If you wonder, forty-two minutes is just about the length of time a broadcast "hour" is filled with actual programming. The rest of the time, the TV is programming you to buy stuff. Doing my part to sabotage the materialist culture, yeah!
Oh, since I'd get sued if I used his real name, "John Tewes" is a short guy who played in the "Mission: Improbable" movies.
And while I'm at it, I don't own Transformers, and this story is income-free. Drat.
TV party! Sunday night!
The news had spread like a virus: Sideswipe was going to be interviewed on a human news show, and the twins were furnishing the party. Even those who had to be on duty during the broadcast had managed to snag a feed to wherever they were (except perhaps Mirage. Really, it was best not even to speculate where he might be).
The twins had outdone themselves, and had produced not only some fairly respectable low-, high-, and mid-grade, but three or four batches of energon goodies as well. In the rec room, Sunstreaker was a yellow blur, moving from table to table to distribute the sweets equitably among them; Sides had distributed some goody bags to those stuck on duty before he went to fulfill his destiny.
Sunstreaker, for his part, had set up urns for dispensing the potables, and then folded himself down to sit cross-legged on the floor, just in front of the huge screen, as most of the other mechs associated with the Ark flowed into the rec room.
It was a quarter to seven on Sunday night, and the news program which was interviewing Sideswipe had been broadcasting ads all the previous week: over footage of the fight in Qatar, the news anchor said (quite calmly, all things considered), "Join us (Sunday/tomorrow/tonight) on Forty-two Minutes for a live interview with an actual Transformer. Don't believe they really exist? Come and see for yourself. Seven tonight, here on your local station."
At seven, the network logo came up, and the rec room of the Ark hushed.
Three weeks earlier, at the day's senior staff meeting: "Interview Sideswipe? You gotta be kiddin'."
Thus Ironhide, upon receipt of the news.
"No," said Optimus, laying down the datapad. "They want to interview Sideswipe. They asked for him by designation. And the Department of Defense, after what Lennox called 'having kittens,' agreed."
Prowl sighed. "Well, he's not the brightest one among us, that's for sure. On the other hand, he can't tell the humans any secrets, because he isn't privy to any."
"Yes, but he is quite capable of …." Ratchet paused. "Not misrepresenting us, certainly not deliberately. But telling the humans a few home truths? Indiscretion, as only Sideswipe can manage it. Can we afford that?"
"Oh, I think so," Prowl said benignly, glancing at Jazz. "And certainly, after Jazz and I get through coaching him, he'll be quite … an acceptable spokesperson."
Ratchet looked from Prowl, to Jazz: from tactician to saboteur. "You aren't going to hurt – erm – do him any damage, are you?"
Jazz grinned. "Nah. We'll let the 'cons do that. We'll just … let him know what ta keep his mandible locked about. An' maybe a little bit of what to expect."
"No reprogramming," Ratchet said flatly. "If it has to be done, that's my job."
Optimus, the optimist, said, "Let's hope it doesn't come to that."
For research, Jazz said, he watched several hours of past episodes of Forty-two Minutes.
He understood later that it might have been better to have watched interviews on, oh, Today's Starwatch. But that realization would come after he and Prowl spent several quite long days, because this was the dreaded "other duties as assigned," coaching Sideswipe.
Sideswipe was about as ready as they could make him. "Don't talk about our technology" had practically, the warrior complained, been engraved on the inside of his spark casing.
Prowl had, two days before the interview, declared himself satisfied. Worried, though he was confident Sideswipe wouldn't mess this up irreparably, and his battle computer gave him only a 0.0004% chance of being wrong.
Even for Sides, Prowl thought, that was an acceptable margin of error.
After the interview, Prowl went directly to Ratchet, and had deep diagnostics run on that very same lying sack of exhaust fumes battle computer.
The day before the interview, Sideswipe was backed up against the wall of the sparring area. "Get away from me with that thing, Sunny!"
"It's a polishing cloth, Sides. Criminently."
"Criminently" does not translate well out of English. The expression Sunstreaker actually used does not translate well out of Cybertronian: perfect.
"Get away from me! You've polished me so much you've worn out my plating over the last three days!"
Prowl and Jazz entered the arena, intent on a little sparring of their own. "What's going on with you two?" Prowl said. "We could hear you outside."
"Sunny wants to polish me! Again!" Sides said. "He's been doing it all day! I can't even sit down without him yellin' at me to mind the shine on my aft!"
"You're going to be on television! You want the humans to think we're slobs?"
"I don't want them to think we're psychopathic narcissists, either!"
"Will you two stop?" Jazz said, grinning. "'M about to bust an energon line, here. You sound like two human sparklin's. Sunny, let him be."
Prowl, ever the tactician, said, "Sideswipe, you'll leave in time tomorrow to stop and get yourself a detailing and a hot wax in Portland before you have to be at the studio. I'll set it up with Optimus. Clear to both of you?"
"A hot wax," Sunny said, dropping the arm which held the cloth. "You lucky fragger."
"Lucky, yeah. Got you off my skidplate, lucky."
Prowl listened to the diminuendo of brotherly grumbles with a half-smile on his faceplates. Jazz, ever the saboteur, took advantage of his distraction to sabotage him right off his feet and onto the mat, with one arm twisted up behind his back.
"I think I win," he breathed into his mate's ear. "What do you think?"
"Okay, okay," Prowl said, grinning. "I'll get the cuffs from security."
Sideswipe, the hot wax buffed to a gleam ($20 extra, but if Optimus had a problem with that, he'd pay it himself), coasted to a stop in the parking lot of the local TV studio where the interview was to take place.
Portland, Oregon, is a cold and rainy place most parts of the year, but he'd been lucky: no precipitation had marred the wax job on his way over. Sideswipe manifested his hard-light projection, gave it a cursory glance in the mirror, and stood it up out of himself.
Six-plus brawny, extremely-fit feet of blue-eyed redhead, clad in jeans and a pale-blue open-necked shirt, just a trace of red chest hair peeking out, pushed open the first door to the entrance of the studio. The receptionist, who had been told to keep an eye out for a red Lamborghini, had just punched the intercom button to say, and "It's here." She added, "OMG," as the projection became visible, "you're gonna want to get his alter ego, or his driver, or whoever the hell that is, on camera, too."
A weary female voice said, "Just get him a badge and send him up, Debbie."
"Well," said the producer, "for once, Debbie was right."
Debbie's raging, unrequited, and near-universal lust was well-known, but Sideswipe's projection had so far charmed Debbie herself, the intern sent to meet him, the producer, the other producer, all of the talent including the meteorologist, whose reputation for being un-charmable was widespread and approaching legendary status, the director, the second director, and the cameraman. He was, however, failing miserably with the soundman and the makeup artist.
They were charmed too, actually, but technical problems intervened.
The first occurred when the makeup artist put a cape around Sideswipe's shoulders, and attempted to apply Matte #8 with the airbrush.
"Makeup?" Sideswipe had said. "That's …" He let his voice trail off, realizing that he'd be explaining "too much like Sunny" for quite a long while.
"Well," said the makeup artist, who was both used to and bored with explaining the need for her services to these macho types, "it's pretty necessary with the new HD cameras they're using. People used to look dead when they were filmed without makeup; now they just look like they're dying of something disfiguring."
"Oh," said Sideswipe.
The makeup artist was looking down at the hand-held airbrush, and making some adjustments to it; she looked back up and Sideswipe and smiled. "You ready? Close your eyes. Here we go."
She activated the trigger, and a nebulized stream of Matte #8 sizzled right through Sideswipe's projection, and made up the floor behind it in a lovely layer of cooked lumps.
The makeup artist stared at Sideswipe, at the mess, back at him, back at the mess, and then her eyes rolled up in her head just before she fell over backward.
"Well, what are we going to do, then? We've only got twenty minutes to airtime for his segment!"
"Calm down," the assistant producer, who had to do all the research on the guests, said to the producer. She turned to Sideswipe. "Since what we see here is a projection, can you tweak it a bit? I'll get the camera guy over here, and have the makeup lady tell us what needs to change, okay?"
"Sure," said the amiable Sideswipe.
He wasn't telling anybody, but he'd looked long and hard at the show's anchor, and set his computer to work on what the woman did to her skin. Even though the makeup lady wouldn't look him in the eyes (she did say "Thank you for catching me when I passed out," if in a very small voice), he got it perfect on the second try.
Sound was another matter. "Now most guests," the soundman said, holding out a microphone and its battery pack to Sideswipe, "like to fasten the mike to their collars. Think that'll work for you?"
"Um, no," Sides said. He didn't take either item.
The soundman shrugged. "I can fasten it, if you like." He reached for the hard-light projection, and got a nasty shock from it.
Sideswipe flickered, and then steadied. He said apologetically, "What you see's a form of energy. It's not solid, and it will ground through you."
"Oh," the soundman said, shaking his hand. "Well, that's not a problem, we'll just use a boom mic."
But it was a problem. The mic picked up nothing but the buzz of energy fiercely confined in the shape of an open-necked shirt, jeans, and jeans jacket. When the interviewer sat next to Sideswipe, her mic picked up nothing but buzz, too.
"Well, what are we going to do?" the producer shouted. "It's ten minutes to air time!"
"Uh -" Sideswipe said, and all eyes turned to him. "Uh, I can project the sound of my voice onto your recording devices without any distortion, if that would be helpful."
"Would it ever!" said the soundman. "Can you be audible at the same time so Les can hear you?"
"Can you? Let's give it a shot then." The producer did something his co-workers hadn't seen him do since the anchor slipped on the snow and sat down in it during a live outdoor shot, one cold wet day last winter. He smiled, and said, "Thank you, Sideswipe."
Which inspired Sideswipe to propose one of his famous pranks, and the producer and director both to accept.
"In three, two, one!" The director pointed at the show's host, and he said, "Welcome back to Forty-two Minutes; I'm Lesley Decker. Tonight, we're broadcasting from our affiliate station in Portland, Oregon, since we are privileged to have as a guest one of the Transformers, a being who introduced himself to us as 'Sideswipe.'"
The anchor fell silent as the little red light in the camera facing her went out, and the little red light in the camera facing Sideswipe came on. Sideswipe gave it a smile, and glanced away as the light faded from the camera pointing at him, and lit again on the anchor's camera.
"Damn," said the assistant director in an awed tone, "did you see that? The guy's a natural!"
"Makes John Tewes look like something that crawled out from under a rock," the assistant producer agreed.
"John Tewes is something that crawled out from under a rock," the director said. As his was the final word on a live set, no one contradicted him.
On the set, the anchor continued, "We first became aware of the Autobots at a battle between them and their mortal enemies, the Decepticons, in Qatar. We have been allowed to show you clips of that battle from Department of Defense footage."
Even on a monitor, Scoponok was a frightening being, Megatron moreso. But Sideswipe was pleased to see that the footage had been edited to contrast between the red-eyed troops and the blue: Starscream took a hit from Ironside, and Will Lennox fired a sabot round that became extremely inconvenient for Barricade. Optimus Prime held his own, and then some, against Megatron.
The footage ended.
"Wow," the anchor said. "You guys are awesome."
"Your troops were pretty awesome themselves," Sideswipe said. "We've since become friends with some of them, like Will, the guy who fired the sabot round, and a few others."
"You hang out together and have a beer?"
"They have a beer. We have a distilled fuel." Sideswipe gave her a smile John Tewes might have envied: soft, genuine, charming.
"So … you don't drink?"
"Same as you do, for enjoyment," Sideswipe said. "Unlike your alcohol, our distilled fuel is both nutrient and intoxicating. It's got a flavor when it's distilled."
"Oh. Your fuel has no taste otherwise?"
"It has a little. Not much when we drink it, none at all if we pour it directly into our fuel tanks." Sideswipe's entirely charming smile frazzled the nerves of quite a few housewives in New Jersey, and those of many points north, west, and south; Ratchet found himself responding to it as well.
He growled, and Optimus cocked an optic ridge in his direction. "Nothing, nothing," the medic said irritably.
Onscreen, Sideswipe continued, "On our home planet, which we call Cybertron, we had different kinds of fuel with flavored additives. Here, there's only one kind available, and not much we add to it." He kindly did not make any remarks about his own and his brothers' brewing activities, probably because he knew Prowl was listening, and would feel obligated to play a round of "Hunt the Still" yet again.
The anchor tried to get her pretty little mind around his species' eating habits, and failed. She settled on the one piece of information she could process: "Can you see Cybertron's star from here?"
"No," Sideswipe said. "One of our scientists tells me you can't either."
"You're a long way from home." The anchor caught the eye of the director, who was making "cut" signals.
"Yep," said Sideswipe, and the screen went to people selling cars.
"What was that all about?" Optimus said to Ratchet, meaning his outburst, when they sat down again after refilling their cubes of high-grade.
"Dang kid's absolutely charming."
Optimus gave him a very strange look, which Ratchet did not bother to acknowledge in any form whatsoever, and the screen came back to Sideswipe's projection, sitting in a pool of light in a darkened studio.
"Hi, I'm Lesley Decker. Tonight we're fortunate enough to be interviewing a being who is known to us as 'Sideswipe,' an Autobot soldier associated with Optimus Prime's forces."
Sideswipe nodded at the camera with the red light on, which was pointing at him. Jazz said quietly to Prowl, "Did you teach him that?"
"No," Prowl said.
"Shut up!" said Sunny.
Prowl did not reply, and on-screen, Lesley Decker said, "Sideswipe, this is your 'projection' that we see."
"Yes," said Sideswipe, and offered no details.
"You yourself are actually parked outside. Could we see you transform?"
"Sure, but we'll have to go to the parking lot."
In the break, the anchor, the cameras, and the soundman had all been readied to travel. They adjourned to the asphalt, the camera mostly on Sideswipe's projection's ass.
"Before we watch the transformation, Sideswipe, how old are you?" Lesley Decker asked, as they went.
"There's no real way to tell using your time system. When we got to this planet, humans hadn't evolved, or maybe they just weren't on this continent yet. In terms of our race, I'm kinda young, probably one-third of the way through my lifespan."
"So maybe about 23, 25, 27, in our terms?" They pushed out through the doors.
The redheaded hard-light projection parked his bottom against his real-self's fender, put his hands into the pockets of the jean jacket, bent one leg at the knee and crossed its ankle over the other: all this while he did some internet research. Then, looking a great deal sexier than James Dean ever managed to, he said, "Yeah, maybe."
Ratchet snorted. "More like sixteen," he said.
"Shut up!" said Sunstreaker.
"And you're a career soldier?"
"No. I want to do some things with my life that aren't a part of this war, but the war has to be won first."
"Because if we don't win this war, Megatron will enslave us. All of us, including your species. If Megatron wins, my brother will never do what he was born to again."
Everyone in the room carefully ignored the cleaning fluid pooling in Sunny's optics.
"And humanity will be wiped out," the anchor said.
Sideswipe looked into the camera, not at the anchor. "Yes, it will. No offense, but you guys' survival is important to us only because our leader, Optimus Prime, insists on it. If he didn't, we would be much freer to carry the war to Megatron. And to Megatron, you don't matter, and he will use our care for you against us. We have to beat him to survive ourselves, and because of you, we have to do that with our hands tied behind our backs."
Optimus and Prowl both put their faceplates into their hands. Ratchet shrugged. Ironhide said, "So now ya know, Optimus."
"Shut up!" said Sunny.
In front of television screens everywhere, the bondage freaks salivated. Soundwave wiped up the puddle of drool in front of himself, and was grateful his cassettes were on patrol.
Sideswipe, having gotten that off his chest, looked politely back to Lesley Decker.
Who said, "Do you know when your birthday is?"
"I've never converted my creation date to your calendar." (I could do it right now, standing here with my hands in my pockets. But I'm not sure I want you to know that.)
"How many of your - excuse me, of Cybertron's - years old are you?"
"Five hundred ten thousand, seven hundred and three. Plus or minus; we were in stasis for a while and there's no way to tell how long that was."
"And you don't know how long your year is compared to ours."
"No," said Sideswipe.
"Sideswipe," said Lesley Decker, "you're a half-million of your own years old!"
"It's not unusual for us to reach the low hundreds of millions of years," Sideswipe said, calmly. "One of us, named Ironhide, is about fifteen times as old as I am."
"An' twice as likely ta kick yer butt!" growled the ancient Weapons Specialist.
"Shut up!" said Sunny.
"Are you immortal?" Lesley Decker said.
"No. Our bodies wear out, just as yours do." He paused. "Although repair seems to be a little easier, and a lot less - messy."
Lesley Decker stifled a giggle of hysteria. "Have you been wounded in battle?"
Sideswipe's smirk was not so bitter, perhaps, as Ratchet's laugh. "More times than I can count. I've had this arm replaced twice, this one three times -"
"One of those was because you played Jet Judo, and lost," said Ratchet.
"Shut up!" said Sunny.
"-that leg once, this one four times, an' broken more spinal and shoulder struts than I can remember. Then there's the internal damage; I don't even remember most of that 'cause our medic, Ratchet – hey, Ratchet!" - Ratchet blushed - "patches those up before I come to again. I've had my head replaced twice, and - "
"You had your head replaced?"
"Yeah," Sideswipe said. "I was talking to one of the NEST guys once, and he said that your species is more or less located in its head. That's where your primary sensory inputs are all located, and your processor as well. We're different. Our sensors are mostly in our heads, but our processors, and our sparks, are in the middle of our chests." He laid a hand over where his spark would be, if hard-light projections in the form of a human being had sparks.
"The nearest translation in your language is 'soul,'" Sideswipe said.
No Transformer in the Ark at that moment had any idea how many letters would begin arriving with offers to induct them into one or another religion, since they had souls. But Sideswipe had been very carefully coached (by Jazz, who had listened to a few fundamentalists of various stripe, since most religious services contained music of some kind) not to talk about religion at all.
Lesley Decker knew a loaded term when she heard one too, because she said, "Thank you for letting us know that. Can we see you transform, now?"
"Sure," said the projection, and vanished. Sideswipe went from Lamborghini to upright featherless bipedal Autonomous Robot, spread his hands, and said, "Ta-da!"
Lesley Decker didn't faint, although it might have been an option at one point. She took her hands down from her ears and said, "Wow!"
Sideswipe went to one knee and propped his elbow on it. "If you say so," he said, and gave that cheeky grin of his. "I'm used to it."
"I don't think I'll ever be," said Lesley Decker.
"Not required," Sideswipe said, and grinned a little wider at her.
"So this is your root-mode," said Lesley, who did her homework. "And the Lamborghini is your alt-mode?"
"Do any of you have human alt-modes?"
"No. Just the projections."
The anchor didn't understand why she had been asked to say this, but she obeyed instructions when given them: "Sideswipe, our time with you is almost over. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Could we see your projection again?"
Sideswipe manifested it, just as the credits began to roll, and the director pointed at him.
"I'm Lesley Decker, for Forty-two Minutes," the anchor said, turning to face the camera. "Thanks for spending part of your Sunday evening with us."
The camera angle widened to encompass Sideswipe's projection as it shed its jacket, twirled the open-necked shirt around its extended forefinger and let the garment fly, then skinnied out of its tee and jeans, to stand proudly in its red chest hair and undershorts, waving good-bye to millions of viewers as the screen went to black.
Among the letters offering religious membership were four hundred and nineteen proposals of marriage, seven thousand forty-two offers of co-habitation, fifty-eight to pose for magazines (thirty-four of them from car magazines, twenty-three from weapons or military magazines, and one from Fangirl), seventy-three hate mails, and one billet-doux from Soundwave.
Optimus quietly, politely, and firmly declined to countenance any of the contractual offers (he was quite tempted to let Sideswipe pose for Fangirl, though). He obeyed the laws of the country and gave the FBI the hate mail, although really, "I'm gonna find you and kick your ass," as a threat made by a being which probably didn't come halfway to most Autobots' knees, lacked a certain panache.
Ratchet's scan of Prowl's battle computer turned up nothing, not even the need for a deep defrag. The medic gave the tactician two quarts of oil, and told him to call him in the morning.
The Autobots suddenly became almost everybody's darlings. Toy income went through the roof, which made Optimus' life a lot easier.
A toy was made of Sideswipe's projection, working from the Forty-two Minutes footage. The income from that was Sideswipe's alone; he bought a large-capacity human still with the first payment he received. Prowl didn't find it for a hundred and twenty stellar cycles, and then, he refused to destroy it. He simply moved it into an unlocked storage area with active power connectors, and consistently skipped searching that area ever after.
Lesley Decker got herself an Emmy. So did the director, and the soundman. The makeup artist didn't.
Sideswipe burned the missive from Soundwave, but papered the walls around his berth with the other varied offers. Sunstreaker was reported to be insanely jealous, even after Sideswipe spent more than half of his first royalty payment for the projection toy on two and three-quarter tonnes of art supplies.
The next time Sideswipe hit Ratchet up for a 'facing or six, Ratchet didn't decline.
So, all around, it was a good outcome.
But then a news magazine asked to interview another particular Autobot, this time Jazz ...