Back at Autobot headquarters, Bluestreak lay offline on a table in medical bay while Ratchet and Wheeljack assessed the injured Autobot's condition. Sections of Bluestreak's housings lay nearby. Ratchet probed through the layers of insulating barriers around Bluestreak's power core while Wheeljack connected Bluestreak's central processor into one of the medical bay's diagnostic computers.
"His surge suppression buffers held together fairly well," Ratchet noted as he gingerly tested the integrity of the insulation. The boxy red and white Autobot carefully removed the compression plating holding the energy absorbers in place around Bluestreak's regulator. The delicate laminations lining the interior surface of the cylindrical component were singed and peeling away from its radial core. "But this doesn't look good. His regulator is finished."
Ratchet's frame rose and then sank as if the robot let out a sigh of air. Critical spare parts were in short supply and regulators were intricate components that were difficult to fabricate. It would take time to make a new one.
Wheeljack glanced at the diagnostic output on the computer screen, then down at Bluestreak's dull optics. "Well, that explains why his power is flowing at a trickle. There must not be very much conductive area left between the laminations and the core."
Ratchet straightened and shook his head. "This isn't a quick fix. There aren't any regulator spares."
Wheeljack turned away from Bluestreak and tapped a series of keys on the console next to the examination table. Technical information scrolled across the screen. "Let's just hope the rest of his system checks out. I'm just finishing up a full power system diagnostic."
The readout blinked on the screen when the computation was complete. "Huh," Wheeljack said pensively.
"What is it?" the chief medical officer asked.
"Funny," Wheeljack added as he scrutinized the program for more information. "There's some kind of anomaly in his aura field."
"So what does that mean?" Ratchet inquired. Stream of consciousness theory was not part of the medical officer's field of expertise.
"Aura field? That's the supra-neural energy pattern that regulates his conscious awareness." Wheeljack tapped the side of his helmet with an index finger. "That big jolt of electricity must have distorted it somehow."
"Oh", Ratchet replied, perplexed.
"To tell you the truth, I've never seen anything like this before," Wheeljack continued. "Could be nothing, but…"
The engineer and chief medical officer exchanged concerned glances.
"Can you fix it?" Ratchet asked.
"The aura field is not something you fix," Wheeljack answered matter-of-factly. "It's the manifestation of a 'bot's spark in his cerebral network."
"I'm a medic," grumbled Ratchet, "not a philosopher."
"It's just a way of understanding our personalities – theoretically, that is," Wheeljack explained. "We should get him online and monitor his behavior."
"Well, in that case," Ratchet said, "let's put him back together."
Ratchet set about gathering the equipment they would need to run a temporary power supply for Bluestreak. It would take time to fabricate a new regulator.
Wheeljack carefully reassembled Bluestreak's coverings, but left the damaged regulator in Bluestreak's mid-section exposed.
When Ratchet returned to the patient, he was carrying a set of medical equipment: a stand on rollers, a fuel filter, a portable fuel tank, hoses and vector connectors to fit it all together.
"I'm going to set Bluestreak up with a power bypass and charge filter," the Autobot doctor explained. "That way he'll be mobile until we can do a proper repair."
"Right. I'll see what I can find in the way of plans," Wheeljack said, rubbing the chin of his face mask. "Prowl has the same regulator design. It'll be a good start. But it might be tricky to find parts."
Ratchet rolled the stand up close to the offline mech and set down the parts on a nearby work table. He handed the fuel tank to Wheeljack.
"Here, fill this," the doctor instructed.
Wheeljack looked down into the large, empty receptacle and then back up at Ratchet.
"Over there," Ratchet said flatly, pointing to the energon supply bank across the medical bay. "Fill it with fresh energon."
"Oh, of course," Wheeljack responded.
Once the receptacle was filled, Ratchet attached it and the filter to the top of the stand and assembled the hoses and connectors. He carefully opened the dispensing valve until energon flowed through the length of transparent hose up to the adapter. Ratchet then cut a hole in the housing cover, ran the hose through it, and patched the energy bypass into the output side of Bluestreak's regulator. He finished by closing Bluestreak's last covering.
"His energy absorbers should respond quickly to this," Ratchet said.
A moment later, Bluestreak's optics brightened to their normal intensity and he gasped as the fresh energy flowed through him. Bluestreak's optics widened, and a look of fright came over his faceplate. "Shrapnel!"
Ratchet held Bluestreak from sitting upright too quickly. "Not so fast," the boxy red and white medic cautioned the injured Autobot. "You're in med bay."
"I-I am?" Bluestreak inquired, looking around at his surroundings as he leaned back on one elbow joint. There were no Inspecticons, only the safety of Autobot Headquarters. He chuckled nervously and placed a hand on top of his helmet. "I am."
"Shrapnel gave you quite the electro-bite," Ratchet explained to Bluestreak.
Random images flashed in Bluestreak's processor: snowflakes falling; Prime leading them from the Ark; Bombshell firing a cerebro shell; and Lord Xangzar climbing inside a giant robot head and the robot obediently placing it on its body. He glanced down and the tube running out of his body to the medical device beside him suddenly caught the Autobot's attention.
"W-what is that?" Bluestreak sputtered suspiciously.
Ratchet straightened. "That's an energy bypass. The electrical shock burned out your power regulator. You're going to need this bypass for a while until we can make you a replacement part," he explained with authority.
"I've been modified while I was offline?" he asked with a grimace, and then fear took over. "What else did you modify? Do I still have all of my processor? Is it still in my head?"
Bluestreak began frantically probing his head with his fingertips. Then he took the energon tube in his palms. His optics followed the length of glowing pink plasma to where the tube disappeared into his torso. Barely suppressed panic spread across his faceplate.
"Is my brain in there?" Bluestreak pointed to his midsection. His faceplate went slack as if he were about to be sick.
There was an awkward silence.
"What are you talking about?" Wheeljack asked incredulously.
"You don't get it, do you?" Bluestreak pleaded. He pointed at the chief medical officer. "Imagine there's this guy sitting inside Ratchet's head, making him do things. The guy pulls levers and pushes pedals to make Ratchet walk and move his arms – even talk!" Bluestreak tapped the side of his helmet with his index finger and lowered his voice to a whisper. "When Ratchet says something, it's not really him – it's the guy in his head who's doing it!"
"You mean a homunculus?" Wheeljack asked.
"I never heard them called that," Bluestreak responded, thinking of the Brain Men. "That must be their alien name."
Ratchet frowned. "There is nothing in my head!" he declared angrily and then realized what he had said. "I mean… there isn't anything in there that shouldn't be there."
"Prove it," Bluestreak pointedly told Ratchet.
The bizarre challenge caught Ratchet off guard and he punted for a moment. Then the chief medical officer drew his faceplate close to Bluestreak's and pointed to his left optic.
"Do you see anyone in there?" Ratchet asked him, rolling his optical sensor around so that Bluestreak could see the mechanism moving.
"No," Bluestreak said quietly, looking down at his legs as he sat on the medical bay table.
"Then trust me when I tell you that there is no one in my head, in your head, or in anyone else's head." Ratchet flapped his arms in frustration.
"Ratchet's right," Wheeljack agreed. "If you want to come to my workshop some time I'll show you the components that actually are in our heads."
Bluestreak looked up, glimpses of old memories of war-torn Cybertron and the sight of death filtering through his memory banks. He had seen those components before, strewn across the metallic ground in a sickening mess.
"That-that's okay, Wheeljack," Bluestreak answered glumly. He did not want to be reminded of that carnage.
"Just offering," the engineer added.
"Bluestreak," Ratchet said emphatically, "sometimes a big jolt like the one you sustained can cause a state of mind that doesn't seem normal… like anxiety." The tone of Ratchet's voice was firm yet reassuring. "Just try to relax while your automatic repair systems work on stabilizing your circuits. You're officially off duty until we can get you properly fixed up."
Bluestreak looked up at the energon tank atop the stand.
"Be careful with this unit here," Ratchet advised his patient, placing a hand on the mobile energy bypass, "so that you don't knock it over."
"That has to go everywhere I do?" Bluestreak asked uncomfortably.
"Yes," Ratchet answered, "so don't transform. Stick to light activities." The chief medical officer offered an amicable grin to lighten the mood of the moment.
Ratchet and Wheeljack exchanged glances of concern.
"There's always TV," Wheeljack mentioned, the protruding lamps on either side of the engineer's head blinking bright blue as he spoke.
Bluestreak laughed nervously. As long as there are no more scary movies, he thought.
Ratchet helped Bluestreak off the table. Wheeljack held the stand steady until Bluestreak was safely up on his feet.
"I've got it," Bluestreak thanked Wheeljack with a polite smile.
Ratchet stood back with his knuckle joints resting confidently on his hip plates. "There you go."
Bluestreak headed to the door, carefully guiding the stand on its rollers. The big, double doors opened automatically, and he departed from medical bay.
After he was gone, Ratchet looked at Wheeljack. "Well? Is he okay?"
Wheeljack scratched his head. "It's hard to tell with Bluestreak," he responded slowly, "even on a good day." He shrugged.
* * *
Alone in the hallway, Bluestreak gazed at the tank atop the fragile-looking stand and sighed to himself.
"What a drag," he muttered, testing the rollers, "this thing can't go outside." It was too fragile. As he imagined rolling the stand along with him inside the Ark, he was overcome by the visceral image of accidentally tipping the stand and overbalancing the tank on top, and it sloshing the pink plasma all over someone. He frowned.
Barely five minutes had passed and Bluestreak was bored already. He needed someone to talk to. So, with the energy bypass stand in hand, he headed toward the nearby training center.
As Bluestreak turned the corner into the room, one of the rollers on the stand squeaked nosily. Self-conscious of the noise, the Autobot nudged the squeaky wheel with his foot. The tank rocked dangerously as the fluid sloshed around inside. Optics wide, Bluestreak instantly grabbed the stand with both hands and waited for the energon to settle.
"Phew!" he sighed and relaxed.
Looking around the training room, he realized that he had come at a slow time. The equipment stood idle except for someone over on one of the reflex trainers. Whoever it was, the mech was focused on developing his servo responses and did not notice Bluestreak. The gunner carefully maneuvered the stand through the maze of training equipment. As he drew closer, he could see that it was the Autobot strategist, Prowl.
Prowl stood on the data footpad, with wires from the exercise computer laced into his left forearm. The strategist faced away from Bluestreak, gazing into the holographic arena displayed before him. He was facing off against a virtual opponent in hand-to-hand tactical combat.
Prowl leaned back to avoid a lunge punch from his virtual adversary, then grabbed the extended arm and twisted it behind the imaginary attacker's back.
Bluestreak glanced down at a display screen on the computer behind the footpad. Prowl was up to difficulty level seven. The computer registered a point for the maneuver.
"That's pretty good," Bluestreak said.
His concentration broken by the unexpected comment behind him, Prowl turned to see who it was. As he did, the holographic opponent broke free and delivered a crushing blow to Prowl's head.
"Knockout," the computer announced in a clipped tone. "Match over."
Prowl's head snapped back to the combat game. "No!" he grumbled.
"Hey, Prowl," Bluestreak greeted him.
"Not now, Bluestreak!" Prowl snapped, eager to get back in the battle.
"You were doing pretty good up until just then," Bluestreak noted.
Prowl ignored Bluestreak. "Replay move," he ordered the computer.
"Replay move," the computer affirmed. "One life remaining."
Prowl's holographic fighter leapt back up, fists and feet flying at his opponent. The strategist's clipped tactics showed impressive focus and training as he forced his opponent into a submission hold, gripping his virtual enemy by the hydraulic hoses in his neck.
"Critical hit opportunity," the computer noted dryly.
"Go for it!" Bluestreak cheered him on. "Take out that Decepticon!"
With a flick of his hand, Prowl dislodged the hoses and the holographic fight ended.
"Victory," the computer announced in a monotone. "Proceed to level eight."
"That was amazing!" Bluestreak exclaimed excitedly as Prowl disconnected himself from the trainer and stepped down off the footpad. "I haven't seen anyone finish off a level seven opponent, though I did see Jazz do a pretty cool level six takedown."
Prowl stared at the gunner.
"Yeah, he did a move like this," Bluestreak said as he mimicked a hook punch, "and then like this, and this." He proceeded to throw another punch with his other arm, and then flung out his foot in a clumsy kick.
As Bluestreak's weight carried forward after the kick, he inadvertently yanked on the energy bypass. Prowl's optics popped wide as the tank full of energon careened toward him.
"Uh-oh," Bluestreak said as he saw the tank overturning. The glowing contents sloshed out of the tank and all over the black and white strategist.
"Oops," Bluestreak said, embarrassed by his blunder. "Sorry."
"Great," Prowl flicked his hands, shaking off the rivulets of energon running down his arms.
Bluestreak laughed self-consciously. "I guess that's why I'm a gunner and not a fighter."
"I guess that's why," Prowl muttered.
"Hey, do you mind if I watch you train for a while?" Bluestreak inquired. "Maybe I'll learn something I can use… you know, that might-"
"No," Prowl interrupted him. "I need to concentrate, which means no distractions."
Bluestreak's frame sank.
Prowl sighed. "Hey, why don't you go-"
"-talk to Smokescreen?" Bluestreak finished the sentence at the same time as Prowl. To Bluestreak, it seemed only natural that Prowl would make that suggestion, though he was not sure why.
Prowl paused. "Yeah." He idly wondered how Bluestreak had figured out what he was going to say. "I saw him over by the data library."
"Okay," Bluestreak agreed. "Thanks, Prowl."
Prowl left to get cleaned up and Bluestreak headed off to find Smokescreen, wheeling the energy bypass stand down the orange-gold hallways of the Ark.
Passing by the open door to one of the large communal rooms, Bluestreak heard voices and glanced inside. Cliffjumper was pulling on the horns of his helmet while talking to Gears and Bumblebee. The red minibot was clearly excited about something.
Why is Cliffjumper trying to pull off his head? Bluestreak wondered. He suddenly froze. Brain Men! Overcome with terror, Bluestreak gripped his energy bypass stand. His fuel pump raced wildly. Is Cliffjumper one of them? Do the others know? Are they piloted by aliens too? Bluestreak suppressed the urge to scream.
"Speak of the devil," Bumblebee said as he noticed the gunner standing by the doorway.
"Hey, Bluestreak! Want to join us?" he called out.
The valve in Bluestreak's throat manifold choked shut momentarily. Bumblebee's words echoed in his head. Want to join us? Want to join us? Want to join us?
"N-no thanks, guys," Bluestreak replied, trying to sound as friendly as possible despite his mounting panic. "There's, uh… Prowl's orders," he finished lamely. The frightened Autobot hurried away, occasionally glancing behind him to check that the three minibots were not following him.
Inside the communal room, Cliffjumper was exasperated. "See what I mean?" he gestured toward the door as the other two minibots listened, amused. "He drives me crazy!"
Gears chuckled at Cliffjumper. "Don't pull your horns out over it."
* * *
Bluestreak's optic ridges furrowed as he mentally replayed the scene of Cliffjumper about to remove his head.
"Holy hexagons! Is it really happening?" he wondered aloud, hushing his voice so that no one would hear him talking to himself. Thank Primus he had seen the movie and been alerted to the possibility of aliens snatching control of the Autobots. Those wily aliens must be very sneaky to have done it without anyone noticing.
"I have to be very careful," he said, panting through his vocalizer. "I need to know who is okay and who isn't. If I expose myself… I could get turned into one of them."
Bluestreak hastened toward the data library to find Smokescreen, as Prowl had told him. Prowl was trustworthy.
The data library was a claustrophobic room strategically located in a heavily reinforced compartment near the tail of the ship. It had survived the devastating impact of the Ark's crash landing into the side of Mount St. Hilary millennia ago. The library contained extensive hard files of Autobot knowledge and history. There was supposedly enough information to construct a new Cybertronian colony. The library also served as a back-up repository for the vast quantity of Earth data intercepted and recorded by Teletraan I.
In the small room, Smokescreen silently scanned the contents of file number 38496-6. Aha! he thought to himself. He had found another historical news file for the last of the horses in the upcoming Gold Coast Express. The dark horse, a thoroughbred named Natural Traction, had a checkered past but seemed to be on a winning streak of late. The bookmakers clearly figured that Natural Traction's heyday was over, but Smokescreen was not so sure. When Natural Traction started winning, he could really keep it up. This could be my lucky horse, he chuckled.
"Win, place, or show, baby!" Smokescreen crowed to himself as he slipped file number 38496-6 into a compartment in his forearm.
Smokescreen had lost plenty betting on the horses favored to win; so much, in fact, that he no longer had any faith in the bookies' odds. Anything, it seemed, could happen in that final stretch of the race. Betting on a dark horse had the added bonus of a bigger potential payout, particularly when placing a trifecta wager.
Bluestreak found the red, blue and white Autobot standing in front of the index processor. Smokescreen worked the index processor with one hand; a stack of hard file cartridges was clenched in the other. The Autobot was busily scanning the display screen, all the while muttering to himself, over and over.
"Win, place, show, that's the way to go! Win, place, show, that's the…"
"Hi Smokescreen," Bluestreak waved.
Smokescreen started. He hurriedly set down the stack of cartridges on the countertop and turned to face Bluestreak. If Prime found out he was using Teletraan I's files to bet on the races again, his head would roll. But what Prime did not know was that Smokescreen had to get the money. His credit card, which he had used to make the previous bets, was accumulating interest at a shocking rate. He had eluded Prowl's prying eyes earlier, but Bluestreak had caught him off guard and unprepared. Smokescreen fumbled for the indexer power switch and turned the machine off, inching himself in front of the cartridges.
"Whatcha doing?" Bluestreak inquired with a friendly smile.
"Oh, nothing," Smokescreen answered matter-of-factly. "That is, nothing that you'd probably understand." He smiled broadly.
Bluestreak looked perplexed, so the diversionary tactician varnished his explanation. "Okay… It's kind of complicated. Hard to explain, really. Figures and details and stuff. That isn't your thing, is it?"
"But I like things that are challenging," said Bluestreak, "like puzzles and crosswords."
Smokescreen rolled his optics.
"Look… everyone knows that you're a lucky guy – that's why they call you Streak, right?"
"Huh?" Bluestreak asked, confused. "That's not why they call me Streak. It's 'cause I'm quick on the draw." Bluestreak sighted up an imaginary beam rifle. "I can knock down three Decepticons before Prime can sight up the first one."
"Of course," Smokescreen replied with another grin, content that he had distracted Bluestreak from his activities. He discretely placed one of his hands behind his back, feeling for the cartridges, and then pushed them out of clear sight.
"So, this looks kind of special…" he started, gazing at the stand and half-full energon tank connected to the gunner. "Where did you get it?"
"Oh that?" Bluestreak responded, glancing at the device. "My regulator needs to be replaced, so Ratchet said I've got to use this in the meantime."
"Really," Smokescreen crossed his arms and said with feigned interest. "How did that happen?"
Bluestreak started into a lengthy description of the events of the battle at the Granite Creek power plant until Smokescreen's attention began to wander.
"I'm sure it was quite a battle, Bluestreak," Smokescreen summarized. He put a hand on the other Autobot's shoulder and coolly guided him out of the data library.
"Look at that. I'd love to chat, but I really have to go now," he excused himself as he pretended to check his chronometer.
Bluestreak fidgeted. "I just think it's a little strange that you have to go as soon as I show up," he observed. "Are you hiding something?"
Smokescreen faltered, then laughed nervously. "Well, c'mon now… everyone has their little secrets," he said, tapping the side of his head with his index finger.
Bluestreak's eyes widened. Smokescreen was already being piloted by one of them.
"I know what you're up to," Bluestreak accused. "You were looking through Teletraan I's data files to learn as much as you can. You want to know everything so that you can win."
Smokescreen's optics widened with fear. "Did Prowl put you up to this?"
Bluestreak nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on the other Autobot in case he tried to make any sudden moves.
"Does Prime know?" Smokescreen asked.
"Not yet," Bluestreak answered, "but he's going to know soon enough."
"No!" Smokescreen exclaimed. "Don't tell Prime. Please, Bluestreak. Let's be reasonable about this."
"You must be joking!" Bluestreak sputtered, laughing in disbelief. "This is the biggest threat to the Autobots since…" he started, then stopped to think. "Well, since ever."
"C'mon, Bluestreak," Smokescreen pleaded, desperation in his vocalizer. "I'll let you in on my plan if you promise to help me. I'll even give you… ten percent of the spoils."
Ten percent of the Earth? Bluestreak thought with a puzzled expression on his faceplate. What would I do with that?
"No way, Smokescreen!"
"Okay, okay," Smokescreen negotiated, eager to win Bluestreak over. He could not afford to give up much more, but if Bluestreak went to Prime, he would have nothing at all. "I'll give you fifteen percent. But if I lose, I'm not taking the full hit."
The clever Autobot was already scheming a way to start up a new credit card in Bluestreak's name. Not only would that effectively extend his own credit, but it would also help him by spreading around any future losses.
"What? What am I supposed to do with fifteen percent?" Bluestreak asked, confused.
Smokescreen was surprised by Bluestreak's apparent shrewdness. "Fifteen percent of fifty thousand dollars? That's… well, that's a lot! Think of all the adventures you could go on. You could afford freight passage around the world. You could go and… see things." He spread his palms out. "Imagine the possibilities, Bluestreak. You could afford to buy Christmas presents for your friends."
"Huh?" Bluestreak struggled to understand the conversation. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about an incredible opportunity, Bluestreak. Think about how much money you'll make." Smokescreen offered his hand to shake. "What do you say... partner?"
Bluestreak chuckled nervously. The alien plot to take over the world must be financial. In that case, Bluestreak thought, I should cooperate with Smokescreen to gain the aliens' trust and learn the details of their plan – and then foil it when the time is right. Then I'll tell Prime and be a hero.
Bluestreak hesitantly took Smokescreen's hand and the two shook.
"Excellent," Smokescreen grinned widely, showing his glistening dental plates. He had to get Bluestreak involved in the actual betting as soon as possible, so that he would be just as guilty of gambling before he could change his mind and tell anyone.
"Tell you what," Smokescreen began, looking down as he thought. "How 'bout you come with me and we'll get the details of this ironed out."
"Okay," Bluestreak shrugged.
Bluestreak followed Smokescreen back to his quarters. Once inside, Smokescreen locked the door to ensure that they would not be found out. Then he pressed a button concealed under his desktop and a large section of wall panel slid away to reveal a super-secret console and display.
"Of course!" Bluestreak gasped. "You'd need something like this."
Smokescreen nodded. "Yup. You don't think I'd actually use Teletraan I and risk being seen."
"No," Bluestreak answered plainly. He looked back and forth over the elaborate communications station. "How long have you been doing this?"
"Since a year ago last October," Smokescreen responded proudly. "I had to be really careful about getting all of this stuff in here."
"I bet," Bluestreak said, nodding knowingly.
The gunner seemed very interested in gambling, which pleased Smokescreen and set him at ease. The sly tactician popped the borrowed data cartridge – file number 38496-6 – out of his forearm and inserted it into a slot in the desk. A picture of Natural Traction appeared on the screen, accompanied by sub-screens showing statistics and related news stories. Smokescreen scanned the information, then pulled up the list of all of the horses scheduled to run in the Gold Coast Express.
"Horse racing?" Bluestreak asked, perplexed. "How does this fit in with the plan?"
"Beats the odds of winning the lottery," Smokescreen explained, looking over at Bluestreak. "I just have to know something about the jockeys and horses and the odds are better than the random chance of a lottery." He looked back to the screen momentarily. "I need to make sure I get the fifty thousand," he said firmly, "and I've got to start where I've got a reasonable chance."
"Oh," Bluestreak said plainly. "You mean like… phase one of the plan?"
Smokescreen looked at Bluestreak oddly. "I-I guess you could call it that," he agreed.
"Now," Smokescreen said, moving on, "these are the horses running in the Australian Gold Coast Express." Smokescreen pointed to the list on the screen. "I'll show you how this works. We're going to pick not only the winner, but the top three in order. That's how you win the most money. It's called a trifecta. For example," he stated, calling forward the picture of Natural Traction to center screen for a moment, "I think that this one, Natural Traction, is going to do well. He's run in eight races so far this year, and won his last seven. Now that is a horse."
Bluestreak's circuits tingled when he looked at Natural Traction. "I'm not sure. I have a funny feeling he might not place first again. Besides, his name sounds kind of funny."
"You can't go by the name," Smokescreen told Bluestreak. "Look, here are the odds." He called up the stakes schedule.
"What about him?" Bluestreak asked, pointing at another horse on the screen. "Carnival Magnus. That's a neat name."
"Yeah, well you've got to consider the odds. Carnival Magnus has never won. Ignore the names. They don't mean anything. Okay?"
"You see," Smokescreen continued, "the bookies figure that Partly Cloudy, Northern Pointe and Expect Tropical are more likely to win, but that makes the payoff lower. To win a lot of money with those you have to bet a lot of money – more than I've got. You follow?"
"Now, Natural Traction is a different story. Sure, the bookies don't think he'll perform this time around. But I've done my research. I can tell that horse will win. And it's long odds, so the payoff will be sweet. A nice bet might be a win for Natural Traction, place for Northern Pointe, and show for Expect Tropical."
"But what if Carnival Magnus did win, somehow?" insisted Bluestreak. "Like, what if all the faster horses fell down?"
"You know," Smokescreen continued, scheming, "I like the way you think. Maybe you're onto something. Cover all the bases. Split the bet. Put money on the sure thing but play the long shot, too – especially since the payout on the long shot is so big."
He checked his chronometer, tapped some keys and pulled up an online form. "I have to do this quickly since they'll be racing shortly. If you want to give Carnival Magnus a try, I'll have to set you up with one of these." The tactician grinned amicably at Bluestreak.
"What's that?" Bluestreak asked.
"It's just a credit application form," Smokescreen explained. "You have to fill one of these out so that you can get access to money. It doesn't cost you anything to do it. I've got one."
"Should we be doing that?" Bluestreak asked.
"Sure," Smokescreen answered smoothly. "Humans do it all the time. It's how they pay for cars, houses, vacations, jewelry… all that big ticket stuff. It's no big deal. Really."
Bluestreak went along with Smokescreen and filled out the credit application. Smokescreen completed the first part for him by giving Bluestreak an alias.
"Let's call you… Jimmy Bluestone," he said, picking the first human-sounding name that came to mind.
"But I'm Bluestreak," Bluestreak protested.
"Bluestreak, Bluestone," Smokescreen shrugged. "It's close enough. Trust me on this."
"Well, okay," Bluestreak reluctantly agreed while Smokescreen filled out the remainder of the form.
Once the application process was finished, Smokescreen submitted the credit application online, smacked his hands together and grinned.
"Okay, all done. Just a few more seconds…" a long number flashed on the screen, along with the name Jimmy Bluestone and Smokescreen's preferred mailing address.
"Bingo!" the tactician grinned widely. "Let's get started with your picks. Look over the list and tell me which ones give you that lucky feeling."
Bluestreak scrutinized the list of horses on the screen, ignoring the incomprehensible statistics about their previous races and standings: Checkered Pass, Natural Traction, Partly Cloudy, Northern Pointe, Expect Tropical, Carnival Magnus, Last Chance Tiger and Flamingo Dancer.
"In order? Hmm… I pick," Bluestreak started slowly. He asked himself who he thought would win. Carnival Magnus' name kept standing out as he looked up and down the list, even though Smokescreen figured he would lose. "Carnival Magnus in first."
Smokescreen's optics widened. "Going with the long shot after all?" He shrugged and recorded the bet electronically.
That tingle came back when Bluestreak looked at Natural Traction's name. "Natural Traction in second," he said, letting the strange feeling guide his attention, "and Flamingo Dancer to come in third."
"Wow," Smokescreen mouthed with disbelief. "Natural Traction to place is a decent pick, but Flamingo Dancer to show? That horse is a dog."
"You said I should pick which ones I thought were lucky," Bluestreak defended his choices.
"Okay," he agreed. "Those are your horses. Wish 'em luck." Smokescreen wanted to keep Bluestreak's interest in gambling, and it would not be that much money flushed away, so he decided not to be too critical.
Bluestreak looked up at the horses on the screen. "Good luck, guys."
Smokescreen quickly submitted his picks electronically and sent them to the race track's computers through his special channel. "It's race time, folks!" He grabbed his guest chair and pushed it toward Bluestreak. "Have a seat, Mr. Lucky."
Bluestreak laughed uncomfortably before taking the offer to sit and watch the race with Smokescreen.
Smokescreen called up the racing channel and dialed up the volume. On the screen, the track announcer narrated as the horses lined up into the starting gate.
"The announcer's voice sounds strange," Bluestreak noted.
"That's 'cause he's Australian, Bluestreak. They talk like that down there," Smokescreen answered as he opened a drawer in his desk console and took out some energon snacks. He popped the top off of the cylindrical container, poured some energy pellets in his palm and threw them into the back of his mouth.
"Want some?" Smokescreen asked, offering his companion the container of glowing goodies.
"No… no thanks."
"Hey, relax. It's just a race." Smokescreen leaned back in his chair, comfortably holding onto the backs of the missile launchers on either shoulder. "If we don't win big on this one there are always others."
"Yes. Right," Bluestreak hesitantly agreed with Smokescreen. "Of course. I know that."
Suddenly the gate bell rang and the announcer called the start of the race. "And… they're off!"
Smokescreen sat up, perching himself on the edge of his seat. Expect Tropical and Northern Pointe broke through into the lead coming out of the first corner.
"Go! Go!" Smokescreen loudly cheered them on as they broke into the first straightaway.
Bluestreak watched his horses. They were in the middle of the pack, with Carnival Magnus starting to trail behind.
"C'mon, guys," Smokescreen pleaded with the images on the screen, "make me some money!"
Then something happened. In an incomprehensible blur, the lead horse went down. Because the horses were so close together, several were caught between the barrier and the fallen racehorse. They stumbled over the injured animal and were out of the race.
"No, no, no, no!" Smokescreen lamented, wringing his hands. "No! This isn't supposed to happen!" Two of his three horses had gone down in the fray. He leaned forward and put his faceplate in his hands, not wanting to see the rest.
Bluestreak could not believe what he was seeing. Somehow, all of his horses – plus Last Chance Tiger – made it through the incident. They were the only racehorses left in the running.
"Ha, ha!" the gunner laughed with a wave of relief. "Smokescreen, look!"
"What?" Smokescreen looked up. Miraculously, Bluestreak's picks were still in fine racing form.
The horses flew through the last turn and pulled into the straightaway leading up to the finish line. Carnival Magnus edged past Last Chance Tiger and Flamingo Dancer, but Natural Traction held onto the lead.
The two Autobots cheered them on with gusto. "Go Magnus! Go for it!"
Carnival Magnus, the long shot, suddenly broke past Natural Traction and galloped to the finish. The other three rallied for place and show. It was going to be close.
"Go, go, go, go!" Smokescreen hammered his fist in the air as he stood up to watch the incredible finish.
Keeping one hand firmly on the energy bypass stand, Bluestreak stood and copied Smokescreen's cheer.
In the final yards, Last Chance Tiger fell away, leaving Flamingo Dancer and Natural Traction to compete for second place.
"I can't believe this!" Smokecreen exclaimed, awestruck at Carnival Magnus' impossible finish and Bluestreak's other two horses about to complete the trifecta.
The second and third place horses were neck and neck when they flew across the finish line. It was too close to tell the order.
"Whoo-hoo!" Bluestreak howled merrily with delight. "My boys won!"
A moment later the channel displayed the finishing snapshot of the two horses. Natural Traction had edged out Flamingo Dancer by a nose.
"Yeah!" Smokescreen punched the air. "I won!"
Then he looked at Bluestreak. "I mean… you won. You won!" With a huge grin, he gave Bluestreak a congratulatory slap on the back.
"Hah!" Bluestreak laughed, "I did."
"I don't know how you did it, but I know one thing," Smokescreen said as he hurriedly fumbled through a drawer and pulled out a piece of paper with a number matrix on it. "You need to buy a lottery ticket today. Because that," he pointed emphatically at the win on the screen, "was unbelievable. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were psychic."
"I just picked the ones that I thought would win," Bluestreak explained plainly.
"That's the point!" Smokescreen explained excitedly. "That's what it's like to have the gift." He thrust the paper at Bluestreak.
"Pick seven numbers," he crowed excitedly. "Pick seven numbers that you think will win. Use your gift to pick them."
"I don't have a gift," the gunner said quietly.
"C'mon," Smokescreen prodded him, "no need to be humble about it."
"Well, um… okay." He picked out the numbers and Smokescreen logged them on a data pad.
"Great," Smokescreen said, tucking the data pad into the vehicle mode passenger compartment on his back. "I'm off to the city to get that ticket. Why don't you, uh, buy yourself something with your winnings? Just don't spend too much."
"How?" Bluestreak asked, scratching his head.
"With that number we got you, Jimmy," he answered. "Remember, buddy? The credit card?"
"Right," Bluestreak responded. "The credit card."
Smokescreen grinned immensely. "Mr. Jimmy Bluestone," he gushed.
"Uh, okay," Bluestreak mumbled, flustered.
"Think Christmas," Smokescreen chimed as he ushered the gunner toward the door. "Think Christmas!"
"Christmas," he acknowledged as the tactician maneuvered him out into the hallway and closed up his quarters.
"See you later, partner," Smokescreen waved as he sauntered down the hallway.
Bluestreak paused for a moment to process everything that had just transpired.
At the far end of the hallway, Smokescreen sang merrily away. "Oh, I'm off to make some money," he crooned, "the wonderful jingle of cash!"
* * *
Elsewhere in the Ark, two conspirators went over their plan to spread holiday cheer among the Autobots.
"You sure you memorized the image right?" Jazz checked. "You're not going to make him blue and white or somethin'?"
Hound chuckled. "Of course not. I know what this guy's supposed to look like. Don't worry. How about you? You sure you're not going to slip up in the voice department?"
"Heh," Jazz laughed. He attached the voice modifier to the side of his helmet and adjusted the microphone so that it was in front of his mouth.
"How does this sound, man?" the saboteur asked in a deep, merry human voice.
"Man?" Hound asked with skepticism.
Jazz turned the arm of the microphone away so that he could talk normally. "Jus' kidding." He paused. "See, I didn't say it. I've been practicing."
"Good." Hound grinned. "You've got the goods?"
"Of course," Jazz responded. "Let's get this show on the road." He turned the microphone back in front of his mouth and nodded to the other Autobot.
Hound acknowledged and threw up the planned hologram to conceal them. Where the two Autobots stood close together was an Autobot-sized Santa Claus. The scout then checked his tracking system, picking out the Lamborghini twins in close proximity.
"Two jingle bells at one o'clock, around the corner," he whispered to Jazz. "They'll be passing the end of the hallway in a minute."
"Perfect," Jazz smiled through the Santa voice emulator.
The two hurried forward to meet up with the red and yellow twins. Jazz put his hand over his fuel tank and let out a rolling belly laugh as the stunned pair gasped at the strange sight.
"Ho-ho-ho!" the holographic Santa laughed merrily. "Have you been good this year?"
Sunstreaker and Sideswipe looked at one another with bewildered expressions.
"How did a giant human break into the base?" Sideswipe asked, puzzled.
Sunstreaker's optics narrowed. "I say we get him."
"Right, bro'," Sideswipe agreed and made a grab for his flare rifle.
But Santa was quicker on the draw and had a proton rifle pointed at them in a flash.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Santa warned them, his jolly smile turning upside down.
The two Autobot warriors slowly put their hands in the air in surrender.
Santa took one hand off the gun to wag his finger at them. "You've been naughty this year, Sunstreaker and Sideswipe."
"What?" Sideswipe asked incredulously. "How do you know me?"
"He doesn't," Sunstreaker answered him. "He's just guessing."
Santa looked at the yellow warrior. "Nobody likes someone who's arrogant and self-centered."
Sunstreaker tensed and his fingers curled at the comment.
"Ho-ho," Santa chuckled. "You need to lighten up. Here," Santa took two discs out of his red velvet coat, attached one to the end of the gun, and fired at Sunstreaker.
Sunstreaker's optics shot wide open the instant that he realized the giant human in red and white was going to shoot. The disc struck him with little more than a light slap, though. He looked down at his chestplate to see where he had been hit. Over top of his Autobot insignia was a yellow sticker with a large happy face on it.
"You could use some holiday cheer too, my red friend," Santa declared in a light-hearted tone.
The second disc smacked on top of Sideswipe's Autobot symbol. The red warrior looked down at the silly face smiling back at him.
"You can't do this!" Sideswipe pouted defiantly.
Santa kept his photon rifle trained on them.
"Rembember, Lambos," Santa said with a cheery smile and a friendly wink, "be good. Santa's watching you."
The twins began to argue with the mysterious giant character, so he blinded them with a dazzling flash of light.
That was the cue for Hound and Jazz to flee before the Lambos' optic sensors recovered and they took chase. Still disguised by Hound's hologram of a giant Santa Claus, the two Christmas conspirators fled back up the hallway, turned one corner, and then the next. Just when they thought they were in the clear, Bluestreak appeared before them in the hallway, wheeling his energy bypass along beside him.
Santa skidded to a stop before they collided.
"Uh-oh. It's Bluestreak," Jazz whispered to Hound through the Santa voice emulator. "What do we do now?"
"Give him something!" Hound whispered hoarsely to Jazz. "Don't make him suspicious. We don't want the twins to find out that Santa was us."
"Like what?" Jazz asked in a hurry.
"How about those car decorations?" Hound whispered back.
"Got it," Jazz responded and took out the gift.
"Santa?" Bluestreak asked hesitantly. "Are you talking to yourself?"
"Ho-ho-ho," Santa answered back with a friendly smile, pretending as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Bluestreak relaxed, a huge smile spilling onto his face plate. "I knew you were real."
"Of-of course I'm real, m-" Jazz answered as Santa, fighting off the urge to add a signature "man" to the end of the sentence. He glanced behind him, worried about spending too long talking to Bluestreak. He and Hound had to gain some distance from the twins, and quickly.
With the big man himself right there, Bluestreak went for broke. "I'd like a pet for Christmas," he declared to the jolly, holographic saint.
"That's a lot of responsibility," Santa responded in a kindly tone. "How about some fish instead?"
Santa wound up and tossed two car decorations like ninja stars at Bluestreak. Bluestreak flinched and closed his optics, not wanting to be hurt by the objects thrown at him. A second later, something slapped against the front, right side of his chestplate and on the front his left foot.
"Be good, Bluestreak," Santa told the silver gunner and put his index finger next to his nose. With a dazzling display of light, Bluestreak was blinded. When his optics recovered, Santa was gone.
Bluestreak looked down at his Datsun Fairlady car hood chest and his foot, which formed half of the rear of the vehicle. Stuck to both locations was a simplistic metallic outline of a fish.
Bluestreak scratched his head. "What do these mean?" He wondered aloud. The symbols appeared to be insignia, similar to the Autobot faction symbol he wore. "Have I joined a fish club?" He dropped his shoulders in disappointment and trudged back to his room.
When he returned to his quarters, Bluestreak slumped into the chair in front of his computer. As he fell into the metallic seat, the bypass stand caught on the base of the chair. Those between his torso and the stand suddenly went taut. With lightning quick reflexes, Bluestreak stuck out his right hand and caught the stand just as it was about to tip over.
His intuitive response surprised him. "That's strange," Bluestreak reflected to awe, "it's like… I knew exactly that was going to happen."
He moved the stand closer, allowing the hose to droop between him and the bypass stand.
"Psychic, huh?" he pondered remotely, thinking of the horse race. It could have been luck.
He punched some keys on the computer console in front of him. There had to be something good on TV to watch. A list of the current programs being broadcast appeared. Scanning them, Bluestreak grimaced.
"People's Court?" he said to himself, picking out one of the programs from the list. "Who wants to watch that… and Love Boat? Pfft."
Further down the list was a game show he had seen once. "I wonder if Smokescreen would be any good at the game show, Pyramid. Then again, would they even let one of us onto a show like that?"
He imagined what it would look like for a giant robot to appear on the set of the popular game show, next to the small human contestants. "They would have to pan the camera really far back to get an Autobot in the screen and then all of the people would look really tiny – which wouldn't look good on TV – unless he transformed into vehicle mode for the show, but then that might look weird, like KITT the talking car from Knight Rider."
He paused just long enough to sigh. "Aw, what do Autobots know about human trivia? Maybe Bumblebee or Hound or Jazz would know the answers to some of the questions. It's all too obscure for me."
There was nothing interesting on television. Generally, that was the case in the middle of the day. Cartoons came on after three o'clock, followed by programs like his favorite, Gilligan's Island. With Christmas approaching soon, a holiday special might even be on in the evening.
Bluestreak leaned his elbow on the desktop and dropped his chin into his hand, staring blankly at the screen. He still felt bad about spilling that energon all over Prowl. He respected Prowl and wondered what he could do to make up for the accident. Then an idea came to him.
"I know what I'll do. Since it's almost Christmas, I'll get Prowl a Christmas gift," Bluestreak stated. "Something better than fish club insignia. And since Smokescreen got me credit, I'll buy something. That'll fix that little accident with the energon."
Tapping a sequence of keys, he requested Teletraan I open a catalog directory of the stock in mainstream store computers.
"Now what sort of thing would Prowl like?" he wondered as he perused through the retail listings. "Most of these things are for humans. Gotta think about things that humans buy that an Autobot would like…"
He spent the good part of the next hour searching for things that might make suitable gifts.
"Ski racks?" Bluestreak asked aloud. "No, Prowl doesn't ski." He flipped through some more advertisements for products. "Luggage? No, Prowl doesn't go on vacation. Still, he could try going somewhere. Paris is popular. So is Hawaii. But how would I book one of those for a car? Hmm… maybe next year."
Bluestreak tapped the keys on the keypad, skipping through more ads before one caught his attention. His optics widened and he smiled. "That would be perfect," he concluded, and ordered the product with the number that Smokescreen had given him. "Place order, select next day shipping," he added as a he completed the sale. "All done." He chuckled contentedly to himself, certain that Prowl would appreciate the gift.
* * *
Lounging in his chair at the security console, Ironhide glanced over the Ark status screens. The rocky landscape framed the entrance to the open ship. All was calm.
With the base quiet and time on his hands, the boxy red security chief opened a thin chamber between the headlights of his Toyota minivan torso and took out a personal data drive. Casually, he inserted it into a free data port and leaned back with his hands clasped behind his head as the computer ran the personal program on the drive.
The security data on the main screen in front of Ironhide disappeared, replaced by a close-up of a spinning crank shaft inside a mechanism casing. The soothing, rhythmic purr of an engine accompanied the video. The camera panned back, slowly following the shaft back until, one by one, cams appeared. Eight metallic ellipses rotated in synch with one another, pumping their cam followers. The camera dropped down below the followers to show each driving the thrusting pistons of an engine. The video title flashed onto the screen: "BARE METAL: Exposed Surfaces 5."
"Oh yeah," Ironhide drawled as his lip components spread into a relaxed smile. "Haven't seen this one in long time."
The flickering light from the video washed over Ironhide as the lithe form of an acrobatic femme performed for the old mech.
"Heh," Ironhide murmured contendedly to himself, "been too long."
The echo of metallic footsteps approached the security station. Ironhide glanced over his shoulder as he waited to see who it was with his hand hovered over the drive, ready to pull it out in an instant. In his peripheral vision he glimpsed an average-height Autobot. Definitely not Optimus, the old veteran thought. He relaxed back into his seat as the video continued to play.
Wheeljack stopped once he entered the security station and looked around the room.
"I was looking for Optimus," the engineer stated.
"He ain't here."
Wheeljack peered at the screen in front of Ironhide and chuckled to himself. "Is that-?"
"Sure is," Ironhide answered quickly with a crooked grin. "I may be old, but I still appreciate fine metalwork when I see it."
Wheeljack stepped closer and Ironhide made space for him. A lithe mechanism gyrated and then pumped her gleaming body, gesturing like the strokes of pistons.
"Oh, she's good," Wheeljack stated, impressed with the mechanical complexity of the performance. Her joints bent, folded and rotated in perfect symphony. "I didn't know U-joints could do that."
"Wouldn't it be great to get a piece of that action?" Ironhide ribbed Wheeljack.
"We'll get back to Cybertron someday," the engineer said optimistically, "and you'll see Chromia again. Don't you worry."
Ironhide shook his head. "Was just thinkin' of workin' out… y'know, gettin' back into the swing of moving like that. Then show Chromia what I could do when we got back to Cybertron." He curled his fingers into a fist and awkwardly flexed his arm as his muscle hydraulics wheezed. "These ol' joints don't move like they used to."
"I could do a lot more for you, mechanically, if we had all the parts and energy we needed." Wheeljack paused and his thoughts drifted onto the topic of his visit. "Well, enjoy the show. I've gotta find Prime." Wheeljack headed back toward the door.
"You sure?" Ironhide inquired, craning to look over the back of the chair as the engineer walked away. "There's some even better stuff comin' up soon." He hooked his thumb back at the video screen. "You've gotta see what she does with grease nipples."
Wheeljack raised his palm toward the old mech. "No thanks, Ironhide," he replied politely.
"Well, okay," the security chief responded. He glanced down before providing a suggestion. "Try the battle room Prime might be there."
"Right," Wheeljack said and then left.
The rhythmic pulse of machinery sounded in the room. Ironhide turned back to the monitor and pressed a sequence of keys to take the video back to the point it was at when Wheeljack entered the room. He was going to watch it again, uninterrupted.
* * *
Wheeljack walked into the battle room, where Optimus Prime was flipping through channels on Teletraan I. Nearby, Jazz slouched casually with his arms crossed.
"What's up, m'man?" Jazz greeted the engineer.
Optimus Prime glanced over his shoulder when he heard his lieutenant greet Wheeljack then turned away from the computer.
"Optimus," Wheeljack began. The grey lamps on either side of his head flashed bright blue as he spoke. "I found something odd about Bluestreak's injury, something you should know about."
"What is it, Wheeljack?" the Autobot leader inquired.
"After Ratchet and I patched Bluestreak up with that energy bypass, I did an full analysis of Bluestreak's aura field. The high voltage jolt from Shrapnel's electro-bite distorted the aura field set up by his spark in his cerebral network."
Jazz stood up straight and came closer to listen.
"What does that mean?" Optimus Prime asked.
"Does that explain his obsession with aliens taking over Autobots?" Jazz inquired without missing a beat, as he twirled an index finger around the side of his head.
"I don't know about that, Jazz," the engineer answered plainly before looking back up at the tall Autobot leader. "I did research about this particular kind of distortion – and I know this is gonna sound crazy – but it's been linked with precognition."
"You mean to tell me that the electrical jolt has made Bluestreak psychic?" Optimus Prime inferred.
"Cyberpsychic Bluestreak," Jazz summarized. "I like the ring of that."
"Yes," Wheeljack responded. "Has he done or said anything that would indicate this?"
"Not that I know of," Prime said.
"This could give us a great strategic advantage over the Decepticons," Wheeljack furthered. "Imagine it. Bluestreak tellin' us what Megatron was going to do next."
"Cool," Jazz nodded with a grin.
"Hmm," Optimus Prime pondered, rubbing the chin of his battle mask. "The question remains whether Bluestreak can develop the ability. Does he know what has happened to him?"
"No, I haven't said anything to him," Wheeljack answered.
"Let's see what he says of his own accord before giving him any ideas," Optimus Prime stated.
"Test 'im, huh?" Jazz surmised.
"Affirmative," the Autobot leader acknowledged his lieutenant before switching the subject with a question for Wheeljack. "How is the work on his new regulator coming?"
"It's coming along fine," Wheeljack answered, "I should have it done very soon."
"Good," Optimus Prime began. "Ensure Bluestreak is fixed up as soon as possible."
"Yes, Optimus," Wheeljack agreed.
"Dismissed," Optimus Prime nodded.
* * *
The evening passed uneventfully. With the night patrol out on duty in the still, wintery world, the occupants of the Ark powered down to recharge for the next day.
Prowl rose and started the new day according to his regular regime. He entered a sequence of keys into a special computer on one side of his office and scanned the hieroglyphic data stream from Skyspy, his optics stopping briefly on the activity of various Autobots away from the Ark.
The military strategist then slid into the chair behind his desk and checked the sentry point status reports on a monitor that rose out of the desk surface. The video of the Autobot sentries sent a brief electrical shiver up his central column. He glanced at the image of Sideswipe. With his flare rifle at his ready, Sideswipe stood like a stone guardian in the bleak landscape, his features capped with powdery snow. All of the Autobots who were out in the elements were blanketed in the freshly falling snow.
Satisfied that he had briefed himself on the most recent intelligence data, the officer set about writing his daily briefing for Optimus Prime. The soft click of keystrokes broke the quiet calm of Prowl's office as the strategist worked on the report. He summarized recent reconnaissance activity. Around the base, nothing was out of the ordinary, which was not unexpected given the weather and time of year. There was no further activity from the Insecticons. They had virtually disappeared after the battle at the Granite Creek power plant. Prowl had half expected that they would turn up soon after, making lunch of some other target. Perhaps they were moving further south and out of the winter weather. Time would tell, Prowl knew. For now, it was a welcome respite to enjoy some down time to train and develop new tactics. Sooner, or later, it was inevitable that the 'Cons would strike again.
A metallic rap at his door took Prowl's attention away from the report.
"Who is it?" he asked through the closed door.
"Gears," the red and blue minibot called out. "There's something here for you."
Prowl pressed the button that opened the door. Gears entered bearing a festively wrapped, green and red package topped with a large silk ribbon bow.
"A delivery guy dropped this off," Gears explained, handing the gift to Prowl. "You know, he thought it was a gift for a cat." Gears chuckled.
Prowl looked at the other Autobot, expressionlessly. "Oh, why's that?"
"It was your name." Gears replied with a wry grin. "It's a name some humans give their pets. Cats prowl around so, you know, Prowl sounds like cat's name."
Prowl was unimpressed. "Is that supposed to be a joke?" he asked dryly.
Gears' grin melted into a sour frown. "I guess not," he remarked with the toss of his hand, "if you can't appreciate a sense of humor. Anyway, I hope it's not something totally useless." The minibot muttered something incomprehensible under his breath as he left the strategist's office.
Prowl's optic ridges knitted briefly and then he closed the door to examine the package alone. He turned it over in his hands then shook it. It was very light and made little sound. The gift label read: "To: Prowl, From: Jimmy Bluestone."
"That's strange. I don't know any humans by that name," Prowl stated.
Curious, the black and white Autobot set the box down on the corner of his desk and pulled on one of the long strips of ribbon, unfurling the bow. His white, metallic fingers carefully tore through the colored paper and peeled away the packing tape sealing the box. Opening the cardboard flaps on one end, Prowl spied the contents. It was something dark wrapped in a transparent plastic bag. The mystery gift was utterly perplexing.
Prowl eagerly pulled the contents out of the box and spread them in the air before him as he tried to figure out what it was. It was cloth-like and folded into a rectangle. A set of elastic cords with hooked ends were packaged inside, on top of the material.
"What in the name of the Great Matrix is this?" he murmured.
As he turned it over, an instruction pamphlet on the other side grabbed his attention. Prowl swiftly pulled open the plastic and retrieved the piece of paper, setting the gift down on the desk to read the instructions.
Prowl's optic ridges lifted with interest as he read. He put the instructions down and unfolded the material rectangle, holding it up in front of him to scrutinize the pattern.
Strange, he thought. It appears to be some kind of Earth armor for cars. He poked it with a forefinger. But it's softer than metal. How could this be armor? His optics lit up. Unless it's that kind that can stop bullets. That must be it.
Prowl smiled to himself, the proud owner of the new, exotic, alien armor. "How thoughtful," he nodded with approval, "how very thoughtful."
* * *
Optimus Prime scanned through the daily news log, looking for anything that might indicate Decepticon activity. The Ark's computer, Teletraan I, addressed the Autobot leader.
"Optimus Prime," the computer said in a clipped monotone, "A news report featuring Autobot Headquarters has been intercepted."
"Bring it up," Prime commanded with the flick of a finger.
The main screen repeated the broadcast. A reporter sitting behind a news desk told the story, "The latest question on everyone's mind is," she began, raising an eyebrow inquisitively, "exactly who won the Powerball Max lottery, which was drawn last night? According to Powerball Max, the winning ticket was purchased electronically by someone at this address."
It was none other than Autobot Headquarters. The image of the back end of a golden orange space ship jutting out of the base of Mount St. Hilary – in the middle of the Oregon wilderness – filled the entire screen.
"How did they get that video clip?" Optimus Prime wondered aloud, stunned by the obvious security breach.
"Is this a legal win?" the reporter asked, sitting up tall. "After all, the Autobots are robots. Do they have an unfair advantage at picking lottery numbers? Oregon Lottery executives are holding an emergency meeting at this time, trying to answer that very question."
"That's enough, Teletraan," Optimus Prime said. "Turn it off and assemble the Autobots at once."
"Acknowledged," the computer replied flatly.
Optimus Prime pounded his fist into the palm of his other hand. "I'm getting to the bottom of this."
Autobots from all over the base hurried to the command center as ordered by their leader.
Prowl left his office and marched down the golden-orange, metallic hall to join the gathering of Autobots. An echoing clank of metal feet on the metal floor pounded in his audio receptors as an Autobot closed quickly on Prowl from behind. Gears rushed by. The red and blue minibot glanced across at the black and white military strategist to see Prowl wearing the new garment that he had received. Gears stumbled, distracted by the unexpected sight.
"Lookin' good there, Prowl," Gears chuckled with a thumbs up.
Prowl's expression suddenly became quizzical and he looked down over his chest plate at the armor covering his car body hood. Was Gears – who was known for his wealth of sarcasm and pessimism – actually giving him a compliment?
In the command center, Optimus Prime awaited his Autobots as they fell into line in front of him. Jazz, Bumblebee, Trailbreaker, Bluestreak, Sunstreaker and Sideswipe were the first to arrive. Optimus Prime realized that something was wrong; the Autobots shuffled and bickered with one another.
Optimus slowly put his hands on his hip plates as he looked over the motley crew. The Lamborghinis had each replaced their Autobot crests with a garish yellow circle complete with a silly happy face. Jazz's blue stripes were repainted in loud rainbow colors, making the stylish saboteur look like he fit in better as a decoration in a little girl's bedroom, along with plush unicorns and dolls, than with a league of Autobot soldiers. Bumblebee was decorated with a home-made Decepticon insignia on his chest plate. A smaller enemy symbol was stamped onto the center of his helmet as well. Bluestreak had been branded with some kind of metallic fish symbol and Trailbreaker's head was incased in a glass bubble with springy antennae on top of it.
"What," the large commander barked in a heavy, authoritarian tone, "is going on here?"
Sunstreaker and Sideswipe halted their accusations and snapped to attention. Jazz uncrossed his arms and Bumblebee stood up straighter. Optimus Prime looked hard at each and every one of them. Trailbreaker shrugged apologetically.
"Relax, Optimus," Jazz soothed the tense atmosphere. "It's Christmas. The guys were just havin' a little fun with gifts."
"Fun?" Sideswipe scoffed.
"That criminal, Santa Claus, broke into our base," Sunstreaker declared with a snarl, "and attacked us." He hooked his thumb at the new symbol emblazoned across his chest plate. The ridiculous face smiled happily in stark contrast to the Autobot's fierce expression.
"I'm sure Santa didn't mean any harm," Trailbreaker said from underneath the glass sphere covering his head.
"Shut up, bubble head!" Sunstreaker and Sideswipe snapped in unison.
"Jazz!" Optimus Prime commanded. The bark silenced the Autobots. They all stood up straight and faced forward.
"Yes, Prime," came the clipped answer from the rainbow-striped lieutenant.
"Why did you paint yourself like this?" Optimus Prime wanted to know.
"I didn't do this, Prime," Jazz answered.
"Then who did?" Optimus Prime asked, his tone becoming agitated.
Underneath his blue triangular lens shield, Jazz's optical sensors glanced sidelong at the twins. "Sideswipe and Sunstreaker did it," he answered reluctantly.
Prime pointed at the twins. "So these practical jokes are your fault?"
"No way," they answered glumly.
"He made a joke about this," Sunstreaker admitted sourly, pointing to his happy face symbol, "so I gave him something to be happy about. It was fair."
Just then, Ratchet and Wheeljack arrived and fell into line, followed soon after by Gears, Cliffjumper, Hound and Ironhide. Their optics widened with surprise and Ironhide did a double take when he saw the Decepticon symbols on Bumblebee. Hound and Ratchet snickered.
"Permission to speak, Prime," the little yellow Autobot requested, raising his hand.
"Go ahead," Prime said.
"These are gag gifts," Bumblebee explained. "I know this," he added, pointing to the purple enemy logo on his forehead, "probably doesn't look like it should, but-"
"I want it removed," Optimus Prime commanded.
"Yes, Prime," Bumblebee agreed, hanging his head.
Optimus Prime looked at all of them. "Celebrating a holiday is one thing. But pretending to be the enemy – even if it is just a game – is not acceptable."
"Yes, Prime," the Autobots mumbled in a muted chorus.
The sound of running metallic feet echoed down the hallway. The Autobot leader to drummed his fingers on his hip plates as he waited for the straggler to join the ranks. Seconds later, Smokescreen burst into the room, slowing his pace as he jogged to the end of the line.
"Good of you to join us, Smokescreen," Optimus Prime began as he gazed at the line of Autobots, moving his attention slowly toward the defensive tactician. "I'm not keeping you from anything, am I?"
Optimus Prime's optics came to rest on Smokescreen. The tactician was decked out in vinyl decals of playing cards. The colorful, dynamic images would have appeared to dance down the length of his body, had he been in vehicle mode.
"Where did you get the new pattern scheme?" the Autobot leader inquired.
Smokescreen faltered for a minute. He glanced down the line of Autobots, and was perplexed but pleasantly surprised to find that the other Autobots had been decked out in their own lively décor. It was the perfect cover for an excuse, if he could only come up with one.
Jazz leaned forward as he exchanged a long look back at Smokescreen's modifications. "Lady Luck?" he read the decal running along the side of Smokescreen's foot.
Uncomfortable, Smokescreen moved his foot back, out of Jazz's view. He thanked Lady Luck that no one had noticed the fuzzy dice hanging from his rear riew mirror, or the new heated leather seats in the vehicle interior on his back.
"Where did you get that?" the lieutenant asked.
Optimus Prime stuck out the palm of his hand to silence Jazz's questioning. "I'll ask the questions. Smokescreen, where did you get that?"
"Um… uh," Smokescreen began haltingly.
"How come that Santa-con gave you something that matches with your paint job?" Sunstreak interjected.
Smokescreen seized on Sunstreaker's idea and wove a clever answer into the question.
"I don't know. I guess he knew what I wanted," Smokescreen responded with an oily grin.
"Enough, Autobots!" Optimus Prime warned them. "I called you all here to discuss a security breach." The tall red and blue leader looked around the room. "Now where's Prowl?"
The strategist answered from behind Optimus Prime. "Right here."
Prowl, his second-in-command, entered the room from the rear hallway and fell in next to Optimus Prime.
Immediately, the optics of the assembled Autobots locked onto the strategist, and grins crept onto their faceplates. A whistle hooted at Prowl from the line of Autobots, but neither Prowl nor Optimus Prime could tell who had the ventriloquist skills to make the noise.
Jazz bit his lip components and struggled to lock his optics on Optimus Prime, but Prowl's appearance was just too funny. He recoiled as a laugh bellowed out of him and he slapped the air. Before Optimus Prime could silence the outbreak, the other Autobots began to collectively lose their composure and joined in the laughter.
Optimus Prime glanced down at his strategist and spied the garb he was wearing. Stretched tightly across the headlights in his protruding chest plate was a black leather car bra.
"What is it?" Prowl demanded sternly.
"Prowl, man," Jazz began in the midst of a fit of laughter. "Do you have any idea what you're wearing!?"
Prowl looked crossly at the giddy Autobot lieutenant. Jazz was out of line. "This is Earth vehicle armor. It was a gift."
"You received a gift, too?" Optimus Prime asked with interest.
"From a human named Jimmy Bluestone," Prowl explained.
Bluestreak's expression went slack. He had forgotten to ask the department store to put his real name on the gift.
"Um, Optimus?" the gunner shyly raised his hand to speak.
"Not now, Bluestreak," the Autobot leader responded without looking at him.
"Prowl," Jazz wheezed with laughter, "that's not armor. It's a car bra!"
"A what?" Prowl asked, perplexed.
The laughter from the other Autobots gained a louder pitch. Optimus Prime leaned over toward Prowl with his hand next to his battle mask, adding quietly, "It's like an undergarment that human women wear on their, you know…" Optimus Prime outlined the truck windows in his torso with his index fingers.
Prowl was utterly confused. "How is that possible? Women and cars aren't even close to the same size. Why would they put something like that on a car? Cars don't have-"
Then Prowl got it. His optics widened with dismay as he looked down at the tight black "undergarment" stretched across the front of his protruding, bust-like chestplate and held in place with hooks.
He mustered all of his will to remain as calm and poised as possible despite the humiliation. "Optimus Prime," he stated, "permission to be excused."
"Permission granted," Optimus Prime excused him, hiding a tight grin under his battle mask. He dared not sound like he shared in the amusement.
Prowl promptly turned and strode away in military fashion back to his quarters to remove the car bra – and to figure out a way to regain his dignity.
Bluestreak watched him leave and felt bad. First he had spilled energon all over Prowl and then he had unwittingly embarrassed him. He respected Prowl and did not mean for any of this to happen. Now that the gift to make up for the energon accident had turned out to be a mistake, Bluestreak did not want to admit that he had given it. He just hoped that Smokescreen, the only other Autobot that knew of his alias, would not say anything. Anxiety swelled in his circuits as he listened to Optimus Prime.
"Autobots, your full attention!" the leader commanded.
The snickering and chortling trailed off and the Autobots stood at attention.
Optimus Prime continued, "The reason I assembled you here is because there has been a security breach."
The Autobots looked at one another with expressions of puzzlement and astonishment.
Optimus Prime pressed a button on the console behind him, and replayed the news report about the mysterious lottery winner on the large screen of Teletraan I.
"A news crew somehow approached Autobot Headquarters and took this picture," Optimus Prime stated, calling up a screen capture from the newscast. There was Mount St. Hilary and Autobot Headquarters, covered by a blanket of snow. "And in the middle of winter, no less. Not a single patrol reported anything – not even footprints."
"But it's cold outside," Gears protested. "Joints seize up when they get cold – and not to mention fogging optics."
Optimus Prime swept his gaze over the line of Autobots. "Is that your excuse?" the Autobot leader asked with disappointment in his vocalizer. "You're all too cold to be looking out for spies and Decepticons?"
The assembly muttered reluctantly in agreement.
"Vector Sigma," Optimus Prime uttered, tipping his head forward into one hand.
"Uh, Prime?" Trailbreaker began hesitantly. "I don't think the Decepticons are going to be any more interested in being out in the cold than we are."
"Stick a muffler on it, Trailbreaker," Jazz hushed the defensive tactician before he could get them into any more trouble with Prime.
Unsure what else to do, Trailbreaker shrugged as Optimus Prime looked upon the other Autobot soldiers.
"A patrol will be dispatched within the next cycle to determine if anyone is still out there lurking around the base," the leader informed them. "Gears, Bumblebee, Trailbreaker, Hound: you will report back your findings. But first, I want intel on the Powerball lottery. Someone knows something, and I expect to hear about it. Right here, right now."
Optimus Prime crossed his arms, waiting for a response.
Looking like he had been swatted, Bluestreak sheepishly raised his hand. "Optimus?"
"You, Bluestreak?" the Autobot leader asked with genuine surprise. Then he remembered Wheeljack's diagnosis about the distorted aura field and the chance that Bluestreak might be psychic. It made sense all of a sudden. "Did you help someone win the lottery?"
Bluestreak gulped. "No, well, yes. I mean no I didn't help, not directly, but maybe I might have possibly-"
Smokescreen leaned forward with bulging optics, staring hard at Bluestreak from the end of the line, but unable to say or do anything to silence Bluestreak without giving away his own involvement. Bluestreak glanced at the mortified gambler. His head sunk between his shoulders.
"What I'm trying to say is that no one else was involved." He gulped again, anxiety building in his circuits until he could not contain himself. "I did it. I picked those numbers and," he laughed uncomfortably, "I won." He smiled nervously. "Imagine that."
"That's incredible!" Wheeljack said, stepping forward.
"I know that maybe I shouldn't have done it," Bluestreak added quietly.
"He didn't win by guessing!" Wheeljack explained excitedly.
"Agreed," the Autobot leader acknowledged. "The chance of picking the correct numbers is remote."
"Hold on a sec," Jazz interjected, "just what's going on here?"
Wheeljack came forward and faced the others with an explanation. "Bluestreak's aura field was altered by that jolt from Shrapnel. It's been distorted so that his consciousness is spanning more than one time field."
"You lost me," Sideswipe said plainly.
"Being zapped by the Insecticon made Bluestreak here psychic," Wheeljack explained. "Although we suspected it, we needed evidence that it was really happening. He was not informed about his condition, allowing for an unbiased assessment of his ability."
Smokescreen's mouth dropped open. Would he lose exclusive use of his lucky Autobot?
"You mean he could tell us where Megatron or the Decepti-creeps are going to be?" Ironhide inquired with growing interest.
"Perhaps," Wheeljack answered.
Bluestreak was astonished at the assertion. "I can't do that!"
"What's the first thing that came to mind when Ironhide said that?" Wheeljack asked Bluestreak directly.
"Nothing," he said automatically, then realized that he had glimpsed a silly idea borne out of the anxiety of the moment.
"Nothing?" Wheeljack pressed him.
Bluestreak chuckled nervously. Clearly, Bluestreak had seen something that he was trying to hide.
"Tell us, Bluestreak," Optimus Prime demanded.
Ironhide impatiently pounded his fist into his other hand. "We can defeat Megatron! Tell us what he's up to."
"This is going to sound crazy," Bluestreak began. All optics were on him, eagerly awaiting his reading of the future. "Nothing about Megatron, but, uh… Devastator climbing a skyscraper."
Chuckles bubbled up from the line of Autobots.
"Psychic, ptff!" Ironhide spat. "Sounds like you've been watchin' too many cartoons."
"Sounds pretty cuckoo," Sideswipe said to his brother.
Bluestreak felt shamed by the laughter. But then he remembered the Brain Men. The idea seemed so visceral after the electro-bite. There had to be some truth to it.
"There is something else," Bluestreak added shyly as the others continued to laugh.
"What is it?" Optimus Prime inquired.
"Alien invaders that turn Autobots into their machine slaves."
Both Trailbreaker and Jazz groaned.
"Not that again!" Jazz exclaimed.
"You know about this already?" Optimus Prime asked, mildly surprised.
"Yeah, he's been goin' on about that for awhile," the black and white Autobot muttered.
"Tell us, Bluestreak," Optimus Prime demanded, "about these alien invaders."
Bluestreak perked up, glad that someone was interested in listening to his intuition about the Brain Men being real. He was careful, though, to explain his concern without referring to the alien invaders by their TV name, to ensure that the others took him seriously.
"There are these aliens that come from a dying world and are looking for a new place to inhabit," Bluestreak began, "and they come here with a technology to pilot robots' heads."
"Do you realize how absurd-?" Sunstreaker scowled.
Prime silenced the yellow warrior with an extended palm. "Continue," he told the psychic gunner.
"They get in your head," Bluestreak explained, pointing to his head.
Ratchet smacked the chevron on his helmet. "Oh this!" he groaned and looked at Wheeljack. "I thought he had gotten over this crazy idea."
"He did mention it right after the injury," Wheeljack suggested. "There could be something to it."
"I don't believe we're listening to this," Ratchet mumbled.
"Hey guys!" Bumblebee piped up. "Stop interrupting Bluestreak and let him finish."
"Thank you, Bumblebee." Optimus Prime nodded to the little yellow minibot.
"I thought that some of you guys might have already been taken over by the aliens," Bluestreak continued, "especially when I saw Cliffjumper pulling on his head yesterday."
Cliffjumper shook his head, trying to remember what Bluestreak was talking about. Then it came to him. Bluestreak had walked by when he was talking to Bumblebee and Gears. Cliffjumper laughed. "I wasn't losing my head to some crazy invader," the red minibot stated. "I was pulling on my horns because I was frustrated."
"Well," Bluestreaker sighed with relief, "everyone seems to be okay. No aliens here… at least not yet."
"So let me see if I have this right," Jazz summarized. "These aliens you're worried about, they're small?"
"Human-sized," Bluestreak clarified. "Actually, they look just like humans."
"So, they sit inside your head or somethin'?" Jazz checked.
"Yes!" Bluestreak answered emphatically. "And they control everything your body does!"
"Like a puppet master," Hound interjected.
"Or a Headmaster," Optimus Prime surmised coolly.
Everyone looked at the Autobot leader.
"You've heard of them?" Ironhide asked Prime.
"No," Optimus Prime responded matter-of-factly, "but the name Headmaster seems to make sense."
"I just don't see how it's possible," Wheeljack countered. The Autobot engineer rubbed the chin of his face mask. "What would they do with all of the machinery in our heads? Like our sensors and brains?"
"I think the idea is that they terminate you, remove your head circuitry and components, and use your body as a vehicle," Ratchet suggested.
Bluestreak imagined the blinding flare of a cutting torch opening one of his friend's helmets as he lay still on an operating table. Then, robotic arms and tools descended to clean out the head cavity, pulling roughly on optical and audio sensors, severing vital connections and snapping cables from their ports as head contents were removed. A stream of energon oozed over the broken circuitry trailing from the claws of the manipulators. Bluestreak felt unsteady as the sickening imagery shifted his system voltage into a state of flux. His consciousness wobbled at the idea of becoming an undead tool of the Brain Men.
"Indeed," Optimus Prime agreed with Ratchet. "While I have trouble believing this, I do see evidence of this behavior toward machines in the human population of Earth. It is not impossible to imagine that another organic race might prey upon the Autobots. Bluestreak, when do you foresee the arrival of these aliens?"
Bluestreak gulped at the electronic shiver that tingled up his central column as he fought to re-balance his voltage. His energy regulation was weak, even with the bypass that Ratchet had installed.
"I don't know when," he answered. "I thought it was already happening. The aliens silently picking us off one by one, until we didn't know who was friend and who was foe."
Several Autobots tensed, eyeing their neighbors suspiciously.
Ratchet interjected. "I, for one, don't believe any of this silly Headmaster story." He crossed his arms. "You're getting worked up over something that nobody can prove."
"But he won the lottery by seeing the future," Bumblebee noted, optics wide with fear.
"So?" Ratchet said with disdain. "Does this mean everything Bluestreak says from now on is going to come true? He also saw Devastator climbing a skyscraper."
"Ratchet is right," Optimus Prime affirmed in a level tone. "We cannot tell how this vision of the future will affect us. There is no evidence that Earth has been visited by aliens that pilot robots, so there is nothing to fear."
Optimus Prime nodded to the four Autobots that he had selected to patrol for spies near their base. "Hound, Trailbreaker, Gears, Bumblebee: you are dispatched now. I want a report within the next cycle."
The four acknowledged their orders and started to leave the command center.
"Oh, and Trailbreaker," the Autobot leader stopped the tall, black Autobot, "take that thing off your head."
Trailbreaker removed the glass sphere from his head and carried it under his arm out of the room as he departed with the others. The remainder of the assembly stood before Optimus Prime: Smokescreen, Ratchet, Wheeljack, Ironhide, Jazz, Bluestreak, Cliffjumper, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker.
Even after sharing his fears with the others, Bluestreak could not let go of the disturbing idea of the Brain Men. It gnawed at him. He needed more reassurance that everything would be alright.
"Prime?" the gunner asked shyly.
"What is it now?" Optimus Prime responded.
"Don't you want to start a guard or something to keep watch for the Brai-, I mean, alien invaders?" Bluestreak's voltage fluttered again as his anxiety rose.
"I am more concerned about Megatron and the Decepticons, Bluestreak," Optimus Prime told him, "and what to do with that sum of money you won." He changed the subject. "What exactly were you doing playing the Powerball Max lottery, anyway?"
Bluestreak glanced down the line of Autobots, letting his optics come to rest on Smokescreen as he wondered what he should say next.
He looked back at Prime. "Helping a friend?" he answered with a nervous grin.
"That's very noble," Optimus Prime nodded. "But such a large sum of money is more than one person needs."
Smokescreen quietly bristled. That jackpot was rightfully his, since he had bought the ticket in the first place. Besides, he still had a massive credit card bill from his bad horseracing bets.
"Why not give it to charity?" Jazz suggested.
"Why not?" Smokescreen interjected, wearing his best poker face. "Because Bluestreak won it, so it's his. Not ours. Let him decide."
"Or research," Wheeljack countered, ignoring Smokescreen.
"Research?" Bluestreak gulped. "Like to help fund technological development?"
"Sure, why not?" the engineer responded. He and Ratchet glanced at one another, nodding in agreement.
"That kind of development that could lead to humans controlling us like puppets," Bluestreak panicked, realizing that the winnings could be used to help bring about a nightmare scenario perpetrated by humans rather than aliens. "You can't do that!" He looked frantically between Wheeljack and Optimus Prime.
"Relax, Bluestreak," Ratchet tried to calm down the volatile gunner. "It's not like we're going to fund something like," the chief medical officer started, pausing to think of something highly unlikely, "finding ways to surgically implant human brains in robot bodies."
Bluestreak wheezed, sickened by the idea.
"Exactly," Wheeljack agreed with his friend. "You couldn't do that without implanting a system to circulate blood for the brain, and oxygen – and then they'd have to take in and expel nutrients some way. I imagine that would not be easy."
Bluestreak groaned, feeling his weakened voltage regulation system pulse in time with his surging fuel pump. Blood in a machine? Images of fuel lines intermingled with throbbing tubes filled with the dark red organic fluid filled his mind. His voltage dipped dangerously low as anxiety overwhelmed his core systems.
Bluestreak unexpectedly tipped to one side and fell over, taking the energy bypass with him. The tank on top shattered when it hit the metallic floor, spraying energon everywhere.
"Oh, slag!" Ratchet cursed as he and Wheeljack leapt forward to help the stricken Autobot.
Optimus Prime and the others closed around Bluestreak.
"What happened?" Optimus Prime asked.
Ratchet glanced back over his shoulder as he detached the broken energy bypass. "He passed out. System energy got too low. I've got to get him to medical bay."
"Is his regulator ready?" the Autobot leader asked, stepping back to allow Jazz and Wheeljack to lift Bluestreak off the floor.
"It's getting close," Wheeljack said to Prime as he slung Bluestreak's right arm over his shoulder. Jazz held up Bluestreak's left side. "I can have it ready by tonight."
Ratchet hurried out of the room to prepare an operating station in medical bay.
* * *
A blurred world came into focus as Bluestreak's optics focused on medical equipment perched above his head. As his system booted itself back up, he rolled his head to one side. Ratchet was working nearby in the medical bay.
"What happened?" Bluestreak groaned.
"You passed out. We installed your new regulator while you were offline. No more energy bypass." Ratchet smiled.
"Really?" Bluestreak asked, snapping back to full awareness. He perched himself up on one elbow and felt his torso for abnormalities. The contour was smooth and flawless. There was neither a hole nor a hose running into his midsection.
He relaxed, just as the large double doors to the medical bay opened and Smokescreen entered.
Ratchet looked up with interest.
"I came to see how he was doing," Smokescreen explained.
Ratchet rummaged through some parts on a counter top and picked up something slender. "I'll be back shortly. I have an errand to run."
"Later, Ratchet," Smokescreen waved amicably.
He watched as the chief medical officer left and the doors closed, leaving him alone with the patient.
Smokescreen grinned at Bluestreak. "Thanks for not giving away our little betting ring back there, Jimmy."
"Ha, ha," Bluestreak laughed uncomfortably. "Speaking of that-"
"Right," Smokescreen interrupted Bluestreak. He pulled out a betting schedule concealed in a hidden compartment. "I wonder if you could do me a favor."
"I don't want to bet anymore," Bluestreak stated firmly. "No money of mine is gonna be used for research."
"Hey, no problem," Smokescreen soothed his fears. "They gave away my lottery winnings to a Christmas children's charity."
Smokescreen sighed heavily and sat down beside Bluestreak.
"This is really hard for me. That's why I have to ask you this one last favor," Smokescreen reached out and patted Bluestreak's shoulder, "to help me pay off my debt."
"I'm not gambling, Smokescreen." Bluestreak insisted as he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the table.
"Please?" Smokescreen insisted, thrusting the schedule in front of Bluestreak. "You've got the touch."
The gunner laughed nervously but shook his head.
"C'mon, Bluestreak," Smokescreen pleaded with him. "I'm desperate here. Help an Autobot in need? It's Christmas."
Reluctantly, Bluestreak acquiesced and took the paper from Smokescreen.
"Just tell me which ones are lucky," the gambler said, a grin lighting up across his faceplate.
Bluestreak pointed out the first names that caught his attention and handed the slip back to Smokescreen. "There."
"Thanks, buddy." Smokescreen patted him on the shoulder and then turned to leave. "Oh," he stopped and turned back to Bluestreak. "Good to hear you're back to normal." He nodded. "Just as long as you don't go back to being your old self, if you know what I mean."
Smokescreen gave a thumbs up and then left medical bay.
* * *
Bluestreak strolled into the lounge to see what was going on. Jazz, still sporting his rainbow stripes, was playing a game with Ironhide at one of the tables. Wheeljack, Cliffjumper and Bumblebee were watching a movie on one of the room's large screens. Wheeljack stood up when he saw Bluestreak come in.
Bluestreak waved. "Hey, aren't you missing your show?"
"Nah," Wheeljack greeted him. "Commercial break. How's the new regulator workin'?"
Bluestreak shrugged. "Seems to be okay."
"Good," the engineer said, a merry tone in his vocalizer. He lowered his voice. "I need to tell you something important. I did another scan of your aura field after the procedure – to check up on things – and it's gone back to normal now that your regulator is replaced."
Bluestreak's optic ridges lifted in surprise. "You mean… I'm not psychic any more?"
"According to the results of the test, no," Wheeljack confirmed.
"Don't worry, Bluestreak," Wheeljack assured him. "You're fine the way you are."
"But what about the Headmasters?"
"I think we figured that part out, too," Wheeljack said, as if smiling under his face mask. "Come here and see this."
The engineer showed him to a seat in front of the television screen. Bluestreak sat down next to Cliffjumper.
"You're never gonna believe this!" Cliffjumper smiled at the gunner. "You really could see the future. Check it out." The red minibot pointed at the screen.
The commercial break ended.
An army of mechanical giants, whose heads were piloted by aliens, battled the armed forces of Earth for control of the planet. It was a re-run of The Brain Men from Gamma Centauri.
Cliffjumper ribbed Bluestreak with his elbow. "You must have foreseen this movie being on TV. And this Lord Xangzar guy is hilarious, the king of cheesiness." He relaxed back into the sofa, laughing heartily.
Bluestreak laughed nervously with him. He felt small and hot inside, but tried not to show it.
"Hey Bumblebee," the red minibot added. "Who would win in a fight? Lord Xangzar, piloting one of those robots, or Megatron?"
"I could beat him," Bumblebee giggled. "Just give me a cat."
"W-what are you talking about?" Bluestreak asked.
Wheeljack answered. "The Brain Men are allergic to cats. The aliens can be warded off like vampires by holding a cat out toward them."
"Really?" Bluestreak laughed. "That's really dumb."
They aren't real, after all. Relief washed over the gunner.
"It is like I've seen this before."
Bluestreak relaxed and watched the end of the Brain Men movie with the others, laughing all the way to the closing scene. Vanquished, the Brain Men left the Earth forever, and thoroughly entertained, the Autobots turned off the television.
* * *
The next day, Smokescreen came looking for Bluestreak with a long face and drooping door wings. Clearly, something was wrong.
"What happened?" Bluestreak asked him as the two met in the hallway.
"I lost everything," Smokescreen answered miserably. "Those horses you picked were no good. I bet everything on them."
Bluestreak's optics popped wide. "Oh," he said, "that's right. Wheeljack said I'm not psychic anymore."
"What?!" Smokescreen spat in disbelief. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't know until after you asked me about the horses." Bluestreak explained, backing away. "I'm sorry. I-I didn't mean to make you lose."
Smokescreen put his head into his hands and made a miserable noise. "I'm finished. How am I going to pay this debt off now? I need something that I know I can win at."
Smokescreen suddenly perked up as he remembered a late-night infomercial on how to buy and flip condos.
"I know! I'll bet on real estate! Everyone knows that real estate only goes up!" Grinning like a fool, the gambler was overjoyed at his newfound money-making scheme. "Why didn't I think of this before?"
Bluestreak regarded Smokescreen with a vacant smile.
"Thanks for the idea, Bluestreak!" He grabbed Bluestreak's hand and shook it vigorously.
The tactician hurried back down the hallway with a bounce in his step.
"Well," said Bluestreak as he checked his chronometer, "looks like it's time for Gilligan's Island."