There was something about near-death experiences that made Sam look at life in a whole different way.

Food tasted better, for one- only hours after melting Megatron down into scrap metal with the Allspark, Sam had found himself scarfing down powerbars and field rations like they were the ambrosia of the gods. Every scent, every flavor exploded in his mouth like fireworks, causing him to send up mumbled prayers of lustful thanks for each and every bite.

Colors, too, looked somehow brighter. He remembered how Mikaela's eyes had never seemed so brilliantly aglow, like polished steel, as they appeared silhouetted by the fading Egytpian sun. Her lips, too, had been painted a shade of scarlet to put pomegranates to shame when she leaned in to kiss him. (Well, okay, so he'd never actually seen a pomegranate, but he couldn't have told her he thought her lips were as red as Mario's hat when she asked him what he was staring at, now could he?)

But aside from thinking cold pizza was better than a five star meal or looking up at the sky and wondering when it had become so blue, the thing Sam remembered most about the moment after brushing by Death without falling victim to His scythe was the sound of his own heartbeat. Such a small thing, in retrospect. Yet that steady lub-dub deep inside his chest (which tended to beat out a staccato rag-time no cardiologist would think healthy in the heat of the moment) had felt as blissful, as awe-inspiring as being brushed by fluttering angel wings. After the roaring of the guns had ceased, after the monster had been destroyed and the valiant hero resurrected from his metal grave, for several long seconds all Sam had heard was the sound of his own heart.

There was something else about near-death experiences that Sam had learned from encountering more than the average number of them over the course of two-something years- they never got dull.

Sailing through mid-air, blinded by the 1000watt headlamps so close to his face he could feel the delicate hairs on his cheek singeing, every thought drowned out by the impossibly loud roar crashing over him like a tidal wave (-don't think, don't feel- run, jump!-), utterly cold and alien programs scuttling wildly through the back of mind his like so many icy spiders, Sam knew he would either be able to check off another item on his 'Creative ways to get an adrenaline rush' list or would very suddenly go SPLAT on the front of the train.

Probably not the best time for the sane part of his mind to pipe up with 'oh shit, this is going to hurt'.

Air thundered against him with invisible fists as his muscles clenched like steel cables pulling taught- nothing for it but to hold on with mind and soul, willing himself to fly- and suddenly there was a high, keening screech, a scream of denial, that pierced through the sound of the train, but he couldn't tell whether it was the brakes or Wheeljack or his own lungs making the sound (everything crushed together, an instant of decision, the fulcrum of fate, the knot from which everything would come together or unravel)-

-And abruptly, violently, the ethereal crystal of disbelief encasing his mind shattered. The fog of

adrenaline evaporated beneath the terrible light from the headlamps rushing towards him, leaving him reeling, gasping, choking, his heart trying to beat itself out of his chest, no longer Super Sam but merely Sam, facing down a freight train and wishing he wasn't so squishable. Something inside of him started shrieking in fear- as if several tons of steel could be stopped by screaming no, as if the universe would be required to save him if he said it loud enough- and his mind, no longer enshrouded by a protective gray haze, slipped free of the calculated hold of the programs.

His limbs jerked, pinwheeling wildly with the animalistic need to flee, his thoughts and the programs cascading downward into chaotic disarray together. It was too soon, too quick, too stupid, dying from thinking he was somehow faster than all the other people who jumped out in front of trains, dying because he had foolishly, worthlessly, tried to be a hero. Though he knew it lasted only a fraction of a second, it seemed to take an eternity for the train to close in on him, the sound of its earth-shattering roar slowly drowned out by the pathetic thumping of his own heart-

(-'You're a soldier now!'-'I smell you, boy!'- 'I gotta get this to Optimus!'-)

It was so small and pathetic and sticky- how could it hurt so much at the thought of never seeing Mikaela again, of seeing Bee again, without tearing itself apart? It swelled with pain even as it twisted in fear, fluttering, seeming to try to reach out through the empty space, grasping at something it couldn't touch, stretching one last time towards Mikaela, whispering live and love you-

(-'I'm a one girl kinda guy'-'Did you hear me, Sam? I said I love you!'-)

-and then turning to Bumblebee, the mere thought of the gentle alien impaling him on a spike of pain-

(-the secret in the garage, the hidden yellow light waiting to welcome him, so gentle and warm and sad- peeling paint and dripping concrete, and still he wanted to stay-'You're the one I care about most'-

-the warrior, the protector, fierce and deadly and wickedly fast, yellow hands pulling apart armor, blue optics shuttered by the mask of the hornet-- 'I would never, ever hurt you, Sam'-

-limbs twitching with hurt, a glance of cool disdain- 'I don't need a human-')

Sam reached for Bumblebee, wishing he hadn't been so god-awful stupid, wishing he hadn't tried to be a hero, wishing he didn't have to die while Bee probably hated him-

-and wordlessly cried out in surprise when something reached back.

His heart missed a beat, and his left foot slammed without warning into the dirt.

Caught off-angle, Sam pitched forward, good arm pinwheeling, the screaming from his shoulder nothing more than a post-it note pinned up in his mind. There was a thunderous mechanical snarl beside his ear, louder even than the sound of the approaching train, and something briefly snatched at the back of his stolen jacket before tearing away, taking a piece of the material with it.

The abrupt jerk stalled his momentum, but only slightly. Sam stumbled and found himself falling head-over-heels down the dirt mound on the other side of the tracks, screaming (he was ashamed to admit) like a girl as the ground rammed his shoulder back into place with an audible pop. Stars burst behind his eyes, and for a moment he was numb to all sensation as he watched dirt-sky-dirt-sky flash by overhead.

When at last he came to a stop, sprawled spread-eagle on his back on the dirt, Sam could only stare blankly up at the sky for several long moments. Watching the ominous clouds boiling over head, feeling something wet splatter against his forehead (was it raining already?), wishing distantly that his shoulder would stop hurting, it took a while for the ringing in his ears to subside. As feeling slowly returned to his fingers and toes, he realized he could feel the wild pounding of his heart rattling away in his chest, its rhythm so powerfully, furiously alive that it shook his entire body in time to its beat.

Another near-death experience to add to the list. But for once, he wasn't as happy as he should have been about the 'near' part; for once, the sound of his own heart beat wasn't a comforting thing. It was terrifying.

Because for one moment, for one infinitely tiny moment, he had felt the heart of another beside it in his chest- one that did not beat like a human heart, but rather pulsed with the cool mechanical life of an alien spark.


Just beyond his toes he could see the freight train rumbling by, jumping and weaving erratically. He weakly flipped the bird at it just to keep up appearances, hoping to feel the flood of triumph he knew should have been racing down his spine. He didn't.


The pattering of the rain became louder and louder as the sky opened up. The cool water should have felt good running over his burning skin. It didn't.


Thoughts, words, suspicions came together in his mind, falling easily into place like tumblers in a lock. Now he knew. Now he understood. And it hurt like being burned alive from the inside out.

"I think I'm gonna puke," he murmured, and promptly passed out.


Recalibrating cerebral controls...



-Get up.-

Sam's eyes snapped open. Air rushed into his lungs with a gasp so sudden it bordered on painful, as if it had been shoved down his throat.


-Get up. The train will not hold him long-

Him? Who's him?

But almost as soon as the thought drifted through his mind, a sudden flood of memories broke through the dam of pain and wooziness. Wheeljack. Wheeljack was on the other side of that train, and would only be prevented from crossing to the other side of the tracks for a long as it was there. Wheeljack wanted to catch him, keep him from saving Mikaela-


Energy hotter than magma erupted from the deep well in his chest and scorched down his limbs with liquid fire. All traces of weariness evaporated before its heat, leaving him raw and burning with the need to find her, find her now before the Decepticons could get to her, before the demons in metal skin could do worse than they'd already done. If those eyes no longer shone like silver, like steel swords, but were glazed with death or worse- if those lips as red as Mario's hat and fire hydrants and pomegranate's he'd never seen were torn and bloodied, peeled back into a ragged O that echoed with horrid screams-

Sam was on his feet before being conscious of even trying to stand, pushing himself forward into a sprint. Yet despite his sudden surge in purpose, his lopsided canter ended not three strides later as he slipped stupidly in the mud, going down hard on his hands and knees. The resurgent pain in his wrists and shoulder brought him back to his senses like a slap to the face. Thoughts other than those of Mikaela washed into his mind like the remnants of a forgotten dream, dousing the knee-jerk fire raging in his chest and reducing it to smoldering embers of frustration. And suddenly, inexplicably, he felt himself vomiting up a mirthless little laugh.

The whole world was going straight to hell in a hand basket under the Decepticon-lead armageddon. Bum- his best friend was off in Africa chasing an invisible wraith that might have been ripping the cables from his chest at that very moment. Megatron was on the prowl for his blood. Unknown legions of metal freaks had Mikaela in their clawed grasp.

There were alien programs of unknown purpose swarming around in his head, he had committed a felony by stealing a super-secret agent's gun, he had almost died because he just had to be all super cool and Mission Impossible to try to be a hero, his pained left arm was more pain than arm from the broken bone and re-located shoulder, and to top it all off he was in danger of being dragged back underground like the weak little human he was by the most physically pathetic of the Autobots, and all he could seem to do was slip around in the mud and wish his body didn't hurt so much.

Oh, and there was also the small matter of being able to feel Bumblebee's spark.

-Get up-

"Jesus, will you please just SHUT. UP!" Sam clenched his teeth shut around the roar, digging his fingers into the mud. "Five minutes, that's all I'm asking for. Just five minutes of peace without my world going fubar all over again. Is that too much to ask?"

At any other time he would have worried about the possible repercussions of holding a conversation with the voices inside his head. But given that he could somehow reach out and touch Bee's soul, it wasn't too farfetched that something else had decided to settle in and make itself at home in his mind...

...and he really didn't want to think about that.

-In five minutes the engineer will have reached you-

"I KNOW THAT!" He looked up at the sky, letting the rain strike his face and run down over his chin. "Come on God, seriously? Seriously? What did I do to deserve schizophrenic personality more annoying than a telemarketer?"

God declined to answer. He squeezed his eyes shut, lowering his head. Why do the voices always have to have a point?

-All will become clear in time-

Sam scoffed loudly.

"Yeah, like I haven't heard that bullshit before. You should be a Windex salesman, or star in one of those infomercials for acne cream." He paused, realizing he was rambling. Abruptly furious with himself, he let out an inarticulate snarl (Mikaela hurt, Mikaela dying, why am I still standing here?) and pushed himself to his feet, savagely beating back the gray fuzz that tried to sneak into the corners of his vision as the ground swirled dizzily.

Okay. Think, rationalize. Clamp down on the anger, the fear, and think.

(...thinking easier than feeling, easier than recognizing the odd pulse for what it was, easier than acknowledging the pain it brought, a stake through the heart...oh, Bee...)

Sam knew he could not outrun, overpower, or otherwise fight off any Cybertronian bigger than Frenzy (and even that had been a challenge). His only possible chance of success would be to outsmart them.

So, first things first: Thwart over-protective engineer.

Trying vainly to control the wild fluttering of his heart, the pounding in his ears, the whirlpool of panic sucking at the edges of his mind (not possible, can't really be happening, box it up and concentrate on Mikaela), he did the only thing he could do to put that plan into action- he started running.

Or, rather, loping. Despite the program's helpful nudges, his abused body didn't seem capable of sustaining much more than a lopsided canter, especially not as bruised and battered as it was. Squinting against the sheeting rain, feeling water begin to run down the inside of his clothes, Sam surveying the area before him. Not a hundred feet beyond the tracks there seemed to be some sort of construction sight, an empty (and, to all appearances, abandoned) construction site, complete with small hills of earth and vast pits, sprinkled with rusting yellow equipment that reminded him of exotic animals in some sort of larger-than-life diorama. Cataloguing the pyramids of metal pipes, the snaking coils of steel cable, the frozen mechanical mammoths, the outline of a plan began to form in his mind. Maybe, just maybe, the electrical field given off by the industrial materials would be enough to shield him from Wheeljack's scans long enough for him to find some kind of transportation.

Hey, it was worth a shot.

Sam made a beeline for the construction site, attention divided between making sure he didn't trip over something requiring a tetanus shot and tracking the progress of the train. Some cargo trains could be a mile long- it would take several minutes either for the train to clear the section of track where Sam had jumped, or for Wheeljack to drive his way around its tail end. But when looking for a way to avoid an alien engineer with scanners that could detect a single particle of pollen in the air, several minutes would disappear like chocolate samples in the tampon isle (if Mikaela was any indication of the female species' attitude towards the sweet substance).

Sam wanted to laugh at the mental metaphor. Maybe just giggle a little. But at the moment, anything involving Mikaela seemed prone to turn him into a magma-blooded, mud-slipping caveman who wanted to beat the shit out of whatever was attacking his girl, and the terrible knowledge that he probably was going to get the shit kicked out of him instead of the other way around, that he was not strong enough, brave enough, fast enough to destroy the monster that had come creeping out from under her bed- that sometimes, for all the love and determination in the world, there simply was no happy ending- effectively erased any seed of humor.

Balanced on the edge of some unknowable abyss that he dared not name or examine too closely, Sam jogged/limped/tripped as fast as he was able around dirt mounds and cement blocks, thinking only of avoiding Wheeljack.

(-Just a little farther, just a little farther, find someplace to hide-)

Throwing himself into a hole wouldn't work, especially since he probably wouldn't be able to get himself out. A hill of displaced dirt might have served as a physical shield, but it would do nothing to block powerful scanners. Squeezing himself into one of those metal pipes might have been ideal, but they were all too small for him to crawl into, even when his shoulder had been dislocated.

So he clambered over coils of ducting and skirted yawning pits, circling construction equipment and partially assembled steel columns, frantically plunging deeper into the industrial still-life. And still he could hear the train rumbling over the sound of the rain.

(-Somewhere to hide, somewhere to hide-)

He knew hiding wouldn't work for long, but he couldn't outrun Wheeljack, not even at the top of his game. The only option was to try to avoid him, to try to throw him off his tail, give himself just long enough to find a cab or a moped or, hell, to hotwire a dump truck and use it to mow down any unsuspecting Decepticon in his path. So no matter how desperately he wanted not to waste even one instant, Sam knew his only immediate option was to find someplace to lie low.

More pipes, giant cement cubes, a stack of I-beams, but not even so much as a trailer or at the very least a Caterpillar with an enclosed cab. No cars or motorcycles he could use to make an escape, either.

The sound of the train grew fainter.

(-where, where, WHERE?-)

A distant, familiar voice: "Sam!"


Sam jerked his head around to glance behind him, but he couldn't make out the familiar white shape through the rain. Either way, it didn't matter. Wheeljack had bypassed the train. His time was up.

It was over.

(No! I have to save her!)

Rain pummeling the earth, splashing in the mud, relentlessly drumming- the click-hiss of moving Cybertronian parts, coming closer- pipes and dirt and tools staring back at him silently, offering no shelter, cruelly unable to either help or hinder- life's a game, and sometimes you lose.

(...I have to save her...)

'Do something!' he screamed to the programs in his mind, ducking behind a bull dozer as Wheeljack came into view through the mist, transformed back into his bipedal shape, raptor feet sinking deeply into the mud.

And though he expected his demand to yield as much result as commanding a doorknob, the programs flared to life in his mind before he could even finish the thought, snatching control of his senses and briefly hijacking his brain. Symbols once again cascaded before his eyes as his alien-enhanced vision flickered over his surroundings, and while he couldn't read what they said, he somehow simply understood the information he was receiving. Or some part of him did, anyway.

(-not me, never me, alien, other-)

After only a second or two, the programs turned his head towards a high dirt embankment off to the right, his vision doing that laser-scope thing again and zooming in on a large concrete drainage pipe recessed in the hill. Voiceless streams of data tickled the back of his mind, whispering that the five feet of soil combined with the layer of cement would serve to shield him from Wheeljack's scanners...and that the pipe had another exit in a car impound.


He could do this. He could do this! The programs tried to tell him something else about the tunnel, but Sam merely closed a mental door in their face, unwilling to waste even a fraction of a second more crouching in the mud like a wanted criminal while his wife might have been in danger.

"Sam!" Wheeljack called again, closer now.

Sam's heart lurched into a sprint, (not now, not so close to victory!) but he forced it to calm, to slow, by focusing on the robot's tone- rather than surprised and victorious, it sounded desperate, lost. The engineer didn't know where he was. Yet.

Scrambling out from behind the bull dozer on his hands and knees, Sam peered around into the empty space where he had last spotted Wheeljack, slowly pulling himself to his feet. He had to bite his tongue to keep from gasping as the engineer suddenly stalked out from behind a tilted pyramid of piping some three hundred feet away. So close. Too close.

No sensor sweeps detected for current vector, the programs were quick to reassure him. Sam breathed out a quiet sigh of relief; for the moment, at least, Wheeljack wasn't scanning in his direction.

Taking advantage of the robot's momentary blind spot, Sam sprinted as quietly as he could towards the large sewer pipe, trying to muffle his splashing steps, grunting softly as his abused body voiced its displeasure with the sudden exertion.

(I made it through Mission City and Egypt and High School- this is a cake walk compared to that!)

"Come on tough guy," he muttered to himself between pants, "Come on Matrix boy, where's your strength, huh? How's a pussy like you supposed to slag the evil robots trying to put your g-wife through the meat grinder if you can't outrun one measly little Autobot?"

So close, only fifty feet left, and then he'd be sheltered by almost ten feet of dirt and rock where Wheeljack's sensors couldn't find him. The engineer would give up eventually and go back to base, leaving him free to crawl through the pipe, steal a car from the impound, and go save Mikaela. He didn't turn around, didn't look behind him, because looking would mean that the engineer might be right behind him, might be able to stop him. His heart pounded in his ears; he blocked out the sound. Thinking about his heartbeat might lead him to think about the possibility of his heart (his soul) touching another, and thinking about that would mean that what had happened over the tracks was real and not just a bad dream he could leave behind when day broke-

(-'...infused with energy...'- ' incomplete bond...'-)


-What are you afraid of?-

The question sounded rhetorical, like some of the high-and-mighty shit a harp-toting angel might be tempted to spew (just accept, and everything will be alright). It pissed him off. Ducking briefly behind a mound of dirt at the direction of the programs, Sam decided to answer, just to see if he could knock the disembodied voice off its pedestal.

"Well, let's see," he hissed softly, "I'm afraid of spiders, mimes, heights, deep water, Elvis impersonators, ham sandwiches, Decepticons, and Mikaela's dad, not necessarily in that order."

The voice was silent for a long moment.

Then, to his utter shock and mortification, it started to laugh.

"Dude! What the hell?

-You are...refreshing-

Sam rolled his eyes so hard he thought they might get stuck staring up into his skull, then darted out from his hiding place, dashing straight for the sewer pipe before Wheeljack had the chance to catch up with him. Or before he strangled himself just to shut the voice up.

But as he closed in on his destination, a feeling of giddiness growing within him the closer he came, the voice turned unexpectedly somber.

-Your plan will not succeed-

Five feet.

"Great! My disembodied voice is psychic now. What color boxers am I wearing?"

No answer. Though he didn't understand how he could perceive such a thing, he somehow knew that the voice was not merely declining to answer- it was gone. That chilled him, somehow.

But then the mouth of the pipe was before him, and the issue of the existence or non-existence of a second personality with a god complex shrunk to insignificance. Panting slightly, he sneaked a quick peek behind him just to be sure he wasn't about to be jerked out by the back of his sodden jacket. Despite his worst imagining, he could see nothing but the shimmering white curtain of rain. He was home free.

Stooping so that his head wouldn't scrape the top of the pipe, Sam hurried inside, momentarily startled by how loudly the sound his feet made sloshing through an inch of water echoed from the walls. It was dark inside the sewer- really dark. But at least it didn't smell bad, so hopefully he wouldn't trip over something utterly disgusting as he shuffled his way through the pitch black. Keeping one hand stretched out in front of him and trailing another along the wall, he carefully plunged deeper into the musty tunnel, away from the faint light coming in from outside. Not far from the entrance, the hand stretched out in front of him brushed stone. A wall? Did the pipe turn?

Putting both hands to the obstruction and feeling outwards, he traced it back to the curving walls of the main tunnel on either side. That didn't make sense. The tunnel didn't turn, and a hand run across the stone above his head revealed that there was no escape pipe leading up to a manhole.

(...please no...)

Gritting his teeth, Sam forced down his pessimism and began to backtrack through the tunnel. There must have been a pipe branching off somewhere, that was it. There was always a way out, or so MacGyver said. This couldn't be it. This couldn't be the end.

Yet when he had run his hands over the stone walls from floor to ceiling, back and forth across both walls of the tunnel, the motions growing increasingly frantic, his short, wheezing breaths ringing around his head, he found himself beginning to wonder if it might be.

(-No! You don't get to do this to me!-)

The programs pinged at him gently, trying to get his attention, but he ruthlessly shoved them aside and began to retrace his steps, smoothing his hands sharply over the curving stone again. Something inside of him started to slip away, something vital, and he snatched it up and held it to him in a crushing grip, not knowing what it was but knowing that if he didn't hold on to it with all his might, if he let go...well, he didn't know exactly what would happen, but he didn't want to find out. So he continued searching.

(Get out, find Mikaela. Get out, find Mikaela. Get out, find Mikaela.)

"It has to be here!" He cried out frantically to the programs, "Show me where it is!"

Rather than pulling up a mental map and pointing him towards the exit, the scrawling alien symbols drew his attention to the slight weight in his right pocket. Dropping his hands from the stone, Sam began pawing frantically at the wet jacket, finally peeling open the indicated pocket and pulling out something metallic and rectangular. What?

Portable combustion device

A lighter!

Sam grinned from ear to ear.

"Wow, who knew Dave smoked? Not that I care, things like smoking are strictly personal-" he flipped open the top as he spoke, flicking the tiny flame to life, "-but talk about...irony..."

His voice trailed away as the wavering light illuminated the walls of the sewer pipe... and the concrete wall sealing off the end.

Sam wasn't aware of falling, but suddenly he was sitting in the water, back braced against the wall. The lighter fell from his numb fingers and sizzled out, plunging the tunnel back into darkness. Not that he needed to see, anyway.

What was the point of being able to see if there was no where to go?

Now, at least, he knew what the programs had been trying to tell him all along.

The voice had been right after all.


Reality, Sam had noticed over the years, had a bad habit of intruding at the worst possible moment. It was like a big fat sweaty dude getting on a plane and squeezing himself in between two hot chicks trying to have an impromptu makeout session. Or like finding a hair in the chili on your chili hot dog. You don't want or need it there, but it comes and puts itself in the middle of everything anyway, completely ruining the moment (or your hot dog).

And as annoying as it was, reality seemed to harbor a particular love of tormenting Sam, wrecking his plans, spoiling is moods, killing his friends, that sort of thing. It first came to him in the form of several multi-colored cars and trucks parking themselves on his back lawn. Transformers in general- and the Autobots in particular- had seemed like no more than figments of one of his more imaginative dreams up until that point. Sure, he had been awed and terrified and excited, but it had been as if he were living in a daze, merely going through the motions like a character in a book. But when his father's safe, normal, immaculately groomed yard- the stand in for the two hot chicks- was suddenly intersected by the presence of twenty-foot-plus sentient machines from another planet that could turn into cars, the haze lifted, the veil was rent in two, and suddenly the two hot chicks had to deal with the fat sweaty guy putting his blubber all over them. The trumpets sounded, the gate was lifted, the world came crashing down around his ears, sending him crashing back into his own skin, and all he could think was 'this is SO not good'.

There was also the time when Optimus died. That time, reality didn't just come sashaying down the isle- it dropped in like an atom bomb. Luckily he had been able to block it out with denial and the determination that he would bring Optimus back to life soon enough; otherwise, the pain of it might have destroyed him.

That was the other thing about reality- it sucked. Like, a lot. It smashed through preconceptions and ground confidence into little pieces. It drowned hope in a bucket of water and chucked joy off a cliff. In small doses, it induced paralysis, incoherency, nervousness, and awkwardness; large does could cause those being rudely introduced to it to choke in the middle of doing something important.

The problem with reality is that it forced people to think, and thinking was, in some cases, a very bad thing. Especially when jumping out in front of trains, when not losing your nerve is key.

Or when your girl is in danger...and you realize that there is nothing you can do about it.

Listening to thunder grumbling over the sound of the rain, Sam let himself slide down the wall, slipping deeper into the water. He blinked slowly in the darkness, numbly taking in the way the light from outside cast a gossamer silver sheen over his soaked sneakers and the faint ripples in the water. In the wake of the revelation that he could not escape through the sewer, every last ounce of energy had left him- the cold shower of reality effectively doused the wildfire raging through his veins, leaving not so much as a smoldering ember behind.

It was over. Done. Finished. The End. His last and best hope had been snatched away from him. Now it was only a matter of time until Wheeljack found him, and once he did the engineer would summarily drag him back to base and lock him in a room somewhere. Then he would scream and cry and beat on the walls, calling them every foul thing he could think of to make them hate him, make them not care about keeping him safe so much, but in the end they wouldn't let him out even if they despised him- they were too superior and noble for that- while the Decepticons tore Mikeala limb from limb. Then, when they finally let him out, they would say how sorry they were and try to cheer him up, but none of it would make any difference because Mikaela was dead dead dead and he would be all alone and Bumblebee would still hate him, no matter how many times he apologized, because it wasn't something he said, it had never been something he said-

Sam broke the thought in half, unwilling and unable to touch it or feel the shape of it. It was too raw, too painful. How stupid he had been, thinking that the scout hated him just because he spilled a big secret. No, that was only the straw that broke the camel's back.

He drug his fingers through the water, watching the ripples they made. Bee, Mikaela. Mikaela, Bee. He had screwed up with both of them. Even IF the tunnel had been open- even if he had figured out how to hot-wire a car on the fly and find directions to the hospital- then what? Demand that the Decepticons release Mikaela? Turn himself over to them and hope that they would let her go? Sam almost snorted at that. They probably would have skinned her just for fun, then made a lamp shade or something from her skin while he watched.

No, he would have had to take Mikaela and fled. He would have had to fight them. He could even imagine how the battle would go: Sam confronts Decepticons wielding large stick. Decepticon takes large stick, breaks it. Decepticon laughs. Decepticon steps on Sam. Sam 0, Evil Aliens 1.

But even knowing the odds, he would have gone anyway. It may have been a pointless effort, but he would have gone and faced down the Decepticons. He would have stood in front of them, held his arms out wide, and said, 'do it to me instead'. Because there would be no other choice, no other option- anything but see that knife plunge down into her chest. He would have guided it to his own heart instead.

"Maybe it's better this way," he murmured brokenly, "This whole thing was bound to get screwed up sooner or later-maybe...maybe it's better that it happened now. Maybe they'll leave her alone if I don't show up..."

"Unfortunately, many of the Decepticons are far too sadistic for that."

Sam opened his eyes and looked towards the mouth of the tunnel. Before he had discovered that the tunnel had been closed off, the sound of Wheeljack's voice would have caused him to jump out of his skin. Now, feeling strangely calm (numb) he merely turned his head towards the voice. He spotted the engineer just outside the entrance to drainage pipe. Rather than reaching into the tunnel to try to grab him, or even planting himself in front of it to block any chance of escape, Wheeljack sat with his back to the dirt embankment, leaving only his left arm and part of his back visible, head twisted around to focus his many optics on the human crouching within. If Sam didn't know better, he would say that his position meant that he was waiting for him to come out, or that he wanted to talk to him.

Wheeljack's head tilted to the side like a curious dog, head fins suddenly swirling with yellow.

"Do you realize that your current position is likely to leave your clothes saturated with water?"

...but then again, this was Wheeljack. Maybe he did just want to talk.

Despite the sullen mood, Sam felt himself give the mud-splattered robot a tiny smile.

"I'm already soaked as it is, dude. I'm not going to get any wetter."

The engineer visibly brightened.

"In that case, feel free to carry on. I detect no traces of human or animal waste in this water, so it is highly unlikely that you will contract any diseases from it."

Sam pulled a face, feeling a fierce sort of tenderness well in his chest. But the sensation reminded him of Mikaela and how he felt when she held his hand or shared an ice cream cone with him, and his smile died again. He blinked rapidly, telling himself that the line of moisture running down the side of his nose was just rain water dripping down from his hair.

"Ew. I totally did not need to hear you say that," he replied, working to keep his tone light.

"It is always beneficial to be informed, Sam." Wheeljack lifted a lecturing finger as he spoke. The simple gesture made Sam's gut twist up in knots, knowing that, at the moment, the gentle robot was forced to be his adversary. Kind, gentle, yet unyielding in his determination to cart him off to safety, dragging him away from where he most needed to be.

"...Yeah." His voice cracked on the single word, and he turned his head away, discreetly wiping the side of his face with his equally wet sleeve. When he turned back, Wheeljack's head fins had dissolved into a solemn blue. Time to get down to business.

Fully prepared to be as stubborn as possible and throw as big of a tantrum as need be when the engineer tried to take him back to base (-traitor!-) he was caught off guard when the engineer made no move to reach in and pull him out, or else demand that he emerge. Quite the opposite, in fact. Wheeljack seemed to pull in on himself for a moment, head smoothly turning away to look out at the rain.

"I wonder if Longshot ever experienced a moment like this," he murmured contemplatively, almost to himself. Sam blinked at the non sequitor.

"Who?" He asked, bewildered.

Wheeljack took his time answering, continuing to stare at something far away for a moment before glancing back over his shoulder.

"Oh, just a friend of mine, from Cybertron," he said lightly, though Sam could sense a sorrowful undercurrent to the words. "He was a lot like you, actually."

Sam tried to cover his bewilderment (why was he talking about his old friends when minutes ago he had taken off like a bat out of hell?), tentatively hoping that maybe, just maybe, if he could keep Wheeljack talking…. "So, uh...what happened to him?"

Some green crept into the softly fluttering fins.

"Oh, he joined the Decepticons."

Sam choked on his own spit.

"I-me-you think-he-"

Wheeljack shuttered his optics rapidly in a way Sam had come to associate with laughter, splotches of yellow spilling into the green.

"Not to worry, Sam. I harbor no suspicions that you will be joining up with the Decepticons any time soon." His voice turned more serious, all traces of yellow fading. "Although it would serve us all well to remember that even Decepticons have sparks, and not all sparks are inherently evil or distorted. That is both their greatest weakness...and their greatest strength."

That made a little bit of sense. Kinda. "Yeah. It would be hard to try to take over the universe if none of them were sane enough to come up with a plan that might actually work." Keep agreeing with him. Get him to relax and let his guard down.

Wheeljack titled his head, mandibles clicking softly, unblinking optics staring at him and through him, zooming restlessly in and out.

"And," the alien added lowly, "it is much easier to justify the taking of power if one truly believes that they are doing the right thing for the people."

Sam started, then stared.

"No way," he scoffed, "they're, like, insane. And evil. And insanely evil."

Blue changed to green and green into yellow fast enough to give him whiplash, and though Sam couldn't track any change in the Autobot's expression (since he didn't even have a face to begin with) he could have sworn that Wheeljack was looking at him fondly, almost but not quite vibrating, like he had just found the absolute best thing ever and was so excited he didn't know what to do with himself. It made him feel sick with shame.

"I've lost count of how many times I've wanted to be able to say something similar to that. Although perhaps with more words..." he trailed off, ruminating quietly.

"Then why don't you?" Sam found himself encouraging, unconsciously scooting closer to the robot. Stop it! Don't get drawn in to the conversation! He's just trying to lure you out!

(-white limbs small and lithe, almost the size of a human's—why hasn't he reached in?-)

Wheeljack visibly sagged at his words, head fins darkening once more. He glanced away from Sam, saying nothing.

"...Wheeljack?" Sam called hesitantly after a long and tense silence. The robotic frame tensed, as if the engineer had had to recall himself from far away. Slowly he turned back to the human.

"How old do you think I am, Sam?" Wheeljack asked suddenly.

"Um, uh..." Sam reeled, trying to think of a coherent answer. That had come from way out in left field. What was Wheeljack getting at? Play along. "Uh, well, Bee's about a thousand years old, and you seem a little older than him, so maybe...two thousand?"

Wheeljack shuttered his optics. "I am 12,543 earth years old, Sam."

There was only one acceptable response to that. "You're really old! Geeze, I thought only geezers like Optimus and Ironhide and Rachet were that old!"

The robotic head nodded in assent. "The four of us are the only ones among the Autobots on Earth who were active during the Golden Age, before the time of the great betrayal."

"That's when Megadork took over, isn't it?" Against his will, Sam found himself intensely interested. Bee, his main source of info on all things alien, hadn't been around long enough to see much of Cybertron, and he never really had the chance (or the nerve) to chat up one of the old crowd about their good old days.

"Yes, it was. In any case, I was active as an engineer in the science academy during the golden age. Although I was not a very sophisticated model, my work nonetheless caught the attention of the science council, who were astonished that a lowly wiring droid was capable of connecting Nodes that even they, the privileged few of the Alpha class, could not."

...nodes? Alpha class? "...huh?"

(-Focus! This about Mikaela!-)

"Oh, pardon me. I keep forgetting that you have not been versed on Cybertronian society. How to explain..." His fingers clicked together restlessly, deep, pensive blue migrating into violet. "I suppose a rough approximation would be to compare it to the caste system used in India. I was one of the lower castes- not an untouchable, the lowest, which would have made me no better than a mindness cleaning droid- but still low enough that not much was expected of me but to keep my head down. What you must understand, Sam, is that unlike with humans, where a person of any intellect level can be born into any level of society, our castes do not define us- we define our castes. I was one of the rare few whose spark overcame the limits of circuitry and enabled me to do what the others of my caste literally could not do: think abstractly."

"And you...connected...nodes?" Sam felt as though he had been hypnotized, the combination of the steady drumming of the rain and the humming blue light from Wheeljack's optics drawing him into the story, ensnaring his mind.

"I filled in the gaps of learning-" (God, even his voice is distracting! What the hell?) "-The way discovering the number two would connect one and three."

Sam struggled with himself, trying to work up the energy to be furious with Wheeljack the way he knew he should be, but in the end he only said, "Sweet."

Wheeljack paused as if translating the word, optics telescoping restlessly in and out.

"In any case," Wheeljack started again, after a beat, "I 'made waves' at the academy and attracted rather a lot of attention. Not all of it the positive kind."

Sam felt his gut clenching in fearful anticipation. "They were jealous? They tried to kick you out?"

"Primus, yes! But they did not succeed. I was too clever for that- como un zorro!" And he shuttered one optic in a wink.

Sam couldn't help but chortle slightly at the sight of the ridiculous looking robot, covered in mud and dripping water, comparing himself to a fox. But then he caught himself, remembering that he was still trapped, that Mikaela was still in danger. He shouldn't have been laughing.

Wheeljack, sensing the change in the mood, straightened himself once again, jovial green fading back into blue.

"In the end, it might have been better if they had. You see, I very quickly caught the eye of Starcream, then one of the members of the science council, and through him Megatron."

Sam felt as though he had been dosed in a bucket of cold water.

"Did they...try to kill you?"

Wheeljack hesitated. "Not at first. I was too valuable. They wanted me to join their cause."

Sam gagged, disgusted by the thought of either of them coming anywhere near Wheeljack, and even more frightened by the mental image of Wheeljack as a Decepticon. Would he have been black instead of white? Would he have been covered with armor and toting knives and guns? Would he have still been Wheeljack? That was perhaps the most disturbing question of all- not the thought that Wheeljack would have become someone else, but that he would have stayed Wheeljack, maybe quieter, maybe harsher, but still Wheeljack...while being a Decepticon.

The day was hardly cold, but Sam suddenly felt chilled.

"You said no, obviously...didn't you?" He suddenly wasn't so sure.

"Of course. I could see what they were doing, and I wanted no part of it. you know, of course, they do not like to hear 'no' as an answer."

"Did you go to Optimus for help?"

Wheeljack stared at him curiously.

"You truly do not know much of anything about our history, do you? Sam, Optimus did not appear until after the great betrayal. The Autobots would not exist for several centuries. Starscream was the de-fact head of the science council, and Megatron was the High Protector, charged with guarding the Allspark. There was, quite literally, no one to turn to. My only stroke of luck was that the Decepticons were not yet ready to reveal their intentions just to acquire me. They wanted to keep things quiet."

"Why? They're hardly quiet now!"

"Consider this, Sam," Wheeljack urged, "If the US military tried right now, this instant, to stage a coup, oust the president, and instill marshal rule, would the civilians just sit by and let it happen?"

"No way," Sam instantly scoffed, "because that would be completely un-democratic and I can think of so many people who hate nazis. My mom's one of them. She's scary, trust me. No soldier would want to mess with her when she's wielding a golf club." Strangely, talking about his mom did not make him depressed like he thought it would, especially not when Wheeljack's optics shuttered rapidly with laughter.

"Then you understand what I mean. The Decepticons- our version of the armed forces- had to take control slowly, subtly, so that when the time came for the turn over it would seem like a natural progression of events rather than a hostile attack. In any case, the Autobots- the rebel resistance fighters- did not come about until Optimus Prime, hailed as the Lost Prime returned, entered the scene."

Sam briefly considered telling wheeljack about Optimus using the name Orion Pax, but a strange gut feeling made him decide against it. He had a feeling it would end up being very important soon.

"In any case, they decided that the best way to recruit me would be to recruit my friend and pontential bond partner, Longshot."

(-'...each give their spark energy to the other...'- ' unbreakable bond...'- an unbreakable bond-)

-Two become as one-

(Bumblebee, my friend, my brother, my bon-)


-Don't be afraid-


Wheeljack's voice broke through his frantic thoughts. Sam's fingers curled up into claws under the water, digging at the cement. Focus.

"Nothing." He sighed. "It's nothing." He didn't need to look up to feel the robot's gaze resting heavily upon him.

After a long, tense silence, Wheeljack asked, "Have you ever wondered why I wear a mask, Sam?"

That caused his head to snap up, his eyes scrutinizing the engineer's face.

"I...I didn't realize you wore one."
"Oh yes, this is not actually a part of my face," he replied lightly, reaching up a hand to tap one of his long fingers against the tiered metal plates covering the lower half of his head. "It's quite difficult to work an artificial... prosthesis into a transformation, which is one of the myriad reasons why our kind do not wear any sort of personal adornment...well, not any more, at any rate. Optimus Prime's and Bumblebee's are part of their physical make-up. Mine is...a necessary addition."

Sam's throat suddenly went dry. He swallowed. "What happened?"

But Wheeljack seemed determined to follow his own fluid narrative path, and refused to answer.

"Longshot was not a scientist or an engineer, but he worked closely with the academy. I guess you could say that he was the hired muscle, paid to test our new armors and shoot our new guns (we were ordered to invent more and more of those as the years went by- if only we had known the juggernaut we were creating them for!). To make a long story short, he accepted that a lowly class B droid could, on occasion, have a few good ideas, and I accepted that a bot built for war and defense could appreciate the finer points of architecture. We were...the best of friends. But being a part of the Defense Corp as he was, he was naturally a target of the Decepticons, even more so because of his connection to me."

Sam shivered and clandestinely rubbed the goose bumps that appeared on his arms as Wheeljack spoke. Something about the robot's tone chilled him—maybe it was the somber, almost lifeless way he spoke, or the way the normally engaging engineer sat with his head bowed, gazing out at something Sam could not see. Staring at the angular back, watching the light play over the sharp metal edges as falling torrents of rain made little clear streams through the mud covering his armor, he could almost imagine that Wheeljack was nothing more than a modern art statue, shaped in a pose that radiated regret and left out in the rain by the sewer, as if its subject somehow deserved to be left in such a place. But then metal shifted, parts gliding smoothly around each other with only the faintest of whirs, and the illusion was broken. Somehow, the resigned despair he sensed from the engineer only worsened when he was a living being with thoughts and emotions and the capacity to be hurt rather than a lifeless statue.

"But even once Longshot had accepted the Decepticon insignia," Wheeljack continued after an ominous pause, "I still refused to lend my services to their cause, regardless of the incentives they promised me. At one point, Starscream even offered to give me my own lab, to run as I saw fit. And when I say 'lab', I mean something more like a scientific compound rather than a single room. Such a thing would have given me opportunities I might never have had on my own as a lowly class B droid. It pains me to admit that I was…tempted. For a time. But I saw the weapons of destruction Starscream forced those in other labs under his command to make—mankind has never created weapons so terrible, I don't think—and I knew that I couldn't do it. I could not stand the thought of inventing things that could (and most likely would) visit such horror upon another living creature."

Sam tried to crack a reassuring smile, but he couldn't seem to remember how to make his face move that way. He sensed that something was coming, some revelation that was devastating enough to crush even the bubbly engineer beneath its weight.

"But that means brownie points for you, right? Cause I can think of so many people who wouldn't have the guts—or gears, gears work too—to stand up to Starscream the way you did."

But rather than react positively, Wheeljack merely curled in on himself even further, as if trying to hide.

"Bravery did not motivate my refusal, Sam. At the time, I was far too naïve to worry about my own safety. I thought myself too important to do away with. No, the problem was not in living, but in living with myself. I would have become nothing more than a shell under the burden of guilt building such weapons would have brought." Unexpectedly, he made a sudden slashing motion with his hand, as though tearing himself from his train of thought. "The point is that I refused. I refused again and again, and despite the urgings of my friends, including Longshot, I was too vain to leave Iacon and simply disappear. And in the end, my confidence in my abilities—and in the general benevolence of Cybertronians other than Starscream—resulted in my downfall."

His voice grew quiet, distant, his hands slowly migrating purposefully up towards his face as he spoke. "One day, a group of scientists working in one of Starscream's labs finally tired of having their offers rejected by a lowly droid with a lucky spark." His voice dropped again, becoming little more than a whisper of sound. "They planned to kidnap me. Longshot knew."

Spidery fingers clinked against the metal of Wheeljack's mask, deftly working at the places it connected on either side of his head. Lightning flashed soundlessly, causing Wheeljack's shadow to stretch out against the curving wall inside the tunnel, dark and tortured and wraith-like. Sam felt as if he suddenly couldn't breathe.

"They dragged me down into the bowls of the academy building, deep down where no one would be able to hear me. Longshot followed."

There was a gentle, apologetic click, and Wheeljack removed the mask from around the lower part of his face, keeping his back to Sam as he gazed down at the metal shell. Sam's heart began to beat frantically, his eyes fixed intently on the back of the engineer's head, noting with some shock that his characteristic fins seemed to have shut down, no longer fluttering softly back and forth, yellow and green and blue replaced by a flat, featureless gray. He dreaded discovering what lay hidden behind the mask, yet burned with a perverse curiosity at the same time. A small part of him somehow already knew what he would find.

"They bound me to one of the tables used to examine deactivated shells, and told me what happened to those who crossed the Decepticons." He slowly rotated the mask in his hands, and for a moment, when the light gleamed on the edges of the plates, Sam could have sworn it was made of knives. "I won't go into details of course—far too gruesome!" he added lightly, "But suffice it to say that their threats were dire enough to send me broadcasting for help on every channel. Unfortunately, my attackers were clever enough not to choose a location from which long range signals could be transmitted. At the time, I thought I was alone."

Sam connected the dots. "…Longshot. Longshot was there." A feeling of dread grew in his chest at Wheeljack's silence. "He….didn't save you, did he?"

A pause, long and painful, like squeezing a piece of broken glass. "….no."

Sam's stomach shriveled in horror even as he felt himself growing angry on Wheeljack's behalf.

"What a douche-bag!" He swore, "Well you know what, you don't need jerks like him anyway. Leaving you like that was completely un-cool and—"

"Sam," Wheeljack interrupted gently, "Let me speak. There is something I need to say, and I don't know if I will have the strength to say it again."

Sam let the rest of his words die on his tongue.

The engineer hesitated briefly, as if bracing himself. " I meant what I said when I told you that you and Longshot were alike. Imagine, for a moment, if you were Longshot," he urged, keeping his back to Sam. "You have just found out that there is a plot in place against your brother, your best friend—"

(-invisible claws ripping, tearing—Bee, no!-)

"—your soul mate—"

(-Mikaela, oh god, Mikaela—get up, move, run!—Need to save, need to protect, but the tunnel was blocked and the sky was falling—mine, death cannot have her—metal demons standing sentry, cackling—all roads lead to hell-)

Survival odds less than .002%, the programs affirmed. His heart, which had begun to race with resurgent fire, slowly filled with ice, beating rapidly, hollowly, like a dying rabbit's. He would do anything for her, and it didn't matter.

"You want to do anything you can to help," Wheeljack continued softly, as if sensing his thoughts, "…so you follow them—"

(-engine roaring, headlights flashing along the stone walls—faster and faster, but never fast enough-)
"And when you find them, you are overcome with horror at what they are doing to the one you love—"

(-'They'll use her to get to me!'—Stick her with needles, gouge out her eyes-)

"You would do anything to stop them, even give up your own life."

Sam's fingers contracted, biting harshly into his arms through the sleeves of his jacket. He gritted his teeth, biting back hot tears.

"The love compelling you is so strong, you feel as though you will burst-"

Why why why did Wheeljack have to keep talking? What purpose did tormenting him serve? He tried to force his limbs to stop shaking and his hands to unclench, but he felt as if that thing inside of him—so tiny yet so important, nebulous and just out of reach yet all he had- had started to slip through his grasp, and if he relaxed his grip for even a moment-

"Stop it," He whispered past unmoving lips.

Wheeljack turned his head slightly to the side—not enough to expose the area covered by his mask, but enough to watch the human over his shoulder.

"But then," the engineer continued insistently, "You realize that your way is blocked—"

(-not a tunnel, not a path to freedom, just a dark hole, trapping him like an animal-)

Sam fisted his hands in his hair.

"Knock it off already! I get it, you won!"

But Wheeljack didn't stop. No longer bubbly and quirky and off-beat, he plunged onward, possessed by memory and emotion (purpose), for once seeming every one of his twelve thousand years.

"Longshot was confronted by another group of Decepticons, Sam. They knew…what was taking place—" he turned his head away again, appearing unable to find the strength to look at his reluctant listener as he spoke, as though ashamed of his tale, "—and they knew of Longshot's connection to me. They told him…they told him to go about his business."

(…'nothing you can do'….'return to base'…'nothing you can do'…nothing….nothing…)

His face contorted and bunched together so hard it hurt, mouth opening and closing with screams and sobs that would not come, small little choking noises working their way up through his throat. God, it hurt!

"Don't you DARE tell me that I should do the same thing!" He snarled with so much force his voice cracked in the middle. "I hate him for doing that to you, and I hate you for trying to make me do the same thing! He should have done something—He should have found a way—"

Something touched the top of his head with infinite gentleness, then smoothed carefully down his temple and across his cheek. He looked up, startling slightly to see that Wheeljack had abandoned his post outside the entrance and leaned noiselessly into the tunnel, reaching out to gingerly stroke him with one long-fingered hand. The comparative brightness from outside cast the engineer in a featureless black shadow, hiding his face as effectively as a mask.

"Do not condemn him, Sam. He did what he thought would be of most benefit to me." A meaningful pause. "But I thank you for the sentiment." Somehow, Sam could not imagine any amount of words holding as much feeling, as much reverent thanks, as that single sentence.

Sam scrubbed his hands across his face, feeling his grip on that precious thing (-hope-) begin to relax with a small, noiseless sob of denial. Letting go hurt almost too much to bear, like a barbed dagger twisting inside his heart.

When Wheeljack spoke again, his voice was very small. "Longshot assumed—probably correctly—that trying to come to my rescue would have been at best futile and at worst a death sentence…for the both of us."

Sam put his head to his knees as Wheeljack slowly withdrew his hand.

"Later, after they tired of me, Longshot came back and begged for my forgiveness. Sam. Do you know what he told me when I asked why he had not helped me?"

Sam lifted his head, searching the shadowed darkness of Wheeljack's face. The soft blue light from his optics—calm, steady, gentle—blotted out all else. He knew what the engineer wanted him to say, what he had discovered for himself after doing something so foolish as jumping out in front of a train.

The words fought against him as he tried to lift them into his mouth, but after struggling against his own tongue for a moment or two he managed to vomit out, "B-being a hero… won't solve anything."

Wheeljack inclined his head.

"Not quite the phrasing he had used, but yes, that was the gist of it. He reasoned that needlessly throwing himself into the line of fire would not accomplish anything beyond his own death." His tone twisted, becoming hopeless rather than understanding. "And, as you probably know, no one wants to die."

Sam glanced up in confusion as Wheeljack began to back out of the tunnel. What was going on? What happened to grabbing him and dragging him back to NEST? This was not the way he had pictured the conversation ending, and strangely enough that fact made him feel as if a tiny seed of tremulous, irrepressible hope had implanted itself in his heart once more.

"Longshot did not believe anything could be accomplished acting on unfounded hopes. He did not believe that anything could be worse than dying."

Wheeljack stepped out into the sheeting rain as he spoke, voice weary yet filled with an unshakable certainty.

"But he was wrong."

A curtain of light fell over Wheeljack's face as he withdrew his head from the tunnel, and suddenly Sam could see exactly why the engineer wore a mask, even obscured as the sight was by mud and pouring rain. Where on a human there should have been a mouth and nose, on Wheeljack there was nothing but…a hole. A grisly, distorted hole carved deeply into his head, more deeply than he would have thought possible, ugly and pock-marked, the way he imagined a human face would look if the bottom jaw were torn off and the wound allowed to rot, turning the flesh thoroughly zombie-like.

Though he knew it was rude, Sam could only stare, mouth agape, at the ruin of Wheeljack's head. He never would have thought that the mask would conceal such a dire wound.

"Ratchet can't fix that, can he?" he murmured lowly, unable to tear his eyes away, swallowing down the bile in his throat.

"No," Wheeljack acknowledged, and for a moment Sam freaked, wondering how he could talk without a mouth, until he remembered that the aliens' voices emerged from vocalizers in the tops of their chests, not from their faces. "They used an experimental type of acid on me, one which prevents healing in the surrounding cells. The initial test was so successful, they decided to weaponize it!" He added cheerily. Sam felt like he needed to puke.

Wheeljack retrieved his mask from where he had left it just inside the tunnel, flicked the water from it, and crouched down in his original position, keeping his back to Sam as he snapped it back into place around his head. His fins immediately lit up, returning the engineer's appearance to its usual vibrancy. Looking at him, Sam never would have guessed the secrets such an eccentric continence concealed. It was creepy.

"Why…why your face? What, did they have face fetishes, or something?" Sam tried to chuckle, but found there was really nothing funny about the post-it loving alien having a hole eaten in his head by acid.

"These—" Wheeljack indicated his head fins, "—are what I use to communicate with other droids. Originally I only had one…and, well, as you can see, they wanted to get rid of it. Perhaps they thought to isolate me from my own kind, although why they thought I went around chatting up cleaning bots on a regular basis I will never know." Wheeljack tilted his head to the side, regarding him warmly and a little shyly. "I was able to thwart them, however. Now I have twice the number of light panels!"

Sam couldn't help the grin that spread from ear to ear, amazed and awed that the alien was trying to impress him, afraid (Sam could sense) that the human would be repulsed by the grisly remnants of his face. He was like a phoenix, he realized suddenly (even if the thought was a little sappy)—he had arisen from the flames. Limping, awkward, a few feathers missing, but arisen none the less, trying with all the strength he had to smile.

"But you see," Wheeljack continued, lightness fading, "Every moment that I was captive, I prayed to Primus for someone to save me. I would even have rather died than continue on like that hour after hour as the acid did its work. What Longshot never understood—and what it took me a long time to come to terms with—was that what I needed was not patience and reasoning and logic. After all, the right thing to do is rarely ever reasonable or logical. No, I needed someone who wouldn't care what the reasonable, logical thing to do was. Pain is not logical. Suffering is not logical. ….Love is not logical."

A lump rose in Sam's throat, his chest constricting at the word 'love'. (Mikaela…)

Wheeljack rose to his feet, optics fixed on the human huddled in the concrete drainage pipe.

"Mikaela!" Sam choked, staggering to his feet. "The thing with Longshot and you, that's like me and Mikeala!" He took a step towards the robot, throwing his arms out imploringly. "You know how you needed someone to come save you? Well she needs me, and I can't just sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting for her to die!" He broke off, panting, realizing he hadn't drawn a single breath during his speech. He gazed up at Wheeljack, so tall and strange and downright alien, standing sentry before the mouth of the tunnel, optics whirling mysteriously, mandibles clicking gently every so often.

Feeling emboldened by desperation, Sam took another step forward, and then another, until a never-ending shower of cool water began to strike his head as he ducked his upper body out of the tunnel to confront Wheeljack, one hand gripping the edge of the pipe until the bones felt like they would break.

"Let me do for her what no one did for you," he pleaded, in the most serious, adult voice he could muster. Given that his insides felt like they were trying to shake themselves apart, he felt that he did a pretty decent job. But when Wheeljack did not answer, only continuing to gaze down at him without comment, he heard his voice crack with the raw need lodged in his throat. "Please! I have to save her, especially since it's pretty much my fault that they're after her in the first place! It would totally ruin our honeymoon if she got eviscerated."

At long last, Wheeljack stirred, appearing to revive from some sort of trace.

"I know," he replied, tilting his head. And to Sam's shock, a mischievous orange burst through the dark blue glow emanating from his head fins. "And that is precisely why I'm going to help you."

Sam could only gape in shock at the robot, feeling as though the rug had once more been jerked out from underneath of him. The world tilted, dumping him out of bizarro land and back into the place where puppies were cute, boyfriends rescued girlfriends (wife! Wife! Gotta remember that, she'll be pissed if I don't), and alien engineers were frickin awesome!

But just to be sure he wasn't experiencing some kind of vivid hallucination in which luck finally turned his way (which it never did), he pointed a righteous finger at Wheeljack and said, "You. You. You're going to help me?" At the answering nod, the finger dropped. "Oh." He valiantly repressed the urge to scream and start running around in little circles of joy with his hands in the air, forcing himself to remain dignified. He may have had the promise of help, but Mikaela wasn't safe yet. A single wisp of thought brushing over the possibility of having to confront several Decepticons sobered him immediately. And he found himself having to ask, "You're going to help me? Why?"

Orange faded to lime green, and after a pause Wheeljack held out a hand.

"Because this universe needs more heroes, Sam."

Sam took a shuffling step forward, finally drawing himself the rest of the way out of the pipe, and caught sight of the small hand gun being offered in Wheeljack's outstretched palm—the same gun he had used to shoot the engineer. He blanched, then felt himself turning a shade of deep red.

"Oh. Yeah. About that." He cleared his throat, reaching for the gun. "Sorry. We're still cool, right? Me and you, you and me, kicking decepticreep butt together?"

"Don't worry!" The engineer said brightly as Sam tucked the weapon into the holster beneath his jacket. "All of my friends shoot at me!"

Sam's eyes flashed up towards Wheeljack in alarm, but seeing the buttery yellow color tinting his head fins he guessed that the engineer had to be joking. At least a little. Now that the alien had divulged his big, dark secret, he did seem somehow more...buoyant. He even bounced a little in place. Just slightly. Okay, so Sam could understand how he might sometimes come across as annoying.

"Not that I'm trying to look a gift horse in the mouth, or anything," he said slowly, wondering if the engineer's moods were always so mercurial, "But why the sudden change? What happened to dragging me back by any means necessary?"

Yellow dimmed into sea green. "You happened, Sam. You threw yourself off a bridge and leapt out in front of a train, and you did it not with the hope of saving yourself, but because you wanted to save another." Wheeljack scrutinized him with deep, unfathomable optics. "I do not think you understand just how few people would be willing to do the same. Some part of me expected your fear to make you compliant, and the fact that it did not humbled me."

Sam looked away, grimacing, uncomfortable with the praise. He flinched at a touch on his arm, then relaxed again as Wheeljack curled his hand around his shoulder, long fingers stretching all the way across his back to graze the opposite arm. The robot lowered his head until they were face to face, human and alien, one covered with flesh and the other with metal, both muddy and dripping, both capable of living and loving and dying. Two beings, so different and yet so similar. The thought was both frightening and comforting.

"And like Mikaela," he said gently, "I also know what it is like to wish that someone would save you."

Wheeljack withdrew his hand from Sam's shoulder, straightening once more, voice gaining strength and purpose. "We don't have much time. First things first- I'll need your watch back."

Sam blinked at the odd request, turning his wrist over to expose said item. "My watch? Why?" He asked, even as he fumbled at the clasp.

Wheeljack nodded towards it brightly. "Optimus Prime requested that it be retrofitted with a small tracking device-

"Son of a bitch!"

"-and I will need to take it with me when we part ways in order to adequately fullfill my role as a distraction."

Sam's mental tirade ground to a screeching halt.

"Wait, what?" He protested, "You said you were going to help me!"

"And I am, in the only way I can." He reached forward and plucked the watch from Sam's suddenly nerveless fingers, clenching it in his fist. There was a brief glimmer of light, and when the robot's hand opened again the watch was gone. Not magic trick gone, where it was only tucked up a sleeve or under a cup, or even hologram gone, when the nano-whatsits dissolved- the watch was gone gone. No way.

Sam had to bite his tongue to keep from geeking out all over the engineer about his apparent mastery of the space-time continuum, holding his questions at bay only by clinging to the knowledge that he had a rescue to stage, and that any explanation from Wheeljack would likely have left them standing in the rain for days.

"The Decepticons will be able to track me," the engineer was saying when Sam finally scraped his jaw up off the ground, "And Bumblebee will, undoubtedly, be able to track your watch. Both groups will need to be lured away from you if you are to succeed."

But Sam had stopped listening after the word 'Bumblebee'.


"Wait, what, my Bumblebee? Coming here?" He interrupted.

"Yes. He-"

"He, like, didn't end up mirage chow in Africa?"

"No. He-"

"And he's coming here. To find me," Sam clarified frantically.

Wheeljack didn't answer, merely maintaining his steady gaze.


Optics shuttered rapidly with laughter. "Sorry. It seemed prudent to make sure you were finished talking, first. -and to answer you question," he preempted when Sam opened his mouth again, "Yes, Bumblebee is coming here to find you. But it is imperative that he does not find you, Sam. This may sound cruel, but from what I have seen I believe that he cares more for you than he does for Mikaela, if only a little bit-"

(-'I don't need a human'-'I don't want you to come'-)

Yeah, right. Fat chance of that.

"-and seeking him out to try to gain his aid would not be the wisest course of action given the circumstances."

Sam swallowed thickly, his own heart feeling oily and poisonous and alien in his chest.

"Yeah, that's...not going to happen," he mumbled darkly to himself.

Wheeljack nodded. "As soon as we part, you're going to need to run, Sam. And I mean that literally. It probably will not take them long to realize that we've separated." He held out a long white finger, pointing over Sam's shoulder. "There's a convenience market only 2.3 miles in that direction. Mikaela should still be at the local hospital if they have not transferred her somewhere else- use the pay phone to call for a cab."

Sam shivered slightly, the enormity of what he was about to do finally beginning to sink in. Knowing that he had to hike to a find a payphone made him wish he hadn't left his blackberry on the table beside his bed, thinking he wouldn't need it while learning to shoot a gun.

"How?" He asked, spreading his arms. "I don't have any money!"

"Call collect," Wheeljack advised, "C-A-L-L-A-T-T."

Sam narrowed his eyes at the engineer. "You've been watching late night television, haven't you?"

"Yes," Wheeljack affirmed. Then, cautiously, " that bad?"

Sam couldn't help giggling at that. Just a little.

Then, before he lost his nerve, he took a deep breath and spun on his heel, ready to launch himself into an all-out arm-flailing, pratt-falling sprint. But a light touch on his back stalled him, turning him gently back around. Wheeljack pulled his hand away and clenched his fingers into a fist.

"This I've seen on morning, afternoon, evening, and late night television. I can only conclude that it must, therefore, be acceptable."

The engineer extended his newly formed fist towards him, and after a moment of bewilderment Sam smiled grimly and bumped his own fist against Wheeljack's (-one last hand shake before heading off to the gallows-)

"Excellent!" the alien crowed, reclaiming his hand. "We are now 'bros'"

The pure, uninhibited joy Wheeljack exuded was infectious- Sam's smile stretched into a fierce, determined grin. (..everything's going to be all has to be...)

Apparently satisfied that all was now right with the world, the alien drew himself up to his full height and took a large step backwards. Glancing down at himself briefly, he shook his feet one at a time to sling off some of the mud sullying his pristine white armor, then leapt into the air, twisted, and came down as a motorcycle. A hologram driver flickered to life astride the seat, causing Sam to wince slightly- he could only hope no one noticed the way rain fell through the man in the black body suit rather than running across his back and shoulders.

Wheeljack's hologram waved at him, and a canned voice called out over the sound of the engine roaring to life, "Live long and prosper!"

Sam waved back weakly, legs suddenly going rubbery. It was very likely that he would never see the engineer again, either by getting killed himself or losing Wheeljack to the Decepticons hunting for him.

"You too," he whispered, then found himself adding, "You're wrong, by the way. You're not a coward." He blinked rapidly, trying to keep his eyes focused on the white form through the rain. Wheeljack was so tiny compared to Megatron and whatever thugs he had brought with him, and all he had to defend himself with was a sonic noise-maker thingy. When (-if!-) the Decepticons found him, it would not take them very long to tear him apart, no matter how bravely he fought. Just like Jazz. Just like Arcee. It would only take one blast, one crushing grip, and then it would be Wheeljack laid out in that sorry little underground garage, head fins gray and dark (-what good is a smile against a gun?-).

"You're not a coward," he said lowly, "You're very, very brave." In more ways than one.

Wheeljack's engine revved in response, tires spinning in place, kicking up mud.

"We have approximately one hour and 37 minutes before Bumblebee arrives, Sam!" he chattered eagerly, as if excited by that fact, voice so bright and happy it practically glowed (-no one's ever told you that, have they?-). "I suggest we commence prototype testing of the mate-recovery plan immediately!"

And with that, he spun in a tight little circle and zipped away, although not before Sam heard him singing-singing!-

"Oooh I've got a metric ton of coconuts, di-da-li-di-!"

Sam could only stare after him for a moment as he disappeared into the veil of falling rain, then slowly shook his head.

"I always get stuck with the lunatics," he muttered.

And with one last glance towards the place where is last and best ally had disappeared, Sam broke into a run.


The light coming from the windows of the 7-11 shone like a beacon in a storm-tossed sea.

As Sam struggled over the low chain-link fence and squished his way through the mostly empty parking lot, tortured breaths wheezing in his chest, legs muscles screaming and cramping from sprinting through the urban landscape like a man possessed, the sight of the 'Open' sign in the doorway seemed like a handwritten note from God assuring him entrance into heaven. If heaven had been adorned with unlighted neon cigarette signs, sprinkled with litter, and smelled of three-day-old bean burritos. And if heaven had somehow been transplanted smack-dab in the middle of Hell's watery cousin.

His eyes sagged closed with blissful relief as he slowed into a jog that rapidly morphed into a stumbling shuffle-step, never so grateful to see a run-down and hopelessly dirty convenience store. Staggering towards the glass door felt like coming home; here was air conditioning, here was a shelter from the rain, here was normalcy and, at long last, a way to call for help- the payphone.

(-the phone lay off the hook, connected to nothing but static- no one tells you the worst part is not knowing-)

'Just a little longer, I promise.'

As Sam all but fell into the door and leaned his weight against the metal bar to ease it open, his breath caught with the sudden, overwhelming desire to call his parents. The urge to hear their voices again, to run to them with the life-ending burdens crushing him into a pulp and hope that they could save him like they always did, to know that no matter how bad things got, no matter how insurmountable a problem seemed, everything would always turn out right in the end because his parents were there, because his mother was a demon with a baseball bat and his father always had his trusty golf club, was so strong he almost laid down right there in the doorway and cried.

But then the door was creaking open, the bell above it clanking noisily, the smell of sweat and ammonia and cooking oil washing over him as harsh fluorescent light stung his eyes and the soft strains of foreign tv show tickled his ears, and the swelling tide receded. This was not heaven, and home was not safe. Time to be a big boy, Sam. Time to open the closet door and face down the monsters.

(-'You're a soldier now!-)

He squeezed himself inside the 7-11 and leaned back against the door to close it behind him, shutting out the rain trying to thrust itself through the crack. Then, taking a deep breath in through his nose and puffing it out through his mouth, he pushed himself forward-

And froze in his tracks at the sound of a man pointedly clearing his throat.

Sam twitched so hard he nearly hurt himself (-chill, it's not a Decepticon, there are no Decepticons here-), head swiveling towards the sound. His eyes immediately found the source of the flemy disturbance; a pudgy, balding man, maybe around forty or fifty, stood behind the counter with his meaty arms crossed over his chest, a scowl hitched onto his face.

"Uh..." Sam said intelligently, holding out his hands to show that he didn't plan on robbing the guy or anything, "Yo no speaky Indian- Hindu! I mean Hindu. I'm from out of town, you know, on vacation..." he trailed off when the man's expression didn't change. Deciding to change tactics, he held up two fingers in a peace sign and said cheerfully, "I like cows too. We could be brothers. You and me, best friends forever, loving cows..."

He trailed off as the man's gaze slowly roved downward, glaring at his pants and shoes. Sam followed his gaze, looking down at himself.

" don't like my pants?" But then he noticed the puddle he was making, as well as the plastic fiber rug a few inches to his right, and it clicked. "Oh. Oh! Sorry."

And he stepped sideways onto the rug, making a big show of ringing the water from his hair and jacket and wiping off his shoes, maintaining what he hoped was a friendly rather than homicidal grin.

(-Don't let them see what lies beneath the mask-)

Luckily his actions seemed to appease the owner, and without a word or even an acknowledging grunt he seated himself in a groaning plastic folding chair and turned his attention back to the ancient TV (with bonus coat hanger antenna) propped on the counter. He thumbed up the volume, and proceeded to studiously ignore his only customer, humming loudly along with the show.

"Yep. Glad to meet you too," Sam mumbled under his breath (still not entirely certain that the clerk didn't speak perfect english and was simply letting him make a fool of himself). Then, newly rung out like a human-shaped sponge, he started towards the back of the store in a much less sodden fashion, shoes squeaking obnoxiously. It wasn't lost on him that there was a land line phone in plain view behind the counter, but he sensed that any attempt to request its use would be met with a stony silence, and he would rather face a dozen Decepticons then to be caught sneaking in a phone call behind the clerk's back. So, payphone it was.

For a moment, passing between the drink refrigerators and the candy shelves, Sam felt a flash of panic at the thought that, like in most places in America, the store's payphone had been traded in for scrap under the looming pressure of the cell phone age. But then he saw a long red metal box with a glass window hanging on the wall above the sink- one of those old fire boxes reading 'in case of emergency, break glass'- holding, of all things, a wooden handled ax, and the fear subsided. If this place was enough of a blast from the past to have something as awesome and useful and potentially child endangering as an ax, they were almost guaranteed to have a payphone.

And when not a moment later the candy row ended, he saw that he was right- in a small alcove in the very back of the store, hidden from view by the row of refrigerators on one side and a counter of Slurpy machines on the other, the blue and black payphone looked as though it had not been touched for a hundred years. His heart twinged with fear at the sight of the thick layer of dust coating the plastic, but as soon as he picked up the handset his fear was relieved by the clear, annoying buzz of a dial tone echoing from the speaker. Excellent. He was in business.

Thrilled and uplifted at his unbelievable luck (-please don't screw me this time, god, I need something to go right for once-), he wedged himself into the alcove, jamming the handset up against his ear. His hands shook so much from mingled anxiety and relief, anticipation and dread, that his fingers ended up mashing several buttons at once when he went to dial in the number, eliciting a painful bleep of protest from the speaker.

Sam paused, closing his eyes, trying to center himself like all those Yoga gurus advised. He tried thinking of forest clearings or blue lakes, but the visions somehow kept morphing into scenes from his nightmares- Mikaela being chased through the woods by a nameless Decepticon with blood red eyes, Mikaela being dragged down into the murky depths by a lithe mechanical body that glimmered briefly in the sun before plunging back down beneath the waves, disappearing into the blackness. And any attempt to concentrate on his breathing or heartbeat (-another heart, another soul, bound together like a spider caught in a web-) led him back to thoughts that he had firmly decided back in that tunnel to Not Think About until Mikaela was safe, so that was out.

So rather than trying to not think about Mikaela, he focused on her instead, using thoughts of her smiling, laughing, to feed the terrible snarling thing in his chest, letting its determination, its impassioned rage, clear his mind of all doubt and distraction. And it worked- sort of. At least enough to let him punch in some numbers he vaguely remembered from a commercial featuring Carrot top.

Then he waited, listening to the sound of static crackling on the other end of the line. Nothing. No prompt, no dial tone. Was he supposed to enter a phone number? He stabbed at pound with his thumb, hoping to get the operator. Still nothing.

Breathe, don't panic. You're probably just doing it wrong.

Wondering if maybe starting over would do the trick, like rebooting a computer, he pressed down on the hook to disconnect the call, waited a beat, and let it spring back up.

But to his utter confusion, the dial tone did not return.

Brows furrowing together, he pressed down the hook more forcefully, holding it to a count of ten before releasing. Still nothing. No dial tone, no recorded message, no annoying beeping, nothing. Nothing but static.

Yet something stopped him from slamming the phone back down in frustration. There was something...wrong about the empty hiss coming from the speaker, more wrong than simply a dropped connection or a busted phone. The longer he listened to it, pressing the hand set ever more intensely against his ear, straining to hear something, anything, the more he became convinced that someone on the other end was listening to him.

The feeling of wrongness grew, stealing his breath and slicking his palms with sweat. He felt transfixed, frozen, like a rabbit looking into the headlights of an oncoming semi and being mesmerized by the sight, feeling himself holding his breath in the hopes that whatever was listening on the other line wouldn't hear him. His heart began to race, knocking painfully against his ribs and shoving itself up into his throat, the tension pulling taught like a guitar string stretched beyond endurance, pulling tighter and tighter-

Sam jerked the handset away from his head, panting, every hair on his body standing on end. He stared at it wearily, no longer convinced of the innocence of blue plastic, then moved to hang it back up.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Letting out a short, breathless cry of alarm, Sam dropped the phone, jumping backwards and slamming into the wall of the alcove. The cord caught the handset as it fell and set it swinging wildly back and forth, bouncing slightly around his knees. The speaker twisted towards him and away, towards him and away.

Sam covered the side of his face with his good hand, trying to get his heartbeat back under control. He couldn't afford to be carted to the hospital like Mikaela for a heart attack- even though they would be in the same place, the heart attack part would put him out of commission. He wouldn't be able to do anyone any good while lying in a medicated stupor.

Besides, he had probably just imagined the lilting, otherworldly voice emerging from the speaker. He was stressed, that was all- even Super Sam probably had mild nervous breakdowns on occasion. Yeah. That was it

(-pretend the monsters aren't real and they'll go away-)

Firmly determined not to let himself be afraid of a phone (much less an imaginary voice that could, at worst, do no more than shout at him, no matter how creepy said voice was), Sam slowly reached down to retrieve the dangling handset, then carefully lifted it back towards the hook.

"The false Prime is in danger."

This time, there was not a shadow of doubt in Sam's mind that the voice was real- no hallucination could have been so very convincing. 'Prime'. The voice was an alien. A Decepticon.

Swallowing back the urge to fling the phone down again and run for the hills, he hesitantly brought it back to his ear, hoping that it wouldn't go all Steven King on him and bite off a chunk of cartilage.

"Who are you?" He demanded quietly, so as to not attract the attention of the clerk. When his words wobbled a little on the way out he wanted to kick himself. Stop being afraid! "What do you want with me?"

How had they discovered where he was so quickly? Weren't they supposed to be tracking Wheeljack? His gut clenched suddenly at the thought that they had already gotten Wheeljack, and now, with their appetites whetted by the appetizer, had decided to move on to the main course.

"I want you to save him."

Sam did a double take. Wasn't the Decepticon supposed to be promising to let Mikaela go if he walked up the ramp into the slaughter house all on his own?
"Huh?" He whispered, breathing shallowly, "'Save him'? Who's 'him'?"

"The last hope of an Ancient; a life unwillingly reborn. The false Prime."

Sam couldn't help but snort.

"Well you wanna know something, Decepticreep?" He glanced over his shoulder just to make sure the clerk wasn't approaching, "You're in for a real shock- the Fallen is dead. Kaput. Optimus wiped the floor with him in Egypt. How long have you been out of the loop, anyway?"

"The Fallen was not a false Prime."

Sam shakily blew out his breath.

"Look, I don't know what kind of master plan you're trying to drag me into here, but I don't want any part of it," he whispered heatedly, sounding far braver than he actually felt talking to the mysterious Decepticon. Like the empty static on the phone line, there was something indefinably wrong with the voice emanating from the speaker. He wanted nothing more than to hang up on the creep, but an invisible force rooted him in place, staying his hand. It was like talking to God- you just didn't hang up on God. Except unlike God, this voice made his skin crawl, tickling his ear with an icy breath that he would have found more appropriate coming from Satan.

"You are already part of it."

"Gee, thanks. Really appreciate it."

"As is your mate."

His hand contracted around the handset, cracking the ancient blue plastic.

"Why do you low-lives always have to pick on girls?" he snarled darkly, "What's the matter, don't have enough balls to come get me yourself?"

"And your bonded."

The three simple words caused his insides to vanish, filling him with ice, shorting out his anger beneath a deluge of fear, of denial (-no no no- it's not true- it's not true-). And somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice whispered 'How does he know?'

"That's not-" he choked. "-We're not-"

"All of you will be needed, so I will give you a warning."

Sam tried to marshal his thoughts, repeatedly kicking himself in the head with a mental foot to try to restart his brain, but his inner Yoga guru had tripped off the edge of a cliff the instant the Decepticon mentioned Bumblebee (-Bee, I'm sorry, please don't go-) and without him Sam couldn't seem to find his footing. With his equilibrium gone, he clung to the only thing still keeping him anchored, using it to sharpen his determination, his focus.

"Where's Mikaela? What have you freaks done with her?"

But the Decepticon didn't seem to be listening.

"Tell me something, Sam- why is the humming gone?"

"What do you mean? What humming?"

He pulled the phone away from his ear angrily, leaning around the edge of the alcove to listen to the interior of the store, just to prove that the Decepticon was every bit as nuts as he sounded when his ears detected nothing out of place. But with his view of the front counter no longer blocked by a wall, he realized suddenly that the clerk was gone. The TV still blared out a nauseating spectacle of Ballywood at its best, but its audience of one had vanished. Thinking back, he realized that the creepy alien was right- the clerks' off-key humming had been following him through the store up until moments ago, when it suddenly cut out.

But the old guy was nowhere to be seen- maybe he had just gone for a bathroom break? Why was the lack of humming a warning?

Then, suddenly, a shape moved behind the counter.

A familiar tail of spiked silver vertebra rose up on the other side of the linoleum, its end, resembling nothing so much as a grappling hook, barbed like a thistle flower of knives. As he watched, the knives split apart, flipping around and sliding back together to form a single, wickedly sharp dagger thrusting from the end of the tail. The snake-like limb held the blade aloft, positioning it with the precision of a surgeon, and then thrust it back down past the lip of the counter, disappearing from view once more. There was the wet snick-thump of metal sinking into flesh, and then absolute silence. The tiny Ballywood actors danced on unaware, singing and smiling.

"Try the third neck joint," the Decepticon advised, voice tiny. The speaker clicked once, and then the dial tone started up again.

In the movies, the hero always sprung into action the moment he spotted danger, looking cool and calm and perfectly coifed as he snuck up around behind the bad guys hunting for him, beat them to a pulp with little to no effort, stripped them of their uniforms, stole their guns, and made a daring escape in the conveniently placed benz/yacht/helicopter. They were always in control, always had a plan, and no bad guy- no matter how devious his plots or elaborate his shark tanks or waxed his mustache- had the ability to scare them stiff. It was like violating a law of nature for the hero to be afraid in anything more than the most abstract sense.

But as Sam had come to find, real life was nothing like the movies. And he was nothing like 007 or Bruce Willis. So when he realized that a Decepticon had found him- when he realized that the demented hell-cat Ravage had somehow risen from the dead and had stalked him to a 7-11- and it became painfully, terrifyingly obvious when the voice hung up that he was alone in an enclosed space with a dead guy and nothing but a gun to protect himself, he did what no hero was supposed to do at the crucial moment; he froze.

Motor control deserted him; his limbs stiffened like fast-drying concrete. His eyes could only stare, unblinking, at the place the mechanical tail had disappeared, the invisible presence behind the counter glowing like a coal in his mind, sucking all the air from the room and leaving him leaning stupidly out into the open, lips slightly parted, phone still held to his head with the cord pulled taught. The gibbering remains of his coherent mind began mumbling every prayer he could think of, wishing with all his might that if he just held still the alien wouldn't know he was there and would leave again.

(-Don't move, don't blink, don't breathe, it can't hurt you if it can't find you-)

When a long moment passed without incident, only the dial tone at his ear and the voices from the TV breaking the painful stillness, Sam began to hope that maybe Ravage really had left. There was no movement anywhere in the store that he could see, no sound of claws clicking against tile, just the pattering of the rain and the chorus of Hindu voices, just buzzing lights and brightly colored candy bars. And despite the fact that he couldn't get the programs to respond to his requests for info (something that would normally be a welcome improvement to sharing headspace), he felt himself beginning to relax, breathing out softly and loosening his grip on the phone-

-and a lithe metal body suddenly leapt up onto the counter, crouching low as its head swung slowly from side to side. The single enormous optic recessed above the rows of chainsaw fangs took in the store with all the lifeless, deadly intent of a camera lens, like the kind used by serial killers watching their victims from a window. Searching. Waiting. Watching.

Sam clenched his jaw around an inarticulate cry, jerking himself back inside the alcove with such force that his head cracked painfully against the opposite wall. Only by hanging onto his common sense with his teeth did he stop himself sobbing out a litany of 'oh god, oh god, no, please, no, god!' and trying to tear his way through the wall to get away from Ravage. Speaking would make noise. Moving would make noise. His only stroke of luck so far was that Ravage did not yet seem to know exactly where he was, although he knew that couldn't last for long. He tried snatching at the programs again, frustrated and a little perturbed when he was met with nothing but silence, as if there were no programs to begin with.

Forcing himself to breathe, to think through the panic that threatened to overwhelm him as he heard Ravage leap to the floor (and as he slowly realized that no invasive Cybertronian technology would be coming to his rescue), he wrenched his mind from the hole it had thrown itself into and forced it to plan.

Okay, priority number one: survive. That much was obvious. But though his instincts shouted at him to escape, he realized that running out the door or squeezing himself through a window would be a fatal mistake. Ravage was faster than him- a lot faster than him. At least inside the store there were obstacles in its path, but out in the parking lot the robot would easily be able to run him down and crush him with a single pounce. But Sam knew he would only be able to play 'dodge the feline alien' for so long before that too ended with him as a human meat snack, especially since his super senses had conveniently abandoned him.

Suddenly hit by a flash of brilliance, Sam dialed in the number 108 as quickly and quietly as he could, prompted by a hazy memory of a page in a book listing the world-wide emergency phone numbers, since 911 tended not to work outside of America. If he could keep himself alive long enough for help to show up, maybe Ravage would decide he didn't want to tangle with a bunch of cops toting guns and take off. The demon cat might have been able to take on two or three people at a time, maybe even four, but lacking the deadly long-range fire power of the other Decepticons and boasting of a stature not much bigger than a flesh-and-blood mountain lion, a dozen armed humans just might be able to deter it. Hopefully.

But almost immediately, his brilliant plan turned into a nightmare when a voice began jabbering loudly on the other end of the line.

"Shit shit shit!" Sam hissed, fumbling and dropping the phone, a cold, fearful sweat breaking out on his skin when he realized just how loud the 108 operator was. Finally regaining his grip on the phone, he clamped his hand over the speaker to try to muffle the sound, furtively shushing it (as if the device would somehow register his alarm and shut up). But a trickle of noise stubbornly continued to leak out between his fingers, and not knowing what else to do Sam fumbled it back onto the hook, making even more noise in the process.

When silence descended once more, he strained his ears, listening, knowing that there was no way the alien hadn't heard the racket he'd just made. The fact that he couldn't hear claws ticking against linoleum was far from reassuring- Ravage only made noise while it wasn't actively stalking something. And although he couldn't see the robot, he knew it was close, too close, and that if he wanted to survive he needed to get out of the alcove immediately.

Ducking low so that his body was hidden from view by the shelves, he reached his right hand inside his jacket and carefully pulled the gun from its holster, holding it in a two-handed grip as he gingerly began to ease his way out of the alcove, looking up and down the aisle to make sure he wasn't about to be pounced upon.

'Where is it?'

To his right was a line of refrigerators, to the left was the slurpy counter. Lots of sugar, calories, and plastic wrappers (even a shelf of wine and beer bottles, if he wasn't mistaken) but no stalking metal aliens.

'Come on, you big pussy. Where are you?'

And to his surprise, the god-voice from before answered.

-Look up-

Without pausing to think about the ramifications of following the advice of a disembodied voice (who might or might not have been trying to get him killed by distracting him), Sam felt his head instinctually jerk upwards, eyes scanning the tops of the shelves, and he raised the gun to follow his line of sight as he craned his neck, combing the ceiling to the left and right-

A blur of silver exploded towards him from the top of the nearest refrigerator, maw opened wide onto hundreds of metal fangs. Sam yelped and tried to duck out of the way, blocking his head with his shoulder, remembering that he held a gun only a split second too late. Heavy metal paws collided with his upraised forearm with the force of a speeding truck, claws missing his eyes by scant centimeters. The gun went off in his hand, missing his attacker entirely and shattering something behind the feral cat. The force of impact sent him flying backwards, slamming him into the floor several feet away, rattling his teeth in his skull and causing black stars to burst before his eyes. Ravage, propelled by its own momentum, kept going even as he stopped, rolling away from him and skidding to its feet as lithely as any jungle cat.

And then, to Sam's shock, it merely waited for him to roll onto his stomach and push himself back to his feet, head tracking his slightest movement, tail thrashing lazily from side to side, metallic snarls dripping from between his teeth. Just like a real cat, Sam realized suddenly- it was playing with its food. Oh great, a creepy, sadistic, cat-shaped alien planned to torment him in his last moments before chewing his guts out-

But then he stopped, a stray thought pulling him up short. Ravage may have been stronger and faster and way sneakier than him, but if it really was as animalistic, as simple as it appeared, then maybe he would be able to out think it.

Shakily clambering to his feet, Sam redoubled his grip around the gun, aiming it right for Ravage's eye.

"Come on, kitty, you want to play?" The robot tensed, lowering itself into a crouch, metal claws digging deep furrows in the floor. "Here kitty kitty kitty-"

Something erupted upwards from between his feet, deeply scoring his hand and knocking the gun from his grip. Sam could only catch a brief glimpse of a tiny, stooped figure as thin as the blade of a knife- like stamped sheet metal given animation- before tiny, needle-like fingers were tearing into him, scrambling up his body, slicing into everything it could reach, and then all he could think of was Frenzy and 'get it off, get it off!' and 'shit, that stupid cat is smarter than it looks'.

Ravage lunged for him again, taking advantage of his distraction. Sam tried to duck beneath the leaping robot, but the master predator had obviously anticipated the move, swinging its tail down between its legs as if flew over top of him so that the heavy grappling hook thing on the end caught him in the stomach, sending him and the thin little freak flying backwards into the slurpy machines.

Red and orange slurpy spilled everywhere as he collided with the dispensers, tipping them over and ripping the cords from the light sockets, exposing sparking wires. Normally he would have tried to avoid rolling around in sticky puddles of partially iced fruit punch, but with the wind soundly knocked out of him and a mini me stick figure swarming beneath his clothes, jabbering loudly and trying to kill him with paper cuts, he wasn't too worried about getting messy.

Gasping air back into his straining lungs, trying to keep from having needles stuck through his eyes while keeping a look out for Ravage, he realized that he was going to lose very quickly fighting against two enemies at once. He needed to find a way to get rid of shorty, and fast.

His hands fumbled along the counter, looking for any sort of weapon he could use now that he'd lost his gun- a plastic knife, a beer bottle, even a piece of broken glass- but encountered nothing other than spilled slurpy, plastic cups, and thick electrical cords. The tiny robot scurried up along his chest, taking advantage of his momentary distraction, and started forward to attack his face with its razor blade fingers. Sam reached up with his hands before it could start carving and seized its thrashing limbs, pulling them away from his head, stubbornly retaining his grip even when the freak turned to assaulting his hands and wrists. He held the thrashing thing out at arm's length, turning his head to the side to keep its sharp fingers from getting at his eyes-

And spotted the ruin of the wall outlet exposed by the fallen slurpy machines, its guts pulled out and strewn along the counter, sparking dangerously.

Quickly glancing around for Ravage, he found the robotic feline turning to him again, stalking leisure towards the ruined slurpy counter. A plan began to form in his mind.

Sam waited, blocking out the pain in his hands as Razor Blade (as he had dubbed the tiny freak) continued to tear at him, shrieking indignantly, watching Ravage slowly creep closer, waiting until the alien lowered itself into a crouch and sprang forward.

Wrenching Razor blade to the side, he thrust the annoying robot towards the sparking outlet, remembering at the last moment that metal was an excellent conductor and letting go, leaving the robot to skid along the counter as he threw himself forward beneath the lunging predator sailing towards his head-

An almighty scream rent the air as Razor Blade and Ravage together collided with the wall and the shredded wires. Lethal arcs of electricity scurried over the thrashing pair, strobing over writhing metal with intermittent bursts of light that elicited mechanical howls of agony, like the shriek of rusted iron being torn in two.

Breathing heavily, Sam scrambled off the counter and backed away until his back met a shelf, eyes glued to Ravage as the feline robot began to extricate itself from the tangle of striped wires and the conducting pool of slurpy, its normally silken motions uncharacteristically erratic, white sparks jumping from its joints and flashing between its teeth. Wrenching his eyes away from the robot, knowing that if Ravage decided to come after him again he would have only moments, Sam began to hurriedly search for his gun, wanting to have something between him and those fangs besides air. His eyes scanned the floor, looking for the telltale gleam of burnished metal, but he could only find fallen Snickers bars and orange pools of melted slurpy. It must have slid beneath a shelf or one of the refrigerators.

Yet before the desperate, gibbering voice in his mind could convince him that it would be a good idea to get down on his hands and knees- thereby making himself vulnerable to attack- and begin peering under shelves and cabinets to locate his lost gun, a dry coughing sound drew his attention back to Ravage. The feline robot, still clearly alive despite his best efforts to melt its insides via electrocution, hunched over the crumpled, scorched body of Razor Blade, unhinging its jaw and moving in as if to swallow the smaller robot whole. And, to Sam's shock and disgust, it did...sort of. Razor blades' body, as if directed by remote control, began to fold up on itself like a Swiss army knife whose extended blades are suddenly retracted, reducing it from a multi-limbed little freak to a single shining blade. And then, most strangely of all, that single blade began to bead, like water droplets appearing on the outside of a glass, metal condensing into millions of tiny spheres that separated from the whole and were sucked up into Ravage's mouth as if by a vacuum. When the last tiny sphere had disappeared down the cat's throat, Ravage rehinged its jaw, shook slurpy from its body, and turned its single, glaring eye towards Sam.

'This is SO not good.'

Weaponless, exhausted, slicked with blood from dozens of tiny cuts all over his body, facing down a cat demon who had taken 10,000 volts and come out no worse for wear, Sam did the only thing any sane person could do- he turned around and hauled ass.

No longer taking its time and toying with him, Ravage darted after his retreating back like a bullet loosed from a gun, letting out a guttural roar. Shouting wordlessly, feeling fangs only inches from the back of his neck, Sam took a hard left and the end of the row, vaulted over another set of shelves in a move worthy of the Olympics, and took off back the way he came, trying to remember what all those animal planet shows had said about zig-zagging to avoid a predator. He heard Ravage skidding across the slick floor behind him, claw scrabbling at tile to find purchase, and estimated that he had gained himself, at most, a second of time by his quick turn. The alien may have been flexible and agile, but by virtue of its sheer size it carried much more inertia than Sam, making it harder for the robot to execute sudden turns, especially when the floor was slick with cherry coke and orange soda from the broken slurpy machines.

By the burning in his legs and the tightness in his chest, Sam knew he wouldn't be able to keep this up for long. He needed those cops to come bursting through the door before he became cat food, not after. What was taking so long?

Reaching out an arm as he ran, Sam snagged a bottle of wine from the top of one of the shelves as he passed, hefting it up over his good shoulder like a baseball bat. Once more reaching the end of the row, seeing Ravage begin to lunge to the side in obvious anticipation of catching him trying to make a quick turn (why did the rabid cats always have to be smart?), Sam decided to do something he knew the alien would never expect. He stopped in his tracks and twisted to face Ravage, swinging the bottle around his body as he moved, and smashed it as hard as he could into the alien's butt-ugly face.

The robot shrieked as the glass broke around its head, showering it in red wine. Sam jumped away, still clutching the broken neck of the bottle, carefully eyeing the alien as he backed towards the other end of the store. It pawed at its head, mewling, showing no sign of suddenly darting after him. And when it finally lifted its head, Sam could see why- somehow, the wine bottle had struck the Decepticon in the face with enough force to shatter its single optic. Wires and shards of glass spilled down its face as it restlessly shook its head, the amber glow that normally lit the optic flickering wildly.

When the robot began pawing at the ground, striding in a small circle as its jaw worked restlessly, seeming not to notice him standing six feet away, Sam felt his heart soar- he had blinded it!

(-Score one for the good guys! Whoop!-)

Knowing that he now had a chance of successfully eluding the robot out in the open, Sam decided to make his escape. Stepping as lightly as he could, never taking his eyes from Ravage (that robot was way more dangerous when he couldn't see it), he began to creep towards the door. Ravage, as if sensing his intentions, lifted its head and began to prowl through the store, twitching its muzzle from side to side as it went like a dog trying to trace his scent. Sam continued to back away from it, not even daring to breathe, watching as it stalked away from him and disappeared from view behind a shelf. Absolute stillness descended once more, broken only by the sound coming from the TV, which was now showing a black and white John Wayne movie. His heart beat faster as soon as Ravage left his line of sight, worried that the robot might try sneaking up behind him. It had sensors with enough data-collecting power to put MRI's to shame- even if it could not see him, there was nothing to prevent it from tracking the sound of his heartbeat or the smell of his blood. Why was it having trouble finding him? Was it trying to fool him into thinking it was helpless to trap him? His blood iced at the thought, and suddenly fearful that Ravage was lurking behind him at that very moment, Sam spun in a tight little circle, hands coming up to shield his face.

But he need not have bothered- the aisle behind him was empty. That was...odd.

Slowly, carefully, trying to make as little noise as possible (very difficult, given that his wet shoes had taken on the habit of squeaking very loudly whenever he stepped down wrong) he turned back around to continue sneaking towards the exit-

And banged into Ravage hard enough to rattle his jaw.

The feline robot sat facing him, as still as Megadeath's artistic reinterpretation of an ancient Egyptian statue, flickering optic glaring at him accusingly. Before he could jump away- before he could even scream- a heavy mechanical paw lashed out, catching him full in the chest, and crushed him to the floor beneath the robot.

Sam writhed against the linoleum as Ravage stood and began trying to touch the floor through his chest cavity. The pressure was unlike any pain he had ever felt before- the air was crushed from his lungs as Ravage slowly applied his weight, introducing Sam to the thoroughly terrifying sensation of being completely unable to breathe, no matter how hard his diaphragm spasmed. And then his ribs began to groan, and he could no longer remember his own name, kicking his legs out weakly and pulling at the Ravage's leg, trying with all his might to push up against the force threatening to flatten his heart and finding that his fingers only slipped away.

The alien's spiked tail slowly arched into view over its head, grappling hook tip reforming itself into the same dagger it had used to finish off the clerk, and suddenly Sam knew that he was about to die, but he couldn't even draw breath to scream-

A foreign voice called out from somewhere behind Ravage, shouting a command that rung with authority for all Sam could not understand the words, and a moment later the air split with the thunderous rapport of a gun going off. A bullet bounced off the back of the alien's head with an ear-splitting crack and a burst of blue sparks, and suddenly the dagger was unfolding itself, the pressure on his chest retreating as Ravage curiously raised its head and turned towards the source of the disturbance.

Glancing between the metal paws, Sam caught sight of a pair of khaki sheathed legs standing just inside the door (since when do cops where khaki?) and felt himself sag with relief. The cavalry had arrived on the scene. He wouldn't be turned into a shish-kebob after all.

As Ravage pulled away from him to face the shouting cop, Sam peeled himself from the floor and scrambled back as fast as he could, wheezing raggedly, feeling like one gigantic bruise and hoping that he hadn't cracked any ribs. Reaching over, he knocked the boxes of instant noodles from the shelf next to his head with a fumbled hand, then used the makeshift crutch to pull himself back to his feet. Wobbling slightly, trying to get his breath back and keep from falling at the same time (it was amazingly hard to multitask when his entire body throbbed in time with his galloping heart) he looked towards the door, expecting to see half a dozen police cars parked outside in the rain and at least a dozen cops swarming into the store with bazookas and air support. Instead, he saw a bicycle with a plastic-wrapped seat fallen on its side just outside the door, and a single cop would couldn't have been much older than he was, wielding only a night stick and a hand gun.

The cop continued shouting as Ravage lazily stalked closer, stupidly unaware that he was making himself an even bigger target by yelling out orders to cease and desist. Sam tried to call out to him, to warn him, but couldn't seem to get enough air into his lungs to speak. But then, in the space of a heartbeat, it was all over- Ravage lunged forward like a striking snake, jaws catching the man around the throat even as he emptied his gun into the robot's chest, yanking him forward and slinging him from side to side like a rag doll. There was a loud, sickening crack, and his struggles abruptly ceased, body going limp like a puppet whose strings have been sliced cleanly through. Ravage gave the corpse another vicious sling just for good measure, then flung it to the ground.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again. Nope, the cop was still dead, lying silently on the floor with his head at an impossible angle. He had to have been only 26 or so, at the most. He had probably just started making the rounds as a full time cop, maybe even had a wife and baby waiting for him at home. He had slogged through the monsoon on a bicycle and bravely faced down a Decepticon, only to be swiftly and brutally done away with, all because Sam had called for help to save his own skin.

He clamped a hand to his mouth to keep himself from puking, backing towards the rear of the store as Ravage idly nudged the body with one paw. Then, certain it was dead, it twisted around it face its original prey, stalking towards Sam with something he could have sworn was hunger in the way its jaw worked absently, metal fangs grinding together. The way it moved suggested that it was in no hurry, convinced that its prey would now be too frightened to fight back.

Blinding it had obviously not impeded its ability to track him, or its cold intelligence- trying to make a run for it would not get him anywhere but dumped into a shallow grave. And waiting for help to arrive was no longer an option, as said help was currently lying dead on the floor. There was nothing he could do, no way to escape the alien, either by fleeing or by lying low. He was trapped, a mouse in a lion pit, looking up at freedom and knowing it was unreachable.

It was at that moment, watching fanged death slink closer, that Sam knew he would have to kill Ravage.

The thought of the insurmountable task before him- one which he knew Wheeljack would probably say he had only a .01% chance of surviving- should have sent him gibbering in fear. But instead, looking back toward the dead cop lying on the floor where the alien had left him, forever still and silent, something awoke in Sam's chest. Righteous, boiling anger filled the hollow space inside him left by fear and horror. How dare the robot- and all the other Decepticons- just expect humanity to lay down and die! How dare they strike the first blow and not expect to be struck back! How dare they rampage around the planet killing and destroying as they saw fit, laughing and crying out, 'run little fleshy, run'!

Feeling his gaze sharpen into a flinty glare, his backward stumbling morphed into calm, deadly strides, animal instincts guiding his muscles, black fire honing his mind.

"I am not prey," he whispered darkly, viciously, "I am a human. I am the dominant species on this planet. I am a predator."

The reptilian part of his brain registered the slight shift in the robot's stance, prompting him to hop back and to the side just as the barbed tail shot forward and thunked deeply into the tile where he had been standing a moment before. In the second it took for Ravage to yank the barbed end of his tail from where it had hooked into the concrete, Sam lunged for one of the refrigerators behind the alien and pulled the humming unit away from the wall with all his might. The refrigerator groaned, shuddered, and tipped ponderously forward; Ravage let out a curiously human scream as it was crushed beneath the falling appliance amid a cacophony of breaking glass and bursting cans of soda.

As soon as the alien was smashed into the floor, Sam took off at a dead run across the store, grabbing up a beer bottle as he went. His gun would have been as useless as the cop's against Ravage (he didn't know why he had ever thought differently) so he didn't both to try looking for it again. Instead, he ran towards the fire box hanging on the wall, turned his face away, and smashed the bottle of beer into the glass window.

Frothing golden liquid flowed down his wrist and over his arm as both the bottle and the glass cover shattered. Sam dropped the broken bottle neck to the floor, then reached into the fire box with both hands and lifted the long handled ax from its hooks. It was heavier than he'd thought it would be, resting against his skin with an honest, deadly weight. The sharp, curving blade- pristine from never having been used- gleamed in the light, a weapon of last resort, a means for breaking down doors and splitting open locks, so simple and primitive yet capable of great power.

Behind him the refrigerator groaned, shifting. Sam transferred the ax to his right hand, holding it in a tight, ready grip at his side, and turned back towards Ravage. Snarling, clicking, the Decepticon struggled its way out from beneath the weight pinning it to the floor, furiously knocking soda cans aside with one long sweep of its tail.

Sam coiled his muscles as it turned to him, murder flickering in its eye, and hefted the ax in his hand, dropping down into a fighting stance. Every inch of him hummed with animal strength, lending him the same power that allowed mothers to lift cars from their children, women to overpower their attackers, and prehistoric humans to fight and kill the very creatures that the alien before him attempted to imitate.

"You want a piece of me?" He shouted, possessed by righteous fury so hot it burned. "Huh? You want a piece of me?" Ravage crouched, growling like a chain saw, ready to spring. "Well bring it ON!"

The alien lunged; Sam dodged to the side, narrowly avoiding being hit head-on, and raised the ax high over his head as Ravage brushed past him. The snarling head whipped back around to try to reach him, teeth flashing for his jugular, and Sam brought the ax down with every scrap of strength in his body on its spiked tail.

A terrible, blood-curdling shriek rent the air as the titanium tip bit deeply into the joint between two vertebrae, slicing through delicate wires. Ravage twisted and writhed, trying to get away, but Sam merely planted a foot on the partially severed end of the tail, pinning it to the floor with his weight, and- letting out a wild cry of his own- brought the ax down again, slicing the rest of the way through the mechanical appendage.

Ravage shrieked again, even more awfully than the first time—its cry warbling as if in terrible pain- and jumped away, leaving the still-twitching end of its tail behind. But before Sam had a chance to enjoy his small victory, the alien immediately turned and came for him again- and this time, the big cat wasn't playing games. Ravage rushed him, streaking forward with its dark maw opened wide to bite, and Sam barely had time to stumble back a foot or two before it was on him again. He griped the handle of the ax with both hands and brought it up in front of him just in time- powerful metal jaws snapped closed inches from his head, held back only by the thick length of oak rammed sideways between them like a bridle.

Radiating a furious energy, Ravage continued to push into him, jaws snapping again and again around the wooden handle of the ax, coming closer to his face each time. Sam tried to push back, arms straining to hold frothing alien away from him, but found himself no match for Ravage's sheer size and strength. He lost his footing and fell to the floor, leaving him once more partially trapped beneath the alien's bulk. Ravage leaned his weight into the handle, continuing to rapidly bite around the wood, jaws working so quickly the robot could have given a wind-up alligator a run for its money, and to his horror Sam felt his arms giving under the pressure.

Suddenly, the parting words of the Decepticon on the other end of the payphone reverberated through his mind, the meaning behind them resounding like a gong through his entire being.

"Try the third neck joint"

Sam looked up at Ravage, eyes searching past the rows of flashing teeth, past the flickering amber optic, hunting along its neck, counting out one, two, three...

"Try the third neck joint"

The Decepticon had given him exactly what he needed to kill Ravage.

Feeling a sudden, renewed burst of energy, Sam brought his legs up and planted his feet against the alien's chest. He yanked the ax towards him rather than pushing it away from him, and caught off guard by the sudden change, Ravage was jerked forward by the length of wood hooked behind its teeth. Sam kicked his legs into the underside of the robot with all his might as the snarling head started falling towards him, and with an almighty heave, he flipped the robot up over the top of his body, sending it crashing on its back to the floor. The force of the impact shook the entire store, knocking packages from shelves and rattling the bottles of wine.

Sucking in a deep breath to force the black stars away from his eyes, Sam rolled to his feet and turned to face the feline Decepticon once more, redoubling his grip on the punctured- yet luckily unbroken- ax. Ravage, swaying slightly from disorientation, had to scramble around from a moment before it could get its feet back under it. Sam, seeing his chance, didn't wait for it to get back up and ready itself for another attack.

Rushing forward with a snarling battle cry of his own, he swung the ax into the side of the robot's neck, but the humming blade missed the crack between metallic vertebrae, glancing from one of the armored plates beside it in a shower of sparks. Before he had the chance to bring the ax up again for another swing, Ravage's head darted towards him, mouth open wide- and this time, the was no ax handle in its way.

Sam watched, as if from far away, as the mechanical jaws snapped closed around his left forearm, tearing through the cast like tissue paper and biting deeply into his flesh. Everything slowed to a crawl; Ravage- not content with mere puncture wounds- continued to squeeze his arm between its teeth until a strange, deep crack vibrated up through his elbow and into his shoulder, and his forearm bent in a way he knew it was not supposed to bend. Oddly enough he felt no pain whatsoever, not even as the Decepticon continued to grind its teeth into his flesh, causing a flurry of cracking vibrations to pulse in waves through the left side of his chest.

Some part of Sam registered that his arm was being pulverized, that if he ever got out of there alive the limb would probably have to be amputated, but at the moment the only thought at the forefront of his mind was that Ravage, while busy chewing through his cast, had left his neck exposed and vulnerable.

Pulling back the ax with his free right hand, he brought it swinging around and down, the blade finding the third neck joint and biting into it like a key sliding into a lock. Ravage stumbled, releasing his arm, as thick, black ichor spewed from the wound. Feeling cold and strangely numb, Sam wrenched the ax out of the hole, coiled the muscles in his right arm, and brought it back down again, watching with detachment as the entire ax head sunk out of sight.

Ravage howled, gurgling, struggling to stay standing but obviously unable to direct its limbs, and finally lost its balance and started to fall to the side. Sam, gazing up at Ravage from his own position lying in a crumpled heap on the floor (he didn't remember falling, but the floor felt pretty nice all in all) saw the robot begin to tip towards him, registering somewhere in the back of his mind that he would be crushed if he didn't move. But the world was a comfortable, hazy shade of gray, and he really didn't want to move. Ravage would have to find its own patch of floor.

Suddenly, without warning, something slammed into Ravage from the side, jerking it off its feet and sending him flying through the air away from Sam. The feline crashed into the shelves a dozen feet away, knocking them over and sending candy bars flying everywhere, and lay perfectly still. Sam frowned, wondering if they would throw away all that candy just because it fell on the floor. That didn't exactly seem fair- it wasn't the candy's fault it got dirty.

A dark shadow glided over him, and Sam slowly turned his head to glance up, thoughts of candy forgotten. There was a large hole in the roof- how had that gotten there?- and a large, metal hand, dripping with rainwater and boasting of fingers like tapering claws, slowly descended through the hole, reaching for him. Feeling a niggling flash of recognition at the sight of that hand- one which stirred his survival instincts with whispers of 'danger' and 'run'- Sam narrowed his eyes at the shadowed face he could see through the hole in the roof. It was familiar somehow, but he couldn't quite place it.

At least, not until a flash of lightning illuminated the darkness like a small supernova, chasing away the shroud of concealing shadows.

His eyes widened, mouth dropping open in a silent scream.


The hand closed carefully, almost gently, around his prone floor, lifting him into the air as the world rapidly faded away around him.

"Come, human," a voice far above him rumbled, "I have need of you."


While his master was busy readying the human for transport, Preceptor scurried towards what remained of the traitor Ravage.

Although he had been loathe to temporarily adopt an alternate form other than his chosen guise as a microscope, he had to admit that the eight delicate appendages sprouting from his body- reminiscent of the insectoid creature the humans had labeled an 'arachnid'- were of great use in picking his way over fallen boxes made from compressed tree fibers and the sulfate-laden consumables wrapped in petrol products. What useless products the fleshlings insisted on making, squandering their short lives in pursuit of them!

Well, no matter. According to the calculations of his secondary processor, it would not be long until the humans were left without a sun, and then squabbling, barely-sentient species would be eradicated. A good thing, too. It was in the best interests of all Cybertronians- Decepticon and Autobot alike- that they nip the creation of race of Quintessons in the bud.

And scanning the damage to Ravage's exoskeletal structure as he carefully picked his way up one of the drone's extended forelegs, he realized that that day could not come a moment too soon. Opening a temporary shunt to capture the overflow from his emotion cores, he turned his primary processor to the task at hand, fearing that a cascade of gibbering sub-routines would overwhelm him if he studied damage a single human had inflicted on one of Megatron's greatest hunters for even half a nano-click more. No, it was much better to do away with the humans altogether than risk more like this one showing up to oppose them.
::What is taking so long?:: Megatron snapped at him over his comlink. Preceptor contracted his head into his shell, drawing his legs towards his body, then was reminded by a whirring subroutine that his master was outside the building and could not, ergo, crush him at the urgings of an errant blip of code.

::Just a click more, master!::

Snapping himself back into position, he scurried the rest of the way along Ravage's deactivated shell, stopping at the drone's head. He lifted up one needle-thin leg, positioned it just so, and drove it down into the tiny access port recessed behind the jaw. A microscopic interface wire extended from the tip of the appendage plugged into the access port, connecting Preceptor to Ravage's core processors. A small burst of code transmitted down the wire took care of the passive emergency firewall, and then he had full access to the drone's systems.

It took longer than he would have thought to find the information he had been sent to look for, but at last he was able to break the encryption around the hidden file, downloading the data within.

Preceptor did not like what he found. Worse, he could readily imagine that Megatron would not like what he found, and upsetting his master was unusually detrimental to his health.

::I have the file, master:: he called through the comlink, then sent a packaged data burst containing the information he had discovered.

Yet despite the direst outcomes presented by his situational analysis programs, Megatron only rumbled consideringly.

::This could prove to be...very interesting::

Correction- it was worse than his most dire imaginings. It never ended well when Megatron considered something interesting.

As Preceptor picked his way back through the debris and exited the building, folding himself into the waiting alcove beneath his master's wing, he pretended that he had not heard the words Megatron uttered to himself in English while reverting to his alt form, focusing instead on logging into the systems monitoring the condition of the disgusting human larvae resting unconscious somewhere deep within his master's body.

He pretended he had not heard them while his master rocketed into the air, and continued pretending all through the ensuing flight.

After all, it was never, ever a good thing to hear Megatron whisper, "I will enjoy seeing your dark side, my brother. I will enjoy it very much."


Unit X watched the conversing Autobots from the shadows, comparing their energy signatures to its internal database and discovering them to be Optimus Prime and Jolt. The blue Autobot was of no consequence, but the last Prime standing beside it was the sole target of Unit X's mission.

Withdrawing slightly into the shadows of the London alleyway, Unit X activated its unique transformation node, feeling the meta-crystaline structure of its exo-skeletal frame began to change its composition, becoming soft, pliant, and pale, an almost perfect replica of human skin. That same meta-crystaline compound—even more prevalent in the frontal area of its head for facial replication—also formed brown eyes and sprouted into brown hair. After the imitation flesh had formed, a thin layer separated itself from the whole around its torso and limbs to imitate the weave and texture of clothing.

At last, Pretender form fully assumed, Unit X strode boldly from the shadows, striking out towards Optimus Prime.

As expected, Prime's head lifted as it approached, energy signature registering shock, and sent out a questioning transmission in English.


Beneath its flesh mask—a perfect replication no other unit in existence could achieve- Unit X felt a sense of contentment.

This was going to be easy.




I am so evil, I sometimes hate myself. My characters hate me too, for doing these things to them. Don't worry, there will be a break from the Sam-whumpage in the next chapter.

Additional notes:

1) Life has finally returned to mostly normal for me now that I have found a medicine that completely erases my symptoms. Still don't know what's wrong with me, but I'm content to continue not knowing so long as this medicine works.

2) I wanted to post this chapter by the end of May, but as I started a full-time job as soon as school ended it was difficult to find time to write. I also had to deal with re-writing the Wheeljack scene at least three times to get it right.

3) This is a sci fi story, people. It's going to be a little creepy—deal with it. Everything will still be based in actual scientific fact, so don't worry about unicorns or dragons suddenly coming into the picture.

4) I get lots of people saying how they wanted to hear from X character in the newest chapter, but keep in mind it's just not physically possible for me to say what everyone is doing at every moment. It would also make me a bad writer—some things would be ruined if I revealed them too early.

5) Nobody loves me anymore! I posted a cute, fluffy, Ironhide and Annabelle one-shot to my NEST Files story, and almost no one read it…..I think I'm going to go eat ice cream now….

And now, THE GOOD NEWS. (I know you've all been waiting for it)

First, this story is absolutely, positively guaranteed to be finished by next spring, since it has now become the focus of a sophomore year project for one of the programs I'm enrolled in at college. The project itself is also a social experiment on the artistic value of fanfiction—so send in detailed, thoughtful reviews that I can share with the panel evaluating my work! I need to show them that fanfiction can be a legitimate art form in its own right. REPRESENT!

Next, the really REALLY good news. Drum roll, please!

Instability will have a sequel! That's right, folks, you heard that correctly! A sequel! I can't tell you much about it yet without spoiling the end of Instability, but I can say that it will be entitled "Kingdom Come" and that about 75 percent of it will take place on Cybertron.

Have fun!