Paranoia

By Darkwatch



"Itís down here!" Cheetor pointed towards one of the larger mountains in the range. He swooped down suddenly, causing Rattrap to tighten his grip around the Transmetal cheetahís neck.

Rattrap groaned. "Yeesh! How íbout a little warniní before ya pull the roller-coaster moves? Go back up, kiddo. We left my stomach up there and I want it back."

"Backseat driver," Cheetor muttered.

"Yeah, well, somebodyís gotta give ya lessons."

Cheetor landed and Rattrap got off his back, his legs still shaking. "Can I ride with you on the way back?" he asked Optimus, who landed next to them. "I think yer passengers have a higher survival rate."

Optimus shook his head good-naturedly. "Letís just focus on the task at hand, and weíll worry about your ride home later." He maximized and looked around. "So where is it, Cheetor?"

Cheetor transformed and led Optimus and Rattrap to a cave. "Itís in here," he said. "And just wait Ďtil you see all of it!" Cheetor started to bound ahead into the cave, but Optimus stopped him.

"We should be a little more cautious," he warned. "After all, this location is close to Predacon ground."

Cheetorís shoulders drooped. He hated taking things slowly, especially when he had made such an exciting find, but he allowed Optimus to take the lead. The three Maximals proceeded slowly into the cave, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious. The cave was narrow and dark.

"Nice place ya got here, kiddo," Rattrap commented as he switched to night vision.

"Itís worth it," Cheetor said. "Look!" He pointed to the blue glow that lit the gradually widening tunnel.

The cave opened up and the Maximals entered a larger cavern. The glow from energon lit the entire area brightly.

"Whoa," Rattrap couldnít help saying. Large energon crystals grew from the floor and the ceiling, and veins of it covered the walls. Except for the veins, it had all been converted to stable cubes.

"Told ya Iíd found a good one!" Cheetor poked Rattrap.

"Yeah, yeah," Rattrap said, giving him a little shove. "Donít let it go to yer head, kiddo."

"Well done, Cheetor," Optimus said, wondering how Megatron could have missed such a find, "but letís just get this energon and get out. We shouldnít hang around this territory any longer than necessary."

They began loading up the containers they had brought with them. The containers were soon full, but most of the energon remained.

"I think weíre going to have to make a few trips," Optimus said, wiping his brow.

Rattrap groaned as he hoisted the container onto his back. "Canít we just leave it here and come back when we need more?"

"No," Optimus replied. "We should move out as much as we can now. We donít want to take the chance of the Predacons getting a hold of such a large store of energon."

"But this is gonna take days!" Rattrap moaned. "Aw, quit whining, RT," Cheetor said. "At least you donít have to carry it back."

They lugged the containers out of the cave. Cheetor transformed to beast mode and Rattrap and Optimus fastened two of the containers to his back.

"All right, letís get this energon moved out of here," Optimus said. Cheetor fired up his jets and was about to take off when a laser blast hit the ground right next to him. He gave a yelp of surprise and looked up.

"That energon belongs to the Royalty!" Inferno yelled from up in the sky. He fired again, forcing the Maximals to scatter.

Rattrap rolled clear and drew his gun, taking aim at the ant-bot. "Oh, no, ya donít! Finders, keepers, Pred!" He fired, but Inferno managed to dodge the blast and dove at them with a wild battle cry.

"Donít let him hit the energon!" Optimus cried. He grabbed the last remaining container and jumped clear. The Maximals sought cover behind some boulders as Inferno flew low over their heads and then back up into the sky, continuing his attack. Optimus and Rattrap fired at him, but the insane Predacon flew erratically, making himself a difficult target.

"Give it up, Inferno! Youíre outnumbered!" Optimus shouted.

"Never!" Inferno screamed. "You shall all burn!" He suddenly focused his firepower on the boulder behind which Cheetor cowered, unable to transform because of the energon containers strapped to his back. The rock exploded, leaving Cheetor open to attack.

Backed up against the mountain, Cheetor was helpless. He knew that even a non-fatal hit would ignite the energon that he was carrying. "Guys, a little help?" he cried as Inferno took aim.

"You got it, kiddo!" Rattrap said. He squeezed off a shot just as Inferno began to pull the trigger. It hit Infernoís arm, causing his shot to go wide---directly into the cave.

"Oops," Rattrap gulped. "Aw, slag." A rumbling sound began inside the cave, accompanied by the hum of overloading energon.

Inferno gasped and took off. He might have been insane, but he knew what an energon explosion meant.

"Grab what you can and letís get out of here!" Optimus shouted. He transformed to flight mode and picked up his container. Rattrap hopped onto the front of Optimusí jetboard and hung on.

"Jets, maximum burn!" both Optimus and Cheetor cried. They took off, barely keeping ahead of the explosion.

*

Rhinox dropped the shields, allowing Optimus, Rattrap and Cheetor to enter. He could hear their conversation as they rode the lifts up onto the Axalonís bridge.

"Man, I canít believe you blew up the whole cave!" Cheetor said.

"I coulda just let íim shoot you, ya ingrate. Whereís yer manners? Yer Ďsposed to be thankiní me fer saviní yer tail." Rattrap punched Cheetor in the arm. "But all that energon I found...pfft! Gone!"

"Thatís enough, you two," Optimus said. "We did get quite a bit of that energon, and at least it didnít fall into Predacon hands."

"Hah!" Rattrap gloated. "Hey, now that weíve got some extra energon, I guess nobodyíll mind if I go fuel up fer a while."

"Me too!" Cheetor said, his annoyance already forgotten. "Can we?"

Optimus looked to Rhinox, who nodded. "Dinobot and Silverbolt are out on patrol, and things seem pretty quiet," Rhinox said. "I donít need the two of you for anything."

"Go ahead, then," Optimus said. "Iím going to stay here and help Rhinox with the new scanner calibrations for a bit before I fuel up. Just take what you need and put the rest into storage."

"Will do, Big-Bot!" Cheetor grabbed one of the energon containers and ran off the bridge.

"Thatís right, ya lazy furball, leave me to take two of Ďem!" Rattrap called after him. "You owe me, ya know!" With a grunt of effort, he lifted the containers and hauled them off the bridge.

Optimus and Rhinox both shook their heads wearily. "At least now weíll have some peace for a while," Optimus said. "Letís get to work on these scanners."

*

Rattrap yawned and stretched. "Good stuff," he said as he disconnected the empty energon feeder tubes. It felt so good to rest and refuel. Rattrap felt energized, almost buzzed. He pocketed a bit of energon for later and decided to go see what was going on on the bridge. As he approached the bridge, he could hear Rhinox and Optimus talking, but couldnít quite make out what they were saying.

Theyíre talkiní about me.

Rattrap stopped abruptly. Where had that thought come from? Whoa, get a hold of yourself. Theyíre your friends. Theyíre probably just discussiní the scanners, he told himself, trying to dismiss the strange thought. He arrived on the bridge just in time to catch the end of Optimusí sentence.

"...and get rid of him the moment he turns his back." Optimus said to Rhinox. Rattrapís suspicious nature had been aroused, and he could no longer ignore it. "Get rid of who?" he asked.

Optimus and Rhinox looked up from their conversation about the scanners. "What?" Rhinox asked.

"You said Ďget rid of him when he turns his backí. Get rid of who?" Rattrap repeated, becoming increasingly suspicious. Optimus and Rhinox exchanged glances. "We didnít say anything about getting rid of anybody," Optimus told him. "You must have imagined it."

Heís lyiní.

Rattrap shook his head, tying to clear it of such an irrational thought. "Uh, right, I guess." He took the piece of energon from his wrist compartment. "Hey, Rhinox, ya want some? This energon is really high-quality."

"Maybe later," Rhinox replied.

Whatsa matter? Donít trust me?

"Suit yerself," Rattrap shrugged. "Iíll just leave it here for ya." He put the small energon cube on the table and sat down at his console to play a hand or two against the computer. Behind him, Optimus and Rhinox continued their conversation.

Rattrap began his game, but in no time he was down a thousand credits. He was finding it difficult to concentrate, and realized that having Optimus and Rhinox standing behind him was making him uncomfortable. He couldnít seem to shake the feeling, and he started to turn around to convince himself that everything was fine. Just then, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Optimus was drawing his gun and aiming directly at him!

Theyíre tryiní to kill me!

Rattrap dove from his chair, rolling and drawing his own gun. Optimus and Rhinox whirled at the sound to find Rattrap crouched on the floor, his gun cocked and pointed in their direction.

"Rattrap! Whatís going on?" Optimus cried.

Rattrap blinked at the sound of Optimusí voice. He stared in disbelief. Optimus stood with his hands raised, his gun safely in its holster. Huh? Howíd he do that? I saw Ďim draw...

"Rattrap?" Optimus asked again. "Whatís wrong?"

"Uh, nuthiní," Rattrap muttered, holstering his gun. "I thought...nuthiní." He shakily got to his feet.

"Are you all right?" Optimus finally lowered his hands. "You seem a little...on edge."

Youíd be too if your friends were tryiní to kill you. "Iím fine," Rattrap said.

"Are you sure?" Rhinox asked.

"íCourse Iím sure!" Rattrap snapped. He noticed the look that passed between Optimus and Rhinox. Thereís somethiní goiní on here, I know it. "Ah, forget it. Iím outta here," he added, trying to sound calm as he turned to leave the bridge. Just as he entered the hallway, he heard Optimus and Rhinox begin speaking again. He listened a little closer.

"...canít trust a rat," Rhinox said.

Rattrap gasped and stepped back into the shadows.

"Well, if itís all set, then Iím going to refuel. See you later." Optimus told Rhinox as he left the bridge. He didnít see Rattrap hiding in the shadows as he passed him.

Rattrapís eyes narrowed as he watched Optimus walk away. I knew it! Theyíre thinkiní of gettiní rid of me! Well, nobodyís gonna off this rat. He checked his gun to make sure it was loaded. Just let Ďem try. Iíll be ready for Ďem. From now on, I donít trust nobody.

*

Cheetor awoke from his nap to find that he had absorbed the last of the energon as he slept. He disconnected and got up, feeling slightly lightheaded. "Man, that energon has some kick to it. I shouldnít have taken it all at once," he muttered. As he wandered out into the hallway, he suddenly began to get the strange feeling that there was something following him, hiding just out of his sight.

Run! Run and hide!

Cheetor whirled, suddenly afraid. Had something just moved behind him? Geez, calm down. Thereís nothing there. Still, the shadows seemed to be larger and deeper, capable of hiding something...

Itís gonna get me!

Cheetor realized that he was shaking. Although he saw nothing, the irrational feeling of fear refused to go away. Come on, get a grip. Thereís nothing to be scared of. Nothing. Repeating that thought over and over to himself, Cheetor started towards the bridge. Casting nervous glances over his shoulder, he began walking faster and faster to get away from whatever might be following him. He finally reached the bridge, where he found Rhinox sitting alone, working on the scanners.

"Hey, Rhinox, where is everybody?" Cheetor forced himself to sound cheerful, even though he still could not shake the feeling of being followed.

"The others arenít back from patrol yet, and Optimus went to fuel up," Rhinox told him. "Rattrap has disappeared somewhere. Have you seen him? He was acting strangely earlier---he thought that Optimus and I were talking about getting rid of somebody, and then he pulled his gun as if---"

"Did you see that?" Cheetor suddenly interrupted, looking behind him.

Rhinox looked around, but saw nothing. "See what?"

Cheetor stared at a shadowy corner of the bridge. "I thought I saw something move. I guess it was nothing."

Rhinox noticed that Cheetor still did not pull his gaze away from the corner. "Cheetor, is everything all right?"

Itís hiding, hiding in the shadows, just waiting...Gotta get out of here, run, hide so it wonít find me!

Cheetor blinked, tearing his eyes away from the shadows. "Huh? Oh yeah, sure," he said, not wanting to admit that he was afraid of...what? Monsters? Things that wait in the dark to pounce? Ridiculous. And yet...

Something growled, a low, guttural, terrifying sound.

Cheetorís head snapped up, and he looked around wildly, his eyes wide with fear. "What was that noise?" he gasped.

"I didn't hear anything," Rhinox replied.

Cheetor seemed to not hear Rhinoxís response. "Itís coming," he whispered, more to himself than to Rhinox.

Rhinox quickly ran a scan of the bridge and surrounding corridors, but found nothing out of the ordinary. "What are you talking about? Thereís nothing here."

The growl came again, sounding closer this time.

Itís gonna get me! Run run run!

"That canít be! Itís almost here! We have to get out!" Cheetor said, his tone urgent.

Rhinox went over to him. "Cheetor, whatís wrong with you? Listen to me! There's nothing here!"

"Why wonít you believe me?" Cheetor said angrily. "Nobody ever listens to me!"

"That's not true!" Rhinox protested. He placed a hand on Cheetorís shoulder, hoping to calm him. "But youíre---"

Rhinoxís voice suddenly seemed to change to a low growl. "---mine now. There is no escape."

Itís here! Iíve gotta get away!

Cheetor gasped and suddenly twisted away from Rhinoxís hand, throwing himself backward with such force that he fell.

Rhinox automatically extended his hand to help Cheetor up. "Are you all right?"

Cheetor shrank back. "Get away from me! Youíre not Rhinox!" He pulled himself to his feet and ran from the bridge.

"Cheetor, come back!" Rhinox called after him, but Cheetor was already out of sight. Rhinox shook his head slowly. What was going on here? What was Cheetor so afraid of? He was acting as if he thought that something was something was out to get him...

Rhinox gasped as he realized that both Rattrap and Cheetor seemed to be exhibiting similar strange behaviour. He rushed to the console to call Optimus.

*

Optimus awoke to the sound of Rhinoxís voice in his comlink. He sat up, groggy from being suddenly forced out of sleep. "What is it, Rhinox?"

"Youíd better get up to the bridge. Thereís something strange going on around here. I think that Rattrap and Cheetor may have been affected by something." Rhinox sounded worried.

"Iíll be right there." Optimus disconnected his energon feed, noticing that he had absorbed it all, even in the short time he had been asleep. For a moment he wondered how that could have happened, but the thought was soon forgotten as he made his way to the bridge.

*

Just out of sight around a corner, Rattrap watched Optimus head towards the bridge. He took aim at the Maximal commanderís head as Optimus walked away. Gotta get him first. Destroy him before he destroys me.

Rattrap was just starting to squeeze the trigger when it began. A pressing exhaustion suddenly hit him, going straight to the core of his being. He felt weak, completely out of energy. How could I have run out of energy so fast? That thought was forced from his head as the hunger started. Rattrap lowered his gun, unable for the moment to think of anything else except his need for energy. He began making his way to the energon storage hold. Need more, I gotta have more!

*

Rhinox explained to Optimus what had happened. "Cheetorís acting as if he thinks something is chasing him. He may be hallucinating, but I have no idea what could possibly be causing it. And Rattrap...well, I think we need to find him, and fast. If he thinks weíre all out to get him, then he could get dangerous." Rhinox looked up at Optimus and realized that the Maximal commander was looking around the room.

"Optimus, are you listening?" Rhinox asked.

"Ssshhh!" Optimus suddenly said. "Do you hear that?"

Rhinox listened, but heard nothing. "Hear what?"

"That! There it goes again!" Optimus said in a hushed voice.

"Optimus, thereís nothing there."

"There is! I can hear them. Theyíre here!"

"Whoís here?" Rhinox asked cautiously.

"Predacons!" Optimus said, drawing his gun. "Theyíre here, inside the base! Theyíre moving around inside the walls!"

Rhinox gasped. "Oh no," he groaned. "Optimus, not you too!"

"Quiet!" Optimus ordered. "And get down! They could attack at any moment!"

Rhinox didnít budge. "Optimus, listen to me carefully. Something is affecting you, just like Rattrap and ---"

"There!" Optimus said, aiming his gun at one of the consoles. He had obviously not heard a word that Rhinox had just said.

Rhinox placed himself between Optimus and the console. "Optimus, no!"

"Rhinox, get out of the way!" Optimus shouted. "The Predacons---"

"---arenít here!" Rhinox interrupted. "Nothingís here! And Iím not going to let you destroy the bridge to satisfy your paranoia. Now, give me the gun, and let me find out whatís really going on around here."

Optimusí expression darkened. "Why are you so anxious to protect Predacons?"

Rhinox shook his head. "Iím only trying to---"

"Maybe itís because you are a Predacon," Optimus growled. He raised his gun, aiming it at Rhinoxís chest.

Rhinox gasped. "Whoa, there," he said, putting up his hands in surrender and taking a step back.

"You were a Predacon once," Optimus continued. "How do we know that you ever completely changed back?"

"Now, hold on," Rhinox said, trying to remain calm. "Iím no Pred. Optimus, this is the paranoia talking. You need help." Rhinoxís mind raced, looking for some way out of this situation that would not result in something or someone being destroyed. He searched for an opening.

Optimus still did not lower his weapon. "If youíre really one of us, then stand aside. I know the Predacons are here; I can hear them. I have to stop them before they take over the base!"

Rhinox stood his ground, knowing that Optimus could very well destroy the entire bridge trying to get at the imaginary Predacons.

Optimus narrowed his eyes. "Just as I thought---Predacon. Well, you arenít getting this ship if I have anything to say about it." He began to squeeze the trigger, but was suddenly distracted when he heard movement off to his left.

Rhinox realized that Optimus was reacting to another auditory hallucination and decided to take advantage of the opening. He leapt forward, making a grab for Optimusí gun. However, Optimusí somewhat altered state of mind had only served to heighten his reflexes. He saw Rhinox lunge towards him and, believing he was being attacked, Optimus fired.

The shot hit Rhinox in the arm, but he ignored the pain, focusing completely on stopping Optimus. The two of them struggled for the gun, and Rhinox finally managed to wrest it away. They both slowly got to their feet and stood staring at each other. Rhinox kept the gun trained on Optimus. He had no intention of firing, but he hoped that it would at least keep Optimus from trying anything.

"Optimus, let me help you," Rhinox said. "Thereís something wrong with you and the others. Whatever youíre seeing and hearing, itís not real!"

"I trusted you," Optimus said angrily, trying to sound forceful through his fear. His eyes darted around the room, following the sound of footsteps inside the walls. "Surrounded..." he murmured aloud. He heard a deep, evil laugh echoed through the room. Megatron!

Optimus was about to draw his maces, when he suddenly began to feel weak. It was as if he had used up almost all his energy. Knowing he would not have a chance against Megatron in this state, he ran from the bridge. I need more energonÖ

Rhinox released the deep breath he didnít even know he had been holding and lowered the gun. Sparks flew from his injured arm, and it was only then that he realized the damage. His upper arm had been partly blown away; its circuitry and wiring exposed. Mech fluid leaked down his arm. His internal computer informed him that repairs were necessary.

Rhinox groaned. "I know, I know," he said to the computer, "but I donít have time for that."

He activated the comlink. "All field units, respond."

"This is Dinobot," came the reply.

"What is it, Rhinox?" Silverbolt asked.

"We have a problem here," Rhinox told him. "Something has affected Optimus, Rattrap and Cheetor."

"What is wrong with them?" Silverbolt sounded worried.

"I donít know yet," Rhinox answered. "Theyíre all acting paranoid, as if they believe that something is out to get them. It could be a virus."

"We shall return to base at once!" Dinobot said.

"Negative! I havenít had any time to figure this out. Whatever this thing is, it could be contagious. I may already have been exposed." Rhinox sighed, hoping to Primus that it wasnít true. "The base is under quarantine until further notice. You are not to return until I give the word."

"Who are you to command me?" Dinobot snarled.

"This is for everyoneís safety, Dinobot," Rhinox told him. "I donít want anyone else getting infected. Stay away from the base. Iím going to activate Sentinel just in case, and then try to stop the others."

"We cannot leave you there alone!" Silverbolt said.

"Thereís no choice," Rhinox replied. "Iíll let you know as soon as I have anything new. Rhinox out." He ended the transmission before Dinobot could protest any further. Rhinox had the feeling that Dinobot and Silverbolt would return anyway, and hoped that they would obey his command and not enter the base until he knew exactly what was going on. He activated Sentinel so they would at least be safe from outside attack.

Having done that, Rhinox sat back for a moment to ponder his situation. He was injured and alone, facing three armed Maximals who viewed him as an enemy. He had just locked out the only ones who could help him. On top of all that, he didn't even know what was wrong with his friends or, for that matter, if he had been affected as well. Rhinox didnít feel any different, and an internal diagnostic yielded nothing but damage reports on his injured arm.

"So I donít think Iíve been affected," he muttered to himself. He glanced over at the restoration chamber, knowing that that was the only way to know for sure. Unfortunately, he didnít have time to go through a repair cycle. Rhinox knew very well that his three friends could run into each other at some point. In their present state, that would mean disaster.

I have to get to them before that happens, Rhinox told himself. But then what? How would he stop them and get them to the CR-chamber? If only he knew what was wrong with them, then he might be able to help them fight it. Rhinox knew that he had to think quickly. Every second counted.

*

His gun at the ready, Rattrap peeked around the corner. Seeing no one, he slipped into the hallway and opened the door to the energon storage hold. Once inside, he shut the door and leaned against it, allowing himself a moment of rest. Primus, he was exhausted! He needed more energon to keep going; to keep ahead of his so-called friends. Rattrap figured that they were all in this together, all against him. At first, he had almost found it hard to believe that his friends were trying to get rid of him, but what he had heard had convinced him. Now he couldnít believe that he had ever trusted them; especially Rhinox, who he had considered to be his best friend. Well, all that was history now. Survival was the top priority, and he wouldnít hesitate to take out anyone who got in his way.

Rattrap connected his feeder tubes to one of the energon cubes. The energy flowed through him and Rattrap gave a sigh of relief and satisfaction. It felt even better than the last time. Rattrap felt as if he had more energy and strength than he had had before.

"Man, I love this stuff," Rattrap muttered to himself. He pocketed as much as he could carry. "This oughta keep me goiní." He suddenly got the sneaking feeling that the others would try to take this energon. If they got any, it would mean that much less for him. And he needed this energon to keep going now. Itís mine, all mine! I need it all!

But how to stop the others from getting any? The only surefire way was to take them all out. However, that would be difficult. They were all against him, and he was outnumbered. He might not be able to dispatch them all, at least not without causing himself some damage. Rattrapís thoughts raced as he began to form a plan. He would make sure his ex-friends didn't get to him or this energon---and he would make them regret ever even thinking that they could get rid of him.

*

Rhinox was frustrated. What had the others been exposed to? They had all gone to mine the energon, and had reported the battle with Inferno and the destruction of the cave. It couldnít have been energon contamination from the explosion because they had all seemed fine upon their return to the base. None of them had been hit with anything; not that Inferno had the brains to conceive of anything beyond his flame.

Rhinox sat down wearily, knowing full well that the longer he sat there, the more chance there was that his friends would run into each other. He slammed his fist down on the table in frustration and something clattered to the floor. Rhinox peered under the table to see what had fallen and saw the energon cube that Rattrap had left for him.

Energon...

Of course! The energon itself! Rhinox slapped his forehead, wondering how he could not have seen it earlier. The other three had all fueled up with the energon that they had brought home. Rhinox had not yet done so, so he had not been exposed to whatever was wrong with the energon. He snatched the crystal from the floor and set it in the scanner.

"Computer, scan energon for possible impurities."

"Impurity detected. Unknown compound has been introduced into the crystal structure."

"Scan database for closest possible match to unknown compound," Rhinox instructed.

Data flashed across the screen faster than the eye could follow before finally coming to rest on the image of a plant. Rhinox called up the specs on the plant. He had documented that particular plant a few weeks ago. It appeared to contain a mild hallucinogenic compound.

Rhinox gasped. Such a compound could not have been introduced into the energon naturally. Now that Rhinox knew what he was looking for, a quick scan revealed that the compound had been slightly altered to enhance its hallucinogenic capabilities. The alterations had enabled it to be easily bonded into the crystal structure of the energon, as well as adding some new qualities that the computer could not identify.

So it had all been a trap. They had been meant to find the energon, and to bring at least some of it back for consumption. Rhinox knew that Megatron had to be behind all this. That meant that they were all in even greater danger than he had thought. Megatron would be expecting them all to have refueled on this energon, and would know that they would be in no condition to defend the base.

Rhinox had to get through to Dinobot and Silverbolt right away. He was certain now that exposure to this compound only occurred through the consumption of the energon, so they should all be safe. He activated the comlink and was just about to speak when the Axalonís power died.

*

Rattrap folded his arms in satisfaction as he stepped back and admired his handiwork. The cut wires dangled from the power box. In the dark, the advantage would be his, and they wouldnít be able to use Sentinel against him. Now, to go back and make sure that nobody took his energon.

*

"Slag!" Rhinox groaned as he suddenly found himself standing in almost complete darkness. One by one, all the computer screens went black. Everything became eerily quiet, save for the hum of the small emergency lights. Rhinox tried the comlink, but without the power, it would not function. His own personal comlink had been damaged along with his arm. He was alone. And worse yet, the shields were down. If an attack came now, they were utterly defenseless.

"Sentinel, on-line!" Rhinox commanded, but the computer gave no response. Rhinox set to work, attempting to divert all the available emergency power to the defense grid just in case. Unfortunately, even the emergency power had suffered a major loss. Sentinel had gone completely off-line, and no matter how hard he tried, Rhinox could not access the grid at all. There didnít seem to be enough power to get the grid on-line, nor was there enough to punch through the energon interference and contact Dinobot and Silverbolt for help.

Rhinox knew he had no choice now but to find the others himself and get the power back on as soon as possible. He wished he could ask the computer to locate the others, but that was impossible now. He would have to seek them out himself and get them cured. Rhinox knew that the CR-chamber could purge this contamination from the Maximalsí systems, but the chamber needed power as well. He managed to draw just enough power from the generator to get the CR-chamber on-line, but it cost him everything that the emergency generator was providingÖand that meant that nothing in the base was going to work, including the lifts, doors and lights.

Rhinox fed the information on the altered compound into the CR-chamber to make sure that the computer knew exactly what to look for. He stared at the chamber for a moment, wishing that he could get inside it right then and repair his damaged arm, but he couldnít afford to waste any time or power on himself. Heaving a great sigh, Rhinox grabbed his portable system repair kit and turned to leave the bridge. He drew his weapon just in case. I hope I donít have to use this, he thought as he entered the dark corridor leading away from the bridge.

But where to start looking for the others? Rhinox knew that someone had to have been near one of the power control boxes, but he guessed that none of them would sit still long enough for him to catch them. This was going to be quite a chase.

Rhinox moved as quietly as he could through the hallway, listening for any sound that might give someone away. He stopped in front of Cheetorís quarters. The door was closed, but Rhinox was sure he had heard something. He carefully slid the door open and gasped as he looked around him.

Even through the darkness, Rhinox could see that Cheetorís quarters were in a shambles. Everything had been overturned and all drawers and cupboards were open. The posters had been ripped off the walls. Cheetorís bed was standing on its side in the far corner of the room. For a moment Rhinox was stunned, thinking that he was too late; that one of the others had gotten to Cheetor first and destroyed him. But then he heard another sound coming from behind the overturned bed.

"Cheetor?" Rhinox asked softly. He was about to take a step forward when a blast of green laser fire suddenly emanated from behind the bed. Rhinox threw himself backward to dodge it and slammed his damaged arm against the wall. Cursing under his breath, he ducked around the corner out into the hallway.

"Get away from me!" Cheetor cried from his hiding place. "I know youíre there, youíve just been waiting for this chance to get me!" His voice faltered, sounding as if he was exhausted.

"Cheetor, itís me, Rhinox!" Rhinox called from behind the door. "Itís all right! I wonít hurt you! Come with me now and weíll get your system repaired!"

"Liar! You just want me out in the open so you can get me!" More laser fire.

Safely in the hall, Rhinox waited for Cheetor to calm down a little. Eventually the blasts began to peter out and finally stopped. Rhinox cautiously stepped into the room. He realized now that it had been Cheetor who had ransacked his own quarters, searching for some imaginary hidden terror. Rhinox stepped around the mess on the floor.

"Cheetor? Are you all right?" he asked. There was no response. Rhinox continued slowly until he was opposite the bed. Taking a deep breath, he looked around it. Cheetor lay curled up in the corner, shaking. He hardly looked up when he noticed Rhinox standing over him. "Get away," he said weakly, seemingly unable to continue the fight.

"Itís going to be all right," Rhinox said. "Iím here to help you. I have to get you to a CR-chamber. Come on."

"I need more energonÖ" Cheetor murmured, so softly that Rhinox almost didnít hear it. "I canít keep going. I need some."

"No, Cheetor," Rhinox told him. "You canít have any more of that energon. Itís contaminated."

"You donít understand," Cheetor continued. "Iím almost out of strengthÖI need some or Iíll die!"

Rhinox opened his repair kit and used the portable scanner to see if Cheetor was indeed nearly out of energon, wondering if this contamination also involved a bit of the energon-discharge virus that he had once fought. But Cheetorís energon reserves were still mostly full. He did not need any more. Rhinox realized that one of the alterations of the compound must have produced a simulated need for more energon. He gasped. An addiction...

"Come on, Cheetor," Rhinox said, pulling Cheetor to his feet. "Iíll get you to the CR-chamber."

Cheetor weakly tried to pull away. "No...If I donít hide, those things will find me! How do I know youíre not one of them?"

"Nothingís going to get you," Rhinox assured him. "Iím only here to help you. Just stay with me and youíll be safe."

Cheetor felt too drained to argue any further, but it did not stop him from being afraid. All around him, he heard unearthly growls. The ship was dark, and the darkness could be hiding anything. And although his memory was a bit fuzzy, he thought he remembered that the growling, threatening voice had come from Rhinox.

"Trust me," Rhinox said.

The voice was gentle, not growling at all, and Cheetor felt himself relax a bit. He decided to go with Rhinox. Besides, in his weakened state, he had no choice. "Will you get me some energon?" he asked.

"Iíll do better than that," Rhinox replied. He helped Cheetor up, supporting the younger Maximal, and together they exited the room. As they walked quietly and cautiously towards the bridge, Cheetor cowered against Rhinox, still shaking. He did not say anything, but Rhinox knew that he was still hearing things. He realized that Cheetor had wanted more energon, but had been too afraid to leave his hiding spot to go get some. He also noticed that Cheetor had willingly decided to go with him, when earlier he had been just as terrified of Rhinox as he had been of his imaginary monsters. Rhinox hoped that this meant that the effect of the contaminated energon was wearing off. However, he didnít entertain any hopes that Optimus and especially Rattrap would be starting to come out of it. He remembered how Optimus had suddenly seemed to lose strength during their standoff on the bridge and figured that Rattrap must have experienced a similar feeling. He also knew that they would probably have gotten to the energon by now and had more. There was no doubt about it in Rattrapís case. After all, he had been the first one affected by the contamination and would therefore have been the first one to want more. And nothing stopped Rattrap from getting what he wanted.

Rhinox and Cheetor made it to the bridge without incident. By this time, Cheetor was leaning heavily against Rhinox, almost ready to collapse. Rhinox placed the young Maximal inside the CR-chamber. Cheetor clung to him, still afraid.

"Donít leave me here all alone," he whimpered. "Those things are still out there."

"Youíll be safe in here," Rhinox said. "And when you get out, those Ďthingsí will be gone." He pulled away from Cheetor. "I have to go help the others."

Rhinox shut the door and activated the chamber. "I hope this works," he muttered to himself. Unfortunately, he didnít have time to stick around and see if it did. A weakened, frightened Cheetor had been the least of his problems. Now he had to deal with Optimus, who thought that he was a Predacon, and a fully charged and dangerous Rattrap, whose foremost thought would be survival at all costs.

Rhinox took a deep breath and headed back into the corridor in search of his comrades.

*

Dinobot and Silverbolt arrived back at the Axalon. Dinobot attempted to contact Rhinox.

"Rhinox, what is the situation?" he demanded. He was met with only static. "Something is wrong," Silverbolt said ominously.

They both stood silently for a few moments before Dinobot maximized, looking as if he intended to enter the base.

"You know we canít go in," Silverbolt told him. "Rhinox said that the base was under quarantine until we heard from him again."

Dinobot growled. "Rhinox also said that he would activate Sentinel, but it is not functioning. The base has powered down. And he is not responding." "Thatís odd," Silverbolt agreed. "But we are still under orders to stay out of the base."

"Orders!" Dinobot snorted. "Rhinox is not the commander of the Maximals." He started towards the base. "I want to know what is going on in there." Silverbolt stepped into his path. "Rhinox said it wasnít safe in there! We could be exposed to something, and then there would be nobody left to guard the base. We must wait for Rhinoxís signal!"

"And if something has happened to him as well?" Dinobot asked. Silverbolt sighed. "We should give him a chance first. We canít risk all of us becoming incapacitated."

"Very well. But if we are not contacted in one megacycle, then I am going in, to the Inferno with Rhinoxís orders." Dinobot transformed back to beast mode.

"Agreed," Silverbolt said. "I do not like this any more than you do."

Dinobot looked around warily. "We are targets out here."

Silverbolt didnít answer, but he hoped Dinobot was wrong.

*

Optimus staggered through the darkened hallways. He needed more energon and he needed it now. He felt as if he would die if he did not get some soon. And all the while the sounds inside the walls seemed to follow him. Without more energy, he would be at the mercy of the Predacons that had already infiltrated the base. He was almost ready to collapse by the time he finally made it to the energon storage hold. With the power off, the door would not open automatically. Optimus had to force it open, pushing himself to utter exhaustion.

Once inside, he grabbed an energon cube and hooked his feeder tubes to it. "Ahhh," he sighed as he felt the energy flow through him. He soaked it up, thinking that he could use all the energon in the room and it still would not be enough to satisfy him. He did not know that his energon capacitors were nearly to the point of overloading.

"Oh, no, ya donít," a voice suddenly said from the doorway. "That energon's mine!" Rattrap aimed his gun at Optimus.

"Rattrap!" Optimus said, noticing the gun. "Whose side are you on?"

"My own," Rattrap replied. "Now disconnect if ya know whatís good for ya." "Youíre working for them," Optimus said angrily.

"Oh, is that why you're tryiní to kill me, Boss-monkey?" Rattrap asked sarcastically. He cocked his gun.

Optimus disconnected himself from the energon. "You wonít get this energon," he warned. "You canít fire in here, you could blow the whole place."

"Izzat so?" Rattrap smirked. "Then why donít we just take it outside?"

Optimus narrowed his eyes. "Fine by me, Predacon."

They slowly exited the storage hold, eyeing each other. They had not gotten far before Rattrap suddenly lunged at Optimus. Optimus dodged and rolled away as Rattrap squeezed off a shot, forcing him to take cover around a corner.

*

The sound of laser fire echoing through the base caused Rhinox to break into a run. He knew what it meant---that Optimus and Rattrap had found each other. He hoped he would not be too late. Unfortunately, there were several doors in his way, and he had to open each one manually. His damaged arm sparked as he strained, but he tried to ignore the pain.

He finally came upon the battle. Optimus, showing some signs of battle damage, had taken cover, while Rattrap, a little ways down the corridor, was hidden behind a broken door.

"Ya thought youíd just be able to get rid of me?" Rattrap yelled, firing off another round.

Rhinox knew he had to stop this before someone was seriously damaged. He ran towards them, making sure that he was in plain sight of both of them. "Stop it!" he shouted.

Rattrap and Optimus both gasped, each thinking that Rhinoxís arrival meant that he was outnumbered. Rattrap opted to take off down the opposite corridor and had soon disappeared into the darkness. Optimus stood to face Rhinox.

"You again," he glowered. "Where are the rest of the Predacons? Show yourselves!" he called out to the darkness.

Rhinox realized that Optimus must have just refueled, intensifying his paranoia. Optimus drew his maces, but Rhinox tried not to react.

"Get out," Optimus ordered. "Tell Megatron heís not winning today."

Rhinox shook his head slowly. "Iím not a Predacon, Optimus. Listen to yourself! Itís me, Rhinox! Youíve ingested contaminated energon. Come on, I have to get you to the CR-chamber."

Optimusí mind raced. He had to lead the Predacons away from the energon while he had the chance. "You want me? Then come and get me," he said, transforming to beast mode. He flew off down the corridor.

"Optimus, wait!" Rhinox called after him. He gave chase, following Optimus through the winding corridors. If a closed door was in his way, Optimus simply hit it at full force and blasted right through it. Rhinox knew that Optimus was leading him away from the energon. He wasnít using his full speed, so he was expecting Rhinox to follow him. Rhinox realized that he was at a distinctive disadvantage, but he could not give up. He had to get Optimus into the CR-chamber somehow.

They were almost at the bridge by the time Optimus felt that he was far enough away from the energon. He maximized and stood his ground as Rhinox caught up to him.

"Letís finish this," Optimus said.

"Optimus, we donít have to do this! Just listen to me!" Optimus started towards him. Rhinox had no choice but to draw his weapon for his own safety, hoping it would keep Optimus at bay. He did not want to have to fire it.

"Are you going to shoot me, Rhinox?" Optimus asked.

"If I have to," Rhinox replied. "One way or another, you have to get to the CR-chamber."

Optimus folded his arms in defiance. "You said youíre not a Predacon. Prove it. Put the gun away."

Rhinox wanted the chance to prove to Optimus that he was still on his side, but he also couldnít trust the Maximal commander when he was in this state of mind. He knew that if he put the gun down and Optimus tried anything, he would probably not be able to stop him. Although slightly damaged, Optimus was at full power and in better fighting condition.

Rhinox hesitated a moment, and Optimus seized the opportunity. He drew his mace and hurled it, hitting Rhinoxís damaged arm. Rhinox cried out in pain and fell backwards, dropping his weapon. Optimus leaped forward and grabbed the chaingun, leaving Rhinox helpless on the floor and at his mercy.

"Optimus, donít..." Rhinox began.

"You traitor," Optimus said angrily. "I was a fool to trust you all this time." He aimed the gun at Rhinox, preparing to fire point-blank. "Give this message to Megatron. I wonít go down without a fight."

"No!" a voice cried from behind them. A bolt of green laser fire suddenly shot out of the darkness. As Optimus turned, the blast hit him in the side and knocked him against the wall. He slid to the floor, unconscious and sparking from his wound.

Rhinox looked up. "Cheetor!" he cried.

Cheetor ran up to them and stared at Optimusí fallen body. "Oh, no. Oh, man. Whatíd I do? Iím sorry, Big-Bot!"

"You did what you had to," Rhinox told him, getting slowly to his feet. "Heís not himself." He checked Optimus. "Heíll be okay."

Rhinox stared at Cheetor for a moment. "Youíre all right now?" he asked.

"Yeah, the repair cycle actually didnít take very long," Cheetor said. He looked down. "But I remember what I did. Man, am I ever embarrassed...Iím really sorry, Rhinox."

"It wasnít your fault," Rhinox told him. "It happened to all three of you. And Rattrap is still out there. Can you get Optimus to the CR-chamber? I have to go find Rattrap and get the power back on."

"Yeah, sure," Cheetor replied, still shaking over what he had just done. "But are you sure you want to go alone?" He stared pointedly at Rhinoxís injured arm.

"No choice. Thereís no time to waste. You have to get Optimus repaired." Rhinox flexed his arm and winced. "Iíll be all right. I need you on the bridge when the power comes back on, in case thereís a problem."

Cheetor nodded, but his expression remained one of worry. "I donít like this," he said. With a grunt of effort, he began pulling Optimus towards the bridge. "Neither do I," Rhinox muttered as he set off in search of Rattrap.

*

Dinobot tapped his claws on the ground impatiently. Darkness was falling. It had been almost a megacycle now and he did not want to wait any longer. He tried to contact Rhinox again, but failed to get through.

"It has been nearly a megacycle and nothing has changed," he told Silverbolt. "The power is still out and Rhinox still does not respond. We must go in now!"

"I agree," Silverbolt said. He started towards the base but stopped suddenly as he caught wind of a scent...a scent of evil.

"There are Predacons near!" Silverbolt maximized and looked around, trying to locate the source of the scent.

Dinobot transformed as well, drawing his weapons. He could not see anyone at first, but then his gaze fell on something glinting in the light of the setting sun. Something was hidden behind the boulders a couple of hundred meters away. "There!" Dinobot hissed, pointing it out to Silverbolt.

"No, there!" Silverbolt said, gesturing towards a completely different boulder. There was obviously more than one Predacon out there, waiting to attack.

"If the Predacons attack now..." Dinobot trailed off. He cast a glance back at the base, hoping that by some miracle the shields were back up, but the Axalon remained dark and lifeless.

No power. No shields. No auto-defenses. And, quite possibly, no comrades. The base was utterly helpless. A couple of well-placed missiles could destroy the whole thing. Dinobot knew that if that happened, the Beast Wars would be over.

Dinobot turned back to Silverbolt, his expression one of grim determination. "We will have to defend the base ourselves," he growled.

"But the Axalon is too vulnerable," Silverbolt said. "Any stray missile..."

Dinobot narrowed his eyes. "Then we will have to take the battle to the Predacons while we still have the element of surprise."

Silverbolt looked towards the horizon, noting that the sun was nearly down. "They are undoubtedly waiting for dark to begin their attack. We must hurry."

Dinobot gave a short nod and the two Maximals split up, staying low to the ground and circling wide. The Axalonís shadow cloaked them in darkness as Dinobot and Silverbolt carefully made their way towards the Predacons. Dinobot crept up behind a boulder, setting Tarantulas in his sights. Silverbolt readied his wing missiles and aimed for Quickstrike. The rest of the Predacons were still hidden from view, but Dinobot knew that an attack would draw them out. He and Silverbolt glanced at each other, each fully aware of how outnumbered they were and what the consequences of this battle might be.

With a smirk, Dinobot picked up a small stone and threw it at Tarantulas. It hit the spider-bot in the head and he whirled, annoyed. He barely had time to gasp before a burst of green laser fire struck him in the chest, slamming him backwards into the boulder he had been using for cover. Tarantulas crumpled to the ground, off-line.

Quickstrike turned toward the sound. "Hey! What in tarnation---" His eyes widened as he saw the missile heading straight for him. He dove to the ground, dodging just in time as the giant boulder behind him exploded.

"Hah!" Quickstrike shouted. "Missed me, ya---" He never saw the large chunk of rock that had been hurtled into the air by the explosion. The surprised fuzor was flattened mid-sentence.

"Two down," Silverbolt said triumphantly.

Dinobot did not share Silverboltís attitude. "We are still outnumbered and the base is still defenseless. We have only just begun." But the plan had worked--- they had gotten the Predaconsí attention. Dinobot and Silverbolt dove for cover as the remaining Predacons unleashed a barrage of firepower on their position. They reciprocated and the battle began.

*

Megatron growled. "It appears that not all the Maximals partook of my Ďnew and improvedí energon." He chanced a quick look to survey the situation and narrowly missed having his head taken off by one of Silverboltís missiles.

"Thereís only two of them," Blackarachnia informed Megatron from her position behind a neighbouring boulder, "but theyíve already taken out Tarantulas and Quickstrike."

Megatron shot her an I-knew-that look. "Yes, the rest of the Maximals are no doubt cowering under their beds, afraid of their own hallucinations." Megatron chuckled to himself as he imagined the scene, but he was still annoyed that these two Maximals had anticipated his attack. There were no power readings emanating from the Maximal base, suggesting that the shields and everything else were off-line. One well-placed shot would have ended it all. But now he was cut off from destroying the base as planned.

Megatron blasted a shot towards the hidden Maximals. "Keep firing!" he shouted to his minions. "Force them back! We have only to dispatch these two Maximals and destroy the base, and it will all be over!"

*

Dinobot and Silverbolt found themselves under a continuous bombardment of laser and missile fire. They were forced to retreat as part of their cover was blown away.

Silverbolt looked behind him. "Weíre being forced towards the base!" He and Dinobot both knew that if they retreated much farther, they would no longer be able to protect the base. However, they also knew that they couldnít give up. If Rhinox failed to get the power back on-line, they were the Maximalsí last hope.

"We must hold our position for as long as possible!" Dinobot told him. "If we must fight to the bitter end defending our base, so be it!" His eye-lasers lit up, and with a roar, Dinobot unleashed the full fury of their power on the Predaconsí position. Retaliation was instant, and the two Maximals were thrown backwards as yet another of the boulders protecting their position was destroyed.

Dinobot and Silverbolt landed in a groaning heap. They were now pinned down, too close to the base for comfort. If they pulled back at all, the Predacons would have a clear shot at the Axalon. Beginning to show the effects of the battle, the weary Maximals fought on.

*

Rhinox crept as silently as he could through the dark corridors of the base. He hadnít seen or heard anything from Rattrap yet, but he knew that the Maximal spy was out there somewhere. He was sure that he could feel eyes watching him through the darkness.

Rhinox shook the feeling off. Donít let it get to you, he told himself. He had to stay focused. If he didnít get the power back on soon, and the Predacons attacked, they would be finished. Not only were there no shields, but the monitors and security cameras were dead as well, leaving those inside the base cut off from the outside world. If there were an attack, they would never see it coming until it was too late. Rhinox knew he had to keep going.

He carefully peered around the corner into the room that held the computer core and power boxes. Seeing no one, he slipped inside to take a closer look. He was surprised that Rattrap had not found him yet and hoped to Primus that he could get the power on quickly before that happened.

Rhinox set down his weapon and went over to the power boxes to survey the damage. All of the wires connecting the power cells and the backup generator to the base systems had been cut and dangled from the box. Rattrap, Rhinox thought bitterly. This had to be his handiwork. Rattrap would have the upper hand if he could sneak around unnoticed. Sighing, Rhinox went to check on the separate connections that linked Sentinel to the backup generator, expecting to see more of the same. He shone a light on them to get a closer look and gasped.

Rhinox stared at the wires connecting Sentinel to the Axalonís generator. Unlike those in the power box, they were still intact. "What the---? Sentinel didnít lose power!" Rhinox couldnít help blurting out.

"Surprise," a voice suddenly said.

*

Dinobot and Silverbolt were losing. The Predacons had gained more ground, and they were being forced towards the base. They had, however, managed to take down both Waspinator and Inferno when they had tried to fly overhead to get to the base. But although the fliers were now grounded, they were still on-line and fully armed, and the Maximals were being pummeled.

"We are finished if we stay here," Dinobot said. "There is only one choice. We must storm their position and take out as many as we can before they can fire on the base!" He leapt out from behind his cover, firing all the while and using his rotating tail-blade as a shield. Unfortunately, a missile hit the ground almost directly at his feet, blasting him backwards. He landed near the Axalon.

"Dinobot!" Silverbolt cried. He ran to him, but Dinobot was unconscious.

"Now!" Megatron commanded, his triumphant cry heard all over the battlefield. "Fire on the Maximal base!"

Laser blasts battered the Axalon as Silverbolt valiantly tried to return fire.

*

On the bridge, Cheetor felt the ship shake. "Weíre being attacked!" he cried. He desperately wanted to help, but without the monitors, he couldnít see what was going on outside. He ran towards the lifts but they refused to budge. There was nothing he could do, and Optimus was still nearly twenty cycles from being fully repaired and purged of the energon contamination.

Cheetor was thrown to the floor by a particularly powerful blast. He covered his head as glass splinters from the exploded monitor showered down on him. Little by little, the base was being destroyed. And if they somehow managed to hit the energon storage chamberÖ

"Come on, Rhinox," Cheetor groaned. "If you donít get that power back on soon, weíre all toast!"

*

Silverbolt fought on, cringing each time a laser blast found its mark on the Axalon. The great ship shuddered and groaned with each strike and he could hear the sound of explosions coming from within as well. Silverbolt knew that the next missile blast could be the shipís last. He chanced a glance towards Dinobot, but the warrior was still out cold.

When Silverbolt returned his focus to the battle, he gasped. A missile was heading straight towards them! He readied his wing missiles and fired an intercept shot, detonating the Predacon projectile just before it reached the ship. The force of the explosion and resultant flying debris knocked him to the ground.

*

"Theyíre finished!" Megatron cried. "It is time to end the Beast Wars once and for all!" He readied a missile launcher. "I wish to have this honour myself," he gloated as he prepared to fire.

*

Rhinox jumped back, startled. He whirled to see someone leaning against the doorjamb, arms folded.

"Rattrap!" Rhinox gasped.

"Took ya long enough to get here," Rattrap said, pulling himself away from the door and walking towards Rhinox. "Whereís the rest of íem, huh, pal? I know you're all in this together."

The Axalon shook slightly, and Rhinox heard a muffled boom. The base was under attack! He had to get this situation under control as soon as possible.

"Rattrap, listen to me," Rhinox tried to remain calm. "The energon was---"

"No, you listen!" Rattrap interrupted. "Did you really think you could just pull one over on me? That Iíd never find out? Well, the jokeís on you, buddy. I donít kill easy." His expression suddenly became one of pure ice. "And I donít take kindly to plots against my life."

Rhinox realized the danger that he was in and silently cursed himself for leaving his weapon out of reach. His hoped he could reason with Rattrap before it was too late. "The energon was tainted with---" Rhinox tried to continue.

"I canít believe I ever trusted any of you," Rattrap said, shaking his head. "íSpecially you. You were ísposed to be my best friend." Although his expression was cold, Rhinox could hear the hurt in his voice at this supposed betrayal.

"Rattrap, we are friends! Iím trying to help you!"

A look of disgust passed over Rattrapís features. "Sentinel, all defenses on-line," he said.

*

Exhausted and damaged, Silverbolt barely had the strength left to struggle to his feet. He looked up to see Megatron rise up from beyond the boulder he had been using for cover and aim a massive launcher. Silverbolt prepared to fire another intercept shot and realized with horror that he was out of ammunition.

"Noooooo!" Silverbolt cried as Megatron fired the giant missile directly at the Axalon. He could not help closing his eyes as he readied himself for the impact that would undoubtedly destroy the base.

But the impact never came. Silverbolt opened his eyes to see a swirling blue-green glow surrounding the base. The shields were back up! Rhinox had done it! The base was safe! Although he and Dinobot were still outside the shields, Silverbolt was relieved just the same. Looking back towards the Predacons, he could see Megatron raging.

"I almost had them!" Megatron roared, throwing down his missile launcher.

"Almost isnít good enough," a voice said from behind Silverbolt.

Silverbolt turned to see Dinobot slowly getting to his feet.

"Dinobot! The base is safe! Rhinox got the shields back up again!" Silverbolt cried joyfully.

"So I see." Dinobot watched as the external auto-guns came on-line, shooting at the retreating Predacons. He was relieved, but he knew that both and he and Silverbolt were in need of repairs.

"We must get back inside the base," Dinobot said. He started towards the ship.

Silverbolt started to follow when he suddenly noticed the motion of an auto-gun out of the corner of his eye. Dinobot was being targeted!

"Look out!" Silverbolt cried. "Sentinel is---"

Reacting with a warriorís reflexes, Dinobot spun around, instantly noticing the danger. As the gun fired, he dropped to the ground and simultaneously swung his sword, destroying it with one swift motion.

"---targeting us," Silverbolt finished, an incredulous expression on his face.

Dinobot growled as he got to his feet. "Sentinel, stand down," he commanded. The system did not comply. The other auto-gun turned towards them, but was obliterated by Dinobotís eye lasers before it could get off a shot.

Silverbolt tried the command, but was also ignored. He raised an eyebrow. "I donít understand. Why wonít Sentinel acknowledge us?" He transformed to beast mode to begin internal repairs.

Dinobot reverted to beast mode as well. He looked upwards towards the base and was met with ominous silence. "The system has been tampered with. It seems that the game is not yet finished in there."

*

"Rattrap, what's going on here? " Rhinox asked. "Why did you cut the power and take Sentinel off-line?" Rhinox knew he was in trouble here and hoped to keep Rattrap talking until he could come up with a way out.

"Oh, I like it dark. íSides, I needed the privacy so I could do an upgrade on good olí Sentinel," Rattrap replied, his voice cold.

Rattrap paused for effect. Rhinox didnít like where this was heading. "Remember the Ďfriend or foeí program? Well, guess who the new Ďfoesí are," Rattrap finished with a smirk.

"No!" Rhinox gasped.

"Oh yeah. Iíve beaten Sentinel before. Can you?"

Alarm klaxons began to blare. "Intruder alert," Sentinel stated in its monotonic voice.

"Rattrap, donít do this," Rhinox said. "This isnít you. Itís the energon contamination in you thatís making you believe these things. Weíre your friends! We would never hurt you!"

"Ha!" Rattrap spat. "I heard you and the Boss-monkey talkiní about gettiní rid of me. He even tried to kill me! Whaddya call that?"

"Optimus was suffering from the same contamination as you were," Rhinox explained. "And so was Cheetor. This has all been one of Megatronís plans! Heís trying to get us to destroy each other and leave the base defenseless!"

"Targets acquired," Sentinel said.

*

"Whatís going on here?" Cheetor cried. At first, he had been overjoyed when Sentinel had come back on-line, assuming that Rhinox had fixed the power. But now it was obvious that that wasnít so. Sentinel had turned on them! Dumbfounded, Cheetor stared at the console as Sentinel targeted him and Rhinox. Optimus was safe for now, protected from its scanners by the shielded walls of the CR-chamber.

Sentinel suddenly reported the destruction of its external auto-guns, stating that two "threats" still remained outside the base, unreachable by its auto-defenses. Cheetor was relieved to see that the two blinking lights on the external target screen did not have Predacon signatures.

"Dinobot and Silverbolt!" he cried aloud. At least theyíre safe, he thought, but he couldnít help wishing that they were there. He knew he didnít have the skill to stand against Sentinel for long.

Cheetor dove under the table as Sentinel started firing at him, only vaguely noticing that Rattrap was the only one who had not been targeted...

*

Rhinox gasped and threw himself to the floor to escape the tanglers that Sentinel had fired at him. He looked up to see Rattrap standing in front of him calmly, knowing that he was safe from Sentinelís neutralizers.

"So how do you like it when everythingís against you?" Rattrap asked.

"Sentinel, stand down!" Rhinox shouted. The computer refused to acknowledge him. "Rattrap, you have to stop this!" he cried as a tangler wrapped itself around his feet, making it impossible for him to rise. He frantically tried to free himself, knowing that Sentinel would not stop as long as he remained on-line. He also knew what came next in the program---auto-guns and the deadly shatter-field.

"Iím through takiní orders," Rattrap said. "From now on, this rat is only lookiní out for number one. I ainít trustiní nobody. Never ag---" Rattrap suddenly doubled over, clutching his stomach. He sank to his knees, groaning.

Rhinox looked up, wondering why Rattrap had stopped so suddenly. He realized that the contaminated energon was wearing off, and the addiction was forcing Rattrap to need more. Rhinox watched as Rattrap reached into his wrist compartment and took out a tiny energon cube.

"Rattrap, donít!" Rhinox shouted. "You donít realize it, but your energon capacitors are full! If you take any more, theyíll overload!"

"Like Iím gonna believe anythiní you say," Rattrap spat, reaching for his feeder tubes.

Rhinox noticed his repair kit lying on the ground just out of his reach and thought fast. He was only going to have one chance at this before Rattrap consumed the energon and resumed his dangerous behaviour. He watched the auto-gun as it locked onto him, waiting for the right moment.

*

Cheetor crouched under the table, trying to keep out of Sentinelís reach. The program had already upgraded to auto-guns, and Cheetorís only consolation was that Rhinox had to be still alive and resisting Sentinelís attempts to neutralize him. The disruptor bolts began to pepper the table above him, and Cheetor realized that it was not going to last much longer. He tried to roll away as the table collapsed, but it landed on his leg, pinning him down.

"Aw, man," he groaned. He fired on the auto-gun and managed to destroy it, but another one quickly took its place. As he was blasting that one he didnít notice the third gun targeting him from behind.

Cheetor gasped as something exploded behind him and turned his head to see a demolished auto-gun. Optimus stood over him, his gun still smoking.

"Big-Bot!" Cheetor cried. "Man, am I ever glad to see you!"

Optimus leaned down and lifted the table off of Cheetor. "Are you all right?"

Cheetor scrambled to his feet and looked at the destroyed disruptor gun. From its position, it would probably have taken his head off. "Yeah. Boy, I owe you one!"

Optimus shook his head. "Weíre even. You stopped me from doing the unthinkable earlier."

Cheetor looked ashamed. "Sorry I shot you..."

"You had no choice. I was---" Optimus stopped as he heard Sentinelís ominous voice.

"Resistance persists. Upgrading program." More of Sentinelís neutralizers came on-line. A blue glow suddenly filled the hallway and began to spill onto the bridge.

"Cryo-fields! Whatís going on here?" Optimus cried. He tried to activate the lift, but it was still off-line. There was no escape.

"The base power is still out, and Sentinelís gone screwy on us again!" Cheetor replied, backing away from the field. "Canít we stop that thing?"

"Unfortunately not from here. Where is Rhinox?" Optimus asked.

"Heís gone to the computer core to get the base power back on-line. But his comlink is down and I donít know if he ever made it." Cheetor backed up against the consoles on the far wall.

"Letís hope he did," Optimus said as he helped Cheetor climb up on the console to get farther away from the field. Optimus was too big to follow and could back away no further as the field moved ever closer. "Heís our only chance."

*

Sentinel fired at him, and in one swift motion Rhinox rolled clear and grabbed the wrench from his repair kit. He threw it at Rattrap, knocking the energon from his hand. As it flew through the air, Sentinelís motion detectors caught it and destroyed it. The burst of energy from the exploding crystal blew away the auto-gun and knocked Rattrap to the ground. Falling debris pinned Rhinox on the floor.

"No, that was my last one..." Rattrap moaned.

"Resistance persists. Upgrading program," Sentinel stated.

Rhinox struggled to free himself from the debris. Only his damaged arm had escaped being trapped but, after all the punishment it had taken today, Rhinox could hardly move it. Unfortunately, there was no choice.

Rhinox knew that he didnít have much time before Sentinel became truly lethal. Trying to ignore the pain in his arm, he pulled the energon cube that Rattrap had left for him earlier out of his own compartment. The plan was a long shot, but it was his only chance. "You want this?" he asked Rattrap.

"Gimme that!" Rattrap cried. He reached for it, but he was getting weaker by the second. The more energon he took, the worse the pain and exhaustion was when it ran out.

Rhinox jerked it back. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the shatter-field come on-line. "Sentinel has already locked onto me. If the shatter-field hits this crystal, the explosion will take out most of this room. In your condition, thereís not enough time before it fires for you to take the crystal from me and get to safety." Rhinox tried to remain under control as he heard the shatter-field begin to power up. There wasnít much time left. "If you want this energon, shut Sentinel down now!"

Rattrap paused, glaring at Rhinox. He felt strange, as if he was seeing all this through a dream. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.

The shatter-field lit up. "Rattrap, thereís no more time! Shut it down NOW!" Rhinox shouted. He held out the energon and a disruptor bolt suddenly hit his arm, sending the cube bouncing across the floor towards Rattrap. Rhinox gave a cry of pain and despair. He had just lost his last playing card and was now at the mercy of Rattrap and Sentinel.

Rattrap blinked, and took in the scene as if for the first time. He saw Rhinox, pinned down by tanglers and debris. He saw the energon cube lying on the ground right in front of him. And he saw the shatter-field moving into position behind the helpless Maximal. "Rhinox..."

As Rhinox heard the shatter-field hum to life, he knew it was all over. He looked up at Rattrap one last time, his expression sorrowful and imploring. "I was always your best friend, Rattrap." He closed his eyes.

Rattrap looked down at the energon cube and then back at Rhinox. Through his exhaustion, he suddenly experienced a moment of clarity. In a flash, he realized that it wasnít the energon that he needed to save. "Rhinox!" he cried. What had he done? He couldnít let this happen! With his last ounce of strength, Rattrap called out "Sentinel, stand down!"

Then he collapsed.

*

Optimus pressed himself against the console as the cryo-field advanced on him. There was nowhere left to run. He placed himself in front of Cheetor in a futile attempt to protect him, but he knew it was hopeless. The field would pass over him and then over Cheetor, no matter what he did.

"Big-botÖ" Cheetor inched backward as far as he could go. Rhinox didnít make it, he thought sadly.

The cryo-field was almost upon him. Optimus held his breath, already feeling the cold. He closed his eyes as he prepared to be frozen. In a few seconds, it would all be over.

But the field didnít engulf him. Optimus opened his eyes slowly to see that the cryo-field was gone.

Cheetor gave a whoop of joy. "Yes! He did it! Rhinox did it!" He jumped down off the console and gave Optimus a high five.

"Sentinel appears to be standing down," Optimus said, with a sigh of relief. "Now maybe we can figure out what happened. Sentinel, report error."

"User not acknowledged," Sentinel replied.

Cheetor was puzzled. "What? I thought Rhinox must have fixed it!"

"Weíd better go find him, now!" Optimus said. "This may not be over yet." He and Cheetor set off towards the computer core.

*

The shatter-field powered down and the tanglers released Rhinox. He let out the breath he didnít realize he had been holding and lay there for a few moments to let everything sink in. He had thought that he was finished, but in the last moment, Rattrap had come to his senses and saved his life. Rhinox smiled a little to himself as he realized how much their friendship meant to Rattrap. Although still under the effects of the contamination, he had still made the right choice.

His mind snapped back to reality, and Rhinox realized that they were not completely out of danger yet. Sentinel was standing down, but he still needed to reprogram it before they were completely safe. He tried to pull himself out from under the debris, but his arm began to spark and he was forced to stop. It was only then that he saw just how damaged he truly was. His injured arm was almost useless. Parts of it had been blown away. What was left was blackened and mangled, and mech fluid dripped from the wounds onto the floor. Rhinox began to feel light-headed and was dangerously close to collapsing.

He suddenly heard voices, but they sounded distant and unclear, and Rhinox found it difficult to understand them.

"There he is! And Rattrap too!"

"Rhinox! Are you all right?"

"Rhinox? Come on, say something! Whoa, look at his armÖ"

"Hurry, help me get this debris off him!"

Then there were grunts and groans, and the weight on his back was lifted. He was helped into a sitting position. His head began to clear a little, and Rhinox could see Cheetor and Optimus holding him up.

"Optimus, youíre all right," he said.

"Yes, thanks to you," Optimus replied. "Now, we have to get you to the med bay." "No," Rhinox protested. "Take care of Rattrap first. I donít know what will happen when he wakes up, and he needs to be cured of this contamination as soon as possible before anyone else gets hurt."

"But youíve been damaged," Cheetor told him. "Look at your arm! You need repairs!"

"I have work to do. I have to correct Sentinelís programming and restore the base power." Rhinox struggled to his feet and almost lost his balance.

Optimus caught and held him. "Easy there, big fella. The only place youíre going is the med bay. Cheetor and I will make the necessary repairs."

Suddenly the systems that had been quiet began to power up. "Intruders still active," Sentinel said. "System will re-engage in 20 seconds."

Cheetor gasped. He ran to the console and pressed the large red shutdown button.

"15 seconds."

"What? It didnít work!" Cheetor cried. He pressed the button again, but still the computer refused to acknowledge it.

"Rattrap changed the codes!" Rhinox cried. He pulled away from Optimus and stumbled over to the console. Cheetor stepped aside quickly as Rhinox reached for the console and began typing furiously, trying password after password.

"10 seconds."

"Uh, Rhinox?" Cheetor said shakily. He and Optimus exchanged glances, preparing themselves for the worst.

"Come on, come onÖ" Rhinox continued to type. What would Rattrap have changed the password to? And then suddenly it came to him. He entered the word.

"There!" Rhinox cried as he punched a final key.

"Password accepted. Shutting down," the computer said, and then fell silent.

"You did it!" Optimus cried joyfully. "But how did you figure out Rattrapís password? What was it?"

Rhinox looked over at his unconscious friend. "Trust," he whispered, before finally collapsing.

*

The shield around the Axalon suddenly dropped. Dinobot and Silverbolt exchanged glances. "Let us hope that this means that it is safe to return," Silverbolt said. They cautiously made their way towards the base and tried the lift, but it still did not function.

Dinobot sighed and tried to raise Rhinox on his comlink. He was again met with static. "I have had enough of this," he snarled. "I am going to find out what is going on in there, now!" He maximized, ignoring the fact that his internal repairs were not yet completed. Powering up his eye lasers, he fired, blowing a hole in the hull of the Axalon.

Silverbolt picked up Dinobot and flew him up through the hole into the hallway. They almost ran into a very surprised Optimus, who was carrying Rhinox. Silverbolt transformed and gasped when he saw the unconscious Rhinox. Dinobot drew his weapon, uncertain of whether or not Optimus could be trusted.

"Dinobot?" Optimus asked, a little nervous upon seeing Dinobotís weapon.

"We were warned that you were not yourself," Dinobot said.

"Stand down, itís all right," Optimus told him. "Cheetor and I have both been purged of the contamination, thanks to Rhinox."

Dinobot lowered his weapon. "What happened to him?" he asked, following Optimus to the med bay.

"Thatís a long story," Optimus replied, "and only Rhinox knows all of it." They entered the bay, and he gently set Rhinox on the table. It was only then that he took a closer look at Dinobot and Silverbolt, noticing their battle damage. "What happened to you two? You both look like you could use a repair cycle as well."

"That is also a long story," Silverbolt sighed.

"Iíd like to hear it later," Optimus said. "Right now, Rhinox is my first priority. Also, Rattrap needs to be purged of the energon contamination as soon as possible." Suddenly, all the monitors flickered to life and the main lights came on. Optimus breathed a sigh of relief as he powered up the repair equipment. "Good, Cheetorís got the power back on. You two get Rattrap into the CR-chamber and then repair yourselves as well. Once youíre at full capacity, we can get this place fixed and somewhat back to normalÖI hope."

*

Rhinox awoke in his quarters. He opened his eyes to see Optimus sitting next to him. "What happened?" he asked. "Is everyone safe now?"

"You collapsed after shutting down Sentinel," Optimus replied. "And donít worry, everyone is all right. How are you feeling, old friend?"

Rhinox flexed his newly repaired arm. "Just fine. Thanks."

"Thatís a relief," Optimus said. "You were out for a long time. In the meantime, the power and Sentinelís programming are both back on-line and functioning normally. Rattrap has been cured, the others are back to full power, and theyíre all working on base repairs now. Apparently, while we were stuck in here, we missed some action outside. Dinobot and Silverbolt can tell you the story." He paused for a moment. "But itís your story Iíd like to know. What happened at the computer core before we arrived? I know Rattrap must remember what he did while under the influence of the contaminated energon, since both Cheetor and I do, but he wonít say a word about it."

There was a long hesitation. "Iíll tell you some other time," Rhinox finally said.

Optimus stared back at him for a moment, but decided not to press the matter. "Well, as long as youíre all right, Iím off to help the others. This place is a mess."

Rhinox sat up. "Anything I can do?"

"Why donít you just rest? We all owe you one anyway. Oh, and by the wayÖwe got rid of all of Megatronís energon." Optimus smiled as he left the room.

Rhinox sat there for a few moments, but finally got up to go see things for himself. He wandered the base, offering to help with repairs whenever he could, but the other Maximals had things under control. Rattrap was working outside, so Rhinox went out to find him.

Rattrap was obviously supposed to be rebuilding one of the external auto-guns, but instead he was sitting next to it, his chin in his hands, staring off into space as if lost in thought.

Rhinox walked up to him. "Hey, Rattrap."

Rattrap jumped to his feet, startled. "Rhinox! Oh, ehÖI was just repairiní the auto-gun here." He quickly snatched up a tool and went back to the gun, turning away from Rhinox as he spoke. "So, uhÖitís great to see ya up and around. How ya doiní?"

He was obviously trying to sound cheerful, but Rhinox could tell that his heart wasnít in it. "Maybe the question is, how are you doing?"

Rattrap sighed and turned to face Rhinox, but was unable to look him in the eye. "I remember everythiní, ya know. Everythiní I did, everythiní I saidÖI mean, I donít even know how to say this. IímÖreally, really sorry."

"It wasnít your fault," Rhinox told him.

"No, ya donít understand. I actually thought youíd betrayed me. I believed it! And I wanted you dead because of it!" Rattrap threw down the tool he was holding.

"You werenít the only one who wanted to slag me," Rhinox said. "Itís all right, really. See? Iím fine. No permanent harm done."

"Yeah? Well, look how close I came to haviní Sentinel scrap you! And not only you, either. I coulda gotten all the others killed too. If you hadnít stopped meÖ" Rattrap trailed off and turned away.

"Well, it could have happened, but it didnít." Rhinox placed a hand on Rattrapís shoulder. "Besides, even through the paranoia, you were still able to make the right choice to save us. And thatís what really matters." He turned Rattrap around to face him. "Youíre still my best friend. I donít trust you any less."

Maybe you should. Look at what Iím capable of. Rattrap forced a smile. "Thanks, Rhinox."

"Iím serious. Donít be so hard on yourself." Rhinox looked straight into Rattrapís optics.

Rattrap found it difficult not to look away. "Yeah, yeah. No worries. Iím good." He struggled to change the subject. "Hey, whatíre ya doiní out here anyway? Shouldnít you be takiní it easy?"

Rhinox smiled. "Me? Not a chance. I think Iím going to go back inside and see if I can convince Optimus to let me do something." He started to leave and then turned back for a moment. "And Rattrap, please donít worry about it. I donít blame you for what happened. Nobody does. It was all because of Megatron. Remember that."

"Yeah, will do," Rattrap replied, trying to sound as if he really believed it. He waved, keeping the smile on his face until Rhinox went back inside the base. Then the smile disappeared abruptly, replaced by sadness. He sat down dejectedly, unable to stop himself from replaying everything over and over again in his mind.

Theyíre supposed toa be my friends. I trust íem, and they trust me. But all it took was a little auditory hallucination for me to want íem all dead. Even Rhinox. Whatís to stop it from happeniní again? It was so easyÖso easy for me to turn on íem. So easy to almost kill all my friends. Contamination or not, how could I do that to íem? I never even gave íem a chance, never listened for a second. Why was it so easy to believe that my friends would betray me? Am I really that willing to give up the trust that itís taken so long to build? The trust thatís supposed to be so important to me? Is that who I am?

Rattrap sat and pondered that for a long time.


END


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