License To Drive

First published: April 6, 2008

The saucer beneath the coffee cup clinked against the table top as the waitress carefully set it down in front of the police officer. Smiling amicably, she picked two more coffee cups off the serving tray and set them down in front of the two other policemen.

"Sugar's on the table," she instructed them as she reached into the front of her apron and pulled out a handful of vacuum-sealed creamers. She set them down in a pile on the table. "And here's some cream for you fellas." Pulling out her notepad, she prompted them to take their orders. "What'll y'all have?"

"I'll take a piece of your apple pie over there," the first officer pointed at the dessert refrigerator next to the cashier's till.

"Make that two," the youngest policeman grinned widely at the first and most senior officer. "If I want to get where you are someday, Reg, I'm gonna have to start workin' on it."

Reg returned him a wry smile. "You know, Ross, it takes more than knowing a good pie when you see one."

The third officer ribbed Ross and laughed. "He's got you there."

Unsure of what he should say in response, Ross just smiled.

"And what'll you have?" the waitress interjected, waiting for the third officer to give his order.

He shook his head and placed his hand over his belly as he leaned back against the booth seat. "Oh, no thank you, ma'am," he smiled politely. "Wife says I've gotta cut back on that stuff. Just the coffee'll be fine."

"Alright, then," the waitress said and tore the top sheet off her order note pad. She looked at Reg and Ross. "I'll be right back with your pie."

As the waitress left, Reg and Ross picked up the creamers and sugar and began making up their coffees.

"You can take creamer, can't you John?" Reg asked the third officer.

"I gotta watch that cholesterol, Reg," John answered. "My wife might not know if I had one, but I can't cheat the body. Besides, I gotta stay in good shape if I want a crack at catching that speed demon who's been roamin' these parts lately."

Reg circled the teaspoon in his cup and set it down. He peered out the window past their police cruisers. A short stretch of highway was visible in the gathering dusk. It was the perfect time for street racers to take to the road. "We'll get him," the senior officer squinted and took a sip of his coffee. "We'll get him."

The waitress returned to serve the pies to Reg and Ross. A big dollop of ice cream melted off the top of each warm slice and slid onto the plate. The welcome smell of cinnamon and apples wafted toward them.

"There you fellas go," she said, setting the plates down. "Now is there anything else I can get ya?" she asked, hands resting on her hips.

"That'll be it," Reg answered for the three of them.

The waitress departed and the three officers continued their conversation.

"You really think the trap will work?" Ross asked Reg.

"Of course it will," Reg assured the junior officer. "A guy like that can't resist tearing up our strip of asphalt. It's the longest straightaway this side of Redmond." He grinned a crooked smile, chuckling. "And when he does, our men'll be ready to clock him and take a snapshot. The judge'll throw the book at him." He looked down at his piece of apple pie, fork in hand. "It'll be a piece of…," he said, digging in, "…pie." He smiled, savoring the sweetness.

Scarcely any time had passed when their radios suddenly buzzed to life. They stopped their banter to listen to the operator's coded message.

"That's it," Reg announced as he picked up his hat and slid out of his seat.

As John got up, Ross shoveled the rest of his pie into his mouth.

"Leave it," John told him, but the last piece was already consumed. "We gotta go – now."

Seeing that the police officers were about to leave, the waitress hurried over.

"Just a minute and I'll get you the check," she said with concern in her voice.

Reg pulled out a twenty dollar bill and spread it on the table. "You can keep the change, dear," he responded, placing his hat squarely on his head.

He hastened out the door, followed closely by the other two officers.

The waitress stared down in amazement at the generous amount of money left on the table and then gazed out the window as the officers hurried into their cars. "Must be somethin' important," was all she could say as the bus boy came over to pick up the used cups and plates.

Reg got on his car radio and acknowledged the call as he took the car out of park and backed out of the lot. As he put his cruiser into drive and pulled up to the highway, the other two officers rolled up behind him in the second car.

Up the road, a halo emerged through the trees and headlights suddenly lanced out of the darkness. Reg scrutinized them and assessed that they were coming his way at breakneck speed. He radioed the other officers to warn them. "Here they come. Two racers," he said as he squinted at the four rapidly approaching lights.

Seconds later, the sports cars flashed into view, engines howling. A blur of yellow and red tore past them on the straightaway, the force of their wake buffeting Reg's cruiser.

John's voice came over Reg's radio. "Was that a yellow guy in the lead?"

"You bet," Reg confirmed as he flicked on his lights and siren. "Mr. Red must've picked that guy up along the way. Let's get 'em, boys."

The waitress stood at the window, watching with the diner's patrons as the two police cars took off in pursuit. Flashing red and blue lights reflected off the trees as their wailing sirens disappeared down the road.

An older gentleman near the waitress shook his head as he turned back to his meal. "Dang Cal-ee-forn-ee-ans," he cursed, pronouncing all the syllables of the state name.

***

The call beacon on Teletraan I's console flashed persistently at Optimus Prime as he approached the Autobot base's main computer. Teletraan had summoned him through his communication link. The computer had received an important message from a state judge, but the subject of the message was a mystery. The tall red and blue leader wondered what business the law had with the Autobots as he stooped over the computer console. There was an intermittent buzz in his perception circuits. This call was not good news.

He paused to glance at the surrounding computer screens in case there were any other status updates or messages that required his attention. There was nothing, so Optimus Prime turned back to acknowledge Teletraan I. The computer's large main screen lit up and the communication channel opened. Optimus Prime straightened.

The large image of a middle-aged judge was displayed on the screen. The Autobot leader regarded her. She was dressed in a black robe with a fancy white collar laid neatly over top. Her perfectly curled and coiffed hair – and her confident poise – told Optimus Prime that she was a very experienced judge, one seasoned by many years serving on the bench. Her imposing image looked down on the Autobot leader and commanded his attention.

"Are you the Autobot leader named Optimus Prime?" the judge asked him abruptly.

The question caught him off guard, and he paused momentarily.

"I am," he responded hesitantly. He expected the conversation would have started with a more congenial greeting.

"Good," the judge stated in a clipped tone. She smiled and nodded to someone off screen before returning her attention to Optimus. "Then Bryce has this working perfectly. I'm not a computer expert, so I leave that work up to others who are." She grinned curtly before getting straight down to business.

"I'm Judge Nancy and I'm calling from the Oregon Courthouse," the judge explained in a brisk business tone.

"How can I help you, Judge Nancy?" Prime asked courteously.

The judge scrutinized the Autobot leader through the computer screen. "I should be in the middle of a case right now, but unfortunately the defendant has not shown up for his day in court."

Optimus Prime's optic ridges lifted at the news. With interest, the judge noted his facial gesture.

"Do you have any idea who the absent individual may be?" she asked him directly. "He is one of yours."

"No, I don't," the Autobot leader answered truthfully. He regretted the response as soon as it left his vocalizer. Optimus Prime was in an uncomfortable situation. The conversation seemed to be framing him as the one on trial. He wondered if Prowl knew something. No one had told him anything. "What seems to be the problem?"

The judge briefly scanned some paperwork that was concealed behind the bench. "This fellow's name is Side-Swipe." The name rolled off her tongue awkwardly, as though she was uncomfortable saying it. "Do you know him?"

"Of course," Prime answered firmly, crossing his arms. Now the pieces were starting to fall into place. "What did he do?"

Judge Nancy glared disapprovingly at Prime, who remembered a moment later that it was not customary to cross one's arms in front of a judge. He dropped his arms by his sides and the judge's expression eased. She continued.

"This…Side-Swipe," Judge Nance began, "has been charged with a number of traffic violations in various counties: fifty-eight offenses, to be precise." Her tone became very serious and she read from the papers again. "He has twenty-seven speeding violations, eighteen counts of dangerous and reckless driving and thirteen traffic infractions. I have officers present who have testified and showed me evidence that this Side-Swipe is a serious felon on the road. I have also heard that he encourages others to race him. Thank goodness that no one has been hurt or killed." She waggled a fistful of unpaid traffic fines for Optimus Prime to see. "Let me ask you: did you have any idea this was going on?"

The Autobot leader paused before answering. "I did not know that Sideswipe was in this much trouble."

The judge sat primly back in her seat, apparently pleased with Prime's response. "So, he's a trouble-maker," she announced.

Prime sighed. "Judge, I take your news with utmost seriousness. This behavior will be corrected."

Judge Nancy grinned wisely. "Oh, I know it will be."

"What can I do to help resolve this situation?" Optimus Prime offered.

"This is beyond resolving traffic misdemeanors, Mr. Prime," Judge Nancy sternly explained to the Autobot leader. "Some of these are very serious offenses." She paused and regained her composed poise. "If he were a human being, one of my options would be to assign jail time on account that he has eighteen counts of reckless driving against him. However, I do have another option." She grinned civilly at Optimus. "I can suspend his driving license. Surely, there is something that can be done with a robot that turns into a vehicle that would prevent him from being able to drive for a period of time. I may not be a mechanic or an engineer, but that would make sense to me. Does it make sense to you?" said the judge, directing her pointed question at the Autobot leader.

Upon hearing the unsavory prospect, Optimus Prime's optics widened. Something had to be done about Sideswipe's dangerous driving, but he was about to be left without a fully-functional warrior. That could have dire consequences for their defenses.

"Yes, Your Honor," Prime responded regretfully, "it's something we can do, though it's not something we take lightly."

"I do not take these driving offenses lightly!" Judge Nancy snapped at him. She glared at Optimus through the computer. "It disturbs me that this character's name describes a kind of traffic accident," the judge explained, her eyes flashing with disapproval. "It tells me something about his character," she added. "It tells me that he is dangerous on the road!"

"Yes, well–" Optimus Prime began by Judge Nancy cut him off.

"Oh, so I have your agreement that he's dangerous."

Backed into a corner, Optimus Prime sighed. "Affirmative."

"Good, then I think you'll agree with my judgment in this case," she glanced at the Autobot leader before preparing some paperwork before her.

Optimus Prime resigned himself to whatever sentence was about to be handed down to Sideswipe. He waited in front of Teletraan I as the judge quietly prepared her order. There was an odd similarity between Judge Nancy and his Elita-One. Both feisty females had a way of putting him in his place.

Judge Nancy finished writing and put down her pen.

"Now," she began in a cool tone, "normally – in a situation such as this – I would revoke a license for the maximum period allowed by the law." She leaned forward and said the last portion slowly and softly to emphasize her point. "However," she continued, "in this case the circumstances call for a more creative treatment. I am going to order that Side-Swipe's car option be switched off for a period of three months."

Optimus Prime nodded. "I will implement a measure to ensure that he will not be capable of driving for the duration of the sentence."

Judge Nancy appeared content with the Autobot leader's compliance.

"Hopefully, at the end of this, we will have a more competent, humbler driver on our roads. But if we don't," the judge smiled coyly, "then perhaps other options will need to be explored. Maybe he can be converted into something less intimidating than an exotic sports car – something to tame his obvious ego. I doubt he would get into much trouble if he was, say, an ice cream truck – or a minivan – right, Mr. Prime?"

Optimus could not help but think of Ironhide. "Yes, Judge Nancy."

"Good! Then this matter is settled," she said, striking the gavel. She gave him a curt smile and then the screen went blank.

Optimus Prime stood in front of Teletraan I for several minutes, dumbfounded, processing what had just transpired. He was wholly unaware of Sideswipe's transgressions with the law prior to receiving the scathing call from the judge. The embarrassment should have been Sideswipe's alone, but unfortunately the situation cast all the Autobots in a poor light. He had to make the situation right again by ensuring that the sentence was carried out.

"Teletraan," Optimus Prime ordered the computer, "notify Ratchet and Prowl that I would like to see them – immediately."

Two display panels on the computer flickered with activity as Teletraan I called the other two Autobots to the control room. As he waited, Prime leaned his palms against the computer console.

"Sideswipe, what have you gotten yourself into this time?" he asked aloud as he pondered the months ahead.

Several minutes passed before the sounds of approaching metallic footsteps could be heard. Prime turned to see Ratchet and Prowl enter the main control room. It was obvious to the other two Autobots that Optimus Prime was concerned about something.

"Is it the Decepticons?" Prowl asked him directly.

"No, not this time," said Prime as he struggled with the words. "It's Sideswipe."

"What did he do?" Ratchet grumbled before Prowl could get a word in edgewise.

"He's in trouble with the local law enforcement," Prime told them. "He was due in court today. The judge just called me to deliver his sentence in absentia."

"And–?" Prowl anticipated.

Prime stopped to look at his strategist. "Did you have any knowledge of this?"

"No, Prime," Prowl answered matter-of-factly. "But it doesn't surprise me. Trouble follows that Autobot everywhere."

"He is trouble, and he follows everyone else around creating havoc wherever he goes," Ratchet corrected him with exasperation. He looked up at Optimus Prime with a long face. "Just the other day, he wrecked a whole bank of diagnostic equipment – claims it was a practical joke. Now I have to fix it all. Do you have any idea how long that's going to take?" the chief medical officer finished with a resigned sigh.

Prowl raised an optic ridge, wondering exactly how the red warrior managed to do that much damage, though he refrained from distracting the original train of conversation by asking a question.

"I'll get someone to help with those repairs," Optimus Prime responded. "But I wanted to speak with both of you about this latest trouble. Sideswipe is charged with fifty-eight driving offenses. The judge ordered that he lose his driving license for three months."

"Only three months?" Prowl inquired coolly. "That sounds like a light sentence, especially since he failed to appear in court."

"Yeah, what will that teach him?" Ratchet agreed plaintively.

Optimus explained further. "After the three months are up, he must return to the roads with a reformed attitude. If he doesn't improve, the judge will order a differentalternate mode for Sideswipe – something safer. It is a path I do not want to be forced to take."

Prowl and Ratchet were dead silent for a moment. Then Ratchet erupted with laughter. The red and white Autobot doubled over as his servos recoiled from mechanical exertion. A huge smile spilled onto Prowl's normally composed faceplate and he crossed his arms smugly. Sideswipe had caused them many years of difficulty, and neither had made much progress with the unruly Lamborghini. The possibilities they imagined for a safer alternate mode for Sideswipe were too good.

"Ratchet, enough," Optimus Prime commanded his chief medical officer. Ratchet struggled to gather himself, though he could not wipe the grin from his faceplate.

"Sorry, Prime," Ratchet apologized as he restored his composure.

Prowl pursued the initial objective of their conversation. "So, what do you want us to do?"

"Prowl, I need you to keep an optic on Sideswipe during his sentence. He must serve it out." The Autobot leader knew that he could count on Prowl's full support in the matter.

The strategist pondered the situation. "Hmm... I can see this being a problem if we need him in battle."

"Yes," Optimus Prime agreed. "I realize that."

"He's been laid up for repairs during battle before," Ratchet reminded them with a crooked smile. Ideas for safe alternate modes continued to humor him. There were so many possibilities. "This won't be any different."

"I need you to do something to prevent Sideswipe from being able to transform," Prime said to Ratchet. "What would you recommend?"

Ratchet smirked, thoroughly enjoying the prospect of tormenting Sideswipe. "Well, I can't exactly take his keys away."

The red and white Autobot crossed his arms and rubbed his chin as he thought. Prowl exchanged a curious glance with Optimus Prime, and then shrugged. Neither knew what Ratchet had in mind for Sideswipe.

Ratchet abruptly uncrossed his arms and snapped his fingers. "I know just the thing. I'll need about fifteen minutes," Ratchet stated with a confident grin.

"Proceed," Optimus instructed him, and Ratchet turned to leave the control center.

"I'll bring Sideswipe to medical bay," Prowl confirmed with the Autobot leader. "Should I tell him why?"

"I think he'll find out soon enough. Just make sure he gets there." Optimus cupped his battle mask in one hand. "I wonder how Sideswipe is going to take this."

***

When the large double doors to the medical bay slid open for Optimus Prime, Ratchet was crouched over a working table assembling something with a compressor wrench. Prime announced his presence to the preoccupied medic then took a seat to one side while he waited for the others. He needed to impress upon Sideswipe the seriousness of his predicament and the importance of adhering to the law.

Soon Ratchet finished what he was doing. He set aside a tool he was using, stood up and casually flung the contraption he was working on over his shoulder.

"Well, all done," the boxy medic sighed contentedly with the end of the bulky, cylindrical device held in one hand. Ratchet walked over to the seated Autobot leader.

Optimus Prime rose.

"I figured the best way to fix Sideswipe was to give him a mode lock," Ratchet explained to Prime as he lifted the device off his shoulder. He hefted the upper end over into his free hand so that Optimus Prime could see it. Ratchet popped the lock mechanism open and its clamps loosened, revealing the internal workings of the device.

It was an intimidating thing. Rows of exposed radial gear teeth stood proud of the mode lock as if it were a mechanical spiked club. Hook-like latches stuck out like barbs from the mechanism enclosure sculpted into the body of the device. Optimus Prime's battle mask sagged at the thought of it latching onto his mechanisms.

Ratchet chuckled to himself as he gazed upon his handiwork. "Yup, this is just what the doctor ordered."

The medical bay doors suddenly hissed open and the two Autobots looked over across the large room. Prowl and Sideswipe had arrived, and it appeared as though Sideswipe had come willingly.

Upon entering the medical bay Sideswipe saw two things: Ratchet with a large, blunt object; and his leader, Optimus Prime. Forgetting for a moment that Prowl was just behind him, preventing his escape, Sideswipe was torn between fleeing before it was too late and presenting himself to his commander. His mouth dropped open.

"Uh," was all the red warrior could utter as he froze in his tracks.

Prowl gently pushed him forward, though, and Sideswipe cautiously approached.

"So," he stalled, realizing that something unusual was up and it involved him. The other three Autobots gathered around him. He kept a watchful optic on the chief medical officer, who hefted the strange mechanical device over his shoulder.

"Sideswipe," Optimus Prime commanded to get his attention. The red warrior looked up at the tall Autobot leader. "You didn't tell me that you were supposed to be somewhere today."

Sideswipe's optics flashed wide for an instant. Then he tried to look as clueless as possible. "I don't know what you mean," he responded coolly.

Ratchet frowned and Sideswipe almost ducked instinctively.

Prowl stepped around to one side to where the red warrior could see him. "A judge called," the black and white strategist informed him.

"Oh," Sideswipe inadvertently acknowledged them with the simple sound.

There was a brief pause before Optimus Prime lit into him. "I'm very disappointed, Sideswipe. You knew what you were doing was wrong, but you did it anyway. Why?"

The question was asked of him so openly and frankly that it took Sideswipe off guard and he stuttered.

"Spit it out, Sideswipe," Prowl ordered him.

Sideswipe shot a sideways glance at Ratchet, who was still frowning at him, and then Prowl before his optics darted away from everyone. He reached behind his head with one hand as if somehow it helped him think of something he could say to get himself out of the situation. But eventually he just shrugged.

"That's not an answer," Optimus Prime chided him. The Autobot leader turned away and crossed his arms, then spoke softly to himself. "I can see now why you skipped your court date."

"Is Sunstreaker involved in this in any way?" Prowl asked him directly.

Sideswipe thought fast. "No," he responded flatly, staring at the golden-orange floor of the Ark.

Prowl looked up at Optimus Prime to gauge his response to the statement. The Autobot leader tilted his head as he looked back down at the red warrior.

"I find that hard to believe," the strategist responded. Logically, both twins should be involved. Sunstreaker frequently followed his brother on misadventures.

Sideswipe looked up at Prowl with a crooked smile. "You don't have anything on him, do you?"

"No," Optimus Prime answered for Prowl. "Sideswipe's right. The judge never mentioned anything about Sunstreaker."

"See?" Sideswipe cut in to protect his brother.

Ratchet made a disapproving sound.

Optimus gazed down at the mode lock resting on Ratchet's shoulder and furrowed his optic ridges. "You were found guilty in absentia of fifty-eight traffic offenses in this state."

Prime repeated the information from the judge. "You have twenty-seven speeding violations, eighteen counts of dangerous and reckless driving and thirteen traffic infractions."

Prowl crossed his arms and frowned at Sideswipe, who made a face of mock surprise.

"So," Optimus Prime concluded, "the judge ordered that you lose your driving license for three months."

Sideswipe did not take the news seriously and grinned. "Do I get to choose which three months? 'Cause I'd prefer to go without it in the winter. You know, driving in snow is terrible."

"Cut out the jokes!" Prowl snapped. The strategist narrowed his optics.

Sideswipe attempted a solemn face. "Okay," he defended himself with his palms extended. "Okay." He wanted everyone to just calm down for two kliks. He lifted his right leg and reached down to remove the half of the license plate from the bottom of his foot.

"Sideswipe, what in Primus' name are you doing?" Prime asked in dismay.

"You want my license, right?" the Lamborghini responded.

Ratchet was tempted to cuff the foolish red Autobot. But the mode lock was better used for what it was designed for rather than as a bat. Besides, Optimus Prime or Prowl surely would not approve of it.

"No!" the chief medical officer scolded Sideswipe disdainfully. "He doesn't want your slagging plates!"

"The judge ordered that you lose your ability to drive," Optimus Prime explained firmly.

Sideswipe stopped what he was doing and put his foot down. "What? They can't do that." There was disbelief in his vocalizer.

"But we can," Prowl jumped in. "Ratchet?" the strategist signaled the boxy red and white Autobot.

"I'm going to install this mode lock on you," he informed Sideswipe, "to prevent you from transforming into your vehicle mode."

Sideswipe was shocked.

"This is the only way we can be sure that you won't drive," Prime stated.

Sideswipe looked at the Autobot leader. "This is crazy," he sputtered desperately as he eyed the bulky mode lock. There was no way he wanted that thing on his frame. "Give me square wheels instead."

Ratchet furrowed his optic ridges as he glared at Sideswipe. Square wheels could be removed and replaced with regular tires. But he knew that Sideswipe would not find it so simple to remove the mode lock, on his own or with help.

Ratchet indicated for Sideswipe to turn around. When he refused, Prowl ordered him to cooperate.

"Do it, Sideswipe," Optimus Prime bolstered the instruction. "The alternative is more drastic than you want to know." He was, of course, thinking about Sideswipe's vehicle mode being changed to something impotent.

Realizing that he had no choice in the matter, Sideswipe turned so that he faced away from Ratchet and instinctively raised his hands as if he were under arrest. "Okay, okay," he complied, though he was already plotting. He would quietly remove the device by the end of the day, and be back to normal. How hard could it be to pick a lock?

Prowl nodded to the chief medical officer. "Go ahead, Ratchet."

Ratchet adjusted the latches on the mode lock. "Bend over," he ordered Sideswipe.

"What?" the red warrior asked worriedly over his shoulder.

"I said 'lean forward'," Ratchet reiterated, "and partially transform. Stop with you hood raised and your passenger canopy lifted back."

Sideswipe looked at Optimus Prime, who crossed his arms and nodded for him to follow Ratchet's instructions. Cautiously, Sideswipe did as was requested, bracing his servos rigidly as he maintained the awkward pose for the Autobot chief medical officer.

"This'll just take a minute," Ratchet said as he skillfully opened Sideswipe's upper transformation mechanisms once they were exposed. The latches hooked easily into Sideswipe's linkages and Ratchet synched up the device until the last gear on the device meshed with Sideswipe's main transformation cog. The last turns of the adjustment jolted the red warrior and forced Sideswipe to fully return to robot mode. The bulky mechanical device snapped tight against the back of Sideswipe's frame, running across his shoulders.

Ratchet chuckled to himself and gave a contented pat to the awkward device. "All done."

Sideswipe faced the others, then grimaced as he turned his head each way to look back at the constricting contraption.

"Now try transforming," Ratchet instructed him.

Sideswipe tensed, preparing his servos to snap as quickly as they could and force off the mode lock shackle. He was ready to show them that they could not contain him so easily. But when he released his hydraulics, channeling all of their force into transforming the upper half of his body into the front half of his Lamborghini mode he found that his mechanisms were caught tight and the device stopped him part way. He tried three times, hoping to fatigue some part of the mode lock, but it was no use. Sideswipe was stuck in robot mode.

"Slag!" Sideswipe cursed angrily.

"You brought this on yourself, Sideswipe," Prowl reminded him.

Optimus Prime was not impressed with Sideswipe's response. "The price must be paid for putting humans in danger," he announced.

"But I haven't caused harm to anyone," Sideswipe pleaded with his commander. "This is wrong."

"Breaking the law is wrong," Optimus Prime stated firmly.

"And this is the penalty for not obeying Earth's traffic laws," said Prowl.

Ratchet suddenly snickered to himself, caught by a humorous idea. The others turned to look at him, wondering what was so funny. "It's not like we fixed your little red wagon by turning you into one."

There was a pause and then a laugh snuck out of Prime's vocalizer. Optimus Prime immediately covered his face mask with one hand and attempted to disguise the chuckle with another sound, but it was to no avail.

Sideswipe clenched his fists and scowled at the chief medical officer. There was nothing funny about being locked in robot mode for the next three months. It was humiliating. He was a Transformer. His worth was practically cut in half.

"So, is that it?" the red warrior fumed.

"Affirmative," Prime nodded, trying to mask his enjoyment of Ratchet's joke. It was the idea of the ridiculous alternate mode. It would be the end of any difficulty disciplining Sideswipe. But this was not a joking matter.

"You may go," Prowl stated with an expressionless faceplate.

Vanquished, Sideswipe skulked out of the medical bay.

Once the double doors of Ratchet's medical bay closed behind him, Sideswipe glanced back at the mode lock. He did not deserve this punishment. All he had done was have a little fun – and what was wrong with that? He had to find some way of getting that thing off of him.

The red warrior narrowed his optics as he schemed. Sunstreaker! Yes, Sunny was going to help him get out of this. After all, Mr. Sunshine had helped get him into this in the first place. With that, Sideswipe went off to find his brother.

Sunstreaker was not at his usual hangouts in the base, so Sideswipe radioed him. On the communication screen in Sideswipe's forearm, a digital display of Sunstreaker's vocalizer output appeared. His brother was in vehicle mode.

"Where the slag are you?" Sideswipe asked him in an annoyed tone.

"Hey, what's your problem?" Sunstreaker rebuked.

Sideswipe frowned. "Don't start something."

"I'm on slagging patrol duty," Sunstreaker told him. "Where did you think I'd be?"

"Oh, maybe at the beach looking for some attention," Sideswipe mocked the golden yellow Lamborghini.

There was a pause as Sunstreaker pondered the idea before responding. "What do you want?"

"Meet me over at the north side of the base," Sideswipe told him. "I'll tell you there."

"I'll be there in a nano-klik," Sunstreaker said.

Sideswipe paused. "Give me ten minutes."

"What?" Sunstreaker asked in wonder.

"Ten minutes," Sideswipe told him again and closed the communication link.

Sideswipe walked out of Autobot Headquarters and made his way over to the meeting point at the base of the rocky mountainside. When he got there, Sunstreaker was already lounging on the rocks in the bright sunlight. When he saw Sideswipe approaching on foot, Sunstreaker sat up.

"Why didn't you drive?" Sunstreaker asked as he got up and came over to his brother.

"I can't," Sideswipe sighed. "I've got a mode lock."

"You got a what?" Sunstreaker's optics widened. A smile crept across his faceplate.

Sideswipe kicked a rock, sending it down the gently sloping landscape. "Fragging cops!" he cursed and then pointed at the bulky device straddling his shoulders. "I got this thing for speeding."

"That's scrap, Sideswipe," Sunstreaker scowled. "I speed all the time and I never got one."

Sideswipe cuffed Sunstreaker, who recoiled from the strike.

"Primus! Sometimes I swear your processor is an astro-generation old," Sideswipe huffed. "I got a bunch of tickets I didn't pay so I'm not 'allowed' to drive for three months. Prime's orders."

Sunstreaker laughed.

"Stick a muffler on it, Sunstreaker," Sideswipe frowned at his brother.

"Ha, ha!" Sunstreaker laughed harder. "This is too good!"

"This is half your fault!" Sideswipe scolded Sunstreaker. "If you didn't made a big show of racing past the cops all the time they wouldn't have caught me with their radar guns."

"Serves you right for losing," Sunstreaker scoffed before grinning with glee at Sideswipe's misfortune.

"This isn't funny. How would you like one of these," the red warrior thumbed back at the clumsy device.

Sunstreaker blinked as he smiled. "Bro', it's all yours."

Sideswipe thrust his foot between Sunstreaker's feet, intending to sweep out his leg to one side and trip his brother. But Sunstreaker snapped out of his fit of laughter and quickly brought his feet together, catching Sideswipe's foot between his before the red warrior could unbalance him. The countermove caught Sideswipe by surprise. He promptly lost his own balance and would have fallen backwards if Sunstreaker had not caught Sideswipe by the arm.

The yellow warrior grinned amicably through narrow optics. "I'm still faster," he reminded Sideswipe.

"Shut up and let go," Sideswipe answered.

Sunstreaker loosened his grip on his brother's arm and let Sideswipe fall to the ground. "Okay."

"Slagger," Sideswipe cursed lowly as the dust cloud settled around him.

"What do you want, anyways," Sunstreaker dismissed the comment, "a ride somewhere?"

"Smart guy," Sideswipe shot Sunstreaker a curt glance before picking himself up. He stood and pointed at his cheeky brother. "You're going to help get this thing off me."

Sunstreaker grinned. "No problem. Just turn around and I'll have it off before you know it."

Sideswipe turned his back to his brother. Sunstreaker curled his fingers under the cylindrical ends of the device and heaved up on it. The force lifted Sideswipe off the ground.

"That's not going to work," Sideswipe told him.

"I can see that," Sunstreaker grimaced. Sunstreaker pivoted around so that they were back to back and again grabbed the end of device in both hands.

"Okay, steady yourself," he warned Sideswipe. At the count of three Sunstreaker heaved up on the mode lock. A grating noise jarred the yellow warrior's audio sensors and his optics widened with horror. He let go and turned to face Sideswipe.

"Did that just–?" Sunstreaker asked in disbelief.

"Yeah," Sideswipe frowned, "that scratched your intakes."

"No!" Sunstreaker tried to look behind him but he could not see the damage on other side of his air intakes. "How bad is it?"

Sideswipe bent down to get a closer look at the foot-long scratch in the polished, chrome surface.

"It's about this bad," he indicated with a thumb and forefinger.

"See what you've done?" he angrily blamed Sideswipe.

"Me? It was your idea," Sideswipe retorted.

Sunstreaker scowled and bared his dental plates. In a sudden fit of rage he grabbed the nearest boulder and hurled it.

"Slagging scrap!" the yellow warrior bellowed. He flexed his servos, looking for something else to wreck before fixing his optics on Sideswipe. "Come here."

"No way," Sideswipe answered defensively.

"I'm going to snap that thing in two," Sunstreaker clarified his intentions.

"Since you put it that way," Sideswipe responded with a smirk.

"Now that I have to take out that scar it doesn't matter if I try this again," Sunstreaker growled. He positioned himself so that they were back to back, reached his hands back over his shoulders, and gripped the ends of the mode lock. He focused and then tensed his hydraulics.

"Okay, now!" Sunstreaker called out. He wrenched the mode lock, but it remained firmly attached to Sideswipe.

"Hey!" Sideswipe yelled. "Hey, you're twisting something important!"

Sunstreaker growled as he struggled with the mode lock.

"It's not…coming…off," Sideswipe told Sunstreaker through gritted dental plates as he struggled to keep his feet on the ground.

"I'm just about to get it!" Sunstreaker explained. The yellow warrior readjusted his grip on the mode lock and pulled down into a crouch. He charged his servos and then heaved. The force vaulted Sideswipe over the yellow warrior.

"Whoa!" the red warrior called out as Sunstreaker lost his grip. Sideswipe landed with a crash.

"Nice move, bro'," Sideswipe rubbed a dent in his helmet. "Next time, how about saving the judo moves for the jets."

Sunstreaker brushed his hands and looked around. "Obviously, it's going to take more force to get that thing off."

At a distance, Hound lowered his listening dish. The twins' strange antics had caught his attention, but their conversation did not explain their odd behavior. Perplexed, the scout shook his head. He had a feeling that Prime would want to know about this

Optimus Prime and Prowl were having a discussion on the main deck when Hound entered the room. His presence interrupted their conversation.

"Hound," Optimus Prime acknowledged.

"I just saw something that I can't explain," Hound told them. "It's Sunstreaker and Sideswipe. They're fighting."

Optimus Prime listened intently.

"They're probably just sparring," Prowl surmised.

"I think they were trying to damage to one another," Hound explained to Prowl. "Actually, come to think of it, Sideswipe was taking a beating."

"They're trying to remove the mode lock," Optimus Prime concluded.

"A mode lock, eh?" Hound reflected.

"It's a long story, Hound," Optimus Prime said, "one that can be discussed later. Tell me, where did you spot them?"

"The north side of the base," the scout answered.

Optimus Prime returned his attention to Prowl. "I'll take care of this."

The strategist nodded. Optimus Prime extended his arms and transformed. The red and blue semi cab headed for the exit with grey trailer in tow. Moments later, he emerged out of Autobot Headquarters and into the sunlight. He immediately transformed back into robot mode and his trailer returned to its subspace compartment. But there was no one there.

Where did they go? Prime asked himself.

Then, somewhere above and behind him, the mountainside rumbled. Optimus Prime spun around to see the source of the commotion. A strange shape caught amongst a hailstorm of rock crashed down the slope toward him.

"Whoa! Look out!" the figure yelled as he tumbled down the mountainside.

Optimus Prime ducked back under the protection of the Ark as the flurry of rock passed by. The figure slid to a halt near the bottom as a handful of trailing rocks bounced off him.

"Oof!" Scuffed and dented, Sidewipe lay strewn on the ground.

"Sideswipe!" Prime called as he ran over to the red warrior.

Sideswipe groaned weakly.

"Vector Sigma! What's going on?" Prime demanded. He looked up the mountainside. Sunstreaker stood triumphantly atop the steep volcanic slope. Optimus Prime opened a communication channel.

"Sunstreaker, get down here – immediately!" Prime ordered the Autobot.

Sunstreaker did not answer. Instead, he stomped out some of the loose rock beneath his feet. Hopping into the cascading landslide, he surfed down the mountainside to Optimus Prime. He stepped out of the rolling rock escalator as he approached the bottom.

"Sunstreaker," Prime sternly addressed the yellow warrior, "what did you just do?"

"Only what he wanted me to," Sunstreaker said without hesitation.

"And what did Sideswipe want you to do?" Prime probed. "Remove the mode lock for him?"

Sunstreaker shrugged nonchalantly. "Yes."

"So much for loyalty," Sideswipe grumbled at his brother.

"That mode lock is not to come off for three months," Optimus Prime told them. "That was my order as well as the judge's." He shook his head. "Sideswipe, this is unacceptable."

Sideswipe lifted his torso and rested on one arm. "But I didn't remove it," he defended himself, "see?"

"That's not the point," Prime responded. "I'm sending you back to Ratchet."

"Great," Sideswipe muttered to himself.

Optimus Prime radioed Ratchet inside the base. "Ratchet," he addressed the chief medical officer.

"Yes, Prime," came the sound of Ratchet's vocalizer across the communication channel.

"The mode lock has survived an earnest attempt at removal," he said, "though Sideswipe could be in better condition. He will require repairs."

Ratchet's plaintive sigh was loud enough for everyone to hear.

"Sideswipe," the Autobot leader addressed him. "Can you make it to medical bay?"

Sideswipe picked himself out of the debris pile. "Yeah."

"Then come with me," Optimus Prime told him. He wanted to ensure that Sideswipe went directly to see Ratchet.

"I'm taking off," Sunstreaker concluded, since it was clear that Sideswipe was the one in trouble. He braced his servos and then transformed into his Lamborghini form and started his engine.

"Not so fast, Sunstreaker," Optimus Prime jumped in, taking a step toward the yellow sports car. "I have some work for you."

"What?"

Sideswipe snickered at his brother.

"Report to Hoist for maintenance duty," the Autobot leader ordered him. "There's some diagnostics equipment that needs fixing."

Sunstreaker's engine idled lower. "But I've got a huge scratch I've got to buff out," he complained.

"Once you're done repairing that equipment, the only thing I want you buffing is the floors of the Ark. Now go."

Sunstreaker revved his engine then headed back to base. Optimus Prime watched the yellow warrior disappear into the Ark before turning his attention back to Sideswipe.

"Let's go, Sideswipe," the Autobot leader said.

Optimus Prime escorted Sideswipe back to the Ark. The dented, red Autobot trudged ahead of him. When they got to medical bay, Ratchet was impatiently tapping the end of a wrench against the edge of a counter top.

"That was sooner than I figured," Ratchet said. He held the wrench still and pretended to check his chronometer. "I figured I'd be fixing that mode lock sometime next week."

"The mode lock appears to be functional," Optimus Prime explained as he glanced at the device attached to Sideswipe. He motioned for Sideswipe to approach the chief medical officer and the Autobot shuffled forward.

Ratchet inspected the mode lock and then looked Sideswipe over, assessing his damage. "So, what did you do to wreck yourself this time?"

The red warrior hesitated, wary of Optimus Prime's presence.

"Sunstreaker threw me off a cliff," Sideswipe answered reluctantly.

The chief medical officer's optics widened with disbelief and then he stifled a burst of laughter. "You could have asked me to do that," Ratchet spoke out before catching himself. He glanced at Optimus Prime, straightened, and put on a professional air. "It's all minor damage – and the mode lock is fine."

Optimus Prime crossed his arms. "Good," he concluded, then turned his attention to Sideswipe. "Sideswipe, the law is not negotiable."

The red Autobot shrugged off the statement.

"You can't minimize the sentence. The judge's order must be respected, and I trust that you will comply with that order." Optimus Prime then softened his tone. "I don't want to have to resort to more extreme measures. Trust me, Sideswipe."

"Yes, Prime," Sideswipe said in a rehearsed tone.

"And I want you out of active service while you carry out the sentence," Prime added.

"What? Why?" Sideswipe spat, shocked. "I can still fight!"

"But you can't transform and roll out," Ratchet said.

"But I can get a ride," Sideswipe said dismissively as he shot Ratchet a sideways glance.

Ratchet huffed in disagreement.

"Ratchet is right," Prime agreed. "You would only be a hazard to yourself with the mode lock. It is for your own good." He paused to ensure his message was understood. "Now, I shall leave and let Ratchet commence repairs."

Optimus Prime turned and headed toward the bay doors.

Sideswipe glanced over at Ratchet and let out a resigned sigh. "Yeah, yeah… I know the procedure. Lie down on the table and save some power." He trudged over to one of the nearby tables and hopped up onto it.

Ratchet shook his head, mumbling to himself. "My work here is never done," he moaned.

***

The first few weeks of the three-month sentence passed slowly. Sideswipe spent much of the time in his quarters where he and Sunstreaker tried to remove the mode lock without being disturbed. The device was unfair and humiliating. He could not even call himself a Transformer! Optimus Prime should have just ordered him not to drive for the next three months. True, an order like that would not have stopped him from driving. But then no one would have seen him bending the rules in the first place.

Although he did what he could to remove the mode lock, Sunstreaker did not pity his twin. He bashed and pried the device like it was a Decepticon, but his earnest attempts did little more than pop open a small panel.

"That thing is like one of those aircraft black boxes," Sunstreaker commented as he rubbed the front of his helmet. A blow had ricocheted off the device and knocked him in the forehead.

Sideswipe growled, squinting over his shoulder at the stubborn machine. "I can't stand this thing!" he yelled in frustration. "What's it going to take to get it off?"

Sunstreaker inspected the front of his helmet with a mirror that popped up out of his forearm. He chuckled at Sideswipe. "I guess you'll just have to serve your sentence, bro'," he grinned falsely.

Sideswipe sat up with a long face.

"Hey, it's your reward for losing against me," the callous yellow warrior concluded. "I can't do anything about it." He headed for the door.

"Where do you think you're going" Sideswipe asked him indignantly.

"Somewhere where I don't have to hang out with a loser," Sunstreaker glared at him through narrow optics. "Bye."

Thereafter, Sunstreaker spent most of his time away from their quarters, leaving Sideswipe to his own devices. Life with a mode lock left much to be desired. There was only so much he could do in robot mode so he lurked around the Ark, bored.

After a month, the news about his mode lock had circulated widely. Many Autobots kept their distance from him as if he had a bad case of body rust. He tried to shrug it off but it left him feeling strangely insecure about his status as a Transformer. Sideswipe desperately needed to be free.

He schemed for some way to sneak into the medical bay to remove it, but he doubted that he would be able to get past Ratchet. If the chief medical officer found him skulking around, the red warrior would not see the end of Ratchet's wrath for an astro-cycle.

One particularly unbearable afternoon, Sideswipe stopped in the middle of the corridor with shining optics and snapped his fingers. "Got it!" he exclaimed aloud. There were others who could help him – others who would not say anything to the Autobot command. He opened his forearm communicator and dialed into the Aerialbot communication channel. A jovial, silver visage appeared on the view screen.

"Air Raid," Sideswipe greeted him smoothly, "just the 'bot I was looking for."

"What do you want this time, Sideswipe?" Air Raid asked without hesitation.

"Oh, nothing I don't think you can't handle," Sideswipe responded, unconsciously reaching behind his shoulder for the mode lock.

"What is it?" a voice off screen asked.

The image of Air Raid looked to one side. "He wants us to get that mode lock off him."

Sideswipe's faceplate went slack. "Who are you talking to?"

"Just Slingshot," Air Raid answered as he turned to face the screen again.

Sideswipe was relieved.

"So, what's in it for us?" he heard Slingshot ask in the background.

"What do you want?" Sideswipe returned the question.

"Hmm," Air Raid pondered aloud. "How about our own hangar, complete with a full energon bar – and a couple of cute femme 'bots?" he added with a wide grin.

"Even if I did have femmes, they wouldn't leave yours truly for all the energon in Primus' power core," Sideswipe retorted smartly. "C'mon, be realistic."

"That's a load of hot exhaust," Air Raid dismissed Sideswipe's boast. "Okay, then – how about cover while a couple of us buzz the Memorial Coliseum during an Angels game?"

"What?"

"That's something we've wanted to do for a few years now," the Aerialbot admitted.

"And how exactly can I give you cover?" Sideswipe wanted to know.

Air Raid shrugged. "I dunno. You figure it out."

Sideswipe sighed with frustration. "I don't think I can. Or at least I don't know how I'd pull that off."

"Figure it out later," Slingshot's voice interjected over the channel. "It'll be great! I want to see myself on TV – and I can't wait to see the expressions on those sports anchors' faces," he laughed.

Sideswipe's frame sank. Their request would be difficult to pull off, but he desperately needed their help.

"Don't fire up your jets too fast," Sideswipe reminded them. "You have to get this thing off me, first."

"It'll be done," Air Raid reassured him. "Meet us down on C-deck on the port side by column forty-six.

"I'm on my way," Sideswipe answered with relief and ended the communication. At last, he thought and then frowned. So much for that slagging brother of mine.

Sideswipe met Air Raid and Slingshot shortly thereafter, two floors below the residence deck.

"Lookin' good, Sideswipe," Slingshot arrogantly prodded the red warrior. "I see what you mean. The ladies would love that mode lock."

"Wise guy," Sideswipe muttered and feigned a punch at the cheeky Aerialbot.

"So what are you going to do with it after we get it off?" Air Raid asked.

"Give it back to Ratchet," Sideswipe answered without hesitation. "After this fragging sentence is up, that is. I have to make the others think it's still installed." He stopped and grinned mischievously. "C'mon, you guys know what I'm up to."

"Just don't involve me if Optimus Prime finds out," Air Raid stated firmly.

"You don't even need to say it," Sideswipe responded as he gestured dismissively.

"So, let's do it," Slingshot concluded as he took his neutron rifle out of its subspace compartment.

Air Raid followed suit by drawing his torque rifle.

"Whoa, guys," Sideswipe said, backing away. "You can't be serious."

The two Aerialbots glanced at one another. "How did you think we'd get it off?" Air Raid inquired with a crooked smile.

"But what if you hit me?" Sideswipe asked in shock.

Slingshot sighted up his weapon at a point in the distance. "Relax. I'm a good shot."

"We'll have to hit it point-blank," Air Raid told Slingshot.

"You're crazy!" Sideswipe sputtered as the two Aerialbots closed around him.

"Look, do you want to get rid of the mode lock or not?" Air Raid asked him. "Now kneel down or something so we can get at it."

Sideswipe paused for a moment. So far, brute force had not worked and transformation anxiety was setting in. Another two months was a long time to go until Ratchet uninstalled it. And Sunstreaker was not going to put up with him anymore, so he needed whatever help he could get from the Aerialbots.

Sideswipe knelt down and craned his head forward as far as he could. Gritting his dental plates, he braced for a blow. He felt the end of Slingshot's rifle butt against one end of the mode lock's base.

"Ready – set – fire!" Slingshot's blast reverberated through Sideswipe's frame with a violent shudder, thrusting him forward.

The red warrior's optics burst wide open and he stiffened as he caught himself on his hands before hitting the floor. "Ow!" he hollered.

"Keep it down or you'll attract attention," Air Raid hushed Sideswipe.

"Keep it down!? He just shot me!" Sideswipe pointed and yelled at Slingshot, his expression contorted with pain. He glanced back at the mode lock, still mounted securely between his shoulders. "Slag!"

"Let me see that," Slingshot said as he jerked on the device to see if it would give.

"Ow! Be careful!" Sideswipe sniped.

Air Raid bent closer to see what damage Slingshot's blast had done. The end of the mode lock was singed black from the blast and the nearest mechanism hook was warped from the heat. "Hey, I think this is gonna work. It's starting to go."

"Good," Sideswipe mouthed through the pain. "Just hurry up – and don't shoot me!"

"Okay. I'll try dislodging this end with my torque rifle," Air Raid told Slingshot as he tapped the blackened end with his gun. "You try shooting the other side this time. Maybe we can pry it off after that."

"Got it," Slingshot acknowledged and the Aerialbots switched places with one another.

"Brace yourself," Air Raid warned as the charge on his torque rifle ramped up. "On my mark – now!"

The blasts sent him reeling forward onto the metallic floor. The red warrior groaned as he rolled over onto his back and saw smoke from his own burning oil hanging in the air above him. The heat from the blasts had burned through the mechanism hooks and into his linkages and frame. The pain from the second attempt was unbearable.

"You okay?" Slingshot asked.

Sideswipe shook his head and tried to stand up. He needed to let his mechanisms cool. "Try forcing it off. But just give me two kliks."

Air Raid put away his weapon. Slingshot shot him a nervous glance.

"Here," the red warrior said, as he braced himself and partially transformed the same way he had when Ratchet installed the device. In the awkward configuration, he hoped that they could wrench the device out without damaging him any further.

Air Raid wafted away the smoke and took a closer look. "Oh yeah, we did some damage," he announced. Sideswipe's transformation linkages were black and the joints smoked. "Sorry about that, Sideswipe."

"Scrap," Sideswipe cursed. "Is it easy to see?"

"Put some paint on it and no one will notice. Get Sunstreaker to do it," Slingshot said. The Aerialbots tugged on the charred casing of the mode lock. "This thing's gonna need some paint when we're done, anyway."

As Slingshot heaved on one end of the mode lock, the metal unexpectedly gave way and he staggered backwards. The sturdy mechanism hooks had broken off on one side.

"Woo-hoo!" Air Raid cheered. "One side's free!"

Sideswipe was relieved. "Primus, that was painful enough. Now hurry and get the other side off."

Air Raid stared at the meshed-in end of the device. "It's geared in there, buddy. It's not going to be easy."

Sideswipe sighed heavily. He was growing frustrated. "Okay," he said, preparing himself for the worst. "Try shooting it again. Just blast it somewhere important."

Air Raid stood back and let Slingshot in with his neutron rifle.

"It'll be off before you know it," Slingshot assured Sideswipe. He peered into Sideswipe's partially disengaged transformation mechanisms, looking for a weak point on the mode lock. "There!" he grinned to himself and lined up a shot that would penetrate deep into the red warrior's back. It would be a tight shot, even at point-blank range. He adjusted the beam setting on the rifle to narrow its diameter as much as possible.

Air Raid glanced around to ensure that no one had heard them, but they were still alone on C-deck.

"Hurry up!" Sideswipe grimaced uneasily, his head sitting out of its rightful place. "I'm getting tired of standing here like this."

Slingshot focused on his aim as his finger tightened on the trigger. Then he fired.

Sparks immediately flew out of the target area, spraying Slingshot's optics. He recoiled, disoriented, as dark smoke billowed into the room.

"Sssllllaaaaaaaaggg!" Sideswipe screeched in agony. He instinctively attempted to transform into vehicle mode to get away from the heat and the pain, but the mode lock caught him and forced him to revert to robot mode.

"Gah! I can't see anything!" Slingshot hollered despondently.

"Slag! Slag! Slag!" the red warrior panicked, trying to pat out the molten embers smoldering behind his head.

"For Primus' sake keep it down!" Air Raid yelled excitedly. "We'll all get caught!"

All of the commotion only fanned the blistering hot spot and a small fire began flickering out of the billowing smoke.

"Agghhhh!" Sideswipe yelled when he glanced back to see the flames erupting out of his back side. "I'm on fire!" he gasped incredulously. "Put it out! Put it out!"

"You heard him!" Air Raid shrieked at Slingshot, panicking. "Put it out!"

Slingshot was groping and staggering around the room, his neutron rifle instinctively clutched in one hand. "Help! I'm blind!" he cried hysterically.

Sideswipe turned on Air Raid, eyes wild. "Put it out!" he pleaded.

"How?" Air Raid asked in dismay. "Do I look like a fire truck?"

"Hurry! Stop it from spreading!" Sideswipe screamed at them as he futilely patted his burning circuitry.

Air Raid frantically searched for something to douse the fire, but there were no extinguishers in sight. There was only one option left. He dashed across the room to the exit doors and repeatedly hammered a large red pushbutton with the palm of his hand. The overhead lights immediately pulsed red and Teletraan I's voice boomed over the ship's loud speaker.

"Alarm activated," the ship's computer reported in a loud monotone. "Fire detected on C-deck – section forty – port side."

Immediately, the ship's automatic defense mechanisms triggered and several wall panels opened around the trio to reveal threat response mechanisms. But none of them were capable of putting out a fire. The spindly mechanical arms blindly thrust into the room to attack the fire with claws and clamps.

Air Raid drew back from the grasping mechanisms, awestruck. "Who designs a ship without fire extinguishers?"

Moments later, a trio of Autobots burst into the area, led by Optimus Prime. Flanked behind him were his security chief, Ironhide, and the Autobot emergency responder, Inferno.

"I can see again!" Slingshot announced. He was standing right in front of Prime. "Oh."

"What's going on here?" Optimus Prime demanded to know, looking down at the neutron rifle in Slingshot's hand. Then he saw the glowing flames and thick black smoke issuing from the red warrior. "Sideswipe!" he gasped in dismay. A cascade of sparks showered onto the floor.

Inferno instantly sprung into action. The large red and white Autobot transformed into his fire truck mode and aimed his nozzles at Sideswipe. "Hold on, Sideswipe! I'll save you!"

A thick stream of fire retardant jetted across the room. As soon as the foam hit Sideswipe and quenched the fire in his mechanisms, he began to calm down. Inferno continued to coat Sideswipe with a frothy white blanket even after the fire was out. "That's enough, Inferno," Optimus Prime held his arm out to one side, signaling the fire truck to cease his barrage.

Sideswipe's primary systems degraded their panic alarm from 'code red' to 'repairs required immediately.' His legs collapsed under him. He landed hard on his skid plate then toppled back on the floor. Everyone drew in around the stricken Lamborghini.

"Sideswipe," Optimus Prime asked him urgently, "are you functional?"

The red warrior tried to swivel his head from side to side. His servos groaned with exertion. The lubrication had melted out of his neck joints; they were so stiff that he thought his neck might seize at any moment. The fire had burnt him deeply in places that had rarely even felt battle damage. His pain sensors bombarded him with endless systems warnings.

"Yeah," he croaked. Then his body went limp and his optics dimmed.

Inferno transformed back into robot mode and attended to Sideswipe. He swept away enough of the foam to check the red warrior's vital systems. After a moment, Inferno turned back to Optimus and Ironhide.

"Is he gonna be alright?" Ironhide interjected.

Inferno nodded. "He's gonna make it," he informed them, "but he needs medical attention right away."

Optimus Prime opened a communication line to the chief medical officer. "Ratchet," he called in a clipped tone.

"Yes, Prime," Ratchet's voice sounded over the channel.

"Come down to C-deck immediately, port side, section forty," he ordered. "Sideswipe's hurt. There's been a fire."

"I'll be right there," Ratchet responded then closed the channel.

Optimus Prime looked to the Aerialbots. "Did he put you up to this?" the Autobot leader asked them bluntly.

"Well, you see–" Air Raid punted. An awkward pause followed.

"Tell me the truth, Air Raid!" Optimus Prime demanded.

The black and white Aerialbot looked down at Sideswipe, whose dim blue optics peered blindly through the white foam covering him. "Well, I mean… yes."

"Good grief," Optimus Prime sighed. "I can't believe it." He looked down at Sideswipe. One of his optics was flickering intermittently, a sign of semi-consciousness. Prime's optics ridges furrowed and he focused his attention back on Air Raid and Slingshot. "That mode lock is not to be tampered with," he told them firmly.

"I didn't ask what it was doing there," Air Raid defended himself, shaking his palms at Optimus Prime. "We were just trying to help a guy in need."

"I don't believe it," Ironhide said, eyeing Slingshot suspiciously.

"Nor do I," Optimus Prime affirmed.

Metallic feet echoed toward them and Ratchet suddenly emerged on the scene. He halted in shock when he saw Sideswipe lying prone on the floor – covered in fire retardant foam – with Inferno at his side. The chief medical officer hurried over to Sideswipe and began to assist the other emergency responder.

"I will deal with you two later," Optimus Prime told the two Aerialbots. "You are charged with obstructing the delivery of justice and assaulting a fellow Autobot."

"What?" Slingshot sputtered in disbelief.

"Ironhide," Optimus commanded, "they're all yours."

"Can the bluster, Slingshot," Ironhide warned the arrogant Aerialbot. "You ain't gonna say anything that'll help your case. And hand over that weapon. You too, Air Raid."

Optimus Prime looked at his security chief. "I want them waiting in my office when I arrive," he ordered firmly.

"You heard the chief," Ironhide said, his head cocked. "Move along," he ordered, ushering the two Aerialbots out of the room.

"Way to go, genius," Air Raid mumbled to Slingshot as they were led away.

"Me? You're the dupe who confessed," Slingshot retorted in a harsh whisper. "We'll never buzz that Angels game now."

As Optimus Prime turned to face the remaining Autobots, Ratchet looked up from his work.

"I'm going to have to get him back to medical bay. I can't clean him here," Ratchet said with resignation. "There's no way to tell the extent of the damage with all this foam covering him."

Inferno stood up, followed by the chief medical officer. "I'll help you," he offered.

Ratchet nodded. He turned and took a few steps away before transforming into his ambulance mode, raising his back door. "Put him in."

Inferno lifted Sideswipe up and set him inside the waiting ambulance. "Yup, he's out of it," he confirmed as the big Autobot waved his hand over Sideswipe's blank optics.

"He's just taking a break while he resets," Ratchet said in response. "He'll be back up and in trouble again in no time, same as always."

Optimus Prime cupped his battle mask in thought for a moment. "We can't risk him hurting himself like this anymore. I'm going to have his energy signature tracked by Teletraan I."

"Good thinking," the ambulance said.

"Once Sideswipe learns that his activities will be monitored," Optimus Prime added, "I doubt he'll be quick to get into trouble."

***

Holding the small figure of Sideswipe gingerly, a large, white metal hand stiffly walked the toy across the table top toward a small figure of Prowl held gently in the opposite hand.

"So, Sideswipe," a smooth voice spoke for the Prowl toy. "I see you've finally come to see the superiority of my highly advanced logistical abilities." The hand let go of the toy Prowl and let it stand on the desk while it reached for another.

"Yes, Prowl," the voice shifted its tone to sound like Sideswipe, "I was a fool to doubt you all this time. You are wise and will be a great leader someday. You're the logical choice for the Autobot command."

The hand returned holding a toy in the likeness of Optimus Prime's sweetheart and leader of the Autobot's guerilla faction back on Cybertron. "Prowl," the voice sighed in a higher pitch, emulating the voice of the petite pink Autobot femme. "I love your intellect. Your logical methods are so… thorough and rigorous. And you're so skillful on the battlefield, too."

The first hand let go of the Sideswipe toy and picked up the Prowl toy to simulate it talking to the female Autobot. "I didn't know you thought so highly of me, Elita."

"I've always secretly admired you. I love a mech with a big processor like yours."

The Prowl toy stood stiffly, held in one hand, while the other hand walked the Elita-One toy closer.

"I can't resist you any longer, Prowl. You make my engine rev into high gear," the voice said for Elita-One.

"But what about Optimus Prime?" the Prowl toy asked self-consciously. "Don't you love him?"

"I just needed him to get close to you." The fingers of the big hand holding Elita-One made her put her arm on Prowl's. "You're the one I really want."

"I don't know if I could," the voice said as it wiggled the Prowl toy to simulate it talking.

"Of course you can," the voice said for Elita-One. "Prime will never know. It'll be our little secret."

"Well, that does make sense," the voice made the Prowl toy say. "I suppose–"

Just then the doors to Prowl's office opened and Optimus Prime entered. In a panic, the strategist swept the Prowl and Elita-One toys off the table. They fell on the floor where Prime would not see them. He glanced down at the toy Sideswipe still standing on his desktop and grabbed it to conceal it.

"I didn't hear you coming," Prowl said in a fluster.

Optimus Prime looked away to a map on the wall. "I… didn't see you playing with your dolls, Prowl."

There was an awkward pause. "They're action figures… used to simulate battle scenarios." He stuffed the Sideswipe toy into a drawer and stood up to acknowledge his superior. "I was just trying out an idea I've been working on."

"I thought that's what your computer simulations were for," Optimus Prime said, perplexed.

Prowl fumbled for words. He was a terrible liar. "Uh, there are some things that just don't work the same on a screen."

"Okay, Prowl," Optimus Prime acknowledged and then changed the topic. "Sideswipe's out of medical bay and I have Teletraan I tracking his energy signature. Hopefully there won't be any more incidents."

"I hope you're right," Prowl replied with reservation. "But how's that going to stop him from getting into trouble?" Sideswipe was a handful at the best of times and – energy signature tracking or not – noncompliance was a virtual certainty.

The Autobot leader crossed his arms and looked down at his second-in-command. "Teletraan I is monitoring his movements. If he's picked up anywhere unusual apprehended him – immediately. I am putting you in charge of responding to an alert, should it occur. I don't want Sideswipe laid up in medical for another three weeks. Ratchet has more important work to do."

"Understood," the strategist acknowledged.

"Good," Prime nodded and uncrossed his arms. "That is all."

Prowl saluted the Autobot leader. Optimus Prime acknowledged his military strategist's gesture then left Prowl's office. After the doors were closed and he was sure that Optimus Prime was gone, Prowl reached down and picked up the figures from off the floor. He raised Elita-One to admire her, and smiled coyly.

***

Upon leaving medical bay, Sideswipe glanced back at the rebuilt mode lock installed on him. It was now bulkier and sturdier than before and he was certain he was not going to be able to get it off. To make matters worse, he had just learned from Ratchet that his energy signature was being tracked by Teletraan I because he could not be trusted. Sideswipe sneered at the thought of being tracked. It was not fair that he was being treated like a prisoner. Why, he asked himself, should he be punished for using his body for what it was intended?

He paced back to his quarters and opened the door with his head slumped forward. Perched on the edge of the couch, Sunstreaker was absorbed in a game of Spy Hunter. Sideswipe trudged in and sat down next to him, watching the game on the screen wall.

"What's up?" Sunstreaker asked him, distracted. He yanked the controller to the right and left, firing madly at the other cars and destroying them.

"What's up!?" Sideswipe asked incredulously. He cuffed Sunstreaker in the back of the head. "Slagger! I just got out of medical bay after being laid up for three weeks!"

"Hey!" Sunstreaker complained at being hit on the head. "Do you mind? I'm playing a game."

Sideswipe slouched into the couch and let a frustrated sigh out of his vocalizer. "I can't stand this mode lock. You know…" he trailed off, waiting to see if Sunstreaker would ask him to continue. "Are you even listening?" Sideswipe inquired in an irritated tone.

"Yeah," Sunstreaker said, distracted by the helicopter firing on his car. He swerved to avoid its bombs and then launched a rocket at it, decimating it. Moments later, a limousine attempted to pull up beside his white sports car. A gun emerged out of the side of the limo, aiming to take out the driver. "This would never happen if I was in this game," he muttered to himself. "No driver."

"I'm thinking," Sideswipe said, "about turning you in."

"You wouldn't," Sunstreaker said with an edge. As he glanced sidelong at his brother, the limousine pulled up beside the driver's side window and fired at the Spy Hunter, ending the game. Sunstreaker looked back at the screen with dismay. "Now look what you've done! I was about to beat my previous high score."

"Why shouldn't I?" Sideswipe glared at his arrogant brother. "You were racing, too. And it will get this thing off me sooner, I'm sure of it."

"I didn't get caught," Sunstreaker said, setting the controller down on the table in front of him, "and no one has any evidence." He tossed up his hands, gesturing that no one had anything on him.

"Go on," Sideswipe goaded him. "Be an ace about your triumphs on the road."

Sunstreaker grinned egotistically.

"Yeah, well we'll see about that," Sideswipe returned, glaring at Sunstreaker. "Golden boy."

Sunstreaker stood up and pointed at Sideswipe. "Don't threaten me, Sides," he said with a sneer. "I'm your brother."

"Blow it out your tailpipe, Sunstreaker," Sideswipe shot back. "This mode lock is driving me nuts."

"Stop talking like a paranoid retro-rat," Sunstreaker chided Sideswipe. "You've had that thing on for two months. What's another month?" He shrugged and walked toward his bunk, where he lay down on his back. "You're not going to say anything to anyone." He stared at the underside of Sideswipe's bunk above him and pretended to power down. Their conversation was over.

Sideswipe growled as he watched Sunstreaker's optic's dim and the silver covers close over them. He knew Sunstreaker was ignoring him. Sideswipe clenched a fist. He was at his wit's end. He needed a distraction. He turned back toward the wall screen and stared for a minute at the 'Game Over' message flashing obscenely across the game play area. Picking up the controller, he pressed the reset button and started a new game.

Sunstreaker was not going to get out of this easily. He was going to make sure of that.

***

The passing days blended into one another as Sideswipe sunk deeply into his own world, gaming in their quarters. He badly wanted to make the intervening time vanish. One by one, he cycled through all the games in the Ark's electronic library, feeling unsatisfied with what little entertainment he could get out of the archaic Earth technology. He often cursed that he could not enjoy Cybertronian pastimes, like Mechaball or Rodon lancing. Sunstreaker milled about the room, minding his own business and remaining pointedly antisocial. He was not interested in getting involved in Sideswipe's problems.

Shunned, Sideswipe began muttering to himself. At first it was a peppering of curses directed at the confounded games and at Sunstreaker, but slowly they devolved into mutterings about losing his importance in the Autobot ranks and then his worth as a Transformer.

Late one afternoon – as Sideswipe was heaping verbal abuse on the humans and their inane rules – Teletraan I's main alarm went off. It was a call to arms. Somewhere, the Decepticons were attacking.

All of Sunstreaker's sensors came to life and, grabbing his gun, he bolted out the door without even a snide parting comment. Sideswipe pouted and kicked the table in front of him. Like scrap I'm going to sit here on my skidplate. What do they think I'm good for – babysitting Teletraan? Primus! That is not going to happen!

He got up, his hydraulics sludgy after sitting idle for so long. He steadied himself on the edge of the couch as the fluid circulated through his servos. His hydraulics were not in the same shape they were two weeks ago. Without that slagging mode lock, I would be in top condition – and ready for battle.

The other Autobots had already left the base by the time Sideswipe arrived in the battle room. Standing before the main console of Teletraan I, he entered a sequence of keys to call up information on where they had gone.

"It's a raid on a major oil pipeline," Sideswipe heard Prowl's voice say from behind him. He spun around to see the black and white Autobot approaching.

"This slagging stinks!" Sideswipe swore as he pointed to the map on Teletraan I's large screen. "I should be out there with them, stopping those leeches."

"Calm down," Prowl said in a soothing tone. "You'll have your chance once you've finished serving your time for breaking the law."

Sideswipe's fuel pump surged at those infuriating words. His energon was rushing to the point where vapor bubbles might erupt in his fuel lines at any moment.

"This isn't right!" he burst out. "Sunstreaker was racing, too! I'm not going to take it up the tail pipe for that slagger anymore!"

Prowl's optic ridges lifted in muted curiosity. Sideswipe paused, shocked, when he realized that he had just betrayed his brother.

"What a surprise," Prowl quipped.

"Forget it!" Sideswipe tried to conceal his blunder as the anger passed. "It's nothing… I'm lying. Just forget it." He glared at Prowl for a moment.

Prowl coolly returned the stare.

"I'm out of here," he finished lamely, and turned his back on the strategist as he left the battle room.

Prowl placed his hands on his hip plates as he watched the red warrior leave. This new information gave him an idea.

Sideswipe stalked through the hallways of the Ark, his fists clenched as he fumed over the stupid human laws and the backwards and barbaric enforcement of them. Convinced that he deserved better than this, he craned his neck forward and muttered curses back at the mode lock. It was an ugly piece of junk. He could not wait to get rid of it.

After wandering aimlessly for several minutes, he caught sight of a familiar double door. Sideswipe stopped abruptly. It was Wheeljack's workshop.

What are the chances that Wheeljack's not there? he asked himself.

"Pretty slagging good," he answered with a crooked smile, and stepped forward to trigger the doors.

His guess was right. The Autobot engineer was gone, likely to battle with the others.

"Ha-ha!" Sideswipe cackled madly to himself. "Jackpot!" A wide grin spread onto his faceplate.

The disorderly workshop was filled with all manner of gadgetry. He quickly glanced around, searching for something that might free him of his mechanical shackle. But as Sideswipe sifted through the assortment of tools littering the tabletops, he suddenly remembered that Teletraan I was quietly tracking his movements. Prowl would be onto him at any moment. He had to grab whatever he could and get out of there. But what?

He swung the large doors of a cabinet open and gazed at the drill attachments, saw blades and then the large manual cutters hanging to the right. Sideswipe eyed the cutters then glanced back at the mode lock, dismissing the idea. There was no way he would be able to use the cutters on himself – and they were too unwieldy to sneak through the Ark for later use.

He closed the doors and leaned back against them before spotting some drawers. Sideswipe hurried over and rummaged through them.

"No," he said aloud as he pulled tools out and set them aside. "No," he said louder as he picked up a hefty hammer. Then, with a quizzical expression, he held up an unidentifiable and particularly bizarre device. "No!" he uttered emphatically, dropping it unceremoniously back into the drawer. "What the slag would you use that for?"

Time was passing. He had to hurry up and find something – quickly – or walk away with nothing at all. He pulled the rest of the drawers out in quick succession and scanned their contents. In one of them, he spotted a set of folded silver sheets. They looked like the same ones that he remembered from one of Wheeljack's signal-cloaking demonstrations.

Sideswipe yarded off as much as he could, stuffed it under his Lamborghini hood next to his torso compartment, and ran toward the door. He glanced back at the tools and devices he had left out. But with the all-pervasive clutter already scattered throughout the workshop, there was no obvious evidence that he had been there. He stepped through the doorway and hurried back up the hallway toward the common areas.

As he approached, he slowed down to a casual pace and headed into the lounge. Just as he did so, Prowl entered through the other side. He pointed at Sideswipe and frowned. "Come here!"

Sideswipe raised his hands in surrender. "What?"

"You were in Wheeljack's workshop," Prowl confronted him.

"I took a wrong turn," Sideswipe lied. "I didn't watch where I was going."

"Open your hands," Prowl called him out, "and show me what you've got."

Sideswipe obliged him and showed him his empty hands.

"Now empty your subspace compartments," Prowl ordered him with one hand ready to grab his energy shackles if Sideswipe gave him any trouble. "I want to see everything."

"Okay," Sideswipe shrugged nonchalantly. With a pale glow, the contents of his subspace compartments materialized one by one and dropped to the floor in a pile.

Prowl glanced down as Sideswipe's flare gun hit the floor. Then six rockets for his shoulder launcher fell onto the ground one after the other. This was followed by a garbage can lid fashioned into a Frisbee, several VCR cassettes, a weed whacker, and a four-slot toaster. Prowl puzzled over the bizarre collection. He was about to speak when more items dropped out of the subspace pocket.

"What the–?" Prowl asked sourly.

A battered stop sign clattered to the floor, then a broken tail light for a kind of car that Prowl did not recognize.

Sideswipe grinned sheepishly. "Almost done," he said.

Five letters, an 'S', two 'I's, a 'W' and an 'E', all mismatched, dropped out one by one. Prowl raised an optic ridge. They appeared to have come from different store signs.

"Is that it?" Prowl asked suspiciously. He glared hard at Sideswipe suspecting that there was something more.

Sideswipe sighed with frustration and yielded up the last part of his absurd collection. "I don't know what you want to see all of this for," he said as four more mismatched storefront letters fell out and scattered across the pile. There was a 'D', another 'S', a 'P' and another 'E'.

Prowl looked over the nine scrambled letters and realized that they spelled the red warrior's name. "Cute, Sideswipe," he said curtly. "Where did you get these?"

"I found them," Sideswipe answered defensively.

Prowl let out a disappointed sigh and shook his head. "You stole them."

Sideswipe shrugged. "I… borrowed them for awhile."

There was nothing in the junk pile that looked like it came from Wheeljack's workshop. "I want the letters – you can keep the rest. And don't take any more lettering from businesses." He looked disdainfully at the mess on the floor. "Now put all that stuff away."

Prowl waited while Sideswipe collected all his belongings and returned them to subspace. When he was done, Sideswipe scooped up the letters spelling his name and dumped them on the top of a table. Prowl could do whatever he wanted with them.

"Now, turn around," Prowl ordered Sideswipe. "I want to see your mode lock."

Sideswipe obeyed with a cheeky smile. "It's not really mine. You can have it if you want."

"Cut it out."

Prowl briefly inspected the device and concluded that it was intact and had not been subjected to tampering. He did not know what Sideswipe had been doing in Wheeljack's workshop, but the red warrior was clean. There was nothing more that Prowl could do.

"Okay, you can go," he dismissed Sideswipe.

Sideswipe was casual about leaving Prowl's presence since he did not want to do anything to make the strategist more suspicious. He swaggered out of the room and back to his quarters. Back in the privacy of his own living space, Sideswipe pulled Wheeljack's silvery sheets from under his hood.

"Prowl is such a sucker," Sideswipe laughed to himself. He unfolded the large sheets in front and held a corner in each hand, beholding them. "I'm outta here," he grinned.

It took the next half hour to figure out how to shape the sheets into something workable. When he was done, Sideswipe stood back and admired the silvery cape and foil hat that he had made for himself.

"That should prevent Teletraan I from picking me up," he said with his knuckles resting on his hip plates. "Now I can do whatever I want."

Suspecting that his energy signal disappeared immediately, he hurried out of his room and toward the exit to the base. The silvery costume rustled noisily as he moved. The key was to get out of there before Prowl knew where he had gone.

As Sideswipe rushed out onto the rocky ground outside Autobot Headquarters, he looked toward the setting sun. The last golden rays of day cast reaching shadows across the volcanic landscape. The pink sky and the soft glow of the sun low on the horizon reflected off the mirror-like surface of the foil garb.

Sideswipe scanned his surroundings for a sign of anyone. His optics darted back and forth, searching the dark patchwork of trees dotting the valley floor, but the land was quiet. Holding the edges of the cape near his sides to prevent it from flying up behind him and revealing his energy signal, he hurried down the dirt road from Autobot Headquarters and into the trees where he would not be seen.

He resisted the overwhelming urge to transform and drive away, knowing the mode lock would only prevent him if he tried. Forced to remain in robot mode, Sideswipe ran the distance along the valley floor. Before long, the sun disappeared behind the mountains and the stars came out overhead. Jogging now to conserve power, Sideswipe turned on the Lamborghini headlights in his chestplate to see where he was going.

More than an hour passed. After two weeks of inactivity, his systems were not operating as efficiently as he expected and he slowed to a walk. He emerged at the end of the dirt road leading from Autobot Headquarters and stopped by the side of the highway, casting his headlight beams along the asphalt. He was still a long way from anywhere interesting. At the rate he was traveling, it might take him all night to get into town.

He walked along the side of the road, a strange robotic figure in a silvery costume. After a short time, he heard a car coming and saw its headlights approaching in the distance. Sideswipe turned off his own headlights, quickly ducked into the trees, and watched it pass. Most of the Autobots would give him away to Prowl – he had to be careful.

A white-canopied truck whizzed past him moments later, and Sideswipe came back out of the trees. This was not going to work if he feared every passing vehicle was out to get him. He adjusted the foil hat on his head and started walking again, headlights illuminating the way.

Maybe if a big enough truck came along, he could hitch a ride into the city. It sounded like a good idea, but it was a long shot. Humans were flighty creatures and were easily scared. His cape rustled in the night air as Sideswipe continued up the road.

After a few miles he heard a vehicle approaching from behind. Sideswipe turned around as he walked and stuck out his thumb the way he had seen humans do when they wanted to be picked up. The headlights from the vehicle were bright in the dark night. Incomprehensible voices yelled from the vehicle over top of its blaring stereo. Sideswipe dropped his arm when he saw that it was a car filled with noisy humans.

The old car slowed down and rolled up to him. Several males craned out of the windows and stared up at the tall metal figure with glowing blue eyes who was dressed in a silvery cape and hat.

"Is it an alien or a piece of junk?" someone asked.

A long, protracted belch followed.

"Oh man, that stinks!" another voice protested.

"Gross!" said someone else.

Sideswipe turned his back to them and continued walking. "Forget it," he said, ignoring them. There was no way they could help him.

A moment later something hit him in the back of the legs. He spun around and spied an empty beer can on the ground.

"Hey, what was that for?" he complained.

"It looks like junk to me," said one of the drunken occupants.

Laughter followed and another beer can was projected from the car. Sideswipe barely dodged the can hurled at him.

"It's talking and moving. I think it's an alien," someone argued.

"Hey!" said one of the people craning out the window. "It's looking at me."

"And I'm talking to you bozos, too," Sideswipe said as he walked back to their car. "Quit tossing your junk at me."

A third beer can sailed toward him. Seconds later, there was a hiss as a fourth, full can jetted out the car window.

The driver rolled the car forward. "If you're going to throw our beer out the window, man, I'm not going to stop." The car slowly picked up speed and meandered down the road along the centerline.

"Bunch of losers," Sideswipe muttered lowly as he looked down at the beer cans around him.

The car departed. It was quiet for a while except for the rustle of his foil cape in the darkness. After a while, the low vibration of a diesel engine sounded in the distance behind him. He turned. A set of headlights appeared on the horizon, framed by smaller orange lights. Sideswipe smiled, recognizing the pattern of lights. They belonged to a long-nosed semi truck.

He stuck out his thumb and waited by the side of the road. The truck lumbered toward him, slowing. Sideswipe's hope grew when he saw that it towed a long trailer. At worst, if there was no room inside, he could ride on top. He flashed his headlights to signal to the driver then flicked them off. It would be rude to blind him. The rig rolled up beside him and its brakes engaged with a squeal. Engine chugging, the driver rolled down the window. Sideswipe bent down to talk to him.

"Can you give me a ride?"

The driver pulled a wad of gum out of his mouth and stuck it in the console ash tray. "I seen a lot of things before, but I ain't never seen anythin' like this," he said, looking the red robot over. He was very calm as far as humans went. "Where'd you get the costume?"

Sideswipe did not expect the question and hesitated before answering. "I, uh, made it myself."

"Huh," the driver exhaled, eyeing the foil hat Sideswipe was wearing. "Well, that's really somethin' else."

"Can I get a ride," Sideswipe asked again, "in your trailer?"

"Can't do it," he answered matter-of-factly. "Trailer's full."

"How about on top then?" Sideswipe asked, pressing his point. "I'm not going far – just to the city."

"Are you kidding?" The driver laughed. "That's against regulations."

Sideswipe's frame sank with disappointment. "Then why did you stop?"

"I just wanted to take a look," the driver smirked at him and put his hand on the shifter. "And that I did." He started up the rig again. "Later."

Sideswipe stood up. "What a rusty slagger," he said in disbelief.

The truck chugged away as the driver shifted up through his gears.

Sideswipe huffed in frustration as he watched the truck pull away. "I can't believe it!" he yelled out after the semi. Just wanted to look? That really irked him. He was not some sideshow freak.

Energon pumping through his fuel lines, Sideswipe grabbed the foil hat off his head and threw it down. He realized his error a moment later. Hastily grabbing the hat off the ground, he brushed it off and put it back on his head. He looked warily back along the road in the direction he had come.

"Slag!" he cursed. If his energy signature had been revealed, Prowl would find him in no time. But nothing could be done about that now. He turned his headlights back on and started walking again.

Two more vehicles passed him in the next fifteen minutes, though he did not even look up or pay attention to them. He had no time for people who wanted to gawk. So when the police car with its flashing red lights approached him from behind, Sideswipe did not respond. He assumed it was just a local constable out to give him grief. That is, until the police car transformed.

"Oh slag," Sideswipe groaned when he saw the other Autobot.

"Stop right there," Prowl ordered him. He looked over the foil costume Sideswipe was wearing, but kept a straight face. "So that's how you did it."

"No one said I couldn't go out," Sideswipe defended himself. "I'm not doing anything wrong."

A car slowed down to see the bizarre sight of a police car robot stopping a Lamborghini robot before speeding off again.

Sideswipe gestured after them for stopping to look.

"You're going to have to come with me," Prowl told him firmly, "back to Autobot Headquarters."

"Why? I told you I haven't done anything wrong." He briskly pulled off the cape with one hand and leaned one shoulder toward Prowl. "See?" he motioned toward the intact mode lock with a handful of silver foil. "No problem there, so what's yours?"

"That's not what this is about," Prowl responded coolly. "You're coming with me now or I'll have you detained right here and hauled back."

"For what? This isn't fair!" Sideswipe spat at him. "This isn't justice! It's a farce!"

"You've broken every rule you were told to obey, Sideswipe." Prowl took out the energy shackles. The cuffs glowed yellow-orange in the night.

"Like what?" the red warrior defied him.

"All your traffic offenses in this state, for starters," Prowl began. "Then you solicited help in removing the mode lock – not once but twice. I caught you with stolen sign letters and you just stole from Wheeljack. I don't know where you hid all that silver foil, but I do know that it's his. Then you blocked your energy signal in violation of Prime's directive. And I have good reason to believe you're headed off to get into more trouble."

The way Prowl laid out the chain of events did not make it sound good. He did not have anything to say in his defense. It was true that he was planning on having some fun when he got into town, though he did not know yet what that would entail. It was presumptuous of Prowl to predict that he was going to make trouble.

"Turn around," Prowl ordered him. "Or shall we do this the hard way?"

Sideswipe rolled his optics and turned around with his hands behind his back. Prowl slapped the energy shackles on his wrists and turned Sideswipe back around to face him. He removed the foil hat from the red warrior's head.

"Okay, let's go," Prowl told him and moved Sideswipe in front of him. "Time for a walk."

Sideswipe huffed and trudged back up the road in the direction he had come, with Prowl keeping a watchful optic on him from behind. It was a long trip back to the base on foot.

The two Autobots arrived there in the hours before dawn and Prowl escorted Sideswipe down to the brig. As Sideswipe trudged into the prisoner area, he began to protest again. In one of the cells, his words caught the attention of two inmates.

"Hey, it's Sideswipe!" called Air Raid as he peered through the energized bars.

Slingshot got up to go take a look, also. "Isn't this ironic," he said plainly. He tried to get Prowl's attention. "Does this mean that we get out of here early?"

Prowl ignored the Aerialbot's comment and directed Sideswipe into a cell on the opposite side of the block from Air Raid and Slingshot. Once Sideswipe was securely inside, he removed the energy shackles and energized the door behind him. Right away, Sideswipe walked up to the glowing bars.

"How long do I have to be in here?" he asked.

Prowl checked his internal chronometer and glanced back over his shoulder as he headed for the exit. "Oh, about two weeks."

"Then we could get out now," Slingshot interjected. "In two weeks he'll have the mode lock removed. There's no way we could do anything to–" he said until Air Raid jabbed him hard in the side of the torso. He looked at the other Aerialbot, wondering why he had been hit.

"He means that we wouldn't, anyways," Air Raid corrected Slingshot. "We don't want to give you the wrong impression, Prowl. We're sorry we tried to remove the mode lock for Sideswipe."

Prowl stopped and turned around. "You shot an Autobot. There's a penalty for that, too."

With the three complaining bitterly about their detainment, Prowl left the Ark's brig. Two weeks was a short length of time, in Cybertronian terms. They really did not have anything to complain about. Prowl thought he was being lenient with them – and preventing Sideswipe from falling victim to his own devices.

The end of the brig term marked the end of the three month sentence Sideswipe had served for his traffic violations. It also coincided with the end of the Aerialbots' confinement. Prowl let Sideswipe out first and escorted him up to medical bay. He left him there with Ratchet, Ironhide and Optimus Prime before returning to the brig to release the Aerialbots.

Sideswipe walked up to the other Autobots. This was the day he had been eagerly awaiting. Finally, he would be free again. As he approached, he saw a set of tools laid out neatly on a bench near Ratchet.

"This is the end of the sentence handed down to you, Sideswipe," Optimus Prime stated the facts, "and time for the mode lock to be removed. Before I turn you over to Ratchet, I have a question for you. What have you learned over the last three months?"

"I learned that I can't stand not having an alternate mode," Sideswipe answered.

"And that it is wiser to obey traffic laws than to break them?" Optimus Prime asked with a hint of disappointment in his vocalizer.

"Well, that too – of course," Sideswipe added cautiously. How could he not agree with Optimus Prime, given the circumstances? "I don't want to go through this again." He glanced at the chief medical officer, who crossed his arms.

"Good," Optimus Prime said. He motioned to Ratchet.

"Sit down over there," Ratchet said in his doctor's tone as he pointed to the other end of the bench with the mode lock tools

Sideswipe did as Ratchet requested and took a seat facing away from him. Ratchet picked up one of the tools and Sideswipe craned his head forward. Though he could only hear what Ratchet was doing, Sideswipe noticed how little force the medic exerted to unclamp the bulky device. He listened to the sound of the adjustments being loosened and the gearing pulling away from his transformation cogs. Then after several minutes, there was an audible 'click' and the main latches of the mode lock disengaged from his mechanisms. Relief flooded through Sideswipe's systems.

"Now stand up," Ratchet instructed him, "and lean forward with your hood raised and your passenger canopy lifted back."

Sideswipe was excited at the opportunity to move his transformation mechanisms again. He did as Ratchet asked and perched himself in the tenuous pose. With Sideswipe's mechanisms opened, Ratchet carefully lifted the hooks out of the linkages.

"It's done," Ratchet announced and stood back with the mode lock in hand.

Sideswipe reversed his movements and reverted back into robot mode. He immediately reached behind his head to feel where the mode lock had been. It was actually gone.

"Phew!" he sighed through his vocalizer.

In a blur of shifting mechanisms, the red warrior quickly transformed into his Lamborghini mode and revved his engine.

He laughed with relief. "Everything still works!"

Ratchet smirked at the comment. Typical Sideswipe.

"Hold it, Sideswipe," Optimus Prime said with his palm held out. "You've served your time for the most serious driving offences, but there's another matter that must still be resolved."

Sideswipe transformed back into robot mode, shocked. "What?"

Ironhide grinned, knowing what was coming next.

"All those outstanding speeding tickets you received. You're going to have to pay those," Optimus Prime told him.

"But–," Sideswipe stuttered. He spread his hands. "I don't have any money."

"No problem," Ironhide interjected. "We got you lined up with a job."

Ratchet grinned widely at the news.

Sideswipe was stunned. "A job?"

"Affirmative. You start tomorrow," Optimus Prime added. "Oh, and Prowl has found someone to help you work off those fines. It will only take you half as long."

***

Outside the back of the Pizza Quick, a scrawny delivery boy in a ball cap opened Sunstreaker's gull wing door and set down a stack of piping hot pizza thermal bags on his front seat.

"Hey, get those off the seat! That's Italian leather, you know," the yellow Lamborghini complained loudly.

The delivery boy was taken aback, not sure how to respond to the talking car. "I'm just doing what the boss asked," he explained self-consciously.

"Stop complaining, Sunny," the red Lamborghini next to Sunstreaker told him. "It's just pizza."

The delivery boy giggled at the two talking cars. This was the neatest job the sixteen-year-old ever imagined – delivering pizzas with ultra-cool car-robots. He raced around the other side of Sunstreaker and raised the door to get into the driver's side.

"Not so fast," Sunstreaker cut the boy off by trying to close the door before he could get in. "Who said you could sit in my driver's seat? Only I drive myself."

"You want the pizzas on the driver's seat then?" he asked Sunstreaker.

Sunstreaker's door servos eased. "Not a chance," the lights on the dashboard console lit up in response to the sound of his vocalizer. Reluctantly, he opened his driver's side door and let out a disdainful sigh. "Get in – just don't touch anything."

An older youth exited the back of the Pizza Quick with another stack of steaming pizzas.

"I still don't get how I was implicated," the yellow Lamborghini said to the red one. "Everyone knows that the police only catch the slower cars, and you lost. I won."

"I don't know. The law works in mysterious ways," Sideswipe chuckled as he recalled his slip up with Prowl. "Just thank Primus they didn't give you a mode lock."

"You did get it worse than I did," Sunstreaker agreed with him. "Not that you didn't deserve it."

"Sunny," Sideswipe chided, "you couldn't handle a mode lock."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sunstreaker retorted arrogantly.

Just then, the boss burst out of the back of the restaurant and the two delivery boys jumped. "What's-a goin' onna here?" the big, burly man demanded in a thick Italian accent. "You gonna deliver my pizza or waste-a my time?"

"It's them," the older delivery boy pointed at the Lamborghinis.

"I gotta business to run," the boss said angrily, throwing up his hands. "Either you guys get outta my sight and make-a me some money, or I fire you!"

"We're outta here," Sunstreaker answered in an offended tone. He started his engine and drove toward the parking lot exit carrying the pizzas and the delivery boy.

"Get in," Sideswipe raised his driver's side door.

"Cool," the other youth grinned widely and climbed in with his cargo.

"How long is this going to take again?" Sunstreaker asked Sideswipe as he rolled slowly over a speed bump, narrowly avoiding bottoming out on the pavement.

"Probably the rest of the year," Sideswipe calculated, "but the tips should speed it up."

"Half of the tips are mine," the delivery boy riding inside of Sideswipe corrected him.

"No way, kid. I'm taking three-fourths," Sideswipe bargained with him. "You don't have to pay for gas."

"Trader," Sunstreaker muttered in reference to Sideswipe's old occupation as he listened to the two argue over their share of the tips. He scanned in both directions before leaving the parking lot. The steam from the hot food was condensing on his windows and fogging them up. "My interior is going to smell terrible after this," he moaned. "Now, where the slag is that first address?"

"What's slag?" the delivery boy asked.

"Never mind," the yellow Lamborghini grumbled. "Just tell me where I'm supposed to go."

The two Autobots left the parking lot and went in separate directions. The long ordeal of repaying Sideswipe's fines had just begun.