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Bugs

"Maybe that's it," she says, pointing out the ship window.  

I detect uncertainty in her voice.  It's understandable, considering how many times she's started conversations exactly like this since our mission began.  We're approaching a small yellow star and its surrounding planets, probably eight or nine in all.  It's hard to tell from this distance.  I bring the ship's sensors online just in case she asks for a long-range scan.  I usually try to be prepared for all possible contingencies.  Whether they appreciate all the work I do is anybody's guess, of course.

"They don't even look inhabitable," he replies in a bored tone, turning to the side portal only long enough to cycle his optics in disgust before returning to his tinkering.  He's still convinced he can get the star drive working again, even without functional plasma coils.  He hasn't bothered to consult me on this point yet, so I choose to remain quiet with regards to the futility of his pet project.  Should it occur to him to actually inquire, I've already though of several helpful but pointed ways to illustrate the impossibility of what he's trying to achieve.  My personal favorite among them is to express the actual statistical likelihood, calculated to seventeen decimal places, that he will succeed.  I've observed that metaphors tend to persuade him more effectively than numbers, though, so I've also devised some colorful illustrations involving squeezing energon out of a rock.

She's quiet for a while.  She's pretending to busy herself with her instruments, double-checking calculations that she knows quite well don't need any double-checking.  What she's really doing is trying to figure out how to get through to him without eventually turning this into another screaming match.  I've observed their behavior ever since the mission began and I like to think I've become rather familiar with their individual quirks.

"We should at least check it out," she says.

"You check it out," he says with a turn of his ultra-drill.  "I'm busy."

"Busy wasting time, you mean," she replies.

"Exploring uninhabitated planets is a waste of time," he says.  "Fixing the ship isn't."

She fails to repress a frustrated noise and keys in a sequence on the control panel to deploy a long-range probe.  "Look, I'll show you.  This star system matches the last viewtrex transmission that made it to Cybertron, and the particle readings inside the gravity well we took earlier proves that they were pulled somewhere into this arm of the galaxy."

He doesn't respond.  He's probably pretending that he's stopped listening.  He hates it when she tries to prove him wrong, especially since she tends to beat him over the head with her facts and figures.  Were he in a more argumentative mood, he might have pointed out that even a single arm of this galaxy could contain hundreds of thousands of star systems, and that stumbling onto one system that happens to match the profile in the ship's databanks doesn't prove anything.  Today, though, he doesn't.  It looks like he just wants to be left alone.

"Probe transmission received," I announce, breaking the uncomfortable silence.  It's one of the few things I'm expected to communicate of my own volition without someone asking me for the information.  She waits for more, but this time I refrain from continuing until she acknowledges me.

"And?" she asks.  I consider asking her to rephrase her request, mostly because I'm pretty desperate for some kind of vocal interaction.  I already know what she wants to hear, though, so it's probably not worth trying her patience today.

"System revolves around delta-class star with energy output of eight hundred quadrillion astroliters," I begin.  I decide to give her the grand tour today.  "System consists of seven major celestial bodies in orbit, three minor celestial bodies, and over 140 lesser celestial bodies in secondary orbit."

She lets out a long sigh.  "All gas planets, I presume."

"Of the seven major celestial bodies, three are non-gaseous."

"It's like forcibly extracting deciduous incisors," she comments.  "Any of them made of metal?"

"Third major celestial body in orbit is comprised of thirty-five percent iron, thirteen percent magnesium, two percent nickel, zero point zero five percent titanium, zero point zero zero zero four percent cybertronium."  I deliver that one completely deadpan.

"Lucky guess," he snorts.

She jumps out of her seat and rushes back over to the portal.  "That... that's it!  We found it!  That's got to be it!  Blow-Out, we found it!"

"Keep your hood down," he says, condescendingly.  "Probably just magnetic interference.  Or a faulty probe.  I'll believe it when I see it."

"You'll see it, all right," she says with a newfound determination as she hastily flips a row of switches.  We're going to land on that planet!"

"Here we go again," he says.  "Let's see if you can actually land us in one piece, this time."  He takes this opportunity to work his head back and forth, as if to test the gear alignment.  "Took me four days to get rid of that grinding noise."

"The probe has docked," she says, excitedly toggling between her instruments and the window.  "We'll collect the rest of the information and then prepare for touchdown.  I'm not getting a distress signal.  No life signs, either, but the cybertronium readings are unmistakable.  They're all down there, somewhere.  Or at least their ships are.  This is so hydraulic.  We've just solved one of the biggest mysteries in Cybertron history!"

"How long until we land?" he asks in the same manner he might ask how long it will take for his metal polisher to finish buffing his foot bumpers.

"Eleven point six three billion astro-seconds," I tell him.

"Fine, then I'm going to dilate my lenses for a while," he reports, leaning back in the control chair, resting his head on his wrists and propping his feet up on my instruments.  I quickly shut off the control access to that panel.  The last thing I need is for him to inadvertently trigger a self-destruct sequence or something during his rest period.

She sighs and reluctantly climbs back into the navigation chair.  "Typical.  We make the biggest discovery since the transforming cog, and you're going to take a nap."

***

I'm assigned the task of sending out another probe to survey the local terrain in preparation for developing new configurations for the crew.  It comes back with so many different types of environmental readings that I assume it's malfunctioned, and I send out another.  It turns out the planet just has an incredibly diverse landscape.  It's like an ice planet, a desert planet, a water planet, and a forest planet all rolled up into one.  I briefly consider, but eventually abandon, the idea of introducing a triple-change function.  Historically, that's led to megalomania and delusions of grandeur in the recipients, and the last thing I want to do is introduce even more personality disorders.  Deciding on a single transformation for each of them that's theoretically capable of functioning in all of these environments, then, is going to be an interesting challenge.

Everyone seems to assume that reconfiguring an existing transformation into a form suitable for alien worlds is a simple procedure, as though it were some automated scanning-and-replication process by which you just press a button and you instantly turn into a drill machine or a petrorabbit or whatever's most suitable for the planet you've landed on.  I doubt anyone realizes just how much effort is really involved.  My probes have returned a catalog of 11,047 different potential reconfigurations.  I was hoping for a larger sampling, but this will have to do.

Physical compatibility takes precedent over form and function, so that eliminates roughly half the available forms, including most of the vegetation.  There are a few plant forms that intrigue me, but mobility over long distances is also a high priority, so I reject any forms in the database I judge to be incapable of locomotion.  Size is also an issue, since none among the crew are equipped with a quark unity integrity destabilizer (and I'm not particularly inclined to expend the ship's resources necessary to devise such sensitive equipment), so that eliminates another few thousand possibilities that are too large or too small for their robot forms to incorporate.  I decide against a few hundred more designs based on the lack of aerodynamic capability.  Also, the equipment on board the ship isn't sophisticated enough to reproduce organic life forms accurately enough to blend in with the environment, so I reluctantly reject all the animal designs, despite the fact that I'm quite fond of a few of them.

A few more important considerations are taken into account, like retaining the integrity of the robot modes, making the transformed mode adaptable to multiple environments, and respecting the time-honored cultural tradition of Autobots having ground-based vehicle modes.  Hers should look somewhat feminine, of course, but I've also got to contend with making both forms relatively similar in appearance and capability, because I know that I make one significantly faster or more powerful than the other, I'll never heard the end of the bickering.

In the end, I settle on two forms that satisfy all these requirements as well as my own whimsical sense of aesthetics.

***

The planet is almost totally covered in water, so the statistical chances of the missing ships having hit land are very slim indeed.  The greatest concentration of cybertronic alloys seems to be somewhere within one of the northern continental masses, but the only robotic life signs we detect are within a small concentration of islands on the other side of the planet.  It's unlikely the surviving crew members traveled halfway around this world without their ship, so we conclude that they must have jetissoned from the craft before it crashed.  An escape pod would be too small to find with a metallurgical scan, so we search for the crew based on life signals.  We touch down without incident within a cluster of land masses not far from the planet's equator.

I accompany the search party remotely, monitoring their activities through their optics and audio receptors.  They resent my all-encompassing presence, but they accept that even my most basic remote scanners are more sophisticated than the two of them put together, so they reluctantly allow me to share my observations.

"Relative humidity measuring at seventy-five point one percent," I report dryly.  "Local temperature measuring at eighty-three point seven.  Atmospheric readings indicate air composed of 78.1% nitrogen, 20.9% oxygen, and zero-point-nine percent argon.  Local soil samples indicate high igneous mineral content suggesting volcanic activity."

"Give it a rest," she says, grunting as she trudges through the swampy terrain.  "We didn't come out here just to get a weather report.  We need life readings.  Can you get a fix on where they're centralized?  Can you tell us how many there are?"

"And whether they're friend or foe," he adds darkly.

"I'm certain they're Autobots," she says.

"And you know this how, exactly?"

"Decepticons wouldn't have left all this vegetation standing.  If their ship were disabled, the first thing they'd do is clear a construction site so they could build a new craft.  If there's one thing 'Cons can't stand, it's being grounded."

"They might have touched down in an escape pod," he points out.  "For all we know, they're shuttling back and forth between here and their ship.  Remember that huge concentration of Cybertronic metal on the other side of the planet?"

"That's ridiculous," she counters.  "If they could get to their ship, they'd be there.  There's no reason for them to remain on this island unless they were stranded here."

"Or so you think," he says.

I've got my own thoughts on the matter, of course, but I know better than to offer an unsolicited opinion.  

"Energy readings detected on long-range scanners," I announce.  "Possible mechanical life signs."

"Good luck getting through this mess to find 'em," he says, pointing to the dense area of vegetation ahead.

"I don't appreciate that implication," she says, tearing some vines in either direction as she trudges through the marsh.

"What implication?" he asks.

"That I only manage to get by on luck," she replies.

"It's just an expression," he says.

"Express this," she says with a gesture.

***

They weren't like this when the mission began.  I'm not sure whether they've developed a particularly egregious case of cabin fever, or whether they've got some strong romantic feelings they're both desperately busy trying to repress, but the arguments never seem to end.  I've actually considered running a diagnostic on the two of them to determine if they're suffering from the same sort of synaptic breakdown that tends to be the end result of long space voyages like this, but I'm not authorized to take that level of initiative.  At least they're both able to function well enough to carry out the mission, despite whatever glitches their systems may have developed.

The terrain has become increasingly steep, and they both find themselves stumbling on the loose, rocky landscape.  No longer able to effectively navigate this way, they transform to their new vehicle modes, prompting me to reroute my remote interface so that I can observe the environment through the sensors in their headlights.

"Sooner we get off this planet, the better," he grumbles as he drives.  "This has got to be the most repulsive indigenous form I've ever been adapted to."

"What's not to like?" she asks.

"I don't know how I'm supposed to blend in," he whines.  "Do you see any other screaming yellow vehicles on this island?  Could this be any worse of a disguise?"

"I don't know," she says, trailing along behind him, "I kind of like mine.  It's quaint, in a backwards sort of way."

"You look like a giant red beetle," he says disparagingly.

They leave it at that, the multiple layers of ingenuity going completely over their roofs, as it were.

It's only after they're about halfway up the hill that I realized they've been ascending a volcanic mountain.  Inactive, according to my geothermal readings, but previous eruptions have left behind a daunting pile of residual granite that represents too great an obstacle for them to overcome by simply driving over it.

She begins to lose traction as the incline proves too steep for her to effectively ascend, her motor revving noisily to compensate.

"Hang on," she says, "I'm okay--"

She loses control and skids back down the side of the mountain, bouncing and flipping over several times before landing upside-down.  She unfolds into robot form and lets out a pained sigh.

"You okay?" he calls out, skidding back down the hillside on on foot and one knee to meet her.  "Are you damaged?  Let me take a look at you."

"No thanks," she says coldly.  "If I'm ever desperate enough to subject myself to your medical attention, I'll let you know."  She rises to her feet and starts limping back up the mountainside.

I ponder briefly whether dedicated aerial transformations might have been a better choice than a couple of sporty little cars.

"Well, either we go around it, or we dig our way through," she sighs.

"I vote we go back the way we came," he says.

"Any other suggestions?" she asks.  "Preferably helpful ones?"

"I could probably make the jump if I built up enough speed," he says, "but the ground isn't smooth enough to get any momentum going, and even if I made it over, that would still leave you stranded."

"Alternate configurations designed for environmental manipulation," I note.  

He takes the suggestion and transforms again.  It's more of a variation on his existing form than a true third transformation, which allowed me to utilize the same circuitry without having to build another additional transforming cog for him.

"You call this an alternate configuration?" he gripes.

"What do you mean?" she asks.

"It's exactly the same as my normal vehicle mode only with my feet flipped up," he grouses.

"It's a perfectly valid configuration," she says.  "You kind of look like a bulldozer now."

"Bulldozer, nothing," he says.  "I look like I'm stuck in mid-transformation."

While he starts clearing a path through the rubble, she stops to observe some of the local wildlife.  A tiny insect is fluttering about, darting in and out of her immediate field of vision.  She waits, patiently, until it flies within her grasp, and she gently cups it with her hands.

She opens her grasp, slowly, and marvels at the tiny life form crawling on her fingertip.  The creature is black with large, round red wings that are decorated with multiple black spots.  It flutters its wings at her contentedly.

"What is it?" she asks.

"Accessing and translating planetary database," I announce.  

"Rather amazing that someone managed to design something so small with so many moving parts," she observes.  "Look at how many points of articulation there are in the legs alone.  Surprisingly lightweight, though.  Wonder if there's a metal version?"

"Subject matches profile of native insect species Cycloneda polita."

"Well, what do you know.  Funny coincidence," she says with a shrug.

Coincidence, she says.  If I had hands, I'd smack my forehead.  If I had one.

***

"So, what do you know about Optimus Prime?" she asks as they trudge through a dark, foreboding swamp.  The water is nearly hip-deep, and the overhead vegetation is so thick that it blocks most of the incoming sunlight.  Only a few thin rays manage to pierce the overheard canopy, and the overall effect is positively alien.

"Not much, really," he shrugs.  "He's level-headed, good in a fight... and he's really tall, from what I've heard."

"You've never seen him in person?"

"Nope," he admits.

"Me neither.  I can't wait to meet him," she says.

"Don't restrain your ventilators," he mutters.

"What's that supposed to mean?"  She's still studying the red-winged insect perched on the back of her hand, occasionally making kkk, kkk sounds at it.

"You're thinking 'rescue mission,' but you should be thinking more like 'salvage mission.'  Just finding the Ark in one piece will be a stroke of luck."

"Luck has nothing to do with it," she says quietly.

"Think about it," he continues.  "The ship left Cybertron... what is it, close to four million revolutions, now?  Nobody's heard from them since they left.  They never came home, and they obviously haven't colonized this planet.  If they survived, what have they been doing all this time?"

"Maybe they were taking a nap," she says pointedly.

"Very funny," he says.  "Besides, even if he is still alive, what possible interest could he have in us?  The Ark was filled with the best and the brightest.  The crew was hand-picked by Prime himself out of ten thousand troops.  What are we?  We're leftovers.  Generic background characters."

"Not necessarily," she points out.  "If we rescued the Ark, we'd be recognized as heroes."

"Phah," he says.  "The legendary Optimus Prime, master tactician for the ages, posthumous inspiration to millions, turns up alive, stranded on some backwater planet for half his operational cycle until a couple of lowly Minibots come to his aid?  Yeah, that would do wonders for his image.  Nope, when all this is over, I bet nobody even knows our names."

"Optimus Prime's been my hero ever since I was in training wheels," she says.

"He was a great military leader, I'll grant you that, but his achievements have gotten blown all out of proportion since he disappeared.  It's like... it's like Orion Pax.  You can't swing a photovoltaic half-cat without hitting somebody who worships him.  He went down in history as this great hero who died defending his power plant from the Decepticons.  He gets constellations named after him, for crying out loud.  You know why?  Because he's dead.  That's all.  He's not a machine; he's a myth.  If he was alive today, though, nobody would even recognize him."

"Maybe... maybe it's better if Optimus Prime stays lost, then," she admits.

"Wait, what was that?" he asks, thrusting out a cautious hand.  "I thought I saw something in the water."

"Alert," I announce, "long-range scanners are detecting mechanical life signs converging on your present location."

"How many?" she asks.  "I don't see anyone."

"Sixty-five life signs detected," I report.

"What? Where?" he demands.

The swamp begins bubbling and sloshing about as though it were alive.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," she says.

"Proximity alert," I report.  "Intruders detected inside ship's cargo bay.  Internal sensors are off-line."

"That's impossible," he says.  "You must have a bug in your systems.  Check your readings again."

"Systems failure," I announce.  "Propulsion engines off-line.  Navigation computers off-line.  Long range tr--"

My remote link is still active, so I can still observe the crew, but I can't talk to them because but the ship's transmitter array is down.  I run a diagnostic, but I'm not getting any return signals from any of the onboard equipment.  It's like the circuitry itself has been cut.  I quickly realize that this is precisely the case; there are gaps in the structural integrity of the hull that are growing exponentially in number and in size.  The entire craft is being eaten, a piece at a time.  This is hardly how I expected to end my operational cycle.  

I initiate the ship's auto-destruct protocol, but the detonator mechanism was apparently jetissoned earlier when somebody had his feet up on the control panel.  All courses of action have been exhausted.  As they start to devour my computer brain, one of the creatures has the temerity to complain about the taste of the positrons.

"Come on, we've got to get back to the ship!" she says.  She turns around, but she's blocked by a wall of thick, sandy mud that's been erected around the perimeter of the swamp.

"Where did that come from?" he shouts.

There's a tremendous, sloppy splash, and both crew members freeze in their tracks as something emerges from the swampy waters.  Large and metallic, it moves slowly and purposefully towards them, its twin antennae flexing open and shut like a pair of pincers.  It screams a wordless battle cry, and is quickly joined by others.  They emerge from the watery depths, popping up all around the crew as the mud ripples off their black and purple bodies.

There are dozens of them.  They've got the two Autobots completely surrounded, and they're all making this low-pitched buzzing sound.  The creatures in the front row of the swarm are making obscene howm, howm sounds as they grind their mandibles together and salivate.

Her spotted friend flutters its wings and escapes into the sky.

"Hey, wait!  Come back!" she protests.

The alien speaks, and its voice is like the strangled cry of a wounded animal.  "Fly away home, home," it cackles.  

The rest of the swarm joins it in raucous laughter as they converge on the crew, silicone drool dripping from their gleaming fangs.

"Uh, Ladybug," he says, "I think your luck just ran out."

THE END


Author's Notes:  Back in 1984, Hasbro released the regular versions of Bumblebee and Cliffjumper in yellow and red, respectively, as well as a red Bumblebee and yellow Cliffjumper.  These versions were never acknowledged in the toy catalogs, but I believe they may have at one time been intended to represent unique characters (much in the same way that Rumble and Frenzy represented two separate characters despite being based on the same toy mold).  Anyway, I created characters based on these toys and wrote this story about them.  Blow-Out was actually a proposed name for Cliffjumper (and there's a vestigial reference in his tech specs about him suffering from "actual blowouts," distinguishing the condition from his name), so I thought it would be amusing to pretend that Cliffjumper and Blow-Out accidentally got their tech specs switched in the same manner as Sideswipe and Sunstreaker.  Ladybug, meanwhile, seemed to be the perfect name for a red VW beetle, necessitating making the character female.  

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This Page Created: 3/17/2004
Uploaded: 8/10/2004
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