There it was again, that scraping sound. Prowl lifted his optics from his datapad, frowning as he listened and tried to decipher what could be making such a distinctly irritating noise. It wasn't very loud, which of course was why it was so incredibly distracting, since it kept nagging at his audio sensors, and jabbing through his train of thought as effectively as if someone had taken a nail gun to his cranial unit.
Frown deepening, he returned his attention to his datapad. It wasn't as if he needed yet another distraction, much less had time for one, given the amount of work he had to do, and the hours he'd already spent that duty day policing up after fractious Autobots. First it had been the incident with Tracks, who he (along with every other Autobot who'd come down to the lounge for their morning allotment of energon) had found hanging by his wrists and feet like some kind of wretched tapestry on the north wall, complete with a sign over his head that read 'Pin The Spoiler on the Corvette.' Prowl had tried to push his way through the crowd to remedy the situation before it got out of hand, but it was some time before the pointing and laughing died down enough for the second-in-command was able to be heard above the crowd well enough to issue an order for Tracks to be cut down. Tracks was mortified, especially since some of the Autobots present actually wanted to have a go at pinning him with a spoiler, and when he was finally freed, he stormed away without a word to anyone. Jazz had been the one to finally find him, and coax a story of what had happened out of the indignant blue Autobot, not that it did much good.
"He doesn't know who did it?" Prowl asked, incredulous, when Jazz returned with his report.
The black and white Autobot tried to suppress a grin, and failed. "He says," Jazz's mouth quivered as he tried valiantly not to guffaw, "that he got ambushed last night. His words, man, don't look at me. Says he got blindfolded and dragged to the lounge, where he got himself strung up." At this, Jazz's voice rose into a kind of high giggle.
"Jazz," Prowl admonished, his face perfectly smooth. "Compose yourself. Now get me a list of Autobots who were out of their quarters last night."
"Aw, come on, Prowl," Jazz protested as he sobered. "It was just a prank."
"Yes," Prowl replied, "just a prank. One that left an Autobot completely defenseless against potential Decepticon infiltration. This is a military unit I'm trying to run here, Jazz, not a frat house."
But if Jazz had a response, it was cut off by the sudden thunder of several pairs of heavy feet stampeding up the hall, intermixed with yelps of glee and roars of indignation. At once Prowl popped his head out of his office door, but all that earned him was nearly having it severed from his shoulders as a flurry of Dinobot bulk galloped by with all the deadly intent of a really belligerent freight train. Wheeljack raced after them, arms flailing uselessly as he hollered for them to stop
"What is going on?" Prowl shouted, and then jerked back as Wheeljack came to a skidding halt just where Prowl had been standing.
"Someone incited 'em to riot," he babbled, gesticulating wildly. "Not their fault! Someone was yellin' insults into their bay and got 'em all riled, and then took off, and you can't expect the Dinobots to sit still for that, so they started chasin' the lunatic."
"Who was it?"
Wheeljack shrugged, edging away toward where the Dinobots had gone. "Dunno. I didn't see, and I haven't gotten the Dinobots to stop long enough yet to tell me. Gotta go!"
With that, he transformed and sped off down the hall, tires hugging the metal floor as his back end gained purchase and hurtled him forward.
"Well, someone's been busy," Jazz commented as the hall fell to relative quiet.
Prowl narrowed his optics. "Not busy enough, if they have time to be suicidal."
Jazz, predictable as a Cheshire cat, grinned. "I'd sure hate to be whoever they're chasin'."
Prowl pointed a finger. "Go find out who it is, and bring him here."
"Roger," Jazz turned, face alight at the prospect of dragging some poor wreck back to Prowl's office after the Dinobots had gotten done with stomping the innards out of the culprit. "Bet whoever it is knows something about Tracks."
I'd bet my chevron he's red, too, Prowl grumbled silently, and hoped whoever got dragged into his office would at least be coherent enough to endure the lecture he was about to receive, because Prowl was brewing up a good one, and didn't want to have to wait.
But an hour had gone by with no sign of Jazz, and no report of anyone's bodywork being stomped into the ground, and Prowl was just beginning to wonder, when he heard the unmistakable sound of Jazz suppressing a snicker over the com. "Jazz to Prowl," came a tightly, though not very successfully, controlled voice over the link.
With a sigh, Prowl responded. "Go ahead." He had a sinking feeling, just hearing the choked-off mirth behind Jazz's voice.
"You're not gonna believe this."
"Try me," Prowl deadpanned, his hopes for a well-trampled culprit slowly fading.
"Just…" Prowl heard a wheeze, then silence followed by more wheezing, as Jazz (or so Prowl surmised) bent over double with silent laughter. Patiently, though not without one roll of his optics toward the heavens, Prowl waited out his subordinate's fit long enough for Jazz to regain himself enough to choke out, "Maintenance. Get down to maintenance."
Maintenance, Prowl found to his baffled surprise, was not what it had once been. As the doors swished open, his optics were met with the sight of a sea of writhing, jabbering fur, and it took him a full minute to simply register the visual data being relayed between his optical sensors and his central processor. He supposed, later, that the look on his face must have been some cause for amusement, because it had set Jazz off into another set of hysterics.
"Furbys," Jazz explained when he'd gotten ahold of himself. "Human toys…repeat what they hear."
Prowl stepped carefully into the bay, trying not to squash the fuzzy little mechanoids, and failing miserably. Each step he took toward Jazz gave off a morbidly nauseating crunch. Earth-made toys or not, there was nothing enjoyable about stomping the life out of another mechanism. "What" he asked, when he finally waded to where Jazz stood giggling, "in the name of Primus, are they doing here?"
"I'll tell you what they're doing here," Grapple whined imperiously, his voice rising with anger. "They're making a mockery of my work, of the hours I put in, of the skill and artistic precision with which I accomplish every single task set before me. They're somebody's idea of a joke, and it's…well, it's disgraceful!"
Again Prowl looked around, and this time his audios began to process and sift through the jabbering. Phrases like "Kiss my skidplate!" and "Your mother was a snow-blower!" drifted up from the fuzzy sea, and it slowly dawned on Prowl that someone had spent a considerable amount of time teaching these creatures every insult and curse word he'd ever heard of, plus some. And there were hundreds of them – maybe a thousand.
He turned back to Jazz and the glowering Grapple. "I suppose," he said dryly, "that we have no idea who put them all here."
"Nope," Jazz affirmed, not even bothering to hide his grin. "And you know what the best part is?"
"Oh," Prowl offered a bland look, "do tell."
Jazz's grin – and Prowl had not even realized that this was possible – widened. "They've been glued down with a bonding agent."
"A bonding agent!" Grapple railed. "They've literally been fused to the floor and tables. It – it'll take days to restore this bay to working order, and that's if I even have enough solvent with which to remedy this – this mess." The bulky yellow Autobot glared around him, obviously more than a little insulted.
Not that there was really anything Prowl could do, and he suspected that Jazz had only called him down here because the other Autobot simply couldn't deal with something so funny without pulling someone else in to share in the mirth. Mirth, naturally, was not what Prowl was feeling, but he was fairly certain that his assessment of Jazz's actions were spot on. Jazz, to put it simply, could not keep a joke to himself. Prowl heaved a small sigh, and looked up at Grapple, "Clean the surfaces that you'll be needing for today's work, and leave the rest. I'll have a cleaning crew in here by nightfall."
So he'd made his hurried (and crunching) exit through the mass of Furbys, and had made a beeline straight for his office, where he'd hoped not to be disturbed for the rest of the day. Something would certainly have to be done about these Autobots and their jokes, but he had work to do first, and he had a feeling that by the end of the day, he'd have a healthy number of 'volunteers' for Grapple's cleaning crew.
But now there was that incessant scraping, and Prowl found that before he'd even properly gotten back to the tasks at hand, he was being driven once more to distraction. A glance at his internal chronometer told him that a bare twenty minutes had passed since he'd returned from maintenance, which wasn't nearly enough time to even make a start in any of his long list of projects, and he was beginning to feel an oft-dormant, rising anger that usually only surfaced right before he came up with some extraordinarily creative solution to a particularly stubborn problem. Often, it came during battle, just when he was beginning to think that all was lost, and in his anger he would find a sudden sense of clarity, and a solution so stunningly simple and effective would present itself, and he would regain his sense of unruffled peace as he clicked all the puzzle pieces together and solved whatever was amiss. There were times, however, when these moments of clarity would provide him with the solution to a particularly stubborn disciplinary problem, and he was just beginning to wonder if that wouldn't be the present case, when he heard a muffled whisper.
"Stop! Don't push."
"I'm not pushing."
"Well, is it just me, or are those your chevrons up my skidplate?"
"What? Sorry…oh, I didn't, uh, sorry.
Again, there came a scrape, and Prowl lifted his optics toward the ceiling.
"So are we there yet?"
"Well, uh, according to these readings…oh wait, that isn't right…"
"Give me that." Scrape. "OW! Watch those things. Primus, who ever thought of putting pointy things on the top of your head?" A short silence followed, accompanied by an ominous creak.
"What was that?"
"Well…wait. Oh, slaggit, Blue, these coordinates are off by ten meters. Which puts us…Oh, slag me—"
With a last creak, the ceiling gave way, and a flailing tumble of red and grey Autobots landed in a heap before Prowl's desk.
"Sorry…uh," Sideswipe grabbed his head, blinking as though he'd hit it on impact.
Bluestreak sat up with an injured look, flexing his left-side door and biting his lip. "You landed on it…"
"Said I was sorry," Sideswipe mumbled, obviously still a bit jarred.
Prowl stared down at the pair, who slowly came to realize where they were. Still on the floor and nursing their dents, Bluestreak and Sideswipe looked up at where Prowl was sitting, their optics blank as they processed their situation. A sheepish look crawled slowly over Bluestreak's face, but Sideswipe recovered with a charming grin, and quickly flipped a datapad into subspace before getting to his feet. "Hi, Prowl."
"Don't you 'hi Prowl' me," Prowl returned, not at all in the mood to play verbal tennis with the red warrior. "Care to explain what you two were doing in the air vents? Or, more specifically, what you were doing specifically in the vents above my office?"
"Your office?" Sideswipe replied with the genteel air of someone asking for a bottle of Grey Poupon. "We had no idea. We thought we were headed toward the impact zone." He hauled Bluestreak to his feet. "Checking on dead ends in the system and all."
"On your day off?" Prowl was far from convinced.
Sideswipe shrugged. "Gave us something to do. Right, Blue?"
He gave Bluestreak a shove with his elbow, and Bluestreak stopped staring mournfully at his door panel for long enough to finally pay Prowl some attention. "Uh, yeah. That's what we were doing. Just looking to see where stuff went and all, like explorers, 'cept without the treasure, since I'm sure anything worth anything in the impact zone got trashed when we crash landed –" Again, Sideswipe nudged him, and Bluestreak shut up.
"So," Prowl clasped his hands on his desk, his own door panels drawing back slightly in mild consternation, "since the impact zone is four decks down and two hundred and forty meters into the core of the mountain that would make you…" He shook his head, optics locked onto Sideswipe's.
"Lost?" Sideswipe supplied, when Prowl didn't answer his own question.
"To say the least," the tactician quipped back. He shifted his optics to Bluestreak, who offered him a watery grin, before returning his gaze to the red warrior. He narrowed his optics. Sideswipe raised his brows, the picture of innocence. "I suppose you realize now that a single section of the air conduits cannot support the weight of both a Datsun and a Lamborghini."
"Heh," Sideswipe grinned, "yeah. Sorry about your ceiling. Tell you what, Blue and I will just trot on down to maintenance and tell them what happened. We'll get someone up here to fix that for you."
The red warrior started edging toward the door, dragging Bluestreak by the elbow, but Prowl was not about to let him go that easily. No…as a matter of fact, he wasn't about to let him go at all. A rare, wicked smile started at the corners of his mouth as that familiar stroke of brilliance suddenly presented itself inside his processor. He may not have proof of any evil-doing on Sideswipe's part, but the new and sizeable hole in his office ceiling was enough to ensure that he could legally monopolize Sideswipe's time for the remainder of the day. And monopolize, he would. "You know, Sideswipe, if you're looking for something to do…"
"Oh, no," Sideswipe shook his head as he interrupted. "We're not bored. I mean, it's not like we don't have plans. Right, Blue?"
"Right. Plans." Bluestreak nodded with gusto.
"And would those plans involve Furbys?" Prowl asked innocently, and was rewarded with a momentary deer-in-the-headlights look from Sideswipe.
But that was all he got. With the expertise of a mech who had spent his lifetime charming his way out of uncomfortable spots and into more enjoyable positions, Sideswipe conjured up a look of blithe confusion. "Furbys?"
Bluestreak tried with lesser success to look confused, but Prowl let it go. Bluestreak was the accomplice, and Sideswipe the true rule-breaking wretch, so if Prowl was going to goad someone into an admission, it wasn't going to be Bluestreak. He wanted Sideswipe.
Not that he really expected to catch him, as Sideswipe was simply too practiced to give himself away that easily. No, at this point he only wanted to get him back, and he knew just how to do it. "Yes, Furbys," he said, watching Sideswipe's face. "Hundreds of Furbys, glued to every horizontal surface in maintenance, and all spouting colorful metaphors and epithets."
"Really?" Sideswipe's optics widened in what was obviously mock surprise, his voice slowing as he put on his best 'I'm Just A Grunt' face. "Who did that?"
"Well, let's see," Prowl tapped the side of his head with a finger. "Could be the same person who led the Dinobots on a merry chase earlier. Or maybe it was the guy who strung Tracks up in the lounge?"
Bluestreak uttered an explosive snicker before covering it up, and even Sideswipe forced down a grin.
"Ah," Prowl smiled, "I see you found that to be funny."
"Well," Sideswipe spread his hands, "you gotta admit it was pretty good."
Prowl smirked. "Don't flatter yourself."
"But I didn't–"
"Don't bother, Sideswipe." Prowl stood, the grin returning to his face. "Matter of fact, as far as I'm concerned, there will be no punishment, even if I do find out who was responsible for all of these incidents." He thought he detected a smug hitch to Sideswipe's mouth, and Prowl came around to the front of his desk, where he leaned, arms crossed. "Tell you what, though. I do need some assistance today, and if you two don't have anything to do…"
"Oh, plans," Bluestreak interjected. "We have plans. Loads of plans."
"Of course you do," Prowl smiled indulgently at the pair, like a wolf showing its teeth to a pair of foxes just before the pounce. "And first on your agenda will be to head down to the Autobot lounge and wait for me there."
"No buts," Prowl grinned as he shoo'd them out the door, and he felt a tiny surge of joy at the dubious look Sideswipe tossed him, just before trudging mournfully out into the hall. Judging by events thus far, it was clear Prowl wasn't going to get any work done today, but at least he was going to enjoy himself.
Oh, this would be worth it, yes, yes it would.
"Why me?" a voice moaned from among the trees. A nearby groundhog lifted its head, thoughtfully chewing a few blades of grass, as it peered through the branches at the partially-hidden Porsche. After a moment, it went back to eating, and Dead End let out an expansive sigh. "This is the most completely asinine endeavor I've had to endure for months, and that's saying quite a bit. And don't turn your posterior toward me when I'm talking to you, you pompous sack of carbon-based slop."
The groundhog presented its rump to the Stunticon as it nosed through the grass.
For the hundredth time, Dead End sighed. A quick check of his link to Ravage's optical output showed that the cat had made it to the Ark's perimeter, and was waiting for an opening to infiltrate.
"Transport Ravage to Oregon," Dead End did a surprisingly good impression of Soundwave's voice. "Conceal yourself, and transport him back when he has completed his mission. Feh." The Stunticon ground his tires into the dirt a bit, disgusted with having to lurk beneath this canopy of grungy vegetation. Oh, he would admit that it was far better than mucking about Decepticon HQ and waiting for someone to decide that it would be fun to play Beat The Stunticon With A Metal Pipe, but really, this was not only ridiculous, but also a complete waste of his inevitably all-too-short life, which he was quite sure would be yanked from under his feet like some gigantic cosmic rug, just before it got interesting. "Oh, sure," the Porsche moaned to himself, to the groundhog, to the universe at large, "send Dead End. He has nothing better to do than sit outside the Autobots' headquarters and await his untimely demise, all while being subjected to a lack of witty reparte with a creature whose construct seems to be ninety-percent posterior, and whom I shall now affectionately call 'Motormaster'."
The groundhog, in a display of infinite wit, continued to chew.
Sometimes the things Megatron came up with made sense. Sometimes, Dead End would roll to his destination, sure that for once the Decepticons would earn themselves a victory and haul themselves at last out of their perpetual state of being dismal failures. Not that he cared either way, really, which side won the war, since the Decepticons would only continue to abuse him until he died at last of longsuffering boredom, and the Autobots would surely shoot him for war crimes or even just for being a Decepticon, which wasn't his fault at all, really, since he'd never had a choice about it, and never would. Oh, it was a sure thing that he was doomed, no matter what the outcome of this miserable and completely dull war, but that wasn't to say that he didn't have his pride. He did like, from time to time, to feel as though he were of some value to someone, even if that value was roughly the equivalent to that of the silicon which greased the joints surrounding Megatron's boron compressor. So suffice it to say that he did enjoy winning a battle every now and again, even if he did have to endure all the subsequent boasting and over-energizing and flagrant uses of improper grammar that always accompanied the Decepticons' victory celebrations. Yes, it was nice once in a while to feel as though he were a part of the winning team. Rah, rah, sis boom bah, and all that other rubbish. Go team, or something.
So when Megatron had a workable idea, and set his Decepticons to their tasks, Dead End would roll out with a feeling of something rather like mild interest, which was to say that he was no longer mired in his usual state of morbid gloom. Oh, there was always that lingering dread which foretold his demise, which he was quite sure was just around the corner, and would smack him right between the optics when he wasn't looking, so it's not like he really looked forward to Megatron's little escapades. But he did have a sense of reprieve from his usual state of utter ennui, and that was enough to make him occasionally look forward to receiving orders from the almighty command element, even if it meant that he had to tolerate the presence of the Stunticon commander. Even Motormaster's mouth was worth enduring for a reprieve, however brief, from the unending tedium that comprised Dead End's existence.
This time, however, Dead End felt no glee. In fact, he was fairly sure that someone connected to the Decepticon chain of command had it in for him, because not only was this assignment mind-numbingly dull, and you're-expendable dangerous, it was just plain stupid.
What in the universe was a Furby, anyway? It was a passive monitoring device, or so the orders had read. Cleverly encased in a deceptively 'cute' coat of fake fur, the 'Furby' was basically a human-designed bugging system that would capture phrases and reiterate them in a constant, random loop. "This," Soundwave had suggested, "allows for a high probability for the capture of sensitive information. Given the mechanism's intent as a toy, the Autobots will relax their security measures and will probably not regard the Furby as a threat. The chances, then, of capturing even the smallest portion of classified information from simple conversation is high enough to warrant placement and eventual retrieval of these devices."
So a few of the devices had been appropriated from supply, (i.e., Swindle, since simply breaking into a toy store and stealing the things would have attracted attention), and then left at strategic locations, in the hopes that one of the Autobots or their human allies would pick them up and carry them into the Ark, which Primus knew they were prone to doing. Dead End, naturally, would not be caught dead (ha, ha) carrying some unfamiliar object into Decepticon HQ without first running it through several scanners, but then, he wasn't an Autobot, and thank Primus for that.
And of course, the plan had worked. The Autobot Bluestreak had found one of the 'Furby' mechanisms, and had transported it into the Ark, where a number of the other Autobots, upon seeing it, had apparently been so amused with the thing that they had gone right out and bought roughly a thousand more of its kind. It was done anonymously over the internet, so the human news networks didn't report anything about the new Autobot fascination with Furbys, but Swindle's resources, (who had been so recently attuned to their network of toy suppliers), reported a sudden movement of stock, and the buyer was easily tracked as being one of the Autobots. Why the Autobots would want so many Furbys the Decepticon command didn't know, but they were elated that their plan had introduced such a veritable wealth of listening devices into the Ark, and for several weeks they sat back and allowed the devices to gather their intelligence.
Dead End supposed, then, in a roundabout way, that the plan did make sense. A passive listening device, which had been in place for weeks now, did have a high likelihood of containing some sort of sensitive information. But the mere fact that he now was sitting in a tangle of trees while Ravage risked his life collecting a furry, mechanical creature called a 'Furby' suddenly put a new and decidedly stupid twist to his task. Oh, and one should not forget the aspect of personal danger. Yes, once again, Dead End was risking life and limb, and this time all for an inane, fur-bearing plaything.
"Well," he intoned with a dramatic sigh, his headlights peering dolefully through the scrub, "it may as well be me. Why not me, after all? It's assured that at any moment the Autobots will come stampeding through these trees, artillery and missiles all a-fling, so to speak, and since I may as well die a comical death anyway…" His frame crouched momentarily down on its shocks in a vehicular shrug. "I may as well just sit here, and await my doom. Perhaps I should even have a chuckle at it all. Right, then, a bit of mirth. Ha, ha. Better to go down laughing anyway, since once I die, all the other Decepticons will just have a good laugh at my expense before they get on with their lives, not that there's much life to be getting on with, since we're all going to die anyway." He sighed. "And thus ends the tragicomedy of Dead End's amazingly unheroic and shockingly unremarkable existence. How…spiffing."
The groundhog continued to graze.
Autobots jostled and grumbled their way into the lounge, where all who were not on duty had been called to a half-grudging, half-curious assembly. Even the Dinobots were there, stepping on errant feet and not apologizing for it in the least, much to everyone's consternation. In the corner, Windcharger looked offended as he nursed his foot, while the Aerialbots clustered nearby, complaining loudly, to no one's surprise.
They did not, however, have long to wait. Prowl motioned for their attention, and the few who saw him quieted down, though it wasn't until Ironhide bellowed something about 'shuttin' the slag up, fer the love a' criminy' that everyone finally stopped yammering. Everyone except Slag, that was, who thought that he was being personally yelled at, and it took about five minutes for Wheeljack to convince him that 'shuttin' the Slag up' was not at all what Ironhide meant. Slag, in the end, was not convinced, but he did stop moaning about it.
"Now," Prowl said, when everyone was finally quiet, "it has come to my attention, in light of recent events, that there has been a lack of fun things to do around here lately. I've noticed a lot of boredom, a lot of 'extra-curricular activity', a lot of pent-up playfulness." He chuckled, while everyone stared at him ominously. "I'm not upset about this; on the contrary, I completely understand. In fact, I care. I care about you all, which is why I've come up with a solution that I think will ease everyone's frustration."
Normally, in the face of such words, there would have been a good deal of nodding and smiling and mumbling back and forth at this point, what with how most Autobots were in fact bored of late, and would most likely welcome an engaging diversion. However, Prowl was feeling awfully pleased with himself, and he knew that it showed in the abnormally broad grin he was wearing, which was probably the reason that one could have heard a pin drop just at that moment in the Autobot lounge. No one, he mused, liked a happy Prowl. Ah, well. Suffer, villains.
Grin widening at the silent, wary crowd, Prowl continued, "Now, I also know that there is a great deal of cleaning to do in the maintenance bay, and I have promised Grapple a highly-enthusiastic cleaning crew. But I am left with the nagging problem of whom to choose. I can't very well just assign some poor, innocent Autobot to clean up a mess left by a nefarious prankster, can I? Well, no, I certainly can't, which is why I decided, in the absence of having anyone to blame the mess on, that I would at least give the potential cleaning crew a fighting chance before putting them at the mercy of Grapple. Because Grapple's mad, people, and I just hate the thought of putting some poor group of innocents in there with him when he's like this." He shook his head with a look of mock-regret.
"So, I thought to myself, wouldn't it be terribly fair of me to hold a football game to decide who earns the wrath of Grapple? The winners of the game wouldn't have to clean, and everyone would have some fun watching the game, which would provide you all a little entertainment to ease your boredom."
"But the losers…" Tracks started, frowning.
"Oh, but you don't have to worry about that, Tracks," Prowl replied, "because you aren't on the list."
"List?" Trailbreaker shifted his feet. Nobody looked pleased.
"Yes," Prowl smiled, "the list of volunteers." He gestured toward Sideswipe. "Our fine red friend here has already volunteered to be captain of one of the teams."
A murmur of approval rippled through the crowd, as everyone generally agreed that Sideswipe was among the Autobots' best athletes, and as some breathed a small sigh of relief that the first 'volunteer' wasn't them. In the corner, Smokescreen had already started a betting pool.
"And on the other team," Prowl continued blithely, "will be all five Dinobots."
Betting halted. The Dinobots, used to being ignored, rumbled to life with a rousing rumble of cheers.
"What?" Sideswipe blurted, optics wide. Someone snorted.
"What's the matter, Side," Ironhide couldn't help a guffaw, "all yer bravado suddenly decide to dry up?"
Prowl smiled nicely. "Oh, not to worry, Sideswipe. You'll have team mates to help you out."
"Yeah," Sideswipe shot back with the understandably incredulous air of someone about to find his bodywork forcibly rearranged, "dibs on Superion."
"Oh, you want Aerialbots?" Prowl raised a brow, as the Aerialbots in the corner all tried to hide behind each other. "Well, you can have one then. Come here, Slingshot."
"Me?" Slingshot edged away, only to find himself shoved forward by his snickering team mates. "What'd I do?"
"What did you do?" Prowl asked, enjoying himself considerably. "You made the list. Now trot down here and say hello to your captain. Oh, and Bluestreak, not so fast."
The silver gunner had been trying to blend back into the crowd, and now peeked over Hound's shoulder with a weak grin.
"You know you're Sideswipe's partner in crime," Prowl commented, as Bluestreak trudged resignedly forward to take his place on Team About-to-be-Slaughtered. "And speaking of partners, Sunstreaker…"
"What?" the yellow warrior squawked, indignant. "Absolutely not. I am not scratching this paint job in some idiotic, muddy Earth game."
"Oh, yes you are," Prowl came back. "Unless you'd rather be one of the delegates I send down to the Rainier City Kindergarten next week. I hear last time Bumblebee came back with Crayola tattooed all over his interior."
A blank look of horror crawled over Sunstreaker's face as he regarded Prowl. "You wouldn't."
"I would," Prowl smiled benevolently.
"I love football," Sunstreaker found a sudden change of heart, and slunk toward his brother, head ducked sullenly between his shoulders as he grumbled. "What'd I do anyway?"
"You," Prowl pointed a finger, "were sparked with him." He shifted his finger toward a rather mutinous-looking Sideswipe. "Now, who else wants to volunteer? Let's see…" He looked around. "Cliffjumper. No, don't say anything; just get up here." That brought on a pair of disgusted looks from the twins, who didn't much care for Cliffjumper. "And Blades…"
"Bwuah!" Hot Spot barked out a laugh as he clapped Blades on the shoulder hard enough to propel him forward. "Have fun, killer." The Protectobot leader winked at Prowl as he sent his subordinate stumbling up to the front of the crowd, and Prowl had the distinct notion that this little football game was about to make more than one Autobot's life easier. Squirrelly Autobots were less squirrelly after being pummeled into the ground a few times.
Prowl indulged in a bit of a snicker before turning a pleased look to his left, where his special operations officer rocked back and forth on his toes, all but jumping out of his plating with glee. "And last but not least," Prowl said, "Jazz."
Jazz's grin wilted. "What?"
"Oh, you heard me," Prowl nodded toward the sullen group of football players.
"Uh-uh," Jazz backed up a step, hands spread.
"You know," Prowl commented, "you've been awfully pleased with yourself lately."
"I have not."
"Funny how you've been completely incapable of finding me a single perpetrator today." Prowl raised an optic ridge.
"Prowl, man," Jazz protested as he pointed a finger, "you got this all wrong…"
But before he could really launch into what Prowl knew would have been a truly stunning (and admittedly amusing) collection of excuses and alibis, the unmistakable bellow of the Autobots' chief medic sounded across the room.
"What," Ratchet bawled as he stalked through the doors, "in the slagging name of Cybertron is going on?" The assembled Autobots scurried like turbomice out of the medic's path as Ratchet ploughed his way toward Prowl, where he stabbed an accusing finger in the tactician's face. "What is this I hear about some idiot football game?"
Now, until this point, Prowl had been enjoying himself immensely, but at the sight of Ratchet's stormy face, Prowl's sense of amusement bloomed to the point that he was feeling positively jolly. "Why, Ratchet," Prowl purred, crossing his arms and realizing that this sense of jovial triumph must be exactly how Sideswipe felt every time he succeeded in one of his pranks, "I thought it would be a good idea to provide a bit of exercise for this lot, since they've been so unruly of late."
"Unruly?" Ratchet mumbled, looking from team to team as he sized up the situation. Team Sad and Sorry stared darkly at Ratchet with unified contempt, while the Dinobots jostled and all but wagged their tails with excitement, and at length, the medic comprehended what was going on. Optics brightening like Christmas lights, he turned an appreciative look in Prowl's direction. "Ah…I see," he chuckled. "Well, consider this wholeheartedly authorized by yours truly."
Sunstreaker growled something about fat, old muffler-suckers. Prowl beamed. "You know, Ratchet, you yourself look in need of some exercise."
"I do?" Ratchet suddenly looked much less pleased. Sunstreaker smirked.
"Oh, yes." Prowl gestured at the teams. "I mean, these teams are a bit lopsided, and we can't really have that, can we?" A few snickers passed through Sideswipe's team. "I mean, it would help you relieve some of that tension you've always got built up, and it would make things more fair for the Dinobots. Five to seven just isn't right."
"What?" Sunstreaker barked, scandalized. "You're putting more Autobots on the other team?"
"Of course," Prowl offered the golden warrior a saintly smile as the blacklisted football players grumbled among themselves. "Fair is fair after all."
"You know," Ratchet gave his shoulders a bit of a hitch as he loosened up his joints, "I think I could use some exercise after all. How about it, Wheeljack? The two of us would bring the Dinobots' team to seven."
"You know I'm in," Wheeljack gave his friend a high-five as the two of them took their places among their new team mates who, in a rare showing of cooperation, did not complain about not needing help from Autobots. For once, the Dinobots and Prowl seemed to be seeing things optic to optic.
"Now," Prowl announced, "for the rules. Eject and Rewind are on duty, so in their absence, I will act as referee." Groans ensued. "Basically, as I understand it, there's a ball, and two endzones. Put the ball in the endzone and your team gets a point."
"Six points, actually," Trailbreaker piped up.
"Actually," Prowl corrected him, "points will be awarded as I see fit. Now, isn't there something of a team commander who throws the ball?"
"Quarterback," Trailbreaker supplied. He'd had Sparkplug in his driver's compartment enough times to have listened a game or two over the radio.
"Ah, yes," Prowl smiled. "The quarterback."
At this, Grimlock stepped forward, his chestplate flung out in true king lizard fashion. "Me, Grimlock throw ball. Me quar-ter-back commander."
"Of course," Prowl agreed, then turned his gleeful gaze on Sunstreaker. "And since you seem to be the loudmouth of your team, you can have the dubious honor of quarterbacking your side." He turned back to the Dinobots. "Now don't forget, the idea is to get the ball into your end zone. So if you see the other quarterback with the ball…"
Grimlock fixed a menacing stare on Sunstreaker. "Then Grimlock clobber."
En masse, the entire herd of jostling, colorful, chattering Autobots spilled outside the front entrance of the Ark and onto the valley floor. Near the bottom of the vale, the ground leveled out a bit to provide a decent field for a game, so long as they didn't blunder into the surrounding trees, and everyone stopped while Prowl and a rather enthusiastic Ironhide marked out the sidelines and endzones with some spraypaint.
"Man, this is rotten luck," Jazz groused as Prowl finished laying down a center line.
"What do quarterbacks do anyway?" Sunstreaker grumbled.
Sideswipe shrugged gloomily.
"Isn't that the guy who shouts all those numbers and colors just before the centerfielder chucks him the ball?" Bluestreak stuck out his lip as he tried to remember. "Or was it the shortstop?"
"That's baseball, dummy," Slingshot snapped.
"Who you callin' dummy, flyboy?" Cliffjumper interjected himself between Bluestreak and Slingshot, and a fistfight would have broken out right then and there if Prowl hadn't spoken up.
"You know," he commented, spray-paint in hand, "Bluestreak does make a good point about the numbers."
Sunstreaker's optics widened. "Now you wait just a slagging minute…" he backed up a step, a leery gaze on the can of paint.
"He is right—" Trailbreaker put in, and Prowl knew right then and there that the twins would get him back for this later, "—football players do need numbers."
Sunstreaker looked ready to bolt. "Of course," Prowl noted with a nod toward the yellow warrior, "you could always back out, and opt for the kindergarten assignment."
For a good long minute, Prowl watched while Sunstreaker weighed his options, comparing the indignity of a couple stripes of spray paint against the possibility of an entire arsenal of finger paints and chocolate chip cookie crumbs and all the various fluids and emissions that young humans are capable of making, all while climbing about his interior, and at length, Prowl watched the yellow warrior come to the more sensible conclusion. Reluctantly, as though he were willingly subjecting himself to some excruciating form of humiliation, Sunstreaker stepped forward and hissed through clenched teeth, "Paint me."
So Prowl merrily applied numbers to all contestants, especially enjoying himself as he painted '1/2' in white paint across the entire width of Sideswpe's glossy red chestplate, and once finished, he stepped back and announced, "Well then, let the games begin."
Sideswipe scowled down at his himself. "Half? What the slag?"
Prowl smiled nicely. "Nobody ever said they had to be whole numbers. Now shoo."
The Dinobot team rumbled happily onto the field, while their opponents dragged themselves more grudgingly along, grumbling among themselves about killing Bluestreak later. Bluestreak, a big 42 across his chestplate, wisely kept as many people between himself and Sunstreaker as possible.
A ball was produced by Wheeljack, and to nobody's surprise, Prowl awarded first possession to Sideswipe's team.
"Have fun stormin' the castle, boys!" Hot Spot called from the sidelines, and earned a withering look from Blades.
"My name is Side-igo Monswipe-a!" Streetwise called out. "You painted my brother! Prepare to die!"
The other three Protectobots roared with laughter, and Prowl made a mental note to investigate the newest combiner team's recent obsession with cult-comedies before returning his attention to the field. There seemed to be some confusion as to how to start the game, but eventually Trailbreaker shouted something about having a huddle, and each team formed a sort of circle. Grimlock's team (all currently in robot mode) all flung their arms around each other's shoulders and enthusiastically discussed their upcoming strategy, which Prowl was sure included nothing more than a general wish to stomp, muddy and mangle the other team as much as possible before the end of the game. Sideswipe's team, however, never even made it to the huddle, as Slingshot loudly protested that he was 'not the hugging type', a distraction which Sunstreaker took as a chance to get even with Bluestreak. It took the combined efforts of Jazz, Cliffjumper and Sideswipe to pull him off of the poor, cowering (and now dented and grass-stained) mech, but it wasn't until Sideswipe knocked some sense into his brother that Sunstreaker truly backed off. Gesturing rudely and making full use of colorful terminology, the red warrior pointed out that their team needed Bluestreak to be conscious, so the silver Autobot could fulfill his role as the speedbump that would ideally slow the Dinobots down before they could reach and mangle Sunstreaker's pretty-boy paint job. Sunstreaker, though not the sharpest laser-scalpel in the toolbox, did see the wisdom in this, and let Bluestreak live. For now.
So in complete disarray, Sideswipe's team lined up on the center line opposite the Dinobots, who had all, with the exception of Swoop, transformed into dino mode. Grimlock wanted to simply start the clobbering right away, but Sunstreaker (in an obvious effort to buy himself some time) pointed out that he had to shout a bunch of numbers and colors first, and that the center guy (who couldn't be called the centerfielder anymore, as Slingshot insisted that was baseball), had yet to throw him the ball.
"So say numbers!" Grimlock snapped, impatient. Slag snorted to his left, a bit of flame pluming out from the corners of his mouth.
"This is stupid," Slingshot complained loudly and bitterly.
"Just say the numbers!" Blades snapped, fists clenched, and Prowl wasn't sure whether the Protectobot just wanted the whole mess over with, or whether he actually wanted to do some pounding of his own, though it was probably a little bit of both.
Sunstreaker scowled. "Don't you tell me what to do, you pastel blue moron –"
"SUNSTREAKER!" Sideswipe glared from the end of the line. "Say the fricking numbers, Primus friggit!"
Sunstreaker ground his teeth, and Prowl inwardly tallied another fistfight that was bound to take place later tonight, since Sunstreaker absolutely did not take orders from his twin. But since the Dinobots were about to charge anyway, and since Sunstreaker wanted to start things on his terms, he complied. "Fine!" he shouted. "Hunter green! Seven-point-six-three!"
Someone along the sidelines had time to say "Huh?" before the ball was snapped to Sunstreaker, and the Dinobots charged.
With a roar, the Dinobot team trampled all over Sideswipe's crew, who scrambled valiantly to get out of the way. Cliffjumper was immediately flattened by an over-zealous Slag, and all the spectators groaned in unison as the minibot tried to peel himself back out of the ground. Nearby, Blades hopped around on one foot, both hands clutching the other as he wailed, drowning out Sludge's fervent apologies and obviously hurting the big Dinobot's feelings with the unfriendly things he was saying about Dinobot clumsiness in general. Sunstreaker backpedaled furiously as Grimlock advanced, and though Bluestreak did actually attempt to block the Dinobot commander, he mostly found himself tossed face-first into the grass, and when he got up, Prowl saw that his chevron was bent askew. But that was nothing compared to the look of horror on the silver Autobot's face as he watched Grimlock bear down on Sunstreaker.
"Sideswipe, catch!" the yellow warrior yelped, and threw the ball downfield before turning tail and running in the opposite direction.
"Run away! Run away!" Hot Spot called, making his team mates hoot with laughter.
Sideswipe, having managed to scoot between Ratchet and Snarl, transformed and sent up a spray of grass and mud as his back tires scrambled for purchase. But before he could launch himself after the ball, Wheeljack flung himself on the Lamborghini's roof and hung on for dear life as the red warrior sprang madly downfield, swerving and hollering insensibly. Ahead, the ball landed and gave a wobbly bounce somewhere near the end zone, but instead of heading toward it, Sideswipe slammed on his brakes, and, since a Lamborghini's hood leaves nothing to hold onto, Wheeljack was sent hurtling forward into a heap. With a wicked laugh, Sideswipe transformed, gracefully leaped over the reeling Wheeljack, and found himself quite suddenly and violently ploughed into the ground by Swoop.
"BWUAH!" Ironhide crowed, and slapped a hand on his thigh, just as Ratchet added himself to the dogpile, and pounded Sideswipe's face into the sod.
"Oooooooh, that hadda hurt!" Smokescreen winced.
"Look!" Groove shouted from somewhere along the sidelines, and Prowl looked up in time to see Jazz and Slingshot haring down the field toward the ball, Snarl in hot pursuit. Jazz shouted something to Slingshot, who put on a sudden burst of speed, while Jazz dug in his heels for a spectacular sliding stop right in front of Snarl's face. Jazz meant to trip the stegosaurus and give Slingshot a chance to get the ball, but Snarl, in a rare display of agility, swerved at the last moment, leaving Jazz to stand stock still in confusion. That, however, only lasted a second, as Sunstreaker chose that precise moment to race through the melee, Grimlock still thundering in his wake. Unable to alter course, Sunstreaker slammed into Jazz, sending the black and white Autobot flying about twenty feet, just as Grimlock brought a foot down and crunched Sunstreaker into the ground on his way toward the ball.
"Oooooh!" the crowd groaned.
"Look out, Sling!" Air Raid hollered from the sidelines, just as both Snarl and Grimlock bore down on the poor little Aerialbot. Slingshot sprinted the last few yards and pounced on the ball, just as Grimlock and Snarl converged on him with a resounding crash.
Everyone gasped, and a few of the Aerialbots had to be restrained from running onto the field to see if their teammate was still functioning. But then Grimlock and Snarl staggered to the side, and there on the grass, curled tightly into the fetal position, was Slingshot with the ball.
Cheers rose up from the sidelines, three of the Aerialbots did the macarena while Silverbolt looked on in consternation, and someone at the end of the line started the wave, just as Prowl threw his hands in the air and called out, "That's the end of round one!"
"Snarl's head!" Snarl lamented from out on the field. "Why? Why you, Grimlock, hit Snarl's head?"
But Grimlock was busy nursing his own cranial unit. "You, Snarl ran into me, Grimlock! Bad Snarl!"
Offended, Snarl drew back. "Snarl not bad!"
To which Grimlock gave the reply of sharply rapping Snarl's head with his T-rex knuckles. Slingshot didn't move.
"Is he ok?" someone shouted.
"Medic!" Trailbreaker called.
With a grin, Ratchet extracted himself from the dogpile, leaving Swoop to happily peel Sideswipe off the ground, and trotted over to where Slingshot lay. But there was no cause for concern, as once the Dinobots had taken their argument elsewhere, Slingshot cautiously raised his head to have a look around. Sheepish grin crawling over his face, he shakily held up the ball.
More cheers went up from the other Aerialbots as the rest of the sideline hooped and hollered with glee. "First down!" Trailbreaker called, but all joy was lost on Sideswipe's team, as they lay crumpled and moaning in the grass.
It was a beautiful sight, and from where he stood on the sidelines, Prowl smiled. Ah, yes, this was turning out to be a good day after all. A very good day.
Well, what fabulous luck this was. Dead End peered woefully through the branches, his frame sagging sadly on its tires as he stared out at the activities going on a bare five meters from his headlights. He had no idea what the Autobots were playing at, and it looked like no training exercise that he'd ever seen before, but he was quite sure that any moment now, they would come crashing through the treeline where he was hidden, and those Dinobot brutes would trample footprints all over his immaculate bodywork.
See? He'd said he was doomed, and nobody had believed him. Nobody ever believed him. He sighed.
Of course, Ravage was happy. This was just the distraction he'd been looking for. But did the Decepticon cat ever bother to consider Dead End's welfare in all of this? Did he bother to consider that when he got back to where Dead End was hidden, all the cat might find would be trampled Porsche parts, and a little oil slick telling the tale of Dead End's last squeak of terror just before his untimely demise? Did he? Did he bother to think that his ride home might just get squashed, Dead End's internals squirting everywhere as though he were the remains of some flattened Insecticon? And then Ravage would be without transportation, and Ravage himself would be smeared into the ground, or worse, captured and subjected to the endless tedium of the Autobots brig.
But oh, no, nobody ever thought of these things. No, Ravage had seen that parade of Autobots bumbling out of the Ark, and had taken the chance to slip in under their security net and down the ominous corridor of the Ark's main passageway. Dead End had to give him credit; Ravage was really quite good at his job, as Dead End was relatively sure that if he himself had tried anything so brash, he would have found himself tossed into that insufferable brig within five nanoclicks. But Ravage was still doomed. Just because one was talented didn't mean one wasn't inevitably doomed. And the inevitable was barely five meters away.
Well, at least Ravage would probably only get caught. He probably wouldn't be mangled and squashed like Dead End was about to be, so there was that to be happy about. Oh, happy day.
With a glance at his link to Ravage, Dead End saw that the cat was crouched in the ventilation system just above the maintenance bay. And why, Dead End wondered, in the name of Primus did everyone insist on using the ventilation system? How positively cliché. Could not even Ravage come up with something cleverer, or were the Autobots truly dimwitted enough to continue in their failure to monitor the universe's most obvious infiltration point? Which of course led Dead End to consider that he was probably about to be mauled and deactivated not just by Autobots, but by moronic Autobots.
"I don't like this," he heard a jittery voice sounding over his audio link to Ravage's position. "I don't like this at all."
"Aw, Red, give it a rest. It was just a prank."
"A prank?" the first voice protested. "This was deliberate sabotage of my security measures. I would bet my laser core on it."
Dead End looked again at the visual, and he could see through Ravage's optics down into the maintenance bay, where Red Alert and Inferno stood in the midst of a sea of furry blobs. Well, they didn't look very threatening.
Red Alert begged to differ. "I am telling you," he was saying, "that someone planted these here in an effort to gather sensitive information about the Autobot mission, and that they need to be safeguarded until –"
"Red," Inferno interjected, but Red Alert only raised his voice.
"—until we can tag each unit and systematically check every bit of information on their datatracks. I am telling you, Inferno –"
"Red," the other cut in, "cool yer engine a bit. Rumor has it that Sideswipe did this, not the 'Cons."
"Sideswipe," Red Alert lamented, "is beyond irresponsible, and should be immediately brought in for questioning regarding this gross breach of security. In fact, I have long suspected that his immaturity is only a convenient cover-up for his dealings with the Decepticons."
"Oh, fer the love o' my tailpipe, Red," Inferno kicked at one of the Furbys, "Sideswipe ain't a 'Con lover any more than you are. And you should probably count yourself lucky that he didn't hear you say that."
"Why?" Red Alert pressed the bigger Autobot. "Because he would seek my harm? See? You yourself admit it! His open hostility positively screams double-agent –"
"Red!" Inferno glowered. "Fer cryin' out loud! Sideswipe ain't a double agent, and Prime ain't gonna let you interrogate him as if he were."
"You see? Even Optimus has been brainwashed," Red Alert was really frothing now, "and if we all continue to think along these lines, that just because someone is friendly and fun and pretends to be not-too-bright, that they're harmless, then we're all inevitably bringing about our doom."
Dead End chuckled. Well, at least someone saw the truth. Not that it mattered a whit anyway, since he and Red Alert and every other Transformer on the planet were doomed whether they recognized it or not.
The Autobots' security chief continued to fret, "What if, right now, there's a Decepticon infiltrator right there in that ventilation shaft, just waiting – waiting, Inferno – for us to turn our backs?"
Both Autobots turned their gazes up to where Ravage was hidden, and Dead End tensed, wondering if they could see the cat. But Inferno only shook his head and clapped a hand down on Red Alert's shoulder. "Aw, Red, that's the oldest trick in the book. Nobody hides in ventilation shafts anymore, 'cept in the movies and bad fiction." He chuckled. "Well, nobody but Sideswipe and Bluestreak. You hear what they got up to this morning?"
Still chattering, the big red Autobot steered Red Alert toward the door, and Dead End let out a low woosh of relief.
Standby, Ravage relayed in Cybertronian, and both the cat and the Porsche watched while the doors to maintenance hissed shut behind the retreating Autobots. A long minute passed, presumably while Ravage probed his surroundings with all available sensors, and Dead End began to feel the tiniest thread of hope that he might make it through this silliness functional. Well, barring nearby activities finding their way through the trees and stampeding all over Dead End's front end. There was that to think about. But maybe…just maybe…if Ravage was in and out quickly enough, the two of them might get out alive after all.
No presence noted, Ravage sent, speaking Cybertronian as ever. Proceeding. On the link, Dead End could see Ravage's paw reach out, tiny tools extending from miniscule panels between his claws. Surprisingly, the cat made almost no noise as he disconnected the grating and, using his paws as cleverly as any Transformer might use his hands, pulled the panel inside and gently propped it against the wall of the shaft. He then eased himself forward, and smooth as water, poured himself out of the shaft and onto the floor.
The cat's paws made only the tiniest metallic thump against the deep orange floor of the bay, but still Dead End could see the cat crouching, body absolutely still, as Ravage monitored the area to see if he'd been discovered. When at length no one appeared, Ravage sent, Retrieving, and crept noiselessly forward.
A babble began to fill the audio link between Dead End and Ravage, and as the cat neared the sea of furry mechanoids, Dead End could see that the whole lot of them was chattering among themselves.
"No! Frag you!"
"Why don't you go suck on a neutron, you scraggly bag of parts?"
"And blow it out yer afterburner while yer at it!"
"Bwuahahaha!" an entire chorus of the things erupted in laughter, and the cat paused, while Dead End boggled. No one had said anything about the things being conversational, and at once Dead End began to fear that they were some sort of security drone, programmed to insult intruders while an alarm was silently sounded throughout the rest of the Ark.
Obviously puzzled, Ravage crept toward the nearest one, and poked it with his paw.
"Yer mother was a trash compactor!" it bawled, and the cat gave an involuntary flinch back, ears swiveling to see if the noise had attracted the Autobots. But since all the other Furby units were raising the same type of racket, it seemed unlikely that any Autobot would come barreling through the door. After a moment, Ravage narrowed his optics at the thing and emitted a soft growl.
"Yo mama so stupid," it continued, "she bought a solar-powered flashlight!"
Another chimed in, "Yo mama so fat, when she turns around, people give her a welcome back party!"
"Well yo mama so stupid," the first one shot back, "she thinks a quarterback is a refund!"
With a snarl of disgust, Ravage snatched the first unit in his jaws and started to turn around – or tried to. At first Dead End wondered what the cat was doing, as he saw him pull back again and again on the mechanoid. It tried another one with the same effect, and then another. Finally, it let go and transmitted, They're stuck.
"Stuck?" Dead End couldn't help himself. He knew he was supposed to remain silent on his end, so Ravage could work in peace, but this was too much. "What do you mean they're stuck?"
Ravage growled. I mean someone has adhered them to the floor, he sent dryly.
"Well, can't you just pry one up and get out of there?"
Of course, Ravage replied, as soon as you tell me how much of the housing is pertinent and how much can be discarded. I would hate to bring Megatron an incomplete unit.
Dead End grumbled to himself, and inwardly cursed the cat's snide sense of humor. There had to be something they could do. "Can't you cut out a piece of the flooring?" he offered. "We're running out of time."
As if on cue, the doors of the bay hissed open to reveal Red Alert and Inferno, each with a cup of energon. For a moment, Ravage and the Autobots stared blankly at one another, but then Red Alert flicked his gaze toward the open ventilation shaft, and over to where Ravage was hunkered down, paws frozen in mid-attempt to pry up one of the Furbys.
"I told you!" the Autobot exclaimed. "I told you, Inferno!" He hit a panel on the wall. "Decepticon intruder! Decepticon intruder!"
Another roar of cheering went up as the Dinobots scored their fifth touchdown. In the endzone, Ratchet, Wheeljack and Swoop all jigged about, arms flailing and skidplates wagging as they performed what Trailbreaker had explained was a 'touchdown dance.' On the field, Jazz was holding his nose as energon poured out of a cut, while Sideswipe and Sunstreaker sprawled in a heap together, too tired to get up as their vents frantically tried to cycle enough air to cool their systems. Grimlock, who had made it his personal vendetta to smear the opposing quarterback, had give Sunstreaker all kinds of merry hell for the last hour, and he now prodded the warrior with one claw on his foot, scratching Sunstreaker's paint as he chortled.
"Now who the big, bad quarterback commander?" the Dinobot asked.
"Ask him who his daddy is!" Trailbreaker, who had been quite thoroughly enjoying himself throughout this ordeal, called out to Grimlock.
"Ok," Grimlock grinned down at the twins. "Tell Grimlock, who your daddy?"
The sidelines erupted with laughter, but the only response Grimlock received was a black stare from Sunstreaker.
With a groan, Sideswipe finally managed to unpin his leg from beneath his brother's torso, and got shakily to his feet, where he levered Sunstreaker up beside him. Swaying, the brothers glared up at Grimlock as Sideswipe clearly and defiantly held up his middle finger. "Kiss," he coughed, dislodging a bit of half-processed energon, "my tailpipe."
Grimlock laughed rather rudely as the pair turned their backs on him and hobbled toward the rest of their team.
"Bring out yer dead!" Hot Spot sang out, earning more laughter from the sideline.
Prowl snorted, arms crossed. He did have to give the brothers credit for tenacity, if not audacity. They were being pounded into scrap but, he supposed, they were used to getting pounded into scrap by bigger Decepticons, so he guessed there was no reason they should back down during something as silly as a football game. Lionhearted was what the humans would have called them, but Prowl preferred 'too dumb to know when to quit.' He grinned. No, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker never quit, not while there was still energon circulating through their bodies. Which of course made this little football game all the more painful, because the more they refused to back down, the more Grimlock pounded the ever-living scrap out of them. And that was the point.
Prowl merrily raised his arms. "And that's the end of round eight! Everyone back to the middle of the field!"
Trailbreaker had tried to explain to him that football games were only played in four quarters, with occasional overtime, but Prowl had felt that four quarters would have simply made the game too short. Besides, this was his football game, he was the ref, and he would call things as he saw fit.
Which he had, much to the underdog team's consternation. During their first possession, they would have had a touchdown if Prowl hadn't called them out of bounds. At the last moment, Sideswipe had attempted to use his rocket pack to make a particularly spectacular catch, but as Prowl pointed out, he had flown outside the sidelines to do it, and even though he'd landed in the end zone, he'd had the ball out of bounds, so it was an incomplete pass. Sideswipe, who was highly irritable by that point, had argued with Prowl so vehemently, and making full use of vulgarities, that he'd been put in the penalty box for one round, costing his team mates even more dents and scrapes, since now it was six against seven. That of course earned him enough resentment that Slingshot and Blades had attempted to reward him with a good thrashing, but Sunstreaker and Jazz intervened, and some semblance of calm was restored. Throughout all of this, Cliffjumper had cheered on whoever seemed to be winning, while Bluestreak had watched with a worrisome look, which was made all the worse every time Sunstreaker shot him an ominous stare. As for Prowl, he had lost track of all the inevitable, upcoming fistfights.
So now the score was something like thirty-eight to negative seven, since Prowl had awarded six points per touchdown, plus extra points for overly amazing catches, and negative points for bad behavior. Sideswipe's tirade had put his team about seventeen points in the hole, so even with their two touchdowns, they were still at negative seven. It would have been negative five, but as Sunstreaker had taken it upon himself to launch the football into a crowd of especially talented hecklers, Prowl had been obliged to deduct another two points.
Staggering on wobbly legs, Sideswipe's team lined up against the Dinobots once more. Sadly, Bluestreak flexed his left knee, and winced as he heard something rattle.
Cliffjumper whined from the far end of the lineup, "How many rounds does a football game have, anyway?"
"Stupid," Slingshot snapped, "football games don't got rounds. They got quarters."
"Does Prowl know that?" Blades was looking less enthusiastic than when he'd first started the game.
"Man," Jazz moaned, "Prowl don't give a flying interface. He's just draggin' this out as long as he can."
Prowl grinned, and wondered if they knew he could hear them. They probably didn't care. On the other hand, though, he knew he better not drag this out too terribly long, or, first of all, Ratchet would have his head for all the repairs he'd have to do, and secondly, Prowl was quite sure that there was a point at which the brothers at least would decide that Prowl had earned a thrashing of his own. And since Prowl definitely did not wish to add himself to the list of upcoming fistfights (especially against the brothers, both of which were quite a bit bigger than he was), he decided to make this the final round. Not that the sad bunch would have made it much longer anyway.
"All right!" he announced. "Round nine, final round! Sideswipe's team in possession!"
A round of lusty cheers went up from the sidelines, as most everyone wanted to see one last round of stampeding and mangling. Even a few of the players raised a feeble cheer, as they looked forward to the prospect of falling down and not having to get up for some time.
But first they had to get through the final round. Sunstreaker, frowning behind his team mates, looked for all the world as though he'd rather subject himself to the Rainier City Kindergarten than call out the beginning of the final round. But, with an unhappy sigh, he gathered himself and called out feebly, "Chartreuse! One hundred million and three!"
Blades snapped him the ball, and he immediately began to backpedal as he loudly and unabashedly begged Primus to save him from the big, mean lizard. "Sideswipe!" he screeched, sounding a little hoarse, "caaaaatch!"
Why Sunstreaker constantly insisted on throwing his brother the ball, Prowl didn't know. It wasn't as if they had a moosebot's chance in the Pit of winning, and really, all catching the ball did for Sideswipe was to earn him the honored designation of Prime Target for the Dinobot team. But, catch the ball, Sideswipe did, and without breaking stride, tore off down the field. Once again, Cliffjumper was flattened behind him by Slag, who seemed to have taken to squashing the little minibot as though it were some rare and fantastic joke, and now the triceratops lumbered after Sideswipe with all the speed he could muster. Even without resorting to vehicle mode (which he'd given up due to the slippery mud) Sideswipe should have been able to outstrip Slag. But since Slag had taken to constantly lighting up the red warrior's skidplate with his flamethrower, Sideswipe found himself slowing enough for Slag to keep pace with him.
The whole crowd tensed, expecting either that Sideswipe's back end would finally succumb to the heat and melt off, or that he'd finally give in to the pain and slow enough for Slag to trample him into the ground. But just as it looked like Slag would finally catch up, out of the clear blue, Slingshot leaped onto Slag's head, took hold of his horns, and gave off a mighty 'yeeeeHAW!' Enraged, Slag bucked and savagely shook his head, but Slingshot had a death grip, and since his knees were dug in directly over Slag's optical sensors, the Aerialbot confused the Dinobot enough for Sideswipe to recover and scamper away.
Again the crowd roared as Sideswipe dug in, a hundred, now seventy-five meters away from the endzone, and still sprinting. Behind him, Grimlock tripped and went down over a rolling tackle on his legs by Jazz. Swoop was wrestled out of the air by Blades, who had transformed to block the pterodactyl, and now clung in robot mode again to one of the Dinobot's wings. Sludge had forgotten to chase Sideswipe, as he was too busy running after Bluestreak and apologizing for crumpling one of his door panels. Ratchet, who had paused long enough to see that Cliffjumper was still functioning, now lumbered downfield at a snail's pace, with Cliffjumper (still miraculously conscious) clinging like a leech to his ankle. Bluestreak jumped over Snarl, who had accidentally been knocked offline by Sludge, who had unwittingly stepped on the stegosaur's head in his attempts to catch and make Bluestreak forgive him. Which left only Wheeljack, and though the scientist's face was lit up like a Christmas tree, his legs churning as though tomorrow would never come, bearing him down on the limping Sideswipe faster than Sideswipe could ever hope to get to the end zone, he had not counted on Sunstreaker getting away from Grimlock. With a final, heroic burst of speed, Sunstreaker launched himself forward, grabbed Wheeljack's 'ears' with both hands, and ripped the scientist off his feet.
Sideswipe sprinted on. Seventy meters. Sixty. Fifty meters. Forty.
And then the crowd grew still as a painting, everyone tilting their heads in confusion, as they watched Ravage streak down the field, neck and neck with Sideswipe, a Furby clenched between his jaws.
For a moment, Sideswipe put on a burst of speed, thinking one of the opposite team had caught up with him, but then he glanced to the side, and for some inexplicable reason, just kept right on running.
With a snap, the Autobots seemed to wake up. "It's Ravage!" someone hollered, and the whole sideline poured onto the field in hot pursuit.
"Tackle him!" Ironhide bellowed.
"Sideswipe, get him!" Trailbreaker shouted.
But Sideswipe, the only Autobot with the faintest chance of catching the Decepticon cat, just kept racing alongside him. Maybe something had come loose in his cranial unit, or maybe he was just trying to score that touchdown before he pounced on the cat, but for whatever reason, Sideswipe just kept on running.
"You see, Inferno!" came Red Alert's screech from behind the pack of charging Autobots. "I told you he was a double agent! He's helping him get away!"
And with that, Sideswipe seemed to come to his senses. Just as he crossed into the endzone, he tossed the ball away and leaped at the cat with a barbaric roar. Wrapping his arms around the cat's neck, he ploughed Ravage into the ground with a magnificent tackle, and then skidded headlong into the trees, cat in tow.
Great clods of mud flew up all around Dead End as he tried to shoot forward and backward at once. Panicked, he let out an extremely ungraceful screech, just before he launched himself out of the vines and onto the dirt road leading away from the Ark.
He'd watched while Ravage had streaked through the corridors of the Ark, escaping only because there were so few Autobots inside, but he hadn't expected the cat to actually make a beeline to where Dead End himself was hidden, because that beeline had taken him directly through the Autobots' training activities. And as he'd been watching said activities for the last hour, he knew that the Autobots were in a violent mood, and wanted no part in whatever they were doing. But that foolish cat – that imbecile of a creature – had chosen exactly that flight path in his scampering retreat, and now every single Autobot on Earth was pelting madly right for Dead End.
"HeeeEELP!" he shrieked, though distantly he wondered who in the cosmos was actually near enough to hear him, much less care enough to help him, other than the groundhog, whose only response was to scuttle into the trees at a high rate of giddyup. Insensibly, he shifted through all his gears in random order, his back tires scrabbling for purchase, but just as he actually gained enough of a hold to catapult himself down the dirt road, a squirming, snarling heap of red and black skidded through the trees and right in front of his front fender.
Help me! Ravage snarled, furious, as he attempted to get his back claws in position to remove some of Sideswipe's internals.
Sideswipe. Oh, sodding name of Primus, Dead End hated Sideswipe. "B-but," he heard himself stutter, "he has piledrivers!"
I don't care! Ravage roared. Get him off of me!
Nervous and almost panicked beyond reason, Dead End shifted his video sensors from Sideswipe, to the stampeding herd of Autobots, and back again. Piledrivers be damned. A stampeding herd of Autobots was worse.
"Just…" Dead End transformed, and gripped his gun with unsure fingers. "…hold still." He couldn't shoot the dratted Autobot, for fear of hitting Ravage, though, if he really thought about it, hauling a dead Ravage back to Decepticon Headquarters was better than not hauling a dead Dead End back to Decepticon Headquarters. Of course, there was that 'dead' factor he had to think about, and Megatron's subsequent reaction to having his best infiltrator permanently deactivated, which would naturally lead to unhealthy consequences for Dead End. Oh, what did it matter anyway who killed him? What was the point? Jittering, he glanced over his shoulder one last time at the nearing gang of thugs, and wondered why he even bothered to jitter. He should let them mangle and deactivate him, since after all, that's what would going to happen in the end anyway. Why not bring the inevitable around sooner, so he didn't have to spend his life waiting in miserable anticipation, as he grew more and more attached to the idea of living?
Without knowing why, and in complete defiance of all reason, Dead End suddenly turned on Sideswipe, grabbed his weapon by the muzzle, and brought the butt down as hard as he could on the back of the Autobot's helmet. Maybe it was the Autobot's state of already being halfway mangled; maybe it was the force of Dead End's will to live, but Sideswipe, to Dead End's complete and utter shock, went quite suddenly still.
Ravage squirmed his way out from under the unconscious Autobot, Furby still clenched in his jaw, and started racing down the road. Transform! Let's go! the cat growled through his teeth, but Dead End didn't immediately comply. For a moment, he stood rooted as he stared down at the red Autobot. He couldn't believe himself. He couldn't believe he'd done that. All reason had told him to just go ahead and die while he had the chance, instead of waiting for his doom to creep up on him when he wasn't looking. Why had he done that? Why did he waste his time trying to get away?
The snap of a broken tree jolted through his thoughts, just as he felt a set of teeth clamp down over his thigh. "You buffoon!" he barked, when he saw Ravage had bitten him, but his anger turned again to fear when he realized the Autobots had reached the trees.
Suddenly completely interested in self-preservation, Dead End transformed, paused just long enough for Ravage to leap into his driver's compartment, and tore off down the road, a white cloud of dust billowing behind him like a sail. They were going to make it. He activated his forcefield and ploughed through a stand of trees instead of taking the loop around. Yes, they were going to make it. What was that saying? 'Live to fight another day?' Or was it 'fight to live another day?'
Really, there was no point. But still he sped on.
"So," Optimus Prime laced his fingers on his desk, and stared at Prowl, who stood across from him, a bit uncomfortable. "What you're basically telling me is that the Decepticons broke in, stole one of these listening devices, and Dead End was able to transport Ravage to their pickup point before anyone could catch them."
Prowl nodded. "Ravage's appearance caught us off guard, and some of our number had already taken partial damage from the game. I realize the risk I put us in, and I am ready to take full responsibility for my actions."
Prime stared at him. "What you're telling me," he repeated, "is that due to your actions, Megatron will now spend the greater portion of the next several days listening to a recording of every vulgar word and phrase in Sideswipe's vocabulary." The Autobot commander leaned forward, his optics lighting with a bit of mirth. "Is that what you're telling me, Prowl?"
Prowl hardly dared to smile. "Yes, Prime."
"And are you also telling me," the commander continued, "that, due to the most regrettable pounding taken by the Autobots' most prolific perpetrators, the Ark will now be prank-free for at least the next several days?"
Optimus Prime sat back in his chair, and rested his elbows on his armrests. "Prowl."
"Are you telling me that we're in serious danger of having some peace and quiet around here?"
At that, the corners of Prowl's mouth twitched a bit, though he was far too disciplined to smile. Quietly, he answered, "Yes, Prime."
"Prowl," the Autobot commander tipped his head, and even though he wore a battle mask, Prowl almost swore he saw the commander quirk a smile, "well done."
"Listen," Prime offered a bit of a shrug, "we don't make mistakes intentionally, and even when we do, these mess-ups sometimes work out for good. Sometimes," and here Prowl saw the commander's optics crinkle at the corners, "they work out for the better." Now he gave off a bit of what sounded like a repressed chuckle. "I would just love to see the look on Megatron's face…" Again he chortled.
Prowl couldn't help but smile a bit at that. "Most likely, you will, when he gets angry enough to launch an assault as a result."
"Well," Prime sobered, "then we'll deal with it as always. But until then, did we ever figure out why Sideswipe failed to tackle Ravage when he had the chance?"
"Oh," Prowl grimaced, "after a diagnostic, Ratchet concluded that Sideswipe had hit his head upwards of twenty or so times today, beginning with his fall through my ceiling, and ending with a really nasty blow from the butt of Dead End's rifle."
"It seems he'd had so much concussion trauma to his cranial circuitry that his multitasking abilities…" Prowl waved a hand in the air, dismissing the rest of Ratchet's detailed explanation as unimportant. "Anyway, the long and short of it was that he just couldn't move onto a new task until he'd made that touchdown."
Still chuckling, Prime propped his chin in one hand, elbow on the armrest. "Tell me, did you really convince Sunstreaker to let you paint a number across his chestplate?"
Prowl nodded. "I threatened to send him to the kindergarten mission if he didn't comply."
"You do realize," Prime noted, "that Hound and Bumblebee have already volunteered for that."
"I do," Prowl replied. "But Sunstreaker doesn't know that."
At this, the Autobot commander emitted what Prowl could have sworn was the giggle of a mech about to lose control. "Oh, Primus," Prime hid his optics behind a hand, and rubbed his temples. "Prowl, remind me to never find my way onto your hit list."
Prowl offered a little smile. "Noted."
Prowl turned on his heel and exited the commander's office before Prime could change his mind and take the attitude that Red Alert had tried to inflict on him, and call for a base lockdown while every Autobot was questioned about his involvement in what was now being referred to as The Furby Affair. But Prime seemed to have little interest in suspecting his most trusted Autobots, and so Prowl figured he was in little danger, especially since as he retreated from the commander's office, he heard behind him what sounded dangerously like another stifled giggle.
In the depths of Decepticon Headquarters, down on the lowest decks, where a cluster of windows let in the murky light of the ocean depths, a lone Decepticon sat huddled in the shadow. Dead End supposed someone would be looking for him soon, and he supposed it would be better to present himself to Motormaster rather than let the Stunticon commander stumble upon him and beat Dead End about the head and shoulders all the way back to the Stunticons' bay. He did so hate his commander. But worse was the Decepticon commander himself, and the tantrums he was capable of having, and was most likely about to have.
Dead End snickered. All the way to the pickup point he'd listened to that Furby, and though he knew Megatron would have a raging fit when he discovered that it contained nothing but slurs and insults, there was that part of Dead End that couldn't quite wait to give it to him. The inevitable look on his face was worth it, even if it probably would bring about Dead End's eventual demise. Oh, sure, the wrath of Megatron was very probably about to descend, and Dead End would very probably end up as fodder for the spare parts bin after all was said and done. There would even very likely be a lot of pain involved, and probably some undignified groveling and begging for his life, and even the spouting of ridiculous phrases like 'Mighty Megatron' and 'O Great Leader'. But first…first there would be that look on Megatron's face, just before it exploded into wrathful fits and convulsions, and just the thought of it…well, it made Dead End snicker. A little.
Again, he looked out the circular window, staring at the bland wash of purples and greens as a stand of sea kelp billowed in the currents. Death was inevitable; he was quite sure on that point. But it did seem, in light of the desperate sense of self-preservation that he'd discovered today, and in light of the surprising amount of mirth he was currently feeling at Megatron's expense, that there were some things to live for along the way. Not that there was any point to them, really, if one thought about it too hard. But those incentives were there, and for now he supposed they would probably keep him ticking, rather than throwing himself into the deep end of the ocean, arms flung wide in a tragically graceful swan dive as he embraced the inevitable. Ah, how he could meet his death with such equanimity, rather than let it creep up on him like it was doing now.
But he supposed he would have to let it continue to creep. At least until he saw how this Furby went over with Megatron. Because the look on his face was bound to be too priceless to miss.