THE TENDERNESS OF THE SPIDER Author’s note: This story takes place between the events of No One Left Behind and Transform and Roll Out, Part 1. Somewhere out in the farthest, most desolate reaches of the cosmos, a rickety old maintenance ship glided on a plotted course for another faulty space bridge in a long line of faulty space bridges, its autopilot taking care of all the lonesome traveling while its occupants rested in stasis mode. Its crew consisted of five members: Optimus Prime, an expelled former Cadet of Autobot Academy; Bumblebee and Bulkhead, two young space bridge technicians; Ratchet, an ancient civilian mechanic; and Blackarachnia, a techno-organic hybrid. Blackarachnia was the only one still awake. She was alone in her cabin, only it could be hardly called a cabin anymore. It was now an eerie tapestry of purple cobwebs that glinted in the dull light of the stars from a nearby viewport. In another life, she’d been Cadet Elita-1, a spunky, adventurous young Autobot alongside Optimus and Sentinel. Nowadays, she was a bitter, pessimistic mutant, who could only find her inner comfort in the dark, cold solitude of space. Many stellar cycles ago, Elita-1 had stared admiringly on the cobwebs of Archa Seven, praising them as “beautiful.” Now, she had the dubious honor of spinning those same cobwebs herself. Since she was stuck with her organic parts for a long time to come, Blackarachnia figured she might as well try to use them to her advantage. After numerous embarrassing failures that resulted in her becoming stuck inside her own threads like the dumbest spider who ever lived, she believed she was slowly but surely making progress. In fact, she was starting to think being half-organic wasn’t such a bad deal after all. Blackarachnia’s dark lips stretched into a smile for the first time since the “incident” on Archa Seven. With time and practice, she was becoming scarily good at weaving her webs. Instead of trying to suppress her predatory instincts, she had decided to embrace them outright. It helped to improve her moods, and allowing herself to be a raptorial creature of darkness instead of clinging to the sunny persona of Elita-1 put her at ease with the rest of the crew. If they weren’t at ease with her, well…all the better. The sweet aroma of their fear inspired and exhilarated her, even though she would never pose any real threat to them. After all, she was still an Autobot…despite of everything. Optimus was the only one who saw through her monstrous exterior, although she’d never confess that out loud. Blackarachnia sat down for a moment to admire her handiwork. “Not too bad, if I do say so myself,” she said with a self-assured vanity that would have been completely alien to Elita-1, but fit her new persona like a glove. Her musings were interrupted by strange sounds coming from beyond her cabin. Listening more closely, she realized they were words being uttered aloud with great anguish. “Elita…come back…please…no…trust…” Curiosity piqued, Blackarachnia walked out into the dark silence of the ship’s main corridor. There wasn’t any noise to be heard, aside from the distant, gentle hum of the ship’s engine. All of the lights were dimmed to the point of rendering her surroundings pitch black, but she was able to find her way thanks to the faint illumination of the stars bleeding in through the viewports. She had to admit, there was something slightly spooky about the ship’s atmosphere after everything was shut down and all of its crew had switched to stasis mode. Her own footsteps almost sounded unnatural in the silence. That was one upside to becoming a monster: She felt safe and secure about herself even in the darkest corridor, and yet she couldn’t help sensing a vague unease in the air. At first, she was unable to find the voice’s source, as it would come in random bursts. Then, she realized it was coming from the direction of Optimus’s cabin. “Stop…didn’t know…Sentinel…Elita….Elita!!...” The anguish in the voice was steadily increasing, becoming overwhelmed with sorrow. She approached Optimus’s door. “Optimus?” “Can’t…help her…stop…please…stop!!...” It never even occurred to her to knock. She simply slammed the emergency override switch, and forced the door to slide open. Optimus was encased inside his stasis tube at the far end of the room. The blue glow in his eyes was fluctuating wildly, and Blackarachnia could spot trails of moisture leaking from his eyes. Even she couldn’t keep a surge of panic from overwhelming her. If Optimus was having nightmares that were severe enough to actually interrupt his stasis mode, then his system would be unable to recharge. “The grapple…so close…so close…the spiders…!” Blackarachnia gripped the edges of Optimus’s container and forced it wide open with a resounding crack. She gripped Optimus’s face between her hands. “Optimus!” “You’re still falling…never stop falling…” “Optimus! OPTIMUS!” “Left you behind…the spiders…the spiders are turning you evil…” “Optimus, it’s all right! I’m here! I got out!” “Bloating…swelling…my fault…my fault…my fault…” “I GOT OUT!!” Optimus didn’t so much wake from stasis mode, as explode out of it. He lunged forward, gripping Blackarachnia around her torso for dear life, as if he had jumped over some vast abyss. His rants deteriorated into a series of heavy gasps that rattled his entire body. Blackarachnia held onto him, her horizontal red eyes widened with shock. She had never seen Optimus this vulnerable, as Elita-1 or Blackarachnia. “Elita…Elita…” “Shhhhh. It’s okay. It’s all over.” “Don’t…leave…” “It’s over.” Optimus slowly drifted back to reality. Blackarachnia eased him down to the floor as he regained his senses. The twitching blue glow in his eyes gradually stabilized. They wandered around the cabin for a moment, before locking on Blackarachnia. “What…happened?” “You were dreaming,” she said, quickly resuming her normal, femme fatale tone of voice, as if she was afraid that Optimus had heard how concerned she sounded only a few seconds earlier. “Did anyone ever tell you you’re a really loud sleeper?” Optimus passed a hand over his face. “Primus. It was…I can’t even begin to…” “Just take it easy. Start from the beginning.” The rivets in Optimus’s body gave off a faint rattle as he shivered on the floor, and only then did Blackarachnia notice how utterly exhausted he looked. “I was back in the cave…” he whispered, already unwilling to revisit his nightmare. “I saw you, waving to me…screaming for help…the spiders…they were biting you…and then…” His breathing became more ragged. “I saw you…mutate. Your metal bloating and twisting, swelling, you looking helpless, scared, and there was nothing, nothing I could do…” Blackarachnia felt a shudder run along her electronic spine. Optimus was describing what happened to her in unnervingly exact detail, even though he was on the other side of the cavern at the time her…change…occurred. “Then…then we were on another planet,” Optimus continued. “You were standing in front of me…full of hate…you were talking about how I left you behind…there was a Decepticon logo on your neck…I tried to…ask you to come back…you stung me…told me how you’d never trust an Autobot again…never trust me again…” “Well, that doesn’t sound nearly as bad as swelling and bloating,” she noted dryly. But Optimus didn’t seem to be listening. “Everything changed again…we were somewhere else…someplace organic…a forest, I think. You poisoned my friends…can’t remember who they were…you told me to…get something for you…you didn’t care they were poisoned. You didn’t care.” Blckarachnia put the pieces together. Optimus was describing visions from some kind of future that never happened. One where she became more than just a mutant. She also became a villain. And for some reason, that was tearing Optimus apart. Blackarachnia pressed herself to Optimus. ““Shhhhh. Shhhhh. It’s all right. It all worked out. You didn’t leave me behind, and I didn’t join the Decepticons. See? I’m right here.” She took hold of Optimus’s hand and placed it on her chest. “I’m right here.” Optimus said nothing. He observed her face in a kind of peaceful trance. She shook her head. “You really are just as messed up as I am, aren’t you? I guess Sentinel’s the only one of us who walked away without any scars.” “Could you take off your helmet?” Optimus suddenly asked. She frowned. “Why?” “Because…I’d like to see you.” Slowly, tentatively, she removed her helmet from her head. Optimus took a moment to gaze at her dark arachnid features. “You’re not that ugly,” Optimus said, almost admiringly. “I think…you’re kind of beautiful, in a unique way.” Blackarachnia made a dismissive scoff. “Too bad everybody else on Cybertron disagrees,” although she wasn’t looking directly at Optimus as she spoke. “What do you see through those eyes?” Blackarachnia cleared her throat. “It’s…not that different, I guess. Everything has a red tinge, like I was living in an oven, and the double vision throws me off sometimes, but…I’m getting used to it.” She was uncomfortable with how intimate this conversation was getting. “Look, why don’t I just get you back in your stasis tube, and…” Optimus slumped in Blackarachnia’s arms. “No. No good. I can’t sleep…can’t think…my head’s on fire…” Blackarachnia could tell Optimus was telling the truth. He looked feverish and fatigued. The nightmares had clearly kept him from recharging properly. The events on Archa Seven were catching up on him in a big way. She suddenly realized how selfish she’d really been. Just because Optimus managed to escape without being mutated into an arachnid monstrosity, didn’t mean he escaped unscathed. The only difference was that all the damage was on the inside. Blackarachnia was genuinely worried. She’d heard of cases like Optimus’s before, to Autobot warriors on the battlefield during the Great War. Their brain modules had to process so many hideous things happening every day - the sight of friends dying left and right, limbs and gears blown clean off in a microsecond, all while having to maintain the image of a brave, stoic soldier - until something inside their heads would finally blow a fuse. She had an idea. “I’m taking you back to my room.” Optimus stared at her through a bleary fog. “What? No, I…” “I wasn’t asking, you big idiot.” She helped him to his feet. Together, they returned to Blackarachnia’s cabin, with Optimus leaning on her for support. She gently eased him into a cobweb she’d carefully shaped into a kind of hammock. It was soft and cold to the touch. “Now,” she said quietly, “I want you to just relax and let me take care of everything. All right?” Optimus was too exhausted to argue. Blackarachnia went about her work, covering Optimus’s body with strand after strand of spider-silk, not to imprison him, but to soothe him, as if she were tucking Optimus underneath multiple layers of soft blankets. Optimus’s erratic pant began to slow into a peaceful, steady breathing. She finished by placing a hand on his forehead. “Go to sleep, Optimus,” she whispered. “I’m here. I’m safe. It’s all over.” Optimus’s eyes cracked open an inch to look at Blackarachnia one more time. Then they eased back shut, and Optimus’s fever was gone. Blackarachnia nestled back on another web-hammock she had crafted, and watched Optimus from several feet away. After a moment, she got out, and climbed into Optimus’s hammock, snuggling up against his side. Her four red eyes gradually began to close. In a short while, she was asleep too.