With a whine of overheated engine and a squeal of rubber, Autolander rounded the corner. I'm going to make it this time, he told himself, I just know it!
He allowed himself a quick glance through his rear scanners. He didn't stop, of course – no one stopped on the roads of Speedia, not for any reason. Stopping meant you were dead or, worse, out of the race. There was quite literally no room on the planet for second place, as Autolander well knew. He'd been a runner-up from the moment he first came on-line, and his Spark ached with the pain of loss.
This time it'll be different, he promised himself, turning his attention back to the road ahead. The chicane was coming up, one of the more notorious stretches of Speedia, and one that had cost him races before. He banished such thoughts from his central processor – they'd do him no good. Like his scanners, he needed to be focused forwards and not backwards.
Especially with Crumplezone on his tail.
Autolander had, for the longest time, had difficulty figuring out what was wrong with the massive Decepticon. Sure, he wore the purple insignia while Autolander wore the red badge of the Autobots, but that was no reason for the bigger robot to be so hateful. The badges meant nothing, really – just two different symbols for two different clans with two different ideas of racing. Why did Crumplezone have to treat things like... well, like a war or something?
Up ahead, a series of permacrete barriers sprung up like square, blocky teeth. Autolander was going too fast to dodge, and so instead concentrated. He willed his Force Chip into existence and interfaced it with his systems. Instantly, his cockpit transformed into a golden Energon lance, thrust out before him. Once the weapon easily shattered the barriers, Autolander retracted it, sent his Force Chip back to sub-space and thought again of Crumplezone.
Truthfully, they should have been like brothers. Autolander was a three-wheeler, Crumplezone was a three-wheeler... some of the other Autobots even said they looked similar in their vehicle modes. Encouraged by thoughts like this, Autolander had, just cycles ago, approached the massive green-and-black Decepticon and offered him a racing partnership. They could be a team, six wheels all speeding in the same direction, combining agility with strength to dominate the Speedia races.
The massive robot had simply laughed – a deep, slow, guttural laugh – and stepped to one side. Behind him stood Ransack. At that moment, Autolander finally figured Crumplezone out. He was achingly, achingly dumb. The cackling, paranoid little Decepticon two-wheeler was the brains and Crumplezone the brawn. What Ransack asked, Crumplezone was all-too-willing to do for his little red buddy.
This cycle, that meant taking Autolander out of the qualifying rounds for the Speedia Ultimate – the main racing event on the planet.
No matter how Crumplezone and Ransack had shoved, pushed and swiped at him, Autolander had managed to break free of the pack and take the lead. He wasn't about to let a foolish moment ruin his dream – the chance to take on Override for the championship and, with it, leadership of Speedia's Transformer population. Sure, Override had never been beaten, but that didn't mean it was impossible to win. Autolander had long believed he'd beat the odds eventually and, Primus knew, he wasn't about to stop because two bullying Decepticons were throwing their (considerable) weight around the track.
He heard a deep, booming noise behind him, and his fuel pump sank deep in his transformed chest. That tell-tale noise meant Crumplezone had finally caught up to him and, with his greater power and torque, was unlikely to stay behind him for long. If he wanted to protect his pole position, Autolander had to do something very, very quickly.
He juked and he jinked, zigged and zagged, he did as much as he could do without decelerating or giving up his forward momentum. Right up to the entrance to the chicane it worked – Autolander stayed in the lead and had first run through the narrow, twisting piece of road. The chicane was so dangerous because it twisted in three dimensions – high and low as well as forward and backward – demanding greater engine revolutions at the same time as precise steering.
Autolander had practiced long and hard, and his practice... had paid off! Before he fully managed to register the fact, he was through the chicane and out the other side, with only the double-wide final straightway between him and the finish line. Happiness running through his neural pathways, he allowed himself a small smile.
Then he struggled to regain control as Crumplezone unexpectedly rammed him from the side.
Even buffeted by a vehicle twice his length, height and width, Autolander refused to surrender. Yet every erg of energy he poured into his engine seemed to be instead feeding Crumplezone, who pulled further and further ahead. Indeed, it was like the Decepticon had access to Override's Force Chip instead of his own.
Autolander's hopes faded as he caught sight of Crumplezone's tail lights. He was well ahead now, and pulling ever further away. Whatever tune-up he and Ransack had devised was working a treat – he was tearing away as if Unicron itself was on his heels.
The small Autobot was about to re-route some of his sub-systems for one last burst of speed when Crumplezone... stopped. Not just stopped, but actually pulled a 360 degree turn up ahead, about half a kilometre in front of Autolander and stopped dead.
He was stunned. No one stopped on Speedia – no one! – and not for any reason. Then why...
Shock pumped through his pathways as he scanned the red glow coming from behind Crumplezone. He was calling up his Force Chip! Autolander barely had time to process that before – with a horrible, sickening noise of whining turbines and activated power cells – Crumplezone's dual engines flipped over, throwing his spoilers out to his sides, and transformed into two massive cannons. Gigantic weapons aimed directly at Autolander!
Unable to slow down, unable to get enough control to brake properly, Autolander panicked. "Hey!" he cried, praying he could be heard over the cannons' pre-launch sequence. "What are you doing? It's only a race!"
The last thing Autolander saw was a brilliant white flare from the barrels of the cannons. The last sensation he felt was his own inertia driving him further and further into the searing, painful, murdering energy rocketing out of the weapons.
Crumplezone watched as the charred, blistered remains of Autolander bounced and skidded across the double-wide stretch. Almost contemptuously, he reversed his massive frame across the finish line, just milli-cycles before the burned pieces of Autobot crossed the line in a shower of sparks and flames. Then he transformed – his brutish, ape-like robot mode towering over the road – and brought one steel fist down on his erstwhile opponent.
A cycle later, Ransack pulled in behind them, cackling with mirth. "It's not just a race, Autolander," he said to the wreckage beneath his friend's fist. "Not anymore."
Rodimus tapped a finger on the clear plasteel box that sat in the centre of the command table. It was comfortingly solid and real – something he knew about, something familiar, something he understood.
The item inside the box, now that was a different story. It was a large, slightly translucent red disk. One half of it was edged with silver designs – similar to a car's dashboard – while the other tapered into a key-like shape. In the centre of the disk was a design, also silver, that looked (if Rodimus squinted) like the needle on a speedometer.
The only comfort he drew from the strange item was that it troubled the older Autobots as much as it did him.
Truthfully, Rodimus really didn't know what to think about the so-called "Force Chip", nor about the being who had given it to the Autobots. He called himself Vector Prime and claimed to be an ancient Transformers – one of the mythical 13 beings who'd helped their "god", Primus, chart the then-infant universe and battle the forces of Unicron.
Unicron, the young Autobot knew, was real. The dark Chaos Bringer of a thousand nightmares and horror stories had tried – and failed – to destroy their home world of Cybertron. Even his defeat had been bitter, creating a massive black hole that now threatened to swallow their planet and the rest of the universe.
Which is when Vector Prime showed up, babbling about ancient prophecies and trips through time and "the power of ignition". This supposedly ancient being claimed Cybertron was Primus, that their planet was the alternate mode of a gigantic, godly Transformer who had created them all. He said Primus had locked both his true form and his consciousness away to hide from Unicron (fat lot of good that had done), and could only be reawakened by finding four lost "Planet Keys", scattered throughout the galaxy.
And there was the kicker. Supposedly, those keys were on planets colonised by other Transformers, eons ago – years before the war with the Decepticons had even begun!
The only thing lending Vector Prime's story any credibility was, at the same time, another big problem for the Autobots. Unaware himself of the war (hey, it had only been raging for nine million years or so!), Vector Prime had no compunction about sharing his knowledge with Megatron, setting the Decepticons off on the trail. Having failed in one attempt to take control of a planet-sized robot, Megatron must have figured Primus would make a nice replacement... if, of course, the whole fantastic story was true.
Their leader, Optimus Prime, had decided not to risk it. So he had split some of his most trusted soldiers up into teams, sending them off on the say-so of Vector Prime to a bunch of uncharted, backwater planets. Which is exactly where Rodimus was headed... right into the backwaters.
He looked around the bridge of the Axalon, their ship.
The flickering trail of images linking the pilot and co-pilot's seats meant Blur was taking his turn to plot the course. As usual, Blur simply could not sit still. He was not just the fastest Autobot in vehicle mode, he was the fastest Autobot period. Through some quirk of design, he had what their human friend, Kicker, called "super speed". He talked fast, moved fast, thought fast and gobbled Energon like a starving Terrorcon – but he was always handy in a fight.
The hyperactive, super-quick Autobot may have been Rodimus' best friend but, right now, all Blur was doing was increase the young warrior's frustration.
Silverstreak, meanwhile, was at his customary place – the weapons control. Though he had the best sense of humour among the team and talked almost as incessantly as Blur, Silverstreak was a haunted individual. The sole survivor of a Decepticon attack that razed his city, he had become deadly accurate with a rifle and a cool (almost cold-oiled) sniper.
Rodimus had long suspected Silverstreak used humour to hide his pain, but never pressed him to open up. The silver, red and yellow 'bot seemed to lack courage at times, preferring to shoot from a distance, but he was one of Optimus Prime's inner circle – right up there with Ultra Magnus, Red Alert and Grimlock. Rodimus reasoned he deserved respect.
One member of their team was missing: Downshift. With a start, Rodimus realised the good-natured engineer was right behind him.
"Trying to piece it all together, Roddy?" Downshift chuckled, the lights on either side of his head flashing. "Don't strain a circuit over it. If I'm right, this hunk a junk ain't gonna do nothing for any of us!"
Rodimus wanted to believe him, but Optimus' refusal to consign Vector Prime to the junkyard gave him pause. "How can you be so sure?"
Downshift rested a powerful forearm on the box. "Because it makes no sense. Y'see, Mini-con technology does makes sense. They're Transformers like us, they link into our systems and the power of two 'bots is suddenly in one."
He coughed. "The Powerlinx concept works the same way. You and me – or me and Silverstreak, or whoever – can combine into one super-powerful warrior. Energon weapons, sure sure... increased power due to the substance fluxing between energy and matter.
"But Force Chips? Ignition?" He made a disgusted sound in the back of his synthesiser. "Bunch'a crossed wires, you ask me. There's nothing in that red disk to allow it to interface with a Transformer's internal system. And even if it could, the disk is nothing but a red disk. No circuits, no wires, no nothing. How is that going to help?"
Rodimus wasn't sure, and said so. "Mind you, if we're really heading to an unknown planet full of unknown Transformers to find an unknown thing, I'd hope we've got something on board to help."
Downshift laughed heartily. "You've got the best marksman to roll out of the Plasma Energy Chamber, the fastest car on wheels and the Autobots' very own mad scientist," he winked. "What more could ya need, kid?"
Suddenly, a small sonic boom echoed through the tiny bridge, filling their audio receptors with feedback. Rodimus had felt the sensation enough times to know what it meant. Blur was talking so excitedly his steel lips had broken the sound barrier.
"Ithinkthat'sitI'mprettysurewe'vefoundityeswe'rehere!" He cried, not realising what he'd done to his friends.
Fighting the ringing in their ears, Downshift and Rodimus rushed across to join Blur. Silverstreak stayed right where he was, looking down through the cross-hairs of a hundred different armaments. The orb below them was wreathed with red clouds, giving the planet a ruby glow.
"Different, isn't it?" Silverstreak quipped. "Maybe we can chisel a chunk off on our way out and give it to Kicker – he could make a nice ring for Misha or something!"
"No sense wasting time," Downshift, the nominal leader of their party, said. "If that's where the 'bot from beyond the dawn of time wants us to go, then that's where we're going."
Elbowing past Blur, Rodimus took the controls and took the Axalon down through the crimson clouds and toward the surface. Not that they could see the surface... the ochre-red planet was criss-crossed by layer upon layer of roads.
Freeways that twisted and turned impossibly jutted out and around land formations, cutting through mountains and bridging valleys. Overpasses joined underpasses that linked tunnels that connected to suspension bridges. Any breaks in the road network seemed to be jumps, offering a driver a thousand potential places to land... and keep driving.
Optics wide, Rodimus turned to see his friends' reactions. Silverstreak was slack-jawed. Blur was so excited he was almost invisible, so quickly was he vibrating in place. "Ohboyohboy," he yelped, "lemmedownthere!"
Downshift, meanwhile, laughed again – this time the sound was full of mirth and anticipation. Not for nothing was he renowned as the best driver amongst the Autobots. "Well Roddy, this may turn out ta be a wild Insecticon chase," he said, "but at least we're going to have some fun looking!"
Using his rapid processing speed and high-octane intellect, Blur quickly assessed the situation and gave his most detailed tactical assessment.
“OhnobytheMatrixohno – theDecepticons arealreadyhereandthey’remad!”
His friend’s cries brought Rodimus back to the bridge of the Axalon. He’d be gone just a handful of milli-cycles, grabbing some extra ammunition for his Energon weapon. Of course, when it came to Blur and emergencies, a handful of milli-cycles was a mega-cycle too many.
“Calm down, Blur,” Downshift was already on the case. “Even with Vector Prime’s map, there’s simply no way the ‘cons could have beaten us here. Since the end of the Earth conflict and the destruction of Unicron, they haven’t had the tech to beat our ships out of the gate.” He patted the hull affectionately. “Even a little lady like this one.”
“IknowthatDownshiftit’snothesortofthingyouhavetotellme,” Blur replied.
All optics turned to the forward scanner. Even trained on an alien world, Rodimus noted grimly, it’s showing me something all-too-familiar. Directly below them, right underneath their course heading, two sleek and garishly-coloured vehicles were chasing a sharp-looking white, pink and black speedster. The pursuers bore the Decepticon symbol; their prey the Autobot.
“Just once, it’d be nice to find a planet where it was our boys doing the chasing,” Silverstreak offered. “Then again, you could argue all we’ve been doing for the last nine million years is chasing after Megatron’s bolted butt.”
He crossed the small bridge with quick strides and slipped behind the weapons array. Quick, practiced movements bought the Axalon’s arsenal on-line. “Two shots from the starboard torpedo tubes should do it,” he grinned. “Just give me the all-clear and…”
“They’re not fighting,” Rodimus yelled suddenly. “They’re racing.”
The others turned to look at him, disbelief etched in metallic faces. “Racing?” Blur asked, managing to slow his speech enough to give emphasis. “Howdoyouknowthat?”
“Think about it,” Rodimus replied, letting his initial hunch play itself out verbally. “Since when do Decepticons chase Autobots and not fire on them? Both of those bruisers have perfect lines of sight for kill shots – heck, our boy’s likely been in target lock for the last few kilometres. Why wouldn’t they fire, unless…”
“Unless they’re trying to beat our boy to his destination, rather than beat him into scrap!” Downshift finished the thought.
Rodimus let out the breath he’d been unconsciously holding. He knew Optimus Prime often gave him the benefit of the doubt – letting him speak his mind, no matter how dumb his ideas were – but he’d had no reason to think Downshift would afford him the same latitude.
“Silverstreak, I’ll take the controls and bring’er down as close to road level as I can,” Downshift continued. “You keep ready on the guns, just in case.”
He turned to the two younger Autobots. “You guys think you can handle a short fall and a sudden acceleration?” He did not wait for a reply. “Good. You’re about to join the racing set.”
Blur sped off toward the airlock, leaving Rodimus to chase his flickering after-images. Somewhere along the way Blur must have detoured into the armoury because, when the cavalier caught up, his friend was now armed with two long-barrelled pulse rifles. “Youneverknow,” Blur offered with a taught grin, giving away his distaste for violence. Often, Rodimus had thought Blur would stay out of the war and in his vehicle mode all the time, if given the chance.
Downshift’s voice crackled over the intercom, telling them to get ready. The airlock hissed open and Rodimus’ sensor net took its first scan of the planet’s atmosphere. It was a warm, highly ionised mix of nitrogen and oxygen, perfect for cooling one’s engine. It was also thick with carbon monoxide, which was hardly surprising.
The only element Rodimus could not discern was a strange static charge that ran through every molecule. It was as if the air itself were charged with a fantastic energy, crackling through the sky and into every engine intake, every valve, every cylinder. Just this short “sniff” of the world below left Rodimus feeling antsy, like he wanted to transform and drive as hard and as far and as long as he could, never stopping for any reason.
A glance to his side confirmed Blur was feeling the rush, too.
“Go!” Downshift barked through the intercom. Rodimus realised they’d both spaced out, as Kicker would have said, and missed the order to jump. Recovering their faculties, they leapt out into the crimson air and, just before they collided with the road, transformed into their vehicle modes.
He winced as his tyres slammed into the unforgiving surface. It looked like Earth’s bitumen but it wasn’t – it was smoother, less resistant, more encouraging of inertia. Rodimus’ six wheels spun madly, scrabbling for purchase and then suddenly dug in, sending him squealing across the black top. Blur had fared even better – his sleek, low-riding form was little more than a blue-and-red dot on the horizon, already half-way caught up to their targets.
The young Autobot concentrated, willing his truck-shaped form to its top speed. For a moment, he thought of the Force Chip, back on the Axalon. Would it have helped, right at that moment? His forward proximity alarm beeped, indicating he’d caught up to Blur and their new alien “friends”. He threw the thought to one side and concentrated.
The white Autobot was ahead, racing down the dead centre of the road. The two Decepticons – a small, red and black motorcycle and a larger, green and purple four-wheel drive – were flanking on either side. The bike kept dipping in behind the Autobot and then weaving back out, and Rodimus realised it was using the slipstream to keep up. Which meant it wasn’t particularly fast.
Which made it an easy target.
Rodimus moved to activate his weapons systems, then stopped himself. Something inside his processor urged him to handle this without a fire-fight, without any violence greater than that seen in an Earth car race. Long ago, encouraged by Tow-line, he’d learned to trust these sudden flashes of insight. He powered down his weapons and redirected their Energon flow into his engines, closing the gap.
His proximity alarm wailed and, without thinking, Rodimus locked his wheels to the right and swerved out of the way. Moving so quickly he’d barely been visible, Blur had overtaken the motorcycle and then stopped dead in front of him. Rodimus heard the cycle squeal – a harsh, nasal, piercing sound – as it tried frantically to slow down. Its efforts failed, and it ploughed headlong into Blur’s wide, armoured rear.
The cycle cart-wheeled Blur’s roof and hood, then crunched onto the road ahead. As it crashed it transformed – Rodimus caught only a glimpse of a small, skinny robot form before he zipped past. His friend would take care of the little guy, which left the four-wheeler for him. Truck versus truck, just the way it should be.
He started to gain, ignoring the putrid smoke billowing from his purple and green foe. He was bumper to bumper with the Decepticon when his scanners registered an unexpected energy signature. It was like the background static in the atmosphere but more concentrated, more directed. To Rodimus’ disbelief, the energy patterns coalesced just above the four-wheeler’s trunk in the form of…
A Force Chip!
Unbelievably, the glowing red disk swirled into existence in mid air, kept pace with the four-wheeler’s incredible velocity and then accelerated, driving itself into the Deception’s very metal. His opponent glowed a deep crimson for just a moment, then Rodimus heard the unmistakable sound of transformation.
The Decepticon rose on its suspension, higher and higher, as its wheels spread further out beneath it. Then its very tyres swelled, bigger and bigger, until the ordinary-yet-garish four-wheel drive had become a lethal-looking monster truck!
Rodimus howled in surprise as the massive wheels bit into the road, showering him with rubble and debris. He swerved again, to the left this time, straight into the bigger truck’s deliberate side-swipe. He cried out as he was rammed again and again and again, every impact denting his scarlet metal hide and, worse, warping his right forward axle.
He flinched at the pain, and flinched again when he saw a split in the road ahead. The road became two, in about 400 metres time. The divide was marked by an eight-foot high, pointed barrier. With a sinking feeling, Rodimus understood his opponent’s intention – to force him head-first into the permacrete.
Acting while he still had time, Rodimus wrenched his protesting steering back to the left, his front grille clearing the barrier by inches. Sparks flew as his rear spoiler scraped along the unyielding permacrete, but he ignored it. He needed to find a way back to the main road and… and was that Decepticon laughing?
He looked forward, and his scanners telescoped in horror. There was a massive gap in the road ahead. Massive. He’d been outmanoeuvred, tricked into taking the off-ramp that led right to the massive thousand-option jump they’d seen from the bridge of the Axalaon. From there, it had looked like fun… up close and unprepared, it might as well have been a dive straight into Unicron’s maw.
There was nothing for it but to act. Tow-line was always telling him he was jumping into things without thinking them through. It had served him well so far and, Matrix willing, it would do so again. Rodimus channelled every last erg of Energon into his engine, disengaged his breaking system, whispered a small prayer to the Allspark and gunned it.
His first sensation was weightlessness, like someone had turned off a ship’s artificial gravity and forgotten to tell him. He knew his wheels were spinning uselessly in mid air, that his spoiler was far too small to catch an updraft, that he was about to tip and fall and smash into a million pieces on the red soil so very, very far below. But at that very moment he just did not care… like when he’d first sniffed the air of this strange planet, he was euphoric.
Lost in a daydream of speed and flight, Rodimus barely registered when his rubber slapped back onto road. Sudden awareness caused him to whoop and holler and cheer, then pour on the revs one more time. If he could survive that jump, he sure as the Pit wasn’t giving the race over to that truck now!
A quick check of his surroundings told him he’d landed on a ramp that dove-tailed back into the main track. He peeled down it, coming out ahead of the Decepticon… and neck-and-neck with both Blur and the white Autobot! They crossed the amber and gold finish line at almost the same moment, although Rodimus was convinced Blur was there a micro-cycle beforehand. It didn’t matter – by trying to turn him to scrap, the Decepticon had given Rodimus the best short cut ever.
He re-engaged and locked his brakes, coming to a stop about three kilometres after the line. Blur fared a little better, having stop about two kilometres earlier. As he transformed back to robot mode (he’d had enough of his vehicle form for now, thanks very much), Rodimus peered back down the track to see where the other Autobot had finished.
Amazingly, it had stopped within metres of the line. “That ‘bot,” Rodimus breathed, “Is one heck of a machine.”
A few quick strides brought him over to Blur who, unusually, had not moved. His friend was staring, transfixed, at the other racer. The hyperactive Autobot let out a long, low whistle. “I’vegottatellyouI’veneverseenanythinglikeit,” he said. “She’samazing!”
“Hang on,” Rodimus exclaimed, not believing his audio sensors. “She?”
The white car transformed. Or at least that’s what Rodimus assumed - one moment it was a car and the next a robot, all in the blink of an optic. It stood on powerful pink-and-white legs, a proud and defiant head sitting atop a chassis that was unmistakably feminine.
“What’s the matter?” the fem-bot asked, a flicker of amusement in her tone. “The girls on your planet not that much of a challenge?”
They called it “the Pits” and, while the name may have conjured up dank, desolate imagery, Rodimus felt strangely at home.
The Pits were the centre-most structures in Accel City, which was the capital of this planet, Speedia. The city itself was tiny, half the size of the Cybertron’s hub capital, Iacon. This struck him as strange, but his host was all-too willing to explain.
“We have a saying here: no one stops on Speedia, not for any reason,” the female Autobot had told him. “It’d be nice if it were true, but even the hottest ride has to put it in neutral for a few cycles, just to refuel and tune-up. When we do, we do it here in Accel City.” She had smiled, the expression setting her golden faceplate aglow. “Very few of us stop at any one time – most of the population is out there, on the roads. The city doesn’t need to be much bigger than this.”
Her name, Rodimus had learned, was Override. Not only was she hailed as the fastest and best racer on Speedia, she was leader of its Autobots - and its Decepticons. Amazingly, Speedia’s population was equally divided between the factions but both groups followed one leader: whoever won their major racing event, the Speedia Ultimate. For more than four million years, Override had been the unbeaten champion, and so the Autobots had been in charge.
Those Autobots had been only too accommodating the last few cycles, pretty much from the moment he and Blur had crossed the finish line. No one seemed surprised or even upset by their unannounced arrival, and were happy to wave the Axalon in for a landing. Downshift and Silverstreak had been welcomed with open arms – one Autobot even asked why they hadn’t joined the race, too.
And the Decepticon who’d tried to put him in stasis lock? Well, he was the biggest surprise of all. He’d fairly sprinted at Rodimus, a massive purple hand extended in greeting. “Good hustle there, stranger, good hustle,” he’d said. “Name’s Dirt Boss! Y’all pulled a right swift one on me back there but, next time, you gonna be picking my smoke outta yer grille!” Then he slapped Rodimus on the back and walked away, laughing.
The situation made Silverstreak uneasy. “This makes absolutely no sense,” he said as he sidled up to Rodimus. “Decepticons didn’t exist before Megatron came along and mobilised all the killers, psychos and malcontents into a massive army. Their history, their culture, their belief structure – it all begins and ends with Megatron.”
It was true. Cybertron had been at peace for centuries when Megatron – the legendary military commander – decimated his own unit with the help of a single, oil-thirsty band of renegades. Their names were infamous. Starscream. Shockblast. Thundercracker. Soundwave. The lethal inner circle of the Decepticons. A bunch of cyber-savages with whom Rodimus had crossed vibro-blades too many times.
Silverstreak cast his optic around, no doubt singling out potential targets. “How then do you have a planet on the other side of the galaxy – one that’s allegedly had nothing to do with Cybertron since the moment of creation – brimming with Decepticons? And peaceful Decepticons, at that?”
“Princess Wheelie here makes it sound like the only difference between a ‘bot and a ‘con is the willingness to use dirty tricks on the track, but it still stinks to me.”
Rodimus understood. Of all the Autobots, Silverstreak had the most reason to hate their enemies. He had lost everything, literally, to their very first assault on a civilian target. The young cavalier had no idea how he would have handled such an ordeal.
If Silverstreak was edgy and Rodimus cautious, then the enthusiasm of their team mates more than made up for it. Walking through the heart of the Pits – where every wall was lined with some kind of amazing racing machinery – Downshift was in heaven. He kept darting away from the group to examine this piece of technology, or that tool… or to bundle up Override’s top counsel, Clocker, in animated conversation.
Blur, meanwhile, kept looking out the windows and viewpoints, pining for the unending miles or road. Despite himself, Rodimus had to admit they were far from being in a bad situation. Strange and unnerving? Yes. Bad? No.
Not yet, anyway.
“You’ll have to excuse me, but I still don’t quite understand why you’ve come all this way,” Override was saying. She climbed a small gilded staircase and sat on the throne at its top. Above the throne flickered a hologram of the Autobot symbol. Rodimus smirked. He could imagine how uncomfortable Optimus Prime would be if they’d built something like that for him.
“Cybertron is part of our history and legends, of course,” she continued. “But why make contact with us now, after all this time? What do we have of interest to the mythical home world?”
Downshift stepped forward. “Funny you should mention ‘myths’,” he said. “In our recent experience, myths have a way of turning into harsh reality.” He told her of the evergence and destruction of Unicron, of the black hole that threatened them all. “A Transformer called Vector Prime told us your world holds a key to our salvation, and we have come to find it and take it back.”
Override was silent, her expression dour. “We know Vector Prime,” she said. Rodimus realised it was the first time she’d been anything but happy since they met. “He speaks of death and destruction, or worlds within worlds, of universes beyond our own.” She rose, descended the staircase and strode off into another room. As one, the Autobots followed. “He is not welcome on Speedia. His… beliefs… don’t mesh with ours.”
“First sensible thing I’ve heard on this planet,” Silverstreak whispered.
“We don’t care for such things – we live for the race, the thrill, the acceleration,” Override said, fingering a keypad beside a large, locked door. “And this is what makes it possible.”
The large door split three ways and opened, a crimson glow gushing from the chamber beyond. Adjusting his optics for the sudden glare, Rodimus saw a Force Chip hovering in the centre of a large oval space. It was the same size and shape as the other two chips he’d seen but, instead of silver edgings, this one was decorated with gold carvings. For a moment, it almost reminded him of the Matrix of Leadership, the sacred life-force Optimus Prime carried within his chest.
“Vector Prime claimed he would need this, one day,” Override said, her voice quiet and reverent. “We told him, in no uncertain terms, to drive off a cliff. Clocker and the others don’t really understand why these discs work, or why each of us is linked to one. All we know is they make us fast, they make us powerful, and they let us race. This one,” she gestured, “is what makes a leader. This chip is mine, until someone else wins the Speedia Ultimate. Until someone beats me for it.”
She turned back to the Autobots, the red glare of the Force Chip glinting off her optics. “I can sympathise with your cause, but I’m sorry – the disc stays here, on Speedia, with us.” Override turned and walked out of the room.
Downshift, Silverstreak and Blur looked at one another, then followed. Rodimus, meanwhile, stayed his ground. The deeper he looked into the Force Chip, the more it seemed to call to him.
Is this the source of the feeling this world gives me? The desire to drive, to race, to throw all caution to the wind and pile on the speed? he wondered. I’ve seen a chip interface with a Transformer, changing him into something else entirely. What if this one is interfacing with the whole planet?
“Override!” he yelled, his voice echoing through the chamber. “You say this is the prize for the Speedia Ultimate?”
“It is,” Override said, her voice betraying sudden concern.
“Then count me in. For the race, I mean.” He spun on his heel to face her. “If it means saving my world, then I’ll beat you in that race and take the prize. And by your own rules, you won’t be able to stop me taking it off the planet and back to Cybertron.”
Override’s pleasant features contorted in fury. “I don’t know what makes you think you have the right, offworlder, but…”
“Umm, actually,” a small voice interrupted. It was Clocker, her white, blue and orange right-hand ‘bot. “He has every right. Rodimus over there not only finished the qualifying race, but he came in at roughly the same time as yourself. And it was the last of the qualifying races for the Speedia Ultimate. That means…”
“Nothing!” Override spat, her voice alive with anger. “He never officially started the race, and he only caught up because…”
“… because he took the jump at Seti Alpha V,” Clocker continued, slightly more confident this time. “Only the bravest or craziest racers take that option but, for those who do, it’s automatic passage into the Ultimate.” He coughed. “Those are the rules, Override.”
The Speedia leader was shaking. “Fine,” she muttered through clenched teeth. “The little red truck can play. It’s only a few cycles until the big race, anyway. Let’s see if he can keep up when he has to go for real.”
“IfRodimusisinthenI’mintoo!” Blur called. “He’snotdoingthisalone!”
Downshift and Silverstreak then nominated themselves. Clocker opened his mouth to object but Override cut him off.
“Let them in,” she hissed, the sound of a thousand radiators dying in unison. “Let them all in. It doesn’t matter. No one’s beaten me yet, and it’s not going to happen this cycle.”
She glared at them all, any hospitality deleted like a bad file sector. “Give them space in the Pits and some tracks to warm up on,” she ordered. “They may as well have a comfortable place to wait to lose.” Once again she was a car – her transformation too quick to see – and then she sped off, leaving only burn marks in the polished floor beneath them.
Silverstreak was the first to speak up. “Touchy lady,” he muttered. “Then again,” he turned to Clocker, “I can’t say I’d be too pleased if my loyal servant had dropped me in the middle of the Smelting Pool like that.”
Clocker smirked. “I don’t know how it works where you’re from but, on this planet, a leader’s got to earn their spot at the top. And they don’t do that by skipping out on a challenge. Besides… I’m in that race, too, and there’s no loyalties once that light goes green.” He too transformed and drove away.
Rodimus and the Autobots walked out of the Force Chip chamber. Its door closed solid behind them. “Trusting, aren’t they?” Downshift mused. “We could have easily snatched the Planet Key – because let’s face it, that’s what it is – right then and there, with no one around.”
“Wewouldn’thavegotfarwithit,” Blur reminded him. “They’dcatchupprettyquick.”
“True,” Downshift agreed. “Well, now that Roddy’s got us into this, what do we do? I’m thinking we create some kinda diversion, maybe get Blur and Rodimus to go over that jump again, and while everyone’s dazzled the gunner here and I swipe the chip and make all haste back to the Axalon.”
He paused and noted the horrified looks on his friends’ faces. “Hey, I’m all for following the Autobot code but there has to be a limit, guys. Ain’t no way we’re gonna win that race, and our whole planet is at stake! I think even Optimus would be willing to throw the code outta the window for this one!”
Silverstreak nodded grimly. Even Blur seemed to give silent assent. Rodimus, however, was having none of it.
“I think you’re missing the bigger picture,” he said quietly. “For four million years, we Autobots have been fighting a war with one goal – to win a peaceful home for each and every Transformer. Well guess what? Here we are on a world that’s a peaceful home for each and every Transformer – Autobot and Decepticon alike!
“And what’s the first thing you want to do? That’s right, break out the guns and shoot the place up! Blow a few holes in a few buildings, cause some property damage and steal the artefact around which their society is based. You know who that sounds like, Downshift? That sounds like Megatron to me!”
Downshift hung his head.
“These people don’t know war. They don’t know loss. They don’t know what it’s like to have their city blown to scrap while they helplessly watch!” Rodimus jabbed an accusing finger at Silverstreak. “Let’s not be the ones to bring it to them. Let’s play this by their rules, achieve our ends through their culture. Let’s be Autobots, damn it, and save our world without spitting on our ideals!”
He was silent, breathless. Out of steam. His friends looked cowed. Rodimus wondered if he’d looked the same after Optimus’ lectures.
Someone sniffed. “I can see why Prime has such big dreams for you, kid,” Silverstreak smiled.
“What do you…” Rodimus started.
“Okay, so we’re in the race,” Downshift said, killing the moment. “That’s one thing, the next is winning it. Aside from Blur, I’d say none of us have a snowball’s chance on Venus of getting to the front of the pack, let alone crossing the line in one piece.
“Remember, there will be Decepticons out there – they may be friendlier and cuddlier than our usual playmates but, as Roddy found out, they still play for keeps.” He sighed. “I just wish I could think of something to give us a chance.”
Rodimus took a deep breath. “You’ll likely just shout me down, but… what if we tried the Force Chip?”
“Rodimus, I’ve told you before…”
“I remember what you said, Downshift, but you didn’t see that Decepticon out there. He summoned a chip out of subspace or something and it coupled straight into the metal of his trunk, bam! That’s when he up and transformed into that monster truck and almost smeared me across the surface of the planet.
“You’re a scientist, right? Just because you don’t know why something works doesn’t mean you don’t believe it works. You said it yourself about Blur – you still don’t understand his mechanics, and you’ve known him for millennia! Can it really hurt, trying this?”
Downshift was silent. When he finally spoke, the lights on the sides of his head flashed like strobes. “Ah, what the heck – can’t hurt in any event,” he said. “Besides, I came up with a few ideas while you were yakkin’ that may help the rest of us.
“Here’s how I figure it – we finesse the chip to interface with Blur. He’s already the fastest one of us and so has the best chance of staying competitive. If the chip is going to do anything, it should do it to him. Provided you’re willing, Blur?”
The speedster nodded furiously. “Morespeedcanonlybegood,” he said.
“As for the rest of us, I think Energon is the key. We know Energon stars give us a temporary boost, but we don’t have any here. I’m thinking, though, that I can mess with the flux-state of our Energon weapons, cause ‘em to break down and then channel the results into our engines on slow-feed. If I’m right, it should give us a longer-term, if less potent, Energon star treatment.”
“Sounds good,” Silverstreak said. “But the catch?”
“The catch is that, if things go hexagonal, we’re reliant on Blur’s pulse rifles and the conventional weaponry back in the Axalon,” Downshift admitted. “But if we’re really playing this Roddy’s way, we shouldn’t need ‘em at all.”
Rodimus looked around at his friends, all of them willing to risk their lives on a plan of his devising. He was honoured and, at the same time, very scared. If he was wrong, they could all die – and Cybertron with them. He’d gambled on his instincts before but never to this degree, never with the stakes so high.
“Let’s get at it then, Autobots,” Downshift said, urging them toward the tools of the Pit. “We’ve got a lot to do and only a few cycles in which to do it. And Rodimus,” he turned to the young cavalier. “If this doesn’t work, then we go in with all guns blazing. I can live with an oil-slick on my conscience if I have a planet on which to live.”
Rodimus nodded grimly. Inwardly, he resolved it would not come to that.
The time passed quickly but, under Downshift’s careful hand, efficiently. The master engineer started first with the Energon weapons, destabilising them into large-scale injections of pure energy. As vehicles, each of the Autobots had couplings where the weapons attached for use – with a few twists of his sonic screwdriver Downshift converted them into auxiliary fuel intakes. By the time he’d performed the process on both Rodimus and Silverstreak, Downshift was so confident he could direct his friends to hook him up the same way.
He also added what he called “a little extra spice”. “It’s called deutronium,” he said, holding a tiny wafer of platinum-like metal between his thumb and forefinger. “Nasty little element I dug up in Kalis one dull day. If Cybertron really is Primus, then this is his adrenaline – it’ll make you red-line quicker than Grimlock munches metal.”
Downshift installed a sliver of the metal in both Rodimus and Silverstreak, and tucked a third away in a compartment in his leg. “If you need it, slowlyramp up the pressure in your fuel pump. The deutronium will dissolve in the Energon wash and give you an extra buzz – like Kicker when he drinks his first coffee in the morning. But make sure you increase the pressure slowly, otherwise… heh… well, it’s likely to explode.”
Silverstreak and Rodimus grunted. They should have expected as much.
Finally – grudgingly – he turned his attention to Blur’s “metaphysical tune-up”. Rodimus brought the clear plasteel box from the Axalon and set it gently down on Downshift’s workbench. The older Autobot removed the Force Chip from the prism then stopped, his arm suddenly rigid.
“Sweet Primus!” he exclaimed. “I can feel it… the energy of the gods… running through my whole form and changing me!”
The others looked on, amazed. “Really?” Silverstreak asked, awe-struck.
“Nah,” Downshift laughed, dropping his arm and the chip to his side. “But you should’a seen the looks on your faces!” He guffawed and chortled as Blur threw a hydro-wrench at his head.
In the end, there was little Downshift could do with the chip. It resisted any and all attempts to change its shape, and refused to bend or warp. The engineer settled for modifying Blur instead, added a streamlined double-air intake to his rear roof. The intake was really just a cover for a hollow space – a tunnel from Blur’s armoured rear direct to his engine. “Nothing but air,” Downshift muttered. “But at least it’ll give the mojo a path to run along. If there’s mojo at all.”
Finally, they were ready.
The race was set to begin in a massive pyramid on the western edge of Accel City. Pole position was in the dead centre of the structure, its sides had been converted into stadium seating for thousands upon thousands of Autobot and Decepticon spectators. Unlike every other day on Speedia, the Ultimate was not open to any and all comers. Only those who had qualified over a long series of preliminary races were eligible to enter, while the rest of the population actually stopped to watch.
“No one stops on Speedia, not for any reason,” Silverstreak noted, “Except to watch the big boys – and girl – play.”
Still in their robot modes, the crew of the Axalon strode onto the wide, multi-laned roadway. Rodimus flexed his hydraulics and ran through his systems one last time. He had to win – and if he didn’t, then he had to make sure one of the others did. It wasn’t just the fate of Cybertron at stake, it was the fate of Speedia as well – the one place in the universe, perhaps, where all Transformers could live in peace.
Someone coughed behind them. They turned to see Override, who was back to her smiling self.
“I forgot to mention it earlier,” she said, sarcasm dripping from her golden tongue. “You boys weren’t the first offworlders to qualify for the event. Shame, though.”
“What is?” Downshift asked.
“Shame you can’t be more like these guys – they say they’re not after anything except the chance to race, win and then race again. Guess not all offworlders are the same.”
“Who are these… offworlders?” Silverstreak inquired.
Override turned and gestured to the far side of the track. Rodimus followed where she pointed, and suddenly felt sick to the very bottom of his Spark. There they were, chatting amiably with the other racers, comparing bodywork, laughing insanely at the slightest joke.
Demolishor. The Decepticon munitions expert who transformed into a dump truck.
Snowcat. A pathological, psychotic Decepticon berserker. He was usually sent, in his armoured ATV mode, to soften up the battlefield before the big guns arrived.
And, worst of all, Wheeljack. The black, silver and yellow sports car with the power of teleportation.
Wheeljack scared Rodimus – scared all of them – because he’d once been an Autobot. For some unknown reason he’d changed sides, becoming a remorseless killing machine. He still wore his previous allegiance on his chest plate, with a jagged scar right through its centre.
A message. A warning. A promise.
Catching sight of the Autobots, Wheeljack lifted his head and leered horribly at them. “Hey there, fellas,” he growled, sending Snowcat into fits of maniacal giggles. “Lovely day for a race, isn’t it?”
If there was ever a time to be disheartened, this was it.
Downshift, Silverstreak, Rodimus and Blur were on an alien world, full of speed-worshipping Transformers. Their only hope of recovering an artefact powerful enough to save their home, Cybertron, was to enter a race they had no chance of winning. They had sacrificed their weaponry and their strength to increase their acceleration, leaving them defenceless in robot mode. And now, they had learned three of their Decepticon foes – three of the most heinous killers in the galaxy – would be in the race, too.
Considering the local Decepticon population was known for dirty tricks, the Autobots had no illusions of the sorts of “games” their long-time enemies wanted to play.
“The local ‘bots are just the best, aren’t they?” Wheeljack sneered with false sincerity. “A little naïve, of course, but appealing in their own way. And this place!” He gestured broadly with his powerful arms. “What a utopia! Autobots and Decepticons living in relative harmony, all their aggressive feelings channelled into endless racing. I’d imagine you Autobots would see it as something to aspire to – the ideal of unity in action!”
His expression darkened. “It’s just like Cybertron before the war, with race tracks instead of the gladiatorial arena. But just like Cybertron before the war, the equality, the peace, is based on lies.”
Rodimus groaned. “You didn’t…”
“Don’t kid yourself – of course they did,” Silverstreak said. He glared at Wheeljack. “You gave the local Decepticons a little lecture on war history, eh? Told ‘em all about the Great Decepticon Ideal or whatever it is you traitors believe in!”
Wheeljack met Silverstreak’s gaze evenly. “You’re a fine one to talk about lectures and beliefs, my friend,” he said, his voice strangely flat and hollow. “A fine one indeed.”
Despite himself, Silverstreak was taken aback. He’d fought against Wheeljack several times now and, on each occasion, the former Autobot seemed to seek him out for one-on-one confrontation. Twice, he’d actually pulled Silverstreak out of another Decepticon’s range, laughing contemptuously.
And Silverstreak still had no idea why.
Suddenly Snowcat laughed – an echoing, high-pitched cackle. “Amazing what sort of warriors these chumps can become with the right motivation,” he whooped. “One little Autobot’s already been squished, and I hear Rodimus over there had a close encounter of his own!”
The young cavalier scowled. So much for Dirt Boss and his explanations of “good hustle, kid”. He had been trying to kill him, and likely Override as well. The motorbike Blur stopped – Ransack, someone said his name was – probably had similar intentions.
“You’re bluffing,” Downshift, always the voice of reason, said. “There’s no way you could have beaten us here, no way at all – since your boss decided to merge with Big Evil and got his can kicked, you haven’t had the tech to do much more than irritate us.”
Again, Snowcat giggled. “A good magician never reveals his tricks, Auto-jerk! And if you think we’re bluffing, well, your rusted carcasses can apologise when they land on the scrap-heap after the race!” He transformed into his armoured ATV mode and drove off to his spot on the grid. His partner-in-crime, the massive Demolishor, took on his dump truck mode and joined him.
“Better watch yourselves, kids,” Wheeljack sneered as he transformed into a sports car. “We’ve done better at making friends than you have.” He drove away.
Rodimus dropped his head to his hands. Blur fidgeted, and Downshift and Silverstreak fumed.
“There’s no way they can win the race, not those three,” Downshift said, trying to apply science to their predicament. I can almost bet they’re going to peel off somewhere, take one of the off-ramps, and steal the Planet Key for themselves. Megatron wants Cybertron saved, too – so he can use it as a mobile War World.”
“Told you that was a Decepticon thing to do,” Rodimus whispered, drawing sighs from the engineer. “So now what?”
“Same as before, but slightly different,” Downshift said. “Blur focuses on winning. He’s kitted out for the Force Chip, so the race has to be his focus. Silverstreak and I’ll take out the three stooges over there and their new friends. Roddy, you’re the ruckman… whoever needs back-up, you provide it.”
“Done deal,” Rodimus nodded.
They were silent then, four friends and fellow soldiers. No more words needed to be said… no more, save five.
“Autobots,” Downshift cried, “Transform and roll out!”
They did, and they took their places. They were spread throughout the grid – Downshift and Silverstreak were on the very last row, behind the Decepticons. Clocker, Ransack and his massive partner, Crumplezone, were in front of Wheeljack. Blur, meanwhile, straddled the front line with Override.
Rodimus sat between them all, taking great delight in the fact Dirt Boss was just behind him. Terrifying as it was, that jump was worth every moment. I’ll be the backup, no problem, he told himself silently. But first, I’ll have a quick chat with my over-inflated friend.
Her engine thrumming, Override sat comfortably in pole position. Her rear sensors swivelled to look at Blur. “Autobot or no, you realise this is winner take all, right?”
“Absolutelypositivelydefinitely,” Blur replied cheerily.
Override harrumphed and turned her attention back to the starting beacon.
Although thousands of Speedia’s Transformers were watching, there were no cheers. No cries of victory or heckling, not even the murmur of a commentary team. The crowd sat in silent anticipation – connoisseurs of racing, unconcerned with everything save perfection in acceleration. For Rodimus, it was a creepy moment.
Three laps. The fastest three laps anywhere in the galaxy.
The beacon glowed green and the field leapt forward – 11 highly-tuned racing machines all bent on the same goal. Override and Blur took off so fast they could barely be seen – by the time Rodimus crossed the starting line, they were already well in the distance.
The first lap passed without incident. Clocker was quickly overtaken and dropped to the back of the field. Snowcat and Demolishor did their best to bang into the Autobots but, thanks to their superior driving skills, missed the target every time. Wheeljack pulled up level with Ransack – the two of them seemed to be talking. Crumplezone barely steered, taking the dead centre line of every turn at the same even, rapid pace.
As they passed an off-ramp, about three-quarters of the way around the course, Wheeljack flicked his indicators on and off. Communicating via inter-Autobot radio, Downshift and Silverstreak took note of the signal. That ramp must have been their pathway to the Planet Key chamber, and the local Decepticons were obviously in on the plan.
They had no reason to wait any longer. But neither, it seemed, did the Decepticons.
Snowcat revved his engine and transformed to robot mode, long white skis unfurling from his legs. Demolishor fired a tow cable from his rear bumper and Snowcat caught it just as he reconnected with the road. He started zipping along behind his partner like he was water-skiing.
Chortling with glee, he raised his rear-mounted missile launchers and fired Energon volleys at the Autobots, causing them to swerve and spin across the track. Demolishor, meanwhile, triggered a half-transformation, converting the tray of his dump truck mode into a multi-chambered missile launcher. His first salvo caught Clocker completely by surprise, throwing the small white car onto his roof a second before he burst into flames.
The ordnance flew thick and fast, filling the air around the Autobots with black smoke and flying debris. And they had not a single weapon with which to retaliate.
Rodimus, meanwhile, felt the crackle of a Force Chip forming and poured on the speed. Behind him, Dirt Boss rose up on monster truck wheels, his turbine engine whining loudly. With a crackle of static, he hacked into Rodimus’ internal communicator. “Had you fooled, boy,” he crowed, “letting ya think I was in it just for the race. Out in the wastelands, they know ‘bots who trust Dirt Boss end up carcasses in my workshop. You gonna be the next one… I fancy that purty little spoiler o’ yours, punk!”
The cavalier increased the pressure in his fuel pump, igniting the deutronium sliver with a flow of pure Energon. He surged forward, orange and yellow sparks firing like bullets from his exhaust. The shower of energy bounced harmlessly off of Dirt Boss’ enormous tyres and, with a crimson glow of Force Chip energy, he matched Rodimus’ speed.
“Big, bad and bold, is that your game?” Rodimus called through the communicator. “You think you’re so tough because you’re a giant, because you can roll over whatever or whoever gets in your way.
“I’m not from around here, ‘con, and back home guys like you come a Shanix a dozen. And you’re just like all of them, cowboy. Know why? Because you don’t have the guts to chase me!”
The taunt had the desired effect. Enraged, Dirt Boss slammed full-tilt into Rodimus’ bumper, lifting him off his rear wheels. It took fancy driving to avoid the next hit, but nothing could spare him the next two impacts, and he went spinning crazily to the left.
Still running on deutronium, Rodimus took the centre line and pushed the needle as high as it would go. “Whassamatter, Dirt Boy – running out of steam?” he said, keeping the lead by inches. “Finding it hard to keep up?”
“Punk, you ain’t even gonna live long enough to regret that remark,” Dirt Boss scowled.
“That’s what I like about you Decepticons, no matter what planet you’re from,” Rodimus laughed. “Always so sure of your own abilities, always so high and mighty. Well, Dirt Boss, look around you – it doesn’t get much higher than this!”
And then they were in mid-air, sailing out over the yawning gulf of Seti Alpha V. The euphoria returned but Rodimus pushed it away, concentrating on making the jump with as little speed reduction as possible.
He spared just a moment on Dirt Boss, the briefest of glances through his rear scanners. The Decepticon howled with wild terror as he turned, spun and fell down, ever down, to the surface of the planet. “Bet you wish those big-ass tyres were filled with helium right now!” Rodimus yelled, then switched his communicator off. The last sound he heard from Dirt Boss was a strangled scream, then a wash of static.
He hit the other side of the gulf right on the sweet spot, all six tyres finding traction instantly. The deutronium wasn’t likely to last much longer, but they were at least one ‘con better than they’d been before.
Rodimus crossed the line a full three lengths ahead of Crumplezone, Ransack and Wheeljack. None of them made a move to catch up – all were too busy keeping an eye on the chaos behind them.
Snowcat raised a fist to punch the starting beacon, shattering it as he zipped by. Demolishor fired a line of mines as he sped into the straightway, forcing Downshift and Silverstreak to pick their way carefully, slowly through the mess.
Once clear, Downshift let one of his wrenches bounce free from his trunk – it connected with one of the mines and set the entire chain off in a fiery display.
“Okay, I’ve had it,” he said to Silverstreak. “Drop behind me and give me a nudge… it’s time to take these turkeys out. And don’t use your deutronium yet – you’ll need it in a minute.”
Silverstreak steered into Downshift’s slipstream and nudged his friend from behind, giving him a slight lead. “Do that two more times and then get clear,” Downshift ordered. “If this works, the jerk brothers’ll be out of the race but so will I, but you need to keep going ‘cause Wheeljack’s still out there.”
The gunner nudged the engineer once, twice and then locked his steering wheel to the right. Snowcat saw the move and turned his missile launchers on Downshift. A green Energon volley spewed forth, and Silverstreak was sure he saw something platinum glint in mid-air, just in the path of the weaponry…
An explosion ripped through the area, its shockwave ramming Silverstreak into the side barrier. He pulled himself free and drove, full speed, through the mushroom cloud ahead. His scanners told half the story – pieces of Snowcat and Demolishor were scattered across the track, and he could see their still-smoking heads arguing with one another.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” Downshift’s voice crackled over the communicator. “Told ya the deutronium packed a wallop.” He chuckled, the sound coloured by pain. “Glad it’s in you rather than me… make sure you increase that pressure slowly like I said.”
“Where are you?” Silverstreak asked.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine… I’m in robot mode to the left of the mushroom cloud. Took a few big hits but I’m still on-line, I just won’t be going anywhere other than a CR Chamber for a while.” He grunted. “Think I might lie down for a bit, then go see to Clocker. Listen – get those other three ‘cons, willya?”
Silverstreak grinned. “Consider them got, good buddy.” He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. Fighting up close and personal was not his forte – unarmed, and in vehicle mode, even less so. But he had no choice. The other three ‘cons had to be taken out, as fast as possible.
If they managed to reach that off-ramp, it was all over – for the Autobots of two worlds.
A few miles ahead, Blur was cruising. He’d never let himself go this much, never really opened up the throttle. For many vorns, his friends had been telling him he was the fastest car on wheels – now he had the chance to prove it.
Override pulled alongside him. Her engine was screeching and her tyres were cracking. When she spoke, over the communicator, her voice was tense with exertion. “I’ve never… had this much… of a challenge… before,” she panted.
“Challenge?Youcallthisachallenge?” Blur laughed. “Strapin,we’regoingtothenextlevel.”
He floored his accelerator, pulling away from her again. This, he decided, was the most fun he’d had.
Silverstreak, meanwhile, was facing down his demons. On an intellectual level, he knew what he had to do – follow Downshift’s example and dive headlong into the fray. Do whatever had to be done. On an instinctive level, though, all he wanted to do was find a nice, high vantage point and shoot out the Decepticons’ tyres.
He may have been part of Prime’s inner circle, but he was far from courageous. Optimus Prime, Ultra Magnus and the others knew this and didn’t mind – Silverstreak’s talents were more subtle, more long distance. Even Grimlock, who despised cowardice, respected Silverstreak because his talents could not be found elsewhere. Even Prime couldn’t shoot as accurately as he could, even Magnus’ amazing strategies couldn’t take down a ‘con war machine as well as a barrage from Silverstreak’s rifle.
He needed that distance to operate properly. Up close and personal, the reality of war was too all-consuming… the memories too powerful… to ignore. Deep in his Spark, he knew he’d never overcome the sense of loss he’d felt, staring at the remains of Nova Cronum, knowing he was the last one left alive. Survivor’s guilt, Red Alert had called it, but Silverstreak knew it was pure cowardice. If he’d fought, if he’d struggled… likely he’d be dead, but at least he wouldn’t be alone.
What about now? Here he had that chance, that opportunity to fight and try and die, if necessary, to save his home. He’d fought battles for far less, even if from a greater distance – what did that detachment, that cool gaze from behind the cross-hairs, matter now? He either acted or he accepted the loss of everything, all over again – the loss he was not prepared to suffer.
Silverstreak accelerated, praying to the Allspark as he drove.
No guns, no offensive weaponry. Just himself… and the deutronium. That ought to be a help. The big guy, Crumplezone, was too big to simply ram. Wheeljack and Ransack should be no problem, with a little extra velocity. His bodywork would hate him in the morning, but what the hey? Red Alert could always do with a little panel-beating practice.
The pressure built in his fuel tank, the deutronium ignited like a thermal detonator and he sped off, ploughing into the space between the motorcycle and the sports car. Ransack went left and Wheeljack right – Silverstreak ignored them both and headed straight for Crumplezone.
He’d expected a heinous collision, a thunderous crash that would ruin his front end at the same time as dealing the giant Decepticon a mortal wound. Silverstreak was only half right – he slammed into the flat, almost shapeless rear of his foe and screamed as his bonnet caved in. He gasped for breath as his engine was thrust back into his dashboard, and yelped as his fuel cells ruptured, spilling Energon and deutronium across the track. He spun a full 360 degrees once, twice, three times and came to a dead stop. He was on-line, but badly concussed and depleted… and Crumplezone just kept on driving.
But only for a moment. Strangely, the big green-and-black bruiser stopped dead further up the track, and pulled a u-turn. No one stops on Speedia, Silverstreak remembered. Not for anything. He saw a red glow coalesce behind Crumplezone, heard a horrific din as his turbine engines flipped up, out and over, transforming into massive cannons aimed straight at him.
Crumplezone fired, and Silverstreak saw a flash of energy just as something collided with his right-hand side. He sailed through the air and landed on his roof, next to the barrier edge of the roadway. He saw the lethal energy blast continue straight past him, and shuddered as it impacted with Ransack. The clueless ‘con melted right in front of his eyes – he didn’t even have time to scream.
Silverstreak swivelled his badly-damaged sensors back to Crumplezone. The brute transformed to his robot mode – a hulking, ape-like chassis with long, boxy arms, thick fists and tiny legs – and stalked across to Ransank’s remains. A quizzical expression crossed his stunted face as he reached down and, with a single podgy finger, tapped the smouldering wreckage.
Sudden pain lanced through his side, demanding Silverstreak’s attention. Wheeljack was on top of him, driving one of his Energon batons into the Autobot’s exposed belly. “Don’t ever, ever think it’ll be that easy, Silverstreak,” the Decepticon hissed, an insane edge to his words. “No heroic sacrifice for you, my friend – no great and glorious final act, no fanfares, no funeral with honours. You die when I say you can die, and not a moment sooner!”
Wheeljack savagely pulled out the baton, and Silverstreak screamed in agony. “You should have stayed up in the rafters, where cowards belong,” the Decepticon crooned. He raised the baton high for a killing stroke. “A bright, shiny, silver Autobot makes a nice… clear… target…”
“So does a big-mouthed Decepticon!” someone yelled.
Wheeljack looked up as a chunk of masonry sailed toward him. He tried to smash it with the baton but was too slow – the heavy stone slammed into his face and knocked him backwards. One of his optics shattered, then another piece of masonry buckled his knees out from under him.
Fighting through his pain, Silverstreak focused and saw Rodimus striding toward them. He was in robot mode, carrying a stack of metal, car parts and loose stonework in one arm. Staggering to stay upright, the young cavalier was nonetheless hurling his improvised ammunition with great accuracy, dealing a fair amount of damage to the already-injured Decepticon.
Flailing, Wheeljack retreated. He took a few shuddering steps off of Silverstreak – kicking him in the door once more for good measure – and then dove over the edge of the roadway. Stunned, Silverstreak willed himself to transform and crawled toward the edge, joined a second later by an exhausted Rodimus. They craned their necks to see…
The enormous Decepticon was hovering just below the track in his space-cruiser mode. The two Autobots could see the still-arguing remnants of Demolishor and Snowcat on Tidal Wave’s upper deck, and the injured Wheeljack struggling into the bridge, barking orders. The group didn’t even stop to fire off a last salvo – Tidal Wave simply wheeled toward orbit and fired his primary engines, heading off-world.
“So that’s how they beat us here,” Rodimus panted as he slumped down next to Silverstreak. “Tidal Wave… flew them here… because he can achieve Transwarp space. But the effort… would have exhausted him… so he’s been lying low and… recharging… while the rest of ‘em…” he gestured with one hand, “did all this.”
“Recharging sounds pretty good right now,” Silverstreak grinned, propping himself up on one elbow. He coughed – he’d need his engine pulled out of his dashboard sooner rather than later. “By the way, Roddy, that was some nice aiming with the chunk arsenal, there.”
Rodimus grinned. “Had to… learn something… from you on this trip.”
They laughed, happy to be alive if not exactly healthy. Repairs would be done and they would heal – for now, they had the partial victory to ease their pain. Even so, Wheeljack had finally made his intentions clear. He'd do whatever it took, up to and including outright rescue, to ensure he killed Silverstreak. And the gunner still did not know why.
“It’s all up to Blur now,” he sighed. “Hope he’s up to it.”
“He will be,” Rodimus answered. “He has to be.”
As he spoke, a powerful wind gushed past them both, forcing them back against the roadway. Rodimus caught his breath, then let out a low whistle.
“Blur and Override,” he said. “They’ve lapped us.”
In the time it took Rodimus to speak, the race leaders had covered more than 10 kilometres. They were travelling so fast that Blur’s speedometer refused to work – the needle had snapped off sometime during the second lap. They were travelling so fast that the debris on the track, the injured ‘bots, the mushroom cloud… all of it was there and gone in less than the shuttering of an optic.
Every time Blur thought he was going the fastest he’d ever travelled, Override would pull alongside him and he’d rev it up a notch. He was starting to think there was no upper limit to his acceleration, no amount of speed he could not achieve and then control, perfectly. It was a thought he relished.
A moment passed, and he found himself staring at Override’s taillights. Above them sat the golden-edged Planet Key, interfaced with her frame and glowing blood red. Blur laughed – the Decepticons would never have been able to steal it. Nor would have Downshift. Override could have called it up here, on the track, anytime she’d liked. Winning the race truly was the only way to take possession of the Key.
And he wasn’t going to win the race from back here.
Blur accelerated and, for the first time, felt the gentle tug of gravity. Maybe there was an upper limit to acceleration, a speed at which even his design yielded. He refused to consider it further – it was impossible. For whatever reason, be it fate or the will of the Matrix, he was the last Autobot rolling and it all came down to him. Win or lose, survive or die. The Decepticons had lost, thanks to his friends, but they were never really important, never really a factor.
In the end, it came down to acceleration.
He felt his engine jump and shake as he coaxed more from it. The block protested but he’d have none of it – he wanted speed and he wanted it now. A second passed, then Blur began to creep past Override. The creeping turned to a trot, then a gallop, then a sudden intense burst of forward motion as he cleared his opponent completely, raced a full length past her and crossed the finish line with a full two second lead!
“SweetPrimus,” he whispered, then locked his brakes.
He finally came to a stop hundreds of metres from the line, then transformed and dropped to his knees. It had been an almost holy experience: like touching the face of a god, like running in the canyons only immortals dared tread. For a moment, he thought not of winning, or of the Planet Key, or of his mission… he just thanked the universe for the experience of utter, unfettered speed.
Blur looked up as Override staggered toward him, her chassis drenched with coolant and steam gushing from her exhaust. She dropped to her knees next to him, her radiator bursting as she landed.
“I have… never… known anyone as fast as you… ever,” she gasped.
“Aw,thatwasnothing,” Blur smiled. “Wannagoagain?”
They should have been in the Axalon's CR chambers, recovering from their injuries – but none of them could bear to stay away. After all, it wasn't every cycle you got to see your friend crowned as king of an entire planet.
The Autobots were back in the pyramid auditorium, standing just by the starting line of the Speedia Ultimate. In front of them stood Override's throne, relocated for the ceremony. Speedia's population was again crammed into the stadium seating but, this time, there was no reverent silence. The gathered 'bots clapped and cheered, then chanted the name of their new leader.
For his part, the hyper-fast Autobot looked decidedly uncomfortable. He managed to stay in one place – sitting on the throne – but he shifted his arms and feet constantly, making it seem like his molecules were losing cohesion.
At least he was moving freely. Rodimus was tired and sore. Silverstreak was propped, half-sitting, on a hover lounge, his arms and legs deactivated to allow the repair cycle to work. Downshift, at his insistence, was right next to him... both his arms encased in chambers full of Energon. A grateful Clocker had been only too willing to "permanently loan out" the regeneration devices so Downshift could heal his numerous burns, tears and dents wherever he went.
They were due to leave after the ceremony. None of them would admit it, but they were all worried.
During their down-time, Rodimus had told the others of the seductive influence of Speedia, and of the Force Chips. They all knew of Blur's hatred for war, and had all seen his obvious love for the racing world. What would they do if he chose to stay here, to keep the Planet Key for himself and just keep driving? Could they change his mind? Would they want to?
The crowd noise muted as Override drove into the stadium. Her pace was slow and deliberate even though the Planet Key was interfaced with her engine. She transformed – again, her movements too quick to follow – and took the artefact in her hands. For a moment, she stopped and simply stared at it, giving Rodimus the bad feeling she intended to run away.
Her honour, though, was strong. Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, as Optimus had warned, but the only power corrupting Override was the power of speed. She lifted her head proudly, flashed Blur a mesmerising golden smile, and climbed the short set of stairs. She held the Planet Key out in front of her and, as Blur took it, the crowd erupted in adulation.
Rising to his feet, Blur made a speech. He was so nervous and speaking so fast that it was over in three seconds – far too rapid for Rodimus to make out. Whatever he said obviously had an impact on Speedia's natives, however. Again they were reduced to silence – shocked silence, this time – while Override's optics telescoped wide.
Tucking the Planet Key under his arm, Blur walked down the stairs and joined his friends.
"What did you say?" Silverstreak asked. "I'm hoping that's a happy silence, 'cause I'm in no condition to shoot our way outta here."
"Iwasjustmakingafewarrangementsforthefuture," he said.
"Ifiguredthere'snoproblemwithOverridestayinginchargeuntilIcomeback. Afterall, it'snotlikeI'llbestayingherewhenthere'sawartowinandaplanettosave."
The Axalon crew beamed, slightly ashamed of themselves.
"TheKeycomeswithus, noquestionofthat," Blur said. "Mindyou, Ihavemadeonepromise."
"Which is?" Downshift asked.
"ThatI'llbetheonetobringitbackwhenthisisallover," he replied, and the others laughed.
Override came over to them. She placed one hand lightly on Blur's shoulder – an affectionate gesture that surprised them all. "Try not to stay away too long," she said, her voice unexpectedly soft. "I really want to race you again. Your speed is... intoxicating."
With his good arm, Silverstreak nudged Rodimus. "I know these 'bots worship speed and all, but this is laying it on a little thick," he chortled.
The acting Speedia leader nodded to Blur, then addressed Rodimus. "You got what you wanted within our rules, and for that I thank you. I was... wrong... to welcome the Decepticons as I did. To them, the race was only a distraction. Thank you... all of you... for stopping them. The Key may leave us now, but at least we know we're getting it back."
She paused. "Some day."
"Soon as we can manage it," Rodimus assured her. "When Cybertron is safe, Speedia will have its icon back."
Override raised her head, gazing at the Transformers gathered in the stands. "I hope so," she whispered. "Those offworlders awoke strange tensions amongst us – feelings of violence and aggression we have never known before. To be honest, I'm worried... the races could turn to war."
"You'llkeepitundercontrol," Blur said. "Iknowit."
With that, they turned and left the pyramid, making their way – for the first time on the planet, slowly - to the Axalon.
"Well, it looks like I owe Vector Prime an apology," Downshift sighed. "The Force Chips really do work. All that preparation we put in was worth it. The cycles spent kitting Blur up for the interface were essential. We wouldn't have that," he pointed to the Planet Key, "without that darn red disk."
Blur slapped his forehead with his free hand. "Ooooooooohright, theForceChip!" he exclaimed. "Ididn'teventhinkofthat! Icouldhavetriedusingthat, right?"
The other three Autobots stopped dead in their tracks. "You didn't use it?" Downshift asked.
"Nope," Blur replied. "JustaswellIdidn'tneedit, hey?"
He smiled his innocent smile and zipped up the Axalon’s ramp. Rodimus, Downshift and Silverstreak stayed where they were, shaking their heads in disbelief.
"The fastest car on wheels," Rodimus breathed, and they entered the ship.
A few cycles later, the Axalon lifted off, bound for Cybertron and a rendezvous with the other teams. As it cut through the crimson skies, it passed over the Speedia Ultimate's track... upon which sat Crumplezone.
He'd been there since he fired his cannons, waiting for Ransack to speak to him. Crumplezone knew something was wrong, that his little buddy must have been angry with him for his mistake. But he wouldn't say anything – he just sat there in a molten, charred lump and kept quiet, no matter how much Crumplezone poked him.
Poke, poke, poke.
Nothing. Crumplezone was starting to get lonely. He wanted to drive somewhere but, without Ransack to follow, he had nowhere to go.
Poke, poke, poke.
A hand dropped onto Crumplezone's shoulder. He looked around to see a black, white and gold Transformer with a crossed-out Autobot mark on his chest. What was his name? Oh yeah, Wheeljack. And Wheeljack was talking.
"Hey there, big fella," he said, a horrid leer crossing his features. "You look like you could use a friend."
A friend? Yes, Crumplezone needed a friend. Ransack wasn't talking to him any more and Dirt Boss had never come back, so there was no reason to stay on the track. Besides... there was something about the nasty look on Wheeljack's face that made Crumplezone feel comfortable.
He rose on his stocky legs and gripped Wheeljack's hand with his massive paw. He let the Decepticon lead him off the road to a waiting space cruiser, then grinned.
Crumplezone wasn't sure why, but he had a feeling there'd be something new to smash... really, really soon.