Rhinox had always found solace in darkness.
It was not uncommon to find the scientist working into the late hours of the night on one of the ever-growing list of repairs and maintenance required to keep the Axalon habitable for a diverse group of Maximal warriors. He never bothered with lights during those times, relying instead on his keen night vision and time-tested knowledge of every deck, control panel and ventilation duct on the grounded ship to navigate his way through the darkened corridors. Usually the other Maximals were recharging or on overnight patrol, so he was able to work undisturbed.
Away from the near-constant chatter and quarreling of his more excitable comrades, cocooned in silence except for the soft clatter of his tools, he was finally able to relax. More often than not his expert hands would continue the work seemingly of their own volition as his mind wandered, sorting out the events of the previous day, mulling over one of the many experimental inventions taking up space in his lab or merely dreaming of home. All the frustrations and anxieties of the day would gradually disappear, as the night closed in and wrapped itself around his form like a well-worn blanket, or the embrace of a beloved friend.
Yes, Rhinox enjoyed the darkness. A fact which made his current trepidation all the more puzzling.
Rhinox strode resolutely towards Optimus Primal's quarters, his armored tread sounding unnaturally loud in the dimly-lit passageway. The deep shadows which hung in every corner and entranceway had ceased to be comforting, replaced instead by a menacing aura that seemed to increase in intensity as he neared his destination. His fluid pump was beating an unusually rapid staccato rhythm in his broad chest and his beast mode was whispering insistently in the back of his mind, speaking of ancient terrors. The Maximal knew that such feelings were irrational, but the urge to look over his shoulder was strong.
After what seemed an eternity, Rhinox finally came to a halt in front of a nondescript doorway. He positioned an enormous metallic hand over the keypad and hesitated, his optics dimming strangely, before activating the buzzer that would alert Optimus to his presence.
For a long moment there was no response. Then the Axalon's comm system crackled to life and a quiet voice spoke a single word: "Come."
Inside the Maximal leader's quarters, the only illumination came from starlight. This soft glow streamed in from the single window, converting the room's myriad colors to a grayish monochrome, the edges of its furnishings highlighted in silver. Optimus was sitting behind his desk, his high-backed chair turned to face the window.
Feeling very much the intruder, Rhinox stopped a few feet inside the entryway. "If I've come at a bad time…"
Optimus did not move from his position, but a Transmetal hand came into view and beckoned his science officer forward. "You haven't," he replied, in that same quiet tone.
Rhinox came up beside Optimus and crossed his arms. It was easy to see what had so captured Optimus's attention; the night sky was truly glorious. Nearly a week had gone by since the destruction of the false moon that had come so close to claiming the lives of every living creature on the planet, and tonight was the first time since that incident that the sky wasn't obscured by lightning-laced energon storms. The stars were brilliant pinpoints of light against the midnight blue sky, like diamonds scattered across the soft organic fabric humans call silk. Light emanating from the single natural moon touched the earth's surface in a gentle caress, the silver radiance smoothing away the still-fresh burns and scars that marred the landscape, giving it an illusion of its former beauty.
The scene was so unexpected and captivating that Rhinox forgot, for a moment, the disquiet that had dogged him for so long. At ease once more with the shadows that draped across his frame, he leaned against the bulkhead next to Optimus's chair and stared out the viewport.
The silence that descended upon the two was a comfortable one, brought about by a friendship that had lasted nearly three centuries.
"They're beautiful, aren't they?"
Suppressing a start at the sudden question, Rhinox cast a sidelong glance to Primal, who was leaning forward slightly in his chair, his steepled hands covering the lower part of his face. "Yes. They are."
The expression in the Transmetal's optics was unreadable, but when he spoke a few clicks later Rhinox was stricken by the wistful undercurrent of longing in his friend's tone, "They remind me of…"
He fell silent, yet the words still hung heavy between them, no less potent for not having been spoken. Optimus Primal meant the Matrix.
Unable to find words, Rhinox nodded slightly. For uncounted millennia the ever-changing panorama of flickering lights that whirled above Cybertron had been used as a metaphor to describe the Transformer afterlife. In the most basic way this comparison was correct, but…
But both Maximals had experienced it firsthand, and as such they knew what few others could. The Matrix was so much more.
When the false moon had shed its disguise as a harmless celestial body and began to rain devastation down upon the world like Unicron reborn, Optimus had devised a desperate plan to save them all. With the brilliant if untrustworthy help of Blackarachnia, a stasis pod, which had until this time been moldering quietly in one of the Axalon's storage rooms, had been quickly converted into a cramped but serviceable ship capable of breaching the atmosphere. This makeshift spacecraft had been fitted with a transwarp cell set to detonate thirty clicks after its activation; if all went as planned the pilot would have just enough time to blow the escape hatch and get clear, before the transwarp cell turned the alien planet-killer into so much space debris.
The plan was naturally extremely dangerous, and much to the dismay of the other Maximals --and the obvious amusement of Blackarachnia--, Optimus had insisted upon being the one to carry it out. He had boarded the tiny ship and launched himself towards the planet-killer with a fearlessness that would have done his namesake proud. However, due to some clever long-distance sabotage by Megatron, Primal was unable to activate the escape hatch before the transwarp cell exploded; blowing the alien weapon apart from the inside and incinerating the Maximal leader in a single fiery instant. Freed from the prison of its shell and buoyed by the transwarp wave front, Optimus Primal's spark had flown to the Matrix, passing through space/time barriers as if they were no more substantial than mist.
It was from a newly Transmetalized Rattrap that Rhinox --who had been in the CR-Chamber recovering from a massive dose of cyber venom received several mega-cycles earlier-- had learned of this series of events. The knowledge of his friend's death was too awful for him to fully process at the time and other concerns, such as the continuing survival of himself and the remaining Maximals, forced him to push grief to the proverbial backburner of his consciousness.
Rhinox later admitted to himself that this had probably affected his judgment. For when, while reviewing a grainy recording of the transwarp explosion and discovering a once-in-a-lifetime chance to literally resurrect his friend, he latched onto the possibility to the exclusion of all else. Quickly coppeling together a device to assist his consciousness in escaping the confines of his body --while still keeping all essential systems functioning-- he inserted himself into his invention and launched his essence into the void with only the most cryptic of explanations to a loudly protesting Rattrap.
Transwarp space was horrendously confusing; a riot of colors and twisting shapes that no living being was designed to see, let alone comprehend. It took every ounce of Rhinox's considerable concentration not to waver from his purpose, not to lose the tiny silver thread that marked the passage of his friend's spirit; for there existed at the edge of his awareness an innumerable number of windows similar to the one he had used. Portholes into different times and myriad universes; an infinite number of possibilities that called to him with the siren song of curiosity…
Following the trail with the persistence of a bloodhound, he finally burst through one such transwarp window into a place simultaneously familiar and strange. The Matrix's boundaries extended across several dimensions, and as such did not have any true physical form. However, as if seeming to sense this new arrival's bewilderment, reality twisted, distorting and folding in on itself until it had changed into something Rhinox's strained consciousness could understand. It shimmered into focus in his mind's eye, and if Rhinox had been able to draw breath it would have caught in his throat. Intellectually he knew he had never seen such a thing before, but a portion of his soul, where logic was nothing and emotion all, was awash in a sense of homecoming. He knew this place!
It did, in some basic way, resemble a star field. But to a mind more at home with the intricacies of computers it was more easily envisioned as a vast network of multicolored sparks, each pulsing to a personal beat that somehow complemented the others, each unique, each connected. Souls which simultaneously became aware of the new arrival, and began to communicate…
Of all the myriad emotions that suddenly swept over Rhinox like the ocean tide, the most pervasive of all was a feeling of welcome; a greeting from an uncountable number of sparks both ancient and new. He had come home at last, at last. And sweet Primus, Creator of us all, it was beautiful-
He cast a glance at Optimus, whose gaze seemed to be focused inward. When he spoke, his voice was understanding and almost sad, "No wonder you didn't want to leave."
At those words, Primal shuddered slightly and his optics dimmed. In a sudden bout of seemingly nervous energy, he rose to his feet and began to pace in front of his desk; his armored tread short, clipped, and almost angry.
The unnamed specter that had followed him with the faithfulness of a shadow began to close in again, and Rhinox had to suppress a sudden wild desire to flee the room. "Optimus," he finally attempted, watching as the Maximal leader paced in front of him like a caged animal, a bundle of tightly-contained emotions, "I came here to say I'm… sorry. I know it's not enough-"
Any further words were cut short by Optimus's sigh. Pacing ended, he pushed a button inset into his desk, flooding the room with light, and met the other's gaze. With the added illumination his optic lights had dimmed to the color of dried organic blood. "There's nothing to forgive, Rhinox" he said, his voice steady and empty of malice.
"You're not angry?" At the other's affirmative gesture, he shook his head incredulously. "But how can you not be?"
"Oh, I was," Optimus answered honestly. "Very angry; which was why I avoided you the first few days after my, ahem, resurrection."
Rhinox nodded slowly; this evasion had not gone unnoticed. "What changed your mind?"
"Time," he replied, perching on the edge of his desk and motioning for the other to take the chair meant for visitors. As Rhinox slowly sat in the proffered seat, he continued, "It took me a while to realize it, but you did what you had to do. Had I been in your place I would've done the same thing."
He wasn't too sure of that last bit, but Rhinox didn't press the issue. After a moment Primal sighed again, and a hint of former longing leached into his voice as his optics strayed back to the viewport, "Sometimes, though, I swear I can still feel it here." He touched his chest, where his spark resided. "It's as if the Matrix-web is still with me."
"It might be, at least in part," Rhinox mused. "A connection that strong is not easily severed. Not even by force," he finished regretfully.
Half-hypnotized by the glory of what he was seeing, Rhinox drifted closer to the siren call of the Matrix. The spirits at the outskirts of the spark-web sent out tendrils of multicolored energy, metaphorical hands reaching out to draw him in and welcome him home. Rhinox stretched out to make contact-
"Did ya ever think we might need yer core consciousness right here?!"
-and the memory of Rattrap's voice struck him like a physical blow. He quickly withdrew from the attempted touch, his mind reeling.
It was tempting, so very tempting to abandon his quest and let the Matrix take him. He was tired; tired of the constant and nearly futile repairs to the crumbling hulk of the Axalon; tired of the endless, pointless war. The Maximals were leaderless and scattered, and those who remained were as anguished and spark-weary as he. The Predacons seemed poised to win. Why not let them? It would be purest simplicity to sever the fragile golden thread that bound his essence to his body. One quick motion and the universe would no longer be his concern…
'No!' his soul suddenly rebelled, forcing aside the encroaching feeling of fatalism with a rage totally at odds with his normally calm demeanor. He couldn't give up! He was… He was…
He was a Maximal, and he had a job to do.
But how? Even with his heightened resolve the pulse of life from uncounted millions had not dimmed; the Matrix called to him, singing welcome in a single voice comprised of multitudes. How could he locate a single spark amongst that morass… without losing himself in the process?
Seeing no other alternative, Rhinox soldered his mental shields as tightly as he was able and drifted closer to the spark-web. Moments later, tendrils of energy reached out and gently drew him in.
His first few moments inside the Matrix were very nearly his undoing. If the waves of feeling had seemed strong before, now… now, it was like being trapped in a hurricane of quicksilver emotions, so powerful and so rich and so varied that it was no longer merely felt but actually seen. Colors of every imaginable shade whipped around him, shifting and changing so swiftly that Rhinox could not begin to comprehend what they meant, and pounded against his mental shields - which began to collapse like a badly-constructed house of cards under the sheer force of sensory overload.
Rhinox desperately tried to restore his fragile protection, but the attempt quickly proved fruitless as the last barrier was ripped away with the ease of tsunami winds against a tissue paper sail. Tinted emotions flooded into his defenseless mind…
and recoiled just as swiftly. Whirling away and folding in on itself, the storm left a widening circle of calm in its wake, with Rhinox at its center. The disorientation brought about by the invasive contact began to fade and a few moments later he had collected himself enough to once again process information. The tornado of colors still swirled madly, although it took care not to venture too close to his disembodied form.
Knowing how utterly futile the gesture was, he nevertheless carefully reconstructed his mental shields. They were comforting, acting as a buffer against the knowledge of his exhaustion and the awful creeping certainty that his connection to the land of the living was growing more tenuous by the moment.
He tensed when something shifted within the maelstrom, but it proved to be nothing more than a thin streamer of somber purple, which spiraled inwards and gently wrapped around him. It faded swiftly, like mist exposed to the morning sun, leaving behind only the emotion it embodied: Regret.
"Apology accepted", he answered cautiously. It must have understood, for there was a brief flash of gold and a sense of pleasure. This was quickly followed by a flurry of bright blue, maroon, and aqua; the emotions heavily muted for his benefit but still shifting far too quickly. "Wait!" he cried. "I don't understand."
Colors stilling briefly in what could only be surprise, it soon redoubled its spin, hues blurring as it seemed to hold a brief conversation with itself. Ivory shot with streaks of gold lightning flared, and moments later something far more substantial than ephemeral emotion surfaced. It came to a graceful halt in front of him, a spark pulsing so brightly compared to a normal soul that it was like a candle against the sun.
"Uncounted millennia have passed since a living spark has possessed the skill to pass through the barriers that separate the Matrix from the Once-Life, the soul intoned in one voice comprised of millions. Well met, Aftershock, now designated Rhinox. We of the Matrix-web welcome you."
Feeling more than a little awed, he replied, "You honor me. But how did you know my name?"
Amusement rippled, a silver fish in a multicolored sea. "We know a great many things, little one. There are souls here who know you."
Hope shot through him, white-hot and almost painful in its intensity. "Optimus?"
Another flicker of bright silver. "There are many who went by that name in the Once-life."
"Optimus Primal, the commander of the exploration ship Axalon. His creation name is ClearSight. Please, I must speak with him!"
"Although a living spark cannot withstand our touch, your emotions shine clear." Compassion the color of old copper whirled briefly, like a warm breeze in late autumn. "You grieve for him."
"But why? His spark has not been extinguished he is here with us, part of us. He has access to all the knowledge of the ages, the opportunity to share the minds and feel the emotions of billions. He will never again know pain, fear or loss. Why do you grieve?"
The only possible answer was an honest one. "He is my friend. I miss him."
"And that is why you risk everything to come to us, little one?" Copper churned. "Your tie to the Once-Life is growing weaker."
"I know", he said, his mind-voice tight with controlled desperation, "Which is why I must see him now, if only for a moment."
There was a brief pause, followed by a flicker of aqua. "We will let you speak with the part of us you call Optimus Primal, but afterwards you must return to the Once-Life. We would welcome you among us, little one, but it is not yet your time."
"Thank you", he said with sincere gratitude. The bright soul faded back into the main body of the Matrix, trailing a wisp of silver entwined with gold. An age seemed to pass before the Matrix once again stirred purposefully, but when it did he felt something deep within him clench. This second soul did not glow star-bright like the first, but he would know it anywhere.
"Rhinox", the new spark called.
"Optimus", he answered, forgetting for a moment the urgency which had driven him for so long. Primus, but it's good to hear your voice again!
"And I yours", Optimus replied sincerely. A moment later his mind-voice changed, happiness now laced with concern and mild reproof. Although I can't help wondering why you're here. It's incredibly dangerous to cross the space/time barriers while still a living spark.
Once again reminded of his limited time, he instantly sobered. "Is there anyway we can talk privately?"
The shade of Optimus seemed amused. The spark-web has already turned its attention away, out of respect for both of us. We're as alone as it is possible to be here.
"It'll have to do", he sighed, and then continued urgently, "Optimus, much has happened since your encounter with the alien machine" Over the course of the next several cycles Rhinox outlined all that he knew, from the massive shockwave brought about by the planet-killer's destruction --which had reduced much of the earth's surface to slag and mutated the superstructures of several Beast Warriors in unexpected ways--, to the sorry condition of the Axalon, to Dinobot's unexpected disappearance and Tigatron and Airazor's search for the fallen stasis pods.
Optimus listened wordlessly as the distressing tale unfolded. When Rhinox finally fell silent he asked, his voice strangely devoid of emotion, "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because we need you, and I think I've found a way to bring you back! Our time is limited, but we-"
"There is no we!" he snapped, with a vehemence Rhinox had rarely heard from him. "I've served my time in the Once-Life. My place is here."
"No buts, Rhinox", came the considerably more gentle reply. "Look to the living. Rattrap's a competent leader, and he'll benefit from the guidance you've always given me. Together, you can keep the others safe."
Rhinox had been rendered speechless, nonexistent nerves twanging in shock. Never, not once during the concoction and execution of this mad scheme, had he expected this. Soon however, shock was replaced with the memory of his own reaction when he had first encountered the Matrix. It was no wonder Primal didn't want to leave the peace the spark-web provided and once again take up the responsibility leadership entailed. 'Don't panic. Patience', Rhinox told himself sternly. It might take a bit longer than expected but he was sure he could convince-
He was never able to complete the thought, for at that moment something seemed to stretch and twang, creating a moment of discord against the background song of the Matrix. It was only when his personal universe seemed to reel and a wave of dizziness washed over his consciousness that he realized the source of the discord was himself. Turning his attention to the link which bound him to life, he wasn't surprised to find the golden thread stretched taut, vibrating with tension and dangerously close to snapping.
Another wave of dizziness struck him and he must have cried out, for he heard Optimus speak his name in tones of alarm. A moment later he repeated urgently, "Rhinox, you must leave now! Go back to the others; keep them safe!"
It was so very hard to think. Reality was wavering in and out of focus, shifting from vague indistinct shadows, like dark ships viewed through twilight fog, to a brilliant clarity so intense it was almost painful. It was during one of these latter moments, upon hearing the other's concerned voice, that a vision appeared before him; a glimpse of history made metaphor. It appeared as an endless road, twisted and wild, in which the past stretched into infinity behind him and forked out ahead in three different directions. Three possible futures, he realized. A choice to make.
The first possibility was, for him, the simplest. He could ride out the dizziness that currently plagued him and wait --not long now-- for the cord that was his life to snap like a too-tightly strung bow, leaving him truly dead. In another he could return alone and fight with the remaining Maximals for as long as they were able, until Megatron, with his superior numbers and fanatical genius, finally overwhelmed them. The third… the third was unforgivable, but it might mean a chance of survival for all.
Spark-weary, hating himself, Rhinox chose.
"I'm sorry, ClearSight", he whispered. Before Optimus could react to this strange statement, he gathered the last of his strength and lunged.
He ignored Optimus's startled exclamation as he wrapped himself around his friend, holding on with all his will. As he did so the Matrix once again turned its attention back to them and maroon whirled; not yet concerned, merely questioning. The emotions soon changed, however, as the two entwined sparks suddenly moved with blurring speed, the link snapping them backwards through the hurricane's eye like the releasing of a rubber band.
If it had not been so utterly unprepared for such a thing, the Matrix-web would have overtaken them easily; as it was, they were nearly two-thirds of the way out before the spark-web realized what was happening. Too late it tumbled inwards in a manner reminiscent of a collapsing mine shaft, its colors shot with black and red lightning, but it had not yet reached the duo before they passed through the outskirts of the spark-web.
Only a few breaths away from the window that marked the entrance to transwarp space, a fierce tug-of-war ensued. Optimus struggled against Rhinox's grip as the spark-web fought to pull him back, but his link to the Matrix was barely two days old and so steadily, inexorably, he was pulled away. Suddenly, with a high brittle sound like the breaking of a harp string, the link snapped.
Rhinox's last memory before they were pulled into the chaos of transwarp space was of the Matrix writhing --its song dimmed and laced with discord and of Optimus screaming; a continuous wail that spoke of deep agony and horrible loss
"Maybe you're right," Optimus agreed. Despite the earlier assurances, Rhinox was still pensive, his expression uneasy, so the Maximal leader clasped him on the shoulder as he had a thousand times before and said, "Trouble yourself no more about it, old friend. Although the Matrix was peaceful," he grinned wryly, "it wasn't nearly as interesting. I don't regret living again."
Rhinox's mouth curved into a slow smile. He covered the other's hand with his own and squeezed briefly. "I'm glad to hear it."
He let the companionable pause linger for a moment before changing the subject. "How are the repairs progressing?"
Rhinox grimaced slightly. "Well enough. The repairs to the outer hull have been completed and the power grid is now operating at eighty-seven percent efficiency. If my calculations are accurate, we should be back up to full power in just under two solar-cycles…"
* * *
It was nearly a mega-cycle later when Rhinox took his leave. As the door hissed shut behind him the Maximal scientist's smile, brought about by Optimus's good-natured farewell, faded. He sighed lightly, the sound echoing hollowly in the dimly lit corridor, before ducking into a side passage. Gloom swallowed him, and as he descended deeper into the bowels of the ship he was relieved to discover that the darkness had ceased to feel threatening.
But it somehow didn't bring him the comfort it once had.
* * *
Optimus leaned beside the door Rhinox had exited just moments before, face twisted into an expression that was difficult to pinpoint. He passed a hand over his optics and forcibly suppressed a start as his fingers brushed across features his mind insisted were not his own. Walking back to his chair and sitting heavily, he touched a button on his desk, plunging the room into darkness and once more revealing the stars.
As he watched the first wisps of cloud begin to drift across the sky, Optimus reached for the connection that had once bound his spark to the Matrix. The link appeared to be severed, dangling uselessly, but for a brief moment as he searched along its length he detected the presence of the spark-web. Familiar feelings of peace and completeness brushed across his consciousness like the breeze from a butterfly's wings and faded just as quickly, leaving him once again alone.
A ghost of separation pain shot through him and his hands tightened convulsively on the armrests, the metal buckling with a squeal of protest under his tight grip. He shivered, fighting to regain some measure of emotional control, and a few tense moments later his grip loosened. He sighed as he flexed some life back into his aching fingers. Everything he had told Rhinox was true, to an extent. But
But he had quite literally been torn away from heaven, denied a joy so all-encompassing that it defied description, and thrust back into a situation he no longer wanted any part in; back into a war that was growing more desperate and bloody by the cycle. The ache of loss in his spark had dimmed only slightly in the days since his resurrection and his sense of duty to his fellow Maximals, his friends, was all that kept him from seeking release. After all, it was amazing what one well-aimed bullet could do…
Firmly banishing that line of thought, he abandoned his seat and stretched out on his recharge berth, fingers laced behind his head. His Maximals needed him. He had long ago sworn to get them out of this war alive no matter the cost, and he intended to keep that promise. But perhaps… once Megatron was defeated and he had seen his crew safely to Cybertron, perhaps then he could find his way back into the embrace of the Matrix.
Optimus's optics dimmed gently to black as he cycled down for recharge. Patches of starlight began to drift across his stilled form as he slipped into the realm of dreams, where emotion danced in a kaleidoscope of colors and sorrow was a word which held little meaning.
For now he would have to wait.
* * *