Overground by Ivy_Bohnlein
Summary: A simple lesson goes horribly wrong, with some comic results, as Whiz, Hot Rod, Blurr and Springer convince Kup to teach them to pilot a shuttle. Much more lighthearted than some of the other "Underground Trilogy" stories.
Categories: Generation One Characters: None
Genre: Comedy
Location: Library
Series: None
Chapters: 1 Completed: Yes Word count: 11283 Read: 1391 Published: 03/01/02 Updated: 03/01/02

1. Overground by Ivy_Bohnlein

Overground by Ivy_Bohnlein

**** Overground ****
by Ivy Bohnlein
Part 4 of the "Underground Trilogy"
Based on characters created by Hasbro and the Admin and Players of the
Transformers 2005 MUSH


"So, what you're saying is that you're afraid."

"I am *not* afraid," I argued quickly, watching my words bounce off of Hot Rod's infuriating grin.

"Then why aren't you signing up for the shuttle piloting session? Come on, it'll be fun. And you're always talking so much about learning new stuff," he prodded.

I hrmphed, lowering a magnifying visor over my optics and inspecting a patch of microcircuitry that had been blistered by a laser blast. "I just don't want to be on board any shuttle for your maiden voyage."

He grinned and looked down at the repairs I was doing on his upper arm. "Afraid my act would be too dazzling to follow?"

My scalpel nearly slipped as he shifted, so I glared up at him. "More like being afraid that the fiery explosion consuming our shuttle would be too dazzling to walk away from." I grinned slightly. "Now quit squirming around."

"Ooo, yes ma'am," he said sarcastically, but at least he held still.

"Well, it's not respect, but it's a start," I replied, then completed the external repairs. As I finished up my reinforcements to his armor, I asked, "What happened to you *this* time?"

"Decepticons got lucky while I was out on patrol with Springer," Hot Rod replied, looking in dismay at the other freshly-repaired wounds across his frame. "They ambushed us out by the Cybertronian highway."

I shook my head. "Let me guess, the other guy looks a lot worse, right?"

"Do I detect some sarcasm in your voice? The evidence speaks for itself I'm here, and the 'cons ran home." He smiled, serene in the knowledge of his own invincibility. "But I'm not too hurt to learn how to pilot a shuttle..."

I groaned dramatically as I dropped my tools back into the small toolkit at my side. "Are we back to that again?"

"Whiz, since when did you pass up a chance to have some fun?" he asked, poking me in the shoulder.

Sighing, I explained, "Ultra Magnus wants me to check out the malfunctioning surveillance dish, Elita-I has a meeting planned, Firestar wants to teach me some self-defense moves..."

In a sing-song voice, he chided, "Sounds suspiciously like *somebody's* starting to act responsible...."

I gasped. "Oh, never."

"So? Come on, then."

"Why are you so fired up about getting me to try this?" I asked suspiciously.

He turned on the winning smile. Now I was *sure* something was up. "I just want your company, Whiz, is that so wrong?"

"Oh, drop the act. What's the real reason?" I demanded skeptically.

He sighed. "Kup doesn't want to waste the resources on a training flight unless we have at least four students ready to try it."

"Let me guess," I said, pretending to be deep in thought. "The present class is three?"

"There's that genius of yours shining through," he said sarcastically.

"You'd better believe it," I smirked. "So who are the other victims?"

"Blurr and Springer," he replied eagerly.

I stopped dead. "Blurr? That settles it. No way."

"Come on," my persistent companion pleaded, "It won't be that bad."

"You want to get killed?" I asked in disbelief.

He shook his head. "Blurr's not going to kill anybody. He just gets a little eager sometimes, but he can be careful when he puts his mind to it."

"I'm more worried about the damage he can do when he forgets to put his mind to it," I sniffed.

Hot Rod's optics narrowed mischievously. "I've heard the same about you."

"Hey!" I protested. "What's that supposed to mean?"

He put his hands up before him, as if fending me off. "Let's just say that some of the other medics get more patients than you do," he grinned.

I waved an admonishing hand under his nose, forgetting that I had a laser scalpel in it until he recoiled backward in surprise. "Um," I stammered, hastily putting it down on the lab table. "Okay, I can get a little distracted sometimes, but I've never hurt anybody."

"What about the flamethrower that melted down inside of Firestar?" he asked, quirking a blue optic at me.

"She knew it was a test version when I installed it," I huffed. "And this really isn't doing much to convince me to help you with your idea."

He was instantly repentant. "I know, I know. But you gotta come, Whiz, it'll be fun. And it's a chance to try something new, right? Everyone else already said no..."

"Everyone else?" I interrupted. "I see, I'm the companion of last resort, am I?"

He flushed and squirmed a little. "Not *everyone*. Arcee, and, uhm..."

I chuckled as he trailed off. "Arcee is everyone else, now?"

My smile broadened as his gaze immediately dropped to the ground. "Figure of speech," he mumbled.

"Ah, that's okay," I grinned. "Since *everyone else* said no..."

"You're enjoying yourself far too much," he interjected darkly.

I ahemed. "Since you'll miss my sparkling company so much, okay. I'll go for it."

His head popped up and he sat up straighter on the lab table. "You mean it?" he asked, brightening.

"Yeah, sure," I said with a gracious wave of my hand. "It could be fun. And you need at least *one* competent person along."

"And who would that be?" he asked innocently, then ruined the act by snickering.

I growled. "I didn't *have* to take pity on you, y'know."

"Hey," he said, his voice oozing cocky self-confidence. "I promise you won't regret it."

"What do I get if you're wrong?" I grinned.

He pondered briefly. "My undying servitude?"

I snorted. "That's no prize."

"Thank *you*," he replied, sliding off of the table. "And with that crushing blow to my ego, I'm going to tell Kup that we'll have a full crew for the piloting lesson."

"Yeah," I agreed, watching him head over to the door. "See you later, Hot Rod."

"Bye Whiz," he smiled, "And thanks for the repairs!" With that, he ducked out and I was left with an empty medbay and my own thoughts.

We Femmes hadn't been in Iacon long, so maybe it was just natural, but I still felt out of place. I was created after the Femmes broke off ties with Iacon, so I'd never known any of the other Autobots before, and I didn't feel that comfortable around strangers. I was used to being sheltered - well, maybe *smothered* is a better word - by my sisters. Seeing a few familiar faces from my first visit to Iacon helped, but even Hot Rod only saw me in the repair bay. Not that he wasn't in there often enough.

So, theoretically, this piloting lesson was just what I needed, right? Exploration, interaction, new places to see...

Except that I'd never been offworld before.

After all, I grew up in the tunnels. Even on the surface, outside, I usually felt too exposed to be comfortable. But to go out into space, in a shuttle... Yeah, I was afraid. Though it'd be a cold day in the sun's core before I'd tell Hot Rod that.

And now what had my stubbornness gotten me? A trip on a shuttle, into space, with a crew of student pilots. *Great*. But then again, I'd played with the simulators before, right? The others must've trained with them too. How much different could the real thing be?

Or did I even want to ask that question?

Still, I was the one who talked so much about how we had to get to know the other Autobots. It was time for me to take my own advice and stop hiding - even if it killed me.

Of course, I'd have to get through the other Femmes first....

Elita-I just smiled indulgently at me. "Whiz, are you sure this is something you really want to do? You don't have much experience..."

I shrugged. "I know, but how can I learn if I don't try?" I asked, trying to force nonchalance into my voice.

"But Whiz, I didn't think it sounded very safe. That's why I said no," Arcee interjected.

The faces around the conference table, recently appropriated as Femme property, all turned to look at me. "Who else is going on this training flight?" Firestar asked suspiciously, leaning forward.

"Well, Kup is the instructor, and Springer, Hot Rod, and, uh, Blurr are..."

"Those three?" Sunrunner asked, her optics widening. "They're a wrecking crew, Whiz, especially when they all get together. You should have seen them in the commissary the other day..."

Chromia sighed and shook her head. "I saw it. Unfortunately. Maybe you should wait for a different instructional flight."

Sunrunner turned to Chromia eagerly. "And you *know* how hard it is to clean up a paint spill like that."

"I hear they're going to be scraping magenta off of the walls for weeks," Firestar added, with a hint of exasperation in her voice.

I was lost, but this didn't sound good. *Somebody* neglected to mention that he'd gotten in trouble in front of my sisters. Great. Now I was going to have to convince them to let me do something I wasn't even sure I *wanted* to do.

Moonracer groaned quietly. "Just the kind of influence Whiz needs."

Chromia nodded, shifting to an authoritative position. "I really think you should wait on this, Whiz."

Arcee chuckled. "I don't think it'll help. Unless Hot Rod finds a fourth person for that training flight, Kup won't take the shuttle up. If we want them to go without her, we'll have to find someone else to take her place."

I looked off into the corner of the ceiling, then slid my gaze over to regard them out of the corner of my optics. "Go ahead and talk about me, it's obvious I'm not really here," I said lightly.

Chromia sighed as Sunrunner giggled.

"We're just worried about you, Whiz. I know that you want to make friends, but that doesn't mean you have to do things that you might otherwise decline to do," Elita assured me. "It just doesn't sound like you're doing this for yourself."

Sunrunner smirked. "She's doing it for Hot Rod."

"He asked me for a favor," I said, wondering why Sunrunner looked as smug as someone who's just swallowed a bunch of stolen energon goodies. "And it sounded like fun, so I agreed. What's your problem with that?"

That just made her snicker some more. "Whiz, you're so clueless."

Elita directed a sharp look at Sunrunner, making her clam up before I could drag some more clarification out of her. "Sunrunner," she said in a warning tone. "That's enough."

Sunrunner made a sealing motion across her lips, then grinned over at me. When I shook my head blankly, it just made her smile wider.

Chromia turned to me with a low sigh. "We can't tell you not to go, if it's what you want. But for Primus' sake, Whiz, be *careful*."

I brightened. "Great!"

"*And*, she continued severely, "I want you to get in some practice on the simulators first. One of those boys might crash the shuttle, but *you* won't."

I nodded and smiled sweetly. "Yes, Chromia."

Her optics narrowed. "Stop that," she said seriously, though a grin was pulling at her lips.

"Yes, Chromia," I repeated.

Sunrunner giggled, and Firestar laughed out loud.

"Stop encouraging her, you two," Chromia admonished, pointing at each of them in turn.

They looked at each other, then back at her. With twin innocent expressions, they chorused, "Yes, Chromia."

Chromia threw up her hands. "I give up on you all," she groaned.

That was too much to take. Everyone, including Chromia, burst out laughing.

"Okay Whiz," Elita finally said, recovering herself. "You go practice on the simulator. The rest of us can handle the boring parts without you."

I stood, my giggles fading into uncertainty. "If you say so, Elita."

She smiled gently. "Go ahead."

I waved behind me at the others, then tapped the door panel and headed out as they called their farewells. On my way back to my quarters, I wondered what their big deal was with Hot Rod. Did they think he was going to turn me into some kind of juvenile delinquent? First of all, he's not such a bad guy, and second, I have better judgment than that. Couldn't they see that? I'm not an *idiot*, I can make up my own mind. I won't do something stupid just because *he* asks.

Besides, I can do enough stupid things on my own.

Once I reached my small quarters, I wandered over to my computer terminal. Training simulator, or Space Defense Squad? Hmmm... I weighed both disks in my hands, then popped the game into the console. I grinned. It's still piloting a shuttle, sort of. Close enough, anyway....

* * * * *

Well, I'd beaten the game, but that knowledge didn't do much to calm my firing nerves as I waited for Kup out on the tarmac of Iacon's heavily defended spaceport. I was just about to say 'forget it' and bolt in a panic when the rest of the crew left the main base and headed toward me. Trapped. I knew Blurr and Hot Rod from my first visit, and I'd had a chance to get to know Kup in the medbay - I guess he knew that I liked hearing his stories while I worked, and he was happy to have an audience. I recognized Springer from passing him in the corridors, but I hadn't had much of a chance to talk to him. He had a smile on his face and a slight swagger to his walk, as if he'd done this a hundred times.

Great. I was going to crash the shuttle, and Chromia was going to kill me. Maybe there'd be bad flying conditions. Maybe the Decepticons would attack. Maybe this will somehow get postponed, and I'll be safe.

"Hey, Whiz!" Hot Rod greeted me. "A clear day on Cybertron and no sign of 'Cons! All set to blast off?"

He was far too cheerful about flying into certain doom.

"Yeah. All set," I replied wanly.

Blurr zipped back and forth between each of us and the shuttle, like a frictionless pinball. "GreatDayToFlyAndSeeTheUniverseI'veNeverBeenToSpace BeforeThisIsSoExcitingDon'tYouThinkSoWhizAndHotRodAndSpringerAndYouTooKup?"

Kup muttered something to himself that sounded like 'kill' and 'Ultra Magnus' were involved. Aha, so it wasn't just Hot Rod's cheerful bullying that got him into this. Wonder what he did to get stuck with this assignment?

"All right, kids," he announced in a gravely voice, "Time to get aboard."

Hot Rod was so eager that he actually managed to beat Blurr inside. I hung back a bit more, looking doubtfully at the shuttle. *This* is supposed to protect me from a vacuum?

"Problem?" Kup asked, seeing that I hadn't followed the others.

"Uh, no," I said quickly. Can't be afraid. "I was just doing, uh, a visual flight check."

"Good thinkin'!" he said, clapping me on the back proudly. Whoa, brownie points for cowardice. "Good to see that somebody's been keepin' track of procedure."

"Thank you, sir," I mumbled, heading up the ramp and into the shuttle. According to the name stenciled beside the door, it was called the "Iacon's Victory". Just as long as it didn't turn into the "Whiz's Flaming Death"...

As I walked in, Hot Rod was checking out the control console, and Springer had already made himself comfortable in one of the chairs. Blurr was, well, everywhere. I moved to the side of the door and waited there as Kup entered and sealed the hatch behind him.

"Since you're at the controls, and Whiz here was the only one to remember to do our visual prelims, you can take us through the pre-flight verification procedure, Hot Rod," Kup declared, settling himself in the pilot's seat. "The rest of you, take yer seats an' watch the monitors, you'll need to follow along with this too."

"Engines are go, energon levels nominal, weapons systems online, flight pattern confirmed..." As Hot Rod went through the litany of checks and double-checks, I settled myself into a chair and took some comfort in the solid feel of the restaraining harness over my shoulders and lap. *People do this all of the time*, I reminded myself, *and they come back just fine. So relax.*

Of course, those people aren't going into space with Hot Rod at the controls...

"All systems check out, Kup. Awaiting orders to launch," Rod finished, actually managing to sound mature for once. My my, that's worth the price of admission right there. "So let's rock and roll!"

Maybe not.

"Rock and roll?" Springer asked dryly, echoing my thoughts. Kup just shook his head. "Let's run through the takeoff protocol. Springer, what's our first step?"

"Check that engines are in vertical takeoff position, then engage power and increase throttle until the critical threshold is reached," Springer replied, sounding bored.

"Blurr, next?" Kup barked.

His victim babbled something that had to do with releasing safety clamps and opening the engine vents. I didn't quite catch it; I was too focused on the upcoming takeoff and the fact that I was going to be called on next.

"Whiz?" I'd expected to hear it, but it still made me bolt in my chair. I think Kup noticed, because his face took on a hint of concern, but all he said was, "How do we control the ascent, Whiz?"

"Keep an optic on the altimeter at all times, adjusting the throttle as necessary to compensate for diminishing gravity, distance from the ground, and atmospheric conditions," I said, trying to capture some of Springer's nonchalance.

"Excellent. Hot Rod, you perform the takeoff. I've got my own set of controls, but I don't plan on needing 'em." Kup sat back in his chair and tried to look relaxed, but there was a tell-tale tightness around his optics and the corners of his mouth.

I heard the low moan of metal against metal as the jets maneuvered into position, then a whine of power as they began to charge for liftoff. "Takeoff in 3... 2... 1... vents open," Hot Rod reported.

The shuttle rose smoothly into the air for about twenty feet, then sputtered and crashed abruptly back to the ground with a loud *wham* that jolted us all hard. One of my hands covered my face and the other patted myself down as I counted all of my body parts.

"What was that?" Springer shouted.

Blurr whined. "OwwwwIFeelLikeMyLegsJustRammedUpThroughMyNeck."

"You have to keep watching the throttle, lad. You opened the jets without keeping up the thrust, an' you stalled," Kup explained quietly. "Now, try it again."

"Right," Hot Rod said, and I could hear the single-minded determination in his voice. "Preparing for liftoff."

This time we made it to orbit, though I won't lie and say it was a smooth trip. I was gripping the arm of my seat like it was the only thing keeping me alive, when Kup finally announced, "That's it. Good job, lad."

I released a deep sigh of relief. We'd made it. I was in space. Everything was fine. Same shuttle, same chair, same walls. I relaxed and let go of the chair. It's just like being in any other room; this one's just a shuttle.

Then I looked at the viewscreen. Stars. And in between them, a vast, inky blackness. Nothingness. I was floating in the middle of that emptiness, with nothing but these thin walls to protect me. I pressed back into my chair, tightening my arms around me and staring at the field of stars with wide optics.

Kup turned in his chair, though I barely noticed. "Let's see what..." he cut off his own words with a short gasp. He got up quickly and strode over to me, reaching to unfold my arms and release my harness.

"Huh?" Hot Rod asked, turning to look at me too. "Whiz, what's wrong?"

Kup knew right away what was going on, and he squatted down to eye-level, cutting off my view of the screen full of stars. "Is this your first time in a shuttle, lass?"

I nodded dumbly, finally regaining my focus on the real world.

"Hot Rod, over here. Springer, you watch the controls. Turn off the viewscreen and fly by the instruments, if you can. Blurr, you help him," Kup barked, and the three boys scurried to obey. Blurr and Springer took their positions at the front of the craft, while Hot Rod knelt at my side and looked at me in concern.

"I know how y'must feel," Kup said to me, "I've seen this before with other tunnel-fighters. Y'get so used to being closed in that y' can't take all this space."

"She's scared of space?" Hot Rod asked, disbelief in his voice.

"As scared as you'd be of a tunnel too small to stand up in," Kup said, a bit severely.

"Not scared," I said petulantly.

Kup chuckled indulgently. "You won't be the first or last to be afraid, m'girl. Most of the time, it's good for you. Keeps you outta trouble - and some 'bots I know could use more of that." He glanced at Hot Rod. "But sometimes it's just fear of the unknown. An' times like that, you gotta face it and beat it."

"Yeah, Whiz. If you get scared now, you'll miss the fun parts. Besides, there's nothing to be afraid of now that I'm not flying the shuttle anymore." Hot Rod grinned that infuriating grin of his again, and I couldn't help but smile.

"That's better," Kup said, his wrinkled face crumpling into a smile as well. "I know there's a lot of space out there, but the shuttle will protect us. And once you take a good look at it, you'll see that it's not all empty. There's galaxies an' nebulas an' planets out there. Why, I remember being out by the Antaxian Cluster one time..."

Hot Rod elbowed him. "Not now, Kup."

I chuckled, relaxing a little further. "Thanks guys. Sorry about... well..."

"No reason to be sorry. Do y'need to go back to Cybertron?" Kup asked.

The potential for disappointment on Hot Rod's face was too much. "No, I'll be fine. Just give me a minute."

Kup smiled as he straightened up. "All right then, take your time."

Mercifully, Hot Rod recognized that this was no time for teasing. "Yeah, we can handle it for now." When Kup turned around and walked back to Springer and Blurr, he smiled at me and asked quietly, "Why didn't you say something before?"

I shrugged a little, embarrassed. "Didn't want you to miss out on your lesson."

It was a lie and we both knew it, but he just patted me on the arm. "Sure. Thanks, Whiz."

A burst of rapid, angry-sounding words surprised both of us into looking at the command console. Blurr was halfway out of his chair, his hand a smudge of motion as he started lecturing Springer. "IToldYouNotToOpen UpTheThrottleLikeThatSpringerIToldYouWeShouldn'tTryToChangeOrbitsTillKupSaid SoAndYouDidn'tListenToMeYouSaidYouHadItAllUnderControlAndNowWe'reDriftingTo WhoKnowsWhereBecauseYouDecidedToIgnoreMeAndDoWhateverYouWantedAnd..."

"Maybe I ignored you because your chattering has blown my last patience circuit!" Springer interrupted, bursting out of his chair to loom over Blurr.

"Both of you, shut up!" Kup commanded, and they fell silent, still glaring at each other. "I don't care who caused what, I want a status report."

"We're heading off at a vector of two-five-niner from the galactic standard plane," Springer informed us, then faltered as he stared at the dial showing our speed. "That can't be right."

Kup glanced at the same instrument and hopped into the pilot's chair immediately. "I'll handle this. Everyone, back in your seats." His hands moved quickly over the controls, and we soon felt the jolt of the engines cutting off. A sickening reverse of our inertia followed, and my gyro-stabilizers quivered uncomfortably.

"What'd you do, leave the throttle on while you fought?" Hot Rod demanded, and our two companions were suddenly very interested in the floor.

"Thought I was turning it off," Springer mumbled.

Blurr rattled off smugly, "NeverShouldHaveTurnedItOnInTheFirstPlace."

Kup hit a few last switches and got up, staring us down sternly. "The computer will take a few minutes to recalibrate and determine our exact position. In the meantime, it's a chance to test yer navigation skills. We're in an unknown location, an' let's say the nav is down. What next? Whiz?"

"Find recognizable astronomical phenomena and use their placement and relative size to triangulate our position," I answered. Whew, I was getting the easy ones.

"And if the viewscreen is out? Blurr?" "WellIt'sOnlyOpaqueBecauseOfThePolaraizationLevelYouCanSee RightOutIt'sLikeAWindowAndThat'sWhyIt'sTheShuttle'sWeakestPoint!" he replied.

"Exactly." Kup put his hand over the control, then glanced at me to make sure I'd be okay. I nodded, and he dropped the polarization.

I gasped at the change. A pinkish-red cluster of stars hung before us like a gauzy curtain across half of the bow. Instead of being so painfully aware of empty space, it seemed like the sky was full of stars. Kup was right - this can be beautiful!

When I looked back at him, he was smiling at me. I realized that I must've looked silly, so I straightened up and tried to look serious again. But I couldn't help looking back at the screen, staring at the panorama.

"Or, we could look at that planet down there," Hot Rod said, pointing to the monitor that displayed our sensor readings.

"WhatPlanetIsItKupDoYouKnowHaveYouBeenHereBefore?" Blurr chipped in.

"Well, it's an Earth-like planet, but no answers to our hailing messages, and no indication of any technological activity. Probably no intelligent life," Kup explained.

"So, in other words, we're on our own," I grinned. Out of the corner of my optic, I caught... something.... on the screen. But when I focused on the spot, I couldn't see anything odd.

"That's the sum of it, lass." He chuckled. "The computer should finish calculatin' any time now..."

There it was again. A flash of black where there wasn't any before. As I concentrated, I could see it getting bigger. I reached for my seat strap and found it was sitll unbuckled, so I got to my feet and leaned forward for a better view.

"What is it?" Kup asked, breaking off.

"I think I see something. It's coming toward us," I said, walking up closer to point at the now-obvious black dot.

"What the...?" Kup slammed himself into the seat. He superimposed a few heads-up displays on the main picture, targeting the growing blackness, which was now showing the occasional dull glint of silver. "Incoming asteroid, closing in fast! Whiz, get down!"

I scrambled into the co-pilots chair and fumbled with the harness, trying to adjust it to my size before I really needed it.

"Targeting laser batteries, prepare for impact! Firing!" Kup roared, and twin beams of red light lanced through the darkness and struck the asteroid. Unfortunately, it just broke into a lot more asteroid pieces, and most of them continued on their way toward us. The shuttle spun abruptly as one of the wings was slammed by a fragment, and another jolt to the fuselage rocked us sideways. My harness was snapped open by the impact and I went sprawling out of the seat.

As I raised my spinning head, I realized that the viewscreen was glowing a hot and angry red. Kup had managed to get us straightened out, but we were still plummeting toward the surface of the planet.

"Whiz!" Hot Rod yelled, pulling at the buckle of his harness to come after me.

"Stay down!" Springer shouted at him, leaning over to hold him back.

Kup was pulling back hard on the control stick, and was just starting to get our nose up when a leafy green wall appeared in front of us.

*At least I wasn't flying it,* was the last thought that went through my mind before I was tossed into the air and the world shattered.

* * * * *

I awoke face down and half buried in a pile of broad, dry brown leaves. The realization that I was still alive was shortly followed by a sincere wish that I wasn't.

I raised my head out of the leaves and saw a scattering of shuttle wreckage, along with several good-sized pieces of viewscreen that glistened iridescently in the dawning light of an orange sun. So *that* was what had shattered. I rolled onto my back and stared upward as my systems performed a diagnostic. The trees were enormous, rising at least as high as Iacon's towers, with leafy crowns so thick that only a hazy green light could penetrate them. I was on the right side of a long, ugly barren swath that must have been gouged by our crashing shuttle. I hope the guys are all right, I thought hazily. Primus, I hope I'm all right.

System diagnostics came out fairly well, for the survivor of a major shuttle crash. My whole right side was dented, with some impact damage from going through the viewscreen. The radio receptors on the sides of my head were inoperative - the right one was sheared off, and the left was pointing backward at an odd angle. The rest of me was stiff, but functional - thankfully.

Now, on to the fun part. Bracing my hand against the wide trunk of one of the trees, I rose to my feet. The world spun in shades of grey and green for a bit, but I managed to keep my balance until my vision cleared. The tree's bark was oddly smooth, and peeled off in thick sheets, like heavy paper. It was pale greyish-white on the outside, and reddish where it faced the pale wood beneath. I tested a sliver of it with my finger and found it very resilient. Hmmm, could turn out to be useful.

"Guys?" I called, and the background noises of calling birds and rustling creatures faded. "Hot Rod? Kup?"

A low, pained groan answered me. I wasn't sure, but it seemed like it was coming from further along the path of torn trees.

"Hang on, I'm coming!" I shouted, limping as fast as I could in the direction of the voice. Another groan answered me, guiding me toward the source.

I skidded to a halt at the shore of a large lake, now littered with shards of metal. In the tall reeds at the water's edge, a rustling motion drew my optics to a tangle of red, orange, and yellow lying face-down among the plants. "Hot Rod, are you okay?"

He coughed weakly, trying to drag himself all the way out of the water with his hands, then giving up after a few feet. I rushed forward, my boots sinking up to the ankles in soft mud with each step. Grasping him under his arms, I locked my hands around his shoulders and pulled him forward onto more solid ground. "Oof... thanks," he said weakly.

"Quiet now. Don't strain yourself until I've had a chance to check you over," I said, quickly pulling a mediscanner from the compartment at my hip. The sleek little device fit in one hand, but was able to give me a full readout on his condition. What nice toys you have, Whiz... "Looks like you got lucky too - nothing too serious to patch up, though you've got a lot of misfiring motor circuits right now."

"I can feel every one of them," he muttered, trying to push himself out of the mud. Dark, brackish water spilled from his joints with every motion, and I frowned.

"I told you to lie still," I told him firmly. "I'll have you fixed up in a few minutes."

He grimaced at me. "We have to find the others."

I shook my head and rummaged for the few tools that I had with me. "We will. But you're in no condition to start searching, and besides, they're probably in better shape than we are. They kept their harnesses on, remember?" I popped open a few access panels in his armor, allowing him to drain his waterlogged circuits, and got to work stabilizing his motor systems.

"Probably right," he muttered, trying not to show his discomfort. "Silly me, getting up to help you."

I chuckled as I examined a blown fuse. "You do pick the most inconvenient times to play hero."

He twisted his head to regard the torn hole in the canopy. "I just hope they're okay."

"I'm sure they're fine." I removed a resistor-block and sent energon flowing back through his limbs. "Now, how's that feel?"

He wiggled his fingers experimentally. "Much better, considering you don't have any tools or spare parts."

I took that as approval and began sealing up his armor again. "I'm used to recycling and being creative, I guess."

He slowly rose to all fours, getting his head used to the altitude. I offered a hand and he used it to pull himself upright, then took a look around. "You may need that skill around here. C'mon, let's find the shuttle."

I just hoped the shuttle was still in one piece. Otherwise, I'd need a lot more than leaves, bark, and ingenuity to get us out of here.

Our progress was slow, due to my limping and Rod's overtaxed systems, and the longer we walked, the longer the path seemed.

"Are you sure this is the right way?" he whined.

It was the tenth time he'd asked. At *least*. "Of course I'm sure. All the branches were torn off by something BIG going this way."

He grumbled something under his breath, then picked up a leafy branch from the ground and looked at the snapped end. "If you say so."

"These trees are so strange," I remarked, staring upward at the crowns. "Just look at the size of those leaves - one of the big ones could cover my whole torso. And they're so *tall*..."

"Yeah," he said, suddenly looking uneasy. "And who knows what lives up there."

I chuckled. "Probably nothing. Kup said there were no signs of civilization down here."

He gazed around edgily. "Maybe so, but I feel like I'm being watched."

Just then, a creature leaped out in front of us from the shadows beside the path. It stood upright on two spindly legs, attached to a bulbous abdomen that was the bottom part of a three-segmented body. Two sets of arms waved from the broad top segment, and the whole thing was covered with hard, chitinous armor. A pair of bulging, multifaceted eyes stared at us from above powerful-looking mandibles, which clacked together as a guttural noise came from its mouth. It blended into the shadows with its black coloring and the mottled grey pattern on its back.

"Uh, we mean you no harm," Hot Rod said, slowly raising his empty hands in the air. I followed his lead, keeping my mouth shut.

The creature looked at us both, then made a series of harsh-sounding noises. Probably its language, but unfortunately for us, we weren't fluent in "Giant Alien Ant". It turned out that we didn't need to be, because the alien cleared up all confusion when it dropped suddenly to all six legs and lunged at Hot Rod with its mandibles.

"Run!" he shouted, but I didn't need the advice. I wobbled off after him, with the alien in pursuit.

"I can't believe we're running from a big bug," Hot Rod panted, looking back over his shoulder.

"Better than being bitten in half by one," I huffed in response.

He growled, pushing himself to run harder. "I wish there was enough room between these stupid trees to drive. Then I'd show him."

"Him and his friends. On Earth, ants seldom act alone."

"Great," he groaned. "All the more reason to find a good spot for a fight, then. We've outrun it for now, but it knows the terrain, and we're both hurt. We can't keep this up."

I looked anxiously around me, and as my optics passed over a staggeringly huge tree, I spied exactly what we were looking for. "Better idea. We hide in there." I grabbed his elbow to make him follow me, then veered toward the tree's base and showed him the small hollow I had spotted.

"Are you kidding? We'll never fit in there," he protested.

"Yes we will. It'll be tight, but you'll live. No time to argue, just get inside," I urged, looking around on the ground for a good branch. As Hot Rod squeezed inside, I picked up the end of a tree limb that still had a cluster of drying leaves attached, then dragged it across our tracks. Finally, I ducked into the hollow, propping the branch across the entrance as a screen.

"At least we could've fought back if we were outside," Hot Rod grumped. His voice echoed eerily in the hollow as he waited in the dim light. I didn't see his problem - there was plenty of room in here. We could stand all the way up, and didn't even have to touch if we pressed against the bark.

"This way we force them to come to us on our terms. We can't get overpowered by numbers when that's the only way in," I whispered. "Now try to keep quiet, and stay out of the light as well as you can."

"Hiding in a tree," he grumbled under his breath, "Fleeing giant bugs."

"Shh!" I warned. No way to tell how close the ant-thing had gotten by now.

He finally took my advice, and for a while we were silent. Dust motes danced through the air, turning the light from the opening into a clearly-defined beam, and other noises crept in to fill the void. Soon our audio was filled with the sounds of the breeze whistling through the hollow, and the creaking of the tree as it moved in the wind.

I guess it was too much for Rod. "Is... is the tree moving or something?" he demanded irritably.

"No," I told him bluntly, peering at him curiously.

"Sounds like it. Feels like it too - getting smaller in here." He folded his arms over his chest and looked furtively from side to side.

"What're you talking about?" I snapped. Why couldn't he just settle down?

"I'm talking about getting out of this stupid tree," he snapped, summoning his twin grey guns from subspace. "At least I can fight back against that ant."

I snorted. "Keep your terrorist impulses in check, will you? You sound like me on the ship."

His response was a little too quick. "I'm not afraid."

I thought back to the first time I'd gone on one of the Femmes' tunneling missions, trapped in a shaft so small we had to crawl on our hands and knees. There was a point where I just stopped, shivering, unable to go any further in the darkness. It was too much to take alone - Moonracer finally had to talk me through it, guiding me along.

"It's going to be okay, Hot Rod," I said quietly, "I know how much you hate to sit still, but just calm down."

"You *bet* I hate to sit still," he grumbled petulantly.

I grinned, unsure if he could see it in the dim light. "Just relax. They won't find us in here, and the tree hasn't grown this tall by collapsing every time someone tried to hide inside, okay?" Despite my concerns about being seen, I reached my hand over to lay it reassuringly on his shoulder.

He frowned, but seemed to lose some of his rigid tension. "I guess so," he said reluctantly.

"Trust me."

He chuckled then, which I took as a good sign. "I thought you were trying to make me feel *better*."

"See if I try to help you again, ingrate," I grouched.

We both grinned at each other, then went back to being silent. This time, though, it was more comfortable, and my companion didn't fidget *too* much. Finally, after about an hour, I crept up to the entrance and peered out. I couldn't see anything suspicious, so I poked my head and shoulders through to look around.

Hot Rod bumped up against me from behind, startling me so much that I banged my back up against the tree. He didn't seem to notice; just hissed, "C'mon, quit blocking the door."

I shook my head at his impatience, but clambered through into the sunshine anyway. Hot Rod followed me quickly, then stood and stretched his arms, visibly relieved. "Any sign of the bug?" he hissed.

"Nothing I can see," I replied, "but we probably ought to keep in the trees instead of making ourselves a nice target in that cleared area."

"Brilliant minds think alike," he grinned, starting off at an angle toward where the shuttle should be. I scrambled to catch up, then ambled along behind as he blazed the trail. Fortunately, the dim light kept the undergrowth sparse, and we made out way to the shuttle without much difficulty. We also managed to avoid any lurking bugs, giant or otherwise. In a way, that made me nervous - if they were so interested in us, they must be interested in the shuttle too, right? Unless they already got what they wanted from the crash...

Suddenly I was halted by Hot Rod's restraining hand on my arm. "Wait. There it is," he whispered, pointing ahead. He then pulled me gently behind a tree trunk. "I don't like it. It's too quiet."

I nodded and replied in a hushed voice, "That's what I was thinking."

We waited behind the tree, peeking at the shuttle and searching for any sign of movement. Nothing. I used the chance to study the ship. It was pretty bruised, but none of the damage looked impossible to fix. If there were more tools on board, I could probably get it flying again and we could all say goodbye to the marauding insects.

"Hm. Don't think we'll see anything more from here. Better take our chances and check it out," Hot Rod said.

"I'll go first," I told him. He looked at me with a startled expression, and I gestured to my green and grey frame. "My camouflage is just a *bit* better than yours."

He folded his arms over his chest. "Yeah, yeah. Someday we'll crash on a red and yellow planet, and you'll regret that remark."

I snickered, then bent low to the ground and cautiously made my way to the shuttle as fast as I dared. Once I'd reached its side, I flattened my back against the hull and sidestepped to the entry hatch. It was open. I frowned and craned my neck to view the inside. Since I was aft of the hatch, I got a good view of the control panels at the front of the craft. A metal protective shield had slammed down over the broken viewscreen, and a few of the lights on the consoles were blinking red, but there was no sign of Kup, Springer, or Blurr.

Bad news.

I turned and waved Hot Rod forward. I couldn't keep back a giggle as he crept forward under the shade of a large leaf, looking kind of like a turtle with a very thin shell. Once he'd caught up to me, he grinned. "Ha. I have camouflage too."

"Well," I whispered, "I hope you have our crew in your pocket too, because I don't see them."

His face turned grim. "Great."

Just then, a tumble and crash from inside the shuttle snapped us both to attention. I raised the railgun from my wrist and primed the mechanism as Hot Rod warmed up the charge in his forearm blasters.

"This time, I go first," he said in a low voice. I nodded in reply, and he moved in front of the door. "Ready?"

Good thing I was, because he didn't wait for my answer. Instead, he leaped into the doorway, targeting the aft section of the ship. I jumped in behind him, ready to fire, then lowered my gun with relief. "Springer?"

He was sitting on the floor, one leg folded underneath him awkwardly, with his gun aimed directly at Hot Rod's face. As he recognized who we were, he lowered it again with a sigh. "Thank the Matrix, it's you guys."

I scanned the area around him and noticed that Springer had gotten out one of the emergency repair kits, and in the process knocked over a few more boxes of supplies. Probably the crash we'd heard earlier. When I looked back at Springer, I saw that one of his hands was pressed against his folded leg, and energon was oozing out between his fingers. "Let me take a look at that leg," I offered, moving over to sit down in front of him.

"Thanks," he said gruffly, casting a grouchy look at the box of tools beside us. "They should put instructions on this stuff."

I chuckled and withdrew a few of the things I needed, then gently moved his hand aside. A ragged slash went almost from knee to foot on the inside of his right leg, exposing circuitry and severing one of his minor energon distribution tubes. A few sparks, a lot of pain.

"What happened in here? Where's Kup and Blurr?" Hot Rod asked, inspecting an overturned chair.

Springer winced as I got to work. "You guys met the local wildlife yet?"

"Yeah," Hot Rod replied. "You mean the giant bugs, right?"

I nodded as I patched up the distribution tube. Ahhh, duct tape, a girl's best friend. "We ran into one on our way here."

"Well, you're lucky you got away from it. At least ten of them stormed in here after the crash, shouting something in that weird language of theirs. We tried to fight 'em off, but that armor of theirs is tough. They grabbed Kup and Blurr, and Kup yelled at me to get outside and see if I could fly away from 'em and find you guys." He gestured to his leg. "I got away, but they gave me *this* while I was running out the door."

"Slag," Hot Rod growled.

I looked up from soldering the gash in Springer's leg. "But where did they take Kup and Blurr? We've seen the forest floor, and it's empty. There's no sign of anything living there."

"That's because they don't live on the ground. They marched right up into the trees - there's a set of stairs going around a tree not far from here," Springer explained.

"Double-slag," Hot Rod growled again.

I tapped gently on the surface of the newly repaired armor. "Test that out."

Springer got to his feet, putting his weight on that leg tentatively at first, then standing solidly. He grinned and offered me a hand up. "Thanks, Whiz."

"Anytime," I smiled. "Besides, I'll need both of you in good shape to help me put this shuttle back together."

"But we have to go get Kup and Blurr!" Hot Rod protested, looking ready to charge into battle right then and there.

"And how are we going to escape once we have them, o great tactical genius?" I demanded.

"Well... ah..." he looked around at the ship.

Springer chuckled. "She's right. We'll have to be ready to get outta here as soon as we get 'em back."

Hot Rod frowned in frustration. "But I don't want to leave them with those big bugs any longer than we have to. Whiz, can't you fix this thing up while we go get them?"

"Oh, sure. Fix the ship, then run off and rescue all *four* of you because you ran off without me," I said sarcastically.

This time, Springer laughed out loud, clapping me on the shoulder. "Rod, let's just do what she wants, before she hurts us."

I grinned. "Yeah, don't make me get rough."

"Besides, it makes sense to stick together. We'll get this work done faster, and we won't lose anybody. If these bugs had wanted to hurt Kup and Blurr, they could've done it here instead of taking them captive," Springer explained.

Hot Rod grumbled, but he was outvoted. "All right then, let's at least get started."

I got to work on the delicate circuitry of the control panels, trying to get some of the blinking red 'alert' lights to turn off. Not too sure of their technical skills, I set the boys loose to repair the external damage and clear the leaves out of the engines. Occasionally I could hear their laughter outside as they teased each other, but I was too absorbed in my work to go find out what was up. As long as they didn't break anything *more*...

As I was replacing one of the panels on the console, they sauntered back in. "All fixed up," Springer reported, exchanging a look of manly triumph with his compatriot.

"Yeah, you almost done?" Hot Rod demanded, flopping into a chair. Unfortunately for him, it was the broken one, and it fell right over, taking him with it. "Oof!"

"I will be, by the time you fix that chair," I replied dryly.

"But I already did!" he protested. Oh great. *This* is what I can expect from their repairs?

Springer chuckled. "So do it *right* this time."

Hot Rod grouched some more about faulty parts, but he went to work. True to my promise, I was finished at about the same time, and we all sat down to puzzle out a strategy.

"Look, we know those big creepy-crawlies have Kup and Blurr somewhere in those trees. Somehow we've got to get up there and get them back down, without running into more of the ants," Springer pointed out.

"How much weight can you carry at once, Springer?" I mused.

"Going up? Maybe one of you. Both of you on the way down, no problem," he replied.

"We can't go up that way anyway - they'd hear your rotors and be ready for us," Hot Rod observed. "We'll have to take the stairs."

I shook my head. "No way. First of all, taking the stairs is a great way to get caught. Plus, we have to keep them open when we want to leave - Springer can only carry two of us down, and Kup and Blurr might need that help."

"So what am I supposed to do - grow wings and fly?" he demanded.

"Nope," I grinned, pointing at the tree trunk. "But close."

* * * * *

"I feel ridiculous."

I snickered. "Shut up and keep climbing."

"Yeah, Hot Rod," Springer chimed in. "You look great in bark."

Hot Rod shook his head and raised his hand to climb higher. I noticed he wasn't mocking my other improvisation - I'd managed to use some shards of the broken viewscreen to add hooks to our fingers for easier climbing. "I don't see why I have to wear this getup."

The 'getup' he was referring to was strapped to his spoiler. Using strips of bark, some branches, and the rest of the emergency tape, I'd rigged up two hangliders and fixed one to my back, and one to his.

"Because, if you fall, you'll be glad to have the brake," I told him, sinking my hand spikes into the soft wood of the trunk and pulling myself higher.

"Better that brake than the other kind," Springer agreed.

"Easy for you to say," Hot Rod grouched, shrugging his shoulders irritably and flapping the hanglider like awkward wings. "You don't have to wear one."

I sighed and looked up. The floor of the ants' treehouse wasn't far above us now. As we'd climbed, it had become apparent that it stretched across multiple trees, with a few large platforms connected by broad bridges. We'd already had to use a branch to switch trees, so we could come up on the edge of one of the platforms. "At least we're almost there," I told him.

"Good," Springer grunted, moving upward. "Let's get Kup and Blurr and get away from this fragging planet."

When we finally reached our destination, we each pulled our heads over the edge of the living platform and took a peek. More ants, of all sizes, were milling around, traveling between crude structures made of wood and earth. It looked like an ordinary neighborhood, except for the creepy neighbors...

"Look," Hot Rod said, pointing. "That's the only hut with guards. It must be where they're keeping Kup and Blurr."

He was right - two of the bugs were stationed outside the door of a very sturdily built structure. Probably some kind of jail. It was on a different platform, though, and we'd have to cross one of those vine bridges. "How'll we get there without them spotting us?" I asked.

"We could climb down and switch to that tree," Springer said doubtfully.

"No *way*," Hot Rod said flatly. "I am *done* climbing."

"Well, you have a better idea?" Springer asked irritably.

Hot Rod smirked. Uh-oh. "As a matter of fact, yeah." He pulled himself all the way onto the platform and crouched there as he pulled the spikes from his hands. "We create a diversion."

"What...?" I started to ask, then saw him begin folding into his auto mode, hanglider and all. "Wait..."

"Get Kup and Blurr!" he shouted, turning on his high beams and shifting into gear.

Springer hastily pulled himself up onto the platform as Hot Rod peeled out and started driving around the place like a maniac, drawing the attention of all the ant-creatures quite nicely. Half of them ran from him in a panic, and the other half started chasing him, their huge mandibles snapping on air as he sped through their ranks.

I dragged myself up as Springer took off for the jail. I sighed in exasperation and yelled a warning, "You still have the glider on your spoiler!"

"Huh... ack!" Hot Rod yelled as the speed and his new airfoil combined to lift his wheels off of the platform for a few inches at a time and then drop him back down again with a thump.

Drawn by my shouts, a cluster of the bugs were approaching me, their claws snapping with obvious hostility. Over their shoulders, I could see Springer bashing together the heads of the two guards and wrenching open the jail door. "Keep being a diversion!" I yelled, running along the edge of the platform to escape the gutturally chattering ants.

"I'm... working on it!" Hot Rod yelled unsteadily, the roaring of his engine punctuated by squealing tires as he bumped up and down over the surface.

Then I heard a loud yell of, "Got 'em!" from Springer, quickly followed by the beating of his rotor blades in helicopter form.

"Get... to the... stairs!" Hot Rod yelped, then growled, "Aw, slaggit," and transformed back into robot mode to dash for the exit. I sprinted right behind him, barely ahead of the surging mob of howling bugs.

"Run, run, run!" I urged, hearing the snapping of pincers just a *wee* bit closer than I'd like.

"I'm running!" he shouted back, stumbling a little in his haste. Ahead of us, the stairs just continued to wind around and around the trunk of the tree.

We'll never make it this way... "Scratch that idea, then!" I shouted, with a silent hope that this would work, and that he'd forgive me for it later. "FLY!" I yelled, shoving hard against him and knocking him off of the stairs and into the air.

"WHIZ!" he screamed accusingly, flailing his arms in panic as I took a deep breath and leaped off after him.

There was a sickening moment of weightlessness when I was sure that I'd just made the biggest mistake of my soon-to-be-short life, but then the wind caught under the glider and buoyed me up, slowing my descent to something more reasonable. I got a feel for the air currents and then aimed downward to fly a lazy circle around Hot Rod, who was still shaking.

"I'm gonna kill you!" he howled, clutching the struts of the glider for dear life. "How could you push me?"

I chuckled, "Would you have jumped?"

He looked at me as if I were insane. "No!"

"See? That's why I pushed. Now, let's catch up with Springer." I could feel his gaze drilling into my back as I wheeled the glider around and aimed for the shuttle, leaving the ants to take the stairs.

I was first to swoop in behind the shuttle, bracing my knees to run along the ground as soon as I hit. I turned around to check on my partner's progress as I tore away my glider, and was just in time to see a flailing red shape come out of the trees. I caught one look at his already running-in-air legs and turned to flee, but I was too late. With a yell of "Look out!", a crash, and a loud snapping of glider twigs, Hot Rod careened into me and sent both of us tumbling along the ground.

I groaned. "Smooth... flying."

"Landing... needs work," he replied weakly.

Springer's shout from the shuttle got our bruised bodies in motion again. "Quit fooling around! Get on board so we can get outta here!"

"Nobody wants that more than me," Hot Rod grumbled as he clambered to his feet and pulled off the remains of the glider. "If we stay here much longer, your bright ideas are going to kill me."

I got up with an exasperated sigh. "We wouldn't be so hurt if you hadn't crashed into me."

"How was I supposed to *steer* that thing?" he demanded.

"Argh! Nevermind, let's just get *going*," I said, then ran for the shuttle with him close behind me.

When we got back on board, Kup and Blurr were already in the passenger seats, leaning back in exhaustion. "Good work, you three," Kup rasped. He and Blurr both looked scraped, dented, and generally worse for wear, but they didn't seem to be losing any energon, and at least they were alert.

Hot Rod pulled the heavy door shut and struck a nonchalant pose. "Could you expect anything less?"

"OOooOOoo," Blurr whined woozily. "Can'tWeJustTakeOffNowAndBragLater INeverWantToSeeAnotherTreeOrBugOrLeafOrAntEverAgainAndIfIEverDoIt'llBe TooSoon!"

"Can't argue with that," Springer nodded. "And according to the sensors, we'd better hurry - our hosts are on the way."

Kup coughed. "Chiteki. I recognized 'em when they grabbed us. Haven't seen 'em before now, but I've heard stories. Every once in a while, somebody gets the big idea to try to cut down these forests. They never get far, 'cause the Chiteki penalty for killing a tree is death. That's probably why they grabbed us from the crash."

"I'm all for protecting the environment, but right now I'd rather protect my own aft, thanks," Springer replied dryly.

Hot Rod snickered. "Well said."

"Whiz," Kup said hoarsely, "If this bucket of bolts is ready to fly, it's your turn at the controls."

"But..." I protested, looking at the pilot's chair warily.

"Don't argue, just do it," Hot Rod said, steering me over by the shoulders.

"Wha...?" I asked, vaguely trying to shrug him off.

He plopped me down in the chair and then installed himself in the copilot's seat. As I checked and double-checked my safety harness, he looked over and grinned. "You made me fly - now I make *you* fly."

Very considerate of him. I ran through the pre-flight check as fast as I could, but I was so self-conscious of every move that I ended up doing some tasks more than once. "Systems are nominal - preparing thrusters for liftoff," I reported.

"Fine, fine!" Springer said, "Just get us off of this dirtball!"

With a blast of power and a lurch that left my gyros trembling, I wrenched back on the throttle and sent us blasting back into space. Sorry to bother you, buggies, but we're taking our leave - the place is all yours now.

Then, from the copilot's chair, came something I really didn't want to hear. "Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh what?" I asked, undertones of panic creeping into my voice.

"Remember that asteroid that hit us before?" Hot Rod asked.

Springer snorted. "How could we forget?"

"Well," Hot Rod informed us, pointing at the sensor screen, "I think it brought some of its friends to the party!"

Why me, why me, whymewhymewhyme? I glared at the red clusters on the monitor, daring them to really be there, but they didn't disappear. I grasped the control stick tighter. "Uh... hang on tight!"

"Are you sure you can handle... *whoa*!" my co-pilot shouted, getting thrown back in his seat as I jerked the shuttle upward to dodge a hurtling chunk of rock.

It's just like the video game, I told myself, keeping my optics riveted on the screen. Turn the rest of it off. You, the joystick, and the game. That's all.

Except for the unpleasant shifts between weightlessness and g-forces, and the occasional shout from the others, and the fact that *this* game has no extra lives... Nevermind that now. Just focus - and keep flying.

Finally, after what felt like a lifetime, the screen ahead of me cleared. I half expected to see words on the screen offering me a bonus round, until I finally brought myself to my senses and straightened out the shuttle.

"I'm... I'mGonnaBeSickIKnowIt," Blurr said queasily.

"Where..." Kup gasped, then pulled himself upright in his chair with a shake of his head. "Where did y'learn to pilot a shuttle like that, lass?"

"Like what?" I asked weakly.

Hot Rod looked at me in disbelief. "Like a crazed lunatic, that's what!"

"People on Earth pay money for rides like that," I argued half-heartedly.

Springer oofed. "I'll pay to make the spinning stop."

"Hey!" I protested, "I got us here in one piece, didn't I?"

"That's debatable," Hot Rod said dryly.

Springer chuckled. "Don't antagonize her. She's still at the wheel."

Blurr looked around at us all and announced, "PleasePleasePleaseI JustWantToGoHomeIDon'tWantToBeAPilotAnymore."

"Lay in a course," Kup said, sounding a bit anxious to be back on solid ground again himself. "Get us back to Cybertron. And... Hot Rod?"

He turned in his seat. "Yeah, Kup?"

"You fly."

On the way home, I had plenty of time to sit and steam over being replaced by Hot Rod, but the final insult came once we had achieved orbit around Cybertron.

"Blurr," Kup said, sounding much steadier now, "I want you to take Whiz's place at the controls. You'll be bringing us in for a landing."

Hot Rod and I protested with one voice, "But...!"

"Enough. This is Blurr's training flight too. You kids stand aside," Kup said severely.

Doubtfully, I removed my harness. Somehow, Blurr was into the chair before I even realized I was out of it. With one last look back at the console, I turned and strapped myself into one of the passenger seats. "I'mAllReadyKupIDidThisLotsOfTimesOnTheSimulatorAndIWasEvenGettingIt RightAfterAWhile!" Blurr told us cheerfully as his hands closed over the controls.

Even getting it... uh oh. I checked my harness again, then looked over at Kup, who was trying not to seem as anxious as I was. And they thought *my* ride was bumpy...

"ChangingCourseNextStopIaconSpaceportSoFastenYourSeatbeltsWe'reGoing InForALanding!" Blurr told us, then tilted the nose down and fired the thrusters to bring us out of orbit.

Of course, he probably wasn't supposed to have fired the *main* thrusters...

"OhNoOhNoOhNoWhat'dIDoWrongWe'reNotSupposedToBeGoingDownThis Fast!" Blurr complained, dropping the controls in his panic.

I hid my face in my hands. Of course, it only makes sense that we'd survive all this, just to crash and burn right back where we started from.

"Blurr, take the controls again! Straighten out our approach vector!" Kup shouted from his seat.

Blurr babbled something so fast it was completely unintelligible, but he listened to orders and grabbed the guidance stick again, yanking back hard to flatten out our base and get us into something approaching landing position.

"I'm firing the reverse thrusters!" Hot Rod added, punching some of the buttons in front of him on the console.

The shuttle shuddered from the opposing forces of momentum and brakes, and the floor under our feet heated up uncomfortably as we ripped through Cybertron's thin atmosphere. The ground was still coming up to meet us at an alarming rate, so I hardly needed Kup's shout to "Assume crash positions!" to know what was coming next. Everything seemed to slow down as we plunged into the tarmac, ensuring that I heard and felt every moment of the crash: our landing gear snapping and being crushed, the scraping of our hull against the ground, and the jarring feeling as our nose hit the wall of the hangar and tore right though.

Finally, everything was still. Nobody said a word, we just looked around at each other, then silently rose from our seats and filed out of the door. As Kup closed the hatch behind him, the right wing finally snapped off and crashed to the ground, but none of us even jumped at the sound. We all lined up before the shuttle as if we were at attention, staring at it in disbelief. By some bizarre twist of fate, it was centered perfectly in its berth, as if it had been expertly parked.

Kup approached us slowly, looking at each of our faces in turn, and then gazed at the ground. He shook his head there for a minute before asking, "Well... what can I say?"

I exchanged looks with Hot Rod, who looked at Springer, who looked at Blurr. This was it, we were doomed.

Suddenly, Kup began to chuckle heartily, his optics sparkling with mischief as he raised his head. "Hell of a lesson, kids. You all pass."

I stared at him in disbelief, sure that I had heard him wrong. Without another word of explanation, he turned and began to leave the hangar through the jagged new exit we'd just ripped in the side. Just as he started to move out of our sight, he turned back to regard us all again. "But if you ever, *ever* ask me to fly with you again...." he trailed off, his face suddenly losing its amusement. "I'd rather you killed me right away and spared me the agony."

And with that, he walked away, leaving four brand new, and completely stunned, pilots behind him.

"See guys?" Hot Rod grinned smugly, "I told you it'd be fun."

[The End]

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