Dart honestly did not blame the fact that she was now standing bound hand and foot in a courtroom on a planet she'd never heard of before a few weeks ago on Deuce. Not at all. Actually, if there was anyone to blame, it was fate. Unfortunately, fate often seemed to involve dumping Deuce off in the bad areas of town and declaring over a bullhorn that he was the proud owner of a very expensive stereo system that could be popped free with a screwdriver.

The courtroom was packed to the point where the observation box would have only needed a bit of oil and a tin can to pass for sardines. Bodies jostled and rustled, the whirr of drone cameras zipping by over the audience reminded Deuce of a thousand bad talk shows; the sort where someone in the middle accused someone else of having a relationship with a farm animal, and then lifted up a chair to break the announcer's nose. His copper-eyed glance passed across the full stands, the glint of polished plastic and metal broken up by all sorts of different organics packed shoulder to shoulder. Short ones, tall ones, a hundred variants on life, eagerly awaiting the proceedings with the chop licking intensity starving lions gave blind, three legged wildebeest who were asking for directions to the nearest water hole.

A hefty, purple feathered alien leaned back in her seat. Next to her sat an orange, skinny male of the same species. It was a good guess to Deuce that the male was in all likelihood her mate, judging by the way she was henpecking him. Perhaps, though, in their culture, rapping her beak in a sharp series of blows directly on his balding, red-crested head was a polite, perfectly acceptable way to point out that the cap on the hand held recording device he had cradled in his three short taloned fingers was not supposed to be there.

"G'orge!" she clucked, petulantly and Deuce could hear her even over the rising murmur and rustle of all sorts of feet, paws, tentacles, and something that squished like mashed potatoes through a colander. "G'orge! You have to take off the cover... it doesn't work with it on!"

"Mart'a," he grumbled. "I'm just checking the charger...I know how to work the recorder, don't worry!" he responded. She immediately reached over, grabbed it from him. Long purple and white feathers wrapped around around the black edge of the small box, she held it up to her round yellow eye, staring into the device with concern.

"Are you sure you have the chargers in right?"

"I'm sure, I'm sure..."

"Did you check?" she nagged again, her pinkish beak wattle swinging from side to side as her chest heaved twice. Needless to say, there were restaurants back on Earth that would have loved to get the genetics on her breasts - not for any immoral purpose, but for how they'd braise or poach in a white wine sauce.

"I checked twice," poor G'orge replied back. "And I know how to work the recorder," he informed her.

"Well, you think you'd learn, after that whole mess back when we went on vacation."

Deuce leaned back over and looked at Dart as the discussion trailed off into the last time poor G'orge had thought he knew how to program the recorder, and had thus caused Mart'a to miss her favorite talk show.

"Well, er... sorry," the reporter offered the lean femme beside with a tiny grin, glad she had ended up on his left side, where he could actually see her without having to twist his head around and crack his neck as if he were a large metallic owl. "I didn't expect my lawyer to actually take a vacation when I might need him to get me out of incarceration. Can you believe he's off skiff racing on Kilari? I've heard it's got some incredible runs, though. Although, I'm sure it pales in comparison to Mount Blue Cow," he teased her, trying to keep his voice light.

Dart attempted to chuckle as she blew a soft hiss of air out of her intakes, glanced over to where Ace sat off to one side of them. Spread across the bench in front of the hunched over red mech was a mound of scattered data-pads which he eyed with the air of a math major trying to recognize algebra after a hard night spent partying in the frat house. Blearily, the stocky mech rubbed the back of his hand across his optics and tapped his fingers against the table, frowning to himself. Shifting in the chair, he let out a muffled curse as his knees cracked into the underside of the low table, and thrust his hand under the edge, rubbing the joint ruefully before he looked up at the two standing mechs. His next words came rumbling up from his broad, striped chest in a deep mechanical cog-growl of irritation.

"Skiff racing my ass, he's just sitting back on the planet and has his answering service turned off because he's making all his money off of this damn book now." He poked the pad before him with one large, black forefinger, and it slid across the table and bumped into his half full mug of stim-caf, slopping some of the brown liquid over the rim. It ran down the side and pooled around the bottom lip of the cup. Deuce eyed the table soaking it up with envy.

Ace picked up the pad between his thumb and forefinger, gingerly eyeing it as if it were a chunk of rotting salmon."Who the hell titles a reference text 'Legal Defense for Dummies,' anyway?" he muttered, staring at the last page where the pad cheerily offered more texts for the self-representing. He skimmed over the list, noting to himself that he'd probably have to pick up a copy of one or two of the titles there. Gifts for the office holiday party, for people he didn't care one whit about.

Deuce glanced over, keeping his voice low as he regarded Ace. "So, that's what he's been doing? How is it, anyway?"

"Dry," Ace muttered, "And so far, completely unhelpful. I've read it cover to cover, and so far, there's nothing in here about a case like this. I don't know. You two might want to plead temporary insanity."

"What would that get us?"

"Maybe a little time while they picked through your brain-sets to see if that really was the case. If you drool and gibber, it would buy you a week or two until old Argus gets back from his skiffing trip."

Deuce eyed the packed courtroom, and started to bring his hands up to run a finger thoughtfully under his nose. The binders around his wrists clicked, tightening down a fraction more and he quickly lowered his hands back to their previous position clasped in front of him, and brought his similarly bound feet closer together. It was with some offhand surprise he noted that the polished floor was actually made of Gendarian Wood. They hadn't been allowing harvests off the planet in over ninety years. Gorgeous stuff, as only true hardwood could be, the grain patterned in sleek whorls of burgundy and ale gold. One plank on this floor had to be worth two years of his salary. And that was on a good two years. He remembered that Argus' dashboard in his Silver Arrow was made of the same wood, and that little number had a starting price that with a few more zeros behind it was likely the age of the actual universe. More of the wood inlayed up the sides of the ebon black dias where his fate would be judged from- it was carved into a sunburst pattern that circled the planetary seal of Verilain. He didn't know what the scientific name was of the bird-naked mole rat thing that graced their planetary insignia, but he was pretty sure extinction had been trying to be merciful when it allowed something with razor sharp teeth to messily devour the last one.

His glance wandered away from the ratbird insignia and around the room, ending up focused on the prosecutor's table sitting a good distance away. Obviously, someone had taken into consideration the fact just how far Deuce's body could reach - well, more likely, where he'd crash down and go into spasms if they shot him with a null-dart in the skidplate.

The prosecutor was seated in his chair, prim and proper, his delicate hands folded across the top of his Corinthan hide briefcase. Grey fur clumps stuck out in oily contrast to his nicely cut three piece suit, shading darker around his wrists and neck, then fading into white all around his thin, narrow face. On anyone else it might have been an elegant, pinstriped, double breasted suit; but being that the lawyer only stood three and a half feet tall (including his prehensile, naked tail) it gave the impression of some little marsupial child dressing up in his mob father's Sunday best to practice speeches that would someday be delivered over large plates of spaghetti. Those same speeches would be followed up if need be with a silenced pistol clutched in the grip of a hulking, buck-toothed, flat-tailed rodent who went by the name of Guido.

Carefully, the lawyer leaned over the data pads stacked in neat rows in front of him, his clawed fingertips starting to sort them like he was getting ready to deal himself a hand of poker, ruffling the slightly glowing screens in front of him over and over in what was obviously a nervous habit. His tongue shot out and left a glistening smear of saliva across his pointed, pale pink nose, which kept twitching in time with his stubby ears every time his black beady eyes squinted over at the size of Deuce's feet. It was a good guess that because of the early days of his species' evolution, the poor lawyer had an instinctive fear of large machines and flat surfaces.

Right then the side door to the room opened, and four official looking Verilains came in, escorted by about six of the mushroom guards as they took their seats on the dias above. The idea of the towering black dias, of course, was to make those at the hearing feel small and insignificant, and to hopefully put enough fear into them they'd drop to their knees and confess to anything in an effort to scoot out from under those judgmental eyes. However, the only thing it served to do was to bring Deuce's nose level with what he was pretty sure was their crotches. Frankly, that sure as hell didn't make him want to drop down on his knees any time soon and beg for anything, period.

"I didn't know it was a council type of arrangement," he muttered over his shoulder at Ace.

"Yeah, that's something I only learned last night myself," Ace grunted, tapping the data pad again with his finger. He shook his head from side to side, blew out a frustrated puff of air from his intakes, making his wide chest rise and fall like a bellows. "What really sucks is that you just can't convince one of them and call it a deadlock. No, you have to convince a majority of the council, otherwise it doesn't matter. Has to be three out of four that believe you, and a lot of these guys are really hardnosed sons of bitches."

"How hardnosed?" Deuce asked.

"Let's put it this way, you swing a few of them, you'd probably be able to drive a Trylithum spike fifteen miles into a block of granite."

"Fan-ta-stic," came the groan from the grey mech in reply, but he was cut off by the sudden, sharp rap of one of the mushroom's shocker staffs impacting with the wooden floor. Instantly, the crowd's constant rustle hushed into a an expectant murmur. Deuce involuntary straightened himself, his wings flaring out slightly, and he caught the click and whirr of a few cameras focusing in on his actions. A sour line of distaste edged across his mouth. After all this time, he really found he preferred being on the side of the camera not bound hand and foot. Well, except for that one time with that lovely little adventurous medic from... well, frick, funny how things like that popped up in your head when you were facing a good chance of a mechanical lobotomy.

"All rise," the mushroom said in that deep gravelly undertone, and there was a scramble in the viewers boxes to do so. The prosecutor just tucked his legs under himself and stood up on his chair, his tail twining through the slats to balance himself, and there was another muffled grunt from Ace as he slid out from under the bench and whacked his left knee again. The red carbot's optics glimmered; Deuce wondered with rising concern what four letter word would pop out of Ace's mouth. It was with the utmost restraint that Ace managed to just shift his weight over and glare daggers at the offending table. The table, had it not been made of high-tensile metals, no doubt would have snorted in terror and clattered towards the nearest exit, hopping the nearest lift off the planet. Even tables didn't cross Ace.

Up on the dias, the head of the council of four adjusted the vision-band that covered both his eyes. The newest invention in corrective eyewear, it not only served to allow clean, crisp vision, but changed colors according to the wearer's mood. Right now, the band was a softly rippling violet, with hints of deep blue as the bulldog jowled humanoid bent his head to look at the standing Cybertronians. Under the man's scrutiny, the courier sidled an uncomfortable half step back and stared down at the floor politely, chin tucked against the edge of her throat guard, her ponytail shining a dull grey in the tubular overhead lighting. She had decided to treat this entire situation exactly like a long meeting back at Decepticon HQ. Well, of course, without locking her knees so she could catch a quick bit of shut down, but with a lot of "no sir, yes sir, honest, we had no reason to believe that the Autobots were waiting around that corner to shut down your glorious, well thought out plan yet again." If respect worked on slightly mad despots, there was an excellent chance it might also work for a council of threatening aliens that were seriously considering recycling her and Deuce into soda cans over a lighting fixture that truly belonged in the bathroom of a disco club. She fidgeted once more, her spoiler making a soft clicking noise as she tried to gather herself together. That didn't work, because as nervous as she was the two previous thoughts decided to slam themselves head on with the force of a tanker truck making a hard left turn into a Volkswagen Beetle.

Try as she might, she couldn't shake the image of Megatron plugging in the cord on the world's biggest lava lamp, raising his mighty fist and howling to the assembled forces, "At last, it's finished! Kneel before the might of the Decepticon Empire and fear!"

Deuce heard Dart choking off a sputter that sounded oddly like laughter. Okay, that can't be a good noise under these circumstances. The dog-jowled member of the council turned the vision-band directly on the femme, the edges sparking crimson as he frowned. As the courier realized that she was now the full center of the council's disgruntled attention, she shrunk as far back as her binders would her go, and dug her toe into the floor with an abashed whining noise. A chunk of wood off of the beautifully polished floor splintered off under her motion. This time, all four members of the council turned very cold eyes on her. Deuce almost opened his mouth to protest - if they'd wanted to keep the floor pristine, they should have thought of having this idiotic hearing somewhere more suitable. The parking garage at the spaceport, maybe. Then he thought better of it and settled back, but it was obvious from the look on Ace's face he wasn't impressed with their choice of locations, either.

"Be seated," the mushroom intoned after a long moment.

The crowd sat back, the prosecutor sliding down into his oversized chair with the slithering grace of a skinny child settling himself in a rump-hugging booster seat. Ace eyed the knee-offending table with distaste before he too pulled his chair back and gingerly settled his bulk back into it, taking care to extend his legs out in front of him. His left heel scraped hard along the polished floor, sending up a long, spiraling curl of precious hardwood. Once again this elicited a glare from the council members. Ace nodded courteously, not seeming to notice as he leaned over to pick up the data pad in front of him. It somehow skipped off the edge of the table and landed on the floor. With a sigh, the red mech shifted his weight, pushing back this time with the toe of his right foot, leaving a series of deep gouges in the wood. Bending at the waist once he'd freed himself of the confining desktop, he felt along the planks, optics trying to stay politely focused on the council in case they decided to continue. The pressure of his fingertips dimpled the boards until he managed to clutch the errant data pad. Having it secured, he once again sat back up and eased his legs under the table, shredding the wood curl into sawdust.

"Pardon me," he offered respectfully with a genuflecting nod to the council seated above him. Slowly he brought up his free hand to thoughtfully scratch his chin. The sound echoed over the ostentatious courtroom like an unhappy chainsaw.

"Have the charges been read to the defendants?" the head council member finally asked the pike enabled mushroom with grave dignity. Well, it would have been grave, had not his visor been flickering a shade of pink that was normally confined to the fashion doll aisles of toy conglomerates.

The mushroom cleared what Deuce hoped was a throat. "Charges will be read now," it informed the councilman, tapping its pike with a sharp rap onto the planks below. The mucus oozing from base of its grey, flabby body ended up pooling around the bottom of the staff, adhering it to the floor. After a short struggle where its ruddy head moved back and forth with what seemed to be fungal embarrassment, it ended up having to twine both psuedopods around the metal pole and give a hard, upward jerk. The staff came loose, trailing long, pale viscous strings of slime with a resounding pop that made the entire watching crowd duck and cover; but instead of directing their attention to the actual culprit, all eyes were peering timidly at Deuce as if the lean grey mech was going to suddenly transform into a massive anti-matter cannon right there on the spot, or spring up in the air and call down the rest of his mechanical lion team to become a rampaging behemoth of mass destruction. The two avian aliens were the only ones who didn't dive for safety, simply because Mart'a was still in the high-pitched process of berating poor, poor G'eorge about the time he'd forgotten the tickets for the space cruise.

"Order! There will be order in this court!"

Instantly, the crowd quieted, an expectant hush coming over them.

"Read the charges," the councilman ordered, sharply waving his hand.

The mushroom bobbed. "Charges against the two Cybertronians are as follows. One charge of smuggling a weapon of biological terrorism to a world covered by the Rollins Convention. One charge of attempted premeditated genocide."

Dart drew back slightly, and winced. That just didn't sound good. Then again, the term genocide wasn't a happy, cheerful one in most circles. Glancing over at Deuce, she noticed that his slightly pensive frown had settled firmly into one that stretched his mouth into a flat, sharp line, his optic flickering from copper to orange in that way they did when he was just about to say something that would cut glass to the bone. Well, not that glass had bones to cut, of course. Maybe on some other planet it did, though. After all she'd seen lately, she decided it was completely possible.

"One final charge of casting a curse to bring the black god of destruction down on an innocent."

Dart seemed to blink. Deuce, whose jaw was busy debating if it could fall the twenty plus feet to hit the floor, then crawl off to hide in a hole with no one noticing, let out a snort. The reporter's wings twitched sharply, lifting and falling as his intakes struggled to force down some air into his cooling system. "Now wait a moment," he heard himself say just as there was a collective "oooo" from the crowd as they leaned forward, still hoping for at least one concealed weapon to start firing.

"Okay, listen," he snapped, spreading his fingers wide as he tried to bring his hands apart to express his innocence. The binders clicked eagerly tighter, and he bit back a muffled curse. "You know, I do buy the fact that you're all from some behind the times planet where mood lighting doesn't exist."

"Deuce..." Ace hissed, under his breath.

The reporter's optic flashed dangerously, as his chest rose and fell, his fingers clenching into fists. The look on his face was defensive and outraged at the same time. Ace stifled a groan, because he'd seen this many times before, when Deuce climbed up on his high horse of "I'm surrounded by stupid people" and reined the poor thing into the flamboyant arc of the Spanish Walk.

This time, Ace couldn't reach over and pop him with a hard right to the jaw to shut him up. Frick. Maybe he could make it look like an accident.

"I mean, hey, if you haven't got that sort of knick-knack out here, that's one thing. However, sorry to disappoint the crowd, but as far as I'm concerned, not only is this the biggest kangaroo court outside of an Australian grazing plateau, but we're not getting sent up the river or made into happy shiny doorstops for calling down black gods. I don't even know any black gods, and trust me, if I did, the last thing on my goddamned - pardon, just slipped out there, eh-heh- mind about black gods about calling them down just to say hi, how are you, are the kids growing their horns yet, and what's the weather like down there in hell? My life is exciting enough without asking for plagues and destruction to be rained on my head. And I don't sacrifice chickens, let me tell you. Never know when they might be a friend of yours."

"Deuce..." Ace hissed again, louder.

Without missing a beat, Deuce bobbed his head to acknowledge the red mech. "I said I was sorry about that, Ace, but let me tell you, after drinking my way through that bottle of Granditian Charger and then you having the brazen nuggets to crow at four in the morning... hangovers and shrieking poultry don't mix, period. Er... where was I? Oh, right. I didn't evoke any dark gods tonight, so you can just cross that one off the list."

The mushroom turned his headcap over to look at Deuce, then raised a pseudopod up, pointing directly at the grey mech. "You called on the powers of the Dark One, to let you out of your rightful prison. Oh, you thought I could not tell, you were clever, mechanical conqueror. Your praise was to him, not to our Gracious Light on High Miranda." He stamped his staff on the ground, tipped his headcap to squint at the bound reporter with myopic distaste. "You thought I would not know that you called on the powers of Darkness."

"I called on what?!" Deuce gaped.

"Well, that doesn't surprise me at all," Ace mumbled to himself.

"You," the guard thundered, "you called on the powers of the..." his booming voice trailed off, the throat sacks halfway up his stalk flushing a pale grey. Rattling the end of his staff restlessly against the ground, he hesitated a moment, then made a strange flailing motion with all of his limbs as if he'd crossed whatever passed for his heart as much as it was possible. "May he of the light forgive me for even speaking his name - Dark Sn'uphi! And by our constitutional by-laws, cursing someone with the powers of those gods means you must be tried for your attempted destruction of our very souls."

"Snoopy?" the reporter asked, images of fat-nosed cartoon dogs buzzing by his mind in Sopwith Camels. "Oh geeze, whoa, hold on there, buddy, hold the phone, now wait a moment, that's no dark god. It's a beagle, a flying beagle. You know, a dog? Goes woof woof, and bark bark, and drinks root beer?" He eyed Dart, a fleeting glance just to make sure she was as confused as he was.

Dart actually had passed the point of confusion at high speeds long ago, and was trotting blithely up a one way street into a the oncoming path of a garbage truck.

"Beagle. Canine, er... four legs, a wagging tail?" she offered to the blankly staring council, shifting her weight from foot to foot.

"Dark gods!" the mushroom moaned, once again crossing himself in absolution.

"Dog. Pet." Dart replied stubbornly, as if by shortening the whole explanation down to the bare bones, it would finally get through to someone that it was really was that simple.

"Listen to them! Even bound before the judgement of this court, they still call on their dark-spawned god - and try to fool us all by cleverly reversing the name. But this council is far more clever than they, and so, they will be found guilty and be punished!"

Deuce flicked his wings out and his expression turned wry as he turned an optic onto the squishy fungoid. His arms shifted in front of him, his bound wrists twisted as if he was trying to cross them haughtily across his chest. "Oh, please, listen to us, if only because you're taking the words of a religious whack-job way too seriously and there's a cartoonist rolling in his grave."

There was the sharp sound of a stick striking the edge of the wooden council box.

"Enough! Call in the first witness!"

The mushroom finally had to be forcefully pulled off the floor by two other mushrooms. It took them a good five minutes of waddling, and chasing to finally pin their compatriot into a corner. He got in a few good licks of his shock-stick, to which Deuce finally ended up commenting to himself under his vocalizer that it was sort of a true Walt Disney moment after all. That was, if he had been on acid during the making of Fantasia. Looking at it, though, he was of the firm belief that of course, everyone involved in the making of that movie had been.

Watching the zealot get dragged off riveted Deuce's attention, so it took him a moment to re-focus on the next witness.

His mouth dropped open slightly as he realized who it was.

"Oh, no..." he groaned.

"Witness called. You may give your testimony."

A nervous titter escaped the bouncy counter clerk as she sat down in the offered chair. Her plastic smile was still fastened firmly across her face; Deuce wondered how much she paid her surgeon to keep it that way.

"Okay, well... you mean, give it now?" she asked chirpily up at the Council, twisting her fingers in her lap.

"That was the request, yes," came from the box, but not unkindly, since the male members of the council were too busy staring down from their perch into the gaping lapels of her tight uniform.

"Ohhhh," she said, bouncing up and down a little bit. A collective hush came over the waiting crowd - even G'orge seemed a little too preoccupied with fixing his lens and making sure it was ready for a close up focus on her... face. Yeah. That was it, most likely.

"Well, see, the gentleman in question," she started out, her voice bubbling and cheerful, "had lost his luggage..."

"Objection," Deuce muttered, barely audible. "Your employer, said spacelines, had lost my luggage, thank you. I personally had nothing to do with it. It's a matter of semantics, sweetheart. Don't quit your day job and hack out a novel, for all of our sakes."

"Can you describe this gentleman, point him out for the council?"

With unwavering precision, the girl braced her elbow on the rail before her, and pointed a perfectly manicured finger at Deuce. "Uh, that's him."

"Are you sure?"

With a bobble of her chin, the counter clerk nodded, her earrings jingling on her pert little lobes until they sounded like all of Santa's reindeer had come in to a bar for a shot of booze and some good old fashioned line dancing. "That's him. I remember him, of course, because he was," here she paused, obviously searching for the most politically correct way to say the next words that popped from her mouth. "visually challenged."

Deuce's one remaining optic did a slow blink of astonishment.

Ace looked up from where his stim-caff cup was slowly turning the tan oily color of curdled creamer, and muttered something about Deuce's visual challenges only being the tip of the iceberg. He managed not to mention the mental, social, and aesthetic ones that were also part of Deuce's problems as he went back to reading the yellow datapad.

A swish of his naked tail across the floorboards, and the attorney made his way back to the witness box, leaning on the side, his three foot form truly oozing sympathy. His ears crinkled slightly, and he managed a yellow-toothed smile of encouragement at the young female clerk. "So, we've established that this was the same fellow you spoke to. What did he ask you to do for him?"

"Oh!" she chirped, obviously striving to hear herself over the sound of the ocean rolling in the vacancy between her ears. "He came to the counter, and inquired about his luggage. So, I'm typing away, running the search codes, and it was really lost. I mean, it had gotten on the wrong shuttle and been flown to the north quadrant of the sector. I guess it got mixed up with a bunch of bags that were going to the Rendian Sector for the cruise lines, just a mislabeling, but that happens, you know how it is, it's just a slip of the keys, we all do it sometimes, don't we?"

Her giggle strained her blouse tighter, and resulted in the sound of a wing slapping against the back of someone else's feathered head.

"Oh, of course," the prosecutor soothed, and all the heads on the council bench nodded in unison, reminiscent of squirrels on the peak of a roof staring at lady squirrels in the corner pine tree, hoping to see a little squirrel on squirrel action. "So then, what happened?"

"Well, he demanded that I find his luggage, of course," the girl offered, spreading her hands.

"Demanded?" the possum-faced lawyer gasped, with a theatrical placement of one pink, scaly hand on his chest. He practically slithered over the floor as he waddled around in a circle, and fixed one beady eye on the mech to spit out the next words. "You say that he demanded his luggage?"

"Yes sir," the clerk helpfully supplied. "He seemed very agitated about it," she granted with a perky shrug of her shoulders.

"Agitated? How so?"

"Well, I mean, everyone reaching our desk on lost luggage is agitated, but he appeared particularly upset. I even had to ask him to fill out the proper forms three times before he seemed to understand what I needed him to do," she offered with a heaving sigh. It raised the swell of her chest dangerously in her already compromised blouse, and threatened to send the little brass-colored pin of the spacelines hurtling across the room like a bullet.

"Three times? That many?"

"Yes. I mean, at first, I wasn't sure if he spoke Universal or not," she offered, tapping the tip of her nail against the polished wood banister before her. "I mean, he was sort of sputtering."

"Sputtering, you say?"

"Sputtering?" Deuce choked out, earning him the evil eye from the prosecutor. Sullenly, the reporter rocked back on his heels, his mouth tightening until it was merely a frustrated slash in the darkness of his narrow face. It was his opinion that had not been sputtering, and his opinion was the only one that counted in this case.

Nodding again, the girl spread her hands, and pursed her lips, and a noise like a wayward outboard motor escaped her. This sent important bits of her jiggling like twin mounds of badly set gelatin, making every attached male in the crowd force himself to look somewhere else or get instantly slapped with a divorce proceeding from his significant other."I could barely understand him, and they train us in a lot of languages, even Jargerese. We pride ourselves on customer service, you know!"

Deuce canted his head to the side, and snorted a small puff of air out of his intakes. He knew Jargerese, and frankly, it had always reminded him of someone stuffing a very angry cougar into a series of bagpipes, putting their mouth on one end, and blowing as hard as they could. And no, it wasn't the bagpipe flute they were blowing on, unfortunately. He seriously doubted that the counter clerk knew the language, it was one that required the use of four levels of subsonic harmony, and the ability to spend an hour arguing over whether the sky was violet, or purple.

"So, the defendants were sputtering?"

The girl wound a lock of her brilliantly blue hair around her fingers. Her jaw worked briefly, as if she had a huge chunk of gum wadded into the back of her mouth. "Well, no," she replied. "I mean, the gentleman over there," she said after a moment, pointing to Deuce, "he was sputtering, but she wasn't, she was looking at the map in the main area, I think."

"At the map?"

"Yes, at the map. For an awfully long time, honestly."

"And what was the defendant doing?"

"Um... looking at the map?" she repeated.

"No no," the lawyer told her, with a chuckle as he removed a red handkerchief from his pocket and wiped a little spattered saliva off of the tip of his nose, then used it to smooth the hair back between his ears before tucking it away again. "The other defendant, dear."

"Oh!" she nodded. "Oh, him?"

The entire crowd nodded helpfully. Well, the entire male crowd - half of the female members were all thinking very nasty thoughts about how that was of course, not her original hair color, nor her original chest size. The other half were making notes about how they could go about finding the surgeon responsible for it and go in for a consultation.

"He was still inquiring about his luggage, I think. Yes, and he was complaining that if we broke anything, there would be... how did he say it, oh, yes! He said there would be hell to pay."

"Hell to pay," the lawyer echoed. "So, the defendant said that there would be hell to pay if his luggage was to be damaged in any way. What did you think he meant by that?"

"Well, I really didn't know," the girl replied, as she chewed her lip. "I mean, the paperwork lists the contents of what you're missing, and he filled it out like I told him to. That's so we can replace it in case it's fully gone. That happens sometimes, we had this one incident where our cargo belt ate the Grand Chancellor's luggage, and inside was all of his notes for the diplomatic meeting about the state of the Southern Ocean. I think they finally reimbursed him, though, I forget."

Giving a little flourish of his sweaty claws, the lawyer pointed to a table. One of the mushrooms obligingly oozed over and picked up a chalky pink datapad, sheathed in a protective plastic coating, and carried it to his side. The lawyer glanced over his shoulder, flicked his tail, and then tapped a white claw carefully on the object held in the mushroom's grasping pseudopods. "Is this the data-pad you asked him to fill out?"

The girl squinted, turning her head to one side in what Deuce figured was an attempt to restart her brain. "Yes, I think that was it. It's on form forty-seven - that's the pink form."

"Are you sure it's his? Please take a good look at it."

Hesitating, the girl bobbled her head in time with the swell of her chest. "Yes, that's his. I remember the funny little doodles in the margin. Hee hee. Look, he's got a scribble of himself choking someone, isn't that cute?" Her white teeth flashed in the smile that spread across her face.

Ace frowned, looking up just in time to see the court camera focus in on the datapad and splash the drawing up on the monitors. Even with Deuce's questionable drawing skills, it was easy to see just who was the object of the reporter's frustration. Easier even, seeing as how it was blaring over the courtroom, in contrasting pink and black on the full screen. A long sigh escaped the red mech, and he swallowed a mouthful of cold stim-caf. The burnt aftertaste rolled around in his mouth before he was able wash it down with the bitter taste of sarcasm.

"Adorable," the prosecutor replied dryly. "You, sir," he offered to Deuce, "are rather a good artist."

Deuce spread his fingers wide and his wings rattled in a stiff shrug, his good optic narrowing. "Under certain circumstances I get inspired, I guess."

"Would you say you were inspired by the loss of your luggage to draw this?"

"Actually, I wo –"

"Objection!!" Ace boomed out. "That's baiting my defendant." Actually, Ace knew it wasn't just baiting, it was more like someone was waving a red cape in front of an enraged bull and calling it a big fat stupid cube-steak. Deuce, when served rare, came back to haunt Ace in all sorts of ways that no bottle of antacid could cure. Not even if it was bought at one of those places where you had to purchase it in giant, economy sized flats with a warehouse members card.

The lawyer's pink ears crinkled back and he lashed his tail over the polished floor, but he managed to merely give Ace a yellow-toothed, ingratiating smile before turning back to the girl on the stand. "So, you say these are definitely the forms he filled out, correct?"

"Yes, they are, definitely," she agreed.

"Let the record state that the witness has verified for the court that this was indeed the original form filled out by the defendant."

With that, the lawyer curled his tail around his feet. The naked, scaley tip vibrated eagerly, resembling a rattlesnake poised to strike for the next statement. He took off his glasses, rubbed them against the corner of his white suit, and blew on them, the lenses fogging up. There was a brief moment as he inspected them critically, and the entire group of courtroom observers began to fidget and murmur as the tension built. He replaced them back on his nose with a flourish, and licked the tip of his nose again. "Ahhh. Much better. Now where was I. Oh yes. Back to the luggage voucher. Since the witness has told us that this was the exact form that was filled out, I'd like to draw the court's attention to the itemized list of contents that was provided to the spaceline. If I could direct the esteemed panel's regards to the video screens before them, please? You will see a list of contents, there, and their declared value."

He flicked his tail again, scratched behind his ear with two stubby finger-claws. "Notice that the defendant has listed all of the contents. A laptop, of course... a camera, and several items of journalistic value, which I would of course expect to find, seeing the defendant's, how shall we say - declared vocation. However, I would like to draw attention that no where on there on that roster is listed a "lamp."

There was a collective intake of breath, as if this was the pivotal moment of an episode of Murder She Wrote, right before Jessica pointed out that in fact, the butler did do it. In the kitchen. With a candlestick.

"Now perhaps, that the reason this item was omitted on the declaration of value was because it had no actual monetary worth, had it been lost. However, the thought occurs, that it was neglected to be mentioned because it was not in fact a "lamp" but actually, something that the owner of the case didn't want traced back to him, if the case was opened and found!"

Again, the collective gasp, and Mart'a held her purple feathered wing over her chest and looked like she was about to faint from sheer nerves. G'eorge nearly dropped the camera in his effort to support her; byt for his gallant manly attempt to keep her from hitting the floor got not only a tongue lashing but the rapping strike of a beak right above his left eye as he was told to watch what he was doing with the expensive bit of equipment.

"Objection!" Ace thundered out suddenly, rising up from his chair with a rattling clatter. "That's speculation!" One black fist thundered against the top of his desk, causing his stim-caf to leap out of his cup. Drops of it skittered across the table and flung themselves off like lemmings, obviously thinking it was better to hit the floor than deal with the infuriated mech.

The council members glanced at each other, then the head of the bench nodded, his visor gleaming pale green. "You are correct. And this is a warning, sir, you're leading your witness. We will strike that from the record, and the council is instructed to disregard the last statement. Sustained."

The lawyer held up a paw-hand to his chest, looking rather taken injured. "Ah, ah... forgive me." he offered, with a slight bow to the council as Ace settled back in his chair, his arms crossed, blue optics focused on the small of the lawyer's back. It was obvious that his inner thoughts were mostly on what he could do if he was given five minutes alone with the furry little wretch and a stretch of desolate Montana road. In the wilderness, doing ninety-five miles per hour plus, the Camaro could make a convincing case argument that the poor, poor thing had randomly dashed out in front of him and frozen in the glare of his headlights. Well, if he was caught with stick in hand, poking the corpse off of the road and into the bushes.

As if reading those thoughts, the lawyer gave a little swallow and spread his hands, palm up, politely indicating the girl on the stand. "Your witness, sir. I have no further questions of her."

Ace looked over at the girl, who was smiling her plastic smile directly at him, her expression as sweetly bland as a half-melted bowl of vanilla ice cream. He brought his hand up to rub his chin, wondering what he could say to refute the girl's testimony, looked over at the notes scribbled on the data-pad before him, and frowned before he carefully walked towards her, the leading edge of his foot pressing shallow, square dents into the finish on the floor. One of the watching crowd brought his fist up and bit his knuckle to stifle his cry of delight. He'd be sure to give the council his card before he left, since on his days off from being a museum curator he offered wood-restoration services.

"All right. Let's see, miss..." he offered. "First question. Do you find that people can list the exact contents of the luggage they've lost when they're asked to fill out a voucher?"

The girl blinked, her perfectly manicured eyebrows raised in an expression of cute confusion. "The contents when they fill out a voucher?"

Ace nodded slowly, so that there was no mistaking his gesture for anything but agreement.

"Oh! Well, I mean... hmm. Well, I've never really thought about it. We take the vouchers and pass them on to our supervisors. They review the list of contents, and decide the appropriate compensation. However," she stated, her voice rising with such cheery rejoinder that it was obvious this was where all the money for her training had been poured into. "The spaceline has a policy of only insuring up to fifteen hundred credits on all lost items, unless they've been previously opened and inspected for their value by a third-party commodities broker, and his was not inspected or opened. He would have had to check it in like that, and it gets a blue and white code tag, not a standard yellow one."

"Ah. So, what you're saying is that the luggage cleared all these security checks before it got on the spacecraft. Hmm. Interesting you'd bring that up, we'll get back to that in a moment, but let's go back to my question. Do patrons normally know exactly what they're missing? I mean, down to, hmm, let's say, two pairs of socks, fourteen pairs of clean underwear?"

The girl frowned and tapped her painted fingernail against her teeth with a clicking noise, then glanced over to Deuce, then Dart, and back to Ace. "Wow," she finally offered, her eyes going wide. "I didn't know... er, that Cybertronians wore underwear."

There was a slight popping noise that Deuce knew way too well. It was the sound of pressure building up in Ace's linkage systems. He groaned inwardly, knowing that if it decided to blow out again, he'd probably get stuck with that repair bill on top of everything else Ace had charged to his account. Mentally tallying up an estimation of the totals so far, his one working optic widened slightly. Biting back a yelp, he quickly jotted a note directly into his long-term memory. When he got out of here, the first call he needed to make was to freeze that account, and then he was going to shred the card into teeny tiny pieces and flush them down fifteen different waste units.

Dart, on the other hand, made a slightly sympathetic sound as she glanced at the girl. "Er," she finally offered after a brief pause, trying to be as helpful as ever. "Um, no, no we don't wear underwear. It was just an example, miss."

The girl looked over at her, and slowly seemed to comprehend that the courier was truly a quantity of metal that obviously did not need anything on her apparel-wise to walk freely in a public place. The laquered nails rose back up as she giggled and brought a fluttering hand up to her mouth. Again, the pin strained to hold the swell of her blouse together; Dart's flat chestplate might not have had remotely resembling nipple cannons, but the counter girl's sure did, much to the awe of the masculine members of the crowd. You could poke an eye out with one of those things, but it would have been worth it. There were a lot of creatures there who wouldn't mind a minute with her charms and a dark closet- even if it meant that they'd have to be emulating Deuce's own piratey features afterward.

"Oh... I'm so sorry," she offered with a breathless rush of apology. "I didn't mean any offense. Every culture has its own little bits, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, but ours aren't covered by boxers," Deuce muttered, interjecting himself into the discussion. His haughty expression slipped down the sharp planes of his nose to touch down on the girl in a perfect three point landing. "Contrary to what Earth's internet might indicate at times, we really are giant robots."

Ace brought up his hand to press between his optics in a gesture of frustration. "Enough about bits. Plus, my bits can't be called "little" by any means, thanks, remember that, okay? Now, back to my question, but we'll just take it one word at a time, because there's a lot of confusion here that needs to be dealt with before we continue, it seems. Now... Do. People. Always. Write. Down. Exactly. What. Items. They. Have. In. Their. Luggage."

The girl seemed to ponder this; but her response came after a delightfully brief pause. "Well, of course not, not always," she replied cheerfully.

"Ah," Ace said with a hint of a smile. "So, individuals often forget to charge the airline for mundane things, correct. Like, oh, let's say, some touristy trinket from another planet, right?"

"Well, I guess so. I never really thought about it. But," she offered brightly, tossing a wave of aqua bangs out of her eyes. "My boss says that usually when they forget it's because it's not allowed to be transported through customs in the first place. Lots of the planets out on the Fringe have a no-alcohol policy, and if you get caught with it, they give you a really heavy fine. Over ten-thousand credits just for anything on Birra, you know. One of the stewardesses told me that she had this guy that was trying to-."

Ace's fingers twitched, as if the digits suddenly comprehended the point behind Deuce's illustration on the pink datapad. He quickly decided that any question about security would only end up causing more harm than good. His optics focused directly on the girl's sunny smile. Funny, he could almost swear he heard music in the back of his mind; it took him a few bars before he recognized it as the ominous Latin chanting that had accompanied The Omen. "Just the question was all I needed answered. You may stop now."

"Oh, sure! No problem. I hope I answered your question."

The possum-faced lawyer smiled and licked his lips eagerly, watching Ace intensely, as if the Camaro's front bumper had unexpectedly tipped over a fairground garbage can.

Ace shot him a withering glare as he turned on his heel, digging a nice hole into the wood beneath his feet. "No further questions for the witness," he threw over his shoulder as he walked back to his bench, deposited himself back into his seat with a heavy thud. The chair legs gave a groan in protest, but held fast.

"Dismissed," the lead Councilmember told her.

The girl sat in the box, twirling a lock of hair around her finger.

"Er, miss. You're dismissed," he offered a few minutes later, clearing his throat.

"Oh!" she laughed, and waved her hand, then bounced off the stand in a flurry of chest and short skirt.

"Call the next witness, please."

There was a general sigh of disappointment from most of the males in the room, followed immediately by the sound of Mart'a's beak rapping against the top of G'eorge's head with a hollow thunk.

Ace brought his stylus up to his mouth, clicking it over his teeth as he looked down at the data-pad in front of him where he'd scribbled his notes. The writing utensil clutched in his hand was bent, and had a few deep grooves at the top to mark where he'd been chewing it on and off throughout the morning. However, he did obviously have more artistic talent than his erstwhile journalistic partner. His margin scribbles were fairly well organized, and he'd even shaded his fingers with an excellent cross-hatch technique where they were wrapped around the counter-girl's perky little throat.

He sighed, running through the list of witnesses who'd been on the stand so far. A few random travelers from the spaceport, complete with a series of photographs so poor they made him want to make it a crime for tourists to operate holo-capturing devices. Although, that one shot someone had taken of Deuce leaping the stim-caf cart was actually a rather nice composition, what with the forced perspective on his leading leg. Would have been nicer had they managed to get their finger off the damn lens, but eh, he'd had that happen to himself once or twice. Most of the travelers had offered freely up to the prosecutor that Dart's growl had sounded incredibly vicious, and that the spaceport security had been quite brave when dealing with her.

Then there was that luggage porter, who swore up and down that Deuce had threatened to violate him in ways he was uncomfortable repeating up there on the stand in mixed company. However, he'd also sworn that Deuce was one of the aliens that had abducted him from his rickety old transport on the lonely back-roads about five years ago. That hadn't had gone over well, especially when the guy had broken down on the stand and made a keening, slurping noise while he moaned that the therapy bills weren't covered by his insurance provider, and that he was going to have to considering suing the alien menace.

At the mention of anyone attempting to get his hard-earned paycheck from him over emotional pain and suffering, Deuce's struggle to be calm and detached lost out to his financial woes. A torrent of argument had spilled from the grey reporter's vocalizer, culminating in biting sarcasm about the fact that there was no doubt now in his mind why this particular fellow had been set up for a random act of space probing. Even several of the watching spectators had to agree that in the end, Deuce had beautifully defended the fact that any therapy bills incurred were not the fault of an innocent alien scientist. Mostly because the guy had his head so far up the gloop that passed for his hindquarters that they of course had to start there in the attempt to study his brain.

When order was finally restored, the wailing porter removed from the stand, G'eorge had taken the opportunity to snap a new memory stick into his recorder, with Mart'a's "help." (This seemed really to consist of her going on and on about how last time he'd put it in upside down and wiped all the data from her brother's bonding-ceremony.) G'eorge, like most henpecked mates, didn't even bother to attempt to defend himself with the fact that was when got so drunk on Zylgian punch that she'd ended up showing two perfect strangers the steps to the quite titillating "ruffled-feather" dance that the lucky couple would hopefully be doing later that evening.

Luckily, things calmed down to where the next few witnesses went by in a completely uneventful blur. This included the spaceport security, who did score the defense a few points in the fact that Dart had been quite polite to deal with over the whole ledge incident, and the two of them had surrendered so nicely, without any messy giant robot missiles or lasers.

But now it had come down to this.

Deuce stood in front of the witness box, his hands still bound, his one orange optic shining with surly, suspicious ambiance out over the crowd. Between the patch and his manacles and leg restraints, he really didn't give off the air of a hard-working journalist, chained to a desk and a deadline. Instead, the mech resembled nothing more than a roving space pirate; a lean, scarred plunderer of riches and wenches, giving mute evidence to the mire of testimony that he was perfectly capable of smuggling deadly weapons in his briefcase. Either that or wearing puffy, lace up shirts. Maybe a little of both.

The guards flanked him on either side, far enough away to accord him space, but close enough that if he made a wrong move towards the council, he'd find the pointy end of the shock stick in places he truly considered personal ones.

Yellow teeth smiled widely as the prosecutor rose to his full height and slipped out from behind his desk. The heat in the courtroom had started to become stifling, due to hours of closed, sweaty bodies and doors tight shut, and his fur was starting to stick up in untidy, greasy clumps around the collar of his suit. Even a quick bit of finger combing hadn't helped. He'd attempted to smooth it between his ears, but only managed to expose the fact that he was sporting a pretty good comb-over back there. Deuce took some evil pleasure in the fact that the rat-face was going to be even uglier in a few years, not that there would be that much of a difference.

"The prosecution may examine the defendant," the head council member intoned, his visor shining a pale gold.

Nodding affably, the furry creature came to stand a few meters in front of the grey mech, inclining his head as he looked up at him. Bringing up his pale hand-paws, he rubbed them together, then swished his tail from side to side over the hardwood floor, polishing it with his oily perspiration. It left quite a lovely sheen on the wood, causing the restoration curator in the crowd to make a quick notation about perhaps finding a way to bottle the substance and market it for the average housewife.

Deuce stood, grinding his jaws as he forced a smile onto his face. He'd already stated his name for the court stenographer, and had found himself irked with the fact that he'd had to do it twice before she finally changed the pitch gatherers on her hearing aid. No. Not Sluice. Deuce. Not Noose either... ugh, his throat was still giving him sympathetic twinges. Been there, done that.

Back on Triolant, he'd hung for three days, strung up by a bunch of political insurgents - well, political idiots, really. They couldn't seem to quite grasp the concept that hanging this particular reporter in an attempt to send a frightening message to their foes didn't quite result in quite the effect they'd hoped it would. Mostly because tying a rope around his neck and hauling him to dangle over a tree branch with a warning scrawled on a signboard across his chest hadn't done much for their cause. Not at all, although it did cause him to suffer the robotic equivalent of a sore throat. But heck, he hadn't needed his voice to show the military troupe that had so politely cut him down exactly which way the guerillas had fled into the hills. Deuce might have been more magnanimous had there been a decent radio station to listen to.

The lawyer offered his own smile again, took off his glasses and rubbed them on his sleeve to wipe off the film there before replacing them on the bridge of his snipe-sided nose. Then he flicked his tail and started into his questioning with the eager leap of someone diving into the ocean after yelping their way across hot sand.

"Now then, if we can start from the beginning... what did you say your purpose was in visiting Verilain?"

Deuce's sharky expression swum over his features like a hammerhead eagerly intercepting a barrel of putrefying horse chum.

"Well, actually, my purpose in coming here was simply because I'm a freelancing reporter for the publication "Plastic Fantastic," and I was offered the opportunity to cover the trade convention. It isn't one of the most exciting stories I was ever going to write, and sure won't win me another White Star, but what the hey, I already have one. No point in being greedy, I suppose."

"Why did you, obviously, an... esteemed reporter want this, how shall I say, small assignment?"

Deuce lifted his wings in a rattling shrug, since he didn't dare move his hands in case the manacles decided to mistake that movement for something threatening and clamped down. He couldn't afford to add another hand replacement onto his bills. "Even us esteemed reporters have to pay our bills when the galaxy's taking a quiet breather. Funny, the collection agencies don't take the excuse of not being able to find something to write about when you're thirty days late on your cred-card payments."

"So you're in a slow period, I take it?"

"Slower than I'd like," Deuce admitted casually, rocking back on his heels. He valiantly resisted the tickling itch in his foot-thrusters, and managed to keep them from even minutely flickering. "But I'd rather have it be slow than huddle in a rickety hole in the middle of a firefight while bullets are trying to make contact with my brain."

"Understandable, of course. But so, getting back to the question, you're in the middle of a slow period, and you accepted an assignment to cover the intersystem trade convention for your employer."

"That would sum it up, yep. I figured that it was a quiet, easy, comfortable way to make a paycheck, this time." Deuce replied, his smile broadening, his optic shining with orange-tinged honesty. His fingers spread carefully in the open gesture of someone engaging in a little casual conversation with a stranger. "Seemed like the perfect assignment to relax and wind down with. It was offered, naturally, I took a jump at it, figured we'd get in a little sightseeing while we were here too. The travel brochure mentions that you guys really take pride in your northern mountain ranges, and Dart was feeling a little homesick for old Rainier, so hey, I figured she'd enjoy it."

"I see. I take it that your friend is... also a reporter?"

"Dart?" Deuce laughed, his voice rolling with good humor. "'Fraid not, not in the slightest. Actually, she's in the middle of getting her Pathways certification." He'd been quietly helping her along with the process, knowing that working freelance for that particular Courier service meant that it was unlikely that they'd send her on an assignment without giving her a briefing on the cultural and political details of the places she was going. Call him neurotic, but her safety was his highest priority. No way was she going to end up in some of the bad spots he'd found himself in, or heck, for that matter, even Ace, in all of his acid pitted glory. Besides, thanks to a helpful tip from Manny, he'd found out that they offered excellent medical insurance - even better than Plastic's. After ninety days she could petition to add Deuce to the policy. That really could come in handy. No pun intended, of course.

"Right, right," the prosecutor agreed, drawing a long breath through his nose. A drop of slime rolled out of his left nostril and landed on the edge of his lapel. It was absorbed instantly, leaving only a faint, discolored line behind. Ace could almost feel the lawyer radiating satisfaction, and it sure wasn't by the Rolling Stones, even though the short furry bastard could have passed on a dark night for Mick himself. "So... as a reporter, I assume that you travel with the things you'll need when you get to where you're going, correct? For example, maps, perhaps, or foul weather gear - that sort of equipment, specialty items?"

Deuce's hands started to rise, and got about half way up his chest before the binders clamped down securely. Immediately, he dropped them back down in front of him, and settled for rubbing his chin against his shoulder while giving the lawyer a narrowed look of suspicious regard. Deuce knew a setup when he smelled one, and this one stunk to high heaven. He wrinkled his long nose, knowing that this innocuous question was leading somewhere that was going to clamp down on his leg like a bear-trap. A faint hiss of air escaped from between his lips. Whelp, better to be safe and answer honestly when you were bound hand and foot in a courtroom where your guards were religious zealots and took cursing the Red Baron to whole new meanings.

"Yeah, I've learned to make sure I've got the right equipment for what the planet requires."

"And what you need to make sure you're able to sell your stories, as well."

Deuce shrugged, gave another grin. This one shifted from a hammerhead into a great white looking for a pair of bikini-briefs. "Like I said, being a reporter doesn't abstain me from having to eat."

"It has come to my attention that sales of Plastic Fantastic have gone down in the last few quarters. Did you know about this?"

The reporter shrugged. "I haven't really kept up with our accounting department, except to turn in my expense vouchers, sorry. But, I'd have to say from working there for oh, four million years, give or take, that's typical of any publication, especially a gal-zine of its size. You can lose a world of readership by accidently advertising something incredibly offensive in their culture. Each planet Plastic's distributed on has a few native staff members on hand to read the pre-copy before it's tossed out into the mainstream. Doesn't always work, I remember one time there was a big-to do about some perfume ad that snuck through - the censors were in one political party, and the image was pretty insulting to the other side. Nearly started a civil war before damage control managed to work its way into the door and wave the apology flag."

Ace looked up from where he was drawing a target scope on something. "I remember that one," he agreed. "They had to pay out on that, didn't they?"

"Yeah, I think so," Deuce replied.

Clearing his throat, the prosecutor waved his clawtips in the air. "Well, that's interesting. So, you admit the possibility that there might be some financial downturn there. And, like all businesses, it stands to reason that if they lose circulation, they might have to institute cutbacks."

The lawyer paced along the floor, clasping his hands behind his back as he seemed lost in thought. Never lifting his eyes from the polished wood, he passed by the intent council, still talking as if to himself. "And of course, their first cutbacks would have to be in a logical place, which is releasing those staff who aren't truly salaried for their work. No unemployment checks, that way, no messy lay-offs. Which of course, would result in the defendant seeking other work, and perhaps having to take a pay cut. After all, of course, sir, I agree, you do have to eat. So, let's assume that is the case, and the defendant , recognizing the downturn is starting to get worried. After all, he's a loyal employee - he's been working there off and on for four million years, according to his own testimony."

Pausing in mid-stride, the sharp featured face looked straight up at the council, and the furry thing gathered his air of plausibility, swirled it around him, as if it were an elegant cape. "Well, as all of us here are aware, there is one thing that will always up publication of any periodical. Breaking news, and especially, unfortunately, disastrous news. Now the trade show has denizens from all over the sector arriving and leaving, doesn't it. Now, if someone was to... let's say, cunningly hide and then release a biological weapon at the very height of the activities... This could spell disaster not only for Verilain," he continued, his voice rising with the conviction of his words, "but assume it was a slow acting, volatile spore, and it was carried innocently off world by those who never knew they were exposed before it was too late. World to world, spaceport to spaceport, and during it all, the robotic, unaffected mastermind behind it stands unaffected and collects a tale that once again makes sure his stim-caf mug is brimming full in the morning."

Dart recoiled audibly under that accusation, her mouth open as she stared at the lawyer. The rattle of her spoiler was swallowed by the sudden dark mutter from the crowd. Ace's stylus snapped in half, part of it flying off to corners unknown.

Deuce's gut reaction was flaring anger. Uh uh. No way. For someone who lived his life staying neatly neutral, and in circumstances a whole lot less stupid than this one, he sure wasn't pleased with this accusation. His hands clenched into fists. His expression darkened, his one good optic staring at the prosecutor. For a moment, he wished that he had a car mode just so he could feel what it would be like to hit him off of a front bumper, and then like the old joke mentioned, back over him to see if he was dead. Insulted, infuriated, the reporter's jaw worked as he started to froth his way to a stinging rebuttal... and then, suddenly... he lowered his head, touching his chin to his chest, and his wings began to rattle. The entire crowd hushed, as all eyes turned to the noise, and the guards grabbed their shock-sticks, poised and ready as only dumpy, fat toilet paper crossed with mushrooms could be.

Deuce threw back his chin, and his laughter crowed across the room.

"Ha, ha, ha..." he wheezed after a moment. "Where's the hidden camera, folks, to go with this whole ridiculous scenario. Oh yeah, I should have known that in the end, it's a light fixture that's got the power to bring on... ha ha... oh this is rich, excuse me, I can't seem to stop laughing, give me a moment, okay, galaxy Armageddon... screw those silly little Hate Plagues, this is the Lava Lamp plague. And to stop the dreadful power, someone's gotta discover the Water Pipe of Leadership tucked away in some painted Volkswagen bus."

Dart let out a bark of mirth at that.

Ace shot them both a glare that was pretty obvious in its meaning.

Deuce coughed himself into silence. Looking at everything, it really made complete sense to him. I've been arrested by mushrooms for smuggling a contraband lava lamp and am now being tried by a possum. Whoa, it is like Jefferson Airplane sang, logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.

The prosecutor rounded on him, tail landing a stinging slap onto the floor behind him. "Hardly a laughing matter, sir... or do you take the lives of the innocent so mirthfully? Well, I assure you, sir, that no one else here is laughing. As a matter of fact, I would like draw the court's attention to what he considers such a laughing matter. Exhibit B."

A flourish of his hand, and the prosecutor had succeeded, like all good lawyers in getting the complete attention of the entire assembly. Two guards, wearing orange, body covering suits that covered them from head to slimy trunk foot shlepped into the room, balancing between them what looked like a box made of glass on four rigid poles. There was a collective gasp once again, and poor Mart'a, overcome, fluttered her wings, made a sound more suited for something about to become Thanksgiving dinner, and started to collapse on the floor. G'eorge merely shifted his camera to the other wing to avoid being bumped as she slithered partway under her chair, using his prehensile feathers to adjust the focus of his recorder to better display the object in the box.

Set on the exhibit table, with the lights flickering behind it, the cylinder seemed exuded an aura of malice. It had been carefully removed from its box by a team of brave, brave scientists, who had declared the substance inert. By following the explicit directions, they had been able to deduce that it was heat that gave it the fearsome properties of a biological disaster - once the small bulb (part a) had been screwed into the socket (in base c) and given time, the coil inside would activate the now-dormant white base, and cause it to slide through the blue suspension gel. The hotter it got, the more active the chemical soup became, according to the paperwork. It had been agreed, it was a well masterminded device - the directions were so simple that even the most rudimentary of beings could understand them, merely from looking at the pictures.

Surprisingly, it even seemed to be written in four different languages. There had been some speculation as to why this might be the case, and then it had been agreed on that in case the bearer of the weapon had been caught, he could easily pass it onto other cohorts. Right now there was a planetary bulletin out to all law enforcement; anyone who had the languages of Spanish, French, English on their data-cards was to be detained for the authorities to question. A copy of the fourth one had been sent to the cryptology department, hoping that they could break this code of lines and squiggles, and then trace the device back to the planet of manufacture.

"Is... is it safe?" the head Council member asked, swallowing to settle his voice. His visor flashed a pale green, the color of someone who'd been leaning over a rail on a storm tossed sea.

"Perfectly safe, I assure you," the prosecutor soothed, slicking back his fur behind his left ear. "The authorities have assured me that it unless it is given a source of power to heat the contents, it's harmless. Even if I was to do so, the glass around it renders it completely inert. From what I am able to understand, honored Council members, the device would have to be opened while at peak melting temperature for the substance to cause anyone harm."

No one really looked convinced. A few chairs were pushed back, their feet clattering along the floor. A few of the less brave folks had already made their way to the exits and pled the fact that they needed to use the washrooms, but the guards had barred their way, and forced them to return to their seats. There was no opening the doors while this weapon of mass destruction sat exposed on the table, its box standing proudly empty right next to it, giving the impression it was getting ready for its debut in some museum.

Deuce could feel the tension rising; if he'd had hair on the back of his neck, it would have been standing up as stiffly as porcupine quills. On the sides of his head, his antenna twitched like the ears of a wary tomcat. He knew that Ace would be given a chance to allow him to rebuke the claims; but the fact remained that this council and everyone but the three mechs in the room honestly believed that the lamp was a weapon of galactic spanning evil, like a little light up Death Star in a bottle or something. Optic narrowed, he stared at the offending teardrop of goo and coloring agents, desperately throwing a few ideas through his mind.

The reporter had finally got to idea ninety five, where he was using his utility belt to swing across the chasm and bolt to safety, when there was a wall of red in front of him. Well, either someone was already bringing in the chaplain to say a few words and redeem his soul before Perspecution, or it was Ace. He blinked once, his good optic showing his surprise.

Well, of course that little plan wouldn't have worked. Even with all his modifications, he still didn't have anything remotely resembling a bat-utility belt. Too bad. That Robin did play a mean set of bongos.

Ace's hands were on his hips as he stared up at Deuce, thoughtfully, and then back at where the lamp resided patiently under its glass shield. The red mech held his pose for a moment, and in his seat, the prosecutor smugly settled back and rested his hands on either side of his briefcase. It was obvious that he too thought he'd pretty much bought himself a nice new racing skiff as well. Deuce wondered why he'd had no further questions for him, then realized he really hadn't needed any.

What more could he say? The lawyer had captured the audience, and for that matter, the council's attention on the item in front of them. When all was said and done - why drag it out? Everyone wanted out of that room. Saying it was rendered harmless and knowing it was were two different things.

Not to mention that no one was being let out to go to the bathroom, either. That was probably the most devious thought behind the prosecution bringing it as evidence in the first place. Amazing how fast you rendered a verdict when you really had to answer the call of nature.

Ace cleared his throat, and Deuce inclined his head slowly to one side, but the red mech only paced off a few more strides, drifting in front of the council as the prosecutor had done before him. "This is an interesting case. From all appearances, it seems quite straight forward. However, if I can, I'd like to take this opportunity to prevail on the Ralifax Precept for my client."

A flash of violet surprise sparked from the visor.

"You have a character witness to call forward that has known the defendant for over four hundred Bletherons?"

Deuce's one good optic took this moment to blink with true surprise.

Running the figures through his head, he frowned. Well, that measure of time would translate to a smidge under a century in Earth terms, and he really couldn't think of anyone off the top of his head who could do that. Dart was out of the running; she'd known him only a few years, and besides, she was under the same little lamp-shaped cloud of suspicion that he was. Nope. She wouldn't do him much good as a character witness.

Then his optic flashed, and a faint grin lifted the corner of his mouth.

Well, bless Manny's heart, no doubt Ace had been able to get a hold of him, and whoo, if there was nothing else, Manny was an excellent judge of character. You didn't stay an editor for long at Plastic if you didn't know exactly who you could count on in the field, who you could send to cover this story or that story to get the best results out of both content and reporter.

Not to mention, Manford was incredibly articulate and believable when he spoke under pressure; ask anyone who'd been there when he'd explained over the vid-comm to Charlyn exactly why he hadn't managed to get her anything for their anniversary. At the end of the conversation, there was date for dinner at the best place in town, flowers on the way - (thanks to a note hastily scrawled and handed off to his well-paid and amazingly competent secretary) - and to top it off, Manny had never actually admitted he'd forgotten anything in first place. Deuce had been most impressed with those skills right there, but what tickled him far more was that he'd won the impromptu betting pool that had cropped up in the office. That had been a great evening all around, he'd comfortably settled Manny would not be sleeping on the sofa, after all.

"I do, and have employment records for you to verify that the dates are genuine. If the council will allow me to approach the bench?"

A quiet bit of conversation went on, and then the visor flushed pale blue as it bobbed up and down over the bridge of the man's nose. "Approach granted."

Ace moved back to scoop a data-pad off of the desk he'd been using. With a casual stride, taking care not to mar a single board on the floor by setting his foot down wrong, he carefully slid the pad up and over the edge of the Council bench. The head member sat for a moment, his whole hand having to press the scroll key to allow the text to flash by as he read. Slowly, his visor lifted again, focused in on Ace's face with intensity.

"This is highly... unorthodox."

"But nowhere in your edicts does it say that it is not acceptable," Ace replied, an affable smile drifting over his features. The broad shoulders lifted and fell in a rattling shrug. "After all, the criteria is met, according to the letter of your law. Under the gravity of these circumstances, I feel it is very important that the defendant is allowed this opportunity."

The councilman rubbed his chin, glancing at the red mech before him. Then, he nodded. "It is written so. Permission conceded."

Ace nodded, gathering up the data pad carefully in his hand as he walked back towards Deuce.

"I've known the defendant a long time, I admit," he started off, in a conversational tone, tapping the data pad gently against his knuckles.

Deuce's browplate lifted higher, pulling the riveted patch with it until even the black area appeared wide-eyed. Frantically searching the room as if looking for the punch-line to the joke, his head whipped from side to side, waiting for the familiar form of Manny to come forward and give a good, rolling belly-laugh at Deuce's expense. Instead, he only found Ace, who shuttered one optic briefly in a conspiratorial wink.

"But— but he's his defense attorney!" sputtered the possum-faced lawyer. He'd just lifted up a glass of water to his snout, and it was now running out the sides of his mouth with a sound akin to a poorly timed outboard motor. "He can't be a character witness!!"

"I can," Ace replied, optics narrowing as he dropped his hands on his hips; a giant red and white gunslinger ready to take a pot shot at injustice from the OK Corral. "There's nothing in there that specifically prevents someone who is the council for the defense from being a character witness as well..."

Frantically, the prosecutor started to punch the buttons on the data pad in front of him, whipping his glasses back onto his nose. His ears flattened, his tail thrashed against the hardwood behind him in his agitation.

Ace leaned towards the intent being, threw a broad shadow over the desk. "Bring up Article seven, section twenty three of the Verilian legal code," he suggested, with a sly smile.

"Article... seven..." the lawyer repeated, his thumb striking the cursor so quickly it sounded like he was playing a rousing game on an old-fashioned Nintendo. Scanning the pages, he turned his frustrated gaze back on Ace. "I don't see anything here."

Ace scratched his chin again, glancing down at the datapad the lawyer was browsing so desperately. Then, with another helpful grin, he walked back to his table, picked up something, and carried it back to the prosecutor. "Actually," he offered, setting a slim casing down before the flustered creature, "I found this to be very helpful. It's got it outlined quite nicely, and sums up that forty page mess of gobbledeegook into a nice neat paragraph or two."

The prosecutor blinked at the copy of 'Legal Defense For Dummies' that was staring him in the face.

"It's actually a well organized text," Ace chuckled, "in that it breaks down the sector laws by chapter, and those little illustrations of the bull's-eye that say 'Tip' over them, see those? Quite helpful. You can keep my copy, I'm pretty much done with it now."

Turning on his heel, the red mech ambled his way back towards Deuce and the Council. "Like I said before, I've known Deuce here for an excruciatingly long time. Feels like even longer, sometimes. But... as a character witness, I can assure you, Deuce is a conscientious and objective reporter. He thrives on getting to the bottom of a story, in digging back the layers to find the honest truth. He's always been exemplary in his concern not to cross that boundary between observer and involvement." Here, he paused, rubbing his hand over his chin, then offered a wide smile; the amusement danced up to his optics and lingered there in the blue glow.

"Oh, that's not to say he's perfect, nope, anything but. Cheats badly at cards on poker night. Drinks half the booze and forgets to chip in. And when he meets some girl he likes, makes an utter ass of himself. But you know how guys are, don't you, ladies? It's easy for them to make complete fools of themselves over something with a pretty chassis..."

Deuce narrowed his optic.

A little titter came from the ladies in the crowd. Mart'a, sitting on the bench once more, pressed her wing over the swell of her chest and giggle-clucked.

Ace turned with a flourish to his audience, smooth as a ringmaster chasing the out the poodle act and bringing in the lions.

"Yup. Total fools. Idiots, to be honest," he said, offering the audience and Dart both a wide smile. "But actually, I hate to say... hmm. Character witness, here I am, and I'm not doing the best job of offering up why I think for him to have pulled of a plot of this magnitude is akin to... well, it's just not possible."

Walking over, Ace leaned casually against the wooden rail border that surrounded the witness box.

"A little background story on Deuce, folks. On Thrumgul IV they have a sport called 'Fish Tracking'. They have these racing fish. They're bred for all kinds of different colors and patterns, bred for different desirable traits, like racing animals on a hundred different worlds. And they have this Fish Tracking courses... pretty impressive things... kind of like a huge, complex series of tunnels and clear plasti-steel cascading water falls. There are stretches of them that go in loops, spans that curve every which way..."

Someone in the observers stifled a yawn, and Ace looked around the courtroom, realizing he seemed to be losing his audience. He let out a slight cough, and expanded his hands out in both directions. "So, Deuce and I end up covering a story on Thrumgul together, the both of us, about some rich vid-holo mogul who owns half a continent there. Amazing stuff, this guy had, solid platinum faucets on everything on his space-yacht. Beautiful ship -the guy owned a converted Corvette, sleek, and somehow he'd managed to get them to leave even the guns intact. Lots of money greased someone's permit committee on that whole enterprise. Even the damn waste compactors had gems encrusted on the handles. Pretty and functional, but so we got on board this guy's ship - for an exclusive interview with him. He takes this thing out, and it flies like a dream, so smooth we can barely feel lift off..."

The crowd seemed interested now. When there was money involved and lots of jewel encrusted toilet seats, it was a lot more intriguing then fish.

Ace waved his hands and continued. "So I'm snapping pictures on board this craft, taking some absolutely gorgeous shots - actually, two of them ended up on some really nice wall-holo gear and still send a few bits of royalties my way. Deuce, of course is wandering around with the guy, talking him up. After a few hours of this and more than a few drinks passing between them, this mogul invites Deuce to come down to the private tank rooms, and take a look at his collection of purebred racing fish. These fish are the cream of the crop, worth thousands of credits apiece, if not half a million. Half a million credits, for a fish!"

There was a laugh that echoed his own incredulous tone at how a small thing that hadn't even evolved enough sense to breathe air cost someone that much money. Especially when it often happened that you came in in the morning and discovered your assets belly-up. In a rather flushable sort of way.

"So Deuce is in there for hours with the guy, and then I catch up to him on the bridge where I'm taking some candid shots of the whole view off the front end of this Corvette. So we're leaning over the inner rail, looking out through the windows, and he starts talking about these fish."

One red shoulder lifted and fell in a casual shrug. "Seems he's got an angle on this whole thing. He's been in there, talking about fish, the whole time - and that night, he spends it pouring over race records, over breeding files, over times and performances in the last races. He does his interview, he does it well, but every off chance he gets he's down in the Fish Tracking arena, staring at these fish, and every time I go down there he's got a handful of notes clutched in his hands and he's just watching and recording times. The fastest fish walks - well, rather swims - home with the purse, every time. So he starts betting, a little here, a little there, and he actually ends up making a little money. Nothing big, just some pocket credits. Mind you, he's still talking to the mogul, and the two of them are getting to be pretty friendly, and this guy's so happy he's got someone else to love his boring little fish hobby, that they're chatting all week. So, on the last night of this outing, he invites Deuce down to his private track, where the high rollers are bringing in their money.

"That track was amazing. Tri-loops, water obstacles, ladders, even two sections of shifting maze that lit up in fourteen different colors to match your fish's scale pattern. I think I've still got shots of it somewhere - wait, they actually use them for racing promos, they've almost become stock art, and I get a few credits here and there in royalties..." he trailed off, chuckled. "Royalties. Yeah, that's what these fish are treated like, royalty. One by one they parade to the post, held in carrying tanks on velvet cushions. Pomp and circumstance, these fish have two wranglers, one to hold the cushion, the other to help balance the tank to make sure the precious darlings aren't disturbed by the water motions and set to wasting energy too early.

"As they're filing in, Deuce turns to the mogul, asks if he can be included in on the bet.

"Surprised, this guy laughs, but Deuce insists, offers up his entire month's to stake his words. The mogul tries waving him off, attempts to talk him out of it, but Deuce is really serious, and hey, the more money offered the more in the winner's purse. Finally, he agrees, and Deuce is given a program to study as the fish are readied by dumping them into the holding boxes that are full of this pale blue liquid stuff. Give them electrolytes and hydration before the race. Yeah, I know, I was thinking how do you hydrate a fish, too. But stupidity aside, er, well, sort of, now that I think about it..."

Deuce shot him a silent death glare.

Ace let it bounce right off of his grin. Ace not only was faster than most locomotives, he seemed impervious to fatal one-eyed attacks.

"Stupidity. So, Deuce picks his fish, a real winner. This thing's got great times in its last four races, it's just moving up and up on the charts. It's sleek, well bred, fast, and hell, it's even one out of the mogul's fisheries, it's got a home water advantage - everything seems stacked right up for him this time, and he sits back with me, nudges me with an elbow, promises he'll take me out for dinner after we get back. I can see it in his optics - he's got that money spent, right on that super big screen vid player he's been coveting for months. He knows, he can't lose, he's done his research, he's checked those bloodlines through and through, from the pre-guppy ancestors all the way to far trout cousins. He rubs his hands, he looks at me, and he goes 'Easiest way to make a month's salary I ever did. This is in the bag, or the bowl, so to speak...' I'm sort of shaking my head, but man, it really does look like he has done it, this time, and you know what, I hated to admit it."

"So they start these fish off. Open the sluice and out they dash, fish everywhere, looping, diving, swimming their little fish hearts out..."

Deuce's glare became less than silent, it was punctuated with a low sound that was suspiciously like someone grinding their teeth together.

Ace paused. The audience leaned forward, and even the council actually seemed caught up in the story. Even Dart had her head canted to one side. Obviously, this was a tale she'd never heard before either. It was also unmistakable that Deuce wasn't interested in hearing it again. Slumping slightly in his bonds, the grey mech was muttering something under his breath. The reporter's fingers were flexing, curving slightly in a half circle as if he was trying to relieve the stiffness that had come with the restriction of the binders. Strangely enough it also seemed to resemble roughly the same circumference as Ace's thick, sturdy neck.

Ace meandered back across the floor, the wood creaking under his weight. Reflected in the polished veneer, his image moved under him lightly; gliding along as if it was supporting the effortless flow of the red mech's words, and not the hefty weight of his metal framework.

"But, guess what's different about this setup up there," he continued, and whispered comments flew back and forth, those observing drawn into the story. "There's a whooshing noise, and then they pump a massive flow of water down the pipes, running it down towards the finish."

There was a long pause why the audience tried to figure out what this exactly meant. Unfortunately, it was Dart who finally seemed to grasp the concept. Built on Earth, the Courier had memories of a thousand nature shows where little fish struggled in the vast circle of fish life. No, they didn't sing songs that involved turning into kings and dancing with warthogs or toucans with the voice of Rowan Atkinson. Fish were really only good at three things: swimming, making more fish and then chomping down their offspring with cheerful, cannibalistic delight. The courier shifted her weight, the bar between her ankles rattling, and spoke up in the silence of the courtroom. "Wait... wait, the current. Ace, if the fish were pulled into it, they'd go shooting right down the pipes really fast, right? So Deuce won his bet, no problem, right?"

Ace brought up a finger beside of his nose like some sort of evil elf, and walked by the courier, pausing in front of her for a brief moment. "Oh... Dart, you're a smart girl."

"Really?" the courier smiled, ducking her head, and obviously pleased with what was rare praise. "Aw. Thanks, Ace."

"But you're wrong."

Dart seemed to blink, taken aback. Ace was still in front of her, a smile spreading across his face as if it were oil warming in a skillet. The courier frowned, shifted her weight to look up at him as she mulled over what he'd explained. "But you said the current was moving past them. They would get down there awfully fast, but why would they want that... they'd all make it there about the same time, if they stopped swimming and let it drag them down. It's not really a race, then, is it?"

Ace threw out his hands and grinned as he spun on his heel in a flamboyant flash of red and white, walking towards the evidence case. "Oh, it's a race, all right. Just that the rules aren't the same."

"So, yes, they're pumping the water down. But the little gillbags are resisting the current, fighting it and trying to swim against it. I guess they knew that in a past life they were won at carnivals by sticky-fingered human kids, and quickly flushed down the toilet when they started looking a bit under the weather and replaced with another fish so cutely named Comet."

Ace stretched, laced his hands behind his head, and made another circuitous path around the room, drifting closer to where the lamp sat, brooding and wide at the base, the hardened lava solution tipping slightly to one side in the clear blue liquid within. His voice was loaded with amusement, and he turned and looked fully at the waiting council.

"Deuce's fish was a great fish, a fish with line breeding set for speed and power. It was the sort of fish that at the quarter slide gave faster fractions than most fish could do for the first five fin-longs. Let me tell you, when that fish hit the raceway, it was ready to go. And go he did. That fellow whipped down that maze, carried by the current like he was at the water slide super emporium and crossed that finish line with Deuce's month of salary clutched in his little finny fin fin.

"Next thing I hear is Deuce let out this howl of delight... and it's then I notice something really interesting, everyone's looking at him oddly. I start to say something, but heck, he's too engrossed in the thought of how he's going to get that entertainment center into his apartment without taking off the front door. Hey, what do I know. I'm just the photographer, not a fish racing expert of a whole week's time, like old Deuce here. So I sit and watch, and I'm realizing something, they all seem to be glued to watching the last fish struggle against the current. Now if that's not the most exciting two minutes in sports, I don't know what is, that last stretch drive when those fish are stretched out in full fin extension. Wait, that would be anything. Hell, curling's more exciting."

"Curling?" one of the audience piped up, obviously wondering if it had to do with hair.

"Curling," Ace replied. "Some damned Scottish sport where you toss a rock down ice and have two guys run in front of it, scrubbing the path with brooms. I guess that's what happens when you have way too much time on your hands."

Dart looked up. "It's Scottish?" she blurted out. "What do you know, I was right about that after all, Deuce."

Ace raised an optic ridge, but Deuce merely mumbled something about how bagpipes and tailpipes sounded an awful lot like one another and he'd love to shove one up someone else's at the moment.

"Yeah. It's Scottish. But back to the fish. So, one by one these fish slide across the finish line, all except one, this little yellow and green fellow has been using the curves in the pipes to his advantage, and then there's a low murmur that goes up, and it swells into a roar as he finally tires out, and it sweeps him down, last fish to cross the line.

"So Deuce looks at me, grins, and goes - 'Gah, I wonder what poor sucker bet his bankroll on that bit of pan-fried nag.' Two seconds later, the toteboard in the corner flashes, and Deuce is starting to get to his feet and saunter on over to collect his winnings when we both notice something at the same time. The winner's number isn't Deuce's speed demon, it's the number of the last fish to cross the line. The very last fish. Stunned, Deuce manages to get up and find the mogul, me trailing behind him," here he grinned, ever so slightly, "and asks him if the tote board's out of whack..."

"Nope. Guy proceeds to tell him, it's right. However, Deuce must have looked so pole-axed, that the mogul finally realizes his confusion, and hurries to explain. Seems there were two types of races. Downstairs for the masses was the classic type run, and well, upstairs for the high rollers and the heavy betters was what they called the Sandorf reverse run, and it was a very rare variation on the sport. The idea is that the fish have to resist the flow of the water, a test of strength and skill. Last fish to spill into the finish pool is the winner."

A grin slipped across Ace's mouth and stayed there, firm as bondo, even as he solemnly relayed his next words.

"Needless to say, Deuce's fish sure didn't win this race."

Someone in the rows of watchers snickered, and soon, it turned into a burst of laughter as it was carried along from one person to another. Mart'a chest heaved, and she had to finally fan herself with the tips of her wingfeathers. In the council-box, there was a bright yellow flare from the lead council's visor.

Dart winced, glancing over at the grey reporter.

Deuce's metal teeth were clenched so hard they made popping noises, but his one good optic was staring resolutely at the ratbird in the middle of the great seal. Funny, how much that scaly-tailed, pop-eyed thing looked an awful lot like Ace. Probably was his third cousin Gertrude or something. His toe dug into the floorboards, there was the abrupt smell of singing wood as a flicker of blue escaped from his heel-jets, the flame managing to appear as peevish as the thrust of a tongue at someone's back.

Not seeming to notice, Ace threw back his head and laughed as well. The sound rolled out of his chest and spread across the room. The undertone held growling echoes of his transformation - the massive, rumbling big four twenty five block engine of the Camaro. "Yup. He's out a month's salary. Guess what, he has bills to pay and things to take care of, not to mention his rent. No way in hell am I letting him crash on my furniture, so he ends up deciding to hock his entertainment system. On our way off the ship, the mogul catches up to him - seems the guy really did feel bad that Deuce lost his bet on his fish. Tells him, he should have asked him, he himself had bet on the winning fish, and he would have let Deuce in on it... but hey, he has something he hopes will make it up for him..." here he trailed off, and chuckled again. "No, not his money back. But, I better not get into this tangent. I could sit here and bore you all day with these stories..."

"Please do!" someone in the crowd laughed.

"Please don't," Deuce snarled under his breath, wingtips rattling into stiff triangles of temper.

"But for the Council's sake, I won't take up any more of their valuable time. The point is this - like I said, I have a hundred, no a thousand more tales like this. And they all point out the one thing about these completely ridiculous charges that have been heaped on him."

"Objection!" the possum-faced lawyer squealed, practically tipping over his chair in his eagerness to be seen.

"For what?" Ace replied, equally as eager. "They are ridiculous. Look, folks, it takes planning and forethought to pull off a mastermind of a scheme that is going to affect thousands of worlds. You don't get up one morning and say, gee, I'm going to commit an act of biological terrorism. Well, ladies and gentlemen of the esteemed council, I hate to say this, but I will, and I'll be frank about it. Do you think said mastermind of tactics and terrorism would have lost a month's salary because his fish swam the wrong way? I mean, I'd offer to tell you about Cerulion, where he forgot to mention to me something pretty important, but... nope. I promised, no more Deuce stories."

Deuce's hands opened and closed, his fingers creaking.

Looking into the reporter's narrowed optic, there was no doubt whatsoever what he was thinking. If some stupid, short-sighted dark god had actually granted Deuce any sort of fantastic powers right then, he'd have chosen - (with no hesitation) the ability to burn Ace to crispy-Camaro city. It cheerfully prodded at his imagination, offered up a lovely scenario of the reporter leveling his one-eyed wrath on the photographer; Ace's final spat out curse right before he turned into a giant tiki-torch. One good foomp, and Deuce would be standing there next to the pillar of flame, happily singing a few good rousing camp songs while hunting for the bag of marshmallows he'd tossed into subspace...

Dart canted her head to one side, a look of confusion flashing over her features as her finely tuned audio sensors picked up what seemed to be a familiar sound. She hesitated, then shifted her weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other, her ankle binders scraping against her plating. It was sort of strange, though. The courier could have sworn she heard the refrain to "Land of the Silver Birch."

So engrossed was Deuce in his flammable fantasy that even he hadn't noticed how close his former partner's strides had brought the red mech to the evidence stand.

"Yeah, no more Deuce stories about stupid moments..." Ace pointed out, standing now next to the table and peering down at the box and lamp within. Something caught his attention, a smattering of tiny red words on a white sticker next to the UPC code. A slight smile crossed his face. The two guards moved a bit closer, and then back as the red mech rocked back on his heels and pointed at the encased objects. "But speaking of stupid moments, did anyone ever think to look at this sticker on the back of the box that says this damn lamp is Non-Toxic?"

The lawyer slashed his tail at the air, ears flattened, whiskers quivering, stiff as broomstraws on his muzzle. "Top scientists have analyzed the weapon, and-!"

Ace cut the marsupial imitator off with a chopping motion of one large black hand. "Weapon my skidplate. It's a lamp, it's a leftover, tacky bit of the nineteen seventies back on Earth. And may I be the first to say, what did your top scientists do to it? Open it? Doesn't look like they even got too near to it, to me. How does a scientist analyze something not even opened? Magic pixies?"

Stubbornly, the lawyer refused to yield. He was now standing ramrod straight in his chair, his toes curled over the edge, his claws dug into his palms. Sweat scalloped along the edges of his ears and dripped down into his greasy fur, as his voice shrilled to an indignant squeak. "Of course not!" he replied, and the courtroom attention flickered back and forth between the two verbal combatants. Even the council had forgotten to bang the gavel, captivated by the drama of the moment. Either that or they were debating just how much money they were going to get when they sold the rights of the story to the holo-vid companies. "After the Rollins Convention, analyzing biological weapons is a matter of—."

"Rollins, schmollins. Look, you've got instructions on how to put it together, in four different languages. If this thing's so dangerous and top secret, why would anyone just pack them into the very container this laughable biological weapon is in? I don't know, if I'm transporting a deadly substance, I don't exactly want to take the chance that some average person grabs it and plugs it in by accident."

The lawyer drew his arms across his chest, and sniffed. "Well, I suppose that makes sense, seeing how you just attempted to convince everyone present that your client isn't exactly a mastermind."

"Touche," Ace acceded.

Deuce sputtered like a poorly balanced lawnmower. "Shouldn't you be objecting?" he managed to snap at Ace, interjecting himself into the conversation.

"Not to that, no," Ace replied with a dismissive shrug. "I will however, object to the fact that this thing is labeled clearly that it's non-toxic, that it has instructions, and that they never bothered to actually take out any of the liquid inside and test it. Roadkill here," he offered, jerking a thumb towards the sweating lawyer, "practically just admitted that his top scientists didn't even open it to make a positive identification on the contents. Thus, I'm going to say that the label right here on the back of this box is right, that it's a non-toxic, but tacky lighting fixture, that Deuce was going to add to the multitude of other kitchy things he's managed to bring back from hundreds of different planets he's been on for work."

It took all of his will not to glance over at the long-legged femme, but Ace managed.

"Labels can be counterfeited!" the possum-faced lawyer retorted with the furor of a televangelist, banging his fist on the datapad on his table.

"They can," Ace agreed, his optics narrowing dangerously. It was obvious that Ace had finally reached the end of "fairly polite, reasonable Ace." Which wasn't surprising, Ace displayed little to no tolerance when it came to many things: Deuce, Montana wildlife that leapt in front of his bumper, and moments of provable stupidity. If you counted in the fact that the lawyer resembled nothing more than a fat, waddling marsupial, all three were right here in this courtroom. It was amazing he'd held out as long as he had, but now, everything seemed to be culminating at once.

Ace's voice flattened out like a snake sunning on the side of the highway. "But did anyone think once about researching Earth culture and seeing that these damn things line the walls of every cheap novelty store - usually nestled right between the naked hula dancer bobble-butts and the to the fake dog crap that doubles as a key holder? No, didn't think so. So, you've got these two here, standing trial for the fact you guys don't have a scientist with the... well, whatever passes for balls here... to open up the damn thing and check to see if it's non toxic, like these guys have been protesting all along. I personally would say, due to the fact we don't even know if it's dangerous, that the case is dismissed."

The lawyer squealed, even as he stared at the middle of Ace's hood. His eyes were wild and desperate - the crowd was starting to mutter their agreement. Or maybe they just didn't care - most of them really needed to use the appropriate washroom. Mart'a's feathers fanned her protruding beak, and the tinny, constant whirr of G'eorge's vid-corder was rattling along in the background as he swung from side to side to focus in on the action. "Earth was researched," the prosecutor snapped, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up from around his sweaty collar in indignation. "As well as it could be, I mean! The conclusion was immediately drawn that it was a backwater little planet, and the records are horribly inaccurate and spotty! The prevailing intelligent species - and I use the term loosely - can't even make a spacecraft that doesn't fall apart. It's a perfect place for desperate low-life ruffians to develop a scheme that would propel the defendant back into the limelight."

Now it was Dart's turn to narrow her optics. She honestly was one of those drivers that would go off the road in an effort to avoid running over a mouse, but being built on Earth, she considered it her home, flat out. She loved it, and well, it was obvious she wasn't impressed. At all. Deuce glanced over as she let out a sharp snort of air past her intakes.

"Julie always said a possum's worth thirty points," he whispered softly to her, winking his good eye in an effort at humor.

"He's a lawyer," she muttered back after a few seconds of debate. "Down back in Oregon, that alone makes him worth fifty. Seventy five if I accidently back over him, too."

Ace's voice rang over the room again. "Okay, guess what. The humans have a saying down there on that backwater little planet. Assuming makes an ass out of you and me. But in this case, it's only making an ass out of you and this Council. You're assuming this lamp is toxic, and you're assuming I won't call your bluff on it. Guess what. You're wrong."

Made to withstand a bullet or the average glass cutting tool, the protective shield over the lamp seemed to give a cursory groan as the pointy business end of Ace's elbow smashed down onto the top of it. The safety filaments imbedded in a criss-cross pattern throughout attempted to do their job, failed miserably under the weight and drive of the red mech, and popped apart. The glass literally shot free in a waterfall arc, scattered across the floor like someone had dropped a bucket full of crushed ice. The resulting sound seemed to galvanize the frozen onlookers, all of which suddenly seemed to have come to the same conclusion.

A volatile, dangerous substance now resided in the hand of a being who could crush it as casually as an eggshell.

Before even the guards could react to strike, the mech flicked his wrist in a practiced, fluid gesture. Scooping up the offending container of blue liquid, he rolled it carefully between his thumb and forefinger, and then brought it up to peer at with one narrowed, bright blue optic. Instantly recovering, the mushrooms turned as one and swung the shock sticks straight for Ace's knees. A resounding howl from the head council member cut through their attack.

"Don't hit him! If he drops that, we're all dead!"

Completely taken aback by the events rapidly unfolding around her, Dart struggled to take a step back, manacles clinking, and a low whine escaped her chest. Deuce echoed the noise with a groan. Persepecution, here I come. His only cheering thought was that Ace would be right there with him. Good. He'd offer to push the button. What the hell was he thinking when he did that? I mean, come on, nice going, Hands, you've just cost us both our brains...

Ace seemed to be completely engrossed in the canister between his fingertips for a moment. Then, he turned to face the council, looking completely relaxed and confident. "Well, thanks for the concern, but I finally realized something. You guys can't get it through your head that this is a light fixture, and no amount of cajoling or explaining is going to help, is it? So, I'm going to have to prove to you for once and for all that what you've got in this little freaking bottle of goo is something that ten thousand kids back on that backwater planet have drank by accident when their hippie parents were too stoned on special chocolate brownies to see what the little darlings were up to. Let me think. This stuff, according to your scientists has to be heated slowly over a light to release it's biological agents of doom. Well, no problem, what if I just prove the easy way that it's probably nothing more than wax and colored water?"

"How?" shrilled the lawyer, warily eyeing the bottle in Ace's hand. There was the sound of the spectators struggling to put the benches in between them and the red mech. Well, that, and there was the distinct resonance of Mart'a's body sliding to a feathered heap on the floor once again, overcome into a dead faint. G'eorge's camera never moved off of the bottle, though. Ahh, peace and quiet.

"Easy," Ace said, and flicked the through his fingers. "Deuce, remember last time we were at the Rising Sun?"

Deuce nodded, frowned. "Of course I do. Great bar. Fantastic drinks."

"Yup. I'm going to say what you say to me all the time that night. Shoot the damn thing already!"

Where the observers sat, that request led to a dive for cover. Shooting seemed to be a pretty unpopular descriptive term when it came to giant robots who had the hidden ability to pull guns out of subspace - or even better, become giant versions of ones themselves that could pull on the unstable energy of a black hole and fling it around like the leavings of a cosmic monkey. Of course, the resulting mess wasn't only odoriferous, it had the bad habit of destroying civilizations.

Deuce's one copper optic widened, then narrowed in understanding. A slick, intense grin spread across his dark face, his white teeth gleaming in a way that was usually found in the depths of the Pacific Ocean eyeing mackerel. His attention locked on the small cylinder in Ace's hand, his wings flicking out and back as he opened his fingers, palm up, gesturing tightly with his index and middle digits with the motion of a badly dubbed kung-fu fighter inviting an opponent into the 'ninja circle of death.'

Ace chuckled, and with a sudden flick of his wrist, the small bottle went soaring, end over end into Deuce's waiting palm. Both guards immediately swung their shock sticks at Ace's knees. The red mech gave a grunt as the crackle of energy rolled up his legs, but the strike merely locked him upright, and the expression on his face left no doubt that if any of his internals were now broken, he was adding it to what Deuce owed him. A short scream echoed from someone in the crowd as the substance turned end over end, blue and white and blue, lazily arcing over the polished courtroom floor. A hundred eyes tracked its passing, and someone grabbed a handkerchief from their pocket and held it over their nose, as if it might help deter the biological agent once that fragile chunk of glass shattered.

Instead, it came to land unbroken in the grey mech's hand. Deuce felt the binders closing painfully around his wrists at the sudden motion, but his fingers had already deftly flicked the little bottle across his knuckles like a magician performing a coin trick. His thumb came to press against the rim of the metal cap so thoughtfully placed there to keep the contents in. With one smooth motion, he raised his hands upwards, hoping he'd beat the binder's bite as the lamp contents swirled cheerfully around the inside of the glass.

Staring in the sort of intensity that usually followed a train wreck, the crowd was completely focused on Deuce.

The lead council member, his visor a shade of sickly green, was barking out orders in a frantic explosion of sound. His calls for security were answered quickly, but seeing as how they had sealed the doors shut earlier... Not to mention that once it had been verified the fact that the weapon of doom was now firmly ensconced in the hands of the very being that had brought it onto the planet, well, that door wasn't getting opened, sorry. Council members could be replaced, besides, the voting polls would be open in the spring. That wasn't too long to wait, right?

The reporter's thumb popped the lid off of the lamp globe. The small cap was still tumbling towards the floor, end over end when he jerked the canister up to his lips, ignoring the increasingly painful pinch of the binders. The contents seemed to hang there, trapped in the narrow neck of the holder. A drop of color hesitantly worked its way over the rim and clung tenaciously to the constricting spiral of glass with spidery, trailing filaments. Obviously, the liquid inside wasn't buying gravity's word about how this was going to be a grand and glorious adventure!

Unfortunately, it really didn't have a choice in the matter.

There was a slithering, oozing pop, then the greasy, waxy chunks of material inside sluiced free with a rush of bright blue and off white, leaping down the reporter's throat with all the unfulfilled desperation of the last lemming hurling itself off of a cliff. Deuce didn't even flinch as he swallowed the mess as easily as if it had been a shot of pure Wikarian energon; instead, he quickly dropped his hands back down to his waist, flexing his fingers. He was appreciative to find he'd beat the binders, already, the constriction had released slightly. The cap rolled across the floor, meandering its way across the polished wood to the tip of Ace's foot. It rattled like a penny on a sheet of tin and came to rest, the faded sticker on the top offering the following words of wisdom to anyone who could read. 'Don't open,' it indicated. Followed right after by the helpful statement, 'Don't drink.'

Obviously, someone had managed to ignore this sticker before, and probably under similar circumstances. Well, maybe not. Most likely, the useful warning was slapped on due to the influence and power of many illegal substances... or because a fraternity house owned one too many beer hats.

Ace casually flicked the tip of his foot and sent the cap skittering across the floor with form a Canadian hockey player would have envied - right down to the perfect goal he scored between the prosecutor's chair legs before the top of the bottle vanished into the crowd.

Holding the now empty lava-lamp globe loosely in his fingers, Deuce stood, his wings twitching slightly. A peculiar expression crossed his dark face as he smacked his lips together, the sound loud in the stunned silence that prevailed over the courtroom.

"How was it?" Ace asked finally, smothering a chuckle.

"Like I went on a bender down in Colonial Williamsburg and drank the candleshop," Deuce replied thoughtfully.

Tilting his head, the reporter glanced down at the empty lamp in his hand with true regret. He'd honestly hoped after all was said and done they might have found a way to let him keep the thing. Thinking about it made him irate, well, more irate than he already was. All that work, and now he didn't have the lamp. It didn't seem to matter that he'd carted it nestled in subspace safe and sound from Montana, kept it intact though the trials and travails of Australia. Hell, it had even survived the massive Pirate menace of the Whipping Post. He hadn't so much as scratched the damn thing, waiting to take it out of the box until he got home.

Deuce even had the perfect place in mind for it, right next to the spot where he kept his collection of music disks. It was one of the cheerful thoughts he'd held on to on those damp, lonely nights, buried in a hole in the Australian rain forest. In the picture firmly tacked up on the wall of his mind, he was at home, comfortably slouching in his padded computer chair, wing tips tapping the floor to steady him as he rocked back, his ankles settled across the corner of the desk. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young would be crooning softly from the pair of Volshwit speakers plugged into the back of his laptop; the lamp blooping away as it cast cool, dim puddles of light and shadow across him. However, that idyllic scene could flush itself right down the waste unit if it meant that he managed to escape having his brain scrambled into robotic spam. Hmm. Maybe if he found someone going back to Earth any time soon, he'd be able to wheedle them into buying him another one... well, as long as it was blue. That purple one with the yellow blobs did so not go with his decor.

"That tasty, eh?" Ace replied.

"Maybe if I'd chilled it first," the grey mech offered slowly. "Or had something to chase it down with. Industrial bathroom scrubber comes to mind, let me tell you. Although, you know, it does have a familiar bite to it. Remember that vat of stuff we passed around on that all-nighter assignment back at Fantastic? It reminds me of that, tastes sort of like a cross between antifreeze, brake cleaning fluid, and dishwashing liquid."

Ace guffawed, and turned back to face the council, limping slightly.

"You're in contempt of this court!" screamed the possum-faced lawyer from underneath his table, his eyes glittering like marbles as his claws dug into the expensive wood underneath him. "This case needs to be retried, a court-appointed, actual lawyer given to the defendants, and that crazy red mech's background needs to be investigated! I mark that the council immediately does a mistrial."

Right then, the door to the courtroom burst open, and a rather frazzled looking creature came stumbling in, waving white and brown paws over his head. "Wait, wait!!" he called out, as the door creaked back on ancient hinges. "Stop, stop, wait!"

The sound of the door was all the crowd needed, and like a herd of cattle they turned as one and stampeded for the door. Even the still groggy form of Mart'a was dragged along by one rather meaty drumstick by a helpful passer-by... leaving G'eorge behind to finish recording what came next.

"Wait?" the head Council member queried, his visor a shade of bright, angry red. "What now?"

"Well, sir, I'm sorry to bother you but we just received the final analysis papers. It seems that due to the refraction of the tight beam analyzing equipment, that... well, sir, we made a calculation error."


"Well, er, it seems that the substance is nothing more than a harmless array of chemicals, built to sort of give a continually changing environment to those who watch it. We did a mock up in the lab, and well, sir, Jones and Davis are still down there and well, they're still watching it." There was a pause. "It's honestly very...er, soothing."

Ace looked over.

Deuce hiccuped, raised a browplate quizzically at the council members above.

"Dammit. You could have come in and said something before I drank it," he muttered to the agitated scientist.

"Sorry, sorry," the creature offered, spreading its paws wide in abject apology.

"Huh," Ace said slowly, his optics narrowing. "So... right. I think we need to do a mistrial. No, I think this is what is referred to as an acquittal, where you drop all the charges, and well, you know... hmm. Matter of fact, I think that under these circumstances, we might have to countersue, for loss of wages, unfair arrest, pain and suffering... I don't know, I feel that there has been enough mental anguish suffered here. How about you, Deuce. Think Fantastic would eat this story up? I don't know about you, but I'm sensing an article here..."

"Dismissal?" the lawyer shrilled. "For all we know, he could be a walking biological bomb! We've already established that mechanical beings aren't affected by the toxins!"

Ace snorted. "You've also had one of your scientists just waltz in here and say that they had a major screw up back at the labs, too. Keep going. I'm starting to sense that Deuce's new entertainment system just got paid for, and wow, looks like I'll be getting one too."

"But,but,but..." the lawyer cried, wringing his paws together, sweat drops falling onto the polished floor, his tail flailing as if it was a broken mooring rope.

"Hmm. I really like the big screen display," Deuce replied, fixing the lawyer squarely in his one-optic gaze. "Actually, hell with it, I think I want one that covers the whole wall. I love watching widescreen vids." His grin swam back on his face, and his nose twitched. A shark could sense a drop of blood in ten miles of open water; Deuce could sense his fortunes turning at forty times the distance."Huh. And I do have an article to write after all, heck with the whole convention, how does this headline grab you? 'Reporter Delves Into Council Corruption...' or maybe..." he trailed off and tilted his head slightly as a low rumble worked its way up from his internal processing systems and into his throat. He worked his jaw slowly from side to side, feeling a strange sourness in the back of his mouth. As he swallowed, it drifted away, leaving only the faintest aftertaste of smoky tin. He took the opportunity to squint at the brightly colored box across the room. No, the sticker really did read non-toxic. Just checking. It never hurt to follow up on Ace - that wasn't just good reporting, it was a survival skill.

Deuce wasn't concerned, though. Since his line of work took him so many out of the way places, he'd chosen long ago to modify his systems to process energy out of things that other Cybertronians might have found rather primitive and disdained with a sniff. Deuce wasn't about to turn down anything - yes, he had solar panels, and that kept him going in most circumstances, but on some worlds, even that was spotty and thin. Now, not much was rejected from his systems; organic substances, fossil fuels, buckets of oil with paddlebugs doing backstrokes, it was all good. Once, he'd even once accidently swallowed a bottle of Julie's nail polish remover and chased it down with a six pack of hot dogs still in the wrapper. Okay, that hadn't been an accident, it had been a dare, but no one ever had to know that except him and Julie. Oh, yeah, and the five bucks he'd gotten from it from her. Heh.

The lead council member's wince was apparent, and his visor was a pale blue as he mumbled, "Maybe... maybe we could just keep this... quiet, yes? I mean, there's no reason to get the publication involved. We... we can work something out, I'm sure..."

"I'm sure we can," Ace replied, sweeping his hand magnanimously outward with a flourish. "But first, let's just make this official. Case dismissed?"

"Case dismissed," groaned the council in return.

"You know, we should have held out for more," Deuce grumbled sourly,

Pacing to the right of him, fully in his line of sight, Ace merely narrowed his optics back in disgust. "Deuce, you're a totally greedy bastard. We got three free tickets off the planet, first class, I might add, and in case you forgot, I got all of the travel expenses - including mine that I incurred busting my ass to get here - reimbursed, so your cred-card is back to its state of morose, empty shock. I'm sure your creditors will be calling around soon to ask where to send flowers, because if you don't have your card maxed out, you obviously must have died."

"Ha ha, Hands, you're so full of humor I'm overwhelmed and can't remember how to... what's the word, oh, laugh."

"Yeah, I am, aren't I?" the red mech replied, his wide shoulders rolling in a shrug. "I don't know, I thought the whole thing was pretty hilarious. Bottoms up, Deuceball," he chuckled, a wide grin stretching across his face as he mimed bringing a shot glass up to his lips and tossing the contents down. "Wish I'd had the foresight to stop and get a lemon, but look on the bright side. You've had your mouth on worse things. Even better, worse things have had their mouth on you."

On either side of Deuce, grey wings surged forward, stiff as an angry cat's whiskers. Slowly, deliberately, with an aura of haughty disdain, he gave Ace the full presence of his optic rolling skyward towards the roof of the spaceport.

"Yes, and if you'd waited two minutes more to prove your fantastic theory to the Council of Morons, I could have kept my lamp."

Ace snorted, stopping in mid-stride to drop his hands to his hips with a glower that would have sent lesser creatures slinking off to dig themselves a burrow to hide in. "I see," he groused, ice frosting every word. "I get woken up by you when I'm peacefully sleeping in my own comfortable bed, and then you expect me to drop everything and trot my skid out and save you once again from your own ability to drag useless junk off a planet and have it somehow deemed illegal, like your damn Canopy. You know what? Get some goddamn manifolds, you great grey roto-rat. Whine whine whine, that's all I ever hear from you. You yap like some sort of one eyed freaky robotic Pekinese."

Deuce lunged forward, as a tiny flicker of blue flame hissed out of his heel thrusters. "Oh, like this was my fault. No, it was the mushroom's fault - actually, you want to blame someone? Blame the spaceline for losing my luggage in the first place and then putting brain-fried Barbie on the help desk."

Ace stifled a obviously overblown yawn as the reporter did his best to loom over him. "Yeah, blame the girl with the IQ of a rock. No, I'm gonna blame you, because boy, it's fun. It's just like always, when I think about it. I need a hand with a photo shoot for this story, Ace. Oh, gee, let me drag you away from a deadline you've got to work on to fix the movie projector, because Dart's car bumper can't flick the switch and make it go, wah. Get me out of jail, Ace. Defend me in a court of law, Ace."

Deuce leaned back on his heels after a moment, spreading his hands. "I know, I know. Yadda, thanks for coming out, really appreciate it, we do, and all that. But, do you have any idea how hard it was to find that lamp?" the reporter grumbled, his shoulders lowering down in anticipation of a good old fashioned robotic sulk. "First of all, it's a Century lamp, and those aren't the cheap models. Second of all, blue and white was a rarer color in the production series - most people like the red and yellow ones. I don't, because they always remind me of some bloody egotistical Decepticon lurking in the shadows ready to blow my head off. I got quite enough of that back in Australia. Third, well, third, I liked that lamp, I sat doing nothing but staring at the screen for the last thirty minutes of that auction on Ebay to get it, and I had to outbid some last-minute stalker that drove up the price in the final fifteen seconds. The jackass was probably using one of those fancy bidding programs, but ha, let me tell you, he was no match for the power of my middle finger and the refresh button."

Deuce brought up his left hand and flexed said middle digit jauntily towards Ace, in an effort to helpfully show him the auction-winning technique that had now gone to waste with the loss of the lamp.

Ace merely reflected it back at him. "Yeah, great method there, Hands."

Deuce chuckled. "Well, I know you got us a deal, and I'm not saying I'm not glad to be leaving here, but... I would have preferred to stay for the night instead of hopping right back on a flight... you should have made them throw in first class hotel accommodations," the grey mech replied, shrugging his wings and rubbing his flank with his fingertips to try and relieve a nagging relay ache that was starting to make itself felt. "Something with a marble tub, where I could stretch out and soak off this pinched relay that's really bugging me right now. Stupid cheap jail-cell bunks." A thought struck him, and he curled back the corner of his lips in a sly smile as he turned his head so he could see Dart off to his left. Ahhh. Much better than Ace, any day, he decided. "Hell, something where Dart and I both could stretch out and soak. Together." he offered, with a wink.

Dart inclined her head, her light footsteps ringing on the polished laminate of the terminal floor as they headed for the escalator lift. "Are there really tubs out there that big? Seriously?"

"You bet," Deuce grinned swinging his grey case over his shoulder, nearly smacking Ace in the back of the head with it.

"Big enough to drown him in, yeah. Do the world a favor, if you did," Ace grumbled, dodging the luggage with practiced, casual ease. "They just wanted us off the planet as quickly as possible, and I wanted out of here myself before they found anything else in your damn luggage to panic about. Frankly, I'm not in the mood to see that council floor again, and if I ever see another possum I'm going to make sure I bounce it off my bumper before it evolves into a lawyer. There's a step down on the food chain if I ever saw one."

Dart chuckled, looking over the side of the escalator-lift at the spaceport below with curiosity as the three of them started to rise up to the main ticketing floor. Around them, the red-eye spaceport travelers drifted through, wandering from gate to gate with the staggered strides of the exhausted traveler who was looking for the nearest stim-caf stand. Deuce leaned against the rail himself, wings spread back to allow him to casually cross his ankles, palms resting on the moving parts of the grip-rail.

A sharp little pulse coursed through the grey reporter's side again, drawing his attention inward. Uncomfortably, he shifted his weight from one heel to the other, rocking in place. A muffled groan rolled out of his throat as he pressed his knuckles to the spot, hoping the ache would stop under the pressure. It felt almost as if one of his main relays was being pinched, and his mouth flattened. Disgruntled, he finished rubbing at his side and crossed his arms, staring at the small of Ace's back.

Deuce started to say something, then just let out a grunt and compressed his hand on his flank again.

"You okay?" Dart asked with concern.

"Oh yeah, great. Just remind me to write a letter to those bunk manufactures. I think I pinched something all hunched up like that."

"Ow. You think it might have been the bars? You shorted out pretty well, there. Twice."

"Maybe..." he agreed. "Could have been, sure... dammit, I think I should have really held out for the pain and suffering, because right now, I'm sure feeling it like.." A stilted gulping noise rolled out of his throat as he dropped his chin to his chest for a moment, staring down at the moving floor beneath. Immediately, he glanced back up, optics distant and focused inward, a queasy twist to the corner of his mouth as the lift kept rolling underneath him. Taking a few deep gulps of air, he shook himself, his wings rattling as they crested to the top. Ace stepped off the lift, Dart following; but it took Deuce a few seconds to stagger after them, his hand firmly clenched on his side as if the firm pressure of his palm could ease his growing discomfort.

"Whoa, Deuce... you look awful," Dart observed, slipping up next him. Without thinking about it, in a gesture she'd done a thousand times back on Earth, she ducked under his arm, shoulders propping him up. Which was probably the best thing; his normally fluid stride became a graceless lurch; a stork who had dipped into a vat of country moonshine. The courier staggered under his weight as he sagged against her. Now the passer-by's were eyeing them with far more interest. It wasn't every day they saw what appeared to be a drunk giant robot, one guessed.

"Nah, nah, I'm fine, no worries," he replied as he managed to throw out an arm and brace himself on the wall, swallowing again, fighting down the sour taste in the back of his mouth as it surged forward. "Just a bit of..."

Ace turned around, realizing that the two of them had lagged behind him, and glanced over them both, opening his mouth as if he was going to bark at them to hurry and catch up. Instead, he raised a brow-plate, surveyed Deuce critically before he eyed Dart. "Might want to move," he told her.

Dart seemed to blink. "Ace, I think he really did knock something badly out of whack on those bars..."

Ace raised a hand, cut her off in mid-sentence.

"Don't say I didn't warn you, kiddo."

"Er, I won't, but..."

You know, there were a lot of things Deuce could process. Nail polish remover, of course. Hot dogs still in their plastic wrappers? He was so there.

Lava lamps?

Afraid not.

It didn't matter that the volume of the lamp's contents barely constituted what would have been a double shot of Candorian rum. Unlike the rum, which had also been sold in large quantities to spaceport fleets as an efficient remover for space-faring silver barnacles and boring worms; the lamp didn't have a single warning label about the after effects of processing it without eating some sort of neutralizing chalk paste beforehand. Not that Deuce ever really paid attention to warning labels except when they related to pits of acid and large turbo-hounds behind flimsy gates, but...

There was a gaping-mouthed wheezing moment where the grey mech did make the honest effort to say something. Unfortunately, it was drowned out in the fact that the congealing chunks of wax, paraffin oil, and toilet bowl blue coloring decided they didn't like the view from the churning insides of Deuce's processing systems. Via some truly excellent timing, the reporter's processing systems retaliated back, and sent everything packing right back up the way it had come. With one gut wrenching heave, a glorious arch of color hung briefly in the air between the courier and the reporter.

Dart's wide-eyed expression of utter shock was also brief, before the ex-contents of the lamp struck her right over her shoulder and sluiced down her chest.Frozen, she blinked, still tucked neatly under Deuce's arm as the goo slid down her silver painted lightning-bolt and the peeling, purple Decepticon sigil. Thick, stringy clots of lamp, half-processed fuel, and those pretzel-shaped things that the grey mech had snacked on two days ago on the shuttle ride in oozed over her plating to fall with a wet, sticky patter to the gleaming spaceport tiles below.

"Told you, you might want to move," Ace offered laconically, spreading his hands wide, as his rumbling engine-filled chuckle filled the stupefied silence that resulted. "That's Eights' patented spew look. Trust me, after a few million years, you know it well."

From the nearby walkway, the ex-luggage porter turned janitor took one look at the spreading puddle and let out a shriek that could be heard throughout the entire north wing of the spaceport.

"Right," Ace cheerfully told them both, clapping his hands briskly together with a clang as he turned to stride off. "Time to make that shuttle. Good thing our flight is in half an hour, eh? Might give you both a chance to hit the washroom."

The shuttle engines were murmuring softly, rumbling out an obvious warning that nothing flammable should be standing behind them. In front of the craft, the stewardess was showing the spattering of drowsing passengers the location of the emergency exits, pointing with grace and poise towards the two over the wings, the two at the front, and for those species that required breathable chemicals, a mask would fall from the ceiling and pipe in the appropriate mixture for their species. Of course, it was all contingent on the fact that a hole in space pretty much meant that you froze to death anyway.

Deuce really wasn't listening, and nor did he care what exactly the appropriate procedure was when escaping off of a doomed spacecraft. Been there, done that, and the pygmy cannibals were incredibly pleasant fellows when you weren't anything that could be served with a side-dish of melted butter. Right now, the damn craft could have gone down, exploded out of the chute literally, and he'd be cheering the fact that his innards had stopped tying themselves in knots that a boy-scout would be getting fourteen merit badges for. He leaned his forehead against the cool, smooth expanse of the port-side transparasteel window, wings folded behind him on either side of the seat, the tips sagging against the floor, reflecting his misery. Frick, he never, ever wanted that close up of a spaceport restroom again. Never.

Ace was already comfortably leaning back in his chair, legs crossed, thumbing through the on-flight catalogue as the stewardess finished up her spiel. Immediately, the gal-news station flicked on over the intercom. Snippets of conversation drifted throughout the cabin, between the pilot of the craft welcoming the passengers; and the slick-haired vid-reporter on the overhead screen dutifully running through a condensed half an hour of information.

"... shares of Roboko Development are now climbing..."

"... a very great friend of mine..."

"... our regular scheduled programs..."

"... the latest report from the people down there..."

"... a tiny little detail..."

"... I'd like to say hello to everybody..."

Between the two mechs, Dart sat, her calves tucked primly under her chair, watching every move that the attendant made and following along as if she was going to be quizzed on it later. It took her three tries to buckle the safety belt across her lap correctly, her fingers lacing nervously in her lap before she plucked the card out of the seat holder in front of her in an effort to memorize the emergency exits. Ace glanced over at her, frowned, then carefully extracted the information pamphlet out of her hands, turned it over, and handed it back to her. She glanced up, managed a waffling smile of thanks, and then her expression turned curious.

"Ace, can I ask you something?" she said, fidgeting the card against her knee.

"Shoot, kiddo," Ace replied, settling his chair back a little farther.

"Ugh, let's not mention shooting anything for a while," Deuce groaned miserably, pinching the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb.

"Well, it's sort of silly, but... I've been wondering this for a while. I just forgot to ask, what with everything going on and all. What did the that guy - the vid-mogul, I mean - give Deuce?"

Ace threw back his head and roared with laughter, startling the stewardess into nearly inflating her water landing vest. "Oh, that. Well, guess who was the proud owner of one slightly used racing fish. Guess the little guy was due to retire any way, and was sort of a bum at the fish stud, so... they sent him on home with Deuce. A swimming reminder of how not to waste a month's salary, isn't it?"

Deuce managed a glower in Ace's general direction, then settled himself back into the window again, watching the food service trucks pull away. Ugh, the very thought. He closed his optic, and tried to get into a more comfortable position. Soon, the reporter was sprawled in his chair, having shut down with his long legs and arms akimbo.

"Oh wow, he gave him that expensive fish? Really?" Dart asked, intrigued enough not to notice the sound of the engines shifting into a higher, more imperative pitch.

The spacecraft lurched, and turned ponderously in place to point its blunt nose down the liftoff strip. Pale green lights blinked from either side of the tarmac, started to flicker by the window, becoming streaks of speed as the spacecraft bounded into the air with the sort of effortless vivacity that was more reminiscent of sand rats than any mechanical device. Ace stretched luxuriously, his whole demeanor one of smug enjoyment as the crosswinds buffeted the craft, causing it to bob like a fat cork as it streaked towards atmospheric freedom. "Yeah, really. And what's just goddamned hilarious, get this— hey, WHOA! What the hell?! No, wait, hold on, Dart whoa, you can't fit down there - okay, you can, but I don't know how you did it - get out from under there, you! Deuce! Dammit, wake up and give me a hand here...!!"

The reporter snored as he blissfully rolled onto his side, wing nearly striking the red mech beside him as he pulled his arm over to cover his audio receptors. Luckily, Ace was too busy struggling to wrap his hands around the spoiler of a Trans-Am and drag the yelping car back out from under his seat to notice the slight grin that twitched up the corner of Deuce's mouth.