Corruption

by Darkwatch



She stood at the window, as she always had, observing the world. From the top of the Lighthouse, she could see everything in the blink of an eye. But for the moment, her attention was focused on one location. She stood completely still as she watched, her light brown hair blowing in wisps, forming a contrast against her white diaphanous dress. To someone passing behind her, she may have looked like a human girl, but with one obvious exception: both she and the structure she called home were completely transparent, no more tangible than the wind.

“You're watching them again, aren’t you?”

Although startled, the ethereal observer did not tear her gaze from the window. “Greetings, Polaris.”

“Are there not other souls that require your attention?” The second figure was identical to the first, but the room was lit brightly by the surrealistic blazing white fire that made up her hair. “Souls that belong to this world?”

“The world sleeps in peace tonight.”

Polaris moved closer. “Are you certain? Are you truly still in touch with the world? Ever since these Strangers arrived, you have observed little else.”

“They fascinate me.”

“And the life of Earth no longer fascinates you? You have duties. I fear that you are neglecting them.”

The observer spun around, fixing Polaris in the gaze of her white, glowing eyes. “My duties are not your business,” she replied, her ghostly face as emotionless as her voice.

“Perhaps not. But you are becoming a matter of concern. Tempestra has noticed that you are far too focused on the Strangers.”

The brown-haired figure did not reply. She could hide nothing from Earth’s Guardian of Time.

Polaris continued. “You know that it is wrong for you to favour one life-form over another. And the Strangers are outside your responsibilities. They are undeserving of your attention.”

The observer took a step towards Polaris. “They are deserving! Maybe even more so than the souls of Earth! They have thoughts and feelings, I can see them! And some of their souls hold darkness as well, just as the souls of Earth do. I can help them! Why should I ignore them?”

Polaris sighed. “Can you not see that the Strangers do not belong here? They are from another place, another time. They are outside the course of evolution of this world. I have seen what they are capable of, for I have observed them as well when they travel far from their home. I thought, as you do, that I might be able to help them. But they do not need me. They always find their way back.” Were she capable, the Guide for Lost Travelers might have been insulted by this. “I do not understand why, but they are never lost. They never look to the sky, to me, as other travelers do. I am at a loss. They are far beyond any other life form of this world. Tempestra says that you are not ready for them. She warns against any contact.”

“Tempestra worries too much.”

“She worries with reason!” Polaris’ voice became more intense. “The Strangers are dangerous, and have caused much damage already. Their arrival created a rift in time, which is ever widening. Their every action here causes threads to unravel. It is taking all of Tempestra’s attention to simply hold everything together!”

There was silence for a moment as the observer weighed the words.

“You and I are young compared to Tempestra,” Polaris continued. “She is the voice of experience, and we must heed her. You know little of the Stran. They could be different in ways that you could not imagine. There is danger in the unknown.”

“But how can I see their darkness and not help them?” The observer's gaze str to ain before returning to Polaris. “They may not belong to Earth, but it is my duty to help those who need it. I cannotore them.”

“You are being foolhardy.” Her voice became stern, and Polaris found her delivering the words harshly. “Do not ignore the danger. Stay away from them. You have been warned, Darkwatch.”

And with that, Polaris disappeared, returning to the sky. Alone once morerkwatch carefully considered the warning. It made perfect sense, of course. It was obvious that getting involved with the Strangers could be dangerous, but the pull was too strong. After all, her purpose was to help darkened souls find light. It was the reason for her very existence, and could not be brushed aside so easily. She returned to the window.

“They need my help,” she said softly. And then she was gone as well, leaving the Lighthouse to slowly disappear behind her.

*

She visited the Predacon base first. It was not like her to leave the Lighthouse unless she was ready to enter a soul, but she wanted to be closer to the Strangers than her window would allow. Perhaps it would give her better insight into why this group of Strangers caused so much trouble.

The base was quiet. On the bridge, Megatron snoozed in his command chair. Darkwatch stopped for a moment near him. This one was their leader. If she could make him see the light, then perhaps there could be peace between the Strangers. She peered into his soul for a moment, only lightly brushing the surface, trying to understand him.

Bitterness. Anger. Suspicious, always on the lookout for the inevitable treachery. Ever lusting for power. His people were oppressed by Maximal rule, but he would fix that. His leadership would bring the dawning of a new age. The Maximals would rule them no longer.

Darkwatch pulled back. Too much anger. It seemed as if he had been created that way. She didn’t know if she was ready for someone like him. Polaris had been right…the Strangers were very complex. Perhaps she should start with someone whose soul held a little less darkness.

She left the room in search of the other Predacons. It was strange, though…she had sensed the soul of another in that room, even though no other Stranger was present. But it had not seemed whole. Darkwatch could not make sense of it.

*

Megatron awoke with a start and looked around. Was someone there? He had been dreaming that someone had been watching him, looking at his very Spark…

*

Darkwatch was disappointed. After leaving Megatron, she had observed Inferno, Waspinator and Quickstrike playing a game of cards for a while. They had not noticed as she stood over them, peering at their souls. Although they were dangerous, they could not have harmed her. No mortal could see her unless she wished it. But they had held little interest for her. Their souls seemed created with darkness as well, and all but Inferno showed a desire for command, for power.

She moved through the base, looking for anyone that might be a little easier to help. I do not understand these…Predacons. Why are their souls all born into darkness? Lost in thought, she barely noticed the large crab-bot until he was right in front of her.

Rampage suddenly whirled around and transformed, drawing his gun. He stared wide-eyed in her direction. Darkwatch looked behind her to see what had caught his attention, but there was nothing there. She turned back slowly, but he was still staring.

He was staring directly at her.

Silence reigned for what seemed like an eternity. Darkwatch did not know this Stranger well; he had only been born a week earlier and she had not had the chance to observe him for very long. Now she was unsure of what to do, having never experienced a situation like this.

“Who are you?” Rampage finally demanded.

She had observed the Strangers long enough that she could understand their language. It was obvious that she was not invisible to this Stranger. But how could this be? No mortal could see her! Curious to understand how this was possible, she lightly touched his soul and immediately recoiled. This was the other half of the soul that she had sensed on the bridge! And there was so much darkness. It was almost overwhelming. She began to feel fear. His? Her own? She couldn’t tell. She had never sensed anything like it before. She had to get away.

*

Rampage watched the ghostly figure disappear into thin air, fading out like the fog. He lowered his gun only when he was sure she was gone. As if his gun would have done any good…shooting at the apparition obviously would not have hurt it in the least. Reflex had caused him to draw, but he knew that she had meant him no harm. He had felt her reach for his Spark…and she had been afraid. His darkness had frightened her. And now she was gone…the only one who could have helped him heal his Spark was gone.

“Come back!” He roared to the empty hallway.

*

Shaken, Darkwatch returned to the Lighthouse. Once inside, she pondered the situation. If this Stranger could see her, would he also be able to see the Lighthouse? Suddenly she no longer felt safe.

But he needed help, more than any other living thing she had ever encountered. During her brief glimpse into his soul, she had sensed his suffering and his terrible loneliness. For he was different from all the others-not mortal and yet not exactly immortal. The suffering that he had endured and that which he had inflicted upon others were no longer differentiable. It was the feeling itself that seemed to define his soul, making it so dark that it could only hunger for more. As a result, he strove to inspire fear in others, so as to feed on it. It was awful…truly awful.

If I could help him, then there would be nothing more to fear from him.

Unfortunately, she was completely unprepared for the likes of him. She could not simply dive right in. She needed to know if she was capable of helping his kind.

Perhaps the other group of Strangers…the Maximals…

Darkwatch turned to the window, watching images flash before her eyes until they came to rest on two Maximals who were outside their base. She reached out from the Lighthouse towards their souls, searching for darkness that she could heal…

She touched one of them. His soul was youthful, innocent. Although occasionally troubled by prophetic dreams, this one did not need her help. She moved to the other one.

Darkness had invaded his soul of late. He had always had a little, but recent events had caused him to rethink everything, bringing it to the surface. The more he thought about it, the more it permeated his soul. He was deeply troubled. He wished that he wasn't that way.

Here was one she could help.

*

The Maximals were worried about Rattrap. Ever since the incident with the contaminated energon, he had become reserved and brooding. His false attempts at cheerfulness did not fool any of them. Whatever he had done while under the effect of the tainted energon, it had affected him profoundly.

Optimus had tried to coax the story from Rhinox, but Rhinox knew that Rattrap had wanted to keep the events of that day private. However, even he could not pull Rattrap out of his dark mood. Rattrap either only pretended to accept consolation or rejected it outright. Rhinox could tell that his best friend was sinking deeper and deeper, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

*

Rattrap couldn’t forgive himself. He had done his friends wrong, and he hated himself for it. He remembered how he had come so far, finally learning to trust and to be trusted. He had friends now; friends that he knew cared about him. But in one day, he had almost destroyed them all. When it was all over, they had tried to forget it, but he knew that he never would. He had let himself revert back to his old ways, his old life, where survival at the expense of others had caused him little or no remorse. And it had been so easy to do so. It didn’t matter to him that it had been triggered by something beyond his control. The point was that it was still there, just waiting to surface again. He wished that he could just let it all go, but it was a part of him. And every time he looked at Rhinox, he remembered how he had nearly killed him. Self-forgiveness was not easily forthcoming. He tried to focus on matters at hand; on his duties and on sounding cheerful and bantering with the others, but it always nagged in the back of his mind.

Optimus had roused him from his thoughts that evening to send him on patrol with Cheetor. Rattrap had responded with a light-hearted “Sure thing, Boss-Monkey!”, hoping that it had sounded believable. They had left the base together, Cheetor taking off with a joyful whoop. Rattrap transformed and followed on the ground, trying to get his mind off his problems and onto his duties. They were quite far from the Axalon when Cheetor landed and maximized near the base of a green hill. The meadow around them was still, and the stars were slowly appearing in the sky. There was an air of serenity about the place.

“Nice scenery, huh?” Cheetor said brightly as Rattrap caught up to him. Rattrap only shrugged, and Cheetor scowled at him. “You know, this whole self-pity thing is getting really old. Snap out of it! Look, nobody cares about what you did while you were under the effect of Megatron’s energon. It happened to all three of us, and we all did some crazy things, but it’s all over now! Why can’t you just forget it?”

Rattrap maximized and took a step towards Cheetor, his eyes narrowed. “Look, kid. You don’t know nuthin’ about what I did, so just drop it before I get annoyed with ya.”

“Sure I do. You reprogrammed Sentinel to see us as enemies. But so what? It didn’t get us, and everything is all fixed now. The whole thing is long gone and forgotten, so quit beating yourself up over it! I mean, I tried to hurt Rhinox too, so I know how you feel-”

“You have no idea how I feel!” Rattrap yelled suddenly, making Cheetor jump. “Stop pretendin’ like ya know everythin’ that happened! It ain’t that simple!” His hands balled into fists.

Cheetor stepped back apprehensively. He and Rattrap stared at each other for a few moments before Rattrap finally sighed, trying to force himself to relax.

“Sorry, kiddo. Let’s just drop this, okay? Ain’t we ’sposed to be workin’ or somethin’?”

Cheetor frowned at him for a moment, then shrugged it off. “Yeah, sure. I’m just gonna climb this hill. I’ll bet it’ll be a great view. You coming?"

Rattrap shook his head. Cheetor gave him a wave of dismissal and started up the hill. “Fine, but you won't know what you're missing!”

“I’m sure you’ll tell me,” Rattrap muttered, still angry with himself for lashing out. Why did I have to do that? What’s wrong with me? He sighed loudly, his very Spark crying out for help, to purge himself of the darkness that he felt inside. I don’t wanna be this way any more!

He didn’t realize that someone had heard his cry.

*

Yes, the time was right. The Stranger had asked for help, and she was going to give it. Darkwatch left the Lighthouse and moved towards him, poised to enter his soul.

*

Cheetor looked around at the view. “Nice,” he said to himself as he wandered the hilltop. Everything seemed perfectly peaceful and ordinary, but when he reached the very peak of the hill, everything suddenly changed.

No longer was he seeing the landscape as he had before. Now he was within some kind of transparent structure, a tall tower with one large window. The image in the window kept changing, and Cheetor realized that he was seeing the whole world at once. “Wow,” he breathed, completely in awe of the sight before him. It was overwhelming, beyond description, and it took him a moment to find his voice again.

He turned back in Rattrap’s direction. “Rattrap, get up here! You've gotta see-” Cheetor stopped abruptly when he saw Rattrap. There was…something…standing over him. Something otherworldly. It almost looked like…

“What?” Rattrap called back. He turned to face Cheetor, completely oblivious of the tower on the hilltop and of the specter that now stood right before his eyes. “I don’t see anything!”

Just then the ghostly figure placed its hands on Rattrap, and seemed to melt into him. At the same moment, the transparent tower disappeared, leaving Cheetor on the empty hilltop. Rattrap stood alone at the bottom, as if nothing had happened.

“Well, what?” Rattrap asked again.

Momentarily dazed by the sudden switch back to reality, Cheetor shook his head to regain his senses. He ran down the hill towards Rattrap. “Where is she? Where did she go?”

“Huh? She who?” Rattrap asked, looking around.

“The ghost! I saw her! I could see her from the tower! She looked almost like a human girl!” Cheetor replied.

“The ghost-girl ya saw from the tower,” Rattrap repeated scornfully. “Okay, kiddo, maybe it’s time ya went home for a good long rest, huh?”

“I’m serious! She was here! She was standing over you! Didn’t you see her?”

Rattrap shook his head.

“What about the tower on the hill?” Cheetor asked, beginning to realize how ridiculous this all sounded.

“Nope. Nada. You’re startin’ to sound a little crazy here, Spots. There was nuthin’ there.” Rattrap checked his portable scanner records. “Nuthin’ on the scanners either. You were seein’ things.”

“I’ll show you the tower, then,” Cheetor said. “Come on!”

He grabbed Rattrap and pulled him up the hill with him. Together they went and stood on the very same spot where Cheetor had had his strange experience. But there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

Rattrap raised an eyebrow at Cheetor, shaking his head in disdain. “Ya had yer circuits crossed, kiddo. There ain’t nuthin’ here.”

“But I'm sure I saw…I mean…I’m not making this up! There was something there!” Cheetor looked Rattrap directly in the eye, his voice pleading.

Rattrap stared back at him for a moment. “Let’s just get outta here,” he finally said. He transformed back to beast mode and drove off.

“Beast mode,” Cheetor sighed. He took off after Rattrap.

*

Darkwatch realized the instant that she entered the Stranger’s soul that something was very wrong. This soul was not like any other she had ever encountered. It was made completely of energy…and was therefore tangible to her. It had pulled her in the instant that she had made contact with it. And upon entering, her ties with the Lighthouse-the bonds that kept her connected to the outside world-had been severed. Now the energy of Rattrap’s Spark would not let her out.

She was trapped.

Panic set in. No, this can’t be; this is all wrong! Over and over she tried to pass through the walls of the sphere, but they repulsed her. Let me out!

Eventually she forced herself to stop. Logically, this was not going to get her anywhere. If she gave in to emotion, she would be no better than the other creatures. Regaining her composure, she remembered why she was there in the first place. If I must be trapped here, then I should at least do what I came to do.

She set about exploring; learning. He was Rattrap, a Maximal from Cybertron. He was fairly old, and had experienced many things. He had also done regrettable things, and he longed to be free from the darkness of his past. Very well, Rattrap. I shall help your soul find light.

It was simple to locate the darkness in his soul. It had been growing for a while, and Darkwatch could see where it had broken free of its old barriers. Even the areas of light-the parts of his soul that held his friends and fonder memories-were clouded over and becoming increasingly black. Darkwatch hesitated for a moment, but there was no choice. To fight this darkness, she had to understand it. And to understand it, she had to enter it. Although filled with trepidation, her duty called.

She stepped into the darkness.

*

Optimus could hear the conversation as Cheetor and Rattrap rode the lift up into the Axalon.

“I did too see her!” Cheetor sounded indignant. “Why won’t you believe me?”

“You were dreamin’! Now can we just drop this before I get really annoyed?”

“What’s all this about?” Optimus asked.

“The kiddo thinks he saw a ghost,” Rattrap replied, smirking. “A human ghost. And she lives in a big haunted house on a hill.” He began making exaggerated ghostly sounds.

“Quit it!” Cheetor said, clearly insulted. “You’re making it sound stupid! That’s not how it was!”

“Then why don’t you tell me how it was?” Optimus asked.

“Yeah, you tell ’im all about it, kiddo,” Rattrap said sarcastically. “But make sure and include the parts where me and the scanners didn’t pick up a thing. I’ll be in my room.”

He left the bridge, looking back only to see Optimus trying to hide his disbelief as Cheetor told his story. “That kid’s off his nut,” Rattrap muttered to himself as he entered his quarters. He flopped onto his bed, and was soon fast asleep.

*

The assault on her senses, on everything that she was, began as soon as she entered the darkness. Images, memories and raw feelings surrounded her completely. She was immersed in them, and they pulled her down. In effect, she was drowning.

She fought against it. Never had she experienced any darkness that even remotely compared to this. The simple creatures that she was used to helping were not capable of such evolved, complex thoughts and feelings. She was frightened.

Seek to understand…

Through the turmoil, her inner voice reminded her of what she was supposed to do. Yes…

She tried to make sense of all the endless images and feelings around her; memories of places on a planet that she never knew existed and of situations that she had never dreamed of. She could not understand.

Help me! Her mental cry was swallowed by the darkness. Let me out!

She knew that it was useless. No one could help her escape the pain.

*

“Help me!”

A cry in the dark. Rattrap couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.

“Let me out!” More insistent.

“Where are you?” Rattrap called out, trying to follow the sound of the voice. It seemed to come from all around him at once. “Who are you?”

“It’s too much…I must get out! Help me!” The voice wailed pitifully, shaking with fear.

“I can’t find you!” Rattrap turned in every direction, but he never appeared to get any closer to the source of the voice. “Tell me where you are!”

“The darkness!” One last cry, and then there was only silence.

*

In a last-ditch effort to escape the smothering darkness, Darkwatch attempted to heal it. But without the necessary comprehension of its origin, her light would not last long before the darkness collapsed in on her again. Exhausted and overwhelmed, her own hope and light were dwindling. She no longer had the power to resist.

Her entire being was wracked with the pain of a life from long ago. The life was not hers, yet she could not separate herself from it. Everything hurt as Rattrap’s thoughts and memories assaulted her from all sides.

I have killed.

I have killed and felt no remorse.

I tried to kill my best friend!

“The darkness!” Darkwatch cried. Why did she have to feel this pain? Why indeed…

The darkness could not hurt her if she was part of it. The instant the thought crossed her mind---in that one moment of mental weakness---she lost all control. The darkness swallowed her.

She ceased to be Darkwatch.

*

Rattrap jerked awake. The details of the dream were already fading, but he remembered enough of it to know that it had been strange. And now he felt slightly…different, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“Yeesh, gotta lay off the heavy thinkin’ before bedtime,” he told himself. “The kiddo’s ’sposed to be the one with the weird dreams, not me.”

He stopped abruptly. Huh? How’d I know that?

For a moment he could have sworn that he heard a soft giggle come from within him. Okay, imagination. It's just imagination.

But he couldn’t deny that he somehow felt better, as if a weight was being lifted. “Wow, that nap really helped,” he muttered aloud as he left his quarters.

He found Optimus alone on the bridge.

“Ah, Rattrap,” Optimus said. “I was hoping I could speak to you about this ‘ghost’ thing.”

“Nuthin’ to say,” Rattrap replied. “There was no ghost. Spots was imaginin’ things.”

“It’s just that he seems so sure of what he saw---”

“Oh, so you have to believe him over me?” Rattrap wondered for a moment what was possessing him to snap at Optimus like this.

Optimus was taken aback. “That’s not it at all!”

“Then how come I have to tell my side twice?” Rattrap’s voice became icy cold. “Y’know, a good leader would treat all his troops equally.” Seeing the surprised look on Optimus’ face, Rattrap continued. “Heck, if you were a better leader, maybe we’d ’ve beat the Preds by now.”

“Rattrap!” Optimus gasped. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, take Rampage, fer instance. You had him beat, but ya just left ’im there, all gift-wrapped for the Preds. How many times ’ve we just let the Preds get away on your say-so?” Rattrap shook his head in disdain. “We’re gonna lose this war cause o’ you.”

“Rattrap, that’s enough.” Although his voice was emotionless, the hurt and confusion were plainly visible in Optimus’ expression. “You’re dismissed.”

Rattrap had already turned to leave. “Whatever ya say, Fearless Leader,” he tossed back over his shoulder. The smirk on his face was as mirthless and cold as the laughter emanating from deep within his Spark.

As he made his way back to his quarters, Rattrap wondered where that outburst had come from-and why he did not feel the slightest bit of guilt over the things he had just said. In fact, he had rather enjoyed it. It had felt good to let it out, and the knowledge that he had hurt Optimus’ feelings in doing so only seemed to make him feel better. A conscience-who needed it? The whisperings in his Spark told him to do and say whatever he felt, and when he caused others pain, he felt satisfied. Or perhaps simply the voice was satisfied. Rattrap couldn’t tell. As far as he knew, the voice was part of him. It was him.

*

Over the next few days, all the Maximals began to notice the difference in Rattrap’s behaviour. Where before he had been sullen and reserved, now his barbed comments flowed freely. Some of the Maximals began to avoid him. His insults notwithstanding, they were beginning to feel uncomfortable around him. Even something as harmless as passing him in the hallway would evoke a general uneasiness, as Rattrap’s cold, piercing stare followed them. An unexplainable irritability would soon follow such an encounter, as if simply being close to Rattrap spawned a dark mood.

Silverbolt had noticed this change in Rattrap’s demeanor, but he hoped that his friend would come around eventually. When he passed Rattrap in the hall, he attempted to start a conversation.

“Is something bothering you, my friend?”

Rattrap gave an exaggerated sigh. “Eh, it’s just Chopperface. Some o’ the things he says really get on my nerves, y’know?”

“Yes, well…” Silverbolt didn’t like the way that Rattrap was staring at him so intensely, as if he was looking into Silverbolt’s very Spark. It made him uncomfortable, and he suddenly realized that he wanted to get away from the smaller Maximal.

“Like what he said about you,” Rattrap continued. “That the honour of a freak like you ain’t worth much.”

“He…said that?”

Rattrap laid a hand on Silverbolt’s shoulder. “Yeah, can ya believe it? Sometimes I really hate that guy.”

Silverbolt began to feel strange, as if Rattrap’s touch had ignited something within him. Anger welled up inside him, and he shrugged Rattrap’s hand off and stalked away.

Rattrap stood for a moment, watching as Silverbolt walked away. So easy…He waited until he heard the sounds of a fight before following, barely able to contain the malicious laughter inside his Spark.

*

Optimus pushed Silverbolt and Dinobot apart. “Stop this! What is wrong with you two?”

“This fool dared to challenge me!” Dinobot snarled.

“He insulted me, and my honour as well!” Silverbolt shouted back.

Dinobot snorted. “I did nothing of the kind! This attack was entirely unprovoked!”

“Now, calm down, both of you,” Optimus ordered. “Silverbolt, this isn’t like you. What’s gotten into you? Where did you get these ideas?”

Silverbolt shook his head as if to clear it. “I…I don’t know. I’m sorry, Optimus. I don’t know what came over me.”

Optimus looked past Silverbolt and noticed that Rattrap was a little ways down the hall, his arms folded as he leaned against the wall, observing. When he saw Optimus looking at him, he smirked and walked away.

Optimus stared after him, one eyebrow raised.

*

That was fun, wasn’t it? The voice giggled.

Sure, but…

You need not worry about them. They served their purpose, and now they no longer matter.

But it ain’t right to manipulate people like that… Rattrap felt as if he should protest.

Do not concern yourself with right and wrong. Those concepts are beneath us. We will free ourselves from them, and the possibilities will be endless!

Look, I dunno about this. I don’t even get why I don’t feel bad. Somethin’ ain’t right here.

Would you rather feel that way? Would you rather be a slave to your guilt?

No! I don’t wanna have to feel that way again!

Then let it go. There was once a time when you felt no remorse for deeds done. You can be that way again. Rid yourself of all cares, of all doubts, and we will be free!

Rattrap opened his eyes, and suddenly everything was different. He could see everything more clearly, as if he was a spectator of the world, not part of it.

“Yeah…” he muttered aloud.

*

Cheetor wandered into Rhinox’s lab. “Hey, Rhinox, have you seen my computer games diskette? I was sure I left it in my room, but now I can’t find it anywhere.”

“Nope,” Rhinox replied, sighing. “I’ve got problems of my own. This new long-range scanner I’ve been working on is on the fritz again. Look, all these connections have been overloaded.”

“Gee, I wonder who would do a thing like that,” Cheetor said sarcastically.

“What do you mean?” Rhinox’s tone implied that he knew exactly who Cheetor was talking about.

“Oh, come on, don’t tell me you don’t think Rattrap’s behind all this. Silverbolt won’t admit it, but I’m sure it was Rattrap who told him those things about Dinobot. Your equipment didn’t break itself. And I’m not the only one with stuff missing.”

“We don’t have any proof of any of that,” Rhinox said.

“We might if we searched his room. Maybe we’d at least get our stuff back.”

“You know Optimus would never agree to that.” Rhinox sighed. “Rattrap is still trying to work things through. I’m sure he’ll come around.”

“Yeah, sure,” Cheetor replied, leaving in a huff. Not if I’m right about what’s wrong with him.

*

Rattrap entered the bridge to relieve Cheetor from monitoring duty. Cheetor was alone there, and visibly annoyed that Rattrap was late. However, instead of taking over Cheetor’s shift, Rattrap sat down at his workstation and called up a poker game on the computer. He knew that Cheetor was eyeing him and could tell that he was growing more irritated by the second. The thought brought a smirk to his face. Recently he had been able to sense the emotions of others, and he was learning to use it to his advantage.

Finally, Cheetor spoke up. “Don’t you have work to do or something? You’re supposed to be relieving me!”

Rattrap didn’t even turn around. “Am I?” He made himself comfortable and continued his game.

Cheetor growled. “You know, we’re all getting pretty sick and tired of your weird moods! The others may want to tiptoe around this, but I don’t! It’s time somebody told you what a jerk you’re being!”

Rattrap turned around slowly and rose from his chair. “So you’re gonna tell me?”

“You bet I am!” Cheetor stood as well and glowered at Rattrap. “You’ve been hurting everyone’s feelings, stealing things and messing with Rhinox’s equipment! Just what is your problem?”

Rattrap’s expression remained cold. “No problem here. In fact, I’m feelin’ great. Maybe the problem’s with the rest of ya.”

“You’ve changed,” Cheetor said angrily. “I’ve been thinking about it. You’ve been different ever since we came back from patrol that night.” He took a deep breath, then finally decided to say what he had been keeping to himself for the past few days. “I think that ghost did something to you.”

Rattrap laughed humourlessly. “Here we go again. I guess you really are as stupid as I thought ya were.”

“Can’t you even tell that you’re acting differently?” Cheetor’s voice was rising in anger. “What if she actually did possess you? You’re losing control! What if it gets worse until you have no control at all?”

Rattrap stepped closer to Cheetor so that they were face to face. He smirked. “Well, you can dream the future. Why don’t ya go to sleep and tell me how it all turns out?”

Cheetor gasped, completely taken aback. For a moment he couldn’t even form words. Then his expression turned to a mixture of anger and confusion. “How did you know?”

Rattrap simply turned on his heel and began to walk away. Even he did not know how he knew, but that didn’t seem to matter to him.

Cheetor followed him. “That’s impossible! I never told anyone! How did you know?

Rattrap was quickly tiring of this. “Drop it, pussycat,” he warned as he continued walking. He did not even look back.

But Cheetor would not let it go. He was now shouting. “Get back here! I want to know how you found out!”

Rattrap still did not stop, so Cheetor caught up to him. “Don’t walk away from me!” He grabbed Rattrap’s shoulder and spun him around. But as he did so, Rattrap seized Cheetor’s wrist and twisted it down, forcing Cheetor to his knees.

Cheetor struggled, but Rattrap seemed stronger than ever. “Ow! Rattrap, stop!”

“I warned you,” Rattrap said, his voice emotionless. “You couldn’t just drop it, could ya?”

“Why are you doing this?” Cheetor cried, still unable to free himself as Rattrap twisted his arm further.

“’Cause we feel like it,” Rattrap replied. It seemed only natural to say that, but then he realized that something was amiss. Huh? “We”?

Cheetor noticed the same thing. “ ‘We’? You mean…Rattrap, this isn’t you! It’s her, I know it! That ghost was real, and she’s making you-”

He was cut off as Rattrap drew his blaster and pointed it at him, less than an inch from Cheetor’s nose.

Rattrap’s voice remained as emotionless as ever. “Nobody makes me do anythin’. What makes ya so sure this ain’t the real me?”

Cheetor gulped and lowered his voice to a whisper. “What are you doing?”

The whisperings inside Rattrap had reached a fevered pitch. Yes, do it! Destroy him!

I dunno, he’s supposed to be my friend…

We don’t need friends. We don’t need this place, or any of them. There is just you and I. Feed the darkness! Do it!

Cheetor gasped as Rattrap cocked his gun. At this close range, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t survive the shot. “Rattrap, don’t…we’ll help you…”

Rattrap twisted Cheetor’s arm to the limit and shoved the gun up against Cheetor’s forehead. “I don’t wanna hear another word. The next sound I hear out of ya, bang!” He fired into the wall right next to Cheetor’s head. “Got it?” Cheetor nodded, his eyes wide.

“Now, listen up,” Rattrap continued. “I don’t want yer help. We like bein’ this way. No rules, and I don’t have to feel bad any more. I can do anythin’ I want.”

That shot will alert the others. We must leave before they find out. Destroy him now! The voice was almost screaming inside Rattrap’s head.

Rattrap tried to ignore the voice and turned his attention back to Cheetor. “So, now the question is: what do I do wit’ ya? If I just leave ya, yer gonna run cryin’ to the others as soon as I’m gone.”

“They can help you get free...”

“What did I say ’bout yer talkin’? Another sound, and you might make me have to kill ya.” Rattrap suddenly twisted Cheetor’s arm all the way, breaking it at the elbow. Cheetor clenched his teeth to avoid crying out, but a small whimper escaped him.

“Ya just don’t get it, do ya? I am free.” Rattrap threw Cheetor down. Cheetor crumpled to the floor, cradling his broken arm. Afraid to move, he stared down the barrel of the gun that was mere inches from his face.

The voice laughed maniacally, reveling in the darkness and clearly enjoying Cheetor’s fear and pain. Finish him!

Now just hang on. I don’t have to kill him…

But you want to. You know you do. Nothing stops us! We’re free!

Yeah…no! He’s just a kid…

That doesn’t matter. You don’t have to feel badly any more. You don’t have to feel anything!

Approaching footsteps interrupted Rattrap’s inner conflict. Time to go. Rattrap put up his gun. “Well, I’m outta here. You can tell Optimus all ya want, but it don’t matter-I ain’t answerin’ to him or anyone else again.” He then ran off in the opposite direction of the footsteps.

Optimus and Rhinox arrived to find Cheetor sitting on the floor, still in a state of disbelief.

“We heard a shot!” Optimus said. He then noticed Cheetor’s arm. “Cheetor, what happened?” He helped Cheetor to his feet.

“It’s Rattrap,” Cheetor replied. “That ghost did something to him! I knew it! None of you believed me!” He looked down at his injured arm. “It has control of him. It’s making him do all these things-he even says ‘we’ instead of ‘I’! We have to help him!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll find a way. You go get yourself repaired.” As Cheetor headed to the CR-chamber, Optimus turned to Rhinox. “No more secrets, Rhinox. I want to know exactly what happened to Rattrap while he was under the effect of Megatron’s poisoned energon. That was the start of all this, and we’re going to need every bit of information if we’re going to find a way to help him.” He opened his comlink. “Dinobot, Silverbolt, you’re with me. We’re going after Rattrap.”

*

How do you feel?

I…I dunno. Good, I guess. Free! But also like somethin’s wrong. Somethin’ I just can’t put my finger on…

Do not concern yourself. Look out!

Rattrap swerved to avoid a large boulder. So engrossed in this inner conversation, he had barely been paying attention to the terrain. But someone had noticed…

I just don’t understand…I know what I’ve just done. But I feel weird, almost like it wasn’t me who did it. Why don’t I feel bad?

Because I am saving you from that. I told you, we are a higher being now. We have no need for guilt.

Wait…now I got it! You’re not me! You don’t belong! Who are you?

I am you now. We are one, right at the core of your being.

Again something washed over Rattrap and he felt the confusion melt away, replaced by a stunning clarity. No right. No wrong. No feeling. Just the welcoming darkness.

The Predacon base came into view.

*

“You know, it’s just way too easy to get in here.”

Megatron awoke with a start to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun.

“This is what, the third time I’ve infiltrated this base? Fourth?” Rattrap continued.

Megatron growled. “And to what do I owe the honour of this particular visit?”

Rattrap shrugged. “I’m looking for a new place to stay.”

“Oh?” Megatron pondered how to press the button to call his troops to him without Rattrap noticing.

“Yeah, I thought you might have an opening for me. Oh, and by all means, call your troops. They should get to know me better.”

Megatron raised an eyebrow as he pressed the button. “You’ve played this game before, vermin. Why should I believe you this time?” Something was nagging at him…something was very strange about this Maximal.

Rattrap only stared back at him silently, and Megatron’s eyes narrowed as a distinct unease set in. “There’s something different about you,” he said.

“It’s the new me. Like it?”

Inferno, Waspinator, Quickstrike and Rampage burst onto the bridge, the three smaller Predacons drawing their weapons instantly upon seeing Rattrap.

*

No one noticed that Rampage stopped in his tracks and stood as if paralyzed, as what he saw shocked him to his very Spark. The Maximal was not alone…superimposed over his body was that of the girl, the transparent girl that he had seen in the hallway. Rampage stood unblinking, unable to tear his eyes away. For she had…changed. Where once her dress had been a brilliant white, it was now the deepest black. Her eyes now glowed red, and her hair was as dark as her dress. He finally managed to shift his gaze to the other Predacons, and noted that not a one of them was reacting as he was. Obviously all they saw was a Maximal.

*

“What’s he doin’ here? Want me ta blast him for y-” Quickstrike abruptly broke off as Rattrap turned to stare at him. The Fuzor’s eyes widened. “What the-?” His voice betrayed a sudden fear.

Rattrap faced Megatron once more, his intense gaze locked on the Predacon leader. “Are you going to order them to shoot me?”

*

Rampage watched as the mouths of the Maximal and apparition moved in unison. She and Rattrap spoke simultaneously, their voices becoming some strange combination of the two. Rampage stared at her, uncomprehending. She had been light, and now she was darkness. As dark as his own Spark. How could this have happened? He needed her! Although still facing Megatron, her eyes glanced in his direction. Rampage gasped and began to back away, but he knew that it had been too late. She had seen him. And she had smiled, a dark cruel smile that set even him on edge. Rampage quickly slipped from the bridge, his shock beginning to fade to anger.

*

“Lower your weapons,” Megatron ordered.

The Predacons did so. Quickstrike shuddered. “That bot ain’t right.”

“And you’re not as tough as you think you are,” Rattrap replied, still not taking his eyes off Megatron. “Or should I tell them about that nightmare you had last night…you know, the one about being buried alive?”

Quickstrike’s eyes seemed ready to pop from his head. “Wha-I-how’d ya-”

Rattrap smirked and suddenly laughed in a very un-Rattrap-like way. The sound was high-pitched and unearthly, and all the Predacons found themselves shrinking back a little.

Megatron tried to regain his composure. “Who are you?” he demanded, suddenly realizing what had been nagging at him. The Maximal’s voice was smooth, holding little of the annoying accent he had once had. “You’re not the rat-you don’t even speak like him.”

“That’s Rattrap to you, and we are. It’s just the side of me that I never got to show, being saddled with the Maximal ideals of right and wrong.”

‘We?’ Megatron twitched as he noticed the way Rattrap had just referred to himself. “And now you are not?”

“Does this scare you?” Again the smirk.

Megatron glowered back, angered by the uneasiness that continued to grow within him. The rat seemed to know exactly what he was feeling. “Of course not. I welcome it-whoever you are.”

Megatron’s console beeped, and he was relieved for the interruption. “Hmm…a Maximal transmission,” he said aloud. “Is this part of your game?”

“Not at all. I figured they’d be missing me by now. But I’m not going back to them.” Rattrap’s voice was completely emotionless.

Megatron called up the transmission, and Optimus’ face appeared on the screen.

“Ah, Primal,” Megatron began. “A pleasure to hear from-”

“Skip it, Megatron,” Optimus cut in. “We know Rattrap is in there. Whatever you’ve done to him, it ends now. Let him go.”

Megatron raised an eyebrow. “Why, I have done nothing at all. Your friend is here of his own volition.”

“You expect me to believe that? Your contaminated energon messed with his core processor once. Give me one good reason to think that this isn’t just something else of yours.”

“Quite the game you’re playing, Primal,” Megatron retorted. “Why should I believe that this isn’t some ploy of yours to plant a spy in our midst? You have done this before as well.”

Optimus was taken aback for a moment. “If this wasn’t caused by you, then return him to us. Something’s wrong. It may be dangerous for anyone to be near him.”

“I’m not going back,” Rattrap said, stepping up to the monitor. “We like it here.”

“Rattrap, there’s something wrong with you. You have to come back with us.”

“Nothing’s wrong with me. I’ve never felt more right!”

Optimus noticed the difference in Rattrap’s voice. “Rattrap, please listen to-”

“I believe that he has made his choice,” Megatron interrupted.

“Megatron, you don’t understand. If whatever is inside him wasn’t your doing-”

“Oh, don’t worry, Primal. I’ll be careful.” Megatron ended the transmission.

Rattrap still regarded him with the same cool stare. “You know this isn’t a trick,” he said, “and that bothers you even more.”

Megatron narrowed his eyes. “You would do well to keep your opinions to yourself if you wish to stay here.”

“Opinion?” Rattrap shrugged. “Call it what you want. You know, you can’t always be in absolute control of everything.” He finally turned away from the Predacon leader. “So where’s my room?”

“Inferno will show you to your accommodations.” Megatron was thankful to be free of the Maximal’s unnerving gaze.

Inferno glanced up at Megatron. “You are allowing him to stay, Royalty?”

“For now,” Megatron replied. “You do realize that you will be watched carefully,” he told Rattrap. “Just a precaution, of course.”

“Of course.” That smirk again. “You’ll never trust me…but you don’t trust anyone, so I guess that that doesn’t matter much.” Rattrap walked over to Inferno. “So? Lead the way.”

“One moment,” Megatron called after him. “If you are going to become a Predacon, should you not change your activation code?”

“Oh, I’m not becoming a Predacon. I’m not one of you. Does it really matter? I’m joining your side. That’s enough. We are what we are.” He poked Inferno. “So are we going or what?”

Inferno grudgingly led the Maximal off the bridge as Megatron stared after them.

“This isn’t over,” he said aloud to himself. “I will find out what power you possess.”

*

“What do we do now?” Silverbolt asked. When the trail had led him, Optimus and Dinobot to the Predacon base, he had assumed that Rattrap’s behaviour must have been caused by Megatron. But now everything was unclear.

“This doesn’t seem like one of Megatron’s plans,” Optimus told them. “He looked surprised when I accused him. Whatever has happened to Rattrap, it’s something else. Cheetor may have been right.”

“If he wants to stay, perhaps we should leave him there,” Dinobot snorted.

“No! Whatever this thing is, it’s not his fault. And the way he spoke just now-it wasn’t him. We have to get him back, whether he wants to or not.” Optimus spoke into his comlink. “Rhinox, we’re going to figure out a way to get Rattrap out of the Predacon base. We need some ideas on how to get this thing out of him once we get him back.”

“I’ll try,” came the reply, “but I don’t have any idea what we’re dealing with here.”

“Do your best,” Optimus said. “I’ll call again when we have him. Optimus out.”

*

Inferno led Rattrap down one of the few remaining intact hallways of the Predacon ship. He stopped abruptly in front of a door. “You will stay here,” he ordered.

Before Rattrap could reply, a large fist suddenly struck Inferno’s head, sending the Predacon into an unconscious heap on the floor. Rampage stepped out from the shadows.

“What do you want?” An unnatural smile played on Rattrap’s face.

“Why?” Rampage bellowed. “Why him and not me?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You were supposed to help me. Me! You could have healed my Spark, and instead you join with him!” Rampage spat the last word.

Rattrap didn’t understand what Rampage meant. Why would he have ever helped Rampage? “Look, Crab-legs, I don’t know what your problem is, but I think you’d better step aside.”

Rampage’s face twitched with anger. “What have you done to her?”

“It’s what she’s done to me!” Rattrap cried, barely realizing what he had just said. And then it hit him. She? The ghost…that thing…it’s inside me! But as soon as the thought passed through his mind, as he begun to understand, he was swept away once more.

Rattrap’s face became emotionless. “Leave us, Predacon.” The voice again held the musical quality of the entity within.

“Not until you join with me, as you should have done!” Rampage drew his gun.

“You won’t shoot me. You won’t risk it,” Rattrap replied. He knew it because Rampage knew it.

Rampage lowered his gun. “I was more deserving! My need for you is greater than anyone else’s!”

“You? Deserving?” Rattrap laughed. “Why would I want to help a monster like you?”

Rampage’s expression twisted with anger and sadness. He suddenly transformed to beast mode and scuttled away.

A high-pitched giggle came from deep inside Rattrap. He stepped over Inferno’s prone body and entered his new quarters.

*

Rhinox sat at his workbench, his chin in his hands. “Just find a way to get that thing out of him,” he said aloud. “Right. It might help if I knew what it was we were dealing with!” He sighed in frustration, unable to help feeling a little responsible. Deep down he knew that this had something to do with Rattrap’s vulnerable state of mind as he attempted to come to grips with the things he had done while poisoned. If only he had tried to be there a little more instead of leaving Rattrap to work it out alone; if only he had told Optimus sooner so that he might have helped as well, then maybe this thing-whatever it was-would have left his friend alone.

But now it was too late, and he had no idea how to undo what had been done.

“Stranger…”

The voice inside his head was as delicate as the wind, but Rhinox knew he hadn’t imagined it. “Who’s there?”

“You must listen. We need your help.”

Rhinox stood, looking around carefully. His optical sensors told him that he was alone in the room, but he could almost feel… “All right, help with what?”

“She is lost…your friend has led her astray.”

“She? What do you mean? Do you know what happened to my friend?” Rhinox glanced down at the proximity monitor. There was nothing in the room with him. He felt as if he should have been unnerved by this, but the presence seemed oddly reassuring.

“We warned against this, but she did not heed us. They should never have joined. Strangers are different.”

“‘Strangers’? You mean us?”

The voice paused, but ignored the question. “Help us, Stranger. We can only do this together.”

“It might be easier if I knew who you were,” Rhinox said.

The room was suddenly lit brightly by a ball of light. As Rhinox watched with fascination, the light began to take form. Rhinox found himself staring at the ghostly image of a girl, her hair a blaze of white fire. Her mouth did not move as she spoke.

“I am Polaris.”

Rhinox blinked, noticing that the energy readings on the monitor were going off the scale. It took him a moment to find his voice. “Uh…I’m Rhinox.”

The entity cocked her head. “Rhinox,” she repeated. “Help us.”

*

Rampage stomped through the hallways, roaring and punching the walls with his gigantic claws. “Him!” His cry of rage echoed through the empty corridor. “She chose him over me! How dare she?! She belongs with me!” Rampage could see now that she could help no one in her present form. The rat had corrupted her. He had to force them to separate. And once she was free, she would join with him, as it should have been.

He glanced over at a security monitor, aiming to send his claw plunging through it. Suddenly something caught his eye. He transformed for a better look. Yes, there they were. Maximals, just barely within camera range.

Of course. They were coming after their comrade. Perhaps he could use this to his advantage.

*

Rattrap sensed a presence, and turned to see Blackarachnia standing in the doorway.

“Maximal,” she said nonchalantly.

“Spider,” he replied in a similar tone.

“I’d say welcome to the Predacons, but you’re no Predacon.” She coyly walked into the room. “So how’d you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Get old Grape-face to let you stay here. I would have thought you’d be dead by now.”

Rattrap simply stared back at her, and Blackarachnia caught herself flinching.

Rattrap noticed the flinch and smiled an unnatural smile. “Now you see why I’m not.”

Blackarachnia returned his gaze through narrowed eyes, forcing herself to ignore the unease that was building within her. “So what exactly is your game?”

“There doesn’t always have to be a game.”

She stepped closer to Rattrap. “Aw, c’mon, you can tell me,” she said, her voice dripping with mock sweetness as her claw brushed his chest.

Rattrap suddenly laughed, a sound that Blackarachnia did not like one bit. “What’s so funny?”

“You, trying to seduce me. It’s so transparent. Besides, it would never work, seeing as how you’re pining for someone else.”

Blackarachnia gasped and recoiled. “What are you talking about?”

“You know. Forbidden love.” Rattrap smiled again.

Blackarachnia backed away. “You don’t know anything about that,” she hissed.

“Believe whatever you want,” Rattrap said, turning away.

“You’re no ordinary Maximal.” Blackarachnia’s voice was venomous. “But no matter what Megatron thinks, I will kill you if anyone finds out about this.” She transformed to beast mode and scurried away.

*

“So…what are you?” Rhinox asked.

“I am Polaris. I guide those who are lost.”

“But what kind of being are you?”

The entity paused. “I do not understand the question.”

“You said that one of your kind has joined with one of ours. What are your kind?”

“We are…we are eternal. We perform our duties. Darkwatch has confused her duty.”

“Darkwatch…is that the one who has joined with Rattrap?” Rhinox asked.

“Our sister is lost. It is vital that we bring her back.”

“Tell me what happened.”

Cheetor suddenly poked his head into the lab. “Hey, Rhinox? Who’re you talking to?” He stopped abruptly upon seeing the glowing apparition. For a moment he stood, stunned. Then he put his hands together, his weapon ready. “Rhinox, get away from it! It’ll get you like it did to Rattrap!”

“Cheetor, it’s all right. It’s not her,” Rhinox replied. “It’s another one. One who’s trying to help us fix this mess.”

Cheetor’s eyes went wide with disbelief. “A-another? There’s more than one?”

“Listen, why don’t you go man the coms in case Optimus calls? I need to figure out what’s happened here if I’m going to help Rattrap.”

“Uh, sure…” Cheetor trailed off. He backed out of the room.

Rhinox turned back to Polaris. “Sorry about that.”

“There is a reason why we do not show ourselves to mortals.” She faded into a dancing point of light, then disappeared entirely.

“Wait, don’t go!” Rhinox called.

“I have not gone. I simply prefer to speak only to you.”

“I understand,” Rhinox said. “Now, can you tell me what happened? Why did Darkwatch possess my friend?”

“Possess? She does not possess. Her duty is to help darkened souls find light.” It seemed as if Polaris sighed. “We warned her to stay away from Strangers, but she did not listen. She did not understand that you are different. She entered your friend’s soul to try to heal him. At that moment, I could speak to her no more. It was as if there was something keeping her from us.”

“So the instant she entered Rattrap’s ‘soul’, it was as if there was a wall between you.”

“But walls do not hold us.”

Rhinox again glanced at the monitor. Judging by the readings, this specter must have been made completely of energy. “I think I can explain why,” he said. “Our souls-or rather our Sparks-are made of energy. Once your friend entered Rattrap’s Spark, she got trapped inside. Energy might act as a wall for your kind.”

“She cannot be trapped! You must free her! Being imprisoned has changed her, and she is in danger of losing her way. Destroy the thing that holds her!”

“No!” Rhinox said. “Rattrap is my friend. I’m not going to kill him!”

“You will do what is necessary. She must be free to carry on her duties to this world. A Stranger is expendable.”

“You listen to me,” Rhinox was growing angry. “I am not going to destroy my friend to free yours! You need my help on this, or else you wouldn’t have come to me. Now we’ll find a way to do this so that they both survive, or else we don’t do it at all.”

There was a long silence as Polaris seemed to consider this.

“We have no choice. Neither of us can do this alone.”

“Good. Now what were you saying about her being changed?”

“The bonds that tie Darkwatch to this world have been severed. She cannot escape, and she cannot heal the Stranger’s darkness. It has overcome her; changed her. She may not wish to leave.”

Rhinox stroked his chin, deep in thought. “Then I’m definitely going to need your help.”

*

“You called?”

The voice from behind him sent a shiver through Megatron. “I did,” he replied, turning his chair to face Rattrap. “I would speak with you about your recent…change in personality.”

“I told you, I was tired of living under Maximal rules,” Rattrap looked straight into the Predacon leader’s eyes. “But there’s no escaping from your suspicions.”

“No, there is not. This is more than a simple decision on your part. I want to know what prompted this change.”

“Do you have to know everything all the time?”

Megatron narrowed his eyes. “It is best to keep abreast of what goes on within my own base.” He chanced a glance at the energy readings being measured on a nearby monitor. They were very high-way too high for the simple energy signature of a Maximal. Something was definitely going on here.

“What are you looking at?” Rattrap asked.

“Someone who is not what he says he is,” Megatron replied, his expression hard. “Your energy levels are much higher than that of an ordinary Maximal. You are not the rat. What are you?”

Rattrap looked confused for a moment. “We are…I am Rattrap.”

“I don’t think so,” Megatron growled. “You inhabit his body, but you are something else. A being made of energy. A powerful one.” He clenched a fist. “I would have this power.”

Rattrap laughed. “Power? You want this power?” He suddenly reached up and placed his hand on Megatron’s chest.

Megatron felt it to the core of his Spark. Emotions spinning out of control, flashing memories that were not his own, and a darkness that even he could not fathom. His eyes went wide, and he froze as if paralyzed. And then Rattrap released him. He gasped, trying to regain his senses and wits.

“What…what was that?” Megatron clutched at his chest.

“What, didn’t you like it?” Sarcasm dripped from Rattrap’s voice. “You asked for it. I gave you a taste.”

“It’s-it’s darkness. Pure darkness!”

“That’s me. No right, no wrong, I just do whatever I feel like doing. It’s very liberating.” He chuckled mirthlessly, then stopped abruptly. “You can’t share it. You can’t separate us. So don’t even try.”

He turned and left, and Megatron did not move to stop him. Left alone with his thoughts, the Predacon leader tried to make sense of what he had just experienced. In the end, he only knew one thing…that this being could be a powerful ally, but allegiances meant nothing to one who was above right and wrong. It could turn on him in an instant, on a whim. And if he could neither trust it nor control it, then there was only one choice: either it would join with him, or he would have it destroyed.

A proximity alert jarred Megatron from his thoughts. He switched on the monitor to the outside camera just in time to see it get blown away by Dinobot’s eye lasers. Turning to the scanner, he saw three Maximal energy signatures moving towards the base. The auto-defences came on-line, but they did little to slow down the approaching Maximals.

“Predacons! We are under attack! To your posts!” Megatron’s voice could be heard throughout the ship. “Do not allow them to enter!”

He jumped down from his chair, intent on finding Rattrap. The Maximals would not have this prize, even if he had to destroy it himself.

*

The Maximals were being held off at the entrance to the base by Inferno, Quickstrike and Waspinator.

“We will never get inside at this rate!” Dinobot hissed to Optimus from behind his cover.

“Keep trying! We have to get Rattrap out of there!”

The Maximals were suddenly thrown backwards as a large explosion engulfed the entrance. When the smoke cleared, the Predacons were no longer a threat. All three were damaged and unconscious.

“What was that?” Silverbolt cried.

“I don’t know,” Optimus replied, “but it’s given us the chance we need. Let’s go!”

*

Cheetor helped Rhinox work on modifications to the CR-chamber. Rhinox noticed the younger Maximal glancing at him every now and then, quite obviously unnerved by what appeared to be a one-sided conversation.

“Tell me more about your kind,” Rhinox said to Polaris.

“I should not speak to you of this…mortals should not even know of our existence.”

“I think we’re well past that now,” Rhinox smiled. “I’ve told you about Cybertron and how we came to be here. If we’re going to work together I should know a little about you as well.”

“Very well. I am Polaris, the Guide for Lost Travelers. I belong in the sky to shine the way home.”

“Like a star,” Rhinox mused. Then it suddenly hit him where he had heard the name before. Like a star. A star that guided travelers. Polaris, the North Star of Earth. “Fascinating.”

“There are many of us, each with their own duty. We do not take corporeal form and we live apart from mortals. We come into being as is necessary. Darkwatch and I are young; we only were needed when higher life began to appear on this world.” Polaris paused for a moment. When she resumed, her voice seemed colder. “I am forbidden to speak of this further. You know too much already.”

“But-”

“No more. I cannot. Let us see to our task. You must concentrate.”

Although disappointed, Rhinox realized that she was right. He focused his complete attention on his calculations. Everything had to be exact; or else it might cost Rattrap his life.

*

Rattrap’s head snapped up as he heard the alarms.

They’ve come for us. But we’re not going back there to their rules!

So what do I do?

The Predacons cannot be trusted to protect us. We fight.

Fight who?

Everyone if we have to.

Rattrap’s hand closed around his weapon as he stealthily made his way into the corridor.

*

The Maximals crept inside the base.

“Do we even know where to start looking?” Silverbolt asked.

Optimus looked at Dinobot. “You know your way around in here. Where might he be?”

Dinobot snorted. “You assume much. I have no idea where he could be. He might even be scrap by now.”

“I won’t accept that,” Optimus said. “We are going to get him out of here.”

“Shall we split up?” Silverbolt asked.

“No. Best to stay together in case we run into some opposition. But let’s stay quiet-we don’t want to attract any more attention than necessary.”

*

"…so when the direction of the energies is reversed, that should be enough to free her,” Rhinox said, and sighed. “I hope.” There was a long pause. “I wish there was another way,” he finished quietly.

Cheetor watched Rhinox out of the corner of his eye. It was frustrating enough not being allowed to hear the whole conversation, but now the grave expression on Rhinox’s face was cause for more than just curiosity.

“There won’t be much time,” Rhinox continued, still speaking to someone Cheetor could neither see nor hear. “You can guide her out, right?”

Cheetor mumbled something under his breath.

Rhinox finally looked up. “What is it?”

“You’ve been talking only to that ghost all day!” Cheetor exploded. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on? What are you gonna do to Rattrap?”

Rhinox met Cheetor’s eyes only briefly. “I’ll explain later.” His tone was abrupt, preoccupied. He turned back to the voice only he could hear. “What? No, we’ll only get one shot at this. The shock to his-”

Cheetor threw down the tool he was working with. “All right, that’s it! I’m not doing anything else until you explain what this is all about. Why are you trusting that…thing?”

“Because she’s a friend.”

“Oh, right. Is the other one a ‘friend’ too?”

“Look, Cheetor, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Everything has to be perfect.”

“Or what? Tell me what you’re going to do!”

Rhinox sighed. “All right. The other entity is trapped inside Rattrap’s Spark, being held there by its energy. The only way to free her is to reverse the flow of energy.”

Cheetor’s eyes went wide. “You mean-you mean you’re going to depolarize Rattrap’s Spark? But-”

“-Disrupting the patterns of energy could cause irreparable damage to his Spark and could even...” Rhinox trailed off. “I know.”

“This is crazy!” Cheetor cried. “You could kill him! Come up with another way!”

“This is the only way!” Rhinox raised his voice. “If there was any other, do you think I’d be risking his life?” He took a deep breath and regained his composure. “Look, I’m worried too. If anything goes wrong-”

“Wrong?!” Cheetor threw up his hands. “Has anyone ever even tried this before?” His voice was panicked. “He could die, or he could come back wrong, or-”

Rhinox grabbed Cheetor’s shoulders and looked directly into his eyes, interrupting the young bot’s distressed rant. “I know, Cheetor. Listen to me. We don’t have a lot of time. The entity is exerting more and more control, and we will lose the Rattrap we know if we don’t try.”

Cheetor looked down, nodding slightly, but his expression remained anxious and upset.

Rhinox sighed, releasing Cheetor and turning back to his work. “All I can do is make sure all my calculations are correct and hope for the best.”

“I can’t believe you’re gonna do this,” Cheetor said, his tone uncertain and scared.

“Neither can I,” Rhinox replied, shaking his head sadly.

*

Rattrap sensed a Spark nearby. Someone was lurking just around the corner, hiding in the shadows. Rattrap smirked. No one could hide from him now. He crept up to the corner and then lunged around it, shoving his blaster into the face of the surprised bot.

Tarantulas’ optic went wide for a moment, but he forced himself to remain calm. “Just who I was looking for,” he said.

This one…I don’t like this one, the voice inside Rattrap told him. “I’m everyone’s favourite around here today.” Rattrap did not lower his gun. “You know, there’s an attack outside. Shouldn’t you be helping?”

“You’re supposed to have joined Megatron. Shouldn’t you?”

“You’re the Predacon.”

Tarantulas chuckled. “I’m just here for a visit. I enjoy doing my own thing…much as you do. I’ve been watching you. You’re quite fascinating, you know.”

Rattrap stared at him, but the spider did not shrink back as the others had done. “Trying to look inside?” Tarantulas asked. “I’m afraid there’s not much to see, specter. I came prepared for this. There is a special shielding around my Spark.”

Rattrap raised an eyebrow. “What the slag are you talking about?” Confusion flashed over his features for a moment, but quickly passed.

Tarantulas showed him the small vidscreen he carried. Both of them were visible on the screen, but Rattrap’s figure was clouded by a shimmering light. “I speak to the entity inside you,” Tarantulas told him.

Rattrap narrowed his eyes. “What do you want with us?”

“Why, to bring you a warning. Megatron wants your power. When he doesn’t get it, he will destroy you.”

Rattrap laughed, the unearthly sound making Tarantulas wince. “Of course I know this! But he won’t succeed.”

“All the same, your life may be in danger here. Why don’t you come with me?” Tarantulas extended a hand. “We are two of a kind. Together we can destroy both Maximal and Predacon!”

Rattrap regarded the Predacon carefully, staring deep into his optic. “You want to control us, too. Your intentions are no different than Megatron’s.”

Tarantulas gasped as he began to feel Rattrap’s penetrating stare. “No! You can’t! This shielding should have been strong enough!” He started to back away.

“Not any more,” was the frank reply. Rattrap again leveled his gun to the spider’s forehead.

Tarantulas did the same. “You’ve become far too powerful,” he snarled. “Perhaps Megatron is right. Although it will be a pity to waste such power-and the chance to study it-you should be destroyed.”

“Run, spider. Run away, now.” Rattrap glowered at him, his expression hard and dark.

Tarantulas began to feel a cold fear creeping through him. He took another step back, futilely trying to cover his chest to protect his Spark from the prying eyes of the entity. Rattrap moved closer, and with each step Tarantulas felt the panic rise inside him.

Run!” Rattrap said suddenly.

In an instant, Tarantulas had transformed to beast mode and had vanished into the shadows.

A satisfied smile crept onto Rattrap’s face, and a maniacal laughter erupted from deep within his Spark. Even that one fears us! It’s so easy!

“Impressive,” a deep voice said from behind him.

*

“Are we lost?”

Optimus sighed. “I’ll have to admit that I have no idea where I’m going. Dinobot?”

Dinobot suddenly tensed and flattened himself against the wall of the corridor, motioning to Optimus and Silverbolt to do the same. “Someone is coming,” he hissed quietly.

The Maximals stayed absolutely still, staring apprehensively in the direction of the approaching hurried footsteps. Something came out of the shadows around the corner, moving at a fast pace. The Maximals watched as Tarantulas ran by them, appearing in so much of a hurry to leave that he did not even notice them.

Silverbolt stared after the Predacon’s retreating form. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was afraid.”

“Then we must be going in the right direction,” Optimus said.

*

“Gotcha now,” Blackarachnia muttered from a darkened side corridor. She loaded her gun with cybervenom and aimed at Optimus. “Nobody sneaks by me. I’ll take them all out before they even see it coming.” Her claw tightened around the trigger.

A moment later, she was unconscious on the floor, the dent in her head matching the one on the wall beside her.

“Nobody interferes,” growled a voice in the shadows.

*

The Maximals continued on, but other than the blaring alarms, the Predacon base seemed quiet and empty. “They must know we’re here,” Optimus remarked. “I thought that we’d have encountered more resistance by now.”

Dinobot walked beside him. “This does not feel right. Do you not wonder about the explosion that allowed us to enter so easily? You know it was not caused by us.”

“I know,” Optimus replied warily. “This could all be a trap. But if it is, what did they have to gain by taking out their own troops? I think something else is going on here.”

“Could it have been Rattrap’s doing?” Silverbolt offered. “Perhaps he is helping us.”

“I don’t know. Rattrap isn’t himself, so it’s impossible to tell whose side he might be on. We can’t draw any conclusions in this situation.” Optimus sighed resolutely. “Just keep your eyes open and be ready for anything.”

*

“It’s not just anyone who can send that spider scurrying,” Megatron continued. “I suppose I should thank you for that.”

Rattrap casually turned to face him. “Well, you know, I’m not just anyone.”

“The Maximals have come for you, you know. I believe they’re already inside.”

“So? I already said that I wasn’t going back to them.” Rattrap paused. “You have no intention of letting me return anyway.”

“No. I don’t care what happens to the Maximal, but whatever you are-you will stay with me.” Megatron took a menacing step forward.

Rattrap stared back, again appearing momentarily confused, but did not reply.

“Leave him and join with me. He’s weak. Together we can be the most powerful force on this planet!”

Rattrap shook his head in disdain. “Always wanting more, more, more. It wasn’t enough that I join your side.”

“A being such as yourself cannot be trusted. Now, there are only two choices: either join with me, or be destroyed.” Megatron powered up his weapon.

“Nothing is ever enough for you. You won’t stop until the entire universe is at your feet.”

“As well it should be,” Megatron growled. “Now what is your choice?”

“We can’t be separated. We won’t!” Rattrap threw himself to the side and fired his gun.

The discharge hit Megatron in the shoulder and he staggered back, snarling. “Then you will be destroyed!”

*

“That was weapons fire!” Optimus cried. “Hurry!”

The Maximals charged down the corridor in the direction of the distant echo.

“Let us hope that we are not too late,” Silverbolt said.

*

Rattrap fired again, but Megatron dodged it and kept on coming. The Predacon returned fire, and Rattrap was forced to leap clear, landing hard.

You must fight!

I’m tryin’! But I’m a little outgunned here!

Then I shall help.

Rattrap stared intensely at the approaching Predacon leader.

Megatron shuddered as he felt the uncomfortable sensation that the entity’s gaze provoked, but he refused to slow down. “I will not stand for your tricks any longer,” he growled. “You can’t frighten me again.”

“No?” Rattrap suddenly lunged at him, placing his hand squarely onto Megatron’s chest.

Again Megatron felt the flood of emotions and images as he experienced the dark power of the entity. “Stop,” he managed to grunt. All that power…and he realized suddenly that he could never possess it, not without losing himself. “Stop!” He roared and lashed out with one arm, sending Rattrap careening into the opposite wall.

Rattrap hit hard and slumped to the floor as his gun spun out of reach. He groaned and tried to get up, but found himself looking down the business end of Megatron’s weapon.

“You will pay for that.” Malice dripped from Megatron’s voice. “I should have destroyed you when you first arrived.”

“No!”

Megatron startled at the voice and turned slightly to see the Maximals standing behind him.

“Leave him alone, Megatron,” Optimus said. He tried to see if Rattrap was all right, but Megatron stood between him and his comrade. “He’s coming home with us.”

“I think not. This…thing…must be destroyed!”

Before the Maximals had time to react, Megatron fired. At that instant, something raced toward Rattrap, throwing itself on top of him. The blast hit the Maximal’s protector, and a cry of pain echoed through the hallway.

“Rampage!” Megatron cried. “What are you doing?”

“You won’t destroy it,” Rampage growled back, already beginning to heal the wound. “I won’t let you!”

“Insolent fool!” Megatron moved to fire again, but Rampage lurched forward and grabbed the tyrant’s arm, forcing his weapon to fire uselessly into the wall.

“How dare you!” Megatron growled as they struggled.

Rampage looked over Megatron’s shoulder to the Maximals, who stood gaping at the unlikely scene before them. “What are you waiting for? Take him!”

Optimus blinked, returning his attention to the mission. “Dinobot, go for Rattrap! We’ll keep them covered!”

“You would trust him?” Dinobot retorted.

Rampage threw Megatron down, attempting to pin him. “Don’t question! Take him and get out!”

“We don’t have time to argue, Dinobot,” Optimus ordered him. “Just go!”

Dinobot started towards Rattrap, but the possessed Maximal was already on his feet.

“You are coming back with us,” Dinobot said.

“We go where we want,” Rattrap replied. He turned his back on Dinobot and started down the corridor in the opposite direction.

“Why, you little-” Dinobot strode forward and grabbed him.

Rattrap spun around, fixing Dinobot in his gaze. “Dinobot…” he said. “You’re more interesting than most. The battle inside you is so strong. Why not just give up and embrace your darker nature?”

Stunned, Dinobot released Rattrap and took a step back, fear becoming visible on his face.

“Don’t try to bury the darkness,” Rattrap continued, his stare piercing Dinobot’s cold exterior. “Let it flow. Don’t be afraid.” The last comment was added with a smirk.

“Dinobot! What are you doing?” Optimus called. “Just take him! Let’s go!” Dinobot whirled at the sound of his voice and Optimus gasped. The raptor-bot looked petrified, something that Optimus had never seen before.

“You see!” Megatron shouted, finally managing to throw Rampage off him for a moment. “You see why it has to be destroyed! You assume much to think that you could control it yourself, Primal, even if it is to save your friend!” He powered up his weapon to maximum and took aim.

“No! No one will stop us from being what we are!” Rattrap suddenly screamed in a voice that sounded nothing like his own. “Now understand what it is you try to control!”

It hit them all like a wave, and Maximal and Predacon alike cried out in fear as the blackness seemed to enfold each one of them. They collapsed to the floor, unable to cope with the deep, unfathomable darkness that penetrated their Sparks.

*

Polaris gasped and seemed to shudder.

“What is it?” Rhinox looked up from his work.

“Something is wrong, terribly wrong! We are losing her! We could lose them all!”

“What’s happened?” Rhinox demanded, suddenly afraid for his friends.

“She has grown too powerful. She seeks to trap them all in darkness!”

“No!” Rhinox cried. “We have to do something!” He tried to raise Optimus on the comlink. The transmission was clear, but there was no answer. “Optimus! Come in! Something’s gone wrong! You have to get Rattrap back here fast!” Only ominous silence greeted him. “Oh, come on, answer!” Rhinox tried the other channels. “Dinobot! Silverbolt! Someone answer me!” Frustrated, Rhinox pounded his fist on the console. “Slag!”

“The darkness grows…”

“Isn’t there anything you can do?” Rhinox pleaded.

“There is not. It is beyond my power.”

“But there has to be something! We can’t lose our friends!”

Polaris paused. “Wait. There is one last hope…”

*

The darkness wrapped around them, covering them. Vast, impenetrable, cold, it seemed to swallow their very Sparks. It brought with it all the ills of the world; the fear, loneliness, suffering and sadness...and then the nothingness. They were drowning in it. It was almost pure, almost complete…but not quite.

Rampage stumbled to his feet. Although momentarily dazed by the force of it, this darkness would not keep him down. He was used to such feelings. They were his life. Still, he was shocked when he looked at Rattrap. The Maximal was no longer visible to him at all. Instead there was only the entity, nothing more than a black shape that seemed to swallow all light around it. The darkness was offset only by a pair of glowing red eyes.

Around him, Megatron and the Maximals were curled up on the floor, their eyes staring blankly from faces frozen in horror. Rampage cared nothing for them-why shouldn’t they all have to suffer as he had throughout his existence? But it had gone too far. If this continued, there would never be anyone to help him. He had been content to simply stay in the shadows, making sure the Maximals found the entity, without revealing his intentions. Megatron would have destroyed it, but the Maximals would try to save their friend. And in doing so, they would free the entity so that she could return to him. But they had failed. Stupid. Useless. Now he had no choice but to intervene. “You will stop this!” Rampage shouted as he walked towards her, fighting against the power of her radiating darkness.

“We answer to no one!” The voice was a banshee-like shriek. “The world will know the darkness and be free!” It looked at him, eyes blazing. “Fall! Why do you not fall?”

Rampage laughed bitterly, and the sound carried in it all the terrible sorrow of his broken soul. “Because I know this darkness.” Blindly he struck out into the shadow. His fist connected with something solid, and then everything stopped.

*

Polaris gave a sigh of relief. “He has done it.”

“What? Who?” Rhinox asked, confused.

“The dark Stranger. He has stopped her…for now. Hurry. Call your friends. Tell them to bring them back before it begins again.”

Without stopping to question what could possibly have happened, Rhinox quickly reactivated the comlink.

*

Someone was calling his name. Optimus floated back to reality, still reeling from what he had just experienced.

“Optimus, are you there? Are you all right? Come in!”

Optimus shook his head groggily. “I’m here, Rhinox.” He looked around to see all the others starting to sit up, groaning slightly. “We’re all right…I think.”

“Listen, you have to get Rattrap back here now. I can’t explain, but you have to hurry.”

It was then that Optimus noticed Rampage carrying the unconscious Rattrap towards him. “Understood. We’ll be back as soon as we can. Be ready.” He closed the channel and jumped to his feet.

“All right, Rampage, what’s going on here? What just happened?”

Rampage shoved Rattrap into Optimus’ arms. “Just take him,” he growled.

“You were the one who stopped this. You knew what was happening to him all along! How? Why?”

“Who do you think helped you get this far? It was I who removed all interference so that you could get to th-to him! Now take him and get out!”

“Why are you helping us?” Optimus demanded.

Megatron started to rise. “Rampage! What have you done?”

Rampage glanced at Megatron, then turned back to Optimus, clearly growing annoyed and angry that Optimus was still there. “This has nothing to do with you or the rat.” He advanced on the Maximal commander menacingly. “Now leave while you still can…or shall I hasten your exit?” He reached towards his gun.

Optimus stood his ground, staring back at him for a moment, then turned away. “On your feet, Maximals. We’re leaving now!”

Still shaken, Dinobot and Silverbolt stood and joined Optimus.

“No! None of you are going anywhere!” Megatron called at them. “That thing will be destroyed!”

Rampage placed himself between the raging Predacon leader and the Maximals, and looked once more at Optimus. “Move!” The snarl was not to be argued with.

The Maximals took off down the corridor. Megatron fired after them, but Rampage stepped into the line of fire, taking the blast himself. When Megatron tried to start after them, the injured crab-bot moved into the way once more.

“Step aside, Rampage,” Megatron threatened. “I’m warning you.” He reached into his compartment and pulled out the Spark Box.

Rampage’s eyes widened for a moment, but he still did not move. His expression was one of defiance.

“Very well,” Megatron said coldly. “You have cost me much today, Rampage, and you shall pay dearly for that.” He squeezed the box. “I hope it was worth it to you.”

Blue energy shimmered over Rampage and he collapsed. “It was worth…everything…” he gasped, barely audible. Then he laughed insanely. “To see you pay…soon, soon…”

Megatron growled, narrowing his eyes. “I believe it’s time for you to learn once more that your place is at my feet.”

The Predacon base echoed with howls of pain for a long time.

*

“Cheetor, are you finished re-routing the power?”

“Almost…” Cheetor tapped a few more buttons. “Okay! Got it!” He glanced up at Rhinox, his expression troubled. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Believe me, if there was any other way at all…” Rhinox sounded as worried as Cheetor felt, even though he fought to steady his voice. “But there’s no time for second-guessing. They’re coming in.”

Optimus rode the lift onto the bridge, Rattrap in his arms. “Where do you want him, Rhinox?”

Rhinox paused for a moment to look at his unconscious friend. “In that CR-chamber.”

Optimus placed Rattrap inside and closed the door, just as Silverbolt and Dinobot arrived.

Silverbolt looked over at the CR-chamber, then back at Rhinox. “Will you be able to help him?”

“I hope so,” Rhinox said, but his tone was worried.

“What’s the plan, Rhinox?” Optimus asked. “All we know is that he’s been possessed by something.”

“Another entity, a being made of energy, entered Rattrap’s Spark. Once inside, the energy of his Spark trapped her. She can’t get out, and it’s changing them both.” Rhinox barely looked up as he worked with the settings of the chamber modifications.

“How do you know all this?” Dinobot folded his arms, eyeing Rhinox with an air of suspicion.

“Because I’m getting some help.” Rhinox saw Optimus raise an eyebrow. “Look, I don’t have time to get into it now. Let’s just say we’re not the only ones who want a friend back.”

“So how are we going to separate them?”

“There was only one way that I could figure. We have to depolarize his Spark.”

“What?” Optimus cried. “But that could kill him!”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Rhinox shouted back. “There’s no choice!” He activated the internal diagnostic mode of the CR-chamber, bringing up a holo-visual of Rattrap’s Spark.

“Dear Primus,” he murmured, his eyes wide.

The other Maximals simply gaped at what they saw. Parts of Rattrap’s Spark had gone dark, a deep blackness that blotted out the normal bright blue.

“She’s bonding to him!” Rhinox said. “We have to separate them now-or we could lose Rattrap forever!”

Optimus sighed, looking around at the worried faces of his friends. “All right. How are you going to do it?”

“A sonic pulse,” Rhinox explained. “I’ve added special harmonic shielding to the chamber to keep us safe from the pulse. Once the Spark is depolarized, the entity should no longer be trapped.”

“‘Should’?” Dinobot commented.

“Well, there’s a complication. Like I said, the entity’s been changed. She might not leave on her own, and I can only leave the Spark depolarized for a limited amount of time before it becomes in danger of fragmenting.”

Optimus shook his head. “So how can we make it leave?”

We can’t,” Rhinox said. “That’s where we need some extra help.” He turned away from Optimus. “Are you ready, Polaris?”

“I am.” Polaris suddenly appeared in the room. All the Maximals except Rhinox jumped, startled by the specter’s entrance. They stared in awe, squinting slightly against the radiant light she produced.

“Told you there was a ghost,” Cheetor mumbled. “These things are, like, everywhere.”

“Now just hang on-” Optimus began. He was interrupted by a sudden pounding coming from inside the CR-chamber.

“You can’t imprison us!” Rattrap screamed, his voice muffled by the chamber walls.

“We must do this now before she regains her full senses,” Polaris told Rhinox.

Rhinox activated the shield. “All right, once I hit them with the pulse, I only have one minute maximum before I have to recalibrate the Spark. Get in and get her out of there fast.”

“I understand.” Polaris’ visible form disappeared.

“Then good luck-for all our sakes.” Rhinox heaved a sigh. “Here goes.”

He pressed the button.

*

The forces around her changed. No longer did she feel contained by the energy walls. Instead there was almost a pull to the outside. Rattrap cried out, and she realized that they were losing control of the body.

They’re trying to force us apart! She almost laughed at the thought. She would not leave, no matter what tricks the Strangers attempted. They were one now.

A light suddenly intruded on her darkness, and she turned towards it. “Polaris,” she said with a sneer.

“Come home, sister.”

“No. We like it here. Leave us!” Her red eyes blazed.

“Look at what has happened to you! You are lost, Darkwatch. I have come to show you the way home.” Polaris extended her hand. “Come, there is not much time.”

The world around them shuddered, and there was a sense of fragmenting.

The red eyes narrowed in anger. “You shall not separate us! Our bonding is nearly complete! We are one!”

“No! You do him harm by remaining!” Polaris reached out and seized her sister’s hand. “You must come with me!”

But the specter clung to the darkness, unmoving despite Polaris’ efforts to pull her out.

An evil laugh echoed around Polaris. “You fight a losing battle, Polaris! We are more powerful than you could imagine!”

*

Rhinox watched the timer nervously as it passed thirty seconds. “Come on, Polaris, come on!” He glanced up at the holo of Rattrap’s Spark, which showed more fluctuations with each passing second.

“Rhinox, you have to stop!” Optimus said. “Those fluctuations are getting dangerous. We could lose him!”

“Just give her a bit longer.” Rhinox clenched and unclenched his fists, his hand hovering over the button set to deliver the recalibrated pulse.

“What if it’s too strong? What if she can’t do it?” Cheetor blurted.

“She’ll do it!” Rhinox shouted. “She has to.”

“But what if-what if Rattrap’s already gone? What if she’s taken over completely?”

“No!” Silverbolt said. “I remember-when she unleashed the darkness upon us, it was not absolute!”

“Silverbolt’s right,” Optimus added. “I felt that too. There’s still a chance. But we’re running out of time.” He glanced over at Rhinox, whose expression was only growing more concerned as the timer continued to count up.

*

Even all her strength was not enough to pull her sister out. Indeed, Polaris was being forced into the darkness herself. The sense of fragmentation was very strong now, on the verge of pulling everything apart. And yet the thing that was once Darkwatch still would not leave. Polaris knew that she was almost out of time, but she could not let go. I am sorry, Rhinox-I am not strong enough. May the world forgive me.

“Come and join us, Polaris, and know the freedom; know the darkness that we shall bring to every creature of this world!”

“There ain’t no ‘we’.”

Startled, both entities looked up from their struggle. Rattrap stood behind the dark specter, his image slowly fragmenting. He glanced down at his hand for a moment, watching it start to come apart. When he looked up again, his jaw was set in grim determination. “Even if I’m headin’ to the Matrix, from now on this rat flies solo.” He stared directly into the glowing red eyes. “Now get out!”

With that, he threw what was left of his dissolving body against her.

*

The timer reached 55 seconds. Inside the chamber, Rattrap’s body was convulsing as his depolarized Spark threatened to tear itself apart at any moment.

“Rhinox, stop this now! You have to repolarize the Spark!” Optimus started towards the console, intending to do it himself if Rhinox would not.

Rhinox’s expression was etched with sadness. “No, just a couple more seconds, just a couple more…”

“It didn’t work! We have to repolarize before-”

A terrible piercing shriek suddenly blasted through the room. All the Maximals clapped their hands over their auditory sensors as the otherworldly sound echoed around them. Then there was a bright flash of light, leaving everyone momentarily dazed.

“We are out! Now, Rhinox!”

Rhinox never thought that he would be so happy to hear such simple words. He slammed his fist on the button. “Repolarizing now!”

For a few moments no one moved or spoke, as if the world had been paused. Then everyone began at once.

“What was that?”

“Did it work?”

“Rhinox! Is Rattrap all right?”

Rhinox checked his monitors and gave a sigh of relief. “All vitals are returning to normal. The Spark is stable again.” Now that it was over, his legs felt ready to collapse underneath him. “That was too close,” he muttered. He dropped the shields and unlocked the chamber door.

“Thank the Matrix,” Optimus said. “So it worked? They’ve been separated?”

“Look.” Rhinox pointed over Optimus’ shoulder.

The Maximals turned as one to see the transparent figures of two girls kneeling on the floor. Polaris held the other entity in her arms, gently stroking wisps of black hair from the spirit’s pale face. She looked up at Rhinox and nodded.

“It worked.” Rhinox smiled.

The door to the CR-chamber opened and Rattrap staggered out. Rhinox rushed over to steady him.

“Rattrap? How do you feel?”

Rattrap groaned, and waved his hand in front of his face. “Well, I can move myself now, and I ain’t fallin’ to pieces, so that’s good, I guess…but I feel sorta weak. Kinda like I’ve been asleep for days.”

Rhinox looked relieved as he met Polaris’ eyes. “We did it,” he said. “Thank you, Polaris.”

Polaris shook her head. “I would have failed had Rattrap himself not helped me force her out.”

“What?” Rhinox’s eyebrows shot up.

“Even as he was dying, he used his last bit of strength to make her let go. He saved us all.”

“What’s going on?” Optimus asked. “Is she speaking? What’s she saying?”

“Beats me.” Cheetor tapped his head. “I’ve been watching this kind of thing all day. She only talks to him-in his head.”

“It looks like you were right,” Rhinox told them. “The darkness wasn’t complete. Rattrap helped Polaris force her out.”

Polaris stood. “Her bonds to the Lighthouse have been re-established. Our sister is safe. Thank you, Rhinox. We must go now.”

“Will I see you again?” Rhinox asked.

“Perhaps I shall look in on you from time to time…my friend.” The corners of her mouth turned upwards into a smile.

Rhinox thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He returned the smile. “I’d like that.”

Polaris nodded, then glanced at Darkwatch. A silent exchange seemed to pass between them, and then Polaris disappeared.

Once she was gone, all eyes turned towards the other phantom, identical to Polaris in dress and appearance, but whose hair was jet-black.

Rattrap narrowed his eyes. “You,” he muttered.

“Greetings, Maximals.” Unlike Polaris, she now spoke aloud, and her lips moved as she bent the air around her to form the sound. “I am Darkwatch. I care for the souls of this world, attempting to bring light to darkness. I only wanted to help you, but I was not ready…I was not strong enough, and I lost my way. I am deeply sorry for all the harm I have caused.” She turned towards Rattrap. “Rattrap…”

Rattrap only stared back at her, icy anger written across his features.

“I know you are angry. Please understand, I only wished to help you…”

“Some help,” Rattrap retorted.

Her normally expressionless face pinched in sadness. “I cannot undo what has been done. We are a part of each other now.” A ghostly hand reached up to touch her black hair. “I now carry part of the darkness. Perhaps you will carry a part of the light.”

“Great,” Rattrap said sarcastically.

She stepped up to him. “You cannot know everything of someone without loving them. And I have known you more completely than any mortal ever will.”

Rattrap backed away from her, and this only served to amplify her grief.

“I care more for you than I ever thought possible. There are not words enough to convey how sorry I am for what I did to you. I can only hope to repay you. Perhaps I could be your guardian; help to keep you safe. There is much I might help you with. I will do anything you ask. You have but to name it.”

Rattrap stared at the floor. Silence reigned for a moment as everyone watched him, waiting for his answer. Finally he looked up, his expression hard, and stared straight into the specter’s imploring eyes. “Get out.”

Darkwatch looked as if she had been stabbed through the heart. “This-is what you want?” Her voice was like glass shattering.

“Rattrap, are you sure about this?” Rhinox asked. “Shouldn’t you at least consider it?”

Rattrap shook his head grimly.

Darkwatch extended a hand towards him. “Rattrap, please let me-”

“No. You heard me.” Rattrap refused her hand. “You said you’d do anythin’ I wanted, and this is it. Stay away from me; stay away from my friends. I don’t wanna see ya near any of us again. Ever.”

Darkwatch looked into his eyes, pleading.

“Promise me,” Rattrap ordered.

Darkwatch hung her head. “You have my promise,” she replied in a broken whisper. When she raised her head again, a deep sadness was evident even in her blank eyes. As she met Rattrap’s gaze, a single ghostly tear fell from her eye, something that her kind had never before experienced.

“Goodbye,” she said, and faded away.

*

Rhinox found Rattrap sitting on the edge of the waterfall, occasionally pitching stones down into it. He sat down beside him. “So how are you feeling?”

“All right, I guess.” Rattrap paused. “So ya really depolarized my Spark, huh?”

“There was no other way to do it,” Rhinox answered. “Sorry.”

Rattrap shrugged. “Whatever works.”

Rhinox took a deep breath and let it out. “So…you know that this wasn’t your fault, right?”

Rattrap looked up at him. “Yeah, I get that. ’Course, I don’t really remember everythin’. It’s all kinda like I was watchin’ someone else do it.”

There was a moment of silence. Rattrap pitched another stone.

“But she did teach me somethin’,” he finally said.

Rhinox raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Yeah. All this-it just goes to show what can happen if you let yourself get outta control. If you let someone else tell ya how to feel.” He looked angry for a moment as he thought about it, then sighed. “Yeah, I have a past, but I can’t pretend it don’t exist, and I can’t just get rid of it. I just gotta deal.”

Rhinox smiled. “It’s good to finally have you back.” The look in his eyes hinted that Rattrap had been missed long before his possession.

“Back to stay.” Rattrap smirked. “Just me an’ no ghosts.” He sobered. “Well, almost none.”

“Any idea if she really left anything else behind aside from what she taught you?”

“I dunno…I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s almost like there’s somethin’ still there. It ain’t anythin’ bad-but I just wish I was all me, y’know?”

“I understand,” Rhinox said. “I suppose that’s why you sent her away.”

Rattrap threw another stone. “I don’t want anyone messin’ with me like that again.”

“She could have helped us out someday,” Rhinox said.

“Coulda, but this ain’t where she belongs.”

“What do you mean?”

Rattrap sighed. “It worked both ways, y’know. I know what she is-what she’s meant to be. She was ’sposed to stay away from us. She’s got a job to do, and it ain’t to help us. This world needs her more ’n we do.”

Rhinox looked at him with a new admiration, and gave a half-smile. “Well, look at you sitting here talking about the greater good.” He chuckled.

Rattrap rolled his eyes. “Yeah, next on the program are the duty an’ sacrifice speeches. I yoinked ’em from the Boss-Monkey.”

Rhinox shook his head good-naturedly and stood up. “Well, I’m heading in. You coming?”

Rattrap rose as well. “Sure, why not. I still owe the computer a whuppin’ at poker anyway.”

As they started towards the base, Rattrap turned and took one last look towards the horizon and the setting sun. For a moment he thought he saw a shimmering tower far in the distance, but when he blinked, it had disappeared. Rattrap stared for a moment, then turned and followed his friend into the base.

*

Rampage huddled in a darkened corner. His chest ached, and he clutched at it uselessly. Megatron had made him suffer for a long time before finally allowing him to crawl away. He seethed inside at the pain and humiliation. But it had been worth it. The Maximals would free the entity, and she would return and heal him; make him whole. Then Megatron would be the one to suffer. Once he was free, he would tear Megatron apart and feed on his-

“Rampage.” The voice was as soft as a breath of air.

Startled, Rampage looked up to see the specter standing before him. He was overjoyed to see that her dress, face and eyes had returned to their normal white, but he couldn’t help but notice that her hair had darkened to black.

“I knew you would return,” he said. “Finally, you can help me.”

The apparition looked down. “No.”

Rampage gasped. “What?”

“I am deeply sorry, but I cannot-I cannot help you. I have come to tell you this.”

“No! Why?” Rampage cried. “It was the rat, wasn’t it? He’s done something to you! I can see the change! I will make him suffer for it!”

Darkwatch instinctively touched her dark hair. “It was not his fault. He did nothing. It is my punishment for intruding where I did not belong.” She sighed. “I simply cannot help your kind.”

“I don’t accept that! You could have helped me, but you went to him first! Why?”

“Please understand…”

“Join with me! Help me!” Rampage grabbed at her, but caught nothing but empty air.

Darkwatch regarded him with an expression of purest pity. “I am sorry. I wish I could help you, but it is impossible.”

Rampage roared in anguish, a terrible bellowing sound, and collapsed to the floor at her feet. “How can you do this to me? I risked everything for you! You belong with me!”

She knelt beside him, placing a ghostly hand on his face. “Unfortunate creature of darkness,” she said softly. “I can only hope that someday your soul will find peace. I wish for all the world that I could help you find it, but I cannot. Forgive me.” A tear sparkled on her cheek. “I have caused so much damage to those I would have loved the most; nearly destroying one and shattering the hopes of another. I must not repeat these mistakes.” She rose. “That is why I can never return.”

Rampage reached up to her. “Don’t go,” he moaned.

“I am sorry. Goodbye, Rampage.” And then she faded away, much as she had the first time he had seen her.

“Noooo!” Rampage howled. “Don’t go!” For a moment he entertained the brief hope that she would hear his desperation and return, but he knew that that was only an illusion. She was gone-gone forever. And he was left alone once more with his suffering.

He buried his face in his hands, despair settling in to replace his shattered dreams. He would never be whole. He had been so close, and it had been torn away from him.

His hands clenched into fists.

Torn away by the Maximal.

Finding strength through his anger, Rampage rose. The rat would pay. They would all pay for his pain.

*

Watching from the Lighthouse, Darkwatch wept.


END


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