The word rippled across the comm channel with a thick harmonic of sarcasm. Whiplash nearly flinched; he'd almost forgotten what friendly frequencies felt like.

The same on any planet, Ironhide continued, ambling casually around to Prime's left side. Something to be said for universal constants.

A necessary unpleasantness, old friend, Optimus Prime reprimanded gently, only remember that this human is one of our most important allies here.

In the cool dampness of the dam chamber, Whiplash quietly skirted around behind the others until he could get a good view of the humans between the bulk of Prime and Ratchet. Political process was something of an esoteric mystery to him. He'd often heard Perceptor complain nostalgically about the 'politics' of the Cybertronian scientific community, and Powerglide had been protégé to an Iaconian councilor before the war. But Whiplash himself knew little of the actual workings.

Who is he? The humans' Prime? Whiplash ventured, aiming the transmission at Bumblebee.

Not quite. They call their Prime the President. At least this certain principality America does. Not all of Earth is one nation. Bumblebee sent a quick databurst, and Whiplash had to fight off another flinch, letting the information into his system. John Keller is the current Secretary of Defense. His position is more similar to Lord High Protector than Prime.

He is like Megatron? Whiplash turned incredulous optics on his fellow scout.

No-- not Megatron, the position. What it was before Megatron's madness. Before the war.

Before the war. Whiplash had difficulty thinking the title Lord High Protector without the undercurrent of terror and death he'd only ever heard it spoken in. Still, Prime trusted this Keller. That counted for a great deal.

"The need for cooperation is serious, Secretary Keller, especially now. Through no fault of his own, Whiplash has become herald of another threat," Optimus was saying aloud, over the comm chatter. "The Decepticons Ravage, Rumble and Buzzsaw were merely foot soldiers, and their commander is doubtless on his way, if not already on the planet."

For a moment, the damp, cool chamber inside the Hoover Dam was quiet. Keller's eyes briefly landed on Whiplash, then back up to Prime. The humans-- Keller, Nic, Sam and Mikaela, Captain Lennox, Simmons and Banachek-- were standing on a wide elevated ledge, putting them at Optimus's waist height to better speak with them.

"You're not bringing another Megatron down on us, I hope." Keller's tone was sharp, bordering on accusing.

"Not as powerful, no," Prime replied. "But a formidable enemy nonetheless. Whiplash-- what can you tell us about Soundwave's crew?"

Whiplash came to attention, legs lengthening to full extension as he approached the ledge. "Soundwave commands Decepticons Rumble, Laserbeak, Buzzsaw, his symbiotes; Swindle, Wreckage, and Incinerator are with him as well. Symbiotes Ratbat and Ravage are confirmed terminated."

"Laserbeak?" he heard Keller mutter.

"Ratbat?" Nic added.

"Rumble was left buried under a derelict structure in the city Topeka," Whiplash continued crisply. "It is unknown if he was killed, or might be able to dig himself out eventually."

"Let's not count him out just yet," Ratchet put in. "But if he is still in action, he'll be damaged, as will Buzzsaw. I'd wager Soundwave is already planetside attending to them. We may not have much time."

Captain Lennox leaned on the railing. "So that's... five Autobots versus possibly seven Decepticons. Buzzsaw and Laserbeak are running around in UAV suits. Do we know what altmodes the other guys are wearing?"

"Rumble's a Civic," Nic said. "Purple, with a spoiler the size of a surfboard and spinner rims."

"Spinners?" snorted Sam.

"Yeah, I thought it was funny too, 'till he gave me a haircut with one."


"As for the rest of them," Whiplash said, "Wreckage will most likely choose something heavy and well-armored. A ground vehicle. Likewise for Swindle, though he is much smaller and lighter-- he falls between myself and Bumblebee in terms of mass. Incinerator is flight-capable and the largest of them. Soundwave himself... I cannot say for certain."­­

Keller was staring directly at him. Quickly, Whiplash skimmed back over his own audio logs. No misspoken words, to his relief.

"Why is this Soundwave after you? Seems an awful lot of trouble for just one Autobot." The white-haired human gestured up and down Whiplash's lanky frame. Whiplash backed up a few steps, suddenly unsure how to answer, legs receding to their default length.

Megatron had been one matter. The tyrant had been here for an uncertain amount of time, imprisoned in the planet's own polar ice and then held by the humans themselves. But Whiplash was leading more Decepticons here, right in his wake, bringing the war down on this little blue world again.

Optimus spoke before Whiplash could offer the Secretary of Defense an utterly useless apology.

"Whiplash's commander entrusted him with a secret that the Decepticons wanted to keep hidden. Soundwave has hunted him so relentlessly to keep him from warning other Autobots, but in that, thankfully, they failed... though the price was high." Optimus paused, optics briefly resting on Whiplash. "I have decrypted the message and the accompanying data. As our allies and hosts, you have as much right to hear this as we do."

Bellum Cybertronia 11984.9036: Autobot Subcommander Rodimus, exploration vessel Axalon 7. Crew manifest: Rodimus, Perceptor, Powerglide, Bluestreak, Whiplash.

If this file is being accessed, it means I and my crew are dead, except for the courier. And I can only hope he has reached other Autobots in one piece.

Just over an orn ago Powerglide caught Ratbat sabotaging the Axalon's systems. Apparently he's been at it awhile; that explains the trouble we've been having. Propulsion's the worst off; sublight engines are at fifty percent and warp is impossible without extensive repairs. Primary forward cannons are a total loss. The slagger got to our outer communications array too, and even if we could set a distress beacon, I fear we're too far scattered for help to arrive in time.

Ratbat has generously 'donated' some of his own components to help with repairs.

As bad as this is, I have a feeling the worst is yet to come. We were being softened up. The real blow is coming-- and soon. This isn't just a zero-g scuffle. Soundwave is going to make sure we can't warn anyone about what they're doing.

Perceptor was the one who heard about Shockwave's latest pet horror first, six vorn ago. This was after a bombing on a Nebulan research outpost. I heard Skyfire was there not long before, and the Nebulans are blaming him for it-- rumor also is that there was some technology stolen in the raid beforehand, which is hardly surprising. But if what Perceptor suspected was true, whatever the Decepticons took is being used to develop a superweapon.

We don't know what it is, exactly. Perceptor thinks it is a weapon of limited use and of last resort, otherwise they would have used it on us by now. What intel we've managed to get by spying has been enough to make my cables curl. This is big, and they clearly don't want us warning other Autobots.

Embedded in the files that follow is everything Perceptor could find about the weapon. Use the information to develop countermeasures if you can. If Soundwave is bothering to hunt us this persistently, it must be worth it. And please, tell Whiplash. He's not going to ask on his own, but he deserves to know what this is about.

If we're lucky, we'll survive the attack and no one will ever hear this message. But luck hasn't been kind to us lately. Powerglide, Bluestreak and Whiplash don't even know what's going on.

I hope they can forgive me.

Rodimus out.

"Fuckin' doomsday again," Nic heard Captain Lennox mutter.

She felt suddenly cold inside, echoes of a voice of a long-dead Autobot ringing in her ears. She looked around at her fellow humans and could see the dawning dread in their faces. Sam in particular had gone ghost-white, and she could almost hear what they were all thinking:

Not again.

Keller gripped the railing, looking downward, refusing to look up at Optimus Prime, who for his part seemed to have taken on a great and unpleasant weight across his mighty shoulders. All the robots, indeed, had gone disturbingly subdued; Bumblebee's door-wings were folded nearly flat down his back, and Ironhide was as motionless as stone, scowling down at massive arms crossed over his chest. Whiplash looked as if he would vomit if he were at all capable of it, or fall apart into a pile of cogs and cables where he stood.

"What, exactly," said Keller at length, "does this mean, Prime?"

But it was Ratchet who answered him. "Shockwave was one of Cybertron's most brilliant scientists. During the war he created technology and weaponry responsible for some of the worst atrocities in our history. We haven't yet been able to draw any conclusions from what the data contained, and I'm reluctant to speculate, but anything he's had his hand in will not be pleasant."

"And that miscreant Soundwave is bringing it down here." Cannon components whirred in Ironhide's arms, never quite forming completely.

"Just what do you propose we do?" demanded Keller. "Megatron's dead, the Allspark's gone-- what the hell do they think they're going to accomplish? This war of yours should be over!"

"Indeed it should," Optimus replied evenly, "but you must understand, while we Autobots are a unified force, scattered though we are, the Decepticons have always been plagued with internal conflict-- factions within factions, united only by Megatron through fear. His lieutenants have agendas of their own, and I cannot guess at what is behind the alliance of Soundwave and Shockwave."

"Whiplash-- Soundwave's ship, what class is it?" Ratchet asked.

"The Anathema?" Whiplash tilted his head. "No bigger than the Axalon 7 was, but better armed, unfortunately."

"And what other Decepticon vessels did you encounter before the attack on the Axalon?"

"Only one; a Hyperion-class near the-- the bombed Nebulan research station..."

"Then we're exceedingly lucky," the medic said, turning to Keller. "If there's one weakness Shockwave has, it's that doesn't let anyone else play with his toys. Soundwave won't have the weapon with him. Like as not, Shockwave is on that Hyperion-class, and those ships are more like mobile laboratories. They're big, but they aren't built for battle, or speed, for that matter."

"So the Shockwave guy isn't going to be here for a long time?" Sam asked hopefully.

Ratchet nodded. "If he's coming at all."

"That still leaves us with Soundwave and his crew to deal with now," put in Bumblebee.

"But Whip delivered the message already," Nic said. "Now everybody knows about the weapon. What's the point in coming after him now?"

"Vindictiveness. Spite for killing Ravage. Just that we're Autobots who happen to be in easy reach." Ironhide shrugged. "And to shut us up."

"Soundwave must be stopped here," Optimus continued. "Which is why we need to be able to rely on our human allies for aid... and have them trust us in turn. Mistrust at this juncture could be deadly."

Nic watched as Keller leaned on the railing, shoulders drawn tight. For a moment she was sure he'd demand that the robots get off their planet and take their apocalypses with them.

"Agreed," the old man said at last.

"Sir--" Simmons cut in.

Keller rounded on him. "We've got round two incoming and the last thing that's going to help is your guerilla bureaucracy, Simmons," he snapped. "For now, the kid is in charge. But on one condition." He turned, gestured to include everyone. "The former Sector Seven agents remain on in an advisory capacity until Mr. Witwicky is eighteen, and we'll reassess the situation at that point. That means you play nice and quit stonewalling the robots at every turn. And Sam, I expect you to be serious about this and work with them, in a professional manner. Can you do that?"

Sam leveled a look at Simmons. "...I can, sir."

"And you two?" Keller turned to Simmons and Banachek.

Simmons looked about to say something, but Banachek put a hand on his shoulder before he could speak. "We'll do it, sir. Reggie can handle the field work."

A curious look passed between the two former agents, and Nic saw Banachek's hand tighten briefly on Simmons's shoulder before letting go.

"It's an acceptable compromise," Optimus said. "Thank you, Secretary Keller."

"Miss Darling," Keller said.

Nic tried not to jump like she'd been caught reading comics in class. "Yessir?" Crap, what do you call the Secretary of Defense? Your Honor? Your Majesty? Your Defensiveness?

Keller smiled gently, as if sensing her internal fumble. He took her hand in a firm shake. "Guess this wasn't what you were expecting... I'm sorry you got dragged into this."

The universe had suddenly become a tiny place, crowded and hostile, and there were wolves at the door. Mere weeks ago this realization might have sent her further into herself, keeping all the insanity at a safe arm's length. Uncle Terry had been right: it had taken something falling out of the sky to wake her from the self-pity she'd been stubbornly wallowing in for the last two years. This was bigger than her grief, bigger than the rut in which she'd been spinning her wheels. She had friends now, powerful friends, who wanted her, and a well of strength she'd never known she had.

"All due respect," Nic replied with half a shrug, "nobody dragged me. I jumped in eyes wide open. I'm in it for the long haul, sir."

No matter what falls out of the sky.

"This is where they held him?"

Bumblebee waved at the concrete platform in the center of the great chamber. "Yes. Locked in cryostasis for over a vorn. The planet's polar environment itself did the work before that..."

Whiplash experimentally exposed his atmospheric sensors. Now that the connections had been repaired, he could detect the residual tang of alloys that were distinctively Cybertronian, unlike the somewhat heavier readings of Earth-made metals. Whiplash's atmospheric sensors were calibrated a little higher, more fine-tuned, than most; useful but sometimes prone to sensory overload, so he used them sparingly, keeping the protective facial vents closed most of the time. With his sensor net back up, he was glad of this habit-- Earth's air was even fuller than his greatly-reduced scans had previously reported. Microbes, bacteria, water vapor (certainly a lot of that here, in this 'Hoover Dam' edifice), chemical compounds, solid particulate matter...

"I saw him once," Whiplash said, gazing around at the scaffolding and cables, the humans' effort to clean up the last telltale signs of ruin. "In Kaon, before the city was bombed. I was carrying word from another commander to send reinforcements, and he was suddenly there, as I turned a corner. He was blocking the passage out, standing over an entire squad of dead Autobots.

"He turned and looked right at me, and I thought for certain he would simply destroy me. But he left without a word. I was too insignificant to waste the effort."

"I consider it the height of poetic justice that he was brought down by that which he considered insignificant. Humans have a way of thinking, of doing the unexpected," Bumblebee said. "He underestimated them, and paid the price for his arrogance. Because of Sam... the end is in sight."

("And because of me, the end is further off yet.")

There was a distinctly uncomfortable pause from the other. "I'm sorry, Whiplash-- I couldn't understand you just then."

His own native language! Whiplash shook his head and turned away from the spot where the Decepticon leader had been held, pacing stiffly away. "If I had returned to the Axalon a little sooner--"

"You would have been destroyed as well." The voice of Optimus Prime so startled Whiplash that his blades clicked in their sheaths, nearly emerging.

"Rodimus knew it was a battle he could not win. Because of you, they did not die in vain." Prime stood in the mouth of one of the rounded tunnels that led outside to the base of the dam. Two great strides brought the leader right in front of Whiplash. "You did exactly what you should have done and you have accomplished your mission against incredible odds. Rodimus would have been proud of you."

"Please excuse me, Prime," Whiplash said, standing straighter. "It is only that hearing his voice again after all this time was... unsettling."

"I understand. There will be time later to mourn properly, but for now we must prepare to defend ourselves. And first, I have a mission for you."

Whiplash looked up. "Sir!"

"Ironhide and I will be patrolling the immediate area while you and Bumblebee make an excursion. Boulder City is approximately eight miles west of here." Optimus smiled. "Your partner requires some supplies. Report back here to Ratchet when you are done."

"I have just spotted the Prime ­and Autobot Ironhide leaving the hydroelectric water-retention structure. This confirms native reports of Cybertronian activity here."

"Do we attack now?"

"Negative, Incinerator. Buzzsaw, report."

"The human settlement called Mission is partially in ruin. I'm reading residual weapons signatures, but no sign of present Autobot occupation. Unlikely they're using this as a base of any sort. Too much exposure."

"Agreed. Reroute to the dam and--"

"Auotbots Whiplash and Bumblebee confirmed leaving the dam. They are with the Prime and-- wait, they're taking an alternate route. Should I follow?"

"Affirmative. Buzzsaw will take up surveillance of the dam. The whereabouts of Autobots Ratchet and Jazz are still unknown. Wreckage, Incinerator: engage the Prime and Ironhide when there is sufficient distance from the location of Autobot Whiplash. Swindle: Convene with Rumble and myself at the following coordinates. I must first ascertain if the message has been delivered."

"It's still possible the little slagger didn't know anything and we came down to this mudball for nothing. And we still don't know what in the Pit the Prime and his crew were doing here. Did they find the Allspark or what?"

"Swindle: Silence. Proceed with your orders."

"My optic still hurts-- Soundwave, can I kill the spotted human? Please? I'll make Whiplash watch..."

"I didn't know Dodge made motorcycles," said Mikaela, watching as Whiplash passed by Bumblebee's passenger side, drifted across the front, then dropped back again around the Camaro's driver side.

"They don't," Nic replied. "They made the Tomahawk a couple years ago to show off the Viper engine. It's practically just an engine with wheels attached and there's only ten in existence. My uncle knew a guy who knew a guy and managed to get one to put in our showroom for the shop's renovation. Which reminds me, I should ask him if anyone tried to buy it."

"How much does it cost?" Sam turned, looking at her over the headrest.

"How's a cool half million and change grab you?"

"And you got him for free." Sam turned back around and cradled his face in his hands.

Mikaela flicked his ear. "Oh, don't be so dramatic."

Nic smiled, glancing between the two. "What, you mean... you didn't buy Bumblebee."

"Half. Two K. At a used car lot from a guy who would try to sell ice to penguins," Sam replied through his fingers. "The sneaky robot was pretending to be just an innocent little old Camaro."

"How curious that all the other vehicles' windows suddenly shattered." Bumblebee sounded entirely too bland. Nic decided she didn't want to know.

"God, if I'd had to pay for half a Tomahawk..."

"Two hundred and seventy-five thousand United States dollars," rang the pleasant and unaccountably British voice of the car. "Though according to the internet, the vehicles are sold missing key components."

"Yeah, they're not street legal." It made sense, Nic mused, that Whiplash would have the crisp 'accentless' Midwestern accent-- it was the same as hers, after all-- but Bumblebee's lilting British dialect? She wasn't sure how to ask. "I tried convincing him to try on something a little less... that, but he won't hear it."

"I can attempt alterations to conform to the 'street legal' protocols," said Whiplash's voice, issuing distantly from Bumblebee's speakers. Outside, the holographic rider turned its helmeted head to 'look' at her through the window. "But I still maintain that this vehicle is the best for my needs."

Nic rolled her eyes. "Better make those alterations while I'm buying a new helmet, Whip," she said, with a see what I mean? look to Sam. "I imagine we might get stopped a lot anyway, and somehow I think 'but officer, he's an alien robot' won't go over too well."

The motorcycle shop turned out to be a decent affair, a simple outlet in a small strip mall. A quintet of bikes lined the curb directly outside, cruisers by the looks of them, two of the accompanying riders lounging against their mounts. Both bikers stood up straighter as Bumblebee and Whiplash pulled into the parking lot, and Nic pursed her lips, trying to think of excuses to fend her fellow bikers off. Ordinarily she'd have loved to stand around and trade motorcycle stats, brag, mutually covet each others' accessories; she definitely missed that part of the culture-- but unlike at the net café in Topeka, these bikers would smell the 'it's a custom job, go away' bullshit. It'd be impossible to bluff a biker about a bike.

The two bikers were walking out towards them, obviously interested in the strange blue machine that had just thundered in. Bumblebee pulled up to the curb, forming a barrier as Whiplash slipped into a service road that led around behind the building. Sam hopped out the instant Bumblebee had stopped and strode to intercept the bikers.

"Hey! Hey guys, can you give us directions? We're trying to get to Route 66..."

Mikaela tugged on Nic's arm as she crawled out from the backseat. "C'mon, while Sam's got them distracted. Don't worry about Whiplash. They can hide pretty good when they want to."

A moment later Sam followed them into the shop while Nic browsed the modest selection of helmets. She frowned. She'd liked her old one. Plain, serviceable, but it had fit nicely, broken in from years of use. This shop seemed to favor racing helmets, with outlandish color patterns and streamlined protuberances all over. And some of them were painfully expensive.

"That one with the lightning bolts looks sharp," said a voice behind her. Nic turned and was treated to the sight of a fatigue-clad chest inches away from her nose.

She gave Bobby a light thump with a fist and took a small step away. "Shouldn't sneak up on people."

"My bad. Wouldn't want you to kick my ass again," he replied, indicating the small cut on his lip.

Nic winced. "Yeah, I did that, didn't I? I'm sorry."

"No, it's good. I understand why. Had to protect your friend."

"What're you doing here? Keeping an eye on the newbie?"

"Making sure you guys've got backup if you need it. Westing and McBride are out in the jeep." Bobby plucked a shiny blue display helmet off the wall. "This one kinda matches his color."

"Uh-uh, it's open-face." Nic ran a finger along the padded ridge of the visorless helmet. "Full-face is better if I have to take a spill."

Her dad had liked open-face helmets. In fact, change the color of the helmet Bobby was holding to brown and mustard yellow, scuff the hell out of the finish, and that was her father's favorite helmet. Eugene had liked the feel of the wind on his face, he'd said, while Nic herself had preferred not to have to facefulls of flying road dust and bugs while riding.


Nic blinked. "Sorry, what?"

"I said," and Bobby replaced the helmet on the wall, "what kind of bike did you ride before your close encounter?"

"I didn't." Nic picked up a modestly-priced, not-too-flashy black helmet with chromed trim and examined the interior. "I'd quit riding. Got a Civic."

She could feel Bobby's eyes on her, but she didn't look up.

"Quit? What for?"

"Personal reasons," Nic replied, and settled the helmet over her head to check the fit, but also to give herself a moment to get rid of the troubled expression she knew she was wearing. Thinking about the helmet led to thinking about her dad, and thinking about her dad led to thinking about the accident, which usually made her want to go sulk by herself. Such old habits had a way of hanging around like relatives you can't get to leave, though since she'd met Whiplash, she'd gotten a lot better about it.

Didn't mean she wanted to wave her sympathy card at a guy she barely knew.

"Good fit," she decided out loud, removing the helmet and giving it another once-over, testing the visor for kinks raising and lowering. It had good ventilation, too. She brought it up to the counter and rang the bell.

"I'm going to radio we're on our way back," Bobby said. "You got this?"

"Yeah, I'm good."

Nic poked through a pile of head-scarfs, selecting one that wasn't too obnoxiously paisley as the cashier wandered up to the desk. The young man eyed her interestedly as he rang up the helmet and scarf.

"You with the guy on that blue... whatinahell?" he asked. "The one parked out back? You're wearing the same uniform."

"Yeah, he's my partner," Nic replied, grinning, her mood doing a perfect one-eighty. Partner. Her partner was a giant space robot.

The clerk grinned back. "Partner? Doesn't look like there's a place to ride bitch on that thing."

"No, we're a team," she replied loftily, telling her inner eight-year-old to quit squealing. "We build experimental designs, engines, that sort of thing. I'm the rider. He's only riding it now because some idiot in a Jaguar ran over my helmet back in Colorado." She tapped the new helmet and laughed. "Good to get back in the seat where I belong, y'know?"

"Your bullshit-fu is strong," Sam commented as she approached the door with her purchases. "Teach me your ways, wise one."


"Sam has to explain Bumblebee to his parents when we go back home," Mikaela clarified, replacing a leather jacket she'd been trying on as a joke. The garment was festooned in fringes nearly as long as her arms. "We've been trying to think of something they'll believe."

"How about the truth?" she said as they exited the shop. She set her new helmet down for a moment to tie the handkerchief over her hair; it would do a much better job of keeping her hair in line than the smaller scarf had. "It might work better than you think."

"The truth?" Sam glanced over to where Bumblebee was parked. The Camaro, for his part, surreptitiously turned his front wheels in their direction.

Nic shrugged. "I told my uncle. Showed him, even."

"What?" both teens sputtered.

"I wasn't about to take off on a potentially dangerous trip to God-knew-where without telling him why," Nic said, one hand perched on her hip. "Relax-- he's not going to go on the six o'clock news or anything. I trust him. When my dad died he-- he's my second father. I owed him the truth."

Sam blinked. "And he just let you go?"

"Considering I'm twenty-one, he couldn't very well forbid me," Nic chuckled. "But he loves me. I couldn't lie to him. Your folks love you, Sam?"

"Yes. I mean, I'm pretty sure they do, if the frequency of grounding is any indication." Sam ran his hands through his hair and exhaled noisily. "It's just-- alien robot, Nic."

"Well, I'm not saying take out a billboard and tell your whole town, just your parents. It's a trust thing." She shrugged again. "Try the truth. You might be surprised."

Whiplash noted Nic's biosign approaching from around the end of the low structure. Processor contentedly logging the information, still reveling in the feel of properly functioning scanners, he spared an irritated sensor sweep at the pair of humans lingering at the back entrance of the next partition over from the motorcycle accessory acquisition facility. Two males, conversing about speculative mating activities with various females, pausing to intake noxious fumes produced by the smoldering tips of tiny white tubes.

Cautiously, Whiplash accessed the internet and had surprisingly little trouble discovering what the tubes were.

Great Matrix, they do that voluntarily?

One of them had even gone through two of the tubes in the time he'd been parked here, and neither showed signs of stopping and leaving, so he could turn off the holographic rider. He felt rather foolish with a collection of semi-coherent light perched atop his alternate mode. Especially since it had no real face. At first he had wanted to faithfully replicate Nic's appearance, but Bumblebee had cautioned him that the actual Nic might find her holographic doppelganger unnerving. So the tedious task of building an original image it was. The human face was so difficult-- for all it seemed simple, there were subtle complexities in the way it moved, certain aspects of asymmetry... and besides which, creating a self-representation smacked of narcissism. For now, though, the featureless helmeted figure would do.

But he could worry about his false face later-- his partner was drawing nearer, a new helm in hand. Within moments they would return to the Dam and await orders from Prime, and then-- locate the Decepticons and rout the destroyers from this beautiful new homeworld.

As she approached, he wished the smoking humans would leave, so he could dissipate the hologram and--

One of the smokers threw down his cigarette and bolted, running down the alleyway behind the conjoined acquisition facilities. His companion stared after him, and suddenly dropped his own ashen tube, skin taking on an alarming paleness, clutching at his head while glancing wildly around. He fumbled with the latch of the door and all but dove within the facility.

Whiplash ran a diagnostic, thinking perhaps something was amiss with his hologram and he had inadvertently startled the young males, just as Bumblebee came around the end of the building. Nic had stopped in her tracks at the corner, pulling anxiously at the catch of her upper riding armor. And through Bumblebee's windshield, he could see Sam and Mikaela, both wearing identical wide-eyed expressions of fright.

"Nic," he said, letting his hologram drop as he rolled up to her side, putting her safely between the two Autobots. "What is wrong?"

"I-I-I don't know, I just--" Her voice had gone tight, pitched higher. "--feel like I can't breathe." She grabbed one of his handlebars for support.

"You are breathing," he assured her uncertainly. Indeed, she was perhaps breathing at twice her normal rate. Within the other scout, Sam had his head down on the steering wheel, arms wrapped around the steering column as if it were an anchor. "Bumblebee, something is wrong."

"Fifteen point eight-seven to sixteen point two-six hertz sine waves," Bumblebee replied. "Infrasound."

A low, pulsing hum, sure enough, registering at just those frequencies in his audio receptors. A sound? A sound was inducing this sudden irrational terror in the humans? "That is what is causing this? I thought that was an atmospheric phenomenon."

"Not on this planet. Not with that regularity, anyway. And not this badly. Nic-- listen to me, you must get on Whiplash, now. Do you understand?"

"Ignore it, Nic," Whiplash added, engine turning over with a defiant thunder. "This fear is not yours. It is not real."

Nic nodded jerkily, easing a leg over Whiplash's seat. Her entire body shook, her fist on his handlebar white-knuckled. "Yeah. Yeah, not real. Ooooh damn. Dammit. Oh god, Whip, get us out of here!"

No sooner had the words left her vocalizer than a tremor rocked the pavement beneath their wheels, so fiercely that Whiplash was hard-pressed to remain upright and Nic, caught off-balance, tumbled to the ground, her new helmet rolling away.

Whiplash transformed as another tremor rattled in the wake of the first. He plucked Nic off the splintering asphalt and rode the earthquake, letting his legs absorb the motion until it died down.

In the aftermath of the shocks, Whiplash could hear vehicular anti-theft devices sounding off from all around, but the infrasound sine wave had stopped. Carefully he set Nic back down on her feet.

"You know what?" She snatched up her helmet and marched back to Whiplash. "I don't wanna know what the hell that was. Let's get out of here."


His processor locked up. "No..."

"Whiplash?" Bumblebee turned to him. "What is it?"

Squealing tires heralded the arrival of a bright red vehicle, a smallish car that skidded sideways into the service alley directly behind Bumblebee. The new arrival transformed and stood, long arching cranial sweep pivoting to pin Whiplash with a single central optic.

"Catch you at a bad time, longshanks?" Swindle asked cordially, even as his cannon warmed up.

From the other end of the alley, a mass of armor tumbled out of the shape of a battered purple car. Rumble raised his piledriver in one brutal motion and slammed it down, setting the earth to quaking once more. The tremor was almost more than Whiplash could withstand and he fell to one knee, bracing against Bumblebee, who had at some point let Sam and Mikaela out and had transformed himself.

"Communications are being blocked," Bumblebee reported, training his cannon on Swindle. "We must get the--"


("Get out of my processor, abomination!") Whiplash shrieked, slamming firewalls up in every level of his systems. ("You have failed!")

Rumble laughed nastily, piston pulling back, his one remaining optic blazing crimson. "Wow. What in the Pit was that gobbledygook? Boss musta messed you up real good!"

"Oh, go suck your own tailpipe, Fumble," Nic snapped, holding onto one of Whiplash's leg struts.

"You hold still," Rumble shot back with a hiss of spinning wheel-blades, "while I find something to throw at you."

"I strongly suggest the both of you retreat," Bumblebee growled calmly. "Optimus Prime knows you are here and is on his way."


From Bumblebee's sudden flinch, Whiplash knew the intrusive signal was meant for them both this time.

A large, hulking, armored blue-grey vehicle rolled up behind and around Rumble and almost casually unfolded. Though the alternate mode did much to change the outward appearance of a Cybertronian, no amount of alteration in the universe could disguise the cold, cruel frequency slicing at the edges of the two Autobots' processors. Optics hidden behind an amber visor surveyed their prey, and Soundwave stepped forward.


Distantly, Whiplash heard Nic scream, felt her collapse at his feet, just as his own systems warned him of firewall failure. Every function in his body seemed to seize up at once, and the only thing he could manage before crashing offline was to make sure he didn't crush her as he, too, fell.

Author's Note: Er, not dead! Just attacked by life. Have a job and family to take care of first and foremost (fanfic, sadly, does not do much in the way of paying my rent, and I have to keep on my folks' good side or I'll never have grilled homemade burgers ever again. Gotta keep those priorities straight, you know). Thanks for being so patient, and I hope to get the next chapter out a little quicker so as not to leave you with that delicious cliffhanger. (Insert evil cackle here.)

Anyway, for those of you who aren't regulars on the Livejournal side, I have an LJ to serve as dumping grounds for all my giant robot ramblings, as well as some artwork for The Long Road Home and othersuch. The links will be found in my profile.

Still More Author's Note: 1.23.09 Yeah, it's been awhile. Moved house twice, couple medical/financial setbacks, and some writer's block, but I'm back on track and Eleven will be forthcoming hopefully before the end of February if not sooner. But TLRH is not dead!