "Hold that thought," he instructed, turning around. With incredible speed, he jetted back to a river that the two of them had passed. Quickly, he half-submerged himself, filling onboard compartments with the water. Then he rocketed back to Optimus.
"I've got some drop compartments," the cheetah replied. "Follow me in- I'll try and act as a sprinkler system."
"Good plan," Optimus nodded. "Let's do it."
The two of them sailed into the heart of the inferno, Cheetor dumping his load bit by bit. It was a good plan, and the two of them almost made it to the pod. Unfortunately, there was one thing neither of them had considered.
Fire makes its own wind.
Halfway to the pod, the gale-force winds rising from the flames finally overwhelmed the pair, sending them spiraling out of control. Optimus began to plummet towards the fire, while the smaller, lighter Cheetor was catapulted out of the burn zone. Cheetor had just a moment to think NO! Not again! Then he slammed into the ground and the lights went out.
Back on the ground, the pod began the DNA subroutines. About halfway through, however, the systems had finally had enough, crashing with an efficiency that would make Bill Gates jealous. The pod gave a strangled beep and then lay still, rocking occasionally from the energy surges caused by the circuitry catching on fire.
Optimus Primal knew none of this, however. He was far too busy falling, not to mention coming to terms with the fact that he was about to die AGAIN, after having only been on-line a few days. I think this is taking the namesake thing a bit far, he thought semi-coherently.
Just as it seemed that he was going to crash into the burning ground, something snapped around his wrists, hauling him up. Gratefully, Optimus looked up, expecting to see Cheetor. Instead, he beheld a huge fiery bird, larger than Airrazor, its wings straining against the air as it attempted to lift him. "Hold still!" the bird grunted, looking down at Optimus. "You're too slagging heavy for me to really be doing this!"
After a lot of effort, and a few tense moments, the bird- A Phoenix, Primal's datatrax supplied- managed to get them out of the burning area, setting them down on the other side of a rock formation, where Cheetor was just struggling to his feet.
"OPTIMUS!" the cheetah cried, struggling to his feet. "You're okay!" Then he blinked. "Hey, who's your friend?"
"Good question," Primal replied, turning to the phoenix. "Got an answer?"
In a quick flipping of parts, the bird transformed into robot mode, looking like a more masculine, red-and-orange version of Airrazor. Blue optics sparkled in a face that Cheetor found a bit familiar, from- somewhere.
"Rodimus Primal," the newcomer introduced himself. "Pleased to meet you both."
He had to admit, Rodimus had an unusual beast form. A glimmer of metallic color here and there hinted that his protoform had been exposed to the quantum surge, but on the whole, his beast mode was too organic in appearance to be a true Transmetal. His feathers were all the colors of a flame, but were definitely feathers, rather than a metal hide. And no creature on the planet had the DNA to have given him his appearance. His wings actually looked as if they were made of flame, shading from red at the front to orange and finally yellow on the trailing edge.
"My pod went nuts," Rodimus replied easily, maximizing as he did so. "Name's Rodimus Primal."
"Rattrap. Nice to meet you- I think." With that, Rattrap turned to the other two. "Come on, fearless leader, let's get you inside, into the CR chamber."
Optimus held up a hand. "It's not that bad, Rattrap. I'm just dirty. I'm a little worried about Cheetor- he was knocked off-line for a few minutes."
"I'm fine," Cheetor replied shortly. "Nothing a hot oil bath won't cure."
"Well, if you all would stop jawing, we could get to that," broke in Rattrap, as he led the group back into the Axalon.
Once inside the ship, Optimus put a hand on Rodimus' shoulder, drawing him aside. "Rodimus, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like you to undergo a series of scans. Our chief scientist, Rhinox, doubles as our medic, and he'll need that information to put you back together again if anything should happen."
Rodimus nodded. "Not a problem, Optimus. Where should I go?"
"Currently? The holding bay. I'll show you the way down there- this ship is a maze if you don't know your way around. Cheetor? Why don't you get that oil bath, then open up one of the crew cabins for Rodimus to bunk down in? Put him down by you and Rattrap- I can't exactly see him and Dinobot as neighbors."
"You got it, Big Bot," Cheetor replied, trotting off down the corridor. Despite still being in Beast Mode, he moved with a stiffness quite unlike his normal feline grace.
Apparently, he was banged up worse that he let on, Optimus mused. "I thought he'd grown out of that," he muttered aloud.
"Pardon?" Rodimus asked.
Optimus shook his head. "Never mind. Come on- I'll show you the medical bay. As for the rest of the crew- I'm betting their curiosity will have you meeting them soon enough."
Rodimus shrugged, leaning against the inside of the scanning ring. "No argument here. A lot of my circuits were scrambled in the crash or the fire- I'm in the dark on a lot of my abilities. Anything you can tell me would be a help."
"That's assuming our mad scientist here doesn't fry you with this jury-rigged scanner," Rattrap interjected.
Rhinox didn't even look up from his work. "Shut up, Rattrap," the rhinoceros replied.
As usually happened on the Axalon, any personnel not actually on duty had gravitated to the holding bay to meet the new recruit and make unhelpful comments as Rhinox tried to get his machine working. Dinobot was currently on sensor watch, and Tigatron and Airrazor were still out on patrol, so it was only a small crowd. Not that such things ever bothered Rhinox very much.
"So tell me," Rattrap continued, folding his arms across his chest, "why you wound up with a name like 'Rodimus Primal.'"
"Not my idea, Rattrap," Rodimus replied.
Silverbolt cocked his head. "But- you're a protoform. I was under the impression that protoforms routinely selected their own names. Or- was that simply because my circuits were damaged?"
"Most protoforms do select their own names," Rodimus replied. "But I'm not technically your regular protoform. I came online on Cybertron. After a few... incidents, the Elders decided I wanted to get off planet. Unfortunately, none of the ships going out had openings in the skeleton crew, so I wound up being rendered in proto-stasis and shipped out in a pod. The rest you know, probably better than me."
The other Maximals gaped at him. "They melted you down and stuck you in a pod?" Rattrap finally managed. "Sheesh, what did you DO?"
"Officially? Nothing, just got some wanderlust. Unofficially- well, it's not really safe to hold unpopular opinions on Cybertron right now." As he spoke, Rodimus scanned his listeners. Cheetor, Rattrap, and Silverbolt were shocked and more than a bit disgusted at what he'd told them, although Rattrap seemed to have accepted it better than the other two. Optimus and Rhinox- they were surprised and disapproving, but not shocked. They were surprised at WHY he was shipped off, but the procedure of putting active robots in stasis was not unfamiliar to them. He wondered why that was.
"So, anyway," Rattrap continued, after a moment, "you didn't explain why you've got the name."
"For the same reason Optimus has his," Cheetor interjected. "He came out of the Matrix with a remarkable resemblance, in his case to Rodimus Prime."
Rodimus was startled- the youngest of the Maximals had said little since his arrival. He had a feeling that Cheetor's taciturnity was unusual, but decided to let it go until he fit in better. "Exactly," Rodimus replied, nodding. "The emissary from the Elders took one look at me and dubbed me Rodimus Primal. And there you go."
Optimus and Rodimus, Cheetor thought, his gaze seeing little. Together, on Earth, after years and years. What are the odds? Hmm. Maybe there's something to that belief that names have resonance.
Full circle... time is not a straight path, nor a circle, but a spiral heading for eternity... at last, time has come around again... full circle...
Cheetor raised his hands to his head, struck by a sudden wave of dizziness. Primus slag it! Can't these slagging dreams wait until I'm ASLEEP to start butting in on my life?
"Cheetor?" Faintly, he could hear Optimus calling him, but did not dare look up. Every time he did, the room started spinning.
"I'm okay, Big Bot, just tired. I'm gonna go lie down for a while, all right?" Cheetor responded, praying he sounded convincing.
"Cheetor, I don't think that's a good idea. You hit that ground pretty hard. I think you should let Rhinox check you out."
That brought Cheetor's gaze up to meet Optimus'. "Is that an order?" Cheetor asked softly, green eyes sparking a little.
"Does it have to be?" Optimus responded in the same tone. For a long second, tension crackled between them.
"I. Am. Fine," Cheetor bit out, then turned on his heel and stalked away. Behind him, Optimus just watched him leave, a puzzled expression on his face.
The bridge was practically deserted as Rodimus entered it; Silverbolt was out on patrol, as were Tigatron and Airrazor, whom he had yet to meet. Optimus was in his quarters reading, and Rattrap had informed the newest Maximal that disturbing their leader during such an activity was taking your life into your hands. Speaking of Rattrap-- Rodimus winced as another low boom echoed through the ship. The rodent was in the hold, "helping" Rhinox with his newest project. Rodimus had decided that he really didn't want to know, and hadn't asked further. As for Cheetor-- well, no one had seen him since he stomped out of Rodimus' "checkup" earlier.
That left only Dinobot, whom Rodimus was currently assigned to relive on watch. Rod knocked on one of the walls as he entered, remembering what Optimus had told him about Dinobot. A Predacon warrior was NOT the sort of person you wanted to sneak up on, whether he was on your side or not.
"Watch's over," Rod announced cheerfully. "My turn to ruin my optics."
Looking up from the console before him, Dinobot gave the phoenix-bot a measuring glance. Rodimus returned his stare blandly. He wasn't sure what Dinobot was looking for, but he doubted the raptor missed very much.
"By all means, sit," Dinobot rumbled, rising from his place. "Not the most... stimulating form of sentry duty, but it does have its merits."
Rodimus grinned. "Yeah. You can see your enemies coming BEFORE they kill you. Helps keep the numbers up when they storm the place." Smoothly, he slid into the vacated seat and began acquainting himself with the various arrays. "Hmm. Long-range, short range, energy signature scanner-- hey, is that a poker game?" Rodimus blinked as the graphic came up, and shook his head. "Never draw to an inside straight." A flicker of light, and the cards vanished.
"No doubt the vermin was attempting to divert himself while on duty," snorted Dinobot.
"I gotta admit," Rodimus shrugged, "it's more fun when you've got somebody to talk to."
Silence fell on the bridge for a minute, as Dinobot studied Rod intently. "So," he hissed finally, "to what do we owe the honor of your presence?"
"I shipped out on the wrong exploration mission, and somebody finally found my pod," Rodimus replied flippantly. "Why do you ask?"
"You are... not like any of the other protoforms who have joined this crew. While the other three are competent fighters, they are not exactly warriors."
"It's not exactly a warship."
Dinobot snorted. "True enough. Sometimes I... forget that I am no longer dealing with Predacon procedure. A Predacon exploratory ship would have had a much larger security force." He blinked, then snorted ruefully. "You are... quite skilled at redirecting a conversation."
"Guilty as charged," chuckled the phoenix. "I guess it's kind of a survival mechanism, you know?"
"Mmm. As I was saying before we got off-track, most protoform Maximals are not warriors, truly. You, however, are different."
"What makes you say that?"
"One warrior knows another. It is in the stance, a turn of phrase. You are not the type to sign on for a mission like this. What brings you here?"
"What brings you? According to Optimus, you're a Predacon, through and through. What made you throw in your lot with a Maximal exploration crew?"
"You are changing the subject again."
Rodimus cocked his head. "Am I?"
That brought a snort from the raptor. "It was a matter of honor. I doubt you would understand."
"You're probably right," Rod agreed. "Predacon honor never made a lot of sense to me- probably because I'm a Maximal. Of course, most Predacons I know were never able to make heads or tails out of the Maximal code either. Different cultural bases. Still, maybe you could try and explain?"
"It is perhaps only something a Predacon could understand," Dinobot began slowly. "But I shall try. For three centuries, Predacons have been an underclass among Cybertronians. There are limits to how far any Predacon may rise in the ranks of any of the major organizations, and most Predacons are ambitious. This becomes... frustrating."
"Three centuries? I was under the impression that the worst of the restrictions and discrimination came about after Prime' assassination."
Dinobot snorted reflectively. "A black day for all of Cybertron, no matter what faction. You are correct, of course; that is when the strictest controls were locked down on the Predacon Alliance, and when the rift between factions truly began to grow. But Predacons have been unsatisfied with their lot since almost the end of the Great War."
"Well, I'm sure some of them felt that the Decepticons should have won that war. Still, as the Golden Age went on, there was equality building. Then one 'Predacon assassin' brought the whole thing crashing down."
The note of sarcasm in Rodimus' voice caused Dinobot to raise an eyebrow. "You do not believe that was the case?"
"Lets just say that it seems awfully convenient that any 'Predacon threat' was pretty much neutralized by Prime's death. Left the Maximal Elders sitting on top of a pretty well-controlled Cybertron, didn't it?"
Dinobot had no response to that.
The young Maximal paused in the middle of slinking down the corridor, an action that only a feline is truly skilled at. Looking over his shoulder, the robot cheetah sighed. "Sure thing, Rhinox. What's up?"
The larger 'bot beckoned for Cheetor to enter the ship's main hold, something the younger Cybertronian did with some reluctance. Not that he didn't like Rhinox's company, or helping out- but the hold had long since become the massive Maximal's workshop, and entering it could be hazardous to your health. Wheeljack himself would probably feel at home here, Cheetor mused. Something's always in one of the stages of blowing up.
"So, what do you need, Rhinox?" Cheetor asked again, taking care not to brush anything combustible.
"Those scans we did of Rodimus practically fried the sensors. I can't even get the data this machine collected until it's repaired. I could use someone to pass me some tools, and besides, you ought to know some of this, in case you ever have to use it. Care to give me a hand?"
Cheetor sighed, but nodded. "Sure thing. Just tell me what to do."
The two of them had been working in near-silence for a while when Rhinox got around to dropping the bomb Cheetor was expecting. "Cheetor- you've been kind of quiet the past few days. Is everything all right?"
"Sure, Rhinox," Cheetor replied. He flashed his friend a sudden grin. "Cat's got my tongue, that's all."
Rhinox rolled his eyes at the pun, but refused to be distracted. "It's just not normal for you, I guess. Kind of like with Rattrap- it's when he STOPS talking that you have to start checking for booby-traps on your recharge bunk."
"Rhinox!" Cheetor didn't have to work very hard to inject a note of indignation into his voice. "Do you really think I'd do something like that?"
"No, you're too mature for that. In fact, you've grown up a lot recently. Sometimes you don't seem like the person you were."
There's a reason for that, Cheetor thought wryly. I don't want to be that irresponsible kid. Primus, how many times did I come close to getting everyone killed? I'm not going to be the one to put the others in danger ever again. Outwardly, he simply shrugged.
"I wouldn't really know about that. But there hasn't been a lot of time for kid stuff recently, what with- everything." With Optimus' death, he didn't say. He didn't have to.
"Hmm." Taking a screwdriver from his young teammate's hand, Rhinox stared at the circuitry before him. "Do you remember when we found Airrazor's pod?"
Cheetor rubbed the back of his neck. "Do I ever. How many times did I get walloped that day?"
"You know, if it hadn't been for you, I never would have been able to fix the pod and get Airrazor on line."
"That's me," Cheetor said lightly, "an eternal source of spare parts."
Turning, Rhinox suddenly caught the younger Maximal with a serious red gaze. "I'm not just talking about the locking chip, although that certainly was a lifesaver. If it hadn't been for you, Black Arachnia, Waspinator, and Terrorsaur would probably have slagged me, and then been helpless to do anything as Airrazor's Spark went out. You held off THREE Predacons, when Tigatron only managed to take out one. I'd trust you to watch my back any time, you know that, right? And I hope you know you can trust me, too."
Trust you? Jeez, Rhinox, of course I trust you! Even so, he couldn't tell Rhinox what he was feeling. The plain and simple fact was, he hadn't been good enough to be there when Optimus needed him. All he'd been able to do was sit back and watch. Nothing Rhinox could say would change that, and the last thing Cheetor wanted was to hear his failure confirmed.
Trapped, knowing Rhinox expected a reply, Cheetor opened his mouth, having no idea what would come out. Suddenly, he was saved by the beeping of his com unit. With an inaudible sigh of relief, he activated the link. "Cheetor here. What's up?"
"Cheetor, this is Optimus. I need you to fly another patrol for me, out in Grid Turbo. We lost the monitoring stations out there, and with the terrain upheavals, I'd rather not send a ground unit. You feel up to it?"
"Ready, willing and able, Big Bot," Cheetor responded, signing off. "Sorry, Rhinox, duty calls." With that, he dashed off, heading for the bridge.
Rhinox's eyes narrowed. "Hmm..."
"You're kidding me."
Optimus Primal shook his head, grinning at the tone in Rodimus' voice. "No, I'm serious. The virus infected the data stations of the entire barracks. For a week, when you logged on to get your class assignments, you ran the risk of having your color scheme reformatted, usually to something incredibly embarrassing. I kept turning pink."
Rhinox entered the bridge just in time to hear that last statement. "OPTIMUS! You're not telling him THAT old story, are you?"
"Why not? It was probably the most inspired prank anybody ever played during our time at the Academy." The leader of the Maximals flashed his friend a grin. "They never did find out who programmed it."
Watching the two of them, Rodimus snickered to himself. If he didn't know better, he'd swear Rhinox looked embarrassed. "Boy, the worst I ever did was weld this one professor's furniture to the ceiling while he was out doing fieldwork. Unfortunately, he came back with a bat for a beast mode, and never even blinked."
"Ah, college," Rhinox smiled. Then his amusement faded. "Optimus, I need to talk to you for a moment. I assume you're not busy?"
"Not at all. Rodimus-"
The phoenix-bot raised his hands. "Don't worry, I can take a hint. I'll just go see if Rattrap and Dinobot have scrapped each other yet."
Once he was gone, Optimus turned to Rhinox, one eyebrow raised. "All right, Rhinox, what's the matter?"
"I don't think I have to ask if you've noticed Cheetor's behavior recently."
"You mean ignoring injury, driving himself to exhaustion, and generally indulging in behaviors I thought he'd grown out of?"
"Not to mention barely stringing two sentences together at a time, yeah. Something's obviously bothering him, Optimus. Do you really think it's a good idea to keep sending him out on patrols all the time?"
With a sigh, Optimus turned to lean against one of the consoles, gazing into the blank screen above it as if searching for answers. "Honestly, old friend? I'm not sure. All I know is that I really can't do anything else. We may not have to chase down stasis pods anymore, but fliers are still a tactical advantage, especially for recon. And with Tigatron and Airrazor still out on their patrol, we need all the fliers we can get. You know that, I know that, and more importantly, Cheetor knows that. If I stopped sending him out, he'd know something was up, and right now, I don't really want to upset him even more. I don't suppose he's said anything to you?"
Rhinox shook his head. "I tried getting him to open up, but he pretty much shut me down. Rattrap's having the same results, and you know how well he usually gets through to Cheetor."
"Then we just have to wait, and hope we can find out what's going on, before it turns around and makes our lives miserable."
"Hmph," snorted Rhinox. "That kind of luck we haven't been getting."
"I know, Rhinox. I know."
"Summit meeting over?" Rodimus asked, poking his head back into the bridge. Optimus looked up from the readout he'd been scrutinizing and smiled.
"Yes. Actually, I was just about to call you. Rhinox managed to get the data on you out of the analyzer and he brought it up. I figured you should probably be briefed on it."
Rodimus grinned. "Yeah, I haven't been able to do too much with experimentation, considering that I don't have anything to start from." He came fully onto the bridge, casting the computer a dubious glance as he did so. "That thing's not going to blow up, is it?"
"No," Optimus chuckled. "Most of Rhinox's inventions only combust because he has to jury-rig them together. This computer is pretty much still Cybertronian standard."
"So was my pod," Rodimus pointed out, still keeping a healthy distance from the machine. "I think computers just don't like me."
Optimus shook his head, but said nothing. Instead, he simply punched a few keys, displaying the data on the screen. "There you go," he gestured. "According to Rhinox's notes, your physiology is similar to Silverbolt's- you're physically a Transmetal, but your Beast Mode is unusually organic. No vehicle mode- I'd imagine the energy surges from the flames caused most of the changes. Nanites are designed to adapt to any situation they find themselves in. That plus a DNA scan of some type of hawk resulted in your current Beast Mode."
"And voila, one big Southern-fried chicken joins the Maximals," Rodimus grinned. "So, how's Cheetor doing?"
The non sequitur caught Optimus by surprise. "What?"
"Come on, Optimus. I'm not blind or stupid, and I'd have to be both to miss that you guys are worried about Cheetor. I don't even KNOW the kid, and I can tell that something's wrong. You asked me to leave the bridge; therefore Rhinox had brought you an internal problem. As far as I can tell, the only thing currently wrong around here has something to do with Cheetor. So, what's going on? Maybe I can help."
Optimus sighed. "Rodimus, I don't even KNOW what's going on, that's the problem. You know that I- died fairly recently, right?"
"Sure. Carrying on the tradition and all that. I imagine it wasn't easy on anybody around here, including you."
"I had the easy part. A few seconds of abject terror, then-" He shook his head as if he were a dog shedding water. "Well, that doesn't matter. Everybody else seems to be handling things, but Cheetor... It isn't exactly depression- they trained us to recognize that in Star Command. I'm not sure WHAT'S bothering him, and he won't talk to anybody.
"Sometimes I wish I'd never brought him along on this trip. If I hadn't, he'd be back on Cybertron right now, starting classes at the Academy, playing that insane grav-ball game with his friends- he'd be SAFE. Instead, we're stranded in our past with a bunch of rogue Predacons devoting large portions of their time to turning us into slag."
Rodimus chanced moving closer to the computer to lay a hand on his leader's shoulder. "Yeah, but Optimus- he wouldn't have had YOU. Like I said, I'm not blind. Anybody can see how much that kid cares about you. Being with you- that means more to him than his safety ever could. Besides, this was supposed to be an exploratory mission. A 'milk run,' to use an Old Earth expression. How could you have known that the Council was going to send you chasing after Megs and company?"
"I know all that, Rodimus... I just have a little trouble accepting it." But Optimus managed to smile at the other Maximal anyway. "Thank you, though."
"No problem." Suddenly the console Optimus was sitting at gave a strangled beep. The screen blanked, and a thread of smoke sifted upwards.
"What the-" Optimus' eyes widened. "It ate the data!"
Rodimus backed away, hands held high. "I TOLD you!"
The two Maximals regarded each other for a minute, then, in unison: "RHINOX!"
Optimus quickly punched the holo-map up on the central table. "Omega, huh? That's close to Predacon territory- not to mention practically in the other direction from Airrazor and Tigatron. We're going to need fliers to get out there." Cocking his head, Optimus quickly made a decision. "Cheetor, get Rhinox on the horn and have him stand by. We may need his help if the pod is damaged. Rodimus, you come with me. I could use the back-up."
"Right. Besides, if you left me here, the computer would probably blow up again."
"Just- stay a good twenty feet away from the pod, all right?" Optimus asked. His tone was pained, but he was grinning.
"You got it." The two Maximals quickly headed down the lift, leaving Cheetor at the computer. He felt a brief flare of anxiety about not going with them, but quickly shook it off. It was his turn for sensor watch, after all. He couldn't just drop everything and go gallivanting off. After all, somebody had to watch Optimus' back.
By the time Rhinox had made it up to the bridge, Optimus was calling in their approach to the pod. "I see it," the Maximal leader informed them. "I'm heading in."
"Roger that," Cheetor sent back. "We're watching your back, Big Bot."
"Appreciate it." There were a few moments of silence, then the pinger on the pod suddenly blinked out. Cheetor and Rhinox exchanged glances.
Suddenly the com crackled to life again. "Slag," Optimus sent. "The pod's empty. Guess whoever was in it came on-line already."
"Optimus?" Rodimus broke in. "This pod's been empty for a while. There's no trace of stasis fluid, or any of the things that a newly born protoform leaves behind. I think we may have walked into a-"
"TRAP!" Cheetor yelped, seeing Predacon signatures suddenly appear all around the two Maximal blips on his screen.
"Took the words right out of my mouth, kiddo," Rodimus hollered back, over the gunfire that had suddenly roared over the channel. "They're coming from EVERYWHERE!"
Optimus took up the narrative. "We are seriously outnumbered and pinned down!"
Leaping to his feet, Cheetor was halfway to the lift before he remembered Rhinox. The larger Maximal was already seated at the console, typing furiously. "Go on!" the green robot ordered tersely. "I'll get hold of- whoever I can."
"Right." Jumping down the lift, Cheetor quickly converted to Beast Mode and rocketed off. With his jets burning at their absolute highest speed, it didn't take him long to reach the battlefield in Grid Omega. Not far ahead of him, he could see Waspinator and Inferno raining fire down upon the two Maximals below.
"Screwball, corner pocket!" Cheetor yelled, careening into Waspinator as he did so. The Predacon wasp had just enough time for a scream before his path intersected with Inferno's propeller butt, knocking both 'bots out of the sky. Their inertia then carried the two directly into Quickstrike, and the resulting ball of Predacons then hit a rock wall, off-lining all three. Grinning slightly to himself, Cheetor touched down, Maximizing as he did so.
Suddenly one of Megatron's fusion shots struck Optimus directly in the torso, knocking the Maximal leader off his feet. Rod and Cheetor cried in unison, "OPTIMUS!" A blast of Rodimus' flame cannon was enough to knock the Predacon leader backwards. Clutching his chest, Megatron got to his feet.
"Predacons, RETREAT!" he bellowed. Tarantulas and Black Arachnia quickly followed their leader, leaving their three unconscious companions behind. Neither Cheetor nor Rodimus noticed this, however, being far too concerned with their leader.
"We've got to get him back to the CR chamber," Rodimus said urgently, noting how close the blast had come to Optimus' Spark chamber. "We'll sling him over your back, okay?"
Nodding, Cheetor quickly returned to Beast Mode. "Just DO it and let's get going!" Loading Optimus onto Cheetor, the two rocketed off towards the Axalon.
The rhinoceros sighed. "Too soon to say. You got him here in time to keep him from off-lining- now it's just a question of whether his Spark can withstand the repair trauma. Good thing you were there, Rodimus. If you hadn't shot Megatron off that rock, he probably would have finished what he started."
"Yeah, well, don't thank me until this is done, all right?"
Cheetor had been listening to all of this from the back, and he hung his head in realization. I failed him. If it had been up to me, Megatron would have killed him. He needs me hanging around like a hole in the head. Rodimus can take care of him-- I'm just a liability. With that thought, Cheetor strode over to the lift, banging his fist on the control that would open it. The noise caused Rodimus and Rhinox to look up in surprise.
"Cheetor? Where are you going?" Rhinox asked.
"Out." Cheetor replied flatly. Then he headed down the lift and was gone.
Rhinox groaned. "Slag. Just what we DON'T need right now. Rodimus, can you put a trace on his energy signature?"
"Already on it, Rhinox," the phoenix assured him. "I wouldn't bother him right now, though. The kid needs to blow off steam."
"I guess you're right," Rhinox sighed. "But I've got a bad feeling that things are about to go from bad to worse."
"Rhinox, things are already worse."
His blind flight was suddenly interrupted by gunfire from the ground below. Turning to avoid a particularly large blast of energy, he looked down to see four Predacons below.
Hmm... Megs, Tarantulas, Black Arachnia, and-- Waspinator? But that's impossible-- he was worse banged up than Inferno and Quickstrike, and not one of them should have been able to regenerate that fast. But Waspinator was definitely there, and Cheetor was going to have to worry about him. A feral grin crossed the young cheetah's features.
This could be more fun than an energon storm, he mused. "Cheetor, MAXIMIZE!" No sooner had he transformed than he was struck by one of Megatron's fusion bursts. Tumbling to the rocky ground, he struck hard and lay there, stunned. Hearing footsteps he managed to slew his head around enough to see Megatron standing over him, smiling pleasantly. Cheetor felt nauseated, but he couldn't tell whether that was from the crash, or Megatron's expression.
"Fancy meeting you here," the Predacon leader smiled. Cheetor made a rude noise.
"Look, Megatron, if you're going to shoot me, just go ahead and do it. I have a killer headache."
Feigning shock, Megatron waved a hand in denial. "Shoot you, Maximal? Oh, no, no, no. No, I have other plans for you. Um, Tarantulas, Black Arachnia. Escort our young friend into the... lab that Tarantulas has prepared, would you? He's about to have a... mind-changing experience."
Cheetor's eyes widened as the spiders hauled him to his feet. He knew quite well what Megatron was getting at, and he had no desire to have Tarantulas wading merrily through his datatrax. "It won't work, Megatron. The Maximals will know there's something wrong with me."
"My dear boy, I believe Optimus Primal will be far too glad to see you safe to even notice the... eccentricities in your behavior. Not that he will have time to do so in any case. Tarantulas?"
The two spiders dragged Cheetor off, the young Maximal struggling feebly and calling Megatron every unpleasant name he had ever heard, including a few pieces of Predacon gutter slang picked up from Dinobot. Megatron chuckled.
"An engaging young man. Perhaps I shall keep him around when this little game is over, hmm?" Looking at the sky, he smiled. "Now, all there is to do is wait."
Optimus Primal had never considered himself to have psychic powers. He had, however, developed the ability to read the faces of his command to an unusual degree. For that reason, when the door to the CR chamber swung open, he had the sudden undeniable sensation of impending doom.
"All right, what's wrong?" Optimus asked, fixing his gaze on Rhinox. The larger Maximal sighed.
"Cheetor's gone missing. He zoomed out of here right after bringing you in, and we kept a trace on him, but-"
"It just disappeared," Rodimus replied, from his seat at the sensor watch. "We've been trying to find it for five minutes, but no luck."
Optimus frowned. "Slag." Taking a step forward, he wobbled and nearly fell as his knees turned to water. A clawed hand shot out, grabbing his arm and preventing him from crashing to the floor.
"Sit down," Dinobot suggested. "Despite the R chamber's repairs, you are still not at one-hundred percent."
"I'm aware of that," replied Optimus wryly. "Is it possible Cheetor turned off his signal, to keep us from finding him?"
Rodimus shook his head. "Possible, but not likely. It's not an easy thing to do, and I don't think he intended to worry any of us. No, I'm pretty sure he's in trouble."
"Great." Optimus studied the screens, his optics shadowed. "And since Megatron seems to have developed some type of signal damper, he could be right under our noses, and we'd never know it."
"Maybe," Rhinox replied. "But the Predacons had to drop their cloak to attack you. I'd imagine that much moving around would have rendered it unstable anyway. If any of them change position, we'll know about it."
As if in response to Rhinox's words, a red Maximal symbol began flashing on the screen. "Cheetor?" Optimus asked, leaning on Rodimus' shoulder to better scrutinize the reading.
"That's a big 10-4, big guy," Rod replied. "He's not moving- the reading appears to be coming from a cave in the hills there."
From the back of the room, Rattrap suddenly piped up. "Is it me, or does this have "Trap" written ALL over it, in big shiny red letters?"
Optimus nodded. "Megatron's expecting us. More to the point, he's expecting me. I'd hate to disappoint him."
"Are you nuts? You can't even WALK, let alone fight!" Rattrap yelped.
"I don't have much choice, Rattrap. What do you think Megatron will do once Cheetor outlives his usefulness as bait?" Taking a deep breath, Optimus stood straight, then headed for the lift.
"This is madness!" snarled Dinobot. "Megatron will be waiting for you!"
"Probably," Optimus assented calmly.
"You will be grossly outnumbered!"
"More than likely."
"THIS IS STRATEGICALLY UNSOUND!"
"Yes, it is."
For a moment, Dinobot was silent, staring at Optimus who had by this time reached the lift. Then he sighed. "I do not understand."
Optimus smiled slightly. "Then I'm sorry for you." Reaching out, he hit the control.
Halfway down, the door was stopped by a red metal hand. Sliding the door back into the "up" position, Rodimus favored Optimus with a grin. "Not so fast, Chief. You'll need back-up." Without turning his head, the phoenix called over his shoulder, "Right, Dinobot?" He was answered by a snarl, but a resigned one. Rod's grin widened.
"So, boss, what's the game plan?"
The cave that Cheetor's signal was emanating from had its entrance in a small, grassy valley. Nothing moved as Optimus Primal touched down, but the Maximal leader could feel an itch between his shoulder blades that told him he was being watched. Carefully, he forced himself not to look around. Megatron would know that his trap had been anticipated, but he was more than likely to assume that Optimus would come alone. That WOULD have been his choice, if Rodimus hadn't interfered, and Optimus doubted that Megatron had known Rodimus long enough to factor the phoenix' stubbornness into his calculations. So as long as Optimus kept the watchers focused on him, they would be less likely to see his troop as they closed in from the sides.
Slowly, deliberately, Optimus made his way to the mouth of the cave, every minute expecting a hail of gunfire. None came, however, which only made him more nervous. Megatron obviously wanted him to enter the cave, which meant that there was something highly unpleasant inside. Gun at the ready, Optimus cautiously crept into the darkness.
He had only gone a little way when an area lighted by Tarantulas' glowbugs caught his eye. Turning, he saw Cheetor slumped up against a rock, obviously the worse for wear. "Cheetor!" he called quietly, taking a step towards the damaged Maximal. Cheetor's head slowly lifted, and his green eyes locked with Optimus' with agonizing slowness.
"Optimus," Cheetor greeted him flatly. Painfully, the cheetah got to his feet- then pointed his gun-hands at Optimus. The Maximal leader stopped in his tracks.
"What's going on here?" Optimus demanded.
"Allow me to explain," a voice said smoothly. Primal turned towards the speaker slowly, knowing who he would see.
"Your young friend has had a change of heart," Megatron explained, moving into the light. He favored Primal with a sickeningly pleasant smile, one that Optimus didn't bother to return. "It's quite simple, actually. You have MY protégé- so I'll take yours."
Optimus snorted. "Dinobot would make you eat that fusion cannon if he heard you call him that."
"Yes, well, that's neither here nor there. What IS important is that you are about to be destroyed, by the one person no one would ever suspect. As my namesake would say, "How ironic."" All of the jovial humor left Megatron's face then. "You escaped death once, Optimus Primal. I do not intend that you do so again."
From behind Megatron, Cheetor's voice suddenly rang out, flat and threatening. "Don't bet on it, Barney." Before Megatron could turn, three laser blasts rang out, pitching the Predacon leader into one of the walls of the cavern. A rain of rocks then put him out for the count.
"Uhh..." Cheetor slumped as his exertions caught up to him. He would have fallen completely, but Optimus was there, supporting him.
"Good to have you back- or maybe never gone," Primal remarked, warm humor lurking in his voice.
Cheetor relaxed against his leader, too tired to stand- or even do much thinking. "You shouldn't have come," he complained sleepily. "Too dangerous."
"You'd have done the same for me," Optimus replied, slipping Cheetor's arm around his neck.
"Yeah, but-- you're worth it."
Optimus raised his eyebrows at Cheetor's reply, but said nothing. Instead, he gently steered the younger Maximal to the opening of the cave. They were far from out of the woods yet. Halfway to the cave mouth, Optimus felt his foot brush against something lying in the shadows. Looking down, he saw Tarantulas, off-lined and still, except for the occasional twitch.
"What happened to him?"
Cheetor smiled, but there was a feral edge to it. "He decided to take a joyride through my head. I don't think he liked what he found there."
"I'll tell Tigatron you said so."
With that, the two of them continued their trek towards the door.
Cheetor winced as bright sunlight stabbed into his eyes. Raising a hand to shade his vision, he blinked suddenly as an energy bolt resolved in front of his eyes. Luckily for Cheetor, Optimus had seen it too, and his reactions were considerably faster. Grabbing the younger Maximal around the waist, Optimus pulled him behind a small rock outcropping, the only cover in the entire valley.
Insane laughter echoed from the hills, causing Cheetor to pull a face. "Guess Inferno and Quickstrike are back in the land of the living..." he murmured. From the dents on his metal skin and the dreamy, disconnected quality in his voice, it was obvious that the younger 'bot was in no condition to make a run for it.
"And if I tried to carry him, I'd be shot out of the sky," Optimus mused.
"Surrender, Maximal!" Inferno boomed suddenly. "You cannot escape. For the glory of the royalty, you shall BURN!"
"Funny," a voice drawled from behind the ant. "That's pretty much what I was going to say to YOU!" Inferno attempted to turn, but only made it halfway around before Rodimus' flame blast hit him square in the thorax, sending him tumbling backwards. "I'm the only pyro around here- wait, that didn't come out right." Shrugging, Rodimus threw himself towards the recovering Predacon.
Meanwhile, the sound of metal on metal, not to mention a lot of cursing, indicated that Silverbolt was kicking Quickstrike around without much problem. The cowboy Fuzor hadn't managed to land a shot. Not too far away, Dinobot had finally managed to knock Waspinator out of the sky via eyebeams, and had now turned his attention to Rodimus and Inferno.
"Stand STILL, rodent," Black Arachnia growled, letting loose a burst from her leg guns.
Rattrap snorted. "That'll be the day!" Popping up from behind a rock, he snapped off three quick shots, forcing the widow to dodge.
A roar of rage from the cavern indicated that Megatron had recovered from the little nap Cheetor had sent him to. Calculating the odds, Optimus winced. This was NOT good.
"Silverbolt! Drop Quickstrike and get over here!" the Maximal leader cried. As the wolf/eagle responded, Optimus thought he heard Quickstrike drunkenly mutter something about a semi-truck, but dismissed it. "Silverbolt, I need you to get Cheetor out of here. He needs a CR chamber, yesterday. Don't worry about ground fire, I think we've got it covered."
Silverbolt looked around, taking in the rapid whipping the Preds were receiving, and nodded. "I believe you're right." Taking the unconscious Cheetor in his arms, Silverbolt quickly winged off towards the Axalon.
At that moment, Megatron emerged from the cavern, fusion cannon charged and ready. As his optics adjusted to the sudden light, the first thing he saw was one of Optimus Primal's fists headed for his face.
Megatron reeled back from the punch, attempting to regroup. That was a mistake. The instant he gave ground, Optimus was following him, landing strike after strike. Megatron managed to parry some of the blows, but Optimus was unstoppable. Then the Maximal suddenly reached in and grabbed his opponent by the throat, pulling Megatron down so that they were face to face.
"If you want me, Megatron, you've GOT me. But if you ever try to use one of my troops as a pawn again, I will PERSONALLY take that tail of yours and stuff it down your throat. Are we clear?"
The Predacon leader coughed weakly. "Crystal, I assure you."
Despite Megatron's assent, Optimus seemed reluctant to let go of his adversary's throat. A hand fell on his shoulder, alerting him to Rodimus' presence.
"Let him go, Optimus. His troops are decorating the landscape right now, and I'm pretty sure he knows when he's beaten. Besides, you have more important business to attend to."
"You're right," Optimus nodded. "I do." With a shove, he released his grip on Megatron's throat, sending the T-rex toppling onto his behind. Then, without so much as a look back, he transformed and jetted off towards the Axalon, the other Maximals close behind him.
Levering himself to his feet, Megatron looked around at the unconscious forms (and in Waspinator's case, scattered wreckage) that comprised his troops. Shaking his head, he began the somewhat laborious process of reassembling his command.
"Nothing hurts anymore. The CR chamber fixed me up as usual. I spend so much time in there, I'm thinking maybe I should move in."
"That's not what I asked. Look, Cheetor, I've known you maybe a week and a half, and I can tell something's eating at you. Optimus and Rhinox are practically worried sick. And the way you went stomping out of here today-- come on, kid, spill it. If you don't, I guarantee it's going to keep at you."
Cheetor snorted. "So I should talk to you?"
"Sometimes it's easier to say things to people you don't know so well. You don't have to worry so much about what they'll think of you."
For a long moment, Cheetor simply stared at the sinking sun. Then he burst out with, "It's all my fault!"
"What happened today, and- what happened to Optimus. I wasn't there for him-- I'm NEVER there for him. I should have been the one flying that pod. It should have been me."
Rodimus was quiet for a second. "I don't know about that. I DO know that Optimus would never have let you go, flier or not. He wasn't about to let anyone endanger themselves on that mission. Besides that, if he had lost you- I think it would have torn him up worse than anything.
"It's not a pleasant realization, but in the end, you have to understand that you can't always protect the people you care about. You do the best you can, and the rest is up to Fate- and your friends. It's called growing up, and it's not always a lot of fun. Happens to everybody sooner or later, though."
"Not soon enough in my case," Cheetor grumbled quietly. "If I hadn't gone tearing out of here today, none of this would have happened."
"You were hurting. Despite what you might think, nobody has immunity to mistakes. You've just got to learn from them. Besides, Megatron had today planned out quite well. He knew about the bond you and Optimus have, and he's probably been planning to use it for some time. If you hadn't gone out today, he would have grabbed you when you were on patrol, or something. If that had happened, we wouldn't have been tracking you like we were today. So maybe this was for the best."
"But if it hadn't been for me, Optimus wouldn't have been in danger!"
"No, he wouldn't have. He cares about you a lot, Cheetor, and that's always going to be something guys like Megatron will try to use to their advantage. But you'd better get used to it, because there is nothing between here and the Matrix that would ever change the way he feels about you. In a way, you're lucky. So few people ever really experience a connection like that."
Cheetor fell silent, considering that. "Thanks, Rodimus," he finally replied.
"No problem, kiddo. Friends?"
"You know it."
The sound of footsteps on the metal hull of the ship caused both 'bots to turn. Optimus Primal stood behind them, shielding his eyes with one hand, although there was little glare left from the rapidly descending sun. "Rodimus? If you two are done here, Rhinox wants to see you. Something about one of the sensor consoles?"
Rod pulled a face, scrambling to his feet. "I didn't do it, I swear!" he protested, causing Cheetor to laugh at his overacted trepidation.
"Then go explain that to Rhinox," replied Optimus, a smile on his face. With a small noise, Rodimus did as he was told, leaving Optimus and Cheetor alone.
Wincing slightly, Optimus sank down next to Cheetor, facing out towards the west. "Did you two have a good talk?"
"Yeah," Cheetor nodded. "He can be a goof, but he's not a dumb guy by any means."
"Good. I've been- somewhat preoccupied recently, and I haven't had a chance to talk about what's been bothering you."
Cheetor grinned. "Nothing's bothering me, Big Bot. Not anymore." As the sun finally disappeared beneath the horizon, there was a flash of brilliant green, just before the light left completely. Optimus and Cheetor were left silent in awe.
"Whoa. That was intense," Cheetor breathed. Optimus nodded in agreement.
"A green flash. I've read about them, but I've never seen one before. They're extremely rare."
"Cool." Above them, the stars were beginning to peek through the blue of the sky. Leaning back to lie on the ship, Cheetor stared upwards. "Hey, Optimus? You're into astronomy, right? Can you tell me what some of these constellations are?"
Optimus reclined as well, looking up into the darkening blue. "Well, those over there are-- or actually, will be Cancer, the crab. And that one there is Polaris. By the time the Ark activates, it'll be the North Star."
"It's not the North Star now?"
"No, the closest one would be that over there, Alpha Draconis. And if you look over there, you can see part of Leo, the lion."
"I'm afraid not."
Optimus had to laugh at that. For the rest of the evening,
them sat out under a summer sky, exploring the beauties of the universe