The Transformers explore new worlds and lives from the comfort of home

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The Transformers explore new worlds and lives from the comfort of home

Postby snavej » Wed May 09, 2018 12:42 pm

Intrepid Recliners
(c) John H. Evans, March-May 2018

The firm, heavy skin clumps of her upper whippicle hit him hard on the right side of his senso-cluster. He’d felt her approach from behind and had done nothing to protect himself. Normally, when under attack, he would have adopted a defensive stance and put up his grasp-armatures. In this situation, however, that was unwise. Her right impeller slammed into his right fore-clutchers, driving them against his torso and winding him on that side.

“I’ve met you sixteen times on the plain, cross-stripe,” she said loudly, her food-grinder plates occasionally clacking. “You only showed interest thirteen times and even then it was modest at best. You’re only one step up from a lump of stone, aren’t you?” As he turned to face her, she hit him hard in the back with her left impeller, making him gasp and stagger forward. He tripped on a tussock and fell on his front. She used both of her lower whippicles to strike his left upper-clutchers. It was painful but not unbearable. In fact, it was quite titillating. He watched as she walked away. She was rearranging her limbs as she went, which meant that soon she would start rolling downhill toward the deep-drops. Time was short. The seventeen kinds of dipervators had inevitably seen her display and were converging on her at speed. He had to pursue or else her genes would be diperved from the true path and into the morass of random, weak, distasteful mutation. He hated the thought of her children converted into dark-hearted sheverons or spindly bone-corruptors.

[He found all this so wearisome and antipathetic; it sickened him but he was long accustomed to the exercise. If he followed his instincts, it would be over quicker and easier. He had to be involved to a certain extent but at the same time detached.]

Her mild acids fizzed on his skin as he rose and watched her canter briskly to the start of the deep-drop slopes. The acids weren’t significantly damaging but acted as a stimulant, as did her rich and varied scents. He shook himself and breathed deeply, then set off in pursuit. She flicked her eye-stalks back for a second to check on him. She was relieved that he was coming. She had had some exasperating encounters recently with males who were not quite ready for her. They had either declined to chase her or had given up early on. Afterwards, she had had to fight off the dipervators by herself. It had been bruising and nerve-wracking. She had worried that there was something wrong with her. Perhaps she had been too young for them, by a margin of a few months, weeks or even days. Anyway, that was in the past. This ‘cross-stripe’ was gaining on her, neither too slowly nor too quickly. Despite (or because of) her blows and taunts, he was coming forward at the right speed, with a constant rhythm. At the sight of him, she could feel her body preparing itself. It felt increasingly right; sublime, in fact.

“You run like hardened mucus in a dead jar!” she yelled at him. “Buried rinaglymps are faster than you!” Obligingly, he picked up the pace by about ten percent. He’d never learnt her true name. He’d always known her as ‘the one with the ruffled upper cob-comb’ or ‘Towtrucc’ for short. Despite what she’d said a minute ago, she’d always caught his eye (and nose). It was only today that she’d shown him that she was ready. Meanwhile, at least six different dipervators were approaching: some in the air and others on the ground. The slope under her feet increased its gradient to five degrees from the horizontal. It was time for her to start rolling. She leapt into the air for a second, pulled all her limbs and stalks closely against her body and hit the ground as an oval trundler. Luckily, there weren’t too many bumps in the ground, so she barrelled along fairly quickly. The downhill slope continued to steepen so, although she couldn’t see right now, she knew that the nearest deep-drop was close.

[She didn’t know his real name. They weren’t acquainted. She was just behaving like a normal female of this species, judging males quickly by sight, hearing and scent. It wasn’t surprising. There was little point in further courtship since they would never have a life together. For his part, he didn’t care much about his real name either. ‘Cross-stripe’ would do for now.]

His body was fit and strong. His mood was stable, even relaxed. His eyes were on the prize, as was right. He was fairly sure that he could catch her before she fell. Even if he failed, it would only be a setback. She would plummet many kilometres, her body smashing into countless fragments at the bottom, yet many of those would survive. They would become little clones of Towtrucc and some would eventually climb back to the surface. They would simply delay their normal reproduction. He might even be able to facilitate that, if he lived long enough. However, it was preferable to do it now, while he was still young. At that moment, he felt hard claws scrape his back. An avian dipervator was attacking.

“She’s mine!” said the winjector, who circled around swiftly and came back toward cross-stripe.

“Not a chance!” said cross-stripe, picking up some stones with his fore-clutchers and flicking them at the winjector. The flying dipervator was hit by three stones in the left wing, causing him to lose lift and thus forcing him to crash-land. Cross-stripe pressed on without pause. The winjector tried to fly again but his wing was damaged enough to prevent it. He had to continue on foot. He was already being overtaken by other species of dipervator. Ahead, they could see that Towtrucc was starting to bleed a little. Her normally tough skin was rapidly breaking down. She was ripe for the taking. Cross-stripe and his genetic enemies raced on.

About two hundred metres from the edge of the deep-drop, cross-stripe finally caught up with her. He extended his grasp-armatures and caused her to spin off diagonally to the side, leaving a trail of blood in the sand. He brought her to a halt expertly, still at a safe distance from the precipice. He’d done this several times before, with other females. The first dipervators were moments away, so he lay on her, used all his limbs to hold her and penetrated her ragged skin with his hundred and twelve special inseminator blooms. He squeezed hard and Towtrucc could feel his genetic material flooding into her from all angles: top, bottom, left, right, front and back.

“Thank you!” she whispered as her body fell apart into a mass of newborn protoplasm. She knew no more but, at the end, she saw that her line would continue and flourish. Cross-stripe was left coated in lumps of her offspring, with more gathered in a large pool around him. Her body had been converted into thousands of their children. He stood up slowly. The sudden act of procreation had made him weak and dizzy. Three dipervators arrived. One was so angry to lose the race that he hit cross-stripe and knocked him down. That was a mistake. He had touched the embryonic protoplasm and activated its natural defence mechanisms. His claw-hand started to dissolve almost immediately. He howled and ran away. The other dipervators avoided him and backed away from the scene. They had failed. They couldn’t take over Towtrucc’s body with their own seed since cross-stripe had beaten them to it. Cross-stripe waved a grasp-armature at them. It was coated with infant protoplasm, which was lethal to them. They retreated hastily and didn’t return. They would have to try again elsewhere.

Cross-stripe watched as his tough, gelatinous babies began to crawl around and look for food. There was plenty of vegetation here, which they soon began to nibble on. In time, they would grow and graduate to eating small animals and then larger animals. Later, when they were mature enough, they would find their way to settlements and rejoin civilisation. Instinctively, he was very satisfied. He sat where he was for a while, eating plants to restore his strength. In time, he would make his way home, spreading some babies across the land as he went. (He didn’t have to worry about their welfare: they had no predators or parasites.) Today had been a fabulous day.

[Except it was wrong. This wasn’t what he was really like. He wished that he didn’t have to go through things like this. He wasn’t cut out for organic life. He was a mechanoid. He disengaged from the scenario and moved onto other tasks.]

* * * * *

On another world, conditions were even more primitive. No one had names here. Intelligence was very rudimentary indeed. He was known as ‘the clever one’ and revered as such. Today, a herd of dahkribes had wandered into the clan’s territory. The people of the clan were communicating with each other through body language, eye contact, scent, touch and quiet, wordless vocalisation. They had determined which dahkribes were the best prey and now they were assessing the order of fitness in their ranks. Only the fastest, most agile ones could chase the beasts through the scrub. Only the strongest ones could ambush the targets. The rest would back them up. Some of the regular hunters were tired, injured or sick. However, there were others who could take their places. It didn’t take long to finish organising the hunting party. One question remained: would the clever one participate? He hadn’t communicated much with anyone today. Some of the higher-ranking people looked at him and grunted, prompting him to reveal his intentions.

The clever one awoke from his reverie, gazed at his fellow clan members steadfastly and then went to the edge of the slope. He looked out from the clan’s hilltop camp. The dahkribes were grazing on the plain and lower parts of the hill. The other people started to gather around him. He was acting differently today. He might have a new plan. They were very interested. He spotted a large dahkribe about three hundred metres away and pointed at it for a second. Everyone watched. A few moments later, the animal stopped chewing, stood still and then collapsed. The sound of the heavy, falling body crushing some small bushes made the other dahkribes trot away in alarm. The clan gasped and were silent. They stared at the fallen dahkribe and then at the clever one. This event seemed to be some kind of miracle. The clever one was, apparently, much more formidable than they had known before. They were stunned and didn’t know what to do next. The clever one pointed at the dahkribe and barked at his fellows, urging them to take the kill. They were reluctant because they were frightened but, moments later, the emptiness of their bellies reminded them of their need to feed. They walked down the hill in reverential silence and began to butcher the hapless creature, which had been dispatched by magical means. The flesh smelt normal and the blood tasted as intoxicating as usual. Soon they were reassured and started to eat in their habitual manner. Meanwhile, the clever one went back to his sleeping patch. He sat down and focused his thoughts on a completely different goal. Some of the weaker people and the juveniles gathered around to watch him.

At first, he simply sat. After a few minutes, though, they saw shiny bugs crawling through his feathers. Was he infested, they wondered? None of them had seen the like before. Gradually, his feathers fell out and started to litter the ground around him. The spectators could see that he was changing from a regular person to something quite different, covered with increasing numbers of little glitzy objects. They should have been scared but they could feel a new sense of reassurance emanating from the clever one. It was a marvellous feeling. There was also a sense that a world of new possibilities was opening up. Everyone was happy and did whatever they wanted to enjoy themselves. The clever one was clearly their greatest ever leader. He would soon help them to build a new utopia. The clever one also felt good. He had had enough of living in undeveloped squalor. He was going to cyberform this world and make it fit for his kind. The locals would be converted into superior beings like him. It had to be good for the entire galactic region!

* * * * *

Later, elsewhere, Jephela fumbled in the sand at the bottom of the very shallow water. She wasn’t on top form today. Many of the prey creatures were escaping before she could grab them. The bucket bag dangling from her back wasn’t as full as she’d like. There was plenty of food around; it was just a matter of catching it. She looked ahead and was glad that she was slow. On the left and right were eshcranies with long, mildly poisonous spines. She turned around and walked twenty metres in the opposite direction. There were no eshcranies here. Once again, she stretched out her long arms and gently dredged the fertile sands. A clutch of tasty kleyes were soon in her bucket bag. She continued the daily search, concentrating on extracting sufficient nourishment from this shore plot. She was so intent on her harvest that she didn’t see her friend approaching until she was fifty metres away.

“Slow down, you’ll disturb the food!” warned Jephela, glancing at her friend Shoffounis.

“You’re slipping,” commented Shoffounis. “You missed three big flatty ramblers over here.” She reached into the water and snatched out the flatty ramblers. Then, she walked slowly up to her weary friend and put the three flapping creatures in the bucket bag. Jephela could feel that the container was almost full. She put the final handful of little morsels in and then shut the lid, taking care to buckle it to prevent anything from wriggling out.

“That was so helpful,” said Jephela with a little sigh and a grateful look into Shoffounis’ eyes. “Let’s go back to my place. There’s no reason to bake in the salty sunshine any further.” Together, they strolled to higher ground, being careful to avoid the numerous small hazards like sharp rocks, crevices, venomous growths and quicksand. Jephela found that she was having trouble retracting her arms. They kept dragging on the ground or catching on low objects. She tried her best but the cartilage wouldn’t respond quickly. She had to hold them up, which wasn’t a good idea because they were heavy and also bent arms didn’t retract much. She would have to finish the retraction at home, which would delay other activities like preparing food. Thank goodness that Shoffounis was here to help.

“I hate to say this but some of the stones and tiles on your roof have cracked recently,” said Shoffounis, pointing upwards as they came near the humble cottage. “It must have been the heat. You should get them fixed soon, before the weather turns.”

“Oh, curse it!” exclaimed Jephela. “I can’t think about that now. I’m flagging here. I must have a drink!” They went indoors and Shoffounis gave Jephela a beaker of fresh water, holding it because of Jephela’s arm problem. Shoffounis had one herself while Jephela slumped down on a suspended seat. The exhausted shore harvester lost consciousness for a minute. Shoffounis was concerned because she had never seen Jephela so tired after a short session of low tide collection. It was a few more minutes before Jephela wanted to talk again.

“You know, I was sleepy as well this afternoon,” said Shoffounis, sitting opposite Jephela and observing her carefully. “The temperature’s high and the air in some business cells is very stuffy. I had to leave that area to clear my head. I couldn’t focus on my jiac-rock deal. I’ll have to do it another day.”

“Hah! You think that you’ve got problems!” said Jephela with a resurgence of energy. “I had to leave a cyberforming project and come here to eat out of rock pools! That’s a ridiculous level of relegation. Your mind couldn’t cope with it.”

“What’s cyberforming?” queried Shoffounis. “I’ve never heard of it. Is it something from a fantasy?”

“I had to leave that savage tribe,” continued Jephela. “My people were most insistent. We’re supposed to live the lives that we’re given, not bend them to our will.”

“You should sleep,” advised Shoffounis. “You’re babbling about unreal things. I’ll prepare the food while you rest.”

“No, I can do it,” said Jephela, standing up and reaching behind her for the bucket bag. “I feel better now. I’ve been surviving and thriving in the wild for millions of years. This is nothing to me. Good, my arms are retracting. Now I can get to work.” She opened the bucket bag, reached inside and pulled out five little animals that were nearly identical to each other. She put them into her mouth and crunched them with her teeth.

“Cook them first,” said Shoffounis. “You’ll get sick otherwise.”

“I know my own stocks,” replied Jephela. “These are clean. I found out through trial and error. The rest, I will cook.” She pulled out more creatures and stuck them on a rack of long skewers. When the rack was full, she put it in the oven and set it for a standard heating cycle.

“You don’t remove the shells and bones first?” said Shoffounis, a little perturbed.

“It’s actually quicker this way,” said Jephela. “The roasting oven makes some of the shells and bones fall off. The rest can be removed before eating. I hate wasting time.”

“I guess that you’ve been learning different cookery methods,” said Shoffounis. “You never used to do this.”

“I’ve studied a lot recently,” said Jephela. “My people have been forced into it. We’re all simulating multiple alien worlds. It’s intense. We have to be super-alert and adaptable.”

“This fantasy sounds amazing,” said Shoffounis. “Do you have a name for yourself? I mean, do you have a character name for this make-believe game?”

“I’m Outback; pleased to meet you!” said Jephela, waving briefly and twitching her lips in a friendly gesture. She took the flatty ramblers and put them on the chopping board. With a long, sharp knife, she bisected each rambler skilfully lengthways, so that their thin top halves were separated from their thin bottom halves. She removed the compressed guts, the bones and a few other unpalatable pieces. Then she put all six pieces of rambler in her large frying pan and turned on the heat.

“What do you mean ‘Outback’?” asked Shoffounis. “Is that something to do with your rear side? Are you worried that certain parts of it are becoming too big? I assure you that they’re not.”

“You’re way off the mark,” answered Jephela. “Outback means wilderness. I’m very good at surviving there. It doesn’t matter which world we’re on: I can probably adapt to it.” She washed her hands briskly and then sat down again.

“No one’s ever been to another world,” Shoffounis pointed out. “Perhaps you’re a time traveller from the future?”

“I believe that I am,” said Jephela. “However, I’ve travelled so much that I’ve completely lost track of my time line.”

“Suka Bork, you’re in deep on this one!” exclaimed Shoffounis with a laugh. “Could you prove your identity as Outback and give me more details of your interplanetary life?”

“Sorry but I’m forbidden to do that here,” said Jephela. “I’m annoyed about it, to be honest.”

“Forbidden? That’s convenient!” commented Shoffounis.

“I’m going to stay here for a few months,” said Jephela. “I’ll help my host along. She’s enjoying herself.”

“Are you a body snatcher?” asked Shoffounis, becoming a little concerned. Jephela’s act was becoming more convincing with each passing minute.

“It’s nothing sinister,” said Jephela, glancing at the stove. “I’m hitching a ride in her brain. She allowed me in on a subconscious level. It’s all fine.”

“What kind of help are you going to give her?” asked Shoffounis.

“Well, for one thing there’s this deep sea fisherman who she desires,” said Jephela, her lips twitching rapidly. “His name’s Kagzor and he often spends time in the delicacy district, trying different cuisines. Jephela and I are going to win his heart or at least give it our best shot. She was too shy without me.”

“Suka Bork Demfeg!” squealed Shoffounis. “I’m so excited!”

“So are we!” said Jephela, getting up and turning over the ramblers in the pan.

“Wait a minute, is Outback female?” asked Shoffounis.

“He uses the masculine pronoun but he’s actually sexless,” said Jephela. “Don’t worry, he’s incredibly experienced. He’ll do his damnedest to get the job done.”

“This just gets weirder and weirder!” said Shoffounis. “You’re going to seduce a deep sea guy with help from an asexual fantasy character and you think that there won’t be a problem?”

“Have faith!” said Jephela. “When Jephela gets her man, Outback will seem a lot more real, won’t he?!”

“I suppose,” said Shoffounis. “Anyway, I think that I should start writing this stuff down or else I’ll lose the thread.”

“Great idea!” said Jephela. “I’m here to learn: I mean Outback’s here to learn. It’s a bonus if I teach others along the way. Record all you want. Boy, these ramblers are looking delicious already!”

* * * * *

Later, back on Cybertron, Outback returned to his original mechanoid form for a brief period. He rested while the Cybertronian collective absorbed and consolidated the latest batch of experiences derived from the simulations. He stood at the broad windows of his simulation suite entrance lobby and looked out at the artificial canyon beyond. To the left and right, there were gargantuan towers several kilometres high, packed together closely. Ahead, two kilometres away, was another similar line of towers. Between the two tower lines was a very deep void that was over a hundred kilometres long and fifteen kilometres deep at the lowest point. The whole canyon was populated by Transformers and robots, some of which were stationery while others were in motion. Hordes of maintenance robots crawled across and through the towers, performing innumerable checks, repairs and clean-ups. Transformers walked, drove or flew within, around and between towers. It was a hive of activity. For the first time, Outback realised that it was like the deep-drops of Towtrucc’s world, only larger and more advanced. He fancied that, one day, organic creatures would crawl up from the canyon floor, as they did on Towtrucc’s world. The logical side of his brain knew that that was impossible but the speculative side wondered if the similarities between the Cybertronian canyons and the deep-drops meant something. Such thoughts had intrigued the collective for millennia and would continue to do so. Soon, though, it was time for Outback to re-enter the realm of simulations. It wasn’t his favourite pastime. He preferred real physical exploration but there wasn’t always the opportunity for that. Simulations were an adequate substitute, most of the time. In fact, they seemed to become even more realistic every year, if that was possible. It was hard to measure but they felt more meaningful now than at the beginning of the programme. Outback was well used to ‘reading the wind’, so he would monitor this apparent trend carefully.

* * * * *

The next simulation turned out to be one of the most irritating that Outback had ever experienced. He found himself in the body of a committed member of a religious order. His name here was Dalon Traf and he wasn’t sure if he was male or female. He felt that he could go either way. There was gender fluidity here. He had a small gas cylinder strapped to his front. He looked around at his fellow monks/nuns. They were all marching along together in a rough procession through narrow streets. The others all had gas cylinders on their fronts. They had expressions of stoicism and resignation on their downcast faces. Dalon felt trapped and oppressed. The others probably felt the same. They continued to march for a minute but then all the gas cylinders gave a simultaneous small burst of cold gas right onto the genitals of all the monks/nuns. There was much quiet moaning as they suffered together for their beliefs. Outback thought that this was an insult too far. As Dalon, he quickly unbuckled the gas cylinder harness from his torso and let it drop to the floor.

“You must maintain your endurance, for the sake of your soul!” said the person to his left. “Stray not from the path, or else you shall walk in the poisoned lands with the Great Despoiler!” Another person retrieved the gas canister and tried to hand it back to Dalon. Of course, he wouldn’t accept it. The group attempted to keep Dalon in line but he (still using the male pronoun for convenience) barged his way out of the procession and squeezed through the small crowd at the side of the street. The procession moved on but the crowd didn’t like to see Dalon forsaking his tradition.

“What are you doing?!” exclaimed one person, who was becoming angry. “Have you no shame? What will your order think? What will your family feel, seeing you running from your vows?” People started to hit Dalon with open hands, carved sticks and rolled-up publications. He pushed through the crowd as rapidly as he could manage. After a few minutes of struggle, he reached a passageway between two buildings and ran down it into a maze of other passageways beyond. He found a quiet corner and took off his outer robe. He didn’t want to be recognised as a monk/nun anymore. Looking down, he saw that his bulbous genitals were a mess. Were they supposed to be like that? He was gender fluid so they had to perform double duty. They were covered with small injuries, mainly bruises, scrapes, swellings, scars and cold burns.

“You despicable traitor to God!” said someone watching from a window above. “I’m calling the religious police!” Dalon glanced upwards at the informer and then looked around for a new robe. He found a nice soft one hanging just inside an open ground floor window. He put it on immediately. It was baggy but it would do for now. He hurried along, heading out of town. Several streets further on, three people spotted him and started pelting him with engine parts. Perhaps they were roving scrap merchants? He ducked into an alley and sneaked away from them. How did they know that he had been a monk/nun? He felt his head and realised that he had some kind of zigzag spike protruding from the top. He tried to make it lie flat but it was too rigid. He tried to break it off but it was very firmly fixed and he only succeeded in hurting his scalp. He would need tools to remove it. He moved on swiftly and worked his way out of the maze of alleys. Running through an old gateway, he left the old town and found himself in an extensive series of suburbs. He looked around and saw thousands of buildings, stretching out into the distance. Already, people were turning to see him. None seemed glad to see him. What could he do now? Escape wasn’t going to be easy. Spotting a hardware shop to the left, he dashed in and found a pair of loppers. He raised them over his head and used them to cut off the zigzag ‘antenna’. There was a sharp pain, followed by a throbbing ache and a small trickle of brown blood.

“Hoy, you can’t do that here!” said the shopkeeper, noticing what had happened.

“Too late!” said Dalon through gritted teeth. He snatched a cheap cloth cap from a hook and ran from the shop. As a former monk/nun, he had no money to pay for the cap or the loppers. Fortunately, Dalon was quite young and fit while Outback knew how to be elusive. Combining their strengths, they avoided capture by the shopkeeper and his friends. Disguised with a new robe and cap, Dalon jogged on down several streets before finding a secluded service road in which he could hide and spend the night. He hid behind some dumpsters and lay down on a patch of weeds to rest. However, night didn’t fall. It seemed that this world didn’t have a daily period of darkness, at least not here and now. It did have gravel rain though. Dalon spent at least five hours under a discarded packing box while being pelted with thousands of tiny, high-speed lumps of stone. By morning, he was starting to think that the cylinder of cold gas would have been preferable.

Lacking food and sleep, Dalon was a little dopey but still alert enough to seek information. He found some local news sheets in the front porch of a nearby house. He sat down on a low wall and read the sheets carefully. Some news was mundane, discussing commerce, local administration, belief, land use and the natural world. Other stories were disturbing, especially the long list of ‘atrocities’ committed by followers of the Despoiler. Were these all true? Journalists sometimes fabricated events, as did their sources. There could have been exaggeration too. Dalon wondered why the vandalism of murals featured more prominently than the six murders at the bottom of the list. This society was excessively religious, placing greater value on gestures of devotion than on comfort or even life itself. Item fifty three on the list concerned unusual phenomena happening in a rural backwater, which caused dozens of people to neglect their devotional duties. A note below the list said that a meeting about the phenomena would be held that evening. Dalon was very interested. He would definitely attend.

Dalon spent the day stealing. He had a lovely meal in a café, used the facilities and then ran away without paying. He went to a clothes shop and sneaked out with a selection of ‘free’ garments that happened to fit him. He tried on a pair of sturdy shoes, asked the assistant to fetch more pairs and then fled with the first pair. Medication and dressings for his head stump were acquired with sleight of hand. Some of those dressings could be used lower down too. In the afternoon, he went around the news shops and book shops, reading without buying. This world didn’t have an electronic network yet. He discovered that the unusual phenomena mentioned in the first news sheet involved unexplained flying lights, very odd whooping noises and vehicles driving fast at night with no visible religious messages, displays or idols. Some people also reported a faint smell of magnetic herbal sugar, which sounded bizarre. After reading as much as he wanted, Dalon pinched more food and then attempted to reach the meeting. He had liberated a map from a news shop, so he knew where to go. He wanted to ride public transport without paying but the staff prevented it. He hailed cabs but they refused to go beyond a ten kilometre radius. Consequently, he found himself hotwiring a gaudy vehicle that was more shrine than conveyance. It wasn’t remarkable in this town, unlike his driving. There were some near-collisions. Dalon had to drive defensively and learn the rules of the road as he went along. He’d never driven here before. Having navigated the confusing road system, he finally arrived at the meeting only a few minutes late.

As he entered the meeting hall and joined the back of the audience, he sensed a subtle change in the atmosphere. There was something other-worldly about the speaker at the front. She spoke with great fervour. Every word was loud and clear. She seemed determined to solve the mystery of whatever was happening at night. The rest of the audience members were enraptured and were paying close attention to her projected diagrams and sketches on the wall screen behind her. Dalon struggled to remain detached. He was being drawn into her stories and her proposed action plans. He realised that she was rather feminine while most people here were part-way between masculine and feminine. That made her stand out and it encouraged people to pay attention to her. After several minutes of preamble, description, supposition, theorising and warning, the speaker mentioned that the next sighting of unusual phenomena were predicted to take place tonight, only a kilometre from the hall. That was why this venue had been chosen. The audience needed no further prompting. They decided to go out and see the phenomena for themselves. Dalon went along with them. Some people looked at him quizzically. He was a newcomer and his clothes were mismatched. He started to hang back from the group to avoid attention.

As the audience group bustled down the lane, passing between fields of crops that were over four metres tall, the sense of dislocation grew. The crops might have had something to do with it. They rustled constantly in the breeze. Other sounds were blocked and partly drowned out by the incessant ‘vush vush whoo whoo’, as it was known. The crops made the lane seem cut off from the rest of the world. However, there was more going on tonight. There was a build-up of heat and static electricity that made everyone itchy. Dalon also felt the same sensation that he did when moving to a new simulation. Could there be a problem back on Cybertron? The group reached the place where the phenomena were supposed to appear. Behind them were the fields of tall crops while ahead were clumps of trees and areas of pasture. A few house lights could be seen in the distance.

“Let us pray and renew our devotion,” said the speaker. “For what happens tonight, may we be prepared.” The people around stood and bowed their heads while the speaker read out some standard prayers, interspersed with her own ad libs. When she finished a few minutes later, the people did the sacred dance. There were vaguely synchronised jazz hands, hip sways and finger wags. Dalon had to play along.

“So mote it be!” said the crowd at the end.

“And may it be ever thus!” said Dalon quietly. Then he realised that he had made a mistake. Through force of habit, he had said something that only monks/nuns normally said. Some people turned to look at him. They started whispering to their neighbours. Dalon knew that he might have to retreat, so he picked up his cheap bag of essentials. Just then, a vehicle appeared in the field ahead. It was driving across country and running over small bushes. It was sleek and unadorned, which was hardly ever seen on this world. Its driver was very skilled. Many of the people watching were so startled that they tapped all their fingers rapidly on their chests, which was a religious gesture of protection. Dalon, by contrast, wasn’t worried at all. He recognised the vehicle and ran out to reach it. His group watched but didn’t know what to do except pray and conduct rituals.

“Tote, stop messing about!” said Dalon, breathing heavily as he approached the scene. The little van kept driving around, aggressively crushing the vulnerable vegetation.

“Whoever you are, I have to stop Airwave!” said Tote. “He was screwing with the simulators. He’s escaped over here, searching for treasures.”

“I’m Outback!” said Dalon. “I’m sorry if I’m looking even less dapper than usual. I haven’t seen Airwave but I read a report of a craft flying about at low altitude. He probably won’t be in those bushes. You can stop grinding them under your wheels.” Tote stopped driving and sat still.

“Those were bushes?” he queried. “I couldn’t tell. My sensors aren’t calibrated properly for this reality. I can barely see you. Everything’s ‘off’, if you know what I mean.”

“I’ll have to guide you,” said Dalon. “Let me into your cab. Show me your visual displays.” Tote opened his door and Dalon climbed inside. It felt weird since Tote was slightly out of phase but Dalon could cope because Outback was very experienced with this sort of situation. Dalon looked back at the group of local people. Some had retreated out of sight. A few were busy evacuating their bowels. The braver ones were walking slowly toward him. Even they were obviously unnerved.

“Dalon Traf, riding in an unsanctified vehicle is a sin,” warned one of them. “Step out and come away.”

“I’m afraid that this is none of your business, god botherer!” said Dalon. “Tote, take us about three kilometres to the right.” Dalon didn’t know why he had told the meeting organisers his real name. That had been a foolish mistake.

“How dare you Traf, you damned heathen?!” exclaimed another local. The people tried to block Tote but he was too quick. He sped away over the fields and between the copses. Some locals had gone back to the hall, retrieved their own vehicles and now tried to pursue. They were relatively familiar with this terrain and made fairly good progress. Tote was a past master in the art of driving but he was on alien ground and his sensors weren’t working well. Dalon had to take the wheel.

“I see Airwave hovering up ahead,” said Dalon. “Do you have something with which to catch him?”

“What does he think that he’ll find here?” wondered Tote.

“He’s no fool,” said Dalon. “There must be an artefact, a chemical or other resource. Do you have a weapon to shoot him down?”

“No, but I have this,” said Tote, releasing a special drone from his rear storage compartment. “It’ll force him out of the simulation.” The drone rose stealthily into the sky, flew at Airwave and latched onto his fuselage. With his sensors compromised, Airwave couldn’t detect the drone until it had reached him. The little flying machine emitted a pulse of interdimensional energy that disengaged Airwave, Tote and Outback from the simulation. They awoke back in their original bodies on Cybertron, although Tote and Airwave were in a different room several kilometres from Outback.

“Do you have him?” asked Outback.

“Yeah, he’s here,” replied Tote, annoyed that his day had been disrupted. “Why do you never learn Airwave, you greedy...?”

“I was investigating, idiot!” said Airwave. “There’s been a breach. We could travel between simulations. I wanted to know why.”

“You’re not allowed to interfere with other simulations beyond the one that’s been allocated to you,” said Tote. “I was obliged to bring you back. Those are the rules. I’m just glad that Outback was there to help.”

“Personally, I’m happy to be home but I fear that my character will be severely punished or even executed,” said Outback. “We broke some important rules back there and the locals are unforgiving.”

“The collective will give you another simulation,” said Tote. “This whole business has been inconvenient but it’s not a disaster.”

“Not for me maybe but I can’t help but worry about Dalon,” said Outback. “He was in such a bad position and we made it worse.”

“He was a simulated character, dredged up from the Great Cybertronian Database,” said Tote. “I could show you the programme code.”

“What if he wasn’t simulated?” queried Airwave. “We’re no strangers to deception, are we?” Outback and Tote were dismayed to think that the whole simulation movement might not be what it seemed.

* * * * *

Outback had a little time to think in the next simulation. He lay back on the tarry couch, put his multi-jointed arms behind his head and mulled over the situation. The Cybertronian collective had vehemently denied any possibility that these simulated situations were anything but that. They had provided vast quantities of data to prove their point. Their case seemed to be as solid as a neutron star. However, Outback had seen people argue forcefully before. In his experience, it was often a cover for secrets. Also, the use of huge volumes of supporting data could be a smokescreen for hidden lies. He thought back on all his simulations since the beginning of the programme. He had frequently been amazed at the realism in them. There had been no glitches whatsoever. As far as he had seen, all details had been authentic and believable. Although the unreality of the programme had been stressed regularly, he often found himself developing strong emotional bonds with some characters and distaste for others. Surely that was a good sign that the simulations were actually real lives? The current one certainly felt real enough.

He was inhabiting the body of a female-type creature. He wasn’t too sure about genders on this world. There seemed to be at least four. Sometimes, the ‘males’ had pseudo-pregnancies. Still, he felt mainly female this time. As was depressingly common, he was also subjugated. He was confined to this room, in a pool of tar that was kept fluid with some kind of detergent and other chemicals. Stronger individuals would visit for ‘personal services’ and sometimes a few minutes of brutality. This involved a great deal of crawling, rolling and wrestling in tar, so cleanliness was never possible. No protection was used, so this female slave had exchanged much genetic material with thousands of others. The reproductive system here was complex. It was hard to keep track of what led to what. The upshot was that there were hundreds of small creatures living in special compartments under her skin. Some of them were her babies, some were other people’s babies, some were parasites, some were baby-parasite hybrids and some were specialised insemination creatures. Occasionally, these would grow large enough to climb out of her body and leave via the barred window, searching for new homes or fertilisation targets. There were so many feeding off her that she was weakened and often sick. To make matters worse, the physical attacks that she endured had left her with many injuries, including serious memory loss. With Outback in her mind, she had forgotten her original name but her masters called her ‘Esketa’.

The clock that was projected on the ceiling said that she had about ten minutes until the next ‘partner’ was due to arrive. It didn’t matter anymore. She had reached the end of her tether. The arrival of Outback in her mind had spurred her to do something. Lately, she had been dropping objects down a small gap in the floor, just outside the tar pool retaining barrier. Stones and metal pieces were preferred. These objects had been hitting an exposed pipe two stories below. Last night, the pipe had finally cracked. Oxygen had been leaking out for several hours. The volatile gas had been filling the building. Most people couldn’t smell it, so it had gone largely unnoticed. Now though, some people were beginning to catch a whiff and were calling for an engineer. The problem was that the building was full of illegal activities. If a regular engineer was called, he/she would report those crimes. The repair would have to be done by someone who was willing to turn a blind eye. Such people were hard to find.

“Hey old sticklestuck, get off your clammy behind and blacken my holes!” said a male-type as he came into the room. Esketa stood up slowly and walked over to a side table.

“I think that I remember you from last week,” she said. “I’ll need my larger set of internal slather rods.” Except this time, she was reaching for a little spark gun that she had stolen from another visitor. She made a spark and the whole room erupted in flame. There was a vast, oxygen-driven explosion and the building was blown to pieces. Whatever was left collapsed into the basement. Only a few people survived. Esketa was suffocated by the force of the blast and then crushed by the falling ceiling. The simulation was over and Outback found himself back on Cybertron again.

“That was short and sweet,” said Gandaire, who had been monitoring all the Transformers in the suite. “You’re probably not learning enough, though. Next time, I’ll put you into a longer-lasting segment.” Outback studied him intently. Did he have a secret agenda? It was very hard to tell but Outback would keep watching.

“I think that I’m learning plenty,” muttered Outback. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, isn’t there? One just has to take a peek now and then.” Gandaire glanced at him. What was he implying? He decided to ignore it. The simulations made people paranoid occasionally.

* * * * *

The road felt so good under his tyres. He hardly needed his sensors: he knew these roads intimately. He could drive around the world with only an occasional scan sweep to spot random hazards like meteorites and fallen buildings. He drifted slowly right and then left. His fellow vehicles Pipes and Ruckus mirrored his manoeuvres. Ruckus came within a few centimetres of the crash barrier on the right but that wasn’t a problem for those who had memorised every square metre of slab. It felt fabulous to enjoy the freedom of the open road with fully tuned engines and all moving parts freshly lubricated. This was much better than living as a mushy organic with weird pains in unfortunate places. Ruckus called for some target drones, which flew out over the road ahead. He fired training darts and brought down the drones in only seventeen seconds. The three Transformer ground troopers sped on, trying to finish a two hundred kilometre circuit in under an hour. They weren’t the fastest but they liked a challenge. Ruckus could cover the distance that quickly without modification but Pipes and Outback had had to leave many non-essential components at the start/finish line in order to reduce weight and thus increase speed and range. The two old Autobots certainly felt a great deal lighter but also somewhat ‘naked’, which was a concept that they understood much better after many simulations. ‘Exposed’ as they were, they raced on as fast as their little wheels could carry them. They passed many striking landmarks and vistas, which still made them stare despite their familiarity. For example, the eighteen criss-crossing bridges of Vrictath gave an illusion of mystery because it was very difficult to see all the entrances and exits among the surrounding cluster of buildings. The solar power mirror cluster of Ny-Hy Five-Five glittered and shone magnificently, although it was sometimes a hazard to travellers. The Grunimon Sculpture Tower was a powerfully sombre memorial to the region’s fallen heroes.

The three Transformers finished their exercise circuit just in time, according to their self-imposed deadline. Afterwards, they transformed to their primary modes, refuelled and sat down for a few minutes to recover. Pipes and Outback had pushed themselves close to their limits. Now, they looked odd with many gaps in their normal body profiles. Ruckus remarked that they resembled ‘corpse troops’, which had been used in the old wars. It was an old joke but neither Autobot wanted to be like that for long. They walked over to their extra parts and reinserted them into their bodies. Now they seemed fully alive and ready to rejoin society. With Ruckus, they jogged back to the simulation suites in the canyon. As they went, they began to hear reports of a dispute in another tower in the canyon. It sounded fairly serious, so they transformed and drove swiftly to their assigned tower for further reactions. The problem centred on Menasor. The Stunticons had combined to form the giant gestalt as a way to hide their thoughts from the collective. Menasor had been allowed to run a simulation. That was normal practice because everyone had to be included in the exercise for a minimum length of time. However, once inside the simulation, he had separated into his five separate components. Wildrider had then tried to find a way to cross over into another simulation, just as Airwave and Tote had inadvertently done. The Stunticons had been accused of deceit and disruption. Simulation crossovers had only just been banned but these five renowned trouble-makers had already gone against the collective’s wishes. In fact, at that moment the collective was having a crisis. It was wavering. Had it made one of its rare wrong decisions?

Outback, Pipes and Ruckus watched on CCTV as the Stunticons emerged separately from their simulation suite into the open air. It was evident from their body language that they were angry. They were formidable enough as individual warriors but now they decided to combine again. Motormaster stood on Wildrider and Breakdown, using them as legs, while Dead End and Dragstrip became the arms. Menasor’s head appeared from Motormaster’s shoulders. Menasor stood complete and gazed into the nearest wall camera with his ominous, red, glowing eyes.

“As my friends the Seacons say, there’s something fishy going on here!” he boomed with a menacing tone.

“We never say that,” objected Snap Trap, leader of the Seacons.

“SHUT UP!” said Menasor, his terrible fury building rapidly. “Rrr ..... My point is that we’re supposed to explore, to gain MAXIMUM experience but some of you are BLOCKING US! WHY?! I object to this craziness! Do you want me and my supporters to fight for our freedoms? THINK CAREFULLY!” He ripped out a hundred-tonne wall and threw it roughly across the local square. It damaged a simulation suite three hundred metres away.

“Stop this now!” said Traimar, leader of the emergency safeguard squad that always shadowed Menasor. Thousands of burly, four-legged robotic creatures ran across the square and threw themselves at the giant. He was knocked down and pinned by the horde. He knew better than to struggle.

“Separate immediately and we’ll go easy on you,” said Traimar, stepping forward with his heavily armed squad. “You’ll have to lose your linkages for many years and ...”

“Hmm, for once things aren’t going your way, my old tormentor!” remarked Menasor. Everyone listened to the turmoil in the collective. The disagreement about simulation crossovers continued. Many Transformers were coming around to Menasor’s point of view. Some of those were physically gathering behind Traimar’s squad, ready to intervene. For once, they didn’t want Menasor to be punished. He hadn’t hurt anyone today. Traimar was taken by surprise. He asked for urgent assistance. The collective made a quick decision to avert a riot. People were to be allowed to explore simulation crossovers but they would have to exercise caution and would have to prepare for possible disastrous consequences. Traimar ordered his troops and robots to back off. Menasor rose and stood watching with a wicked grin. As the safeguard squad disappeared from view, Menasor went back into the simulator for more adventures.

“Well, that’s one way to settle an argument!” said Outback. “The big blighter still has his uses!”

“Thankfully we’re a few kilometres from him,” said Ruckus. “Naturally, I’m fond of him but I don’t want to be within smushing range when he goes off on one!” Together, they went to their own simulators, to continue their interminable lessons about the lives of others.

* * * * *
Posts: 265
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: The Transformers explore new worlds and lives from the comfort of home

Postby snavej » Wed May 09, 2018 12:44 pm

“Brilliant, here’s some half-decent technology!” thought Outback to himself as he became acquainted with his next simulation. “This is full thought-control equipment. It’s a small scout ship with relatively good astronomical and interdimensional sensors.” He tested his chunky arms and short, stout legs as he learnt how to use the ship’s devices. Apparently, he was better at manipulating gadgets with his agile fingers than he was at athletic pursuits. He was in the body of a dwarf-type creature with clumps of small brush spines dotted across his upper body. Those brush spines could stand up when he was cold or agitated. The ship had a basic bell shape with an extraneous, decorative frill near the bottom, which helped it to stand out from others. It was positioned in orbit around an orange star, about seventy five million kilometres out and five million kilometres from the mother-ship. He was supposed to be a sentry, watching out for other ships and objects that occasionally went past. It was a very simple job for him, so he had plenty of spare time and energy for studying the simulated environment. He was looking for any discrepancies. First indications showed nothing. He was very patient, though. He would monitor the screaming heck out of this sham cosmos.

As the hours passed, Outback became aware of slight oddities in the local telepathic network. His people, the Fetanic Biohorde, were beginning to feel strange for some unknown reason. Having engaged with their thought patterns for a little while, Outback suspected that this was just a result of interaction with neighbouring telepaths and more primitive races on the phase level below. He tried to ignore it while he performed a detailed survey of the heavens. He managed to make good progress. The dimensional structure showed that this was a simulation of Universe 5498562, which had been a straightforward environment in which to operate. Outback was amazed at the detail and accuracy on display. Normally in simulations, he focused on the immediate situation: the relationships, basic needs, beliefs, social customs and so on. Now, he was having a rare chance to examine the background. It was magnificent, almost as if he were back in that universe again. How could a simulation be this good, with level after level of grain-free perfection? Transformer technology was as near to ideal as made no difference, it seemed. He was happy to see the mother-ship and the other scouts approaching. He wanted to share his joy with them all.

“Thank you for tolerating me and my foreign mission!” he hailed them. “What’s the new plan? You’re here ahead of schedule.” They didn’t answer. He could sense that they were all intent on listening to him, though. They weren’t too interested in his small talk but rather in his central spark. They were fully tuned into it. Their ships came very close to his, stopping only a hundred metres away. He was partly encircled. He read their thoughts but they were becoming catatonic. All they wanted to do was to sit in thrall to the little piece of Primus inside him. Outback checked other ships in nearby star systems. They were packing up their gear and preparing to warp over to his system. He had become a psychic magnet for these people. This hardly ever happened. He’d only seen the phenomenon six times before, in real life. Each time, it had ended peacefully. Once, it had helped to stop a small war. He wasn’t too worried but he had to be prepared. This time he was in a simulation, after all.

“Outback, you bring new direction from the uncharted wastes beyond,” said one of the dwarves from the mother-ship. “You have changed us as effortlessly as a storm moves a scrap of genkvar. Listen to us. Soon, we will alter our entire course.” Outback was alarmed. The dwarves were becoming slaves to the unique vibration of his spark. He didn’t want them to do anything rash. He tried telling them to remain calm and to keep their reason.

“Please, don’t interrupt your schedule!” he advised them. “Don’t pay attention to my life force. It’s irrelevant to your grand plans. Go back to your previous positions. I won’t be here much longer. I’m not allowed to stay too long anyway. I’m following orders myself. I’m not putting myself forward as anyone’s leader. Come on, what do you say?” There was no change in the Biohorde’s thinking. In fact, more of their ships were arriving and moving in close.

“Don’t crowd around, pals!” implored Outback. “I’m trying to watch the stars!” They ignored his request. What should he do now? He could continue to monitor the dimensions but his astronomical vistas were increasingly obscured. He could tap into the sensors on the other ships but it wasn’t quite as good because it gave a fractured view. He could tell that the Biohorde was putting all of its main projects on indefinite hold. Perhaps he could go back to the mother-ship for food and rest? He wasn’t quite ready for a nutrient pack in his abdominal slot but he could fill time by exploring the giant carrier ship’s interior. He wasn’t sure what to do. He felt that the fleet growing around him was preparing for some kind of major move. A few hours later, he was proven right. There was a tiny but normal blip in Outback’s spark, which made the Biohorde spring into action. Ninety percent of their ships warped away to the far side of the galaxy, followed by the remaining ten percent a minute later. Outback was left alone for a few minutes. There was uncertainty in the Biohorde’s telepathic network. A small group of ships returned and tried to bring Outback’s scout ship with them. However, something in Outback’s spark told them to leave the scout ship and go back to the main fleet. They were unhappy but they complied.

Outback maintained telepathic contact with the Biohorde. They were massing around a medium-sized planet in a binary red star system. Other races were joining them every few hours. When enough ships had gathered, the large fleet launched itself on an intergalactic journey. None of them had managed to leave their own galaxy before but today they’d found a way to cross the void. More ships continued to gather, ready for another large-scale intergalactic warp jump. No one had any idea why they were making the trek, except that Primus was telling them to do it somehow. Meanwhile, Outback was becoming tired and hungry. He had some rations but they would only last a few weeks at best. He continued his studies for a few days while trying to maintain contact with the Biohorde and their allies in their new galaxy. When he awoke on the sixth day, he could tell that they had all disappeared. He had had a vague dream about their great combined fleet slipping into another realm entirely. He wasn’t certain but he suspected that they had fallen victim to the Evermaze or something similar. He felt profoundly lonely and also guilty. He had become a kind of plague carrier and had doomed his race and others. Perhaps he’d been looking in the wrong place for glitches in the simulation. There was nothing wrong with the local cosmos. The main problem here was the trickster god Primus. Outback was so dispirited that he opted out of the simulation and decided to take a few days’ break from the programme.

* * * * *

“Are you awake, dear?” He found himself prone on a bed and in great pain. It took his breath away. When the latest acute wave ended, he realised that he was in a different body. He must be in another simulation. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He’d just requested a withdrawal from simulations but instead he’d been transferred here.

“I’m very sorry but I have to change some of these dressings,” said the nurse next to him. “I have to try to reduce the chance of infection. I know that it hurts but please do your best to bear it.”

“P-p-painkillers!” he said with effort.

“I told you that we have none,” said the nurse. “You had the last abyef yesterday. You just have to lie still and wait.” Outback was trapped in a seriously injured flesh body. The ceiling above him was partly missing. Bright sunshine was dazzling him. The nurse sounded like an old woman, near or beyond retirement age.

“Hospital?” he asked.

“That’s under the mega-landslide,” said the nurse. “Don’t say that you’ve lost your memory too?”

“Ambulance!” he demanded hoarsely.

“What’s an ambulance, dear?” asked the nurse, puzzled. Outback was taken aback. He was ashamed of it. He’d been on enough primitive worlds to know that many people hadn’t heard of such modern conveniences.

“N-never mind,” he said. “Remind me ... how b-bad?”

“You were hit by a lot of rocks and you have at least seven broken bones,” said the nurse. “Judging from your pale skin, I’d say that you lost a lot of blood and probably have internal bleeding. It’s not looking good for you, I’m afraid.”

“Mega-l-landslide has probably k-killed me,” remarked Outback. “No help except y-you.”

“Ryga Likenar is out looking for food,” said the nurse. “He should come back in an hour or so. We’ll keep you alive for a day or two. If you’re lucky, people with carts might come from the south.” Outback was in a seemingly hopeless situation. He yelled his way through another pain spasm and then tried to think of a way out, something less painful than a slow death. He attempted to exit the simulation but he couldn’t for some reason. Perhaps there was a minimum time limit. Why couldn’t he remember entering this simulation? It wasn’t what he would have chosen. He reckoned that this was probably a malfunction. People had been given permission to search for simulation crossovers. Could his current plight be related to that? Anyway, how could he search for an exit when he was bed-bound and terminal? He knew various methods that might possibly work. Only one was feasible here.

“Shoffounis, w-would you help me to repair my roof?” said Outback. “The tiles a-and ridges are cracked.”

“I’m Tvieblis, dear,” said the nurse Tvieblis, rinsing some bloody clothes in the water trough. “Stay with me. Don’t let the delirium take you.”

“Shoffounis, I’ll pay you twenty denugis per hour and I’ll introduce you to some very obliging gentlemen!” said Outback. Tvieblis laughed incredulously.

“What are you raving about now?!” she said. “We’re in a terrible crisis here! In normal times, that’d be a great offer but right now we have bigger problems.” She thought for a minute.

“The mega-landslide buried almost everything,” she continued. “The town’s effectively gone, along with nearly all the gentlemen and all your money. Also, denugis are a kind of animal dropping around here. They have no monetary value.” Meanwhile, Outback’s pain was reducing rapidly. His unconventional plan was working.

“Shoffounis, if we can get it done in less than two weeks, I’ll buy you some of that Gendal Tonic,” said Outback. “You know how much fun a spoonful of that can be, especially with a partner.” The simulation was shimmering and altering around them.

“You’re on!” said Tvieblis, who abruptly changed into Shoffounis. “Oh, craquing spaques, I can’t wait to try Gendal Tonic again!” She closed her eyes and ran her hands sensuously down her body. Outback was very relieved that, by saying ‘Shoffounis’ three times, he had triggered an override and caused himself to be transferred to the body of Jephela, on her world. Now he would be able to leave the simulation much more easily.

“I feel that I must warn you about something,” said Shoffounis. “I have no previous experience of building work. I’ll probably fix the roof wrongly.”

“I’m a novice too,” said Jephela. “However, we have time to research our methods. If I can live off rock pools for many years, I’m sure that I can learn to do a few little roof repairs!” Shoffounis hugged her warmly.

* * * * *

After a short but delightful time in Jephela’s idyllic seaside settlement, Outback reached his session limit and had to return to Cybertron. It was a pity. He could have spent years there. He awoke in a simulation suite, as usual. However, it wasn’t his normal suite. He was on the other side of the canyon, fifty kilometres from his previous location. He had no memory of how he’d got there. His spirits sank as he realised that something might be very wrong. He couldn’t contact the collective, which indicated a possible global emergency. He swiftly assembled his mortar cannon and went to check the simulation system. Everything in the room was in standby mode and wouldn’t reactivate. He hand-cranked the trap-door at the back of the room and descended into a service tunnel. He transformed to vehicle mode, fixed his cannon onto his roof and drove as quietly as he could through the tower complex. Starting at level fifty six in Tower Seventy Seven, he rolled along and down to level one hundred and fourteen in Tower Ninety Eight. (Since these were canyon towers, the level numbers increased in value with depth.) There were dead nanobots sprinkled around everywhere. Occasionally, he saw some non-functioning maintenance robots. He detected anomalous energy readings around corners and behind walls. He tried to see what they were but they moved away and disappeared very quickly.

Finally, near the ramp to level one hundred and fifteen, he saw a dead Transformer. Consulting his database, he saw that the dead mech was known as Ringbur. Outback hadn’t known him except from his occasional contacts via the collective. The body was scorched, as if it had been exposed to high-temperature energy bursts. These were not standard weapon discharge burns. The marks were of many different sizes, as if the generator(s) produced energy burns in a random way. To his left, Outback saw a tiny light flash. He turned his gaze that way and saw an unusual glimmer in the shadows. Someone was lurking on a small, hidden staircase that led up to a storage closet. He sent a line-of-sight laser pulse message and received a reply the same way. The code used showed that it was another living Transformer. He rolled across to the staircase, transformed and was then pulled around the corner by his old friend Mirage.

“You’ve probably blown my cover,” whispered Mirage. “I don’t know if that matters. We’ve been under attack by energy creatures for a few days now. We probably won’t last much longer.”

“I was in a simulation all that time,” said Outback. “How did I survive? Why didn’t they kill me when I was preoccupied with life on another planet? You’re the only functional Transformer I’ve seen today.”

“Maybe you were shielded from the sterablasts?” speculated Mirage. “I don’t really have a clue. My electro-disruptor saved me. It’s set on automatic to shield me from damaging waves. It should shield you too if you stay close to me.”

“I’m not aware of any special shielding on my most recent simulation suite,” said Outback. “In fact, it’s quite exposed since it’s on the outside of Tower Seventy Seven.”

“What do you expect me to say?” demanded Mirage, feeling edgy and defensive due to the situation. “Maybe there was a barrier of some sort around your suite at that exact time. A few of those maintenance robots are huge, if you recall.”

“There might have been a barrier,” said Outback. “Yet I wonder if things are as they seem here. It’s strange that the energy creatures disabled our collective so soon after I had an unexplained malfunction in my original suite. I also had a short period of memory loss. I’m not sure if all this is real.”

“Naturally, because you know what I can do!” said Mirage. He used his electro-disruptor expertly to change his appearance. For a moment, he looked just like his colleague Griez. Then, he was back to his original self.

“No, there’s more to it this time, Shoffounis,” said Outback. “Someone’s really trying to screw with my mind.” Mirage looked at him with growing suspicion. Was Outback actually an infiltrator? Had he become a lunatic? Was he under mind control? Mirage’s grip on his rifle tightened. Outback saw this and did likewise with his mortar cannon.

“Shoffounis, let’s get away from all this and have a moonlight walk in the Uelide Woods,” said Outback. “It’s wonderful exercise and it really helps us to sleep...”

“Call me that name one more time and I’ll execute you!” said Mirage, terrified. Outback was in imminent mortal danger. Mirage was one of the best sharp-shooters on the planet. Hardly anyone escaped when they were in his sights.

“Fine,” said Outback. “I’ve been having a hard time. I’m only trying to find my way out of bad situations.”

“What does that have to do with the wrong name you’re using?” queried Mirage.

“Sometimes, if I say it three times, I escape into another simulation,” said Outback. “It’s a safeguard in the system.”

“We’re in a simulation, you think?” asked Mirage. “That would explain a lot. Why’ve you been saying that particular name?”

“It sends me to a very pleasant alternative simulation,” replied Outback. “If you have an equivalent yourself, why not use it?”

“I see what you mean, Urus Teeheep!” said Mirage, catching on quickly.

“That’s unnecessarily personal,” complained Outback. “I don’t make reference to your conspicuous alternative mode, do I?”

“Urus Teeheep is one of my best simulated friends,” retorted Mirage. “At least tolerate his funny name for my sake, Urus Teeheep.”

“Take that scary rifle out of my face,” said Outback. “I can’t help you if I’m dead.”

“I don’t think that I should, Urus Teeheep,” said Mirage. “You might still be an enemy. Oh damn, I’ve called you the name three times and I’m still here. That means...”

“You’re a simulation, Shoffounis!” said Outback. He felt a high-velocity bullet punch through his head but his consciousness was already transferring back into Jephela’s body. She was lying awake next to the sleeping Kagzor. His vopilain was still connected to her, doing its thing. She should have been happy but her mental passenger Outback was worried about what would happen next. She couldn’t help him so she let herself drift off to sleep, taking him with her.

* * * * *

“You know, I must admit that I’ve been wrong to make fun of the Seacons,” said Thaluquane as she consumed the last eggs in the nest. “Ocean work can be just as much fun as land work. These aren’t the best eggs that I’ve tasted but the slaughter’s the most important thing.”

“Are you going to listen to us?” said Durfajin. “There’s been a serious simulator malfunction. You might be in danger. We’ve been sent in to retrieve you.”

“You’re in no position to tell me what to do,” said Thaluquane, swallowing the egg fragments. “I’ve been multiplying rapidly. You’re surrounded by my growing family of thousands. We’re having a lot of deadly fun around here.”

“Do you never have any new ideas?” queried Wobnush. “How can you still be fascinated with killing after so many millions of years?”

“It must be Primus’ will,” said Thaluquane. “Down here, the procedural details are a little different. I’m improving my kill skills through small alterations in method. You never know when they’ll come in useful later.”

“I don’t know if we should bring him back,” said Durfajin to Wobnush. “He’s got a point. I should know. We need more undersea warriors. We don’t have enough.”

“Look, he can practice his deep sea fighting skills another time,” said Wobnush. “Right now, he needs to come back to Cybertron so that we can run full systems checks.” Durfajin knew that he was right, so reluctantly he pressed the point.

“Menasor, if you stay here much longer your mental balance is at serious risk,” said Durfajin to Thaluquane. “Leave this place for now. You can come back in a few days and continue your genocide.”

“You’re tiresome and ridiculous, Octopunch,” said Thaluquane, sniffing out her next prey. “My mental balance has been at risk since I was created. Don’t you remember? I’ve survived and learnt to live with it. Take Rollout and frak off back to Cybertron. That serpentine body doesn’t suit you and Rollout’s body is a joke. I’m itching to rip it apart.”

“You leave us no choice,” said Durfajin sadly. “We’re triggering your recall switch.” Thaluquane smiled as they attempted to remove Menasor’s mind from her brain.

“Oh, I’m sorry but you just missed him,” she said. “He’s slipped off to another ‘simulation’. He’ll be very hard to find. Good luck with that. Now, may I introduce my kids? They’re right behind you.” Durfajin and Wobnush felt themselves being seized by multiple strong jaws with sharp teeth. The minds of Octopunch and Rollout left their aquatic bodies just in time to avoid the gruesome deaths that befell their temporary hosts. Thaluquane was herself once more, no longer the willing puppet of Menasor. She and her brood could continue to devour all the large, edible creatures in the area. Without Menasor in control, they could take their time and savour their food properly. Returning to their Cybertronian reality, Octopunch and Rollout reported that their mission to recall Menasor had failed. The collective was left with no choice but to shut down all the simulators for urgent, thorough safety tests. Menasor would have to look after his own survival, wherever he was.

* * * * *

“The air’s so clear,” said Snarler, lying on his balcony early next morning. “We’re in for a beautiful sunrise, I reckon.”

“Probably,” replied Outback, standing on his balcony next to Snarler’s. “I wish that I could enjoy it more.” The two neighbours were silent for several minutes as they processed data. The sun edged up above the horizon.

“What did I tell you?” said Snarler. “The Ny-Hy Five-Five array is reflecting onto the Grunimon Tower. It’s never looked better, in my opinion. It’s so dramatic!”

“If you had breath to take, it would be taken,” said Outback dispassionately. “Also, if you had a jaw to drop, it would be on the floor.”

“I do have a jaw,” said Snarler. “I’m in beast mode here.” Outback glanced at him. Sure enough, he was in his quadruped mode.

“How are your legs?” asked Outback. “They look quite thin. Are they still supporting your weight?”

“Don’t be cheeky, Autobot!” snapped Snarler. “You’ve been watching me for many years. You’ve seen me getting around very well. I’m more worried about your diddy little wheels with those delicate tyres. They’d be punctured by my metal shavings!”

“Alright, I’m simply worried that one day a leg will snap if you jump about too much,” said Outback. “My tyres are in good condition and have regular checks, like your legs.”

“You’ve been a vehicle all your long life, haven’t you?” Snarler pointed out.

“Not quite,” Outback responded. “I’ve had injuries. Some of them were very serious.”

“I caused a few!” said Snarler, smiling.

“Yes, yes,” agreed Outback, annoyed. “And one time I shot you in the back. Anyway, when I was injured, I sometimes couldn’t transform. At other times, they gave me temporary exoskeleton legs with which to get around. Therefore, I have some idea of what it’s like to be a quadruped, a hexaped and an octoped.”

“I think that you’re forgetting something,” said Snarler. “What about the simulations?”

“Well yes, I have experienced life as hundreds of different organic creatures,” conceded Outback. “I’m not sure if that counts, though. The organics are so weak and short-lived.”

“Hey, where’s that Autobot attitude?” asked Snarler. “What happened to your reverence for the organics? Aren’t they just as valuable as us? Don’t their experiences matter?”

“Erm, I think that I mis-spoke,” said Outback. “I didn’t mean to denigrate them.”

“The thing about being a simulated organic is that, quite often, we go into beast mode,” continued Snarler. “Have you enjoyed that? I have, even though I’ve been a quadruped for a very long time already.”

“I must admit, it’s been great to do that,” said Outback. “When we become beasts, we run wild and free. We don’t worry about our usual preoccupations. We live in the moment. We lose our inhibitions and do whatever we want, following our instincts.”

“That’s what I think too,” said Snarler. “Beast mode is the best position, isn’t it? It’s so satisfying, if you know what I mean?!”

“Yes, Snarler,” said Outback. “Now, what’s the progress with the simulator diagnostics?”

“Everything’s normal so far,” said Snarler. “However, the system is exceedingly complex. The checks will be lengthy, even with our colossal processing power. You seem more worried than usual, though.”

“This is one of those ‘hidden danger’ situations,” said Outback. “We see those occasionally. If we’re not prepared, the hidden dangers can hit us hard.”

“I know how you think,” said Snarler. “You like to master your territory and use it to your advantage. That’s how you survived when so many died. With these simulators doing unpredictable things and perhaps even bending reality, you can’t master your territory. You end up as just another beast cowering in the dark, hoping that the predators pass you by.”

“Precisely,” said Outback. “But then your psyche is suffering too. You love to profit from whatever situation you’re in. The question is how can you profit when reality might change in an unnatural manner and rob you of your gains?”

“Too true,” said Snarler. “Let us, then, continue our data processing. We both have a vested interest in finding the fault in the simulators.” As he spoke, news came in that the psychics had failed to locate Menasor’s spark on or near Cybertron. The conclusion was that Menasor was either dead or far away. If the former, that was unfortunate but it helped to rule out a fault in the simulators. If the latter, then the simulators had somehow become gateways to other realms and the collective would have to try to explain how that had happened.

* * * * *

Hours later, during a training exercise, climbing instructor Brigladia noticed that Outback wasn’t behaving normally. The little Autobot had stopped climbing the tower and was standing motionless on a balcony. Brigladia waited for a minute but Outback still didn’t move. His thoughts were still there but very subdued. That was fairly common in Transformers. If they were doing something easy, their thinking often reduced markedly. However, Outback didn’t usually stop and wait like this for no known reason. Brigladia felt obliged to climb back down to see what was the matter. He monitored Outback’s thoughts carefully. He seemed to be daydreaming about the simulations that he’d recently experienced. It wasn’t surprising. The simulations were designed to be almost indistinguishable from reality. Transformers became very invested in them. Many were now experiencing withdrawal symptoms. The entire simulation programme had been shut down for a full-scale investigation into their aberrant operations. Outback wasn’t responding at all to stimuli. Brigladia lifted and flexed Outback’s arms to see if there were any faults but there weren’t any. He tilted Outback’s head from side to side and then forwards and backwards. He lifted Outback’s left leg, bent it and straightened it.

“Move along,” said a Transformer standing at the balcony door. “This is my patch. Don’t linger here.”

“Give us a minute, Trengle,” said Brigladia. “My climbing partner is having some kind of ‘episode’. His old brain has seized up after one too many simulations.” Trengle shook his head.

“You wouldn’t catch me in those frakking simulator pods,” he said. “I’d rather put fifty thousand volts through my brain. Outback, you’re a silly old fool!” He lobbed a small, empty energon box at Outback. The impact against his head roused Outback from his reverie. Trengle left the balcony door and went into another room to resume his work.

“Can you continue?” asked Brigladia. “If you don’t feel right, we can leave via Trengle’s apartment and go home. I don’t want you falling off the building.” Outback went to the balcony rail and looked upwards and downwards. It appeared that he was in the middle of climbing this stupendously tall and futuristic tower, for fun! His self-identity was a little hazy but his autonomic responses were perfectly alright.

“Let’s keep going,” said Outback. “It’s tall but regular and predictable. It’s a piece of cake!”

“A what?” queried Brigladia.

“Ah, that’s from a simulation,” said Outback. “It’s a delicious food. Think of it as fuel, energon or spare parts.”

“I understand,” said Brigladia. “Maybe one day I’ll experience this ‘cake’ in a simulation.”

“Prepare yourself before you do,” said Outback, clambering up the nearest wall. “It’s very addictive and can damage your health in the long run.”

“I’ll bear that in mind!” said Brigladia, following behind Outback. For the next hour, they ascended the upper section of the tower. Their strong grips and magnets were sufficient to resist the cross-winds. The climb wasn’t too tricky except for the monotony, the solar glare, occasional jets flying past, a few abusive residents and also the massive overhang between levels eleven hundred and ninety five and eleven hundred and ninety six.

“I assume that we stop here?” asked Outback, touching the base of the overhang. “I know that I can’t manage this. I’m too heavy for the hand-holds. They’d break.”

“You’ve forgotten our plan?!” said Brigladia, dismayed. “Well, it can’t be helped. We have to work together here. I’ll tackle the overhang and then throw you a cable.”

“You’re too heavy as well,” said Outback. “You must be a flyer.”

“What are these?!” said Brigladia, indicating his wheel compartments. “I’m a truck. You’re mentally shot, aren’t you?! I have a little trick to get me across.” His chest and helmet opened up. A smaller body climbed out of his chest and began swinging from handle to pipe until he reached the other side of the overhang. Once there, he attached a cable to the wall beyond and swung the other end at Outback. He wasn’t quite ready but his long-honed reflexes kicked in, allowing him to catch the cable.

“Fix it to my bigger body and let me take that over first,” said Brigladia. “It’s a bit clumsy without my direct control.”

“Don’t you have a safety cable in case the main one breaks?” asked Outback.

“Stop thinking like an organic,” said Brigladia. “Our cables are a thousand times tougher than anything they can make!” Outback did as Brigladia requested. The bigger body swung across easily, grabbed onto the wall, pulled itself up and then reunited with the smaller body. After that, it was Outback’s turn. The height was dizzying but, as a mechanoid, he found it easy to calm his mind. Brigladia retracted the cable and the two Transformers scrambled up the final five storeys to the summit. On the topmost balcony, among the specialised communication and weather monitoring installations, Brigladia examined himself and Outback.

“That was a standard climb,” he observed. “We both functioned as expected, at least on a physical level. It was fairly stressful due to the high winds but we didn’t sustain significant damage. Our reactions were normal. Your state of mind is the only thing worrying me. You need to see a psychic as soon as you can, to sort out your brain. You could be a liability in future, if your basic short-term memory is failing and you can’t maintain concentration during critical tasks. I wonder if it’s time for you to consider retirement from active service.”

“I will see a psychic and consider my options most carefully,” said Outback. “I mustn’t endanger any of my dear comrades. I’m sorry that I gave you cause for concern. Let’s go for refreshments.”

“We did have another two towers to climb but perhaps it would be wise to stop now,” said Brigladia. “I really hope that you recover soon. You’re such a good friend and useful person to have around.”

“Thank you indeed!” said Outback, pleased to hear it. “Now tell me, why is it that you have a smaller body in your chest?”

“For Primus’ sake!” exclaimed Brigladia. “If you can’t remember, solve the puzzle with reason!” Outback looked at his friend closely and pondered for a few moments.

“I think that I know,” he said. “Your smaller body is the right size to mingle with the organics without intimidating them.”

“Well done, genius!” said Brigladia. “The elevator’s here.” He pointed at it and soon they were dropping rapidly to a saner altitude.

* * * * *

“What am I going to do with you?” asked Outback silently as he sat at home that night. “Shall we have a conversation?” The stowaway in his mind considered the matter.

“Dalon, I can’t send you home right now,” said Outback. “The simulators are offline. Maybe they’ll be reactivated later but I don’t know if we’ll re-establish contact with your planet. We might have to find a radical alternative solution for you.” Outback could tell that Dalon had mixed feelings. He was alienated on Cybertron without a body of his own but he was relieved that his old problems were behind him.

“There’s a good chance that you’re just a mass of regular data,” continued Outback. “I’ll try to upload you back into the Great Database.” He attempted to move Dalon but he couldn’t isolate and latch onto any programme code. All he managed to do was move some of his own memory data to a buffer area in a subsidiary drive. He retrieved that data and then wondered what to do next. He’d been possessed before, often by very dangerous entities. Normally, his comrades had found ways to save him. This time, the little person in his brain was much more innocuous. No one even seemed to be aware of Dalon except him. They were becoming aware of his one-sided conversation and failed upload, though.

“You have an extra mind in your brain, yet we cannot detect it,” said Mandabek, psychic spokesmech of the collective. “You should have told us earlier.” He remote-monitored the whole region regularly, seeking out problems and anomalies.

“That’s not my style,” said Outback. “Still, now that you’ve got in touch, can you explain what’s happening to me?”

“As far as we can tell, this new mind is an alternate personality that you’ve developed while engaging in simulations or perhaps even before that,” replied Mandabek. “Our long lives lead to boredom and disaffection. One way to combat this is to create new personalities and live imaginary lives. In cases like yours, the simulations have bolstered the imagination process. Your thoughts indicate that the alternate personality is rather strong. There is also potential for other personalities of similar strength.”

“This goes against all that we were told before,” said Outback. “We thought that all these minds or personalities were generated by Cybertronian systems, using alien world data for templates.”

“You were also told that the simulator programme was partly experimental,” said Mandabek. “We wanted to see what would happen when such an extensive simulation exercise was carried out. Now, we’re making some discoveries. This one wasn’t a great surprise, though. We knew that you test subjects would make major changes to your personality matrices.”

“What can be done with my split personality?” asked Outback. “Already, it nearly made me fall off a tower.”

“We can’t remove it because it’s part of you,” said Mandabek. “Stay away from heavy work and hazardous activities for now. Assess yourself regularly for further problems. We believe that the new personality will fade away in time.”

“If the simulator programme reactivates, should I rejoin it?” asked Outback. “It’s an excellent way to combat the dullness of our existence. I’ve been learning a great deal there.”

“When the time comes, we’ll make a decision,” said Mandabek. “In the mean time, do your best to find substitutes. You might like to explore nearby star systems. Another possibility is to help us review the experiences of other simulator subjects.”

“I think that I need to get my head together first, so to speak,” said Outback. “It’s a struggle dealing with a major new personality in my long-suffering bonce.” Mandabek acknowledged this and withdrew. Outback knew how to obtain assistance if he needed it.

“If I had access to all this power, I wouldn’t be starving slowly to death in jail back on my world,” said Dalon. “Outback, I’m pleading with you! Save me!” It was very disconcerting. The collective believed that Dalon was part of Outback but Dalon himself was convinced that he was living a separate life on a backwards, repressive, organic world. As an Autobot, Outback wanted to save Dalon but the way was blocked. The collective had decided to shut off the simulators. There was a small chance that Outback could find Dalon’s world with a star ship but those were all strictly controlled. Outback couldn’t steal one because he didn’t have the necessary skills with which to fly it through hyperspace. Besides, Dalon’s world could be in another universe altogether. Most Transformers didn’t have the wherewithal to reach other universes unaided. There was one other option for Dalon and Outback: there might be a prototype simulator in one of the many research institutes scattered across Cybertron. Outback dug around and found out that most of the scientists who had developed the simulators worked in the Ningativo Institute.

“Don’t bother, Outback,” said Mandabek. “We watch everything, especially the Institutes and people like you.”

“Let me investigate,” demanded Outback. “Dalon could be suffering and dying for real!”

“Countless people are doing that right now, throughout the multiverse,” said Mandabek. “We could never save most of them. We’ve been ignoring their plight since we were created. You’ll have to wait, like everyone else.” Outback was becoming increasingly angry.

“Dalon, you said that you wanted power,” he said. “Why don’t you go out there and take it? See if you can navigate the Cybertronian networks and establish some kind of control. They can’t track you. What have you got to lose?” Dalon knew that Outback was right. He’d never done this before but he’d learn as he went along. Outback was happy to see Dalon venture out into an entirely new way of life. He was also relieved that his mind was no longer impaired by a spiritual lodger.

* * * * *
Posts: 265
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: The Transformers explore new worlds and lives from the comfort of home

Postby snavej » Wed May 09, 2018 12:46 pm

A few days later, a squad of Transformers was on an interstellar mission and had reached a star system with a life world. YADWOM was a place of incredible biological riches. It had billions of microbial species to be discovered. People of nearby systems called it Biobank and visited regularly to search for new genetic material. The Transformers gave it a very long official code number. However, the crew tasked with this particular mission of exploration had dubbed it YADWOM, which stood for ‘Yet Another Damned World of Mud’. At present they were still in orbit, taking samples and surveying remotely. Soon, though, they would have to set up a research base. This would involve driving piles up to three kilometres deep, in order to find bedrock and provide a stable foundation for their platform. This didn’t fill them with joy. They had hoped that the job could have been done by robots. Unfortunately, weather conditions were sometimes very challenging and Transformers were needed to oversee the base, taking defensive actions against unpredictable storms at short notice.

“I think that we made a mistake volunteering for this mission,” said Broadside, looking at his screens. “Conditions are grim down there. The storms are very strong and unpredictable. We’ll have to be alert most of the time.”

“How can we remain alert when the scenery on YADWOM is flat and brown with only occasional shallow pools of water?” griped Seaspray. “I hate these horrendous mud worlds. I’m going to go insane!”

“I’m going to block out the tedium by doing a great deal of genetic categorisation and analysis,” said Beachcomber, watching as flashes of lightning illuminated the curve of the globe. “It’s lucky that I’ve developed a flair for it.”

“You know, we’ve been spoilt lately,” said Outback. “There was a time when we would’ve taken this mission in our stride but, after the simulations, our boredom threshold has been lowered drastically.”

“Protecting the habitat from cyclones will be slightly more interesting than sifting brown ooze,” said Broadside. “Yet you do have a point, Outback. I’m missing my organic lives so much!”

“Remember when we try new food for the first time?” said Beachcomber.

“One time, I had an amazing arthropod cutlet,” said Seaspray. “I savoured it immensely, so I ordered four more. Of course, I ate too much. I had to throw up on the way home but it was worth it!”

“I like it when I’m taken by surprise,” said Outback. “On this planet called Sminkle, I needed my vrenchiffs polished. I misread a sign and went into a booth that looked like the right place. I put the two vrenchiffs into a hole in the wall. Four minutes later, they came out covered in diagonal rainbow stripes! I went home and scrubbed them until they bled. The stripes wouldn’t come off. My partners came home and made fun of me for days! After that, I was much more careful with signs, I can tell you!”

“I wish that I was back on Fajakta Moon Twenty,” said Beachcomber sadly. “We had to keep dodging volcanic ejecta and the radiation made us die quickly but the views were spectacular and the jengline patties were divine.”

“There has to be a way out of this YADWOM mission,” said Broadside. “Everyone think hard and consult the collective if they allow it.”

“They won’t,” said Seaspray. “Duty is supposed to override personal preferences.”

“We could consult one of the other races in orbit,” said Outback. “They’ve been researching this planet longer than us.”

“We thought that you’d never ask,” said someone in another star ship. “We gather that you want to be excused from your mission. We could help. May we see an outline of your mission plans?”

“You’re with the Nambarof,” observed Beachcomber. “I’ve been admiring your elegant star ship. Here’s a brief summary of our mission, including diagrams.” He transmitted a small file of information, which was read quickly.

“I’ve found a way that might spare you a stay on Biobank,” said the Nambarof crew member two minutes later. “You don’t need to install a large platform. You sink one pile, put a submerged, automated laboratory on top and have an antenna poking out from the surface for sending data back to you. The antenna has to be very flexible to cope with the high winds.”

“How did we miss that solution?” said Seaspray, exasperated. “Our collective assured us that a platform was necessary. We didn’t question their judgment because they’re usually correct.”

“We didn’t question their judgment because we’ve been preoccupied with those simulations!” said Broadside. “This is embarrassing! It’s lucky that the Nambarof people have helped before we did a lot of unnecessary construction work.”

“Apologies, Broadside and crew,” said the Transformer collective. “As always, we’ve listened to your concerns and have discovered a very rare error in our instructions. The person responsible was Lasrascorr. He also claims that he’s been overly concerned with the many issues raised during the simulations. Please accept our updated instructions. If you wouldn’t mind carrying them out, we’d be very grateful. You may then return to Cybertron or select another deep space mission. We’re still trying to unravel the problems with the simulators. We thank the gracious crew of the Nambarof.”

“Glad to be of service, Cybertron,” said the Nambarof crew member. “We’re leaving now. Our data has been collected. Good luck with your own missions and projects.” The Nambarof ship went into hyperspace.

“Thank Primus that we don’t have to expose ourselves to the muck of YADWOM,” said Outback. “Let’s build this lab, drop it off and go somewhere much snazzier!” The others agreed completely and set to work.

* * * * *

“Sprocket, I haven’t been this scared for a long time,” said Chase as the tangle net pulled itself tighter around him. “The collective is losing cohesion. No one’s answering my calls. What have you heard about it?” Sprocket stood quietly about twenty metres away, at the bottom of ‘simulator canyon’. He was watching thousands of robots working to build new structures, including simulators. Like millions of other Transformers, he ached to return to the simulators for the chance to live as a variety of organic creatures. It involved much petty suffering but also plenty of enjoyment and a deep sense of fulfilment. On the other hand, he agreed that the programme should remain suspended until the collective could establish what exactly went on in the simulators. Where was Menasor’s spark? What was the ‘Dalon’ entity doing here on Cybertron? These were vital questions that needed answers.

“I know that this is a time of great uncertainty,” continued Chase. “Thank you for not reverting to type and killing me instantly. This net is actually quite comfortable, as trapping devices go. Would you mind telling me what you intend to do with me? I have plans for the late evening. I’ll be missed if I’m not there in six hours’ time.”

“With whom are you having a date?” asked Sprocket, turning to face him.

“I’m meeting my old pal Freeway, if you must know,” replied Chase. “He and I are ... wait; we’re not having a date. We’re simply meeting up to drive the seventeen hundred levels of the Relgomfal Megablock. It’s a well-balanced, fairly demanding race work-out.”

“That’s a date on some worlds,” said Sprocket. “You know it very well.”

“This is Cybertron and we have meetings, not organic-type hook-ups,” said Chase. “Why are you even mentioning it?”

“Because I miss it,” replied Sprocket. “Dating simulations let me see a whole new dimension to living. You’re fully aware of that too. You’ve had very similar experiences.”

“That was there and this is here,” said Chase. “Can’t you compartmentalise?”

“Not as well as you, Chase,” said Sprocket. “There comes a point when a person’s strong desires overwhelm his ability to persevere as before. Things have to change.”

“Granted, obviously,” said Chase. “I simply wanted to report this robot activity to the collective. They need to know about it.”

“They already do but they’re not telling everyone,” said Sprocket. “They’re compartmentalising, in a way.”

“That’s utterly wrong,” said Chase. “The collective must maintain full openness. We can’t allow our society to fracture again. We could tip back into war. I don’t want that!”

“We haven’t fallen into the abyss yet,” said Sprocket. “We’re in a curious position: a state of flux. Right now, people don’t know what they want. They’re trying to figure it out.”

“Not in the abyss, eh?” commented Chase. “It’s funny how you said that when here we are, at the bottom of a deep canyon!”

“I don’t choose the landscape, I just work within it,” said Sprocket. “It’s all about adapting to one’s surroundings. We have to follow our intuition, especially when a situation is vague and open-ended.”

“So you support the construction of these new simulators?” queried Chase. “Do you want to keep their existence secret from some people? That could end in disaster. There are hordes of entities out there who want to kill us.”

“We can handle those threats,” responded Sprocket. “We’re still alive and fully functional, despite millions of assaults against Cybertron. We’re one of the greatest powers in the multiverse, thanks to Primus.”

“That wasn’t enough to save billions of our compatriots,” said Chase. “They gave their lives in defence of our world and others. I don’t want to lose more, especially not to enemies that infiltrate via our own technology.”

“It might be the price we have to pay for learning about the lives of organics,” said Sprocket. “I want to learn about them in great detail. It makes me feel more complete as a person. I don’t want to see existence solely through mechanoid sensors.”

“Look, am I your prisoner?” demanded Chase, still lying on the ground. “If so, to which prison will you send me? Don’t you think that questions will be asked?”

“We don’t need a physical prison, just some mental blocks,” replied Sprocket. “We’ll make it so that you don’t mention this matter to anyone for the time being. The new simulators will remain semi-secret, at least in the short term. My group will use them for further exploration of the drama that is organic life.” Chase could already feel some parts of the collective working on him remotely, reprogramming his brain to be more obedient and less liable to reveal secrets. They couldn’t impose complete mental blocks because that would arouse suspicion. Chase would overcome his partial mental blocks in a few months. That should be enough time for certain individuals to enjoy their new simulators and thus enrich their lives. It was worth the risk, they believed.

“What are we going to do now, little buddy?” mused Sprocket. “I’ll be down here, sneaking a ride in other people’s heads. You’ll be somewhere else, finding substitute pastimes. May I recommend some video games? I recently came across ‘Bumbly, child of Fumbly: Hole Explorer’. It’s a lengthy adventure set in a region of unfeasibly large tombs. There’s also the sequel entitled ‘Bumblina Malestina: Convex Kleptrex’. It’s another long-winded slog through a similar environment, picking up large numbers of artefacts. How can a little organic woman carry so much precious material and yet still navigate a challenging obstacle course at speed? Try to suspend your disbelief.”

“I’ll complete the games,” said Chase, his brain being constrained as much as his body. “It’s just a matter of time. It’ll be easy.” His expression had become quite vacant.

“I’ll remove this net and you can get right to it,” said Sprocket, transmitting the release code and retrieving the net from around Chase. “I wish you the best of luck.” Chase rose, nodded, transformed to car mode and drove away. Sprocket hoped that he was doing the right thing. Normally, his intuition was good but he worried that he might be wrong this time. He looked at the simulators taking shape all around him. Would they be a boon to the Transformers or not? Time would tell.

* * * * *

In orbit around an unassuming life world, only two hundred light years from Cybertron, a Transformer star ship found itself in unexpected difficulties. The crew had been secretly prospecting for minerals but they had been discovered by the natives, who had a novel form of psychic power. The Transformers were losing control of their bodies. The teleport team were doing their best to defend the ship while the ore was brought on board. However, even they were rapidly succumbing to the malign local influence.

“Captain Broadside, we must withdraw,” advised one of the teleport psychics. “They’re nixing all our countermeasures. We’re sliding toward shutdown.”

“Beachcomber, do we have enough neodymium?” asked Broadside.

“Yes but I’m having trouble securing the cargo,” replied Beachcomber. “I can’t make the storage holds adjust and close up properly. If the cargo shifts en route, it could throw off our teleportation.”

“Can anyone help Beachcomber?” asked Broadside. “I’d do it myself but I’m almost paralysed.” Several crew members tried to secure the piles of metal-rich rock but none of them could do it, either cybernetically or physically.

“Please hurry!” said another teleport psychic. “We only have a few minutes at best.” On a lower deck, Outback stopped trying to administer first aid to some friends and turned his attention to the holds. He hadn’t dealt with this procedure very often but he managed to arrange the walls of the holds in such a way that the ore wouldn’t tumble around too much during manoeuvres. With a final effort, the teleport team moved the star ship to the next solar system, out of range of the psychic attacks. After recovering, the entire crew thanked Outback.

“Why weren’t you paralysed like the rest of us?” asked Broadside. “You remained fully functional throughout that assault. It doesn’t make sense. You’re basically the same type of person as us. You should have been a victim too.”

“Those organics back there were interfering with our sparks,” said a third teleport psychic. “They were blocking them on a spiritual level so that we couldn’t connect with our bodies or anything else. That was one of the most powerful displays of psychic manipulation that I’ve ever experienced. I’d love to know how you resisted it!”

“I have one idea but you’re not going to like it,” said Outback. “My theory is that I’m the only real person on board. The rest of you are highly convincing fakes. You fooled me for weeks but now I’m going to test my theory and expose you.” He triggered a command programme, hoping that he was wrong. Unfortunately, he was right. He found himself lying inside a familiar small chamber. He opened the door and stepped out. He was still on Cybertron. The deep space mission, with YADWOM and other worlds, had been a lie. He looked up from the canyon floor to the stars above, which he had never actually visited. He had to find out who had put him in this new, hidden simulator. He’d been tricked and abducted. He contacted the collective straight away but they weren’t communicating. He was at home with his people but he’d rarely felt lonelier.

* * * * *

At long last, the enemy host crested the brow of the hill and advanced on the Goarnian forces arrayed behind the river. The enemy’s uniforms were torn and dirty, their skin was smeared with soot and they had many minor injuries, yet they came on steadily as before. They sang their croaky, whistly battle anthems with vigour, if not harmony. They expected to overrun and annihilate the Goarnian forces, which were relatively ill-equipped in comparison. Goarnian General Maxiklazt was determined to overturn that expectation. He had drilled his troops for just this situation. He ordered them to drop into firing positions. They complied very swiftly: it was ‘do or die’ for them all.

The critical mistake of the Bramuvink commander was to assume that the Goarnians couldn’t shoot accurately beyond a hundred metres. It was common knowledge that the Goarnian spangers were outdated and wearing out after years of warfare. Also, the ammunition used was poorly made and thus was rarely on target. Sometimes, it caused misfires and barrel explosions, resulting in injuries and deaths among Goarnian troops. Little did the Bramuvinks know that Maxiklazt had made some improvements. He had ordered makeshift repairs and modifications to all his army’s spangers so that they were now considerably more accurate. Just as importantly, he had ordered his troops to make a better class of ammunition that flew further and faster. Now, his improvements would be put to the ultimate test.

The Bramuvinks gathered two hundred metres away, thinking that they were safe behind the vegetation that lined the fast-flowing river. They sang many insulting ditties about the Goarnians, which also made clear what awful fate would befall the Goarnian women after the Bramuvink victory. Some Goarnians shouted their own insults back across the river. The Bramuvinks were confident, though. They knew that the Goarnians had lost their artillery in yesterday’s surprise attack. That same artillery was now being prepared by its captors to bombard the Goarnians. A spokesman with a very loud voice began entreating the Goarnians to surrender. He promised that they would be fairly treated. Maxiklazt knew that, in this case, ‘fair treatment’ meant swift execution. He ordered his troops to open fire. He then raised his own personal, high-quality spanger and joined in the shooting.

Bramuvinks started falling dead. They weren’t expecting this at all. It shouldn’t have been possible. Hundreds fell in only a few minutes. The others started moving back but many couldn’t make headway because their comrades had pressed in close behind. Further hundreds dropped and bled to death on the purplish-blue sward of the river bank. Belatedly, a wholesale Bramuvink retreat was ordered. All the troops struggled to get away. Some managed to avoid immediate death by hiding behind dead friends or abandoned equipment. In the rear, the artillerymen hurried to prepare their blongers for a retaliatory strike. Some opened fire quicker than others but they hadn’t found their proper range. Their shots fell wide, short or long, causing little damage to the Goarnians. Since the infantry were moving back, Maxiklazt could see the artillery positions more clearly. He reloaded his spanger and opened fire on the nearest blonger crew. With his feared pinpoint accuracy, he killed five out of six men. The last man ducked down behind a small embankment and was safe for a short while. Maxiklazt proceeded to eliminate many more artillerymen before they could fire any effective shots. He single-handedly saved many of his men’s lives.

“You need to leave this little scenario for a while,” said a voice from somewhere on the outside. “I’ve got a job for you in the dreary old real world.” Maxiklazt found himself abruptly yanked out of battle and put back into his original body. He was Treadshot again. He opened his eyes with a start and saw his colleague Whisper standing over him. The simulator was open and Whisper was about to power it down.

“No!” shouted Treadshot. “You’ll not deny me my long-awaited victory!” He grabbed the smaller Whisper and pulled him close, preventing him from deactivating the simulator. He instructed the booth to resume the battle scene and also to bring Whisper into the action. This had never happened before: Whisper was caught completely off-guard and didn’t know what was going on. Treadshot became Maxiklazt once again, corrected his aim and continued firing. Whisper was now a trooper called Dundrhed. He found himself lying at Maxiklazt’s feet, listening to a heavy barrage of spanger fire along with the cries and screams of the Bramuvinks. He had long experience of warfare, so it only took a few moments to realise what was happening.

“Don’t just lie there: fight!” urged Maxiklazt.

“Yes sir!” said Dundrhed, getting up and looking for weapons. He didn’t have any spangers but he had a sharp sword at his side.

“It’s time for an advance,” said Maxiklazt, reloading again. “Swim the river and start slaying survivors on the far side. Be stealthy and swift.”

“That’s my style!” said Dundrhed, adjusting his uniform and sneaking toward the enemy, using bushes as cover. Maxiklazt yelled a command and nearly two hundred of his men joined Dundrhed. They put down their spangers, since the firearms wouldn’t work when wet. They strode into the river, intent on close-quarter combat with the remnants of the Bramuvink front lines. Some of them lost their footing and were swept a short distance down river. Those all recovered, regrouped and advanced on the Bramuvinks’ flank. While the Goarnian swordsmen attacked, some Bramuvinks came forward from the rear to engage them. This was unwise since there was still a great deal of spanger fire coming from the other Goarnians over the river. Further swathes of Bramuvink troops fell. Dundrhed and his spearhead force slashed, stabbed and beat hundreds more Bramuvinks to death. Meanwhile, any stragglers within range were being picked off by Goarnian fire. Maxiklazt gave another signal, ordering another wave of troops to cross the river. These men were told to give their battle cries. At the sight and sound of them, the remaining Bramuvink soldiers lost heart and retreated in a disorderly fashion back up the hill. The new wave of Goarnians had taken their spangers with them across the river, holding the weapons above their heads to keep them dry. When they reached the far bank, they could resume firing within a minute. Panic rose in the Bramuvink troops while the Goarnians kept their nerve and maintained their firing rate. Some Bramuvinks took individual stands and tried to shoot back but they were soon dispatched by advancing Goarnians.

“Can we go now?” asked Dundrhed loudly. He was standing in a lush meadow, surrounded by thousands of dead Bramuvinks and their gear. His sword was completely covered in dark yellow blood, with a few streaks of an unknown green fluid thrown in for good measure. His uniform was also heavily soiled. His fellow Goarnians were checking enemy bodies by running swords through them. The blongers were being turned around to face the retreating enemies, in case of a reversal of fortunes. Maxiklazt was looking carefully at the battlefield, using his telescope to examine the progress of the rout.

“Victory is most probable,” he concluded. “My work here is largely done. The men will finish the enemy. After that, Goarnia will dominate the region for many years. We will make sure that the Bramuvinks never again rise to prominence.”

“That’s lovely,” said Dundrhed, requesting exit from the programme. “Now get your conquering behind out of here.” Maxiklazt did as requested and became Treadshot once again, summoned to other duties by Whisper.

“That was incredibly satisfying!” said Treadshot. “Thanks for playing along. I love a nice, well-organised blood-bath!”

“No problem,” said Whisper. “I only wish that it wasn’t so ... sticky. As an air warrior, I hate it when I’m covered in gunge. It messes up my aerodynamics and delicate workings.”

“Quite so,” said Treadshot. “Now tell me, what’s our urgent task here?”

“Outback’s broken loose and we have to find him,” replied Whisper. “We don’t want him talking to the wrong people about our secret simulators.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said Treadshot. “He’s wily but slow and fairly easy to track. Have you seen him from the air?”

“No, I’m assuming that he’s underground,” said Whisper. “I also believe that he’ll be heading south west. Most of his good friends are in that direction.”

“I have a feeling that he won’t do what we expect,” said Treadshot. “From his point of view, the situation will be rather disturbing, so he’ll take a less obvious route. Let’s scan about.” The two ex-Decepticons began to hunt methodically for the ex-Autobot.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, about a kilometre below them, Outback worried that he was losing his mind. It was pitch black in some tunnels, which created partial sensory deprivation. He had converted into a new vehicular form, which was long and thin with four pairs of small wheels and articulation at the mid-point. It wasn’t very fast but it was better at navigating narrow corridors. As he descended further, the tunnels seemed to become ever narrower. Robots kept passing by and it was increasingly difficult to avoid colliding with them, especially in dark regions with poor acoustics. He kept moving, aware that someone might be searching for him. The weaving journey through a seemingly endless series of cramped passageways soon became routine. He could continue with minimal concentration, leaving him free to contemplate his confusing situation.

It was one of those times when people were trying to screw with his perceptions of reality. Normally, those people would be aliens but this time they were his friends and colleagues. He’d been tricked once so now he ran regular ‘wake up’ routines to avoid being diverted into simulations. The trouble was that his fellow Transformers were veteran hackers and could easily change the way that simulators functioned. It was quite possible that his set of ‘end simulation’ programmes would become obsolete soon. From time to time, he tried to contact the collective but there was no response. He was starting to think that he should avoid the collective for the foreseeable future. It could be corrupted. Unfortunately, without regular contact with the Cybertronian community, Outback was becoming more and more lonely and anxious. He decided that he should stop and hide for a while. He found a maintenance crawl space behind a ceiling panel and pulled himself up into it. He also started using robots as reconnaissance drones, establishing exclusive links to their brains and monitoring their sensors for as long as he could before they wandered out of range. He didn’t see anything out of the ordinary but the exercise felt like a depressing simulation. He was glad that he wasn’t an underground maintenance robot.

To raise his spirits, Outback reviewed some of his recent simulations. He’d experienced hundreds of them over the previous two years. He liked the straightforward ones with few problems involved but they were boring and unchallenging after a while. The more difficult ones required hard work, endurance and creative solutions, so they were draining in every way and he needed more recovery time afterwards. After realising that he could easily be tricked into new simulations without his knowledge, Outback examined the events of the last few years in a fresh light. He wondered what had been real and what had been fake. He wondered about the nature of the simulations. He wondered if some of them were actually real life while some of his supposed ‘real life’ wasn't. Perhaps a great deal of his life had actually been fake. Perhaps all of it was. He clung to pipes, cables and girders in the ceiling structure. Which of them were real? He seemed to have no way to tell. He decided to hide here and slip into stasis for a few hours. Maybe things would be easier to sort out when he awoke afterwards.

Only two hours later, he returned to consciousness and found himself moving. He tried to stop but he couldn’t. His main motive mechanisms had been clamped from the inside. In fact, his internal spaces were packed with small Cybertronian robots that were controlling his body. Other robots were clinging to his exterior and running him through service ducts. Sometimes he was taken along floors but then the robots would carry him across walls and ceilings too. This was a highly unusual situation. Outback hadn’t heard of any precedents. It was also rather uncomfortable to be packed with restraining robots. His transmitters were isolated and shut down, so he couldn’t send any cybernetic instructions. There was nothing that he could do except stay still while he was shuttled to some unknown destination. At least he could relax a little on the way, although he would have preferred a standard tunnel pod. After ten minutes, he found himself being run along the wall of a long, wide corridor. In the distance ahead were two Transformers who Outback recognised.

“What’s that?” wondered Treadshot as Outback hurtled along the left wall. “I’ll try to stop it.” He drew a particle blaster and fired at the unfamiliar figure. He struck glancing blows but Outback was manoeuvred very rapidly and avoided major damage.

“Stop shooting,” warned Whisper. “I think that’s Outback. We’re trying to investigate him, not kill him.” He and Treadshot transformed to jet mode and attempted to follow the uncanny wall racer. They kept pace for a kilometre but then the passage narrowed and they fell behind. Treadshot transformed, drew his blaster again and fired a few times. Outback’s controllers anticipated this and knocked a cable bundle down to block the shots. Outback was once more taken away from danger and deeper into the Cybertronian underworld.

“Frak it to blue blazes, he’s somehow much more capable than usual!” exclaimed Treadshot, disappointed that his legendary sharpshooting hadn’t succeeded in bringing down the fugitive this time. “What are we going to do?”

“Well we have no back-up and the robots aren’t cooperating,” said Whisper. “All we can do is find a quicker route and keep following him. We might also want to convert ourselves to his shape: long and thin. It’s clearly superior in this area.” Treadshot didn’t like it but he had to agree. They changed themselves into fast crawler robots, checked their maps and set off again via different tunnels.

* * * * *

Surge experienced a force combination that was unprecedented. It was mainly emotional and intellectual but it was so strong that it felt physical too. His consciousness was impacted hard: it flickered and came close to shutting down. For a short time, he was lost in some kind of crazy, scene-shifting dream where random people, objects and places came and went unexpectedly. Afterwards, he felt himself moving through a dark realm. He was tumbling end over end, so he used his little gravity impellers to align himself to the direction of travel. As he did so, he wondered how he’d been transported from his quarters to this unknown place. He’d been communing with the collective but there’d been an almighty global argument. Such quarrels had happened before but this one was different. The issues had been extremely complex. On top of that, very strong emotions had been involved. Furthermore, confusion had been unusually prevalent. The argument had been powerful but compromised by a lack of fundamental knowledge. Emotions had been so profound that some Transformers had lashed out at others. No actual physical blows had been traded but there had been plenty of psychic pushing and shoving. Surge remembered being one of those who were shoved. The next moment he was here, hurtling through black space.

“Can anyone hear me?” said a voice over the radio.

“Retro, you’re here too?” asked Surge. “I’ve no idea where we are. I’ll try to find you.”

“Use radar,” said another voice. “When you reunite, come over here to me. We’ll figure out what to do next.”

“Great to hear you, Prowl!” said Retro, scanning for his partner. “I’d better move. Surge is heading away from me at four hundred kilometres per hour.” Retro and Surge corrected their courses and approached one another.

“Are we still in the collective?” asked Surge. “I’m not detecting anyone except us.”

“My brain’s still quivering after being whacked by them,” replied Retro. “I haven’t got my full bearings yet.”

“I’ve been here a little longer than you two,” said Prowl. “They didn’t like my ‘excessive logic’, so they booted me over here. I’ve been trying to analyse this region but it’s been tough. I only have my built-in sensors with which to work. Millimetre waves are the most promising method that I’ve found so far.” Retro and Surge switched to those and found that they could see each other fairly clearly.

“This is the whole problem, isn’t it?” said Surge. “The simulators have made us all doubt where we are and what we’re supposed to do. The uncertainty is tearing us apart.”

“When in doubt, do nothing,” said Retro, quoting an ancient proverb. “I don’t mean that too literally, though. We still have to perform basic functions.”

“We have to stick together,” said Prowl. “If we’re divided, we’re more vulnerable. I hope that the collective sees sense soon.”

“I’m worried about them,” said Surge. “Despite their sky-high intellects, they haven’t come up with the solution to their current problems. Normally, they would have done so by now. Could it be that some force is holding them back?”

“If so, then it’s something that we haven’t detected yet,” said Prowl. “Naturally, I’m not happy about the situation.”

“Why haven’t you figured it all out yet?” asked Retro. “Surely the legendary Prowl’s logic should have been able to kick this riddle to the kerb?!”

“I can give you my best guess but I can’t be conclusive,” said Prowl. “As they say, a gun can’t fire without power. Anyway, I believe that there’s no single force behind the collective’s disharmony. It’s an accidental confluence of many forces.”

“I’m glad that I’m a Transformer right now,” said Surge. “If I were in a simulated organic body, I wouldn’t be able to cope with this oppressive blackness.”

“You’d be dead, most likely,” said Prowl. “We’re in a super-cooled vacuum.”

“It’s strange that it doesn’t feel very cold,” remarked Retro. “Are our thermometers lying to us?”

“Are our skins lying to us?” countered Prowl. “I’ve run a diagnostic and my systems appear to be working normally.”

“Are your diagnostic programmes truthful?” added Surge. “The conclusion is that either we’re in a special area of the collective or we’re in simulators.”

“Or we could be in a weird realm of contradictions,” said Prowl. “Primus knows we’ve seen our share of those during our travels.”

“Can we escape, though?” wondered Retro. “I’ve had enough trouble for one day. I want to go home.”

“We might have to wait for permission,” said Prowl. “The collective is very angry. It needs time to ‘cool down’.”

“Frak, they’ve put us in a ‘time out’ buffer zone!” exclaimed Surge, annoyed. “I never thought that things could deteriorate to this level!”

“I’m scanning as widely as I can,” said Prowl. “Maybe I can crack this place open soon. If you help, we could do it sooner.” Together, the three mechanoids sought an exit from their ebony exile. Unfortunately, the void appeared to be largely featureless. There were tiny energy fluctuations in the distance but nothing much else. The psychic realms were silent, which indicated some kind of blocking. There were no portals around.

“Wait, don’t you two have an auxiliary unit?” asked Prowl. “There’s a missile transporter listed.”

“We hardly ever use it these days,” said Retro. “Perhaps we should try to contact it?”

“Wait for me to reach you!” said Surge. He flew on for another minute and then reached his partner. They transformed to vehicle mode and linked up. Propelling themselves toward Prowl, they used maximum transmission capability to reach out to their extra unit. It felt good to have this special ability, where they could operate jointly and thus boost their power.

“Is that it?” asked Retro as he made contact with something on the outside.

“It feels right!” said Surge excitedly. “This is amazing, isn’t it?!”

“Maintain contact until you reach me,” instructed Prowl. “We can link up and leave together.” Retro and Surge did so. Anchored by his magnetic feet to an unidentified floating platform, Prowl reached out and caught the two-part vehicle with his hands. He set it down on the platform and then linked into Retro and Surge’s systems through his fingers. He could sense their connection to the missile transporter, which was gathering dust in their quarters. Carefully, they tried to find a way to return to the transporter. There was some psychic resistance. They increased their efforts to drag themselves back home. It wasn’t their strong suit but they gave it their all. A few minutes later and the resistance seemed to yield.

“This is it!” said Retro.

“Everyone heave!” said Surge. They all did. Afterwards, they looked around. The darkness was still there. They hadn’t moved.

“What’s this?” queried Prowl, feeling a vehicle touching his leg.

“Oh no, it’s the transporter!” cried Retro in dismay. “We’ve pulled it in here!”

“Rivet me to the wall, we’re really trapped now!” complained Surge. “Damn this place, wherever it is!”

“How is this possible?!” said Prowl in exasperation.

“Those miserable experience junkies out there: they’re to blame for this!” ranted Retro.

“Wait, maybe they’re not!” said Prowl.

“I have to play my hunches!” said Retro. He commanded the missile transport to fire its payload. Two very powerful missiles raced away in a cloud of gas and smoke.

“That won’t help!” said Surge.

“Let’s see!” said Retro, grim-faced.

“Maniacs like you are as much of a problem as the arguing collective!” said Prowl. Retro glared at him and then looked back at the missiles. They exploded many kilometres away. The blasts seemed insignificant in the distance.

“We could have done something more constructive with them,” said Prowl. “At least we have the transport itself now. We could use that.” As he spoke, the shockwave from the explosions reached them.

“What the hell?” queried Surge. “There shouldn’t be a shockwave in a vacuum!”

“It’s no ordinary wave,” said Retro. “I think that I destabilised this dimension. Hang on!”

“Oh, they weren’t physical missiles!” said Prowl as their odd little pocket of space fell apart around them. The three Transformers were subjected to another barrage of thoughts and feelings from the collective. This time, it wasn’t so focused and forceful. Nevertheless, it was harrowing. So many Transformers felt lost, inadequate, bewildered and undecided. The simulations were putting them all through the mill, although most had not experienced them directly. All around, Cybertronian systems were struggling. In the centre, Primus himself was beset by countless crises. Prowl, Retro and Surge were appalled to see the chaos rising up remorselessly. They had to do whatever they could to help. First, though, they had to find out where they were going.

* * * * *

As time went by and the debate raged on ceaselessly in the Transformer collective, someone eventually noticed that one of the most prominent thinkers had stopped communicating. Messages were being sent, apparently from him, but they were repeats of previous ones: they were automated sets of recordings. A team was tasked with assessing the condition and whereabouts of the scientist called Brainstorm. He’d been arguing brilliantly in favour of the simulator programme. He’d shown his displeasure at its suspension. Now, he’d dropped out of circulation but he was still registered as being fully immersed in the collective. He was such an important figure in Cybertronian science that locating him was a high priority. The search team didn’t have an easy ride. Many in the collective wanted people like Brainstorm to disappear or at least be quiet, so they hindered the team. It was only with mass support from others that the seekers made progress. They made standard sweeps of cyberspace but with no luck. They interfaced with planetary systems to check if he was hiding anywhere outside the collective but he wasn’t. Next, they made a general sweep for anomalies and they found something incredible. There was a simulator hidden inside the collective.

As news spread, the Transformers realised that this was potentially very dangerous. Some unknown forces could be lurking inside, which might leak out and damage the collective or even Cybertron itself. Dismantling the simulator was proposed but Brainstorm had linked it to a million and a half Transformer brains. Shutting it down from the outside would require disconnecting all those Transformer brains individually, which would be a very lengthy task. It would undoubtedly be easier to find Brainstorm and have him do it. Given Brainstorm’s position on simulators, it was likely that he was inside his latest creation. It seemed that someone would have to follow him in to coax him out. That was easier said than done. No one knew how to access the new simulator. Thousands of people claimed to have special privileges, passwords, codes or other information related to the virtual device but none of them were useful. It was worrying that so many Transformers had believed the lies, thinking that they had access when simple checks would have shown otherwise. The search team would have to crack open the simulator their own way.

In the end, Brainstorm emerged before they’d reached him. The esteemed and fearless researcher appeared very confident. Those who knew him well could see by his manner that he was pleased with his progress. The search team told him that his simulator would have to be dismantled and requested that he help them do it. He agreed to do it readily. He triggered an opening sequence and the simulator unravelled. From each component came special programmes. In fact, they were instructions for radical brain augmentations. These programmes flowed rapidly outwards through the collective, attaching themselves to large numbers of Transformer minds. Once in place, the programmes caused those Transformers to redevelop their brains in particular ways. Some people welcomed the changes, others waited to see the results and a third group fought to stop the process. Those unaffected tried to help those who were struggling against the programmes. In most cases, it was too late. The programmes had been designed to do their work quickly and thoroughly. Millions of Transformers found their brains changing. They then began to think in different ways. They started to emulate organic people.

The collective was stunned for a few moments. Brainstorm had caused a massive change very quickly. What should be done about it? Some people advocated waiting to see what would happen next. Others recommended quarantine of those affected. A few advised putting the changed brains in stasis. Consensus would be hard to achieve. Even as the discussion went on, some were deliberately concealing those who had the altered brains. Tell-tale traces were being covered up as far as possible. These methods wouldn’t work for long because secrecy was very difficult to achieve in a telepathic society. However, they allowed a little time for the special programmes to be spread further. Under cover of discord, the highly complex brain-altering plans were making major inroads into the Cybertronian population. Some people, seeing the scale of the problem, called on Primus to help. He refused to do so. It wasn’t clear why. Was he simply too busy or was there another reason?

As alien thought patterns proliferated rapidly, the collective could see that they were highly disruptive. Although the changes were widely welcomed, order and stability needed to be maintained. For the time being, millions of people had to be suspended from the collective. Automated systems dispassionately ejected them from the network and prevented them from rejoining. Anyone with a certain level of brain alteration had to be kept out until risk assessments had been carried out. Across Cybertron, these Transformers found themselves dumped out and suddenly alone. Most were totally preoccupied with their own ruminations. They were calm and trouble-free but they had great difficulty doing any useful work. A few hundred thousand Transformers found themselves angry. Most of these did nothing worse than complain to their neighbours about various matters, both domestic and foreign. About five thousand became agitated and even violent. They had to be subdued, either through patient negotiation or more physical means. There were hundreds of fights and chases that day, in locations scattered across the whole planet. A few dozen people were injured and three died in freak accidents. The brain change outbreak was contained for now but the contamination (if one could call it that) was very widespread. Furthermore, it was still contagious. Cases of direct person-to-person transmission started to appear. Affected people had to be locked in their quarters or wherever was sufficiently secure. Even that level of containment might not be enough. Some people were caught trying to release others from their confinement. It was a worrying time. The collective would have to work hard to stamp out this latest epidemic. After that, they would have to address the root cause: the disagreement about the value and safety of simulators.

* * * * *
Posts: 265
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: The Transformers explore new worlds and lives from the comfort of home

Postby snavej » Wed May 09, 2018 12:47 pm

Treadshot snapped awake with a nasty headache and let fly a string of furious profanities. He was in the depths of Cybertron. He’d been pursuing a renegade through uncomfortably narrow tunnels. He remembered tapping into a power conduit with his friend Whisper when they were bombarded by overwrought sensations and malware from the collective. He checked the time. It appeared that they’d been unconscious for three hours. Outback had probably escaped by now, unless he had been hit by the same psychic hammer blow as them. Treadshot was fuming. He could see that Whisper was still unconscious, so he prodded him in the flank with his foot. It was best for them to return to the surface and reassess their options. At that moment, a small robot scuttled past. Treadshot grabbed it.

“Where’s Outback?” he demanded.

“How would I know?” asked the robot.

“Your friends took him for a ride far into the depths,” said Treadshot. “We asked why but they wouldn’t say. I want answers or else I’ll rip you in half.”

“Try it!” said the robot defiantly. “You’ll get the same treatment from my crew.”

“You aren’t normally so threatening to Transformers,” observed Treadshot. “What’s got into you?”

“There was a big psychic pulse,” said the robot. “We all felt it, except those who were shielded. Things have changed globally. Many Transformers are spiritually different now. You’re not the pure Primus creations you used to be. That means we don’t regard you as sacrosanct anymore.”

“Huh, is that so?” queried Treadshot, surprised. “How do you measure it?”

“Intuitively,” replied the robot. “As a rough guide, you’re a nine out of ten in ‘Primusness’. Your pal Whisper has dropped down to a four or five. You’ll have to watch him carefully.”

“Thanks for the tip,” said Treadshot. “If this is all true, the situation is quite different now. I’ll let you go.”

“Much obliged,” said the robot as it was placed on the floor. “I’ll get back to work.” It crawled away, leaving Treadshot pondering. He probed Whisper telepathically and discovered that his friend’s mind felt radically altered. His instinct was to put Whisper in stasis and tow him back to the surface. He followed the usual procedure and extracted some small wheels from Whisper’s body, to enable the towing. He transformed to crawler mode, attached a tow-bar and began the journey. He hadn’t travelled more than a kilometre, dodging debris and robots, when Whisper regained consciousness. Treadshot had half-expected it, suspecting that the brain changes had enabled Whisper to circumvent his stasis mode. The awoken Whisper looked around anxiously and then started screaming loudly. Treadshot cursed and kept moving for a minute until Whisper stopped him by digging his claws into the ground. Several robots were looking at the duo.

“Keep your arms straight and locked,” advised Treadshot. “I’ll take you home but it’s a difficult journey. We should arrive there in four hours, if you behave and don’t delay us.” Whisper carried on screaming. He sounded odd, like an organic creature. Treadshot had heard infants cry like this on several worlds.

“Just lift your frakking arms, you imbecile!” said Treadshot. “If you don’t, I’ll dismantle you.” Whisper wouldn’t comply. He started hitting the floor with his arms and legs.

“Threats and insults won’t work, tracker,” said someone behind Treadshot. “I’ll help you but we have to do things my way.”

“Ah Outback, so now you choose to come forward?!” exclaimed Treadshot. “Why have you doubled back and deigned to join us?”

“I returned, your fearsomeness, because of the new situation,” said Outback, rolling into view behind Whisper. “You need help and so do millions of others around the world. These brain changes are misguided and very risky. We need to put them right or at least mitigate their effects.”

“How?” asked Treadshot, doubting if they could do any good.

“Well, in my case, I was unaffected by the psychic pulse,” replied Outback. “The robots put me in a shielded location. Also, I’m very good at dealing with most kinds of organics. In your case, I believe that your role will be as back-up. If I fail in my endeavours, you’ll be on hand to shoot any uncontrollable crazies.”

“I can do more than just shoot,” said Treadshot. “Don’t reduce me to a stereotype.”

“Fair enough,” said Outback. “Now let me mind-link with Whisper and try to help him.” Outback did so and discovered that Whisper was ‘dreaming’ about other lives, on other worlds. In effect, he was in a simulation without using a simulator.

“Oh good, he’s stopped wailing and thrashing about,” noted Treadshot. “Keep it up, Outback!”

“Whisper, can you hear me?” said Outback telepathically. “Are you in here at all?” There was no response but Outback could tell that Whisper was experiencing an organic life, only in ‘fast forward’. He was growing up and maturing.

“Could you please exit this life and deal with reality for a short while?” requested Outback.

“Why is it that I have a stupid voice in my head?” asked Whisper crossly. “Lives like these are precious and shouldn’t be interrupted by damned uppity machine-type weirdoes! Leave me be!”

“I asked nicely,” said Outback. “Now I’ll have to get tough.” He used his experience of simulators to accelerate Whisper’s organic life further. Whisper experienced a frenzy of activity as the years flashed by and he rushed into decrepitude.

“Gnaaarrgh!!!” yelled Whisper deafeningly as he tore through an organic lifetime at a completely excessive speed.

“Fine, you should be ready to go,” said Outback. “Pick a suitably thin body shape, shift into it and let’s get out of here.”

“You abominable torturer, I’ll finish you!” said Whisper, outraged. With an effort, he reverted to his original jet mode and opened fire on Outback. Highly developed reflexes allowed Outback to dive out of the way as a fusillade blew a smoking hole in the corridor wall.

“You ripped my incarnation away from me!” ranted Whisper. “You’re beyond disgusting! I’ll always hate you!” Treadshot leapt on top of him and slammed him to the floor. Whisper fired more shots and made another, lower hole in the wall.

“Stop, you fool!” exclaimed Treadshot. “Don’t damage the structures down here. The robots aren’t so friendly at the moment. They could pile in and reduce us to scrap!”

“But who’s going to give me my life back?” demanded Whisper. “I want Outback’s head for this!”

“We’ll sort it all out back on the surface,” said Treadshot as calmly as he could manage. “Please try to bear with us. We’re not here to hurt you.”

“Well you just did!” shouted Whisper. “On the inside, I’m in agony!”

“If you’d let me, I could put you in stasis...” said Outback.

“Shut your frakking ugly mouth!” spat Whisper. “Treadshot can do it.” Quickly, it was done.

“I hope that it holds this time,” said Treadshot. “If he’s really in pain, he should welcome unconsciousness.”

“Sorry about all that,” said Outback. “I wasn’t expecting an attack. He’s changed so much. I couldn’t predict it.”

“At least I wasn’t his target,” said Treadshot gratefully. “Let’s get him back into the right shape.” They manipulated Whisper back into a form suitable for tunnel travel and took him slowly back home. On the way, he twitched a fair amount, which was a small indication of what awaited them ahead.

* * * * *

What’s my name? I think that it’s Skrinkex. I’m not convinced. It might be Daphelza. That sounds too yesterday. Agliu-8824 seems appropriate. Why does Bhijoplaz Gyph spring to mind? I’m in trouble here. My surroundings keep changing. My thoughts are mostly out of control. I’m drifting hither and thither. It feels like other people are dragging me around, as if I’m on a leash. I can’t see them but I sense their presence, obscured by the awful supernatural haze. I try to rush at them but I have little self-control. I can’t move in a straight line. They’re forcing me to zig zag haphazardly. I have no idea how to escape. This is beyond my capabilities. I’m not sure that I should escape. My emotions are fluctuating rapidly. One minute, I’m feeling worried and then the next I’m contented. I don’t know what’s coming next. I can’t plan anything like this. I’m in a prison that’s been designed by an evil genius. I’m being kept permanently off-balance. Primus help me! Maybe if I keep resisting long enough, I’ll be able to slip out. Even if I do, where will I go? I have no idea if there’s a way out of the haze. It seems to cover a large area. I might die before I reach the edge. My energy’s finite and will soon drain away. There’s no food or drink in sight.

“Agliu, time to sleep,” says a voice. “Come to the repose-nests. Leave your handicrafts for tomorrow.” I rush to obey, heading for the repose-nests with great purpose. The unknown draggers try to stop me but I know the way. I can hold them off by following my instincts and doing what my family wants. I flop into my personal nest, which is very reassuring. My sleep approaches at great speed. As I tip over the edge, I feel myself being yanked into another realm. I’m tired but I can see that I’m back in reality, or at least what passes for it here.

“Treadshot, stay with me,” says the voice. “Don’t let them pull you away. I doubt that I can keep rescuing you indefinitely.” Memories leak back in. I don’t have to look at him to know him.

“You sound different, Outback,” I say. “It’s as if you’re imitating an organic but the programme’s malfunctioning badly.”

“We’re in a very bad situation, I’m afraid,” says Outback. “It’s even affecting our voices.”

“What situation?” I ask.

“The simulations are out of control,” explains Outback. “They’re taking over the world. Millions of people are already stuck in them. More are being dragged in all the time. Worse than that, the simulations are overwriting the laws of physics on Cybertron.”

“What makes you think that?” I query the old rust bucket.

“You do, actually,” says Outback. “A few minutes ago, you tried to shoot a few things in the distance, in an effort to stop the madness. Your shots are normally on target but these ones changed direction in mid air and hit the wrong targets. After that, you were sucked into a mish-mash of simulations. It must have been very disconcerting.”

“True but I’ve had worse times,” I say bravely. “I’ll do what I can to avoid such traps in future. Are we close to home yet?”

“Obviously I can’t tell,” says Outback tersely. “The reality breakdown is warping space-time.”

“Then what the hell are we going to do?” I ask. “Is there no end to this backfiring recreation?!”

“I have a plan,” says Outback, seeming nervous yet confident. “I’ll have to carry it out. I’m better at this than you. Wait here. Don’t shoot anything. I’ll try to be back shortly.” He allows himself to lose consciousness and drop into a simulation. I have no option but to sit with him in this twisted landscape that used to be my home. It’s not exactly a barrel of laughs but at least it’s different and thus somewhat interesting.

* * * * *

I land in this latest environment with a specific mission in mind. I’m a quasi-commando creeping through a peaceful, cheery, alien land. I feel out of place. Maybe someone has picked this simulation to make me feel that I’m wrong? I’ve lived so long that such underhanded tactics are familiar to me, so I can deal with them. I search for the locus. It isn’t hard to find. There’s a multi-armed creature sitting under a giant glass mushroom. Its body is like a very thick strand of rope with an intricate knot on top. There are disciples sitting around it, in a spiral formation. To reach the centre without disturbing anyone, I have to follow the spiral inwards. Around and around I go, seeing the ‘guru’ from all sides amid the formation of followers. Within two minutes, I’m next to the guru. I sit like the others and begin my interrogation. The guru is glowing very weirdly, which is unsurprising since this is a crossover point between several simulations.

“There are gaps that I can’t fill,” says the guru. “I’m doing my best but I can’t stretch myself far enough. I’m a fraud. My people here should be told. I’ve been drawing on other realities but still I can’t make myself into the right shape. That’s so ironic, isn’t it?!”

“Yet you knew it all along, Zelkain,” I say. “You’re pushing beyond your natural limits. Actually, we’ve all been doing that lately. We should pull back. These lives are not meant for us, except as short experiences. I know that your changed brain hungers for simulations but your spark is the same as always.”

“This is so difficult, Outback,” says Zelkain. “I’ve known plenty of pain in the past but this one cuts to my core.”

“Maybe so but you can still bear it,” I say. “All you need is extra time to heal afterwards. Be bold as you always were before.” Zelkain undulates each arm in turn, snapping the end of each like a whip. It’s symbolic of his efforts to shake off the simulation addiction. The disciples start copying him and there are several hundred whip-crack noises all around the spiral. I peer into the connected simulations and see other Transformers, in various organic guises, following Zelkain’s lead. It’s a promising start. Already, they’re starting to see that they’re on the wrong path. Who set them on it? I hear a name repeated again and again: Brainstorm. He and I will have to talk afterwards, if he’s still around. I emerge from the simulation to find Cybertron’s turmoil gradually reducing. Treadshot and Whisper aren’t where I left them. I see some jet scorching on the ground nearby. I can see from the scorch marks that they took off in a north-westerly direction. I look over there and see two bodies smouldering in the distance. I transform and drive over there. I have to go slowly and also deal with at least three attempts to haul me into other simulations. Eventually, I reach the two hapless trackers. They’ve crash-landed at unexpected angles. I can tell because they didn’t have time to brace themselves and so took the full force of the impacts. Consequently, their injuries are fairly severe.

“What did you do?” I ask.

“That famous flyer Whisper promised to take me on the adventure of a lifetime,” says Treadshot deliriously. “The next thing I knew, we were hitting an invisible wall and now we’re hurting on this cold, hard ground. He’s a great big fool. I should never have trusted him. Will this pain never stop?” I link to his systems and shut down the pain. Next, I turn my attention to Whisper.

“It’s not like you to embrace the chaos!” I say to the little jet lying awkwardly on the buckled steel plating. Immediately, he hauls me into his current simulated reality, inside his mind. His knobbly tentacles seize me and I’m thrown to the floor. I try to heave him off but he tangles my own tentacles with some kind of web.

“This is only a minor misfortune!” he hisses in my face. “I’ll be fine again in no time. I’ll keep finding new places to explore, where I can grow as a person.” He seems to imply that he’ll be moving on soon.

“Are you tired of this place already?” I ask pointedly. “What’s wrong with it? Perhaps you’ve been duped!”

“You dare to say that after what you did earlier?!” he snarls. “You’re trying to sabotage my life again!” He keeps me pinned down but he’s sensing something happening around him. I can feel it too. The new wave of simulations is faltering and failing. I see his expression change. I’m not too familiar with the facial forms of this species but I guess that he’s dismayed and a little scared. People around him are realising that they’re not cut out for long-term, simulated lives. He can see that his time here is nearly over. Like so many of us, he’s an ultra-veteran. He knows when it’s time to change course. This time, though, it’s considerably tougher than usual. He climbs off me and flops down in the mud, tentacles spread out.

“Alright, I give up,” he mutters. “The collective will soon shut down our internal simulations. However, I still hate you Outback. That’s going to continue for a very long time.”

“All you have to do is avoid me as much as possible,” I advise. “Stick with your real friends. I’ll probably still be there when you need me later.” He says nothing else. I leave him to exit the simulation in his own time. Back in the real world, I call for medical help. Doctors are unwilling to risk themselves in the fractured landscape but they send drones, some of which reach us to provide first aid. I watch and help a little as the two trackers are patched up ready for transport to proper repair bays. Cybertron is settling down around us. It has weathered the storm of delusion. I’m relieved.

* * * * *

“So, are you going back to normality now?” asked Dalon as he walked beside Outback through the canyon complex.

“Hah, normality is usually indistinguishable from abnormality on Cybertron these days!” said Outback. “What I can say is that we’ve pulled back from Brainstorm’s global simulator free-for-all. It was too disruptive, even for us. It was only here for a few days, yet it caused significant psychological trauma to a few million people. We’ll be sticking to regular simulator rations as before.”

“Wait, have you determined whether your simulations are real or computer generated?” enquired Dalon. “That unresolved issue was what caused a shutdown not long ago.”

“When one operates at our level, one realises that there is little distinction between reality and artificial constructs,” answered Outback. “This is where Brainstorm’s scheme was actually helpful. It showed us conclusively that the simulations are a sort of bridge between our Great Database and the multiverse. The former is now so powerful and comprehensive that it has become intimately linked to the latter.”

“Well, blow me down!” exclaimed Dalon. “You know, I’ve been on Cybertron for twelve days now and I’m still just as impressed as I was on the first day. Everything’s superlative here. Look at how quickly that tower’s being rebuilt. On my world, such a feat would be impossible. We don’t have the materials or machinery.”

“We’ve worked so hard to advance ourselves,” said Outback. “However, these simulators have demonstrated that we don’t have the ‘right stuff’ to live as organics. Our sparks are wrong for that. Square pegs don’t fit into round holes, at least not snugly.”

“Why did you have to bring that up?!” said an angry voice from Outback’s right. “I’ve made a monumental effort to fit into organic worlds and now you go around saying it’s not my place to do so!” Outback turned to see five guns pointed at him. Emerging from a side door to the nearest simulator suite was a heavily armed warrior called Ralasen. He’d been a strong advocate of simulator use and self-improvement. Outback had long considered him to be slightly unbalanced. Ralasen was so focused on Outback that he didn’t notice Dalon, who was occupying a new, giant body.

“Dalon, if you please!” said Outback, doing his best to stay cool-headed. Dalon reached down and wrapped his large fingers carefully around Ralasen, who was taken aback. He knew this hand well. He had faced it in battle a few times before. Dalon lifted Ralasen up to his face. Ralasen’s guns were blocked by Dalon’s fingers.

“Leave us alone and go back to your simulations,” said Dalon. “We’re not stopping you from bettering yourself. We can’t hold back progress. You’ll get more done through your normal activities, rather than armed conflict.”

“Er, the simulators were shut down here,” said Ralasen anxiously. “That’s why I’m so frustrated.”

“There are new simulators at the bottom of the canyon,” said Outback. “I saw them only yesterday. Word hasn’t reached everybody yet. Get yourself down there and bag one!” Dalon put Ralasen down on the other side of the street.

“Thanks Outback,” said Ralasen, chastened. “I didn’t know. Also, I have simulator fatigue. The scenarios can be very demanding.” He leapt over the side rail and dropped into the canyon. Dalon was tall enough to see Ralasen transform to flight mode and swoop down toward the base of the canyon.

“Take it easy, little friend!” said Dalon as Ralasen sped away.

“I’m VERY glad that you took over Menasor’s body,” said Outback. “I could have been another simulator casualty, thanks to that kook Ralasen.”

“Are you sure that you want to continue with the simulator programme?” asked Dalon. “I mean, isn’t it causing too much trouble for your planet?”

“Actually, the collective is still keen to pursue it,” replied Outback. “I know that it seems weird but, as a race, we’re accustomed to trouble. We thrive on it. If we learn lessons in the process, all the better. We’re going to carry on.”

“It might not be the best time for the programme,” persisted Dalon. “I’ve been consulting the Database and talking with some of your people. I know about the other big threats facing Cybertron. What about those dark gods who always seem to be lurking in every galaxy? What about Brainstorm and other saboteurs like him?”

“We’ve got all that covered,” said Outback. “Brainstorm is a little unstable, like Ralasen there. The only difference is that he’s much more intellectual. Occasionally, he needs to be taken aside for a long, detailed chat to set his mind at ease. His friends Highbrow and Chromedome normally take care of that. The same goes for all the other nervous, genius types. We look after our own. The collective is our safety net.”

“I look forward to the day when my world has its own collective,” said Dalon. “Then, all the religious dogma and conflict will be consigned to history.” Outback nodded and they walked on together.

“What do you think that you’ll do now?” asked Outback. “Could you bear to go back to your own world?”

“I will have to go back eventually,” answered Dalon. “I don’t want my family to worry about me. Also, I feel overwhelmed by the grandeur of Cybertron, even if I have this mighty gestalt under my control.”

“I understand,” said Outback. “So many people say the same thing, even Transformers now and then. Wait, I’m detecting someone approaching. He says that it’s urgent.”

“The mind of Menasor; I feel it,” said Dalon. “My mechanisms are twitching but I’m not leaving yet.” Two shuttles arrived and landed. A squat, ugly vehicle drove down the ramp of the first shuttle and parked itself at Dalon’s feet.

“Begone, illegal possessor!” said the vehicle. “That is MY glorious form! You have three seconds!”

“Sorry but you have no power right now,” said Dalon. “I have established full control in here.” He rested his right foot on the vehicle, thus immobilising it. The mind of Menasor raged and called for help. Traimar said that he would come as soon as he could, along with his army of robot enforcers.

“He’s sneakier than he appears,” said Prowl, who had emerged from the second shuttle. “He gave us the slip for a few minutes. He took everyone by surprise when he commandeered this missile transport.”

“We’re deeply embarrassed,” said Retro, walking behind Prowl. “Our link to the transport was too weak. He seized his chance and hijacked it.”

“He came out of nowhere,” said Surge, walking next to Retro. “We had no warning. We were attempting to leave the collective’s ‘sin bin’ when he showed up.”

“I sense that he won’t rest until he evicts me,” said Dalon. “That’s fair enough. However, I feel that I should take this opportunity to take care of some business of my own.” He stepped off the transport, quickly picked it up and put it upside down on a nearby section of flat roof. It spun its wheels uselessly.

“I’m going home,” said Dalon. “I’m running out of time if I want to carry out my plan.”

“Good luck but don’t go too crazy,” said Outback, aware of Dalon’s intentions. “Your civilisation is fragile.” Dalon smiled and walked over to a large simulator suite.

“What’s he going to do?” asked Prowl.

“He’s returning home,” said Outback. “I’m not standing in his way.”

“He’s not in his original body,” Prowl pointed out. “We could build a quick replica for him; otherwise he’ll end up appearing as...”

“This is what he wanted,” interjected Outback. “His society needs some, shall we say, adjustments.”

“Oh, I see,” said Prowl, being fully cognisant with the capabilities of Dalon’s new, giant body. “Those poor people: they’re going to be pulverised.” Meanwhile, Dalon had entered the simulator and was searching for his home world. Soon, he would find it and materialise in it. He wouldn’t have Menasor’s actual body but rather an excellent simulation of it. He would then be able to reform his society, one way or another. Menasor’s actual body would return to its rightful owners.

“So, what have been your best simulations so far?” asked Outback as they waited for Traimar to arrive. “Mine was as a seashore dweller called Jephela. She had a wonderful life and had just found a new man.”

“Ice farmer on Confar Seven,” said Surge. “I could create some incredible crystals using bits of rubbish as seeds.”

“Magical elf on Diperadon,” replied Retro. “I was impelled to protect this ‘Princess’ but she deliberately put herself in more jeopardy every time that I saved her. Still, it was fun solving the puzzles as I pursued her, again and again.”

“Star performer in the Ol-Imersol Deputy Proconsul Harem, Gling’s World,” said Prowl. “My favourite part was computing the maximum coinage that I could extract from the Master and his eunuchs.” The others stared at Prowl for a few seconds.

“What?” asked Prowl, unsure why they were staring.

“This is weird,” said Surge. “Prowl worked in a harem! That’s so uncharacteristic. Maybe we’re still in a simulation.”

“Maybe, Shoffounis!” said Outback. Retro and Surge looked at each other. Now Outback had said something weird. Just when they thought Cybertron couldn’t get any stranger, it went one step further.
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Transformers Podcast: Twincast / Podcast #213 - How to Say Expensive and Mean It
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