I forced Perceptor to swear secrecy before dragging my 'Quintesson Special' across his examination table. Perceptor balked and flinched.

"Come on!" I demanded. "I don't have a lot of time. I need answers before he's found missing!"

"Rodimus, this is very unlike you."

"Yeah, yeah. I've turned into the Big Bad Wolf. I don't think it's a real Quintesson. He-or it-can shape-change."

That was enough to tantalize Perceptor. He grabbed all his science toys and worked over the body for two hours before drawing a good guess.

"You're half right, Rodimus, it's half Quintesson and something else I've not seen except in ancient manuals."

"Another species?"

"Negative. What we have is half a Quintesson body and half nano-technology. Apparently, the nanites have been trained or programmed to 'fill in' parts of the body. We see eight tentacles, but in fact there are only four. My guess is this Quintesson can activate them at will or command."

"Experiment, then?"

"I'm afraid not." Perceptor replied with disgust. "Historically speaking, the Quintessons are known to utilize nano technology to replace maimed extremities or control disease. This skill to alter their structure is rare-not inconceivable-but certainly not to this extent, either."

"Gosh, teacher, why's that?"

Perceptor ignored my sarcasm and ran another scan. "This extreme procedure results in host body disintegration a few years after the application. Cellular decay occurs due to rejection or the nanites simply die off."

It meant I was short on time. "So I don't suppose there's a way to find out where our slimy friend here got his plastic surgery, is there?"

Perceptor shook his head then met my optics. "Rodimus, there's only two possible places I'm aware of: a planet called Alcastor located in the Delta Sector along the Forbidden Territories and on Cybertron somewhere in the Phantom District."

"The Phantom District?" I repeated. "Why there?"

"Shockwave controlled a vast complex in that vicinity several megania ago. He conducted experiments of his own. I'd not be surprised if a few of them were spawned by Quintesson ideology. Naturally, the complex was raided and destroyed by Autobot rebels led by Sentinel Prime. However, there are no records indicating how much of the complex Sentinel actually destroyed. Chances are, you may find some answers there."

I stared at 'Grandma Modulus.' It looked like I'd have to take a day off, play hookie and snoop around someone else's backyard. "Perceptor, I want this and all evidence of it completely destroyed. Don't save anything; not even in your logs or journals."


"You've been working on new solar cells all this time, haven't you?"


"Haven't you?"

"Yes. Of course!"

I gave him a stern look then departed to see Springer.

"What's that?" Springer's legs dangled from a platform under the landing gear of an Autobot cruiser. Not only was Springer my air force commander since SkyScraper's horrific death in 2005, but the wrecker also acted as Mr. Fixit for all our shuttles. All our cruisers and ships were like children to him. I made sure Springer got the honor of naming all new ships in Autobot City.

"You heard me. Cybertron. Phantom District. Now."

His legs disappeared and his head came out the landing shaft and hung upside down. "Are you asking me on a date, Roddi-boy?"

I smiled wryly. "It'll be undercover, no radio contact and dangerous."

"Oh! You mean covert! Well, why didn't you say so?" Springer disappeared under his landing gear then hopped down and wiped his hands. "Well, I still need to take the White Out here for a test-ride. Gosh, Roddi, you wouldn't happen to have time for a test-run in my newly-repaired ship, would you?"

I smiled.

We settled in newly-installed reclining chairs. I took up navigation while Springer took helm. I'd never dream of running his ship.

The wrecker preset thrusters. "Metroplex control, this is the White Out. Permission to depart for test run. Over?"

"Great day for soaring high in the sky, White Out How is it hanging, Springer?" Blaster's voice came out the com channels far too cheerfully. I could never fake that much enthusiasm. Springer and I shared frowns.

"Uh, hopefully nothing's hanging anywhere off my ship, Blaster."

"Gotchya on the rise, White Out. And you're A-okay for lift-off! Wind's moving at seven knots, south-by-southeast. Happy crusin'!"

Springer poured on the juice and we shot out, twisted half way and zipped off Earth's atmosphere. Springer let out a yelp of excitement as we approached the moon.

"Drop out of sight, Springer," I ordered. "I don't want anyone tracking us." He looked at me, suspicious. "Covert," I answered his unspoken question.

"Yeah, but aren't we supposed to, you know, sort of declare we're here? We could hit someone."

"No. Just drop into sub-orbit and swing around to the trade route. You can hit warp from there."

Stubborn as myself, Springer pulled the White Out to a complete halt, turned to face me entirely and stared like a desert stone. "The trade routes?" he snarled. "The trade routes? Are you trying to stir trouble?"


"Then what the-"

"Springer, I don't have a lot of time."

He shrugged. "You're the boss."

Springer dropped the White Out and we slipped under the moon's southern region to avoid the lunar colonies altogether. He eased the ship into 'shadow space,' areas not marked as safe travel paths. Closing on the Venusain orbit, Springer tipped the ship along her right axis point and we maneuvered onto a highway system lined only by subspace buoys. Each of these buoys produced a short-wave, anti-protonic pulsar of rubidium and cybertonium. Not visible to Human eyes, but very pretty to Transformer optical sensors.

The second we 'surfaced' on the trade route, a ship, clearly displaying the Decepticon sigil appeared as if from nowhere and hailed us.

"This is Merthyr of Decepticon Space Control. Declare yourselves."

Springer flinched at the soft sound of a Decepticon femme's voice. I grinned. "Merthyr! This is Roddi. I'm hanging out here with Springer on the White Out. Sorry we didn't request clearance earlier. We're out on a scavenger hunt to Cybertron and I didn't want anyone else to know that I'm taking the day off. How's stuff?"

"Stuff." It was actually a question, but Decepticon 'ladies' operated on a strict diet of logic. She tried to quantify and translate my greeting.

"Yeah," I returned. "Just thought I'd be polite, exchange pleasantries. That sort of thing."

"I see. Very well, then, Rodimus Prime. How is Optimus?"

"Op's doing swell, Merthyr. Thanks. Say, our destination is Cybertron, the Phantom Zone. Do you think you can sorta, I dunno, not mention our tet-a-tet out this way?"

"I may have to report your presence to traffic control, but I'm sure Cyclonus will not mind the secrecy."

"We 'reach', Merthyr. Are we special?"

"Hmph." She found our conversation amusing.

"Yes, Rodimus," her velvet voice returned in pleasant tones, "exceedingly 'special'. Enjoy your time on Cybertron."

Springer shook his head in disbelief and punched in coordinates to our homeworld. I sat back and listened to Springer's music with mild interest. Radee-On, a music group from Iaacon, scored big across Cybertron. They were okay. Not Metallica-okay, but okay.

Even by Autobot standards, Cybertron floated a good distance from Earth. Sitting between Neptune and Uranus, Cybertron's orbit kicked around the sun in a wide-angle elliptical orbit. At least our planet had an orbit. Before Megatron pulled his little stunt and teleported the planet to the Sol system, our hapless world floated through space like a metallic tumbleweed. In a strange and twisted way, Megatron actually did us a favor.

Something hit my arm and I stirred from a nap. I did not realize I drifted.

Springer glanced at me. "Morning, sleepy-head. Cybertron's on the horizon. Better buckle up."

I just sat there and stared out the screen. It was nice to sleep without dreams of Trion hunting me down and peeling my exostructure as though it were animal skin and sinking his teeth into me. No, Trion does not have teeth, but in my dreams, he certainly did.

Checking my chronometer, I deduced it was about nine-fifteen A.M. on Earth. Op was probably up and getting his wake-me juice.

"Hey, Springer." I greeted.


"You know, I need to drag Op away from all his Earthly duties and take him to the park or something."

"Uh-huh. Don't know how you'd manage to sneak him out undetected. Grandpa Trion will want to know all the details-and a postcard while you're away."

"Grandpa Trion?! Ewwe!" now I was awake. Springer snorted in laughter as I plucked out a few energon chips from subspace and downed them.

"Well, there's ways around him. You got that cloak from what's-his-name, don't you?"

"She," I corrected. "Ambassador Elch Th'yinion. And yeah, I do. Two of them."

"Well, there you are."

"Yup," I agreed, "and there's an Autobot space cadet coming in at ten o'clock. Gridiron, from the looks of it."

Springer evaded the scout by dipping behind an old abandoned freighter. We shut everything down; power, lights, communications, and just let the White Out float. Gridiron made the usual scouting rounds, examining only what was obvious and paid no attention to his scanners at all-if he even used them.

We waited a solid twenty minutes for the all-clear then Springer swung around the planet and spiraled into Cybertron's dead zone airspace. Usually this was not a good idea. But since nothing else flew in that sector (or so we hoped), it was safe to make a 'drop-dip' entry.

As a whole, Cybertron still recovered from Unicron's terrible onslaught eighty-plus Earth years ago. A full one-quarter of the planet was not habitable, leaving huge pocket regions unguarded where anyone could sneak onto the planet without being seen.

I wanted to assign guardians and combiner teams to those areas. But the Defense Administration insisted they'd do it their way; that Cybertron was essentially not my concern. Out-voted, I protested. They pulled several political strings and accused me of bullying, and applying tyrannical actions. They even tried to imply that I acted like a Decepticon.

I fought legalities and political campaigns until one day I found Swoop dead at my quarter's door. Two weeks later, Wheelie died of a highway accident. Bumblebee died of a bomb supposedly left by the Decepticons during Megatron's rule. Grimlock ended up in repair bay. We managed to save him, but after Swoop's death, he was not quite the same.

In each instance, we found no proof of tampering or sabotage. I wasn't fooled, but could not prove a dammed thing. I'm also smart enough to acknowledge there are spies in Metroplex. I take them down whenever, wherever and however I can, but I don't always succeed.

Arcee spies for her Daddy Dearest. I also know Sixshit's involved. That's a no-brainer. Twin Twist; another no-brainer. And I would not be surprised if Trion has paid a number of humans to spy for him.

Primus, I worry for Optimus.

Springer flew low and slow along the roads and valleys of a dead city. It always made me sad to see the 'deserts' on Cybertron. To think that the entire planet once supported life at every level and surface seems more like a fairy tale or a far-fetched dream.

A series of rounded, squatting buildings rose along the horizon. All of them twisted at least twice as they rose off the surface like mechanical alien mushrooms.

"Here, Springer," I said quietly, "This will do."

"We're still twenty miles out, Rod."

"All the better."

Springer set the White Out down and I checked my rifle. "You gonna stay with the car or did you wanna come along?"

"No, I'll come along," the wrecker answered in kind. "Wait, you did say it could be dangerous, right?" I nodded. "Yeah, I'm comin' but I gotta let you know, Roddi, I'll be your potty pal, but not your body guard."

We stepped out, transformed and headed for the ancient complex at a careful speed. I did not want to look conspicuous, whether or not anything lived here. Besides that, the hostile terrain aggravated us with gaping holes, hidden spikes and deep trenches.

"Okay, Mr. Leader," Springer teased. "What are we looking for?"

"Hah. You know me, Springer. I'll know it when I see it."

"I knew you were going to say that."

We crossed the distance in a twenty-minute drive. The level on which we drove cut off at the half-mile point to the complex. The bridge crossing a huge canyon collapsed some time in the past. It created a great gulf between us and our destination. Springer sighed.

"I suppose I could just heft you over there."

"No," I objected. "No flying." We glanced everywhere and just when I guessed Springer was right, I spotted a control center a good half mile from our position. I tagged my companion. "Come on. Let's try it this way."

Picking our way over fallen buildings, ancient crashed aircraft and the remains of creatures I'd never guess, we approached the control dias for an energy bridge. None of the controls were written in either Autobot or Decepticon.

Springer fingered the controls. "I don't like this. Looks too new to be ancient. I mean, it looks like someone recently built it."

"Mm. And password-protected, too, I'll bet."

"You sure you don't wanna fly over?"

Before I answered, the control panel lit up and a bridge materialized and stretched toward us from the other side of the canyon. I grabbed Springer by the helm and dragged him several yards to the right. We ducked around an old, rusted wall and peeked between cracks. The bridge lit everything in white and yellow as it completed its connection.

The distant hum of an antigrav vehicle whirred louder as it drew near. Springer yanked me down when we spotted two Quintesson lords. On board their land cruiser sat their pet sharks and an Autobot whom I automatically knew as Kliker. The Quintessons spoke with rumbling voices moaning in ancient verbiage. To my displeasure, Kliker spoke to them in their native language. I hoped he was a victim and not some schmuck volunteer.

They paused at the bridge. Two Sharkticons proceeded their blobby masters. Kliker followed and two Sharkticons tailed the procession. I waited, daring not to breathe. But I could not help but creep out, scrunching like a coilworm among the rubble. Springer followed. All I heard from my friend was the soft crunch of foot and knee across the ground. Inch to inch we crept toward the bridge. Never have I been so grateful Sharkticons haven't near the instincts of either Ravage or Steeljaw.

Now the Quintesson party reached half way. I knew the moment they touched ground at the other side, the bridge before us would vanish. I had to find out what lay at the other side of the yellow brick road. Was Kliker victim or volunteer? I had to find out if Grandma Modulus originated from here. And more than all that, I had to find out how Quintessons so freely traveled my home world.

I gazed at Springer whose body coiled as tightly as mine; a spring ready to snap; a snake ready to strike. We did not have to say a word, we just knew.

Move! I wanted to shout at the Quintesson party. It's ridiculous and funny to want the Quints to hurry to the other side as opposed to falling off the bridge in a nice and disgusting splat. Actually, I don't blame the Quintessons for being here. Nope. I knew exactly whom to blame-and if I ever get the opportunity-

There! The procession finally made it and I counted twenty seconds before Springer and I leapt onto the bridge, transformed and raced against the dissolving conjunction.

"You'd better be ready for a fight," I told my pilot and companion.

"You did say it'd be dangerous," Springer reminded. "Otherwise, I'd have to charge you a boredom fee."

We poured on the accelerant just as the bridge faded from reality. Only our momentum kept me and Springer from falling into the chasm far below.

I must have gotten a portion of Op's good luck because just as we smacked metal ground, the Quintesson club disappeared behind heavy doors. They heard and saw nothing-or at least appeared to see and hear nothing.

Springer and I lay flat where we hit ground, staying motionless as we expected guards and flood lights, cyberdogs and motion detectors all pop up like mechanical meerkats at a fair.

The world and the air and the tall buildings before us remained ever soundless; a sprout of inactivity in a graveyard in the middle of a lifeless desert. I hated this place. I actually thought death hung in the air and sprawled along the ground. The darkness of the Phantom District stirred the Matrix so that it cursed the deadness and receded into memories far more ancient than the lives of most Autobots.

The Matrix cursed the Quintessons. It cursed someone named Hydra Liege. Then it cursed Alpha Trion. I winced and slightly shook my head to regain concentration. Twenty minutes. Thirty. Forty-five. I half-moved, rising just enough to see if motion sensors guarded the place.

Springer's optics flared but he wisely kept quiet. I rose a bit more and moved my head.

No response.

I sat on my knees, scanned left, right, up, right, down and right again. Moving to my haunches, I examined the semi-spiral constructs. No windows. Not surprising, really. Not much to see.

Springer flat out stood up and I followed with a frown. I used to be less cautious than I am now. But after a few really bad incidents with the Terrorcons, I learned that rash can be fun but costly. Nodding right, I led toward the tallest of five Quintesson structures. As we neared the doorways, it occurred to me how these buildings could not have been built just in the last year or two; they must have been here for quite a while. That thought made my fuel boil. How was I ever supposed to nail this on the Defense Administration?

The doors swung, slowly drawing back and Springer and I leapt off the road into rubble, debris and ancient wreckage. A pair of trucks rolling on spiked metal wheels rumbled past us. their engines pounded the air with old sounds of pistons and unkept crankshafts. The trucks were not Cybertronian in origin; more like a hybrid between an Earth construct and something concocted from a third-grader's science fair. I wanted to laugh at them, but the mission pulled me toward more important affairs.

Springer and I dashed over wreckage, making way too much noise. We ducked when another pair of trucks thundered out. I wanted to know what they carried.

Later, I promised myself.

We plowed through debris and reached the giant doors just as they started lowering for the thudding closure. I went ahead of Springer just in case we'd run into trouble. I could hear Magnus and Kup scolding me for blunt recklessness, but Springer's life was ... well, more important.

He caught up with me and gave me the dirtiest look. Ignoring Mister I'm-Not-your-Babysitter, I pointed right and we transformed and switched to silent mode. We passed one corridor after another and rolled another level up.

What I was looking for, I hadn't a clue but I knew we couldn't go sight-seeing too much longer. Eventually someone was going to find us.

Before we encountered anyone, however, I spotted a vestibule leading to a balcony. "Here," I said to Springer. We transformed and entered its dark mouth. A railing met us at the other side and we peered into the next level down where hundreds of Humans, Sharkticons, a few Quintessons and an occasional Autobot worked along huge, long assembly lines. That was just one area. Another section contained a physical training course, complete with Human instructors teamed with single-faced Quintessons. And yet another section resembled a shipping-and-receiving area where Humans in exosuits and Sharkticons stacked giant pyramids of crates.

Springer's face twisted in bewilderment. "What the heck are they shipping?"

I shook my head. "You can be sure it's not something from Hickory Farms."

"They look well-fed," Springer observed. "And they don't look too unhappy.

I was not so convinced. Quintessons have never been known for their good, well-meaning and gracious nature.

The pattern of metal footsteps caused me and Springer to spin about, expecting security guards-or worse-one of our own. When we saw nothing, I lifted my optics toward the ceiling and laid a finger over my lip components. Pointing to the ceiling, and thereby the balcony above, I crouched and crawled as close to the edge as I dared.

The first voice, clearly Quintesson, surprised me by speaking English. "Ahh, I am pleased you two have returned from Metroplex. How goes things?"


I and Springer both about lost our optics in shock. That was Smokescreen! No! I thought-and I clammed my hand over my mouth to keep it shut. No, no, no! Why?

"What seems to be the problem?" the Quintesson's voice dripped with monotone, cold as the world outside.

"Rodimus Prime is absent again. We do not know how he left the city or where he went."

"What of Optimus?"

Cliffjumper answered and I swallowed all my words. No. NO! WHY?! What promises did they accept in exchange for their loyalty? What did I do-or fail to do-that caused them to work for... maybe they were given no choice. I shut my optics, hoping against the facts, against the odds.

"Optimus remains stubborn as ever." Cliffjumper reported. "I told you he'd never betray Rodimus."

Smokescreen's calm, collected voice rang again. "Rodimus Prime may be with the Decepticons again. He has been spotted on occasion en route to Trapesius."

"We must be certain," the Quint insisted.

Smokescreen bucked the underhanded order: "every time either you or the Administration has sent someone to follow Rodimus they end up either shredded or they've disappeared entirely. It's clear the Decepticons both support and protect Rodimus Prime. If you plan to assist in Trion's coup, then you will need to create a defense against Decepticon retaliation."

"You, Smokescreen, obviously overestimate your old enemies. The Decepticons' greed will destroy them for us. They are gullible, easily deceived and will fall apart with next to no effort on our part."

"I dunno," Cliffjumper countered carefully. "So far Cyclonus has kept the Decepticons on a tight leash."

"You underestimate our alliance with the Autobot Defense Administration," the Quint returned confidently. "Together, we will secure a meaningful and prosperous future. All we need to do is eliminate the present Autobot administration and to do that, we must set them up for rejection. We must discredit them in front of the Autobots. Return to Mars and inform them to the next shipment will be ready in five days."

I felt sick and mercifully enough, the morbid conversation ended. I wanted to puke my 'guts' out. How many other Autobots have surrendered their freedom to work with the Quintessons? I grew up with Cliffjumper and Smokescreen. How could they do this? I rolled over to get on my feet but grief kept me down. I felt like someone punched me directly in the thorax.

"Hey!" Springer's voice came to me but it sounded as if I were in a box with him outside trying to speak through the cardboard. Springer helped me to my knees and I slumped.

"Roddi," he said again, "I know it's a real blow but we can't stay here. Come on." Springer dragged my pathetic body to its feet and I half-walked, half-dragged myself, slumping against him like a wounded soldier devoid of strength or will.

Springer supported me until I found my resolve. It took a lot to remember that the Quintesson was dead-ass wrong about Cyclonus. I hoped somehow my friendship with the Decepticons might be a serious detriment to Trion and his piranha pool. I also took comfort that they could not crack Optimus. He was a thorn in their side and I could not wait to get back to Metroplex and find out what he's been up to.

Finally I took in a good deep breath and stood straight. Meeting Springer's optics, I wondered about his loyalties. Was he a spy? Was he a friend only for the moment? "Thanks, Springer, I guess the shock-"

"I know." he acknowledged. "I gotta get you home."

The phrase struck me odd because I knew Springer meant Earth, although Cybertron was our home planet. He was right; Earth was home.

"Home sounds good," I agreed. "But first, I want to destroy this operation. If they're doing what I think they're doing here, then we need to cut this end of the snake."

Springer dragged me to a secluded corner. "What is WRONG with you?!" he whispered harshly. "There are Humans here!"

"And there will be more of them unless we destroy this place. I don't want to do it. I have to. If you knew what I know what's going to happen to the Humans here, believe me, you'd agree-"

"Then let's find a way to save them-"

"Springer!" my voice shot out before I caught it and I clamped my hand over my face and prayed no one heard. The two of us peered round the corner. Only the dim lighting, the empty hall met us. We resumed the argument: "Springer, how by Primus do you expect us to carry out an unknown number of heavily-guarded Humans? Even IF I could stash them in the back of my trailer, you can't just pack them in like a can of mackerel! Humans have to breathe!"

He stared at me with lost hope, his despair reflected mine. "You're saying we have to kill-we have to kill everyone here-"

"-to save everyone else?" I finished. "Yes."

He turned away then swung back. "They're not Decepticons! They're not-" his optics skittered to avoid mine. I'd not seen Springer so visibly upset. I never realized how much Springer valued life. Not just his own, but life in general. He steeled his optics on me. "I hate your job!"

We stole through the first building then snuck into the second, finding much the same but at a more intense pace. Sharkticons came and went, often led by single-faced Quintessons. The second building, however, housed more electronic supplies geared for the complex on Mars. The two of us peek-a-booed through several rooms stuffed with crates. We sampled one selection after another until I found exactly what I was hoping to find; explosives.

I tossed one such 'puppy' to Springer. "Never leave your homeworld without one," I joked.

"There's no timer on these things, Rodimus."

"So? We'll set one up."

"I left my pocket watch on Earth."

I took back the explosive, stabbing Springer with an annoyed expression. "Watch and learn from the expert, Oh Ye Of Little Imagination."

Studying the one explosive, I calculated thirty of them would do the job right nicely, as long as I linked them to the building's electrical system. We lasered a panel out of one wall where I tapped into power cords and communication lines. From there, I dismantled my external communicator, my short-range weapon and two energon goodies as delayed power sources.

Springer watched, dubious but impressed with my skill. "Who taught you how to do all this?"

"Nobody. It's a Prime-thing, Grasshopper. When you are forced to survive time spent with the Twins, you have to improvise, keep your wits about you or end up as the aft-side of their pranks."

"Then it WAS you who rigged their guns to backfire and spray them with guano!"

Shit-eating grin.

"Oh no," Springer moaned. "Were you also responsible for rewiring their quarters-"

"To broadcast them live over the net and on special access TV? Guilty as charged." I connected the last explosive to the train of destruction carefully calculated to foil Quintesson exploits.

Springer grinned approvingly. "I guess I should not be surprised. I do wonder, however, how you managed to pull stuff like that without getting caught."

I eyed him, my lip components lined straight. "I did get caught, Springer. I just never got into trouble. Op fessed up to me a couple days ago. I think, Springer, you'd be shocked to learn that he knew a hell of a lot more of what was going on than he let on. Like me, I guess. I mean ..." I sighed and slumped. "You know, I'm so distracted by all the stuff going on that I can't concentrate on what I really need to do. As a Prime, I mean. I can't keep track of things like I need to. Do you not realize that I'm supposed to know what's going on at any time, at any place on Cybertron and Metroplex? Do you know that? But I can't. I'm-I'm so distracted and so worried; everything is so messed up ... I can't do my job. I can't take care of the Autobots. I can't-" Casting my gaze elsewhere, I forced my frustration into working faster.

"Not to worry, Roddi. We'll fix it. The CDA can't replace you. After all, you have allies and good friends. I'm sure when the time comes, they'll be there to get us out of a jam."

I appreciated his optimism. "Cyclonus?" I asked. "Wish you could meet him, Springer. I mean really meet him. Under that Mr. Spock exterior vibrates the core of a really cool guy."

Springer shrugged. "Well, I was thinking more of Ambassador Elch Th'yinion. What was so special about those cloaks she gave you, anyway?"

My face spread into a pleased smile. "Nuthin' Springer; just a couple of really big curtains with pretty colors." He stared, hoping for a more detailed answer. But when I clammed up, Springer shrugged and dropped the topic. I stood and stretched. "Fifteen minutes and counting. And you know, I think it's a good idea to leave about now." I stared at my handiwork, confident it'll do the job.

"Okay." Springer turned about face and started out. "Hopefully we can sneak out as easily as-." He stopped in mid sentence and I waited for him to finish. Instead, he slowly back-tracked toward me.

I shook my head and started toward the exit myself when abruptly I came face to face with Smokescreen. I froze as conflicting emotions tore me inside. "Smokescreen," I greeted with a surprised voice. I did not need to look down to see his weapon trained on me.

"Well, this is not how I ever wanted things to happen, Rodimus." he said grimly.

"Me too," I squeaked. "Y-you're not where you're supposed to be."

"True," he nodded. "But then, neither are you."

"So, what do we do, Smokescreen? I can't say that I approve of your new selection of friends. I'll have to talk with them about Autobot protocol and trespassing on Cybertron-"

"You know, Rodimus," he cut in, "This really upsets me. It means I'll have to invent some story for Optimus now. Something to the effect that you were caught dabbling in business you tried to keep secret from him. I'm sure it'll upset him. But he will recover."

I did not bother answering. Kicking the gun out his hand, I followed through with a bang to Smokescreen's chin. Being the tempered warrior, Smokescreen rebounded and drilled into my chest. I smacked the nearest wall and chopped his shoulders at the base of his neck. He partly crumbled and I introduced him to my knee.

Springer unsheathed out his deadly sword and leapt to my rescue.

"No!" I objected, a hand held against my companion. "You can't!"


"He's still an Autobot!"

That cost me. Smokescreen nailed me hard in the back. Springer and I collided into a steel crate. Smokescreen leapt. I rolled out of his path and whacked my elbow into 'Screen's chest then kicked him in the side. Hefting my weight on the crate's top, I rolled backward and landed behind the pile of rubble while Springer scrambled away, retrieving his sword. "Smokescreen," I backed off. "Don't force me to fight you."

He rose, wincing, his hand pressed against the damage in his side. "Rodimus, it's too late. It's been too late for you for a long, long time. How about you just surrender and I take you to Contrara?"

"First of all, she hates me. Secondly, how about you just come with us. we can work this out."

"No." He retrieved his weapon and set it to kill. "Your world doesn't exist anymore, Rodimus. I'm really sorry. But Alpha Trion was right. It's time the Autobots learned to adapt a more democratic way of thinking. We don't need a Prime. We've moved past that stage in our evolution."

"A bit sudden an evolution, isn't it, Smokescreen?" I dared a half-step left. "I mean, the Matrix still considers us its progeny; its responsibility."

"The Matrix is an alien artifact, Rodimus. Look, just come with me and -and I'll see if I can arrange it so that you're not harmed."

"Over Trion's road-kill carcass would he ever agree-" I dodged the first shot. Smokescreen aimed for Springer and grazed the Triplechanger's shoulder. I tackled and the two of us smashed into a tower of crates and boxes. I wrestled for Smokescreen's weapon while he fired it three more times. Sirens split the air with screams and the complex beat with the pounding of alerted Sharkticons.

Kicking the gun out of his hand, my fist rose to pummel someone I once considered a friend. When I hesitated he struck me. Even with damage to my left shoulder, a slight dent in the back, I could not believe I fought someone I trusted, someone I cared about.

Smokescreen clambered to his feet. I scooted back, reluctant to stand. He inched toward me.

"Smokescreen," I called with a broken voice. "We can't be doing this. Don't make me. Don't make me." I almost could not hear myself above the wailing alarms.

He brought forth his shoulder-mounted rockets. "Hold still. It's already over."

My aft it was. I waited point zero four more seconds then jumped to my haunches and launched as the rocket shot. The shockwave snapped Smokescreen across the room. He smacked the far wall and disappeared behind another collection of crates.

Springer's voice called above the thunder. Unable to answer, I grieved bitter over a friend lost to political schemes. Smokescreen rejected me not just as a leader, but as a friend. I became nothing to him. Sorrow enfeebled me so that when Springer shouted again I still could not reply. The howling alarms mocked me. Springer yelled again and tried to contact me via internal comlines. I simply could not answer.

A strong hand caught my right foot and dragged me several yards. My resolve snapped back into place and I kicked out of Smokescreen's grip.

"Springer!" I cried between wailing alarms. "Where are you? Springer!" A metal box belted my left shoulder and I smacked the floor a bit too hard. Dizzy and slightly disoriented, I rolled to my knees. A set of hands grabbed the edges of my spoiler before gifting me with a right-cross. I used the impact to roll backward and reoriented my scanners so that I caught Smokescreen's next attempt. Grappling him at the audios, I yanked him down then dragged him up and body-slammed him into a line of crates. No matter how much I wanted to deny the reality, I faced the fact that he was in control of his faculties. He knew what he was doing. He accepted lies and falsehoods. I struck him. I felt the pain. He punched with all his might. He kicked and swore and growled, meaning to break my body, meaning to end my life. I slammed his head into the floor and wept. I hurt. Each time I smashed his head, I felt his pain and wept more.

The precious light of life faded from his optics. He lay still. His life blood crept along the floor and through tears, I spotted my reflection, incriminating me.

"We have to go."

Springer's voice sounded as though it were millions of miles away. I could not move. I did not want to move. I wanted to lie down and die next to Smokescreen. I wanted to find him in the world beyond death and tell him how so very sorry I was.

"I-I can't," I managed. "Springer, I can't. I killed... I killed him. I KILLED HIM!!"

Springer stared me in the optics. "He was going to do the same thing to you and to Optimus. Would you rather have that instead?"

I hoped to die soon. I did not protest when Springer hauled me off Smokescreen's prone form. Springer dragged me out the room, down the hall and into another room while a collection of Sharkticons marched by, heedless of our energy signatures.

Trembling, I slumped against the wall and tried to gather myself together. We were in big trouble. The explosives I set gave us but six more minutes. "You'll have to fly," I told my friend, my voice barely audible. "Springer, you'll have to fly out to get out of here in time."

"Not leaving you." he whispered back.

"It doesn't matter."

"Yes it DOES!"


He shot me a venomous look. "Hiya, Springer," he said, sounding a bit like Kup, "seen Rodimus anywhere? Oh, sure, Kup. I left him on Cybertron where he committed suicide while I ran away from a fight with Sharkticons. Yeah, looks really good on my resume, doesn't it?" Guilt smothered me. I could not think. He gripped my upper arms. "Rodimus. Roddi. You could not do anything about Smokescreen. I'm sorry you did what you had to do. But you had to do it. If not for your sake, then for mine. We have six minutes to get the jeebees out of here. Don't make me drag your sorry aft in front of Primus and everyone while cracking bad jokes to a crowd of Sharkticons!"

His little speech helped me orient to the moment. I could not save Smokescreen. But I could save Springer. I got him into this situation. Now I had to get him out. I was in command.

I also had to get back to Optimus.

New goal in mind, I set myself straight; get Springer out, get back to Optimus. Clear and simple. As I gathered my poise and self control, a troop of Sharkticons marched down the hall. Some loud-mouthed Quintesson bellowed above the crying sirens. I could not tell what was said, but the Sharkticons behaved like whipped dogs.

Another barking Quint called in from the other end of the hall and my optics darkened with dying hope. We had four minutes to escape this level in the building.

Springer whispered and beaconed me to peek through the crack under the door. "They're taking on transport crates!" the excitement in his voice gave me a slice of interest. I peered down, though all I saw were a array of Sharkticon feet and Quintesson tentacles.

The two Quints in question yelled at one another. An electric whip snapped and sizzled. I winced, remembering being at the receiving end of such a whip at one time. The whip cracked and a Sharkticon roared. It banged the wall to the room Springer and I hid in. The two of us fled from the door just as the same Sharkticon smashed into it. The door broke and the hapless Sharkticon tumbled in the blind dark.

"Soktu, torkmauth, gobluku! Keprig slaug maugrid!" the cursing Quintesson beat the bumbling Sharkticon again and again. The electric whip crackled and snaked, delivering agony one strike after another. I almost felt sorry for the Shark.

"Soktu, chipbul slaug! Gluku orin muge!"

The indignant Quintesson stood in the doorway while two other Sharkticons helped the bungler to its feet. They rejoined the rest of the company and the Quintesson, momentarily satisfied, headed for the middle of the line. I waited, listening to Sharkticons march, their footfalls betraying the burdens they dragged and pushed through the corridor. One alarm finally subsided, relieving my throbbing head by a fraction. I dared a peek round the corner and watched the parade file past us. Crates and containers of all sizes and varying shapes convoyed beyond our position. Peeking between passing Sharkticons, I hailed Springer on our internal comlines: "we can do this," I said with confident overtones. "We can just hitchhike on or under or in one of those bigger boxes."

"Swell," Springer returned, "boxed Autobot; cozy as a coffin."

I ignored his sarcasm and scrunched down, waiting for just the right second. I knew if we could not find our way out now, we could kiss our lives good-bye. After the beating I took from Smokescreen, it seemed someone repaid us with the opportunity we needed. The Sharkticon train paused. I instantly grabbed Springer and we slipped into a crate with a half-opened door. We scrunched in just as the train pressed forward again.

Twenty seconds.

The procession trounced down a stairwell.

Ten seconds.


I slowly, silently shut the little door to our crate.

CHOOM! The explosion sounded as though Omega Supreme sneezed. The Quintessons freaked and squealed orders. They whacked their whips and Sharkticons worked faster. Springer and I clenched our mouths to keep from yelping as we were hefted, tossed and stacked. A second explosion frightened the Quintessons into a frenzy.

"Dogere! Dogere!" they screamed. The transport in which we hid activated and shot away as another explosion aggravated the illegal Quintesson activity.

I did not see anything, tucked safely away in a crate, in a transport speeding from the complex. But I knew my little make-shift bomb destroyed at least one building. I hoped for a domino effect. But I had to settle for far less. At least in the dark, Springer could not read my expression.

I came to find more information on 'Grandma Modulus' and instead, learned the gravity and extent of power wielded by the Defense Administration. Was I a fool for not finding out sooner? Or were they that good at covert operations? Was I so blind and so stupid that it took next to nothing for Trion and his party pack to roll right over me and take control?

I failed; flat out, undeniably, failed. What sort of dork allowed anything like this to happen?

Springer spoke. Even with a low, quiet voice, the sound of it seemed to shout, "this wasn't your fault, Rodimus."

Did he mean that, or was he just offering me sympathetic platitudes? I bowed over, struck by a profound sense of failure and the horror that I murdered one of my own people. "Springer," I whispered, "this would not have happened to Optimus were he in charge."

"You're blaming yourself for something someone else did. You think you should be able to read everyone else's thoughts. Optimus couldn't do that. What makes you think you can?"

I couldn't answer him. I couldn't answer my own questions. I couldn't face myself. "Springer... Springer, he said that Trion said that the Matrix was an alien artifact. He made it sound so obsolete. So antiquated and unimportant. And, and it makes me wonder how many other Autobots have accepted that line of thought."

"Roddi," Springer's voice came gentle but a bit firm. "You can't afford to start doubting yourself or your place."

"It's not me, Springer. I mean, if the Autobots reject the Matrix... and my life is connected to the Matrix and they reject-" emotional overload refrained me from finishing the thought. Springer's hand caught my foot. He found my knee then my head, bowed in sorrow and shame.

"We're going to get you back to Metroplex. We'll figure this out. We just need to get home."

"Your world doesn't exist anymore. We don't need a Prime. We've moved past that stage in our evolution." I felt sick and little by little, I shut down as blissful sleep lured me into a temporary realm where I forgot about Smokescreen, his words and his death.

I sat in Op's office, shivering with cold. My joints hurt. My fuel lines frosted with the onset of illness. Optimus sat calmly at his desk, paying little attention. He levitated digipads and data tablets above the desktop. They spun in a lazy circle. A couple of them flipped over and over. I did not understand why only the two pads flipped in the air.

Sending my gaze out Op's windows, the world outside changed into a universe of galaxies; millions of them. I tried to count them but the astonishing number made me sicker.

"I'm so cold, Optimus. I keep crying. I don't know what's wrong with me."

He fixed a gentle gaze on me. "You're dying, Rodimus," he said. "And I have to send you to a new place."

I stirred to life. The sadness returned, but oddly I felt lighter and clearer. The transport still journeyed across the dead land and I wondered how far we were from the White Out. I wondered if we'd even be able to escape. If so, we had to do it while still in the middle of nowhere.


"An hour."


"You've been sleeping for an hour and that means we're at least seventy miles from the complex."

"Are you reading my mind or something?"

"No," Springer answered simply. "It's just that I'd be asking the same questions."

"Okay. Good to know. So um, how about you and me get out of this lunch box and back to the ship?"

His keen blue optics fixed on me, expecting me to act like the leader and do the dirty work. Taking the moment lightly I decided to do just that. I quietly opened the door and found the outside world just as dark. Switching to thermal vision, I discovered most crates and boxes around us sat empty. A few contained nondescript materials, tools and electronic fare. To my relief, no cargo-sitter attended the back of the transport. Sometimes I'd assign someone to keep an optic on items sent across the miles. But in the middle of Primus-knows-where, the Quintessons felt no threat.

With my recent 'handiwork', that would change.

Popping out and stepping-stone my way among the crates and boxes, I found the doorway. Springer copied and squatted next to me. His head roved up, down and around like an insect scoping out new surroundings. But he came to the same conclusions as I; a lock barred the door-and-gate system at the outside. Springer shook his head with a soft grunt.

"It's really not as hopeless and impossible as it looks," I said, meeting him with a wry smile.

"Are you planning another make-shift bomb?"

"Nah. I don't do reruns, Springer." climbing a short stack of boxes, I studied the upper hinge hugging the door-and-gate to the rest of the carrier. The hinge, rusted with use and scruffy with age, betrayed signs of fragility. All it needed was one wrong hit by a clumsy Sharkticon. Peering down, I tried to see if the hinge at the bottom bore the same symptoms. But lack of light kept me from seeing anything clear beyond basic shape and color.

"I'm gonna give it a shot," I told my friend. "We'll just have to hope that the driver isn't bright enough to know when something's been tampered with verses an accident."

To keep the damage looking like an accident at first glance, I refrained from using a weapon to shatter the hinges. Rather I used the butt of my weapon first, then Springer's sword to tear the hinge off. To my relief, the brittle bottom hinge fell apart in the matter of a couple of tries.

Delighted my plan worked, I did not consider how we'd get off the truck. That's one of those dumb little rules Prowl always tried to instill in me; always make sure you get out in one piece when you plan the escape. So I felt like an idiot when the door-and-gate swung clear of the truck and all the crates and boxes plopped, tumbled and slid out of control. Springer and I joined them. We crashed and crunched along the dark metal roadway as the transport continued on its merry way. The half-second I lost acceleration, I crept to the side of the cold, unlit road and dropped several feet out of sight. Springer followed. He fell further down and splashed into a liquid.

We clamped our mouths when the transport stopped, backed up several yards then parked. The driver and his buddy disembarked and stomped around, swearing like a miniature Ultra Magnus.

I swore internally. Specks and Plosivous; Autobots who worked under CDA member Orcus. That was it, then. It confirmed, in my head, that the CDA worked with the Quintessons.

"Hi, Avratel. Yeah, this is Specks. We have a slight problem out here. Those damned Sharkticons of yours have broken the hinges on the transport again. What are you yelling at me for? I just drive the damned truck. Well, we're eighty miles out the middle of nowhere, thanks. Yeah, it means we'll be late. Well... get your dogs better training!"

The conversation ended and Specks and Plosivous retrieved and stacked all the boxes and crates their weight capacity handled. All the rest, the large, oddly-shaped stuff, had to wait for a rescue transport.

I froze where I lay, though I slumped in an uncomfortable position. I did not feel *quite* so badly about Smokescreen, seeing how these two also worked for the Quintessons. But I wondered what price bought them. I wondered if their lack of loyalty was my fault; that maybe my leadership was not charismatic enough, not strong enough to keep them from participating in an organization that I knew sooner or later chained them in slavery.

Was I that pathetic a leader, or was Trion just that much better? I think about the news reporters and how they can't get enough of him; how he simply exudes charm. I see right through his facade and it makes me ill to listen to his speeches. He opens a fresh can of used glop and the reporters lap it up. They wouldn't know the truth if it reared up and spit them in the optic.

Twenty minutes passed and a smaller transport joined our 'Greyhound'. From what I heard, the driver of that transport was not an Autobot. If anything, the Quintessons were equal opportunity profiteers; they tried to screw everyone. The alien driver and the two Autobot Peons secured the crates and boxes and fused the broken side. Vehicle doors opened and slammed shut. Engines revved up and the trucks pulled out.

Stay down, I told myself. You never know if someone forgot to pick up their hat or left their keys on the ground. Wait. Ten minutes. Fifteen.

Okay. That was it for me. I wormed my way out of refuse and rolled onto the road. Pausing to listen to the world, I made certain our abandonment before hopping to my feet. Tugging Springer up, I watched as he picked at coil grubs for several minutes. Nasty things. They spiraled between armor plates and attached themselves to fuel lines.

"Got 'em all?" I asked as he smashed them with his foot.

"Hope so. Can we get back to the White Out, now? Are you all done playing hide-and-blow-it-up with the Quintessons?"

"Mm. Not really. I did not get what I initially came for."

"Which was?"

"Information about a shape-shifting Quintesson. But maybe what's important isn't so much as to how and where he got the technology, but why. And I think I already know why."

Springer cast his optics along the sullen horizon. "An alliance with the devil? So who's working for whom? Are the Quintessons working for the CDA, or is the CDA working for them?"

"Does it matter? The friend of my enemy is my enemy. Even if it's just business matters. Woe to those who put their trust in Quintessons and cast their fate in the pool of Sharkticons. Come on, Springer. I want to get off this planet."

I transformed and sped away, leaving Springer to decide for himself. I was not even sure I could trust him. And that hurt. So I directed my thoughts toward people I knew I could trust: Optimus and Cyclonus.

We gobbled miles of road. Images and shadows of a far darker time rose from nowhere and ghosted on my scanners. I forced myself not to get spooked by anything around us. after all, much of the dead lands weren't entirely devoid of life; just void of Autobot or Decepticon occupancy. Cybertron was designed to manufacture robotic life forms of all sorts from slaves to entire eco systems for other alien worlds. It made sense that much of those experimental creatures found an existence in a post-apocalyptic world. But no one, and I do mean no one, ever knew the extent of the number and types of robotic alien life forms that lived on Cybertron.

We passed the ruins of one city after another. I hoped nothing happened to the White Out during our absence. The prospect of being stranded in the Phantom Zone did not appeal to me; not when I blew someone's house. The Quintessons probably had my face on a wanted poster by now. Once we'd get back to Earth, I planned to make things a lot more stressful for them, too.

The road cut off as if someone took a giant mace and smashed it at the support beam. I almost did not break soon enough. I sailed into the air, transformed to robot mode and caught the edge, using left-over momentum to swing back on top the ledge. Springer saw that and braked in time. I landed gracefully and gauged the distance to the bottom; a bitter seven stories down.

"Can this day get any better?" Springer remarked.

"Sure it can. Look." I pointed to the distance where we found the White Out still parked where we left it. "You should have left the porch lights on, Springer."

"I could just fly us out there."

My optics found the road below us. It cascaded into a nice up-swing motion. "Tell you what, let's get off this level first, then we can fly in."

"Get off this lev- huh?"

I backed off some yards and found an antiquated transport sitting off the side of our road. Hacking off the roof, I made sure it withstood my weight. Taking a hard running start, I leapt off the edge, falling in slow motion. I admit that I'm not one for flying. But perfect weightlessness made the risk of smashing myself below worth the moment of intense coolness.

I slipped the hood under my feet like a snowboard and just half that second of first contact with the old, damaged road, I flexed my knees and kept my body in control of the 'board' under me. A beautiful shower of sparks followed as I 'skiied' over rubble, rocks and metal fragments. Springer joined me a moment later. He hacked off the truck's dilapidated hood and caught up to me as the road again broke away. It rose up, up and fell off. The turret gun of an prehistoric cannon protruded from a heap like an arm outstretched for the two of us. I caught it and hauled myself up partly so that my legs dangled comfortable below. Springer laughed when he did the same.

The light in his optics made my reckless abandon worth the risk. I grinned until I laughed. "We need to take that home with us."

"Nah," Springer argued with ease. "It'd not fit in my trunk."

It was a good answer. my optics rested on the White Out, patiently waiting for our return. "You know, Springer," I said softly, "Except to get back to Optimus, I don't want to go back to Earth. I don't want to stay here, but I don't want to go back, either. What the hell is wrong with me? I'm just... pathetic. Maybe it's that, um, after... after dealing with Smokescreen I can't say that I want to remain who and what I am. Maybe it's better to just relinquish to Trion and the CDA. There's just no telling how many other Autobots out there secretly or openly support the Defense Administration."

"I don't support them, Roddi." Springer confessed. "I know, and have known, they're wrong." he paused a half moment, optics forward. "They approached me. I know I never told you. But they did. 'Don't you ever wish you were or had more than you do?' they asked. 'More? Like what?' I asked in turn. But they only gave me generalities. And I think, Roddi, they lure people with vague ideas. They claim they're working for everyone's benefit, but I see little change. In the last eighty years, there's little difference. Well, except how Metroplex is plastered with CDA posters and banners everywhere. It's really annoying. So sometimes I'll grab a good can of paint and have at them during the night."

I laughed only once, feeling better. "I'm glad to hear that, Springer. Not so much about the graffiti, but that you do not see them better at performing their responsibilities."

"What responsibilities?" he came back. "I've yet to see any of them do anything beyond what they have to do in their own districts. And Trion, what exactly does he do when he's not preening in front of some camera? Pffp. No. I'm not fooled by them, Roddi. Now come on, let's get off this rock and get you back to Optimus."

He dropped, transformed and tipped so as to catch me when I took my turn at the drop. Springer carried me the last quarter mile to the White Out. Relief and joy swept aside pieces of my guilt over Smokescreen. We were headed home.

I paused abruptly as Springer shifted to robot and landed with a thud. My scanners picked up minute vibrations from no particular source. Lacking my sensitivity, Springer simply advanced toward the ship. I held him back, expressing only with my optics and a shake of my head. He froze and scanned the area.

Something skittered just out of visual. I turned left.

There it went again.


A spider?

Not on Cybertron. Not that size. Not in the Phantom Zon. I scanned around us. Springer noticed and wordlessly rubbernecked, watching me watch for more movement.


"Sh!" I stood dead still before reaching into subspace and flicking out a crumb of energon. I hoped our visitor was animal, not some CDA creep. I've had my fill of those. I tossed a second crumb, using only my thumb and finer to flick the sliver of ration.

Springer dropped his jaw when the creature timidly stepped out. "Look at that!" he marveled. "I didn't think anything lived out here!'

I grinned, delighted as the four-legged, spider-like critter approached. Its triangular head had no face that I could see. But it certainly sported nasty teeth. It was the most alien creature I'd ever seen. I squatted and held an energon chip out for it. "Hey, fella," I called, "come over here. I won't hurt you."

"Pfft!" Springer scoffed. "It might hurt you, Rodimus."

"You're such an old woman, Springer."

"What's that mean?"

"That I'm making fun of your cynicism." as I answered him, the critter tapped up. It craned a long neck, stretching from an armless torso. Its square tail moved slowly, fluidly. Gingerly the creature took the chip from me, laid it on the ground and nibbled.

"Rodimus," Springer's voice rang with caution. "We really need to go."

"Yeah. I know. Back to the dog pound." I offered one more chip before deciding to go. I wanted to pet the animal but I did not want to risk getting bit by those nasty teeth. I stood straight and the little 'guy' peered around us, spying the White Out.

"Sorry, fella," I said. "I can't have any pets at the apartment."

"Oh Good Primus," Springer moaned.

I followed his visual toward the ship where two smaller clones of our guest squeezed their way out the ship's vents and dropped to the ground. They scurried, racing like baby spiders toward... their mother?

The 'fella' welcomed them with a gentle chittering sound.

"Awe, crap." Springer bowed his head into his hand. He did not see 'fella' stare at the White Out again. Nor did he see two other 'fellas' plop out the vents.

I suppressed my laugher and tracked for the ship. "I think we need to check for stowaways, Springer."

He flinched and ran for his ship. The hatch lowered upon his approach and I followed, certain I knew what we'd find.

"Gaaaahhh!" Springer cried with horror. "What the Pitt?! These things are your pets, Rodimus!"

"Nah-uh." I argued, "they were here before we arrived."

"Hey, get off that!" Springer shooed a little guy off the control consol. It smacked the floor, landing with legs clumsily sprawled much like a deer on ice. I allowed myself to laugh once.

"They're everywhere!" Springer opened three compartments and found critters scampering left and right. Metal dust fragments fell like glitter. Now it was serious.

"Do you have a container or something, Springer?"

"You're not going to keep these things, are you?"

"No. I just don't want to hurt them."

"They're eating the White Out!!" He threw the empty container at me and aimed to smash a critter as it tickled across the floor. I was glad Springer missed.

I caught one baby then another and a third before I nabbed one as it munched on a small metal object. I tried to take the metal disc from the baby and laughed when it growled in protest. "Springer," I said.

"WHAT!?" he snarled.

"I don't think this is part of the ship." He scoffed and muttered. "No," I returned, "I'm serious. Come look at this."

He obliged and through the container, we watched as the baby whatever-it-was nibbled away. I tapped the container. "Uh, is that what I think it is?"

Springer's optics glowed bright with urgency. "A Quintesson microbug! How the heck did that get-"

I clamped his mouth with my hand. "Gosh, Springer," I said a bit loudly. "There's so many critters on your ship, I guess we'd better get them off before leaving." silently I signaled for the two of us to search high and low for bugs. Not that the task really was that difficult; the baby spider-thingies had a taste for Quintesson technology and helped find microbugs in places we would never have guessed.

It was funny, however, trying to take the bugs from the babies. They played tug-of-war with us, growling at us with tiny little voices.

Springer and I collected a total of twenty-five microbugs. Three of them remained intact while the others came to us in fragments. One baby came to me, friendly as a little mouse. I wiggled my finger and it crawled up my arm, sat on my shoulder and gave itself a bath.

"You're a regular Prime Piper." Springer frowned.

"I'll keep this one," I joked. "I'll call him Bob."

"What if it's a girl?"

"Springeretta?" He glared at me. "Relax, Springer. I can't take him home. His mom won't let me."

We released all but three babies outside. They rejoined their mother who waited for them at the edge of the clearing. Springer, however, insisted on keeping three babies; two of which he killed and one alive.

I gave him a reprimanding look but said nothing. As I left to board the ship, Springer caught me. "I left three live bugs in there." he warned. "Might not be a good idea to say too much until we get back."

I swiftly came up with an idea. "Let's not land anywhere near Metroplex, then. We can make an emergency landing elsewhere. You can uh, effect repairs, remove the microbugs there."

Springer nodded, approving. He boarded the ship. I gave the alien creatures a final gaze good-bye.

New life on Cybertron; what an amazing discovery!