Bluestreak sat alone in the frigid cold. With his internal heaters fully energized to keep his circuits dry and his hydraulic fluids warm and flowing smoothly, he sat for many long hours on guard duty outside Autobot Headquarters. Now, it was getting late and the somber, winter sky was beginning to darken the lightly snow-dusted rocky landscape. A gust of wind tossed fresh powder from nearby boulders at Bluestreak, and the silver gunner winced at the sudden assault of fine snow.
A commercial buzzed on his internal radio. "Try Softie paper towels. You'll be glad you did." A trite jingle signaled the end of the ad.
"Paper towels, sub sandwiches, energy drinks… What would I do with any of those things?" Bluestreak mused aloud. "Well, I could do with an energy drink, but not that Enermax stuff." He chuckled, and then mimicked the charismatic tone of a radio announcer, with his hand up and holding a make-belief beverage can. "Energon is my drink of choice. You just can't beat the high octane charge of every Autobot's favorite fuel." Bluestreak smiled, pleased with his impression.
"And we're back with another of your favorite hot hits, here on WKRG in Wenatchee," the program announcer said as he returned after the end of the commercial break.
Bluestreak sighed with resignation. The songs had been interesting at the beginning of his shift, but discerning comprehensible lyrics from the barrage of musical noise was futile. The silver Autobot yearned for something more interesting to hold his waning attention. He wondered how human beings could stand the boredom of the monotonous tones and chords. They went on and on and the words made no sense at all.
He dialed through a range of radio frequencies and found an all-news station. "…and that's the question on everyone's mind. Will Bud Johnson make it to the playoffs?" the sports announcer asked.
Bluestreak gazed across the valley from his remote post, toward the source of the signal. Far away to the southeast, behind the mountains surrounding their base, the Autobot listened to the comforting chatter of the sports announcer.
Bluestreak waited for the answer, but the announcer continued on with his opinion piece without answering the question. "Well, will he make it?" Bluestreak asked aloud with interest. The radio signal relayed directly to his audio receptors, so his words sounded to no one.
"If the Eagles win tomorrow night's game in Atlanta, he'll have just two weeks to get back on the field. Otherwise, there's little chance that the team will-"
"This Bud guy must be someone important," Bluestreak interjected. "If he's not going to play, why don't they just get someone else? This guy might let the whole team down."
Bluestreak listened obliquely to the sportscaster prattle on about statistics and players, not knowing what or who exactly was being discussed. He was glad when the sportscast ended.
"And now over to Dean Dover for your weather," came the announcement.
"Well, it's that time of year again to get your snow shovels ready because we've got snow in the forecast for the weekend," Dean Dover began amicably. "A low pressure front settling in over the Pacific Northwest, combined with that cold northern air that's been hanging over the region is going to bring anywhere from six to ten inches of snow, depending on where you are. Snow squalls will begin tonight in areas of Seattle right down through into Oregon, as well as east throughout Washington state."
Bluestreak glanced up at the darkening sky above. "Driving will be dangerous," he said to himself. "Good thing I got those snow tires installed. You never know when you'll hit black ice and go into a skid." He vividly imagined sliding uncontrollably across a slick road toward an oncoming tractor trailer, then laughed nervously as he tried to shake off the discomforting sensation. "I hope that no one gets into any accidents with anyone or animals, or anything like that. I'd hate to think of what that would do to-"
He could not help but imagine himself colliding with some poor, unfortunate human being standing out in the middle of nowhere on an icy road. Bluestreak's optics widened at the sickening thought and he tried to steer his mind from the inevitable conclusion. As a rush of energon quickened his fuel pump, he forced the imaginary image of himself off the road – and directly toward a cute, little bunny.
"Aggh!" Bluestreak yelped at the out-of-control fantasy. He blinked hard and chattered quickly to change the subject and erase the disastrous idea from his mind.
"What I mean is that… I like animals. Yeah, I like animals. They're good," he panted before slowly relaxing. "Yeah, they're good."
The radio droned softly in his audio receptors, which helped calm him down.
"Hey!" he interrupted his harried internal dialogue. "I could get an animal – like a pet or something – and take care of it. Okay, so maybe I don't know anything about taking care of something, but I could learn. Humans figure it out, so I can, too. But what kind of animal would I get?" he asked himself.
Bluestreak looked around his feet at the rocks as if some invisible species were there and he just had to find it.
"Some sort of wildlife – or a cat or dog – or what about a bird?" he questioned intensely as he looked off at some distant trees. "No, not a bird," he frowned and cast his optics down. "I couldn't keep something in a cage."
He remembered when the Autobots had caught Ravage, and how Hound held the Decepticon cat captive in a cage. "Well, maybe some animals belong in cages," he stated to himself. "But a Decepticon would make a lousy pet. It wouldn't fetch, wouldn't sit still or want to be stroked… or even go for a walk." He briefly wondered what kind of relationship Soundwave had with his cassetticons. Ravage, Laserbeak and Buzzsaw were all robotic animals.
The radio caught his attention again. Bluestreak had heard enough about weather, so he changed stations to see if something more interesting was being broadcast on a different frequency. The charismatic tone and melody of a new announcer's voice mesmerized Bluestreak as he smoothly rattled off facts about the music artists in the song lineup.
"This band first heard this song on a bus. Diane gave them a trial version and, when they popped the cassette into the vehicle's tape player, they couldn't wait to get home and record the song. When Starship's 'Nothing's Going To Stop Us' hit the charts it rocketed its way to number one. This is Casey Kasem and you're listening to America's Top Forty Countdown," the deejay announced as the song began.
"Hey, that guy's voice sounds like mine," Bluestreak noticed. It was an amusing coincidence. "Ha, ha, what are the chances of that?!"
"Hey, Bluestreak!" a familiar voice called from across the barren landscape outside the base.
Bluestreak turned to see Cliffjumper off in the distance. The red minibot's glowing blue optics blinked in the falling darkness. He had his hands cupped around his mouth to help his voice carry across the distance between them. "Don't get weird over there."
"What are you talking about?" Bluestreak called back, perplexed.
"You!" Cliffjumper called, exasperated. "You're talkin' to yourself!"
"Oh, that!" Bluestreak responded with a self-conscious chuckle. "I'm listening to the radio."
"The radio?" Cliffjumper responded with dismay. "You're supposed to be on guard duty! You can't be protecting the base when you're distracted by one of those mindless human noise channels!"
"But-" Bluestreak hoped to explain, disappointment in his vocalizer.
"Just be quiet for once!" Cliffjumper told the talkative gunner and then lowered his hands.
"-it's not a distraction," Bluestreak said quietly to himself.
Bluestreak picked up the silver beam rifle next to him and laid it across his lap. Feeling self-conscious, he turned down the volume of his internal radio, waiting until the song ended so that he could continue to listen to the radio announcer's soothing voice.
An idea came to him then and his expression lightened. "I wonder," he stated softly to himself, "if Teletraan I picked up on one of this radio announcer's broadcasts when it set my Earth voice modulation so that I could speak like this planet's natives."
He laughed nervously, conscious not to be loud enough to get Cliffjumper's attention. Smiling widely, he copied the velvety words of the announcer's broadcast. "You're listening to the American Top Forty Countdown with Autobot Bluestreak." He laughed at the sound of it. "Come to think of it," Bluestreak added, looking over at Cliffjumper, "he also sounds a little like that Casey Kasem guy."
As he mused over his discovery, thoroughly entertained, a timer in his forearm compartment beeped at him. "Shift's over," Bluestreak announced. He stood up and waved his arm through the air above him in a sweeping arc. "I'm headed in!" he called to Cliffjumper.
"Right," the minibot acknowledged. The minibot's blue optics briefly watched the gunner depart before turning away.
Bluestreak's gait developed a jovial bounce as he drew close to the lighted entranceway to the Ark. He subspaced his beam rifle and checked his chronometer.
"Good! My show isn't over yet."
He hurried down the causeway, up the elevator to A-deck and through the door to his personal quarters, like a kid rushing home from school. Bluestreak's fingers raced over the keys on a console and a large blue screen on his wall lighted up as he slouched down into his bunk to watch TV.
"Introducing a new dual-action cleaner-" a commercial began.
"Not another commercial," he groaned. "Why can't they just show a program without trying to sell me stuff?" Bluestreak muttered to himself. "I just want to see my show. I'm never going to buy some household cleaner, or a hamburger meal deal, or a new flavor of granola bar." He knitted his optic ridges as he waited for the commercial to end. "What is a granola bar, anyway?" According to TV, they were all the rage these days. They even came with chocolate chips in them – whatever those were.
Soon the image changed and Bluestreak grew quiet as he intently watched his favorite television program. The fat man in the blue shirt was making a new bamboo door for his grass hut. After a minute, he lifted it up and hung it in the door frame.
"There," he stood back and admired his handiwork. "Finally, a proper door. Now I can get some peace and quiet."
But no sooner had the door been hung than a persistent voice urgently called the first man's name. "Skipper! Skiiipperrr!"
"What is it this time, Gilligan?" Skipper snapped disdainfully as he proceeded toward his hut's new door. But he was met at the entrance by a large boar, which busted through the bamboo and charged into the hut with Gilligan in pursuit.
"Gilligan!" Skipper cried out. "What's going on?"
"Skipper, grab the boar!" Gilligan exclaimed as he chased the wild pig around the small hut.
Skipper was dismayed that his door was broken and that his hut was being turned into a pig pen, but he was hungrier than he was angry. He had already eaten a lifetime's worth of bananas and coconuts on the deserted island. "Oh boy! Pork chops!"
As the laugh track laughed in the background, Skipper and Gilligan chased the boar around the hut, bumping into each other, and then chased the fleeing animal out of the hut and into the surrounding jungle.
"Go get him, Gilligan," Bluestreak cheered on his human hero. He shifted to make himself more comfortable on the metal bunk.
The scene cut away to the professor, who was working on a new invention made out of the island's raw materials and whatever he could salvage from their ship's wreckage. The boar darted past the professor, with Gilligan and Skipper in hot pursuit.
"Quick, grab the pig, Wheeljack!" Bluestreak told the TV character before realizing his mistake. "I mean, Professor." He laughed at the comical scene.
The TV comedy always set him at ease about the Autobots' crash landing and subsequent stranding on planet Earth. He had seen every episode, and even enjoyed the re-runs. He had started watching it to see how they would get off the island. Would they build another boat or would they be rescued? But after a while, it didn't matter that the motley group of human beings remained stuck on the remote tropical island. Bluestreak enjoyed their amazing and humorous adventures together.
After his program ended, the evening news came on. Not one for listening to bad news, Bluestreak changed channels. Game shows were sometimes interesting, though the in-depth knowledge of human trivia and cultural knowledge they required boggled his Cybertronian mind. Serials were usually too serious, and occasionally, too violent for the Autobot gunner. So, as the evening wore on, Bluestreak checked the television guide and eventually settled on the evening science fiction movie.
The light from the screen flickered in the metallic surfaces of the room as Bluestreak read the movie's title, The Brain Men from Gamma Centauri, written across a starry night sky. It sounded tame enough, a typical B-rate science fiction movie. The effects in the old black and white ones were so terrible that they made the movies funny. Bluestreak rolled onto one side, leaning on an elbow, as the grainy movie began.
"Gamma Centauri," the narrator began melodramatically, "a planet just forty light years from Earth, and the home world of the Brain Men." The camera panned down from the sky to the planet below. The landscape looked like a collection of someone's neglected houseplants, a mess of oversized, wilted greenery. Cardboard models of futuristic buildings rose out of the dying "jungle".
Bluestreak laughed. "It doesn't get any cornier than this. That is so fake."
"After millennia of technological advancement and reaping of the planet's resources, the planet is in ecological peril," the narrator continued seriously. "Food is in short supply and civil war threatens the population."
Sounds like the Decepticons are on Gamma Centauri, Bluestreak blinked as he thought.
"With their habitat dying, the Brain Men have no choice but to look for another world to colonize." The narrator finished the explanation, and the scene cut to a laboratory.
"Brain Men?" Bluestreak asked skeptically when he saw the supposed aliens. "They look exactly like human beings, just dressed in different clothes. They don't even have big heads."
Scientists worked on machinery in the foreground, while workers in silvery suits packed crates and supplies onto a spaceship in the background. The scene reminded him of their flight from Cybertron, and captivated the Autobot's attention.
A tall brain man garbed in a silvery-green suit, tall, stiff collar, and long cape strode regally into the laboratory, using a diamond-appointed staff as a walking stick. Royal music played and the scientists stopped what they were doing, turned and bowed to their leader.
"Lord Xangzar," one of the scientists straightened after a deep bow. "Our preparations are nearly complete. Two thirds of the population has already boarded and your army stands ready, waiting for your command."
"Our conquest of the third planet from the star, Sol, will be swift," Lord Xangzar stated confidently.
"Conquest?" Bluestreak asked aloud incredulously. "There's no need for that. I'm sure human beings would let you live amongst them. You look exactly like them. Heck, they don't bother us Autobots, and we're robots."
"To the ships!" the alien dictator struck out his finger toward the awaiting fleet and ordered. The command sounded like it could have come from Megatron, and Bluestreak's joints tensed momentarily.
"It's just a movie," Bluestreak reminded himself. He watched the Brain Men's model rocket "spaceships" set off for the Earth, flames exhausting vertically from the horizontally oriented rockets suspended by visible strings. The Autobot chuckled. "These movie makers really have to work on their special effects. There's nothing special about these."
As the lead rocket hovered impossibly, and rotated upright for a vertical landing on the Earth near a major American city, the human military and news crews rushed forward to meet the arriving alien ships. The flanking rockets set down elsewhere throughout the landscape.
"Imagine that!" one of the waiting journalists reflected aloud. "Human beings making contact with aliens from another planet. What are the odds of that?"
"Very good," Bluestreak muttered at the TV. Of course, the Cybertronian knew, the universe was littered with other life forms. "This movie's dialog needs updating. We're already here."
"Hey," the reporter turned to a nearby military official as the army's tanks aimed their turrets at the landed rockets. "Isn't that going to send the wrong message?"
"We don't know what their intentions are." The stoic official glanced at the reporter and then focused his attention sternly back at the closest alien craft. "They brought an army of rockets. We brought an army of tanks."
Moments passed as the humans waited for a ramp or a door to open in the lead rocket. "What are the Brain Men waiting for?" Bluestreak wondered aloud. "Are they scared of those tanks?"
Vertical seams appeared along the length of the rocket, and the vehicle's silver exterior folded open like a blossoming flower. As the panels slowly peeled away, Lord Xangzar stood in front of a giant robot housed in the center of the ship.
Bluestreak laughed nervously. "Maybe not."
A devious smile crept across the alien leader's face and he tapped the base of his diamond-tipped scepter on the metallic floor of the rocket. The gem glowed from within, and the other rockets across the landscape unfolded to reveal similar robotic sentinels and alien figures standing in front of them.
The army colonel picked up a megaphone. "State your origin and business," his voice boomed.
Lord Xangzar raised his radiant scepter and jolts of energy leapt out of the bejeweled tip, reaching out in an electric matrix to the sentinels, igniting them with the spark of life. Their metallic joints creaked as the robots moved on their own.
"There is no way that could really happen," Bluestreak commented with certainty. "There's no such thing as a device that just brings machines to life like that. What a goofy idea!"
The colonel did not like the way that events were unfolding. "Fire a warning shot." He signaled to one of his men.
The soldier sighted up and fired a single shot. The bullet pinged harmlessly against the large leg of the sentinel standing behind Lord Xangzar.
The alien leader tensed reflexively and uttered a command in an alien tongue. In response, all of the sentinels raised their arms and gripped the sides of their heads.
"What on Earth are they doing?" Bluestreak puzzled.
The invading robots lifted in unison. With a chorus of clicks, their heads came free of their bodies. Bluestreak grimaced with mounting unease. But there were no dangling cables, sparking wires or dripping hose lines hanging from the necks of the decapitated giant robots. The sentinels leaned forward, setting their heads down beside the waiting aliens.
A compartment in the forehead of each head popped open. Lord Xangzar lifted himself up and climbed inside. The robot's head was a piloting capsule, complete with a cushioned chair, levers and panels covered in switches and flashing lights.
"That's disgusting," Bluestreak muttered.
"State your name and intentions at once!" the colonel boomed again over the megaphone. "This is your last chance!"
Bluestreak watched, frozen with horror, as the other aliens jumped into the piloting capsules of the other sentinels. It was the most repugnant thing he had ever seen.
"Those robots took their heads off," Bluestreak said to himself, "so that aliens could get inside them."
The lead sentinel lifted its head, with Lord Xangzar, in it back onto its body. The camera cut to the sentinel's face, with the alien dictator glaring out menacingly through its dull optics at the human beings.
"No, no," Bluestreak shook his head emphatically. "That can't happen. No one can take your head and control you. "
"Open fire!" the colonel barked. The tanks opened fire on the sentinels, each now piloted by a Brain Man.
"Kill it!" Bluestreak grimaced as he sat upright on his bunk.
A barrage of shells burst against the metallic alien army and they were shrouded in a blanket of dark smoke.
"We got them, men," the colonel summarized. Then they heard pistons stroking and a moment later, the sentinels strode out of the haze, untouched.
"What?" Bluestreak gasped in unison with the army colonel. "That should have destroyed them!"
Gunfire erupted at the advancing alien army, but the bullets deflected off an invisible force field surrounding each metal warrior.
Inside his sentinel's head, Lord Xangzar issued a command to his army. "Eradicate these parasites!"
Bluestreak's mouth hung open in disbelief. "They're going to destroy the human race."
Cannons rose out of the forearms of the giant robots and the rat-a-tat of return fire strafed the throng of news reporters, sending the rest of the gawking ones fleeing for their lives. Bluestreak had seen enough and, in a panic, he jumped up, his fingers fumbling over the console keys to change the channel. He glanced up as one of the robot's feet closed down on a cowering human, and then the image on the screen changed. A large finger poked the midsection of a cartoon baker boy and the character laughed.
"Phew!" Bluestreak sighed and sunk back, relieved. The banal commercial rambled on. "I can't believe they said that was a science fiction movie. It was horror." He focused on the harmless, white baker boy.
"Ooh-ah-oh," the commercial sang, "oven-fresh dough."
It was another commercial about something he could not relate to. Bluestreak shook his head. "That's enough TV for tonight." He turned the monitor off and the lights up. "No alien is getting into my head."
He got up and checked the lock on his door and then took his beam rifle out of subspace. As Bluestreak crawled back onto the orange-gold bunk, he lay on one side so that he could watch the door. With his beam rifle tucked next to him and his finger on the frame near the trigger, the Autobot tried to power down for the night. But the awful images of robots removing their heads so that aliens could control them electrified his circuits and kept him alert.
It took several hours for Bluestreak to relax enough for his shutdown relays to activate his recharge sequence. Eventually, the Autobot's optic covers slowly slipped closed and his servos de-energized as he finally powered down for the night.
It was morning and the lights were still on when Bluestreak powered back up. As soon as the gunner realized he was back online, he grabbed his beam rifle and bolted upright. The end of the rifle darted around the room as he checked that it was secure.
"No aliens here," he reassured himself. He then felt his faceplate. "And I'm still me."
With a harried expression, Bluestreak looked back toward his room door, the image of the robot lifting its head, with Lord Xangzar in it, onto its body firmly in his mind. "What if aliens like that come to Earth," he whispered to himself, "and they discover us. They'd want to take over our bodies and drive us like in the movie." He imagined an evil army of zombie Autobots, controlled by the TV aliens, shambling into a city with their arms raised out in front of them. "No one's taking my head, or any of my friends'," he added worriedly.
An internal indicator nagged at his attention, informing the Autobot that his fuel tank was getting low. He needed to go down to the lounge to get some energon, which meant leaving the safety of his room.
"I should never have watched that movie," he said softly to himself and raised his weapon as he approached the door. He placed his hand over the lock and paused. "Okay," he coached himself, blinking, "I'm ready."
The door quietly slid open. Bluestreak stiffened then peeked around the frame to one side and then the other. "No aliens. All clear."
The sound of someone down the hall and around the corner echoed softly. Bluestreak lowered his beam rifle, but still gripped it firmly as he followed the sounds on his way to the elevator down to B-deck.
"Everything sounds normal," he said to himself as he got to the elevator and the doors opened. Bluestreak stepped inside and the doors closed. "But how would I know if someone had been taken over?" He thought for a moment. "Oh, I know. Ask them something that only they would know," the talkative Autobot mused to himself. "That's how."
The elevator floor display read "B-deck" and the doors opened. "Or have a coded question, like something that everyone would know the answer to. Something like…" he rolled his optics up at the ceiling, thinking, as he walked toward the lounge.
"Bluestreak!" Jazz's voice interrupted his monologue.
Bluestreak started with a jolt. He had become so wrapped up in his own conversation that he was not paying attention to the approaching black and white Autobot.
"Your gun's drawn," Jazz stated.
Bluestreak glanced down at the weapon. "Oh yeah, right," he excused himself awkwardly. Then he realized he should check to make sure that Jazz was still Jazz, and not a piloted zombie. "Wait!"
Jazz straightened, curious.
"I've gotta ask you a question," Bluestreak said, searching for some trivia that only the Earth culture-loving Autobot would know the answer to. As soon as an idea came to mind, a rapid succession of words flowed from Bluestreak's vocalizer. "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"
There was a long pause and then Jazz chuckled. "You serious, man?"
Bluestreak shrugged. He did not know the answer himself. "You're right. That's a stupid question. I'll have to think of a better one."
"C'mon," Jazz ushered Bluestreak and pushed the end of the rifle down with his hand. "You headed to the lounge?"
"Me too," Jazz grinned amicably. "Let's go. Oh, and it's safe to put the gun away. Everything's cool."
Calmed by Jazz's relaxed demeanor, Bluestreak subspaced the weapon. The two walked into the Ark's lounge, where other Autobots were refueling and relaxing.
"Why do you need to know the answer to a crazy question like that, anyhow?" Jazz inquired as he picked up a cup near the dispenser and filled it with a stream of glowing pink energy plasma from the machine.
"Well," Bluestreak began uncomfortably, "I was just thinking 'How do you know if Jazz is Jazz today' or," he glanced over at Trailbreaker nearby, "if Trailbreaker is who you think he should be."
The corner of Jazz's mouth curled with amusement and bewilderment.
Interested by the mention of his name, the seated large, black Autobot truck interjected. "Who else would I be?" he shrugged.
"That's not what I mean," Bluestreak explained to Trailbreaker. "Look, what if someone was making you do and say things that you wouldn't normally do, like… play basketball or something?" He looked back at Jazz. "Or Jazz. What if you suddenly took up off-roading? It could be anything unusual, but it would be something that you wouldn't normally do, something that might give away that you weren't yourself."
"And why would this be happening?" Jazz asked to clarify.
"Because," Bluestreak explained slowly, "someone else wouldn't know who you were supposed to be and what you did or didn't like to do… normally."
Jazz and Trailbreaker looked at one another, perplexed.
"I'm not getting it," Trailbreaker stated.
"Me neither," Jazz responded, confused. "What does this have to do with a woodchuck?"
"Nothing!" Bluestreak admitted with exasperation.
"Now I'm really confused," Trailbreaker said, shaking his head. The conversation had lost his interest.
Bluestreak continued to explain to Jazz as Trailbreaker got up to leave. "It was just a question that only you would know the answer to. That way, if you answered it incorrectly, I'd know that something was wrong with you."
Jazz stopped and tilted his head. "Have you been talkin' to Red Alert lately?"
"I'm not paranoid!" Bluestreak exclaimed with certainty. "I'm just checking to make sure that there aren't aliens among us."
A wry smile wrapped across Jazz's face plate. He handed the cup of energon to Bluestreak. "Here. You need this more than I do."
Bluestreak took the cup from Jazz. Before he could argue or explain further, Jazz turned away and poured a new cup for himself, then took a sip.
"That's another way that I know you're the same you that you should be," Bluestreak pointed at Jazz's cup of energon. "Because if you weren't really Jazz, you wouldn't be drinking that energon." He laughed with anxiety in his vocalizer. There was no way an alien pilot would pour fuel into the head of the robot he was piloting. "So, since you're drinking energon, I don't need to ask you a question at all."
Jazz lifted his cup in a toasting gesture. "Sounds good to me."
Bluestreak glanced down into his own cup and then fuelled up.
* * *
In the large, golden-orange battle room of Autobot headquarters, the Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, took an emergency call on the Ark's computer. Prime silenced the call beacon on the expansive computer console and the image of a seasoned power plant manager flashed onto the main screen of Teletraan I.
"Hello," the plant manager tested his connection to the Autobots.
"This is Optimus Prime," the Autobot leader responded firmly. "Go ahead."
"Yes, well," the brown-haired man began, "I'm Edward Geddes, manager of the Granite Creek power plant over here in eastern Washington. We've got some trouble on our hands."
"What seems to be the problem?" Optimus Prime asked.
"Some rather large robotic insects have moved in and made a home on our power transformers," Mr. Geddes explained. He pressed a button on a remote he was holding and the image cut to security camera footage of three Insecticons nesting in the station's electrical switchgear. The black and purple Decepticon stag beetle, boll weevil and grasshopper paid no attention to the camera filming them.
A moment later, the image on Teletraan's screen returned to that of the plant manager. "I would have thought that the current from the high sides of the transformers would have zapped them, but instead they're drawing all of the power we're generating." The image reverted back to the concerned plant manager. "We shut the plant down, hoping that they'd leave, but they're not going. Understandably, we can't keep the power shut off forever. We need your help."
"Those are Insecticons you have at your plant," Optimus Prime informed him. "They are Decepticons that feed off of pure energy, in this case, the electrical power you've been generating. My bet is that they figure it's only a matter of time until you turn the generators back on. The Autobots will assist you with your Insecticon problem, but you need to keep the generators off until we arrive."
"When will that be?" Mr. Geddes asked worriedly. I've got a bunch of customers freezing in Walla Walla. Those people need our electricity and my company's not making any money with these units shut off. My neck is going to be on the line if this problem isn't fixed soon."
"Do not worry, Mr. Geddes," Optimus Prime reassured him. "We are on our way."
The plant manager nodded and then the communication channel closed. Optimus Prime tapped the keys on Teletraan I's console as he spoke to the Ark's main computer. "Teletraan I," he instructed the computer in a commanding tone, "assemble all available Autobots, here, on the double."
Teletraan I immediately alerted all Autobots not on assignment or duty to assemble in the battle room. Within minutes, a team fell in line in front of the waiting Autobot leader. There was Ratchet, the boxy red and white chief medical officer, Wheeljack, the Autobot's mechanical engineer, Jazz, cool saboteur and Autobot lieutenant, Trailbreaker, the defensive strategist, the gunner and sureshot, Bluestreak, Gears, and espionage agent, Bumblebee.
Optimus Prime addressed them with urgency in his vocalizer. "The Insecticons have moved into the Granite Creek hydroelectric plant," he announced, keying in a sequence to call up a map on Teletraan I's large screen. "The plant is here, in southeastern Washington state. The Insecticons are sapping the plant of power, forcing the company to shut off its generating units and strand thousands of people in the cold without electricity. We are going to the plant to rid it of its Decepticon problem and help return power to the people."
"But with all the snow that fell overnight, it'll take forever to get there," Gears frowned. "That area is remote. I bet the roads aren't even plowed."
"Those are the perfect conditions to test out the new plow attachments I designed for Optimus," Wheeljack announced.
The others turned to look at Wheeljack and then the Autobot leader with surprise. This was indeed a new development.
"Affirmative," Optimus Prime confirmed. He held out his arms in front of him, preparing to transform. As he did, subspace compartments opened in the side sections of his forearms, and silvery mechanisms, each attached to half of an arced plow, unfolded. As soon as the mechanisms fully deployed, the Autobot leader transformed. His head descended and his shoulders rotated back and arms folded into the sides of his torso to form the front of his semi-cab alternate mode. Prime's legs bent at the knees and lowered his changing body onto the cab front wheels as his blue legs transformed into the back of the vehicle. At last, the two halves of Wheeljack's invention joined together in front of the rig, forming a rugged snowplow attachment for the red semi cab.
Bumblebee chuckled. "Well, get a load of that," he reflected, "we've got our own personal snow plowing service."
Ratchet kneaded his chin and sighed. "That's going to put all kinds of strain on his mechanisms," the chief medical officer stated, looking over at Wheeljack, "strain that Optimus wasn't designed to endure."
"Nonsense," Wheeljack retorted confidently. "You tellin' me that the great leader of the Autobots, the guy who can take on Megatron single-handedly, the guy who gets bored if he takes on less than four Decepticons at a time, can't handle a little snow shovellin'?"
Ratchet grumbled. "You should have asked me for input on this."
"You're just upset because it's a great idea and you didn't think of it," Wheeljack stated proudly.
"It's reckless," Ratchet argued, deflating Wheeljack's claim, "to design something without considering how it's going to affect him."
"Reckless is starting a shift with an overcharge hangover," Wheeljack retorted.
"Whoa. Low blow, man," Jazz said.
"I don't… I don't do that!" Ratchet sputtered. Embarrassed, he glanced out of the corners of his optics at the Autobots looking at him. "Hey, wait a klik. This conversation isn't about me!"
"That's enough," Optimus Prime interjected to end the quarrel.
"Sure," Wheeljack said, getting the last word in. "I plated the scoop with a trilithium derivative. They double as shields to reflect laser blasts." The Autobot mechanical engineer crossed his arms.
"Ratchet? Wheeljack?" Optimus Prime addressed his chief medical officer and mechanical engineer. "I need your guarantees that this disagreement isn't going to get in the way of the mission."
Ratchet straightened. "Yes, of course," the boxy red and white medic stated evenly. "It's just a… professional difference of opinion."
"Right," Wheeljack affirmed. "Nothin' to worry about, Optimus."
"Well then, Autobots," Prime continued, satisfied that the argument had been put behind them, "transform and roll out!"
In sequence, the party transformed. Ratchet promptly converted to his alternate mode, an ambulance, followed by Wheeljack, who transformed into a white Lancia Stratos Turbo rally car. Jazz followed next, his transformation into a white Porsche 935 race car embellished with stylized moves. Finally, Trailbreaker, Gears, Bluestreak and Bumblebee transformed into their vehicle modes: a black Toyota Hilux truck, a blue and red Chevrolet S-10 truck, a black-hooded silver Fairlady-Z sports car and a yellow Volkswagen Bug.
The sounds of the Autobots' engines reverberated noisily off the metal walls of the battle room. A large section of panel on the wall opposite Teletraan I slid away to reveal a large passageway leading to the causeway out of their base. Optimus Prime led the convoy of Autobots toward the exit.
As the eight vehicles emerged from the protective overhang of the tail end of their wrecked ship, snowflakes fluttered down around them from the overcast sky. A layer of virgin snow carpeted the valley. Optimus Prime lowered his plow, and the fresh snow scooped smoothly to one side, clearing a path for the other Autobots to follow.
Bluestreak tenuously tested his steering on the plowed, rocky road. Traction was pretty good, he thought, considering that it was impossible to do a perfect job with a straight edge on a rocky, uneven surface. Still, he was careful and backed off his throttle to leave extra stopping distance between himself and Gears.
Bumblebee liked the snow. "It's definitely feelin' like Christmas," he said over his vehicle intercom as he turned on his windshield wipers. He knew all about the holiday, thanks to his human friend, Spike.
"I suppose that plow is a Christmas gift from Wheeljack to Prime, then," Trailbreaker joked.
Chuckles broadcast through the inter-vehicle intercoms.
"I suppose it is," Optimus Prime responded in his good-natured tone. "Thank you, Wheeljack."
"Speakin' of Christmas presents," Jazz chimed in, "If any of you are into celebratin' it, I'd dig a musical keyboard interface for my computer. Learnin' to play electric keyboard would be the cat's meow."
"That can be arranged," Wheeljack promptly responded, the indicator light on his vehicle dashboard flashing blue in synch with the Autobot's speech.
"Far out," Jazz responded cheerily.
A chorus of groans carried over the air waves.
"No," Ratchet countered. "Definitely not. If I have to listen to you play out of tune for hours and hours…"
"Why can't you learn to do something quiet, like grow houseplants?" Gears added.
"C'mon, guys," Jazz said. "That's what practice is for."
"Practice somewhere else," Gears stated grumpily. "I've got a buzz in my left audio receptor that's very sensitive to certain frequencies."
"I concur," Optimus Prime agreed. "No music practice inside the Ark." Prime had enough difficulty listening to 'music' that was perfected through practice. It grated his audio sensors.
"How 'bout I just turn down the volume," Jazz offered.
"Did I just hear Jazz say he'd turn down the volume?" Gears added with mock jest. "Something must be wrong with both of my audio receptors."
"You did," Bumblebee responded, "and if there's something wrong with your audio receptors, then there's something wrong with mine, too."
"I get it. You guys just don't dig my tunes," Jazz said with a hint of amusement in his vocalizer. "Okay, so if rock 'n' roll ain't your thing, how about some ol' 'Blue Eyes' Frank Sinatra? His songs are real slow and mellow."
"Oh!" Bluestreak said over the radio. "I've seen him on TV. He's a singer."
"Don't tell me you're gonna learn to sing, too," Trailbreaker announced.
The others groaned in unison.
"Spare me, please," Gears requested, "and I'll take care of all the Insecticons myself."
Wheeljack chuckled. "Jazz… sing?"
"I'm kiddin', man," Jazz laughed.
"Well," Ratchet added, "good."
The conversation reassured Bluestreak that everyone was being themselves. The snow-covered world around him was serene and peaceful. The banter helped distract him from thoughts of the scary Brain Men from Gamma Centauri that haunted his processor.
A series of ideas as to how the alien take-over could happen had been plaguing him. The last terror to stick in his processor was the notion that an alien could get control of him while he was powered down. The Autobots were extremely lucky that aliens had not found them in stasis before Teletraan I reactivated them. If the Brain Men had found them first, they would have scooped out the contents of their heads and rebuilt the Autobots as mindless zombies to conquer the Earth. Or, if evil humans had found them, he thought, they might have done the same thing. If humans get the technology some day, they might wage war on us for our bodies. An image of a megalomaniacal human behind a zombie Ironhide's dull optics, controlling the deceased Autobot as he reached out for Bluestreak, sent him over the edge. Momentarily panicking, he hit his throttle and accelerated to within inches of hitting Gears' bumper.
"Hey, watch it, Bluestreak!" the Autobot ahead of him warned him. Bluestreak backed off.
"Sorry," Bluestreak apologized quickly. He had to shake off the disturbing ideas. "Think of something else," he said to himself. "Think of – Gilligan!"
The goofy grin of the gangly, red-shirted sailor set Bluestreak at ease.
The journey was long and the pace was slow, even when they hit the Interstate headed north. The pavement was wet and slick, slowing all vehicles down. Here, Optimus Prime's plow was not needed. The roadway was clear.
Contented by his musings about Gilligan on his tropical island, Bluestreak kept a watchful optic on the sides of the road for animals but, thankfully, saw none. They must have all been tucked safely in their burrows because it was cold.
He wondered if humans were the only animals that celebrated Christmas. In cartoons, animals did a lot of things that humans did. Alvin and his chipmunk brothers celebrated Christmas with Dave. Alvin played the harmonica, wore clothes, and had a singing job.
That brought Bluestreak back to the earlier conversation. If Jazz learned to sing, I bet he could get a job. The silver Autobot imagined hearing a song played and sung by Jazz on the radio. And then his mind completed the idea by adding himself as the DJ, introducing the song. He laughed to himself.
"Bluestreak!" Gears' voice suddenly caught Bluestreak's wandering attention, surprising him as the convoy exited the highway, heading east through Washington state. Bluestreak reflexively pounded on his brakes and, seconds later, skidding tires screeched and a Volkwagen Bug horn blasted at him from behind.
"Oh, sorry," Bluestreak apologized to Bumblebee and gave his engine some throttle, causing his back end to briefly start to spin around him before he could right his direction of travel. The momentary loss of control injected a surge of energon into his fuel pump, energizing his systems.
"What was that for?!" Bumblebee demanded as the minibot skidded sideways, barely missing Bluestreak.
"It was Gears," Bluestreak bashfully defended himself.
"What?" Gears asked incredulously as he scanned behind him to see what was going on. "I just said your name. You were busy talking to yourself and I was getting tired of listening to the drone."
"Was I?" Bluestreak asked. He did not even realize he was doing it.
Up ahead, Jazz caught wind of the trouble at the back end of the convoy. "Optimus, hold up. Something's going on back there," he radioed Prime.
The Autobot leader slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder, and the others followed. He scanned the line of vehicles behind him. "What's going on?"
"Bluestreak freaked out and nearly caused an accident!" Bumblebee reported, miffed that the silver Autobot had done something so absurd as to jam on his brakes in slippery conditions.
"Sorry, Prime," Bluestreak apologized and then began on a rambling monologue. "I was just looking out for animals that might want to cross the road and wondering if there are any animals that celebrate Christmas, other than humans – in particular, chipmunks – because some do-" he hadn't been able to say "on TV" before Jazz cut him off.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Jazz interrupted the chattering Autobot. "Chipmunks don't celebrate Christmas."
"How do you know?" Bluestreak asked him. "Haven't you seen them on TV?"
"What?" Jazz asked, incredulous. "There's a lot of crazy stuff on TV, but it ain't all real. Don't tell me you believe everything you see on the boob tube."
"Sure it's real," Bluestreak said.
"Look, I don't want to argue with you," Jazz continued, "but what about cartoons? Those ain't real."
"Those are just drawn to tell a story because there wasn't a TV camera there at the time," Bluestreak informed Jazz.
"Oh no," Trailbreaker muttered over his radio, "here we go again."
"Bluestreak!" Optimus Prime interrupted the bizarre conversation. "What's the problem?"
"Problem?" Bluestreak asked sheepishly. "No… no problem. I was just trying to explain to Jazz-"
"We can't afford a delay on account of your imagination. I want you to switch to the back of the line, behind Bumblebee," the Autobot leader instructed.
"O-okay, sure," Bluestreak agreed.
"Good call, Prime," Jazz reassured the Autobot leader.
Just then, a maroon sedan drove past the stopped convoy. Human heads turned inquisitively to see why so many vehicles were stopped by the side of the road. A young boy in the back seat pressed his mouth up against the window and blew air against the glass, puffing out his cheeks.
"That kid just pulled a face at us," Gears observed with disgust. "Is this one of the people that we're helping restore power to?"
Optimus Prime ignored the disgruntled comment. "Back on the road, Autobots," he commanded with authority and pulled back into the lane. It was near the middle of the day and he wanted to wrap up the business with the Insecticons and be back at the Ark before nightfall.
Bluestreak sat on the shoulder, watching the others depart before him through the snowflakes melting on his windshield. Finally, Bumblebee pulled out and passed him, and he fell into line at the rear.
As the eight Autobots headed into the state interior, the snow fell more thickly. Prime lowered his plow on the remote section of road to remove the accumulating snowfall. By the side of the road, the white stuff was thick, probably a foot or two, Bluestreak observed as they passed a large sign that read "Granite Creek Dam and Recreation Area, Five Miles".
"So, what's the plan when we get there, Prime?" Bluestreak heard Ratchet ask over his vehicle radio.
"As soon as we see the generating station in the distance, we stop," Optimus Prime told them all, "so that we maintain the element of surprise."
The lonely road twisted through the snow-laden evergreens. Up ahead, Optimus Prime spied a clearing in the trees and the power plant access road angling away from the main road. As they slowed, two figures emerged from behind a snow bank by the head of the access road and waved the Autobots down.
"Halt, Autobots!" Prime instructed them and they stopped just ahead of the two humans, out of the line of sight of the hydroelectric generating station. He transformed into robot mode. The plow attachment separated and each half folded back against the Autobot leader's forearms.
The convoy of vehicles transformed into their robot modes, much to the surprise of the two humans who had waved them down. Optimus Prime immediately recognized one of the humans as Edward Geddes, the plant manager who had called them on Teletraan I. Both looked cold as they stood by the side of the road in the falling snow.
"I'm so glad you're finally here," Mr. Geddes sighed with relief, "and, quite frankly, glad you made it safely in these conditions. Let me introduce you to my maintenance engineer, Christina Marinos."
She nodded, still in awe of the eight giant robots towering in front of them. Several of the Autobots greeted her in unison with a "Hi, Christine," to which she responded plainly, "Um, hi," and waved briefly before shoving her hands back into her pockets for warmth.
"So, where are the Insecticons?" Prime asked Mr. Geddes.
The plant manager pointed to an area out of sight behind the trees. "They're in the switch yard next to the plant, at the end of this road. I've got the plant shut down and the staff evacuated."
"Good," Optimus Prime stated and withdrew his ion rifle from subspace. The other Autobots followed his lead and drew their weapons as well.
"Please don't damage anything," Mr. Geddes requested with concern as he looked up at the imposing weapon gripped by the Autobot leader.
"We'll do our best to ensure that your plant is still functional," Prime said and then addressed his Autobots. "Follow me, and then fan out when we see them. Try to draw them away from the plant."
The plant manager and the maintenance engineer remained behind as the Autobots followed the access road on foot to the plant.
Christine turned to Edward. "Functional?" she asked.
"Yeah, I know," Mr. Geddes shrugged worriedly, "but what else can we do?"
The Autobots stealthily crept along the treeline toward the hydroelectric station with their weapons ready for battle. The office building and then the slate grey, larger power plant came into view, and Optimus Prime angled his hand back toward them, motioning for them to be careful. The others gathered next to Prime as he spied the Insecticons. Inside the fenced switchyard, the three were nestled amongst the aluminum supporting trusses and electrical gear atop the power transformers: the perfect place to sap the rich electrical current.
Bluestreak's optics popped wide when he saw Bombshell, Shrapnel and Kickback. "Zoiks!"
Several of his fellow Autobots turned to look at him with bewilderment.
"Zoiks?" Bumblebee inquired.
"Yeah," Bluestreak nodded. "It's from a cartoon. That's what this Shaggy guys says when the gang sees something scary, and the Insecticons are Decepticons, so they definitely qualify – and then he usually looks for food, like hamburgers or a really big sandwich, or something like that with Scooby – he eats a lot – which is nothing like what I'd do, so you couldn't confuse me with Shaggy except that he sounds like-"
Just then Ratchet and Jazz reached out and covered the chatterbox's mouth with their hands.
"Put a lid on it," Jazz told him quietly.
"You'll give us away," Ratchet whispered.
"Bluestreak," Optimus Prime addressed him seriously, "this isn't a cartoon."
Electricity crackled in the distance, bright static arcing between the electrical structures and their metallic insect limbs, as the Insecticons turned and adjusted themselves to see what had caused the noises behind the nearby evergreen trees. Optimus Prime glanced around the edge of the trees to see what the Insecticons were doing and saw the three robotic bugs looking in his direction.
Through the snow flurry, they glimpsed a familiar silver-masked blue face peeking at them around the edge of the trees. The bright red torso was a dead giveaway as to who it was.
"What's this?" Kickback asked in his tinny voice, "We have guests for Christmas dinner?"
"Optimus Prime," Bombshell breathed with dismay.
"His table manners are terrible," Shrapnel added. "He doesn't share the spoils, he just wrecks the occasion, occasion."
"Too late!" Optimus Prime announced to the other Autobots. "We've been discovered!" He quickly divided up the party into teams. "Trailbreaker, Gears, Bumblebee!" he called the members by name. "You take Kickback. Wheeljack, Bluestreak, Ratchet! Shrapnel's yours. Jazz and I will take care of Bombshell. Get them away from the switchyard!"
The Autobots acknowledged their orders and sprung out of hiding and into action, quickly splitting up into three groups and rushing toward the switchyard and the Insecticons. Eight tracks of boxy footprints marked the Autobots' paths over the snow-covered pavement.
"More Autobots!" Bombshell exclaimed with dismay at the sight of all eight of them.
Kickback's yellow antennae flicked. "I hate it when guests show up unannounced," the robotic grasshopper stated.
"They're giving me an appetite for destruction, destruction," Shrapnel echoed.
As Ratchet raced toward the Insecticons, the chief medical officer hit a slippery patch and felt his feet come out from underneath him. "Whoa! Watch out for-" Ratchet began to warn Wheeljack and Bluestreak before landing with a crash on his skidplate in the snow.
"Watch out for what?" Bluestreak turned his head and asked, just before he hit the same sheet of ice concealed by snow. The silver gunner slid and spun around as he desperately tried to catch his balance on the hidden ice, but lost control and ended up on his aft anyway.
Wheeljack was barely able to stop in time before slipping like the other two.
"Insecticons, attack the Autobots!" the boll weevil ordered his minions.
The enormous black and purple robotic stag beetle aimed the tips of his large, chrome mandibles at the one of the groups of Autobots and ignited a charge across them as he prepared to attack. "It's the giving season so I'm going to give you forty thousand volts," Shrapnel cackled. "I've got enough for everyone!" With that, he let loose a large electrical burst upon the group of Trailbreaker, Gears and Bumblebee.
As the red and white medic recovered from his fall, Ratchet saw the bright flash around the mandible tips. He tried to warn the other group of Autobots. "Trailbreaker! Watch out!"
Trailbreaker raised his force field around himself and the two minibots. The electrical burst scattered across its reflective surface and into the ground.
"Hah, it'll take more than that!" Trailbreaker announced as he lowered his shield.
"It's Kickback we want, so let's go get him!" Bumblebee exclaimed and transformed into vehicle mode. Bumblebee skidded to the left and right as he plowed uncontrollably through several inches of slippery snow. "Whoa! Maybe this wasn't such a good idea!"
Jazz sighted up to give Prime a hand with a few well-placed shots when he saw Bumblebee slide uncontrollably toward the guard rail above the river.
The black and white Autobot lowered his weapon and subspaced it, retracting his left hand to swap it for his winch and grappling hook attachment.
"Hold on, Bumblebee!" Jazz called out, the arm with the winch raised above his head. Jazz threw the grappling hook and line at Bumblebee as the little, yellow vehicle crashed through the guard rail.
Bumblebee hollered as he realized he was about to plummet into the frigid water below.
The grappling hook latched onto Bumblebee's bumper just as he disappeared from view. Suddenly, the line went taut and Jazz braced himself, holding the weight on the grapple end.
"This is the one that didn't get away," Jazz joked as he reeled in Bumblebee.
Jazz pulled the yellow Volkswagen Bug up and away from the edge. As soon as Bumblebee was out of danger, he transformed and unhooked the grapple from his bumper.
"I thought I was fish food for sure, Jazz," the yellow minibot said, glancing back at the broken guard rail. "Thanks."
Just then, Kickback leapt out of the switchyard, dislodged from his power transformer nest by the balance-disrupting emission from Wheeljack's shoulder-mounted gyro-inhibitor, and landed between Prime and Bumblebee and Jazz.
"Get him!" Bumblebee yelled as he grabbed his gun from subspace and fired at the grasshopper.
Bombshell surveyed the scene as Gears and Trailbreaker rushed over to join in the one-sided fight.
"Pin him!" Gears hollered at Trailbreaker. "Hold him down!"
"While Kickback distracts those Autobots, we will take care of these three," the boll weevil said and left the high energy side of the power transformer, climbing up onto the circuit breaker to get a better shot at Bluestreak, Ratchet and Wheeljack.
The giant stag beetle picked out the awkwardly coordinated chief medical officer for his next attack.
"There had to be slagging ice under the snow," Ratchet muttered to himself as he rubbed his dented skidplate.
Shrapnel laughed maniacally and let loose an electrical burst at Ratchet.
"Ratchet, get out of there!" Wheeljack hollered at his friend.
Ratchet rolled to one side, missing the full force of the jolt but still taking a nasty shock from the arcing electrical charge. Black streaks marked Ratchet's white contour where the hot electricity seared his paint job. A large patch of pavement was visible where the snow had evaporated.
"Ooowww!" Ratchet cried out in pain as he collapsed.
Bluestreak looked on, horrified to see Ratchet's burns.
"That's it," Wheeljack said with disgust. "You just picked on the wrong guy."
The engineer aimed his gyro-inhibitor at Shrapnel and fired a volley of disruptive waves at the Insecticon.
"Ugh," Shrapnel groaned, "getting electric reflux… doesn't feel good, feel good." The stag beetle's grip loosened on the power transformer and he dropped to the ground, where the Insecticon landed on his back, his robotic insect legs kicking feebly in the air.
Bombshell finally found the perfect spot and gasped when he looked down and saw Shrapnel upside-down on the ground as if he had been hit with bug spray.
"Can we shoot him now?" Bluestreak asked Wheeljack about Shrapnel. "He's on the ground."
"No, you still might hit that switchgear," Wheeljack answered, the lamps on either side of head flashing blue as he spoke.
Nearby, Ratchet made a noise.
Bluestreak started and turned to regard the fallen chief medical officer. "You're alive!" He gasped with relief.
"I'll be… fine," Ratchet groaned as he started to move. He knew that he could not afford to lay wounded out in the open on the battlefield.
High above the Autobots, Bombshell lined up the sights of his insect mandible gun barrel on Wheeljack. He wanted the Autobots to have a taste of that gyro-inhibitor themselves. "Let's even the odds of this fight," he said, preparing to fire one of his cerebro-shells at the mechanical engineer.
Wheeljack watched Shrapnel through the chain link fence regain his equilibrium and work on righting himself.
"How do we get them out of there if we can't fire on them?" Bluestreak asked Wheeljack, confused.
Wheeljack turned to look at Bluestreak just as a loud pop ricocheted through the air. An instant later, something pinged off his left lamp, deflected by the wing-like appendage jutting out from the side of his head. A ruined cerebro-shell rolled away along the ground.
"A cerebro-shell," Bluestreak breathed with dismay as he stared at the mind-control device. "One of those could turn an Autobot into a zombie."
The association between the subversive control of an Insecticon master and the conquering Brain Men from Gamma Centauri was not lost of Bluestreak. "I knew it! I knew that it could really happen! A cerebro-shell does the same thing as a pilot – except that Bombshell uses remote control to-" the gunner sputtered in a rapid monologue.
"C'mon!" Wheeljack grabbed Bluestreak, spinning him around by the arm and breaking him out of his trance-like state. He grabbed one of Ratchet's arms on the way.
"Help me get him up," Wheeljack instructed Bluestreak as a second cerebro-shell whistled through the air.
The sound of his name snapped Bluestreak back to attention. The two Autobots grabbed Ratchet and struggled back toward the protective cover of the powerhouse.
* * *
Some distance away, the Autobots holding Kickback down were suddenly thrown aside. Kickback leapt free, with Gears unwittingly riding on the grasshopper. Sitting behind Kickback's head, the red and blue minibot clenched the Insecticon's two yellow antennae.
"Stop!" Gears pleaded. "Help!"
Kickback flinched in pain as Gears' desperate grip crumpled the ends of his antennae. Every time the Insecticon landed, he kicked wildly, sending the bewildered Autobots scrambling in all directions.
"I'm getting whiplash!" Gears called loudly as the powerful kicks jolted his mechanisms.
Bumblebee threw himself at one of Kickback's legs, hoping to hold it down long enough to allow the other minibot to disembark from the rogue Insecticon. But he misjudged his strength; the grasshopper scarcely noticed the yellow burden clinging to his hind leg.
Jazz, Optimus Prime and Trailbreaker all tried to grab Kickback, but the grasshopper nimbly dodged each one of them as they slipped and slid in the snow.
"This is getting ridiculous," Trailbreaker grumbled aloud.
"…can't hang on!" Bumblebee cried as his grip loosened on the leg. He was suddenly catapulted loose and sailed through the air before skidding to a stop on his chestplate.
Optimus Prime looked over and saw Wheeljack and Bluestreak struggling to move Ratchet to safety, while Bombshell took shots at them from his perch. Down on the ground, Shrapnel had recovered from the destabilizing effect of Wheeljack's gyro-inhibitor and was gnawing through the chain link fence, eager to pursue the three fleeing Autobots.
"They need my help," Optimus Prime observed aloud. "Jazz!" he called to the black and white Autobot. "Stay here and help Gears. Ratchet is in trouble."
Jazz peered across the expansive site and glimpsed the stricken medic in the distance. "Gotcha!" he acknowledged the Autobot leader.
As Prime headed for the switchyard, Shrapnel tore away the fence posts and beetled toward Wheeljack, Bluestreak and Ratchet.
Hearing the fence destroyed behind them, the Autobots carrying Ratchet quickened their pace.
"You Autobots have gone far enough," Bombshell called from his perch atop the circuit breaker. The Insecticon had transformed and loaded a mortar into his head-mounted beetle mandible. He aimed ahead of the three Autobots and fired. The shell exploded violently on the ground in front of them, sending shrapnel and chunks of asphalt flying everywhere. The three Autobots were flung apart from one another by the intensity of the blast.
Bombshell laughed cruelly at the scattered Autobots as blackened ash fell out of the sky.
"Why don't you pick on a bigger target?" Optimus Prime's boom voiced from below the Insecticon.
"I'll just add you to the tally," Bombshell chuckled as he pointed his head cannon at Optimus Prime and launched another mortar. The shell rocketed toward Prime but the Autobot leader deftly spun away, narrowly avoiding the deadly bomb as it erupted in another scorching blast.
"You'll have to do better than that!" Prime called out to his foe.
Atop the switchyard equipment where he was safely out of reach of the Autobots, Bombshell was not about to come down and fight. On the ground, the small Insecticon was no match against the powerful Autobot leader.
"You'll have to make me!" Bombshell taunted in reply. The Insecticon repositioned himself to lob another shell toward Prime's new position.
"You leave me no choice," Optimus Prime said. Through the clearing smoke and vaporized snow, he tried to line up a precision shot at Bombshell between the trusses and electrical equipment. Gently falling snowflakes danced past the sight crosshairs. It was not a clear shot. He might hit the generating station equipment.
Bombshell fired again. Optimus Prime swiftly lowered his rifle and rolled away from the switchyard to avoid the ensuing blast. He ended in a crouch where he was lined up for a better shot at the Insecticon leader. Before Bombshell could take cover, Prime fired an ion stream and scored a hit on the Insecticon's shoulder. Bombshell shrieked as the wounded joint sparked and smoldered, but he fiercely held the high ground.
"Enough fun and games!" Bombshell called down to Optimus Prime. The wounded Insecticon pulled his gun from subspace and energized the weapon, but was momentarily distracted by Kickback's antics in the distance.
Optimus Prime was ready and pulled the trigger. An ion blast sizzled through the air and struck a string of electrical line insulators nearby, shattering them into brittle splinters. Prime's battle mask sagged at the sight of the exploding glass. It was an accident that he had missed Bombshell. He had to do better on his next shot.
"Are you afraid to damage the equipment?" Bombshell goaded him as he moved behind the circuit breaker for partial shelter. His arm was twitching below the damaged shoulder joint. "Go home now and no harm will come to it. We just want its energy."
"Forget it, Bombshell," Optimus Prime responded. "This power plant doesn't belong to you."
The stubborn Insecticon struggled to maintain his perch, but his arm was badly seized up. He subspaced his gun, keeping a wary eye on the Autobot leader. Optimus was crouched, rifle at the ready, steadily tracking him.
"Scrap!" the Insecticon cursed loudly. He reached around to get a better grip with his good arm, but his weight shifted and he slipped out into the open. His next curse was cut short by a direct hit from Prime's rifle. Sparks erupted from a gaping hole in his torso as his limp body plummeted to the ground.
Optimus Prime stood up and warily approached the switchyard. On the other side of the fence, the boll weevil Insecticon lay in a heap, his arm still feebly grabbing for a phantom handhold. His optics were glowing at half strength, but nobody was home. Bombshell was out of the fight.
As Prime turned back to assist the others, he gasped with dismay. In the distance, Shrapnel's chrome stag beetle mandibles buzzed to life as he electrified them for an attack. His capacitor quickly ramped up with forty thousand volts.
Laying sprawled in the snow, Wheeljack shook his head. "That was some blast… can't seem to move my legs."
Bluestreak pushed himself up onto his hands and glanced back to see Shrapnel charging his mandible electrodes. Not far away, Ratchet sat up, his back turned to the approaching Insecticon. The medic was clearly disoriented. It took a moment for the gunner to realize that Shrapnel was angling to zap Ratchet with another high voltage charge.
"Ratchet, look out!" Bluestreak called out.
Ratchet turned to look at the silver Autobot, a vacant expression on his faceplate.
"Behind you!" Bluestreak hollered at Ratchet, waving his arms.
The chief medical officer finally turned around as Shrapnel took aim. Frantic, Bluestreak scrambled to his feet and lunged toward Ratchet, losing his footing on the slippery surface.
"Wh-whoa!" Bluestreak yelled. His arms flailed as he careened past Ratchet and slid toward the menacing Insecticon.
Shrapnel's mandibles glowed, ready to deliver their forty thousand volt sting.
As Bluestreak collided with the Insecticon, Shrapnel reflexively closed his mandibles, clamping down across the silver Autobot's torso. The massive charge held in the electrodes instantly coursed through Bluestreak's body with a feverish electrical sting.
"Aaa-ag-ggg-gghh-hhhh!" Bluestreak screamed, the intermittent wail from his vocalizer broken apart by electrical disruption.
Ratchet looked on in horror as the brilliant flash of a massive electrical discharge illuminated the entire plant complex, casting hard shadows.
"Bluestreak!" Optimus Prime cried out, but he was too far away to help.
Bluestreak's servos recoiled, tensing his joints as the current lit up all his systems like a Christmas tree. The surge activated all of his lights at once. The car tail lights in his feet, the headlights in his chestplate and Bluestreak's optics burned intensely. The more fragile glass in the car lights cracked and burst apart from the fierce heat. The electrical charge raced through Bluestreak's body and dispersed through the smoldering asphalt under his feet.
The Insecticon finally let Bluestreak fall to the ground, smoking in the melted snow. The smell of sizzling oil wafted through the air.
Shrapnel chuckled. "Stick a fork in that Autobot. He's done, done."
"Why you slagger!" Ratchet scowled at Shrapnel. If there was one thing that motivated the temperamental chief medical officer past pain, it was anger. Before Shrapnel could recharge his mandibles for another stinging electrical bite, Ratchet was up and after the metal bug with his electro scalpel.
"I'll remove those stingers before you can say 'punchy energon snack.'"
Optimus Prime aimed his ion rifle at Shrapnel, taking care not to hit Ratchet. "Let me give you a hand."
Several ion bursts from the Autobot leader's weapon struck the robotic stag beetle, blasting open his carapace. Shrapnel transformed into robot mode and lay injured on the ground as Ratchet closed in on him.
"No more!" the wounded Insecticon pleaded with his arm outstretched, begging for mercy.
Ratchet was in no mood to grant mercy.
"The gloves are comin' off now," Wheeljack called out as he struggled to his feet. "You aren't gettin' away with fryin' one of my friends."
* * *
On the other side of the switchyard, Kickback was still bucking around. The frenzied Insecticon was unstoppable. Both Trailbreaker and Bumblebee had been thoroughly pummeled, but to no avail. Gears was still trapped atop the frantic metal grasshopper, clinging with all his might but too dazed to continue hollering. Jazz admired the minibot's tenacity, but did not envy the extensive recalibration he would have to endure later on.
"Time to wrap up this shindig," the Earth-cultured Autobot stated. Jazz faced the dodging Insecticon and deployed his mega speakers from the sides of his hip plates. "Get ready to face the music, Kickback," he said, and turned on his stereo and dazzling light show.
Loud rock music blared at the grasshopper. Multi-color lights strobed intensely in time with the music, blinding both Kickback and Gears. Trailbreaker and Bumblebee cringed, looking away from Jazz.
"That noise!" Trailbreaker stopped and tried to cover his audio receptors. Bumblebee covered his as well.
Distracted by the light and noise, Gears loosened his grip and Kickback finally shook the Autobot loose.
"Ow!" Gears complained as he landed hard on his aft. "Something's out of alignment for sure."
"That terrible sound…" the grasshopper said, his antennae flicking in annoyance, "…can't stand it."
Kickback leapt blindly away from the source of the broadcasting music and into the air.
Bumblebee's optics followed the fleeing Insecticon as he covered his audio receptors with his hands. "It's working!"
"Can you turn it off then?" Trailbreaker asked, afraid to look up for fear of being blinded.
"Not yet, man," Jazz answered triumphantly. "Gotta enlighten a couple of other Decepticons that have been buggin' me."
With Kickback gone, Jazz focused his solo rock concert on the Insecticons over by the switchyard. The sound waves carried across the snowy landscape, amplified by the canyon wall across the river from the power plant.
Wheeljack was holding Shrapnel down and Ratchet's laser scalpel was half way through the Insecticon's remaining chrome mandible when the noise and light distraction struck them. Overwhelmed, they were unable to finish their handiwork. Shrapnel transformed and wrestled himself free, grabbing his dismembered mandible as he fled skyward.
Underneath the switchyard equipment, Bombshell staggered to his feet. Precious energon trickled from the blast wound in his torso. Overcome by Jazz's disorienting performance, Bombshell took flight, wobbling through the air as he retreated.
"Show's over! The Insecticons have left the building!" Jazz announced and turned off the sound and light show. The snow fell silently as his stereo speakers collapsed back into his hip plates.
The other Autobots took their hands away from their audio receptors, straightened and surveyed the scene.
Gears rubbed his skidplate as he stood up. "It doesn't get any worse than this."
"Just thank your lucky stars that Jazz doesn't also sing," Trailbreaker reminded the malcontent minibot.
Gears groaned and shook his head.
Ratchet and Wheeljack hurried over to Bluestreak. Ratchet began to check his vital signs. Optimus Prime joined them, followed by the others. Bluestreak was offline. His optics were dim. A dark, runny fluid seeped out of his midsection.
"How is he?" Optimus Prime inquired.
"He's functional," Ratchet answered without turning away from his patient. "He'll need a full power system overhaul, at the very least – but it's hard to tell how bad it is without taking a look inside. We need to get him back to the base – pronto."
"His circuits are fried," Wheeljack explained.
"Then load him in my trailer. I'll transport him," Optimus Prime instructed. He transformed into semi mode and his trailer emerged from subspace, attached to the rig. The rear door lowered.
"You get his head and I'll get his legs," Wheeljack told Ratchet.
Together the engineer and medic carried Bluestreak's loose body to the trailer, carefully laying the injured Autobot within.
As Ratchet and Wheeljack closed Prime's trailer doors, the power plant manager and the maintenance engineer approached them.
"Good work getting rid of those Decepticons," Mr. Geddes thanked the Autobots.
"Yeah," Christine said enthusiastically. She smiled at Jazz. "That was pretty cool."
Jazz returned her smile. "Always a pleasure to lend a hand," he answered coolly. "But we've gotta split. One of our friends is hurt and needs repairs."
"Oh, I hope it's not too bad," she responded, concerned.
"We just don't know right now," Jazz stated.
"Sorry to leave in a hurry, Mr. Geddes," Optimus Prime excused the Autobots. "Your plant is safely back in your hands now."
"Thanks again," the plant manager grinned, resting his hands on his hips.
Optimus Prime paused as he remembered something. "And… uh… sorry about the insulators."
"The insulators?" asked Mr. Geddes as his expression went slack. He turned toward the switchyard.
"Autobots," Optimus Prime commanded in vehicle mode. "Transform and roll out."
The two humans watched in wonder as the bodies of the six robots shifted and changed until there were only vehicles in the yard with them.
Christine mouthed the word "wow" to Edward.
"That is amazing," Edward agreed.
Optimus Prime led the convoy away from the hydroelectric plant, up the access road and back onto the lonely strip of asphalt leading through the forested canyon. They headed for home.
At the generating station, the plant manager and the engineer walked back to the office building.
"Get the guys up here on the double," Mr. Geddes instructed the maintenance engineer. "I want the electricians to do a full inspection and repair of the equipment before I turn the units back on. Tell them the insulators are blown."
"Right away," Christine replied. "I'll give Stan and Rick a call."