"—and so if we alter the ship's course immediately, we will reach the battlefield on Vomnio 4 within twenty hours," Ultra Magnus finished.

"Uh huh." Rodimus carved another line into the smooth surface of his desk, a peel of metal curling around his claw; his attention had been focused (or rather unfocused) on the childish distraction for the entirety of Ultra Magnus' report (forty-seven minutes, twenty-three seconds). "Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh . . . I wasn't listening, tell me again."

"You weren't—?"

"And keep it under two minutes."

Ultra Magnus' fingers tightened on his datapad until the plastic creaked. "Vomnio 4 provides the rare mineral Tsibium to the war effort. It's a class S dwarf planet, originally native to five sentient organic species, four of which were—"

"Tick tock, Magnus."

"The Decepticons are attempting to retake the planet and our Prime has ordered all Autobot fleets within 2,000 light years to defend it," Magnus summarized, disgruntled. He forwarded his full report to Rodimus, though he had no confidence the captain would read it.

"See? See how simple that was? Now I understand the situation." Rodimus leaned back in his chair, the view of his dark paintjob now interrupted by the gaudy display of flames on his chest. He stretched his arms, resting them behind his head in a jaunty pose. "No."

"What?"

"No. Absolutely not. We're not going to Vomnia whatever. Why would we?"

"Because the Prime ordered it?" Ultra Magnus mentally berated himself for the rising inflection that turned a statement into a query. He would never have uttered such an indecisive remark before joining the crew of the Stilled Spark. But then he'd never before had a commanding officer so baffling and aggravating. He repeated, more firmly, "Because the Prime ordered it. Every ship within 2,000 light years must—"

"Okay, I get the picture." Rodimus pressed a slim finger to his helmet, activating his comm. "Who's got the wheel? Blaster? Hey Blaster, this is your Captain, the dark flare in the night, ultimate badass, your flame-daddy—" (Ultra Magnus made a strangled sound.) "—the one and only Captain Rodimus, with a new order for you. Set a course away from Vomnio 4 at full speed. Any direction. 'Kay, thanks."

"You can't just . . ." Ultra Magnus couldn't believe what he was witnessing. The sheer insubordination. From the captain! "Captain, you can't just skate past this problem. Those are Autobots, providing a vital function for the war effort! We should assist them."

"We've got our quest, they've got theirs. They aren't rushing to help us find the Knights of Cybertron, are they?"

"The Lord Prime ordered—"

"Listen!" Rodimus stabbed a finger at him. "It's every bot for himself out there. Your big hero, Optimus, gets it and you'd better get it too. 'Cause as long as you're on my ship, I'm in charge. We don't need you bringing up 'Optimus this', 'Optimus that' all the time. Newsflash, the crew doesn't like it, I don't like it—"

"The crew." Ultra Magnus seized on a new idea that might leverage Rodimus into action. "What about the impact on the crew?"

Rodimus halted his tirade, his red optics narrowing. "What impact?

"The crew would enjoy a chance to get off the ship and stretch their legs." Magnus knew this was a dubious claim since they would be under heavy fire the moment they stepped off and would undoubtedly suffer heavy casualties. But Whirl might enjoy it. "I'm sure they would appreciate a break."

Rodimus curled his upper lip. "Tch!"

It was hard to argue with such a comeback, but Magnus tried. "They've been under considerable stress on this voyage according to the ship's psychiatrist—" He checked the text file he'd attached to the visual image of a scrawny bot holding a clipboard. "Rung? Yes, Rung. He's catalogued a five percent rise in violent intra-Autobot incidences per month."

"Yeah?" Rodimus rubbed his chin, dubious but listening. "So what's he recommend?"

"An outlet for their tension, such as artistic endeavors, more social bonding," Ultra Magnus couldn't help but scowl at that; no matter what this 'Rung' said it was not proper for Autobots to be wasting time lolligagging, bad enough there were two bars on board, "as well as exercise and fresh air. Which they would certainly get on Vomnio 4."

"Hmm . . ." Rodimus spun his pen in his hand, frowning.

"This is serious, Captain." Ultra Magnus frowned too, trying to impress the gravity of the situation on the capricious bot. "Without proper activities to relieve their stress, you're going to see more and more crew members in the brig."

"The brig." Rodimus steepled his hands together, bringing them to his mouth as he considered. "Yeah. Yeah, you've got a point. I have noticed they're getting kind of fighty. Whirl took a swing at me the other day for cutting in line for energon, and I was standing behind him . . . Send out a shipwide bulletin. I'm going to give a briefing on the bridge tomorrow and I expect everyone to be there."

If Magnus had been a different kind of bot, he would have smiled at this welcome news. "What time, Captain?"

"After I wake up, duh."

Having refrained from smiling, Magnus could also refrain from letting it drop. This was why it never paid to get your hopes up.


Rodimus' chassis was such a deep purple that it appeared black under most lighting. The red and gold flames painted up his hood drew all the attention anyway. Technically the Autobot army did not have any rules about paint jobs, no set of standards that bots were required to conform to, but looking at Rodimus made Ultra Magnus think they should.

Currently Rodimus was standing on the raised platform at the front of the bridge. Ultra Magnus and Blaster, the second- and third-in-command respectively, stood behind him. The rest of the Autobots were crowded in front of Rodimus, already restless and unhappy because Ultra Magnus had summoned them there at 0900 and Rodimus had not shown up until 1032.

"All right, quiet down!" Blaster called, spurred on by a look from Rodimus. He transformed into his boombox form and a thin mechanical strut lifted a microphone to the captain.

"Thank you, Blaster. And thank you all for coming here," Rodimus addressed the crew. "I've got some big news that you're gonna love!"

The gathered Autobots gazed up at him without enthusiasm, barely paying attention. Ultra Magnus ran his optics over them, picking out the notables. Swerve was chattering at an uninterested Mirage, Cyclonus (who wasn't even an Autobot and was practically a Decepticon and Magnus didn't understand why Rodimus suffered him to be on the ship) looked bored, Whirl was clicking his blades in a way that meant trouble, Ratchet had dried energon on his arms and was impatiently slapping a loose fuel pump into his palm, and the skinny little psychiatrist was barely visible behind Chromedome, who was gazing apathetically out the window.

Rodimus frowned at the lack of attention and nudged Blaster with his foot. The TIC accommodatingly produced a resonant BWAAAAAANG that made the group jerk to attention.

"Wake up you guys, ha ha. Okay, Landmine—yes, you—take these and start passing them around."

Ultra Magnus' felt a pulse of surprise when Rodimus shoved a stack of papers into Landmine's hands. Rodimus had planned something? Rodimus had prepared a briefing? Could there be hope for him yet?

Maybe this was the mission that would awaken Rodimus' capabilities—whatever they were. Surely there must be a reason Optimus Prime allowed him, the most annoying Autobot in existence, to continue functioning. Magnus imagined Rodimus stalking across the battlefield, stained in the energon of his enemies, inspiring and terrifying the crew by turn. They, as much their captain, needed discipline, needed direction, needed to awaken the ferocity that their Prime expected of them.

Ultra Magnus didn't smile, but he did feel a spark-deep satisfaction as he watched the crew frowning at the handout in confusion. They were used to wasting time picking silly fights and lazing about. But their days of dawdling like layabouts was over, soon they would step onto the battlefield.

"So as you can see—Oh wait, you need one, Magnus." Rodimus handed him a paper. "So as you can see, we're gonna have some fun. It's pretty self-explanatory, right? Creativity is encouraged, I want you to go buckwild! We're talking some serious artistic endeavors—endeavoring?—and the winner gets a Rodimus Star, as well as seeing their vision come to life!"

Creativity? Artistic endeavors? He's talking about a contest to kill the most Decepticons in the most gruesome way, Ultra Magnus hoped desperately, even though he normally considered such things ridiculous and unprofessional.

He dropped his optics to the paper, taking in its block-letter announcement.

ART CONTEST!

DESIGN-A-DUNGEON: SHARE YOUR VISION FOR THE NEW BRIG!

WORKING WITH A PARTNER? ASK ABOUT THE SOCIAL-BONDING BONUS!

Ultra Magnus closed his optics as the Stilled Spark continued rocketing away from Vomnio 4.