Outskirts of Los Angeles, California.
"Motormaster, we've got a teensy-tiny problem," Wildrider said as he pulled into the truck stop beside the gray semi.
"Our human contact didn't show, and there were a lot of unmarked black cars with government plates crawling around the meet site. None of them Autobots though." The gray Ferrari idled next to the big semi. "I'm thinking that the human authorities caught them for something else and are looking for the other human criminals they were working with."
A white Lamborghini and a dark red Porsche pulled up behind Wildrider. Breakdown and Dead End had arrived.
"Well, what's the news?" asked Dead End. Wildrider quickly repeated what he'd told Motormaster.
"Someone ratted us out," Breakdown said. "They're going to ambush us!"
"We have to scratch the race," Dead End said. "We can't do this. We need a human to punch in at the start point."
"The hell we do!" came Drag Strip's muffled voice. There was a muffled clang as Motormaster opened his trailer's rear doors and let down the ramp. Scarcely had the ramp touched down when Drag Strip backed down the ramp and zipped forward with a screech of brakes and tires. "I did not ride all this way in the back of the trailer just to turn around and go home!"
Motormaster's engine rumbled softly; it might have been laughter. "We enter the race. You'll each just have to find a human to register you at the start and the finish line. Think of it as an additional challenge. I, in the meantime, will recover the cargo we were supposed to be getting from the Libyans."
"You'll recover the cargo?" Breakdown sounded skeptical. "Our contact was supposed to deliver it! How do you know where it is?"
"Fool. Do you think Megatron trusted the humans that much? Soundwave's spies have already located the shipment. My instructions from Megatron were actually to seize it, but we needed the humans to cooperate for the race. Thus the pretense of payment.
"Remember, the official mission is finished once I get that cargo. Megatron doesn't know about the race. From here on out, you're on your own--no calling for help. Autobots, law enforcement, the U.S. Army you'll just have to handle yourselves. Stunticons, heads up and head out!"
The Los Angeles police and the FBI would be busy that night: three kidnappings by unknown perpetrators in very expensive cars; thirteen counts of vehicular assault on federal agents by a dark-colored semi-truck and trailer; destruction of the east wall of a certain customs warehouse by the same vehicle; felony theft of shipment DL-356980-900 from said warehouse.
Dead End had different problems. The Great Western Road Rally started at midnight in Burbank; it was 10:30 p.m. and he still didn't have a driver. He drove aimlessly through yet another Californian suburban town.
"These places all look alike. Are the humans hive creatures? I don't even know which of these ugly hive-towns I'm in." Dead End checked his navigation system, which insisted he was about twenty miles out to sea. "The stupid thing is glitched. Scavenger found a way to get back at us without getting caught, as I expected. Probably wander around lost until I run out of energon and deactivate. And where are all the humans in this town?"
Dead End drove through the dark center of town. What should have been the big "Welcome to..." sign was flat on its face beside the road with tread marks on it. "I don't recall doing that; I wonder if one of the other chaps has already been through here, and that's why the humans are all hiding? I can't even pick up the sign to see where I am. Rule One of the Stunticon Rally: No Transforming. I'd be disqualified before I start, and I won't give Drag Strip the satisfaction."
Eleven p.m. came and was going fast. "Lights on in this part of town, and that looks like some sort of entertainment facility. A rather grubby section of town. There must be someone around who'd want to steal a shiny new Porsche that's been left idling with the doors unlocked..." Dead End slid himself into a parking place in the dark alley behind the club.
Luck was with Dead End, much to his surprise. Within minutes, a man ran into the alley, black coat swirling about his legs. He stopped abruptly beside the dark red Porsche.
"Well, well. Who left a beauty like this here? And just when I need a ride out of town!" The blond-haired man looked around quickly. "A bit too convenient," he muttered--then snatched open the car door, glancing at the back seat to make sure it was empty. "Nobody hiding under rugs in the back, at least," he said, climbing into the driver's seat.
The man slammed the door shut hard enough to bounce Dead End on his shocks, slapped the transmission into gear and slammed his foot down on the gas. The dark red Porsche rocketed out of the alley and hit the street with a squealing skid, then raced down the street with the roar of a big engine.
"What a beauty! Spike, this is your lucky day!" The blond-haired man said to himself as he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket.
Spike drove the Porsche south, and Dead End was content to let him; it took them in the general direction of Burbank. Dead End's navigation system was still glitchy, but starting to recover. The further they drove, the more sensible the answers it gave. Eleven forty-five p.m. Time to take over.
The steering wheel abruptly wrenched right, driving the Porsche toward an exit ramp. Spike stared at it in disbelief and seized the steering wheel, trying to wrench it back with a strength that surprised Dead End.
Dead End decoupled the steering wheel, leaving it spinning uselessly in Spike's hands. It was only for camouflage anyway. "You can stop that now, human. It won't help." Dead End's cultured British voice echoed through the car.
"What the bloody hell?" Spike snarled. "Who are you? Where are you?" The blond-haired man twisted in his seat, looking around wildly. He then slammed his foot on the brake, which plunged smoothly to the floor with no resistance and no effect. Slapping the stick shift into neutral turned out to be equally useless.
"You're my prisoner. Cooperate, and you'll get out alive," answered Dead End. "As for where I am.. you're inside me."
"You're the bloody car?" Spike's jaw dropped in disbelief.
"I am so very much more than a car, human!" Dead End cut himself off before he could say more. If the prisoner spilled the wrong thing at the race registrar, Dead End might be disqualified before he could even start.
"And I'm very much more than a human, you bloody machine!" Spike snarled, and his face changed, becoming more savage and predatory. "Thanks for the ride, but it's time for me to get out!" He slammed his right fist into the front windshield--
--And pulled it back, cradling it with his left hand and screaming in pain. "YOU SODDING BASTARD! What the bloody hell is your window made of, armor plate?"
"Armor glass backed by a forcefield, actually."
"All right, what do you bloody want?" Spike cradled his wounded hand as his face shifted back to something more human.
"A very simple task, human--"
"First," Spike interrupted, "I'm not human, I'm a vampire. Second, my name is Spike, not 'human'."
"As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, I have a simple task for you, Spike. Up ahead, where all those cars are gathered, is the registrar for the 1999 Great Western Road Rally. You just have to take a time card from the registrar, register it with the team name of 'Dead End'--give whatever name you like as the driver--and punch the card in that time clock over there. Then you get back in and give me the time card. I drop you off at some remote spot where you can't call the authorities in time, and you get to live."
Spike folded his arms. "So what's to keep me from just hitting the ground running when you let me out?"
"I'm a lot faster than you. You spoil this race for me and I run you down and over. Repeatedly. And shoot you a few times. And set fire to what's left."
"I get the picture. Fine, I'll be your 'driver'; I want out of town, and I don't think the Slayer will be checking road rallies." Spike thought a bit as they waited in line for their turn. "Your rally is starting at an odd hour, don't you think? Convenient for me, but someone's trying to avoid public notice, aren't they? This is an illegal high-speed road race, isn't it?" Spike smiled slightly.
"If it wasn't before we--I entered, it is now." Dead End noticed Breakdown rolling up to the registrar; a nervous-looking young man stepped out and nearly dropped his time card twice. Dead End checked his sensors; Drag Strip was just rolling out of the starting zone, and Wildrider was behind him.
Spike smiled evilly. "Good."
Their turn came up. Spike got the time card and registered for the Dead End team entry, as he'd been instructed. For driver name, he put down 'Xander "Spike" Harris'.
As Spike jumped back into the car and pretended to pull the door shut as it shut itself, he said, "Car, you didn't mention this race goes all the way to Texas!"
"San Antonio, Texas, along the I-10. And my name is Dead End, not 'Car'."
"Dead End, right. Don't bother letting me out yet; Texas sounds like a nice place to hang out for a bit, and you need someone to punch in for you at the finish line." Spike lit another cigarette. "Can you make those windows darker? Like completely opaque?"
"I sunburn easily. 'T would make a mess of your nice interior. Might even set it on fire."
"That will not do." Dead End's windows darkened completely.
"Not now, you bloody machine! I want to see out. But at dawn, make it dark in here." Spike drew a long drag from his cigarette. They cruised in silence.
"Hmm..." said Dead End.
Spike started awake. "What?"
"I think that ambulance chap up ahead is one of our fellow competitors," noted the Stunticon.
Spike squinted at it. "I think you're right. I saw him at the starting line. Good gimmick; everyone gets out of the way for flashing lights and sirens, and he gets a free pass from the coppers." Spike leaned back in his seat. "'Course, you can catch him easily enough--"
Dead End zoomed forward until he was just beside the orange and white ambulance with its sirens blaring. He paced it until they approached an overpass. A twitch of his steering, and the Stunticon shoved the ambulance off course; its own momentum sent it careening off the highway into the concrete pillars of the overpass.
Spike looked back over his shoulder at the rapidly receding wreck. "You're evil, aren't you? I like that in a car. Who's next?"
"The white Lamborghini about five miles ahead of us, unless you notice any of our other competitors first. He'll be much harder to take out of the race, and will likely try to return the favor. He may well succeed, in which case we'll die in a pile of flaming wreckage."
Spike's eyes narrowed. "Someone you know?"
"Yes. His name is Breakdown."
"Someone like you," Spike said. "If he's a Lamborghini, we'll never catch him."
"Appearances can be deceiving." Dead End accelerated smoothly; the relatively empty nighttime highway gave him room to run. Spike stared at the speedometer as it approached and then passed 200 mph. "I have only three real competitors in this race; the rest are just speed bumps."
"So there's four of you. Who are the other two?" Spike lit another cigarette.
"Wildrider was the gray Ferrari four cars behind us at the starting line. He'll be easy to spot; he simply can't be subtle or quiet. Drag Strip is a rather garish yellow race car; he's up ahead somewhere."
"I think he'll be right easy to spot," said Spike. "Hey, look there! That red Ferrari was in the starting line."
"I'm impressed, Deaders. I barely felt that, and you rammed him at 200 miles per hour."
"It's the forcefields. And our speed differential was only eighty miles per hour. A head-on collision would be more of a jolt. Won't hurt me, but probably splatter you all over my passenger compartment."
"I'm tougher than I look, Deaders."
They passed two more competitors sitting by the side of the road, hoods up and drivers furiously working on the engines.
"Breakdown," Dead End said.
"Yeah, bad luck that." Spike smirked.
"Luck had nothing to do with it. Breakdown has the ability to induce malfunctions. He'll be tricky to deal with."
"Oh. He can affect you?"
"Yes. His range is limited; around 150 meters or so. I have to take him out beyond that range."
Spike glanced at the rear view mirror out of habit, as he had been all night. "Sod it! That gray Ferrari is coming up behind us fast!"
Bright lights flashed around them and the pavement buckled. Dead End skidded and bounced across the broken road, coming to rest half on the gravel shoulder and half on the soft dirt beyond.
Wildrider zoomed on by, laughing maniacally.
"Sodding hell! He shot at us!"
"No, he shot the road out from under me. Wildrider knows he can't even scorch my paint while we've got working forcefields." Dead End carefully applied power to all four wheels, pulling himself off of the soft ground and back on to the firm shoulder. "I'll think I'll let him stay in the lead and see how he handles Breakdown."
Forty-five minutes and 150 miles later, they passed Wildrider upside down in a gully. A police car sat nearby.
"Not very well," commented Spike.
"Scratch Wildrider. He can't get out of that ditch without disqualifying himself."
The police car pulled out in hot pursuit.
"The local authorities are trying to catch me. How droll." said Dead End.
"Pull over and let me handle them. I'm hungry." Spike snarled, his face changing to something bestial and savage again.
"You'll just have to wait until Texas. I'm not letting Drag Strip and Breakdown get that far ahead."
"It wasn't a request." Spike plunged a hand into Dead End's console and yanked. Plastic and wires gave way with a groan, exposing complex circuitry.
"What the hell are you doing?" Dead End swerved violently, flinging Spike from side to side.
"How much stuff do you think I can pull loose before you stop working, Dead End?"
"Damn it, you've already glitched my nav system! DON'T TOUCH THAT!" Dead End yelled as Spike reached for a red and purple circuit board. He pulled to a stop. "Deal with the cops, then."
"I will," Spike growled. "So what's this part you're so sensitive about?" He fingered it gingerly.
Dead End shook. "Nothing important, really. I just don't like having things pulled loose."
"Really? It occurs to me there's nothing stopping you from running me down the instant I get out." Spike unplugged the red and purple board from its socket. "I'd like to have some insurance, and if this means nothing to you, I'm out of luck." The vampire smirked. "I don't think I am, am I?"
"Put it back! Without it, we're doomed."
"What is it, Deaders?"
"It's my forcefield actuator! Without it, I'll be slagged by one of the others in no time!"
"Better take good care of me, then." Spike let his face revert to normal.
"You, out of the car with your hands up!" came the rough command of the state trooper.
Spike got out of the Porsche slowly. "What's the problem, officer?"
The big, burly state trooper smirked. "One hundred and thirty miles per hour over the speed limit. That's going to be one impressive fine. Let's see your driver's license, hotrod."
Spike briefly pretended to search his coat pockets, then, with a bestial snarl, leaped onto the state trooper. He plunged his fangs into the man's neck and drank deeply. In minutes, he was done; Spike heaved the body over his shoulder and dropped it back into the driver's seat of the police car.
"With luck, no one will notice he's dead for a while," Spike growled, wiping blood off his face and licking his fingers clean. He returned to Dead End and climbed in. "You get your forcefield back once we're rolling."
"Interesting way you feed. I never saw a human do that before. Are you usually cannibalistic?"
"For the last sodding time, I'm not human, I'm a vampire. You learned English somehow, look up the word in whatever you've got for a dictionary." Spike snarled as he plugged the forcefield actuator back in.
"Ah. Hmm... I see. Interesting."
Spike interrupted Dead End's thoughts an hour later. "Two flaming wrecks and a police roadblock up ahead. This is getting interesting."
"That would be Drag Strip's work. He fights dirty."
"And you fight fair, Deaders?" Spike sounded skeptical.
"What an amusing notion. Brace yourself, vampire."
Dead End fired four blasts from his forward weapons mount just under the headlights at the blocking cars, and then slammed into the tattered wreckage at nearly 200 mph. Broken car parts flew everywhere. Dead End plowed through the wreckage, losing speed, and finally skidded to a halt.
The halt was only momentary; Dead End's wheels spun and he zoomed off down the highway, chased by a futile flurry of bullets.
"Oh, my head!" Spike groaned; blood trickled down his face from where he'd bounced his skull off the steering wheel.
"You are tougher than I expected. Congratulations on surviving."
"You're a real bastard, Deaders." Spike lit another cigarette; his hand shook.
"No, that would be Motormaster, our leader."
Spike looked sharply at the console in front of him. "You didn't mention him before."
"He's not in the race. He's covering for us. And he's a real bastard. You don't want to meet him."
"Covering for you?" Spike's eyes narrowed; he took a long drag from his cigarette. "What's the deal with you people? Who built you, and what are you doing in this race?"
"The names would mean little or nothing to you. As for the race, think of it as a bit of R&R. We're here because someone was a bit too impressed with himself, and bets were made that he couldn't back up his boasts with action. Things went downhill from there.
"If I talk any more about our plans, I really will have to kill you, race or no race. I'll likely kill you anyway, if someone else doesn't kill us first. You know a bit too much."
"I don't know if you know this, Deaders, but we vamps aren't exactly fond of the limelight. I'm supposed to be just a bloody myth. If people knew we existed, they'd make sure we didn't, and Spike the boy vampire likes being alive just the way he is, not a pile of dust with a stake through his heart, thank you."
Spike lit another cigarette. "So I'm not about to go running to the cops or the feds and spill what I know about hi-tech cars that drive themselves. Cor blimey, I'm running out of fags. You got any hidden around?"
"No, and we're not stopping now."
"You're still a bastard, Deaders."
San Antonio, Early AM.
"The roads are too complicated for my tastes--too many overpasses and underpasses. Every single one of them a potential ambush site. Thanks to you, Spike, my navigation system is still down, so I can't leave I-10 for an alternate route. I might not find my way back."
"Bloody hell, don't you have a map?" Spike asked.
"I did, but you pulled the plug on it," Dead End replied.
"So get off at THIS EXIT RIGHT HERE!" Spike yelled and tugged impotently at the wheel. "--and I'll get one." Dead End threw himself into a skid and spun around three, four times before coming to a halt facing the other way. The dark red Porsche roared off the exit ramp into the truck stop that Spike pointed out.
"Won't take me but 30 seconds," he said, and dashed inside. True to his word, in less than half a minute he was back outside, road atlas in hand.
"Hit the road, Deaders!"
As Dead End zoomed back up the exit ramp--scaring the hell out of the driver of a semi-truck going down it the proper way--Spike flipped the atlas open to Texas and squinted at the mini-map of San Antonio. "There's two beltways--this outer one, here, and an inner one, the 410, there."
"I see it. We won't lose too much time if we take the Anderson Loop over to 281." The dark red Porsche turned onto the Anderson Loop exit with a wide, skidding turn that shed just enough speed to keep him from flying off the cloverleaf, "Then straight downtown, and we bypass any ambushes set up for us on the I-10. The finish line is at some place called 'The Alamo'. The question is, will Drag Strip delay trying to ambush us, or will he speed straight down the I-10?"
"Maybe they'll ambush each other," Spike said.
"Doubtful. Breakdown won't try to ambush Drag Strip, because he knows Drag Strip will kill him if Breakdown costs him the race. Breakdown isn't a coward, but he is paranoid. By now, he probably thinks the race is a setup to get him killed. Of course, Drag Strip will kill me if I beat him to the finish line."
"You don't seem too bloody broken up about it."
"I'll die sooner or later. 'When' does not matter. I'd rather it get it over with sooner anyway."
"Well, I'm immortal, so I'd rather not die at all, thank you." Spike lit another cigarette.
"I thought you were out of those things."
"Oy! The road atlas wasn't the only thing I stole."
A brilliant explosion lit the road; Dead End swerved hard and flipped, rolling hard until he bounced over guard rail and off the road. He landed upside down.
"YEOW! Sod it, what was that?" Spike yelled. The sound of explosions still rang in his ears. In fact, things were still exploding outside.
"I underestimated Drag Strip."
Spike peered through the heavily tinted glass. Back on the road, a bright yellow Formula One race car backed up.
"YOU LOSE, DEAD END!" Drag Strip laughed, turned around, and zoomed down the highway.
"Sodding bastard," Spike swore as the other car raced out of sight. He unbuckled himself and dropped on his back on the ceiling. "Deaders, can you open your windows or doors?"
"I can, but what's the point? I've lost. I can't turn over without transforming, and that will disqualify me."
"Bloody hell, I didn't put up with you sodding kidnapping me so you could give up ten bloody miles from the finish line!" Spike aimed a vicious kick at the damaged front console. "Now open the bloody damn window!"
"Very well!" The window rolled down, and Spike crawled out.
"Now let me see.." Spike looked over the situation. The Porsche was squarely upside down, resting on its roof and hood on the neatly mowed right-of-way. "Two questions: If I can get you on your side, can you push yourself the rest of the way over? And is your gun working?"
"I think so. But how--?"
"Can you cut one of those trees over there down with your guns?"
"No, I'm at the wrong angle."
Spike leaned on the Stunticon's rear bumper, shifting its balance point to the roof. "Now which way do you need to point?"
"About sixty degrees to the left--"
Spike pushed against the side of the bumper, spinning the upside-down Porsche around to point in the desired direction. "Fire at will, Deaders."
The guns snapped twice, and the small tree fell. Spike picked up the heavy beam and toted it back to Dead End. He set it down and then rolled a large rock over to serve as a fulcrum.
As Spike set the lever in place, Dead End spoke up. "I think I see what you're doing, but it'll never work. I'm much too heavy for you to lift, even with a lever--"
"What part of 'I'm a sodding vampire' do you not get?"
Spike heaved on the improvised lever, lifting Dead End's side part way off the ground. He grimaced and put his shoulder against the dark red Porsche, holding Dead End up while he re-positioned the lever. A second heave levered Dead End squarely onto the car's side. "Did you miss the part about super-human strength?"
Dead End flexed his doors and pushed himself back onto his wheels. "Apparently I did." The Stunticon started his engine back up and revved it. "Get in... please. If by some chance we get in ahead of Drag Strip, I still need someone to punch my time card."
"And," said Spike as he pulled it out with a flourish, "it's still in my pocket." He jumped back in the dark red Porsche.
"Uh-oh." They had only driven a few miles further down the road, and had seen no sign of either Drag Strip or Breakdown.
"Bloody hell, now what?"
"My forcefield is offline. Check the actuator; diagnostics say that's where the trouble is."
Sirens blared behind them as a black and white zoomed along in hot pursuit.
"The actuator? Bloody hell, it's missing. It must have come loose when you rolled."
"Find it, before we die. That's not a police car back there. That's Prowl" Dead End swerved abruptly as a bolt of lightning flashed past him. "If you hadn't been ripping things loose in the first place..."
"Who's Prowl? Sod it. There it is, on the floor!" Spike made a grab for it as Dead End swerved again, a complicated S-turn that sent Spike bouncing from one side of the Porsche to another--and sent the circuit board skittering under the seat. "Stop doing that! I can't reach it--"
"I suppose there isn't much point in dodging, he'll hit me eventually anyway." Dead End hit the brakes, hard. Spike crashed headfirst into the console. Prowl zoomed past, surprised by Dead End's maneuver. Dead End opened fire, catching the black and white police car squarely in the trunk. Prowl went skidding off the road.
"BLOODY HELL, ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME?" Spike's face was covered with blood and his nose was obviously broken. His hand darted down. "Got the sodding thing!"
"No, I'm trying to kill him." Dead End sent two more shots into the smoking black and white car for good measure, then accelerated on past.
Spike shoved the actuator back in its socket, hard. "Take it easy on the bounces, Deaders. Your actuator is loose in the socket. And who is Prowl? Another one of you guys?"
"He's one of the opposition, actually. They won't be playing by the same rules we are; they'll try to stop us any way they can. Forcefields are back online. As long as they hold, the Auto--the opposition can't touch me. If they fail, we both die. It's only a matter of time before it works loose again. Keep an eye on it. It'd be nice to have a few seconds warning before oblivion."
"You're just a bloody bundle of cheer, aren't you? You must be terribly disappointed every morning." Spike strapped himself back in, and held the actuator circuit pressed firmly into its socket.
"Disappointed? In what way?"
"To find out you're still alive."
"Hello, is that Drag Strip?" They zoomed by a yellow race car half embedded in a pile of dirt by the side of the road. "I do believe Breakdown ambushed him after all." Spike thought he heard the ghost of a snicker.
"Did all of you pick this alternate route?" Spike asked.
"It was an obvious way to avoid the obvious path." Dead End sounded slightly chagrined. "In retrospect, we would have been better off going down I-10."
Dead End accelerated, weaving in and out of the early morning delivery truck traffic. "There's Breakdown, ahead of us! If I stay out of his range, he can't use his engines on me, but in that case he'll win the race by default... Ah-ha! I've got it."
"I see him--the pale Lamborghini, right?" Spike clutched the wheel grimly; the sky was starting to lighten with the gray of pre-dawn.
"Yes. Release the wheel; I'm going to re-connect the steering and other manual controls, so don't touch them until you need to." Dead End said.
"When will I need to?" Spike asked, slightly worried.
"You'll know." Dead End braked, taking the exit ramp behind Breakdown, skidding and swerving as he dumped speed. The Alamo was in sight. "He's almost there--"
Dead End accelerated, hard. Spike's eyes widened as the speedometer crept up toward 100 mph. As the dark red Porsche shot past Breakdown, Spike could hear a horribly dissonant engine roar that grated every nerve in his body. He fought to hold the forcefield actuator in place as the vibrations threatened to shake it loose.
"Spike! TAKE CONTROL! He's knocked out my engines and steering!"
Spike grabbed the steering wheel and wrenched it hard over, scraping the side of the Lamborghini and forcing it across the sidewalk and into the front of a building. Rolling on sheer momentum, Dead End skidded to screeching halt in front of the Alamo--Spike leaped out and ran for the very startled race official who was just setting up the finish line punch station.
"And the winner is, ah, Xander "Spike" Harris, for team Dead End! Um, Mr. Harris, aren't you going to stick around for your prize? And your car?" The registrar stared in surprise as Spike ran for the cover of the nearest building, just ahead of the light of the new dawn.