In the distant future, in an alien universe, the Transformers struggle to cope

Discussion in 'Transformers Fan Fiction' started by snavej, Jul 6, 2010.

  1. snavej

    snavej Zone 6 dweller, off-peak traveller

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    Bottleneck at the Border (c) John H. Evans, April – June 2010

    “I have to be in paraconsciousness,” thought Tyblayn as he sprinted across the debris field towards the nearest cluster of block remnants. “I’ve never done anything remotely like this before. Why am I made of heavy metal?” His sensors warned him of incoming projectiles and he ducked right, lay flat on his front, rolled over and stood up to run again. His alternative mode was unavailable due to a damaged wheel assembly and couplings. The enemies were hampered by the rough terrain and couldn’t pursue in vehicle modes but they were still gaining on him. It was time to shoot back. In mid-stride, he swivelled his upper body around and fired a few motion-seeking rounds before turning again and accelerating into the shadows of the ruins. He could hear two of the pursuers explode, scattering their parts into the welcoming ground. That had been successful. It should be repeated. At least it would distract him from the weird contortions that his body could do now. He swerved left into a deeper shadow, rotated and fired again. From his right, he could sense something quite unnerving flying at him. It was apparently black but with tiny scintillations of colour playing at its edges. He had no time to react before it was upon him.

    “Hassiem, this is surely from the realm below!” protested Tyblayn inwardly as he was enveloped by the blackish mass. “Don’t let them take me!” The stuff felt incredibly odd: in patches it was cold but elsewhere it was warm or hot. Random electrical discharges raked his armoured skin while equally random power drains sucked the electrons from his systems. Despite his sophisticated sensors, he could see nothing. His sense of smell was also reduced, though not eliminated. He could still hear fairly well. His bodily control was being degraded, especially around his arms, head and chest. His legs were still mostly unaffected. He tried to carry on running, hoping that he was facing in the right direction. An electro-whip struck his flailing arm, curling around it and delivering its characteristic shock while bringing him to a halt and causing him to fall over. “This must be the end,” reckoned Tyblayn sadly, lying awkwardly on the floor. “A few more seconds until the final blow, surely. I may never find out why I look like this, why I vaguely resemble a male warrior biped.”

    “That was just a tiny taste, a miniscule sample of our history,” said a disembodied voice, interrupting the simulated action. “Would you like more? We have innumerable memory files that you can experience telepathically.”

    “I have a choice?” queried Tyblayn. “I was supposed to be dead here on this desolate junk plain.”

    “Ah, we have overwhelmed your mind,” said the voice. “The simulation was so enthralling that you forgot where you were. You have our apologies. We have become so powerful that our slightest action can cause mayhem. Please awaken into your proper reality.” As requested, Tyblayn did so. Nal-she was back to her old self, in nal-her proper body, on the planet that nal-she had recently discovered.

    “Collective preserve me,” nal-she whispered in awe. “Never in my wildest dreams could I conceive of such things. Your ancient wars were completely terrifying but I can see that they were only one aspect of your incredible society.”

    “Incredible, yes, but I fear that we have lost our way,” said the voice. “We think that we have travelled too far, done too much, conquered more territory than any species should. We are weary of that life. We believe that it is time to end it and to find a new path. However, this universe confuses us greatly and we need help to adjust. Can you help us in any way?”

    “That’s absurdly unlikely!” laughed Tyblayn despite nal-herself. “You seem to be the wisest people that I could ever meet, yet you say that the universe confuses you! What possible hope is there that I could give you any adequate explanations?! You may as well ask this rock or some moonbeams!”

    “This is not our universe,” said the voice. “We were brought here as servants of our god.”

    “So, you could ask your god for advice,” Tyblayn pointed out.

    “He is as confused as us,” countered the voice.

    “Oh,” said Tyblayn, nonplussed. Nal-she paused for a moment.

    “You people, whoever you are!” nal-she pronounced. “Truly, you are hecto-sclaffed!” Nal-she dislocated her arms and laid them on the side-rests, to ease their tension.

    “Not necessarily,” said the voice. “There is always hope. We will read your mind and glean what we can from it. There may be clues to help us out of our predicament.”

    “I can hardly stop you,” said Tyblayn. “While you’re in there, perhaps you can explain that black mass, that weapon that hit me during paraconsciousness. It felt like something from another universe, in fact.”

    “Indeed it was,” said the voice. “In return, you could show us how your six-gendered society works.”

    “Or doesn’t work,” said Tyblayn regretfully. Nal-she relaxed as best as nal-she could and let the
    unseen aliens gingerly comb through nal-her memories.

    * * * * *

    A young life was stretched out before them, brief but packed with little incidents. Compared to other species, the background was slightly different to the norm but familiar enough. They had been travelling for aeons, through millions of universes. In each one, they had encountered life forms, either simple or complex. These tended to follow similar patterns of behaviour. Such patterns were evident here, in the mind of this female-type person. However, there were unusual undercurrents also present. This person had been constantly manipulated, from conception to the present. Nal-her landing here was no accident; nal-she had been sent here deliberately.

    Tyblayn was taken aback by the strength of these mechanoids’ minds. They rifled through nal-her memories so quickly, so determinedly, so efficiently. It wasn’t like the slow infiltration from bondings back home. These were experts operating at an astonishingly high level. Layer after layer of recollection was peeled back. Myriads of tiny details from the past were suddenly revealed in crystal clarity. The mechanoids realised that nal-she couldn’t cope with too many unexpected recollections, so they concentrated on certain areas that were most important to them.

    There was a moment from eleven years ago, when Tyblayn first met nal-her co-mate Golyrd-Ologe. It had been a leisure day and Tyblayn had been unsure what to do with nal-her free time. Nal-she had been considering going to see the leaping pondlets in the Renguar Hills with a group of old friends. It would have been fun to see those playful water creatures jumping from hollow to hollow in the post-glacial region. However, the thought of spending time with nal-her old friends again was becoming tiresome. Without warning, a memory of another friend had arisen in nal-her mind. Nal-she had decided to visit Golyrd-Ologe instead. The other group didn’t mind, fortunately. Tyblayn had felt almost propelled towards Golyrd-Ologe and vyd-her circle of acquaintances. Events seemed to conspire to bring them together. They quickly made a stronger social connection. It seemed so natural and expected when a six group formed. Happiness had seemed to be assured. The mechanoids saw evidence of neurochemical tampering, though.

    Nineteen years before, as a girl, Tyblayn had become curious about the whole concept of the six-group on nal-her world. Why did there have to be six in the group? Some primitive animals and most plants coped very well with pairs or singles. How was it that the other animals and the people had arranged themselves into hexabonds? Nal-her six parents had been unable to answer, as had nal-her other relatives, teachers and friends. Through great good fortune, a relevant broadcast appeared on the Glowb only a few days later. It appeared that, as if on cue, a group of researchers had found the answer to nal-her question. Nal-she had watched and listened so closely, oblivious to the games of the other youngsters outside. The researchers explained their findings with great care, describing the great worldwide drought of 346,000,000 years ago and its devastating impact on life at the time. There had been a mass extinction event and the remaining species had had to find new survival strategies. One of the most successful and radical of these had been the formation of rudimentary symbioses. It seemed that their genetic material had been conducive to such arrangements. At first, the little creatures had gathered into groups of three males or three females. This gave them greater reproductive potential when they found scarce mates. Soon, they found it advantageous to stay with those mates for the rest of their lives. They developed specialisations so that the males and females became differentiated. This was how the six-group evolved, with the jeg, vyd and nal females, and their yoc, tef and rin male counterparts.

    “Sclaff, this is painful!” said a dismayed Tyblayn. “I can hardly bear these memories. They remind me of my broken bonding.”

    “Our apologies once again,” said the mechanoid voice. “We will pause for a while.” The telepathic memory probe quickly stopped. Tyblayn sat up and opened her eyes. The alien landscape reappeared before nal-her. The ship had landed on a high plain, where there were good views of the surrounding region. Nal-she tried to forget nal-her recent heartbreak by observing the mechanical activity around nal-her. A few aircraft were flying or hovering silently above while a scattering of ground vehicles were scooting along the iron flats. Judging from their noiselessness, Tyblayn deduced that they were hovering just above the ground. Occasionally, one of the vehicles would transform and walk off to perform some task or other.

    “This is somewhat familiar to you, isn’t it?” asked the voice.

    “Yes, the transformations resemble our bonded bodies uniting,” replied Tyblayn. “It’s making me homesick. I wish that I could turn time back.” Nal-she hung nal-her head in sorrow.

    “Perhaps we could help,” said the voice. “We have enormous experience in solving difficult problems like yours. One day, you might be able to return to your world and be accepted by your people once again.”

    “You’re my best chance, I suppose,” said Tyblayn. “Could I perhaps look at you? I haven’t seen you at all since I arrived.”

    “We are legion but our ‘mouthpiece’ is next to you,” said the voice. “He will emerge.” A section of a nearby low structure disengaged itself and rapidly changed its form, rearranging its many components into a bipedal body structure.

    “Plindreggy, you’re certainly as one with the environment!” exclaimed Tyblayn. “Why were you there, anyway? What’s so good about being part of a small house?”

    “There are many reasons why I was there,” said the mechanoid. “Essentially, it was a convenient place to do my work. Most of the time, we are not physical labourers but rather we are data processors, analysts and extrapolators. Our work is profoundly intellectual.”

    “Yet if you had to be a warrior, for example, you could change again?” queried Tyblayn.

    “Of course,” said the mechanoid. “I have had many different functions in the past. My old name was Retrax. We don’t use those old names much anymore. It’s a pity but we all know each other perfectly well without them.”

    “It must be amazing to be in a hive mind that stretches all over the world,” speculated Tyblayn. How do you feel about it?”

    “You’re right, it is amazing,” responded Retrax. “There is such security, such belonging; the advantages are overwhelming. The mind even reaches across the galaxy when necessary. The problem is that it is difficult to disconnect. Adjustment is incredibly tough.”

    “Tell me about it!” said Tyblayn ruefully. “I’m in a similar position.”

    “We are travellers,” said Retrax as he scrutinised Tyblayn’s constellation of memories. “We move trans-universally. We enter universes, change the balance of power, learn as much as we can and then move on. Long ago, we found out how to exploit millions of forces and phenomena. The black light is just one. It comes from a very hostile universe where we could not establish a physical presence. However, we were able to extract tiny pieces of black light and bring them to more hospitable universes. They don’t persist for long here, just long enough to use as non-lethal weapons. They seek out nearby energy sources and cling on. In a matter of minutes, they dissipate as harmlessly as weak radiation.”

    “How can they be used without rebounding on the users?” asked Tyblayn dreamily.

    “It’s a special skill,” replied Retrax. “Only a few people can do it. A particular mix of intelligence, personality traits and energy emissions are required. It’s not like a regular weapon, more like a psychic energy that needs to be herded by outbursts of one kind or another.”

    “Hah, like a disobedient animal!” laughed Tyblayn.

    “That’s right,” said Retrax. “Although it’s not alive as we understand it, just obeying the laws of nature like a drop of liquid or cloud of gas.” Tyblayn was travelling through a fog of nal-her own. Recollections swirled around nal-her like mercrets. If nal-she tried to focus on one, it was immediately obscured by others. Then, the mechanoids used their abilities to establish order in part of the cloud. Tyblayn thought back to the time of the novae. Nal-she had been a little girl of only six years. Nal-she had gone out into the warm summer night, with a small crowd of brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, fathers and mothers. Someone had said that the stars were getting brighter. They all stood out in the small-holding, among the familiar crops and delicate plants, while they watched the heavens. Sure enough, nineteen stars were becoming noticeably, simultaneously brighter. Some of the adults bonded and then put children on their broad, combined shoulders to get a slightly better view of the event.

    “Why are they doing that?” was the children’s main question. The adults looked at the stars, some using spy glasses. They couldn’t figure it out.

    “We just don’t know,” they said. “It’s incredibly unusual. To have nineteen explode at the same time: someone or something really powerful must be doing it.”

    “Are we going to die?” asked some of the children, suddenly fearful.

    “We hope not,” said the adults.

    “We’re definitely not,” said Tyblayn. “I can feel it. We’re going to be all right.” She touched a cousin’s bonding point so that tef-he could experience her mysterious reassurance. Tef-he was amazed at her conviction but quickly passed on the electrochemical message to another cousin. Soon, the whole family group had felt it. After that night, the family regarded Tyblayn as a person with a special gift. As time passed, the novae flared and died, leaving little gaps in the night sky. Astronomers tried but failed to explain the happening. It did, however, stimulate the people of the world to investigate science and nature more thoroughly than before. If an unknown force could destroy nineteen stars in one short period, the people and their world was shown to be extremely vulnerable. Tyblayn had watched the broadcasts on the Glowb and had tried her best to understand the developments in world society. The anxiety subsided steadily. Perhaps Tyblayn’s reassurance was spreading beyond her family. People became considerably keener to study the sciences and explore space. There was talk of colonising other worlds, to escape the danger.

    “Well, that settles it,” said Retrax. “Primus was responsible for all that.”

    “Who are you talking about now?” queried Tyblayn, her mind fuzzy after all the probing.

    “Our god,” answered Retrax. “He is with us always. I could feel his influence in your memories of the past.”

    “Are you saying that your god blew up those stars and influenced my memories?” asked Tyblayn, concerned. “Why? Isn’t that an odd kind of behaviour?”

    “Most of us gave up trying to understand him long ago,” said Retrax. “He operates in so many realms that his strategies are unfathomable to mortals. Yet even he can’t comprehend everything. Your universe, for instance, is giving him tremendous problems.”

    “Why?” persisted Tyblayn.

    “Because there’s nothing much to do here,” explained Retrax with some exasperation. “Compared to others, this universe is remarkably peaceful and ordered. There are no major enemies to fight or dark forces to counteract. He’s going stir-crazy, so to speak. We Transformers, his children, are deeply worried but we don’t have the power to stand up to him.”

    “Oh great, that’s what I’ve blundered into,” commented Tyblayn. “I escape from one bad situation and discover a much worse one. What am I here for, I wonder? Maybe I should talk to this ‘Primus’. Where is he, Retrax?”

    “You’re standing on him,” replied Retrax. “This world is his power base, his anchor point in the universe. Everyone has difficulty persuading him to communicate, so don’t take it personally if he refuses to talk.”

    “Sorry I crashed my ship into you,” said Tyblayn to Primus, looking at the ground. “I didn’t know that you were alive. I tell you what, if you want enemies to fight, why not take on something really big, like disease, inequality, greed or social-sclaffing-breakdown?!”

    “Carry on scanning,” nal-she said, turning to Retrax. “You might as well do a thorough job.” Nal-she lay down in her reclining seat and let Retrax continue. He could sense nal-her frustration welling up. He could empathise very well, having been through so much in his extremely long life.

    * * * * *

    Retrax and his team went on as planned, prying gently into the little alien’s mind. As they did so, they also investigated nal-her genetic make-up, bodily requirements and mode of transport. They recreated nal-her living quarters so that nal-she could replenish nal-her air supply, have some food and clean nal-herself up. They had had so much experience of supporting aliens that the process had become routine. However, Tyblayn did have some rather unique requirements. As well as the standard needs for food, drink, air, warmth, clothing, hygiene, mental stimulation and so forth, nal-she needed bonding chemicals to survive in the long term. Without those chemicals, nal-she was slowly dying. Nal-she had been bonded for several years previously, so nal-she had developed a reliance on the hormonal cocktail of her bonding group. The Transformers devised a set of injector devices and fitted them to nal-her bonding points. They examined nal-her tissues and extrapolated the necessary chemical inputs and outputs. After a little experimentation, they homed in on the appropriate dosage levels. Tyblayn’s health picked up pretty quickly. Later, nal-she complained that her moods were rather flat, so the chemical doses were adjusted to provide a more natural variation.

    The ship in which Tyblayn had arrived was based on technology from a world beyond nal-hers. No one had discovered why the first off-worlders had arrived on nal-her home planet. They had arrived without any particular plan. Normally, they wouldn’t have been allowed to visit that world so openly and introduce revolutionary technology. Primus had overridden the normal hierarchy of influence in the universe but no one on the lower levels of development knew that. All that Tyblayn’s people knew was that nothing would be the same again. After a short period of uncertainty, they had overpowered the newcomers and taken their star-drives. Unfortunately, the ugly newcomers hadn’t been happy about what was then done to them: captivity, experimentation, deprivation, denial of dignity, untreated disease and slow death. Before they were finally executed for ‘attempted genocide’, they had used their telepathy to introduce forms of mental illness and degradation to the native population. The problems that they created were self-propagating and spread around the world. The only defence that the people had was natural resilience. Eventually, transmission of the mental problems reached its limit and the phenomenon died out. Unfortunately, it had done its damage. An entire generation had had its attitudes forcibly altered. The harmony of the bondings had been upset and groups had broken down irrevocably. Tyblayn’s group had expelled nal-her, citing ‘profound incompatibility’.

    “Sfetlik, I thought it was about me,” lamented Tyblayn. “They said that my chem-levels were wrong, that I wasn’t supporting the bond. Now you’re saying that Primus was the one who wrecked our families!”

    “I’m afraid so, at least indirectly,” said Retrax. “You’re by no means alone. He’s causing problems right across the galaxy and even in the nearest three other galaxies. We think that he’s gone too far but none of us can do anything about it. He won’t even listen to us.” Tyblayn was taken aback by the scale of the challenge facing the Transformers. Their creator was slowly but surely going insane. That level of power was unimaginable, irresistible.

    “Look, perhaps we should leave him alone for a while,” suggested Tyblayn. “I think that he needs time to work through his issues. You can jump in your star-ships and leave this planet far behind, can’t you?”

    “Yes, but it wouldn’t make much difference,” replied Retrax. “We rely on him for our lives. He can follow us wherever we go, or command us to return to him whenever he wants. We were created to serve him. Excuse us for a minute: we have a situation to handle.” Retrax transformed back to data processor mode and engaged in some kind of group effort. Tyblayn looked at the curious colours dancing high in the atmosphere as nal-she waited for the Transformer to finish his task.

    “I’m sorry about that,” said Retrax when he returned. “We had to combat a threat to the planet.”

    “What sort of threat?” asked Tyblayn, surprised that this had happened just now and that it had been resolved in a matter of seconds.

    “There was a very large, spherical robot heading this way,” answered Retrax. “It was non-living but it was nine thousand kilometres in diameter. It was heavily armed so we were obliged to deconstruct it. We teleported its components into the local sun.”

    “This place is sclaffing ridiculous!” exclaimed Tyblayn, hardly believing what nal-she was hearing. “Where did that thing originate? I’ve never heard of any massive robots in this area.”

    “We believe that Primus created the robot and sent it this way,” said Retrax. “This is his way of keeping us alert and ready for action. He is also reminding us of our duty.”

    “Hassiem renis, what a tyrant!” swore Tyblayn. “He thinks that he’s so great that he can just threaten anyone he likes, even his own people?”

    “It was hardly a threat,” Retrax pointed out. “We are experts at this kind of work. It was more like a small chore to us.”

    “Maybe you’ve lost perspective,” said Tyblayn. “Anyone else in the universe would consider that a genuine, honest-to-goodness, sphincter-loosening threat! You have to escape from the clutches of this lunatic! You can manipulate millions of forces. Surely you’re not helpless anymore!”

    “That’s a good point, my dear,” said a new voice, only a few metres from Retrax. “Sometimes we need a fresh perspective like yours.”

    “Who are you?” asked Tyblayn. “You sound different. You even feel different.”

    “I always have been a little different,” said the voice as a large body emerged from the ground before nal-her. “Greetings; my name is Megatron.” Tyblayn looked carefully at this hulking mechanoid and he looked at nal-her similarly. He didn’t look so different to the other Transformers, except that he was larger and stronger than average. He had a curious aura about him. Small sparks emanated from him as his body tissues knitted themselves together. There was the familiar feeling of raw electricity that nal-she had felt many times before, from the home world to the colony bases, the star ships, the space stations and now Cybertron. However, Megatron’s power aura was different. It was actively invading nal-her perceptions. Nal-her senses became altered and heightened. Nal-her bonding points buzzed as if another group was trying to connect. Nal-her vision swam. Nal-she tried to stagger back to her new living quarters but nal-she stumbled and fell. A few shards of metal dug into nal-her legs on impact. Nal-she looked at Megatron, who appeared to loom over nal-her. He was transforming as nal-she watched. He became an assemblage of heavy, bludgeoning objects, then opened out into a thicket of blades, then morphed into an array of guns. Tyblayn’s fear shot up markedly as Megatron continued to shape-shift. He became a regiment of unholy emitters, throwing out psychedelic, squirming, sinuous, deadly rays. He became a battalion of tenacious robots bent on infiltration and revolution. He became a cohort of androids in armoured vehicles. The androids spouted propaganda and dogma with great vehemence in incomprehensible languages while invisible crowds cheered around them. He became a legion of teachers, artists and other inspiring people, filling worlds with new dreams of glory and greatness. He became entire ecosystems of micro-organisms, ready to be unleashed upon those who couldn’t resist them. He became a vast mass of space rock, falling naturally onto a defenceless world. His surface glowed brightly in the atmospheric friction. The brightness filled Tyblayn’s vision. Nal-she closed nal-her eyes tightly but the light was already pushing through nal-her mind. Nal-she couldn’t think of anything else.

    “Enough,” said Retrax firmly. “You know better than to expose nal-her to that.” He and his team used their considerable abilities to purge the visions from Tyblayn’s mind.

    “Nal-she has to know who nal-she’s dealing with,” said Megatron. “We already exposed nal-her to our combat memories, remember?! We are beings of myriad facets.”

    “Hassiem!” swore Tyblayn, quietly terrified. “Hassiem Sclaffing Gnosofod! What are you? Get away from me!” Nal-she rubbed her legs where bruises were starting to form. Nal-she shook nal-her head vigorously, trying to get rid of the memories of nal-her recent experience.

    “I am a living weapon,” said Megatron, not moving. “A rare breed: I’m not surprised that I startle you. There aren’t many of us about for you to meet. In a way, we two are similar.”

    “No sclaffing way am I like you!” nal-she exclaimed angrily. “I haven’t got all that evil power inside me! Sclaffing dream on!” She was grateful that Megatron had returned to his initial appearance. Either he or the others were controlling his weird emanations.

    “I see that you aren’t running away,” observed Megatron coolly. “You have great courage." Tyblayn was taken aback by this simple compliment.

    “Well, perhaps it’s because I’ve got nothing left to lose!” nal-she spluttered. “I lost my bonding group. I lost my place in society and now I go alone to my fate. You’re not going to change that.”

    “Then welcome to the esteemed company of the solitary,” said Megatron. “Such is the nature of reality. We are all alone at some level, even we the mighty.” Tyblayn stopped suddenly and considered this. He was right. She had had a glimpse of his soul. He was surrounded by his own immensely tough and capable people, yet the lingering taint of loneliness remained. He had longed to be free of it for so long, for millions and millions of years. Nal-she gazed at him, speechless. He had raged and fought with utmost fury for aeons but, at the core, he was like nal-her.

    “So what do you want from me?” nal-she asked. “There has to be a reason why you’ve come to see me. You’re not a tourist!”

    “We’ve studied you and we think that you might set us free,” replied Megatron.

    “Erm, does not compute,” said Tyblayn, baffled.

    “Speaking as someone who has been manipulated his whole life, I recognise that you are like me,” Megatron tried to explain. “You have been made into a living implement, perhaps some kind of key. You could release us from our servitude.”

    “Well, that theory’s just about as weird as you, if you don’t mind me saying so,” said Tyblayn. “What the bav, let’s put it to the test. It’ll pass the time, at least.”

    “We’ll try to protect you but we can’t give any guarantees, I’m afraid,” said Retrax. “Primus is just too much for anyone.” Tyblayn shrugged, unable to worry any more about a situation that was already out of control. Megatron regarded nal-her with a degree of admiration. Could this lop-sided girl be his saviour? The hope had almost been burnt out of him. He was utterly sick of his servile existence. He allowed his body to sink back into the planet, converting itself into data processor mode as it did so. Maybe these would be his last days of living in a pit, fiddling with infinite facts.

    * * * * *

    Meanwhile, deep in the Great Wreck Galaxy, a sense of foreboding hung over the home world of the Fashlen civilisation. It was low-level but pervasive and it affected a sizeable minority of the population. Those who weren’t directly affected had to deal with the consequences. Many people were becoming dispirited and weren’t working or doing their normal activities properly. They were neglecting themselves, so their friends and families were obliged to support them a great deal. The problem was worsening all the time and the authorities were hopelessly overstretched. They had withdrawn many of their now ineffective services. Social structures were breaking down. The apathetic victims of this unexplained malaise were being brought together into specially constructed camps for more efficient care. Fortunately, advances in robot technology were saving a great deal of labour. The robots could do huge amounts of mundane, soul-destroying work without complaint and with minimal maintenance. The docile victims of the apathy hardly interfered at all with their nonliving, highly programmed carers.

    Robots also helped in many other areas of life, such as agriculture, mining, manufacturing and transport. People were so grateful that they had such vital help from their metal, solar-powered creations. Research into robot technology had been stepped up massively. However, despite all this automation people still worried about the fate of their race, their worlds and their whole empire. If the apathy epidemic continued long enough, it could consume them all. What could be done to stop it? Some hard-hearted people called for euthanasia on a mass scale. This was rejected but there were a few cases where it was deemed kinder to put those in terminal decline out of their misery. Still, there was a strong suspicion that the problem lay in genetics. The apathetic were often seen as weak and maybe unworthy of life in this great empire. They could be said to be bringing shame to the Fashlen. Others argued that even strong people were falling victim to the malady, which implied that the problem was more serious than genetic infirmity.

    Exhaustive medical research was done on the problem. Millions of genomes were decoded and analysed. Millions of species of microbes also were investigated, in the belief that some of them might target the nervous system in a debilitating manner. Experiments were done on the effects of various environmental factors, such as chemicals in the water, smoke in the air, electromagnetic fields, plant by-products, pollution in food, radiation from rocks, cosmic waves, the gravity of the two moons and the sounds produced by modern machines. Numerous unaffected people volunteered to be test subjects, while none of the apathetic refused to participate. Several years passed but no definite link between the apathy and any of these factors was discovered. Even wholesale exposure to all the factors made no significant difference in the end.

    Not long after the start of the tests, the researchers started to suspect that something else was going on. They thought that they should also be looking at non-local factors. The imperial government were thinking along the same lines. They theorised that the problem was due to an undiscovered form of radiation, which could have been produced naturally or artificially. The prime candidate for causing this radiation was the star-drive industry. Star-drives used atoms of portium, otherwise known as element 150, to harness exotic energies and enable star ships to access hyper-space. Extremely difficult to make, portium was well known to cause all kinds of bizarre effects if mishandled. However, investigations and monitoring showed that there was no such mishandling in the imperial fleet. The intelligence service started to look beyond the empire for possible causes. They sent out many ships on long missions of exploration. The majority of those ships had to abandon their missions and return to base because too many of their crew members were struck down with the apathy.

    In desperation, the empire turned to those few people among the civilian population who called themselves mystics. Most of them turned out to be frauds but about one percent showed promise. They managed to demonstrate some slight precognitive powers. Unfortunately, they were not immune to the apathy. After a while, they succumbed to the maddening torpor and lost their usefulness. Only a handful remained active. They were given strict instructions to report any tiny sliver of psychically-gathered information to the intelligence services. Although they did manage to predict a few useful things, such as troop movements in neighbouring empires and novel life forms on unexplored planets, they provided no news on the apathy. They decided to try to ‘tune in’ to more psychic realms each day. Years passed and eventually one of them made a breakthrough. As soon as she did so, she became so horrified and dismayed that she tried to burn herself alive. Her minders from the intelligence service were just in time to save her from her very flammable dwelling. They were angry about her suicide attempt, accusing her of treason. They demanded that she explain her actions.

    “A great death comes, in many ships!” she screeched as she struggled against the agents’ strong arms. “They will blast us if we do not supply them with what they demand. They want our portium: all of it!” The agents were so impressed with this new testimony that they established a video link to the imperium.

    “Why do these death dealers come to us now?” asked one of the intelligence chiefs on duty, via the video link. “Why not earlier or later?”

    “They were content before,” said the psychic, spitting at the agents. “They are driven here by a greater force. Much greater! It is blind and obscene! They flee but it will reach them, reach us and do what it will with all of us! I want no part of it. I will burn my flesh before it can claim me. Do the same if you can. Let me exit through the flames!”

    “Treason is forbidden,” said the intelligence chief. “You will be restrained and continue to serve. We will deal with this ‘great death’.” The psychic was led away screaming as the intelligence chief passed on the information to the military. Later that year, the powerful prediction came true. A very large alien fleet was detected approaching from the far side of the galaxy. The Fashlen were ready for them. They had done a great deal of study and had found out much information about them already, through their various non-Fashlen contacts. The alien fleet belonged to another imperial race known as the Nerleet. Immediately, the Fashlen contacted the Nerleet in their language and proposed an alliance. The Nerleet were reluctant at first, anxious as they were to escape the mysterious force at their backs. However, when they saw the Fashlen war robots, they realised that they were surprisingly similar to their own war robots. The convergence of the designs was very striking. This was surely more than a coincidence. Something had made both races design robots that were almost lookalikes. Even some of the software was compatible. As further comparisons yielded more technological parallels, the two races concluded that they were being influenced by the same force. It was causing the apathy, the psychics’ madness, the flight of the Nerleet and the oddly similar technologies. The question now was whether they should flee this force or face it.

    * * * * *

    “That was way, way too much,” said young Ghedlel Zayn, emerging from the show house and collapsing on the dusty ground outside. He could have stayed standing but he was exhausted from the mental effort of watching the smash hit show ‘Universal Hyperdreams’. His friends sat or lay down next to him. They didn’t care if they got dirty; they just wanted to rest their eyes and brains.

    “How did those dancers do all those moves?” wondered Umaf Ackjeef with a groan. “Some of them weren’t even radiating! How do they perform so much for over two hours without converting any heat to light?!”

    “If I ever see another spectroscopically-enhanced super-flaz, I’ll side-throw my side-salad,” said Mygloq Esef, shielding her eyes from the sunlight.

    “Wasn’t that just the greatest show ever?” asked a stranger who approached. He was met only by averted eyes and quiet groaning.

    “How about you, sir?” the stranger asked Ghedlel. “Wasn’t it simply the defining moment of world history? Don’t you want something to remember it by?” He fumbled in his stuffed shoulder pouch for some small object.

    “Yes, yes, it was superb, whatever,” replied Ghedlel. “Probably it was too good for us. We couldn’t ... hey, are you trying to sell us something?”

    “Just a little trinket to remind you of the wonders that we’ve just witnessed,” enthused the stranger, who had turned out to be an opportunistic hawker. “You’ll be glad of it later. Now, I can offer you badges, skin rad blockers, couple cups, clip players, sound boxes, love confirmers, feel-tropes or I could get you something larger from my store. What would you like?” Ghedlel looked at the hawker through narrowed eyes. Lights and images still danced at the periphery of his vision and a panoply of weird sounds echoed in his ears. His head pounded with the strain of excess information. All he wanted was to rest but this chancer wouldn’t let him.

    “I just don’t understand your screwy mentality!” he complained to the hawker. “We just came out of ‘Universal Hyperdreams’! We’re in no mood for this con-artistry! Go home; the show’s over! We’re not buying anything until we’ve recovered from that mental assault!” The hawker paused for a moment and then turned to Umaf and the others. They waved him away. The hawker looked disappointed and a little peeved.

    “I don’t think that you understand either,” said the hawker. “The show’s not over. It’ll never be over. It’s always there for you now.” He closed his shoulder pouch and walked away, looking for other potential customers.

    “What does he mean by that?” wondered Mygloq. “I can’t think straight. I’m still trying to figure out the meanings in the show.”

    “Forget him,” advised Ghedlel. “He’s just a street crawler, like a million others. Focus on rebalancing your brain.” The group of youngsters sat or lay on the ground for well over an hour, allowing the messages and spectacles of the show to rumble around in their minds. It felt like they had each read a small text library, watched a collection of several billion images and experienced years of touches, tastes and smells. Most of it had been given to them subliminally, in hours of split-second flashes. A drug in the air had prepared their minds to absorb it all without much judgment. It was as if they had eaten a feast for the brain, one much finer than they had experienced before. Now, they had to spend plenty of time ‘digesting’ it.

    “I think that I might be ready to go home,” said Vanaglice Tseay. She tried to get up but soon had to sit down again. The exertion of movement seemed to trigger more flashbacks and reflective thoughts.

    “Oh, qlaks,” she exclaimed quietly. “I think that I’ll have to call for an ambulance.”

    “You won’t get one,” said Cephaylot Sprejarc, sprawled in the dirt. “They’re all too busy. The show is pushing them to breaking point.”

    “Stay where you are and you’ll recover,” said Mygloq reassuringly. “Remember the advice that they gave us.”

    “All right,” said Vanaglice. There was a slight tremor in her voice. The effects of the show weren’t dissipating as quickly as they should have. She was becoming tired, hungry and thirsty. The hallucinations dancing in front of her were becoming sinister in their repetition of certain actions.

    “I think that we need some shade and drinks,” said Ghedlel a few minutes later. “We don’t want to end up as U.H. casualties. Come on; let’s crawl over to the taps under those trees.” He pointed to the nearest water supply, which was only fifty metres away but seemed much further now. Slowly, through thickets of artificial thought, the group of youngsters crawled towards the welcome shade. Many times, they wanted to stop and ruminate on their recent mind-expanding experience but they pushed themselves on. A few other people stopped to watch them but didn’t intervene. It was usually counter-productive for strangers to help those who had just watched the show. Such well-meaning attempts to assist generally disturbed the minds of the show-watchers and slowed the ‘recovery process’. Eventually, the group reached the taps and worked out how to turn them on. Everything in the real world was a struggle for them at present but the water and shade seemed to help. Further hours passed and, as predicted, they recovered enough to consider going home. They decided to go and spend the night at Cephaylot’s house, which was the nearest. If they stayed together and didn’t travel too far, they would recover quicker. Cephaylot’s family would feed them and leave them undisturbed for a while.

    As they walked gingerly down the leafy lane to Cephaylot’s house, they continued to experience sightings of elusive, unidentified creatures all around them. Some of these ran through the air, as if on invisible ground or non-existent tree branches. Others dived in and out of the real ground like it wasn’t there. Sometimes, the youngsters saw glimpses of underground passages or even subterranean settlements. All the while, they had an intuitive sense of some of the history behind those creatures. Most of them were ancient and long dead but now returned for modern viewing. The youngsters saw flashes of prehistoric views, of glorious forests and exquisite marshes, plains dominated by diverse kinds of giants and mountains alive with innumerable specialist species. The past lives that they had led were sometimes fabulous, sometimes tragic. The emotional impact was gradually becoming stronger as the group members were made increasingly aware of different lives, motivations and points of view.

    “Qlaks, what’s the point,” muttered Umaf. “We keep struggling on but we just end up like these animals, dead in the dirt.” He sank to the floor, his mind bustling with phantom memories of hordes of creatures and their situations. The others stood around him, not knowing what to do. He was right, of course. Life seemed to be increasingly untenable, knowing what they knew. The world was a pit of pain and broken dreams. They were fighting a rising sense of dread.

    “Please, don’t be like that,” urged Vanaglice, dropping down and trying to push Umaf back onto his feet. “You’ll feel better when we get indoors and rest.” Umaf looked at her and could see her concern, in her expression, her normal radiance and another, strange kind of radiance that he hadn’t seen before. This new radiance blotted out some of the other thoughts and allowed him to think differently about his own life. Perhaps people like Vanaglice could make it worthwhile to continue. His instincts reasserted themselves and he stood up. Together, they continued their short but eventful journey. As they neared Cephaylot’s house, they saw someone following them surreptitiously through the wood.

    “That is real, isn’t it?” asked Ghedlel, pointing at the figure in the trees. “I can hardly tell the difference right now.”

    “As far as I know, it’s real,” said Cephaylot, worried that his normal alertness was too dulled.

    “I think that it’s a dancer,” said Mygloq, squinting at the figure. “Do you think that he, or she, followed us from the show?”

    “The show’s not over,” said Ghedlel quietly, repeating what the hawker had said. “I think that it’s a girl, with one of those glittery costumes that we saw earlier.”

    “Stay where you are, everyone,” said Umaf. “We’ll try to...” The dancer suddenly reappeared on a tree branch high above them, performed an amazing rolling leap and landed amongst them. Her feet hardly made a sound as she touched down. Effortlessly lithe, she grabbed Umaf’s arms and looked closely into his eyes. Through his personal mental haze, Umaf felt a kind of probe rifle through his thoughts. The dancer’s eyes glowed a little and flicked around much faster than those of a normal person.

    “Hey, erm, miss, what’s going on?” asked Ghedlel, trying to grab the dancer’s arm. His hand went straight through her. She crouched down and leapt back up into the trees, like a spring-heel. The group was stunned by this. Not only did the dancer have super-normal jumping abilities but she seemed to switch from real person to hallucination at will. She could also read minds. Ghedlel was right to query this girl’s existence in the first place. It was unclear what she was. She had disappeared as quickly as she had appeared.

    “I don’t know what she’s doing but I want protection,” said Umaf. “I got the feeling that something’s coming; something profound and possibly alien.” For the first time today, he tried to hurry. Increasingly, the decision to watch the show appeared to have been wrong. They hadn’t realised the danger inherent in such a radical form of entertainment. The others struggled to keep up as he strode down the lane. Odd things kept popping up all around him, like large shiny helizins and animated leaves, but he did his best to ignore them. After much mental struggle, the group made it to the house. The sense that they were being followed by strange creatures or forces never left them. Now that the lessons of ‘Universal Hyperdreams’ were sinking in, they were coming to terms with the notion that reality could change without warning. They had been warned before the show that there would be bizarre after-effects. Here were those effects and ‘bizarre’ was turning out to be an understatement. The vegetation around the house seemed to be watching the youngsters as Cephaylot opened the door and they all dragged themselves inside. Walking was difficult when one couldn’t stop thinking intensely. They found comfortable loungers or chairs and threw themselves down to sleep or at least doze.

    A little later, Cephaylot was dreaming vividly about such things as the use of harmony squid in the oil industry during the Plendin period, over three thousand years ago. That was another effect of the show. Abruptly, he remembered that his parents, grandparents and uncle ought to be home by now. He opened his eyes and looked for them but saw only some fading hallucinations and an unfamiliar figure in the passageway at the far side of the room. Was it the dancer from the lane? No, this one was bigger and appeared to be wearing a bulky, spiny costume. Whoever it was looked rather imposing and alien. Some of the spines flexed and twitched as if they were alive. Perhaps this was an updated version of a stage costume worn by actors in the multi-plural shows of the last century? Anyway, the intruder needed to be dealt with somehow. If only Cephaylot hadn’t gone to ‘Universal Hyperdreams’ and filled his head with so many complications, he would have been wide awake and able to deal with this clown. The intruder seemed to sense his thoughts and walk towards him. The footsteps were smooth and careful but very heavy. Cephaylot could feel each one through the hard stone floor. They felt like heavy drum beats, drumming him to his fate. Should he try to get up, to fight or flee? The stranger’s aura was building up to unbelievable levels. Cephaylot could actually see it pulsing through the room, rippling the air and causing visual disruptions all around.

    Almost simultaneously, Cephaylot’s friends awoke. They shuddered as they felt the intruder and then saw him. He appeared to be male but there was much more to him than that. His eyes glowed a bright yellow, though that was almost incidental. It was as if all the people of the universe were talking at them. The youngsters couldn’t have moved if they’d wanted to. Tsunamis of sublime information crushed them into their seats. The show had been bad enough but this was indescribable. They thought that their organs would fail and they would die. Mercifully, the data-waves lessened and the five friends felt that their survival was no longer threatened, although they were still paralysed by the pressure on their minds. They had to breathe very rapidly and deeply to send sufficient air to their brains. Steadily, the pressure dropped as the intruder fine-tuned his approach. He was searching for something. Cephaylot wondered what they could possibly give him. This creature was some kind of god. His soul was like an intelligent supernova, seeking to blast evil wherever he went. Could this be Judgment Day for the world? Had the people really been so wicked?

    “What have we done, to bring you here?” Ghedlel managed to think. The intruder showed him. Using some unknown technology, he transmitted images into Ghedlel’s brain.

    “The Ytrankan death kitchens,” thought Ghedlel, matching the scene to one that had been included in ‘Universal Hyperdreams’. “They were the scene of a great genocide and mass cannibalism in the Gygobis period, seven centuries ago.” The others could hear his thoughts. They gasped in shock as the scene unfolded. Time ran backwards and then the genocide could be seen in progress. People from the nation of Algix were being thrown alive into an evisceration machine. There were hundreds of such machines. Algix itself was being wiped from the planet, leaving only an empty land to be recolonised and a considerable quantity of tasty meat products. Ghedlel appeared to be issuing instructions for the procedure. The soldier-processors were obeying and bringing more Algixians forward. Ghedlel was looking at a display, which showed that the numbers of deaths and the processing speeds were at the correct levels. Ghedlel was actually starting to enjoy the situation, seeing the work being done on schedule, in the appropriate manner. He was also glad that the Algixian problems were being eliminated. His people were scouring the region, diligently tracking down all the Algixian fugitives and bringing them for slaughter. This would teach them not to mock their neighbours with their distasteful practices.

    “That can’t be me!” protested Ghedlel. “I wasn’t...” He stopped mid-sentence. There was no point denying it. As the scene progressed, he knew that it was him. He had been the high-controller of the plant. The memories were creeping back from a former lifetime, seven hundred years previously. Mygloq fainted.

    “It’s not fair!” he complained desperately. “I’m not that person anymore. I’m trying to improve. Don’t hurt Mygloq! Don’t hurt anyone!” The intruder god said nothing but continued the visions. There was Umaf, ambushing a series of travellers on the road in Tun-Bax fifteen centuries ago. He had committed hundreds of crimes, including robbery with violence, battery, rape, torture, amputation and murder. He had even killed his own cousin without remorse, when she had chanced to travel that stretch of road after dark one night. His life of crime had caused considerable damage to the social fabric, with long-running consequences for thousands of people. Of course, Umaf could now see the harm that he had done and was ashamed but felt powerless to do anything about it. What good could come of dredging up these memories?

    Vanaglice was shown to have been living as a queen in the late Vadafin period, over seven thousand years ago. She had been angered by a petty slight from another queen in the neighbouring country of Erbnuin. By various methods of subterfuge, she had persuaded her husband the king to start a war with Erbnuin. Thus had begun the so-called ‘Banner-borne’ war epidemic, which seemed to spread like a plague across half the known world and which still fuelled international rivalries to this day. Millions had died. Vanaglice wished that the ground would swallow her up. Her carefully cultivated image of niceness and helpfulness had disintegrated. She felt beaten, bruised, stabbed in the guts and left to suffer. She probably deserved it, seeing that she had been a cruel hate-monger in that previous life. However, she wasn’t completely sure about it.

    Cephaylot was presented with a scene from a dealing room some five centuries ago. Everything in the room seemed terribly familiar to him: the screens, the voicors, the wave-graphs and so forth. He was working tirelessly to make money for his corporation. This was the age of unfettered commercial enterprise. The markets were geared for exploitation wherever there were opportunities to do so. Under his indirect command, many bad deeds were done: people had been swindled, governments had been bled dry and the natural environment had been ravaged. The consequences included hunger, deprivation, government collapse, armed insurrection, widespread pollution, species extinctions and a pervasive loss of care and trust in society. His ruthless dealings probably led to further wars and bloodshed as the world tried to restructure itself after the Great Collapse of 11,324. The beautiful and super-productive tropical mangrove-coral belts had been wiped out and might never return. There had been awful disasters afterwards on the unprotected tropical coasts. Cities had been destroyed by storms and erosion, with the people there being forced to move inland. Cephaylot was at a loss about what to do after these revelations. He wondered why he and his four friends were all involved in such unspeakable crimes in past lives. It was strange that they should end up in the same neighbourhood now.

    Mygloq was roused from her faint and made to confront her crimes. These turned out to be in the future. Time raced forwards and she was on a star-ship, passing through hyper-space to reach and attack another inhabited world. The aim was to conquer that world and make it a new home for her group. What was she in this future time? She had been genetically engineered. Her body had been adapted, in thousands of little ways, for combat. Her brain had also been adapted to make her blindly loyal to the group and unconcerned with the demise of her enemies. She was now a blend of male and female so that, if necessary, she could fertilise herself and create her own replacement.

    “That hasn’t even happened yet!” pleaded Ghedlel. “For pity’s sake, stop tormenting her! Aren’t you just as bad as any of us?!” The intruder god remained silent, though everyone could sense his unwavering commitment to his cause. He had to do whatever he could to stop evil. He had made an unbreakable promise to the Almighty. However, at present he was starting to doubt himself and it was driving him crazy. The only thing to do was to continue pursuing his goal and hope that everything worked out in the end.

    “Where’s my family, you bully!” demanded Cephaylot. The intruder god summoned the family and they walked in. The youngsters looked at Cephaylot’s relatives, standing to attention with blank expressions. The grandparents had somehow walked unaided, without any of their usual infirmity and tremors. For a minute, their appearances changed, revealing how they had looked in previous lives. They had also played their parts in the evil deeds of the past. Now, however, the intruder god was going to ‘fix’ them. He was injecting them with myriad microscopic devices that would control their thoughts and actions. These devices were so advanced that they could escape detection at any time by shifting their mass into hyper-space. He was going to leave the devices here as a permanent safeguard against any evil that may try to arise.

    The youngsters were putting the whole picture together in their minds. This god was manipulating the whole universe, or at least as much of it as he could. He had arranged for them to be here, living as friends. He had known of their misdeeds and was moving to neutralise them. ‘Universal Hyperdreams’ had been created as a grand distraction and a means to open minds across the world, so that he could gain easier access to them. He wanted to stop any further turmoil that these people might cause. He let them watch as he spread a web of cybernetic control over the world. Everyone would be discreetly monitored. Some would be inhibited from certain actions while others would be controlled like puppets. The god was watching all of time and space. All worlds fell within his influence. He appeared to be eternal, with uncounted aeons of experience. Nothing significant would get past him. His control system was impregnable. Why, then, was he insecure? Wasn’t this overkill? As he demonstrated his other system of enforcers, with their huge metal bodies, vastly powerful weapons and supreme flexibility, he was displaying his deepest inner fear. What was he, really? They might never know.

    Their life of secret enslavement began. They went about their lives more-or-less as normal after the god had withdrawn his avatar into hyper-space. They slept and soon recovered from their experiences. Their conscious minds forgot about the god after a while but their deep, unconscious minds retained the memory. It troubled their dreams occasionally. They thought that these residual memories were after-effects of ‘Universal Hyperdreams’. Across the world, most problems seemed to melt away in a matter of weeks. Conflicts were replaced by negotiations. Medicines were made easily available and many diseases were exterminated. Unsustainable land use was minimised and wildlife started to rebound. Family dysfunction was reduced by 99% and daily life became much more tolerable. Reliance on recreational drugs declined enormously. On the face of it, everything seemed fine but, in fact, everyone was now waiting for a miracle to end their unnatural imprisonment. Having served its purpose, ‘Universal Hyperdreams’ lost its potency and became a footnote in history, although it could one day be a reminder of a tremendous intervention.

    * * * * *

    Well, here I am, speeding through the universe as usual. I am out of control but I can’t stop myself. It’s at times like these that something usually happens to restore balance. My predictions aren’t working at present but experience tells me that the restoration is imminent. Will it be enough this time? Considering what’s already in motion, I have my doubts. Wait, someone approaches. He’s addressing me.

    “It has been decreed that your influence will have limits here.”

    What did I tell you? I’ve still got it! I can see through this ‘blindfold’ of ignorance.

    “The destruction and enslavement stops here, in this local galaxy cluster.”

    This is a counterpart of mine. I recognise him as a peer. He’s a good sort but my vow compels me to break his attempted blockade.

    “You can’t win here. Give up and consider your options very carefully.”

    Normally, he would be a match for me but I have so many powers now. I took them from all the gods whom I encountered earlier. I have to do whatever it takes to impose my will on this universe. I start by using the first seventeen million weapons at my disposal. That’s enough to smash entire galactic super clusters into neutrinos.

    “It’s not going to work this time, great one.”

    I’m so happy! My assault completely failed. This fellow just shimmered a bit and emerged unscathed. However, for the first time in aeons I was actually impressed by something: his survival. That’s a great treasure to me. I unleash another hundred million weapons.

    “I am a god of the fractions. Wherever you strike, I squeeze through the gaps between the waves and particles. Fractions and gaps are infinite.”

    Aha! That clarifies matters somewhat. Let me try again. Another ten billion weapons are unleashed. Don’t worry, I’m controlling everything. No innocents are being caught in the crossfire. No star systems are being destroyed.

    “You have been warned. Stay in this area. Restrict your activities.”

    He’s pushing me back. I’m being teleported fifty million light years, back to the galaxy where I first entered this universe. There’s Cybertron, my anchor point. It seems quite anachronistic now but I have to maintain it. At this advanced stage, I can do without it but I still have to follow the rules of my employment.

    “You have reached a boundary layer in the omniverse. Your function will soon be changing. Prepare yourself.”

    He’s still lecturing me. I wonder what he means. I really like the way that he intrigues me with his pronouncements. The way he pushed me around makes me nostalgic for the old days, when I was weaker and things were simpler. However, my vow is still in effect. I will proceed to the bitter end. I’m about to try something different.

    “Manipulation of that black hole will endanger the life forms of that galaxy.”

    He knows me too well! I’ve been cut off from my real powers for a few decades now, local time. That’s not long on god time but I’ve been neglecting my duties. This local god has spurred me into action. You see, to use the full range of my powers, I need access to the wider omniverse. This is necessary to have sufficient matter, energy, dimensional control and oversight of timelines. I made a promise to the Almighty, a very long time ago, that I would oppose the dark gods and their minions wherever possible, for as long as I could. That promise must be kept. Consequently, I have to break out of this universe and regain all my powers. I would like to perform the break-out in an uninhabited area but Mr. Fractions here won’t let me. On his head be it, if he has a head. This black hole in the galactic centre is where I’ll escape.

    “You’ve lost sight of your true self. You were a mortal once. We all were. Remember that.”

    That’s not intriguing at all. That’s just ancient, meaningless information. I’m tuning it out. I seize the black hole in my unfathomable clutches and begin to examine it. Some irritating fool has sealed it up on the far side. I’ll just have to cut through. I have the right tools for that. I have so many devices, captured or copied from other gods. There’s something for almost every eventually.

    * * * * *

    Vanaglice wouldn’t let go of the railing outside the police station. Her husband, Cephaylot, tried to pull her away but she was incredibly determined. He pulled her fingers away from the bar but she shook him off and resumed her grip. She wrapped both her arms around the strong, steel bar. Her body quivered slightly with the exertion. She stared at those around her, almost warning them to back off. They looked at her with confusion, astonishment and great concern. They thought that she was having a mental breakdown. Such problems had been largely eliminated in recent years, so Vanaglice’s actions were highly unusual.

    “I’ve had enough of this imprisonment!” she complained to Cephaylot. “It’s completely unfair. Police! Help!” She was shrieking now. Cephaylot was embarrassed by her apparently childish or insane outburst. Three police officers – two women and a man – came out of the station to investigate. They hadn’t had much to do lately, with crime dropping to unprecedentedly low levels. Many officers had been made redundant and had moved into other occupations. At first, the three officers thought that Cephaylot might have abused Vanaglice in some way.

    “I don’t know what happened,” said Cephaylot to the officers. “A few minutes ago, she seemed happy. Then we just happened to come to this police station and she snapped. This isn’t like her. Perhaps a repressed memory has been triggered. What can we do to help her?” He was becoming increasingly worried.

    “I need a doctor,” said Vanaglice. “There’s something in my head, controlling me. It’s some kind of machine. I need surgery to remove it.” Cephaylot and the officers looked at each other, nonplussed.

    “Yes, we can find a doctor for you,” ventured one of the officers. “Let me call for an ambulance. At the hospital, they can examine you and find out exactly what’s wrong.” Vanaglice’s mind was whirring. She was coming to terms with a whole crowd of rediscovered memories.

    “No, it won’t work!” she insisted, changing her mind. “Everyone has a machine in their head. They have been forbidden to interfere with them. There’s only one way to sort this out. We have to find that metal man. You remember, Cephaylot: the one with the amazing magical powers!”

    “Oh come on, Van!” protested Cephaylot. “There’s no such man, except in stories. What was that show we saw years ago? ‘Universal’ something or other, I believe.”

    “He’s got to be around here somewhere, keeping an eye on us,” said Vanaglice, looking around feverishly. One of the female officers radioed for an ambulance.

    “You’re unlikely to see him now,” said Cephaylot. “If he exists, he could be anywhere. He has a lot of people to watch, I guess.” A small crowd had gathered to view Vanaglice’s aberrant behaviour. A few of them came over to offer food, drink or other small services. Society was much more caring than it used to be. Vanaglice waved the would-be helpers away angrily, then stood up and scanned the crowd. After a few moments, she saw a man who appeared a little different. He was large and heavily built, with a penetrating gaze that never left her. He was standing as still as a rock while everyone else bobbed and shuffled about. In a world where appearance was considered less important than social obligations, this big man was very smartly dressed and thus quite conspicuous. However, no one was paying him more than cursory attention. Vanaglice realised that they were somehow being ordered to ignore him.

    Without warning, Vanaglice let go of the railing, lunged at the second female officer and stole the taser from her holster. The taser hadn’t been used for years but the officer had kept it in good working order. As the officer cried for her to give it back, Vanaglice ran over to the big man and shot him at close range with the taser. It had no effect. The man grinned broadly.

    “This truly is an astonishing universe!” he exclaimed. “You broke my control! No mortal has ever done that before! I have visited trillions of universes and you are the first to escape my mind blocks! I offer you my warmest congratulations!” In his joy, he moved to embrace her but she pushed him away, dropping the taser as she did so.

    “I don’t care about what you get up to in other universes,” ranted Vanaglice. “You’re ruining lives here and now! I’m married to Cephaylot but there’s no genuine feeling! The marriage is hollow! You’ve turned us into robots, going through the motions of life! You’ve got to stop it! We’re not supposed to live like this, on automatic pilot. We’re supposed to feel, to make mistakes, to grow, to work things out for ourselves!”

    “I’m very sorry, sir,” said the male police officer, who had rushed over with his two colleagues to arrest Vanaglice. “We didn’t expect her to do that. Are you all right?”

    “There’s nothing to worry about, officer,” said the big man. “I work for the government. I have an anti-taser device to protect me. I also have the resources to help this lady with her problems. You need not concern yourself with this matter any further.” The three officers withdrew without further inquiries. The second female officer recovered her taser and checked it for malfunctions. Everyone around could see that there was something strange about the big man but, for some reason, none of them felt willing or able to investigate. They just stood and watched. Cephaylot came over to hear what his wife was saying to the big man.

    “So, what’s it to be?” Vanaglice challenged the man. “Will you stay in control here for no good reason or will you let us go?”

    “There was a good reason but the wider situation is changing,” said the man. “I’d love to stay and shepherd you all but I may be reaching the limits of my power and influence. See how you deactivated my implants! The physical laws are different here. I cannot hold you indefinitely. I feel that I must withdraw and reassess my whole situation.”

    “Thank you so much,” said Vanaglice with a sigh of relief. “I know that we’re capable of so much evil but we need to learn to overcome it on our own.”

    “I sincerely hope that you do,” said the man. “Otherwise, I will have to come back and...” He smacked a fist into his other hand. Vanaglice shuddered at the thought.

    “You get the picture,” said the man. “I’m with the omniversal police. I’m always on the lookout for trouble, always trying to stamp it out.”

    “So you’re giving us some kind of freedom?” queried Cephaylot, perplexed.

    “Yes, in just a moment,” said the man. “Be warned that life may not be as idyllic as it has been recently. There could be many problems just around the corner.”

    “We’re only getting what was due to us,” said Vanaglice. “We’ll survive, one way or another.”

    “Here we go, then!” said the man, snapping his fingers. Everyone in the world felt profoundly different as their control implants vanished.

    “Oh, wow!” exclaimed Cephaylot as he felt the intangible weight lift from his mind. “I remember now: that evening after the show. You revealed our true natures, our past lives. You clamped down on all of us, on the whole world. We could not hope to resist. You were a magical metal colossus!”

    “I have to clamp down sometimes,” said the man, changing his appearance as he spoke. “You have no idea how bad people can become if no one stands in their way.” He had now returned to his metal form and looked quite alien and out-of-place in the street. A few people fainted with the double shock of sudden mental freedom and an alien encounter.

    “My name is Primus and I may see you later,” said the man. “Goodbye for now.” With that, he faded away and went back to wherever it was that he had originated.

    “Good grief, I hope that he doesn’t come back,” said Cephaylot. “He’s friendly enough but he’s too much to handle. It’s like putting a leviathan in a kennel!”

    “Careful, he might still be listening,” cautioned Vanaglice. “Look at me, I’m still shaking! I must be exhausted. Come on, let’s go home and rest.” This world’s short period of enforced peace was over but the effects would linger on for centuries to come.

    * * * * *

    “Yes, we Transformers have been irrelevant for a long time now,” said Retrax. “It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? We’ve worked so hard to keep up with our father, to push the boundaries of science, technology, organisation, dimensional engineering and so forth. It pains us to admit that he’s still light years ahead. All we do these days is little mopping-up operations for him. He takes care of everything else.” Tyblayn shook nal-her head, resigned to feeling insignificant.

    “So where are we now?” nal-she asked.

    “We just teleported to the Great Wreck Galaxy,” replied Retrax. “That’s what most of the locals seem to call it. It’s the nearest major galaxy to your own.”

    “Sfetlik, that makes me the first of my kind to leave our galaxy!” Tyblayn exclaimed. “I never imagined that this would happen to me! I hope that I get back in one piece!”

    “Oh, you will,” said Retrax reassuringly. “Assuming, of course, that we don’t run into some massive threat that we can’t handle. That’s extremely unlikely, though.”

    “Nice pep talk,” quipped Tyblayn. “Where’s my galaxy, by the way? You know, the good old Spangle Sheet Galaxy.”

    “There,” said Retrax, pointing it out high in the sky.

    “It’s so small,” said Tyblayn, squinting up at nal-her home star cluster.

    “There’s a telescope built into your suit,” Retrax advised.

    “Oh, I see,” said Tyblayn as a telescope made of energy appeared in front of nal-her eyes. Nal-she didn’t question the advanced technology used to make the scope: nal-she just peered through the ultra-clear pseudo-lenses and marvelled at the beauty of the brilliant cosmic object. None of nal-her people had ever seen this particular view before. The spiral arms were very symmetrical: nal-she counted eight of them. There were some dwarf galaxies circling the Spangle Sheet. They looked tiny in comparison but each one contained over a billion stars.

    “I know that this suit takes pictures constantly,” said Tyblayn. “That means that I have copious photographic evidence of my trip to the Great Wreck Galaxy. If I ever go back to my world, the astronomers will be falling over themselves to see my data.” Nal-she was amused by the imagined scenario of astronomers begging. Then nal-she was saddened by the thought of a home that had forsaken nal-her. The emotional distance was now mirrored by the vast physical distance.

    “Three million light years, give or take a few,” nal-she mused. “It’s appropriate. How do you cope with this, Retrax?”

    “We have been nomads all our lives,” he said calmly and a little solemnly. “Our father and home take us regularly to new neighbourhoods. We have to maintain a certain detachment or we wouldn’t cope. We are exposed to such intense emotions from each other, from him and from other species. We are the most ancient space-farers that we know. Luckily, we are also mechanoids. As you know, such beings are fundamentally machines. As you also know, machines don’t experience much emotion. To avoid being overwhelmed, we allow ourselves to regress a little and bathe in the cool liquid of dumb steel ignorance and mechanical oblivion.”

    “I wish that I could do that,” said Tyblayn wistfully.

    “You’ve already taken the first small step,” said Retrax. “You have your injectors for the bonding chemicals. We also put some nanobots inside you, to check on your vital signs. You are already beginning to be a cybernetic organism: a cyborg. There’s more that we could do for you.”

    “Yes, actually that sounds like a good idea,” agreed Tyblayn. “We shouldn’t rush into it, though. I’ll need time to adjust to the idea and to the experience. While I start to do that, can you tell me why we’ve come to this galaxy?”

    “The answer appears to lie all around us,” said Retrax. “Cybertron is surrounded by star-ships that seem to be adrift. We count at least thirteen thousand. They’re quite big, by organic standards.” Screens appeared in the air around them, showing dozens of scenes that had been recorded and transmitted by Transformers and their many probes. Retrax and Tyblayn watched quietly as events unfolded. Scouts flew around the ships and then went inside them. They found a great deal of deactivated equipment and also some personnel. Many of the people on board were dead. Another large proportion was in a very lethargic or even comatose state. Only a few people were awake and working. Those active ones were mostly occupied in caring for the inert ones, as best they could.

    “Who are you?” they asked the Transformers and probes. “Are you the great death?” The mechanoids were confused by this, until one of the over-worked organics explained about the famous prediction. It transpired that this large fleet had been attempting to flee the ‘great death’ that had been foreseen fairly recently. However, before they could travel very far, the people of the fleet had been struck down suddenly by the ‘apathy plague’. The fleet had not been properly equipped to deal with such a large-scale outbreak. Many sufferers had died fairly quickly of dehydration, malnutrition, organ failure, circulatory congestion, infection or other preventable causes. The ‘lucky ones’ had been saved by the care of those that the apathy had spared, plus some simple service robots.

    “They don’t look much different from my people,” observed Tyblayn. “I wonder what did this to them?”

    “We knew as soon as we arrived,” answered Retrax. “It was Primus. He’s looking for targets for his wrath. These were some, yet he didn’t annihilate them all. He’s not so sure of himself lately.”

    “So what are you going to do?” queried Tyblayn. “Is this a rescue mission?”

    “We have to investigate first,” said Retrax, receiving constant updates. “Scouts are teleporting around the galaxy. We’re locating their home areas. It turns out that there are two species here.” He waited as the situation was pieced together.

    “The populations of the home worlds appear to have been wiped out,” he continued. “The colony worlds have also fallen. All the star-ships and space-bases have been affected and won’t last long. It seems that Primus is annihilating them after all, only more slowly than usual. It’s very odd.”

    “Odd?!” exclaimed Tyblayn. “He’s exterminating two entire races like vermin! It’s genocide, not a quirky story!”

    “I’m sorry about my choice of words,” said Retrax. “You have to remember, though, that he’s a god. He knows what he’s doing. He must have had a good reason for this.”

    “Wait, if he’s doing this here, he could be doing the same to my people,” Tyblayn suddenly realised. “He’s affected them too. Perhaps he was toying with them until he was ready to strike.”

    “I suppose so, but we can’t help,” said Retrax. “We don’t have the power to intervene.”

    “That’s the usual defeatism from the rank and file,” said Megatron from his resting place nearby. “There is one chance, I believe. It lies with us. We need to go back to the Spangle Sheet. I can sense major upheavals imminent there.” Tyblayn used nal-her telescope to look at nal-her home galaxy again.

    “You won’t see any problem at this distance,” explained Megatron patiently. “You need hyper-spatial sensors to get real-time information. All you’re seeing is old photonic history.”

    “When are we going back?” asked Tyblayn.

    “As soon as possible,” said Megatron. “We’re wasting our time here. This is a diversion.”

    “But what are we going to do about these people, the ... er ... Fashlen and Nerleet?” Tyblayn reminded him, consulting her suit’s database.

    “Nothing,” said Megatron. “They’re beyond help. We all know it. Primus is disrupting their life force.” Tyblayn was speechless as cold reality hit home once again.

    “Fellow Transformers, we have a golden opportunity,” said Megatron, addressing all his people. “Many of you can already sense it. Our relationship with Primus is approaching a critical juncture. We need to take advantage of this situation while we can. Are you with me?” There was unanimity. Primus was going too far. They had to do something about it, probably through negotiation or manoeuvring.

    “Are you the leader, Megatron?” asked Tyblayn as the Transformers prepared to teleport.

    “For the moment,” said Megatron. “We don’t have permanent leaders any more. We tend to do things by telepathic consensus. It’s a much surer method but sometimes I miss the old days.”

    * * * * *

    Have you ever had one of those days when nothing seems to turn out right? You have? Well, it was nothing compared to my day. All I wanted to do was cut my way out of this universe and none of my wonderful tools seem to be suitable for the task. I’ve tried approximately 396 trillion implements and methods but to no avail. It looks like I’ll have to use brute force. This is going to hurt … someone.

    Oh, look at this: my Transformers have just arrived back from the Great Wreck Galaxy. They’re my brave boys and girls (however you want to look at them)! I hope that their little task went well. They can just stand by while I rip us out of this reality.

    Heave! That’s it, M’Lord! Unthinkable energies are being channelled into a tiny area only a few billion kilometres across. Peerless expertise is breaking space-time with absolutely minimal collateral damage. Yes, admittedly there are some gravity waves washing through the galaxy, maybe a few kinds of exotic energy: it’s nothing that can’t be cleared up later. Keep up the pressure! You know, I’ve never used this much power before! It’s quite exhilarating. I’m feeling a little tired for the first time in aeons but my anger is carrying me forward. Nothing will stop me now.

    “Thank you, father!”

    What’s this? My Transformers are climbing up my mighty spiritual body. They have abandoned their physical bodies and are ascending towards the rupture that I’m making. I can’t stop them. I’m using all available energy to hold the rupture open. How couldn’t I see this coming? Usually, I know their minds intimately. There’s my little fire-brand Megatron. He’s using his considerable accumulated experience to lead the others on the surest route across my body. They’re entering the rift. I’m losing them!!!! We’ve become disconnected. I have to get them back! There’s no time, though. I’m changing; transforming somehow. I’m passing through the rift too! I’m losing contact with you. I’ll have to call again later.

    * * * * *

    This is Tyblayn speaking. I’m told that this message is going out to other universes somewhere. I don’t know what good it’ll do. Perhaps some of you will appreciate it, find it amusing or chastening or something like that. They say that I’ve just been instrumental in separating Primus from the Transformers. No one really knows exactly what happened but I inadvertently distracted Primus at just the right moment, in just the right way, so that Megatron could lead his people into a space-time rift and thus to freedom. Conditions in the rift were perfect for breaking the connection. Megatron was right: I was the key to their freedom. Yet I was ‘forged’ by Primus himself, through my brief bonded life. He must have made me via his subconscious. In some way, he knew that he would need me, though he didn’t fully realise it at the time.

    The Transformers are back in this universe now. They looped around inside that rift and returned here. They intend to stay for a while. Without Primus to supply them with life force, they’re relying on each other more and more. I think that they’re moving towards a total, mutual unification. They’re going to become a new god force together, I guess. In this universe, they have the strength to remain separate from other gods. I know very little about them but they appear to be thriving. It’s a whole new paradigm for them.

    “My lovely Tyblayn, the plan worked!”

    Ah, yes Primus; are you well?

    “Never better! I needed that: a complete transformation! I have moved on to other areas of the omniverse. My Transformers have served me flawlessly. It was time for them to progress too. I’m sorry that I had to manipulate you, Tyblayn. It was the least of many possible evils. The fate of so many universes was at stake.”

    How did I distract you, Primus? You’re so mighty and I’m so puny.

    “You reminded me of my origin. I was once a mortal like you. Back then, my life was blighted by evil forces, both large and small. One day, I was fortunate enough to be given technology that made me much more powerful. I began to fight evil very effectively. In time, I was able to develop myself into a super-being. The Almighty contacted me directly and asked me to be his agent in an omniversal conflict of epic proportions. I agreed and thus began my extremely lengthy campaign. However, I have never forgotten my earliest years, when I was at the mercy of so many undesirables. You triggered those memories particularly well. Thus, I was distracted to a critical degree at a very weak moment.”

    So, I was the right person at the right time. What will happen to me now that the moment has passed? I was thinking of staying here on Cybertron, with all this incredibly cool machinery. Being a cyborg is pretty neat too. I’d want for nothing!

    “Except your family: I have restored them. They won’t reject you again.”

    Incredible! Maybe I can go back later. I don’t want to rush into things when there’s so much to explore here!

    “As you wish. I’ll see you later: that’s a promise!”

    I think that he’s gone now. The unified Transformers will look after this universe on his behalf. Well, I hope that this broadcast has been interesting to you, perhaps even useful. I’ll sign off now. Megatron says ‘Freedom has never been so sweet!’ The long-tormented former despot deserves his rest.


    [snavej note: I got a few ideas from 'Valis' by Philip K. Dick.]
     
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2016
  2. VectorPrime404

    VectorPrime404 Banned

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    An interesting read, and an interesting take on things. Definitely food for thought.

    I'm pretty sure I know why you used Retrax. Retrax never does anything. The Megatron involved was Beast Wars Megatron, I take it?
     
  3. snavej

    snavej Zone 6 dweller, off-peak traveller

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    Thanks for reading and for the feedback.

    In this story, Megatron has become so advanced that all the different versions are blurred together. There are many kinds of hyper-spatial linkages going on. Many other Transformers are similarly affected. Megatron is desperate to escape his confusing predicament and also his indefinite service to Primus.

    Yeah, Retrax is a minor, underused character. I didn't know much about him. Presumably, he isn't such an important figure in Cybertronian society. However, he would have some usefulness. I thought that he could be a good 'minder' for Tyblayn, who 'accidentally' crashed on Cybertron. At this point, in the far future, all Transformers are much more mature and able to deal with tasks that they would previously shun.
     
  4. VectorPrime404

    VectorPrime404 Banned

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  5. snavej

    snavej Zone 6 dweller, off-peak traveller

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    An old story resurrected and retyped

    DISSOLUTION (c) John H. Evans, early Sept. 1996

    The air was full of hot, jagged fragments as three hundred thousand weapons fired incessantly. The Decepticons were having a great time and those with mouths were grinning broadly as they slowly advanced down ducts and corridors. They were winning this battle. The Autobot ship was – very reluctantly – yielding to their onslaught. Explosions continued to erupt and one of them finally blew a hole in the hull, causing all the air, shrapnel and unsecured personnel in this section to be ejected into space. Several Autobot defenders were plucked instantly from behind their barricades and hurled into the abyss. The better-prepared Decepticon attackers (who all had strong magnetic clamps) cheered and advanced again. The remaining Autobots fought to the bitter end. When it was over, the Decepticons were slightly more subdued by the reduction in their ranks but, nevertheless, took great pride and pleasure in the conquest of the damaged Autobot vessel and the elimination of the crew. This was another small step in the great universal cleansing project.

    The two ships, locked together by dozens of magnetic rods and trusty old grapples, spun slowly through the inky blackness, leaving a trail of debris behind them. Coros and Bromis stood on a rear gun platform, looking at the scene as they uploaded computer files through their fingers. The Autobot ship was thoroughly punctured, as if gouged repeatedly with a giant’s dagger. All around, Decepticon scouts and their automatons were hunting down survivors. Rockets flared, small arms blazed and enemies were reduced to inanimate showers of junk. The two data plunderers watched for a few minutes and then decided to join in. They activated shoulder cannons and took pot shots at drifting bodies, hoping that they were hitting some who were feigning death. Within an hour, it was virtually certain that all the Autobots were dead. A few of their automatons were captured, subdued and reprogrammed as Decepticon machines. Everything was going very well indeed for the crew of the Decepticon starship ‘Cremator’.

    “There’s no way that you scored 17.5 for that shot!” argued Coros as he and Bromis made their way back to the connecting corridor.

    “I did! Haven’t you read the Rules Appendix 32, version 78?” countered Bromis indignantly. “It clearly states that severing three limbs in one shot earns a bonus of 3.5, regardless of whether the target is barely alive or only just dead.”

    “The second arm wasn’t completely severed,” Coros pointed out sullenly. “It was hanging on by a few wires and could probably still have been used.”

    “Oh, frak off! I don’t have to play with grouchy losers like you!” complained Bromis. “Let’s put our video evidence forward for adjudication and settle this now before it develops into a grudge.”

    “O.K., we can’t afford a grudge on this ship,” conceded Coros prudently. The pair marched off the stricken hulk and into the somewhat pockmarked main corridor of the Cremator. They said nothing as they surveyed the limited but significant damage that a few enterprising Autobot saboteurs had done to the interior of their glorious battle-craft. The work of the enemy was not worth much discussion. There was a queue of about twenty five warriors at the adjudicator’s office, all seeking accurate assessments of their fighting performances. Although there was much repair work and clearing up to be done, there were certain circumstances that permitted warriors to sort out matters of personal esteem before they attended to mundane duties. Here in deep space, the situation was stable and relatively secure with ample time for settling scores in the ancient Decepticon game of ‘Killpower and Damage’. Adjudicators were necessary to keep track of the complex Rules and all their nuances, so that they could interpret combat situations and assess individual achievements. The Cremator had a well-trained adjudicator on board, who dealt with the current batch of cases in only seven minutes. Coros and Bromis were soon back at work, helping out with the virus purging.

    “I thought that it wasn’t quite a triple severance,” remarked Coros, somewhat mollified. “They’re rather rare in space conflict, you know.”

    “I still got sixteen points,” said Bromis defensively. “I almost got the triple and I still beat your score by half a point. That puts me twenty two points ahead in the totals to date!”

    “Yes, luck has been with you these last few encounters,” quipped Coros. Bromis said nothing more for the moment. Inwardly, he was seething with furious annoyance. How dare Coros dismiss his obvious skill as mere luck, as well as constantly question the results of his actions?! One day, Bromis would challenge Coros to a grudge duel and rip his colleague’s entire game score from his dying memory chip, thus almost doubling Bromis’ own score and raising him to the next level of accomplishment. However, that would have to wait until the present stage in the war was concluded. The Decepticon army needed all available hands in the epic intergalactic battles.
    Pretending to be friendly for solidarity’s sake, Bromis invited Coros to the quarters of Flectin, one of his old comrades. Flectin was cordial as usual, offering tempting refreshments and sharing news with his younger guests. He was a distinguished warrior with many millennia of struggle behind him but now he was war-weary and mostly confined to intelligence work behind the lines. He had plenty of gossip and was eager for yet more.

    “The big news is that the Autobots have taken ninety five percent of Dereproem,” said Flectin. “I only wish that they’d paid more heavily for it. Apart from the strategic impact on Cybertron itself, this loss has also meant a fourteen percent reduction in the supply of key components such as cloak refining filters and subsidiary psi-chips. Our fleet is already feeling the effects of this reduction in terms of unfinished warships lying idle in dock.”

    “Blast it!” muttered Bromis. “If the situation on Cybertron doesn’t improve soon, we’ll lose our numerical advantage in space. Then we’ll be facing the possibility of a long, fatal decline in strength. Is there any better news, Flectin?”

    “Not enough to offset Dereproem,” said Flectin unhappily.

    “What about your, er, friends in Helex and Iacon?” asked Coros, referring to Flectin’s clandestine connections in the labyrinthine world of Cybertronian spies. Flectin paused before answering, scanning cyberspace for signs of monitoring.

    “The flavour of zinc is ten per cent and in shadow,” he said cryptically. Bromis understood and explained secretly to Coros. It was in code and meant that the forces of Decepticonism had recently cleared away a sizeable fraction of the ‘front’ operations in the field of data smuggling. This was desirable because it enabled the Decepticons to monitor more of the Autobots’ covert activities and thus foil their attempts to gain control over territory or systems. Coros nodded and smiled at the welcome news.

    “More energon, anyone?” offered Flectin, holding out dozens of small glowing shapes in a bowl made from an Autobot’s skull. The two visitors leisurely picked out some of the little packets of energy and consumed them.

    “While we still can,” said Coros, savouring the subtle vibrational patterns flowing through his intake sockets.

    “We have some time yet,” said Bromis. “We can still beat a thousand types of scrap out of those red-badged anachronisms. You should have seen our sharp-shooting today, Flectin. You would have been proud, I’m sure.”

    “The action was so hectic that we had to get an adjudication on one target,” said Coros. “Bromis nearly got a triple severance.”

    “You’re making me feel quite nostalgic now,” said Flectin with a slight grin. “Show me the playbacks; I want to see the standard of your work for myself!” These were duly shown. Flectin became very absorbed in following the tactics of the battle, avidly discussing them with the two participants. After twenty minutes, they were interrupted by the sound of a distant concussion against the hull. It took only a millisecond for the three networked Decepticons to discover that the Cremator was under attack from a large Autobot ship.

    “Action stations!” yelled Bromis, springing from his chair. Coros followed him out of the door and down towards the exterior gun emplacements. Flectin was left to his administrative work, supporting the command system.

    “We must have been sitting here in the Drala system for a few minutes too long,” said Coros as he sprinted onwards. “Somehow, the Autobot psychics have pinpointed us but we’ll make them regret their cleverness!”

    “Wait, the ship’s been identified,” said Bromis. “It’s the flagship – the ‘Pride of Iacon’!” The warriors knew what this meant: they were almost certainly doomed if the Cremator stayed here. There was another concussion, louder than the first. The Cremator shook as the Autobots’ X-ray laser tore its teleporter heart out. The crew used all their remaining firepower against the approaching mountain of hostile metal. They were all brave and loyal, right to the end.

    “I wish it didn’t have to be now,” said Coros as he helped Bromis to pump a constant stream of luminous death at the attackers. “We have so much to live for, so much to do for our great cause.”

    “There may be a way out,” said Bromis. “We could leave the guns on auto and escape inside some small cleaner droids. We may manage to slip away undetected.”

    “Where would we go?” asked Coros.

    “There’s a small, habitable planet on the other side of this system,” answered Bromis. “We could reach it in a few years. There’s a chance that we could survive long enough to build new bodies and a ship.”

    “Sounds like hell,” said Coros. “The database says that the planet Drala 2 is uncomfortably crowded and corrosive but it’s still preferable to being snuffed out. Let’s go!” Swiftly, the two gunners picked up a cleaner droid each and transferred their brain chips to those small machines. As a parting gesture, Bromis sent a secret message to Flectin, asking him to follow them in the same unconventional way. He didn’t dare ask any of his other comrades to do likewise because that could brand him as a mutineer. In his new body, he made a precisely calculated leap into space, beginning an unpowered journey that would eventually bring him to Drala 2. Coros was right alongside him. Flectin appeared only twenty metres behind. Radio silence was maintained as the trio watched their trusty ship sliced up like old junk in a processing mill. The sleek Autobot ship disgorged its space troopers to destroy any survivors in the wreckage. The roles were reversed: the hunters had been hunted down. The scene of carnage dwindled into the distance fairly rapidly and soon the three tiny fugitives felt safe enough to communicate with each other. There was no pursuit.

    “This is pathetic beyond words!” said Coros in absolute disgust. “Our captain had a lump of uranium for a brain and our teleport team couldn’t sense a red giant from close orbit! What is our fleet coming to?! Am I still on the right side?!”

    “We still have our lives and our potential,” said Flectin. “That is the critical point you seem to have missed, youngster! It’s the most precious gift of all. The rest means nothing in comparison.”

    “Come on, you two,” said Bromis. “Let’s try and keep together. Flectin, can you catch up with us? We have a better chance if we hang onto each other.”

    “I believe that I can,” said Flectin. He used some pressurised cleaning spray to accelerate slightly. When he reached Bromis, he clung on with his insect-like legs. Coros did much the same and the three continued on their long planet-ward trajectory. They put themselves into a state of dormancy and plunged on.

    * * * * *

    The next five years and three months passed without incident. The Decepticons were spared the utter monotony of the slow, drifting trip.

    * * * * *

    An alarm woke them. Drala 2 was suddenly in view. Coros was the first to spot the faint rings around the planet.

    “Great, minerals dead ahead!” he exclaimed. “If we aim right, we’ll be able to start manufacturing in a few hours!” Tiny jets were fired and the three diminutive Decepticons were soon burrowing into a small asteroid, searching for suitable construction materials. Quickly, they discovered that this rock did not have the ideal composition. After a few minutes, they emerged from their exploratory excavations to gather solar energy and take stock.

    “I say we go and find a better asteroid,” said Coros. “If we do too much digging here, we’ll wear out these puny bodies. That would leave us stranded helplessly for a very long time.”

    “I admit that the levels of essential metals here are too low to sustain us for more than a few months,” said Bromis. “Unfortunately, the rest of the asteroids in these rings are probably just as deficient, so I think that we should take what we can from this one before moving on.”

    “Our first priority must be fuel and body parts,” said Flectin sagely. “Beyond that, it is vital that we build equipment that will help get us home, such as a powerful transmitter and accurate astronomical instruments.”

    “Let’s keep at it, then,” said Bromis. “There’s no need to spend any longer in this sorry state.” The Decepticons went back to their tasks with a primitive, mechanistic approach characteristic of some Cybertronian life forms. Their higher brains hardly stirred as their lower brains coordinated the non-stop digging and sorting. Their bodies were frail but their determination was undiminished by material shortages.

    A few hours later, Coros picked up an extremely faint signal coming from somewhere relatively nearby. At first, he thought that it was a natural phenomenon but its regularity alerted him to its potential importance. He crawled out of his tunnel and scanned the sky with excellent eyes, which were originally designed for finding dust particles in dark corners. Far in the distance, something sparkled with reflected sunlight. Coros felt a thrill of hope surge through him. What could it be? Was it a spacecraft built by the natives of Drala 2? No, they were far too undeveloped to create such a thing. Was it a starship? No, it was too small. Suddenly, the obvious solution appeared in his conscious mind. It was an old space probe, deposited here by the Autobots or Decepticons as part of their massive intergalactic exploration programmes. This was probably the very probe that had originally reported the backwardness of Drala 2 society. Now, it was going to fulfil a very different function.

    “Bromis, Flectin, we’re saved!” cried Coros. “There’s a space probe only a few thousand kilometres away. We can use it for communication, remote sensing, spare parts, energy collection and all sorts of other things!”

    “Great work, Coros!” said Flectin. “You’ve found us a ready-made support system!”

    “Thank Primus for the grand exploration programme!” said Bromis with relief. “All right everyone, let’s calculate a new trajectory and coordinate our propulsion.” They were soon on their way, threading a curved path through the plane of the rings and occasionally putting on a spurt to avoid a rock or an ice chunk. The probe was only eight metres long. It was small by Decepticon standards but, to the three fugitives, it seemed very large and promising as they drew closer. It had suffered minor collision damage but was mostly intact because it had been built so robustly.

    After landing, the Decepticons started to work very quickly. First, they extracted the locator beacon, fitted it with a battery and a few solar cells and then sent it into a safer orbit outside the rings. The beacon was programmed to broadcast an S.O.S. message indefinitely to whichever starships happened to be passing through the Drala system. The Decepticons gambled that the first ship to arrive would be on their side. Second, they equipped themselves with the best improvised body parts that they could devise, thus enhancing their overall capabilities considerably. Third, they stopped to re-energise and reflect once again. Flectin hooked himself up to the probe’s high-performance sensor array and scanned the whole area several times, concentrating on the rings, the planet’s surface and, to a lesser extent, the neighbouring, lifeless Drala 3. He also checked the data collected since the probe’s last reports to Cybertron, discovering that little had changed on Drala 2.

    “The choice facing us seems easy,” he said, having finished his scans. “Either we stay up here in hibernation, surrounded by low-grade material, or we descend to the surface and help ourselves to abundant resources. There are mountains where we could set up camp, at too high an altitude for the Dralans to disturb us.”

    “What about Drala 3?” asked Coros. “There’s no one at all to disturb us there.”

    “Drala 3 isn’t the best option if we want to be found and rescued,” said Flectin. “The beacon is orbiting Drala 2, remember? We shouldn’t hide way out there on Drala 3.”

    “O.K. let’s go down to the surface of Drala 2,” said Coros. “I suppose it’s about time that we personally broke some new ground for the cause, perhaps even making some converts.”

    “Converts? Well, one never knows!” said Bromis, amused by Coros’ arrogant optimism. “There’s one definite convert coming up: we’ll convert this probe into a descent craft!” In less than an hour, the Decepticons transformed the probe into a heavily shielded atmosphere penetrator and adjusted its course to bring them down onto a promising plateau. After about two more hours, they were on the ground taking samples of the rather murky air and adjusting their bodies to compensate. Eventually, they plucked up the courage to leave the probe and test the conditions at first hand.

    “Well, there’s a lot of dust and muck in the air but nothing that we Cybertronians can’t handle,” said Bromis with growing confidence. “Visibility isn’t too bad, considering. Infra-red and radar work very well indeed. There is one thing that I’m worried about, though: olfactory overload.”

    “This whole planet literally stinks,” said Flectin. “However, it’s more complex than that. It seems to stink of thousands of different chemicals at once. It’s just our luck to pick a planet where everyone communicates through their excretory orifices!”

    “These chemicals may not just be messages,” said Coros as he scanned the foggy horizon. “I detect small amounts of corrosives such as sulphuric acid. Also, there are traces of known poisons. We may encounter hostility sooner or later.”

    “I don’t sense any real threats at the moment,” said Bromis. “However, it would be advisable for us to build defences.” The Decepticons quickly surveyed the land within a radius of two kilometres from the probe, pinpointed the spot with the richest seam of iron and began digging. They used the spoil to build an embankment around the site. After about an hour, they went back to the probe to recharge their batteries and then drag the probe closer to the mine. While they were preparing to move the probe, they noticed that they had been encircled by fifteen large creatures. The circle closed and the Decepticons were almost entirely surrounded by a wall of leathery skin. These Dralans were all five metres tall. Each had four legs, two arms, a relatively small, drooping head, large multi-lensed eyes and several nozzles for sending and receiving chemical messages. One of them reached forward, grabbed Bromis and put him into a box on its broad back. Two other Dralans did the same to Coros and Flectin. Another pair of Dralans picked up the probe, which had cooled to a safe temperature. The three boxes were locked and the Dralans marched off towards the lowlands. The Decepticons were momentarily stunned because they were unused to being treated roughly by carbon-based life-forms but, soon enough, they were back in radio contact with each other.

    “They must have seen our descent and organised a special expedition to bring us in,” commented Bromis. “They seem to want us alive for now.”

    “Should we blast our way out of these boxes?” proposed Coros tentatively. “Perhaps we could escape and hide somewhere.”

    “I don’t think we’d last long against these brutes,” said Flectin ruefully. “They located us very quickly just then and the chances are they could do so again. Their noses must be extremely sensitive. We couldn’t outrun them either: we haven’t got enough energy or any means of rapid, long-range transport. I mean, look at us! We’re scarcely a metre tall! We have no jets, no wheels and not even a proper body between us.”
    “We need time to organise ourselves,” said Bromis. “A period of captivity may give us an opportunity to do so. I notice that they’re bringing the probe, which is a stroke of luck. I think that they think it’s alive.” The Dralans marched without a pause for an hour and a half. The Decepticons used their infra-red scanners to examine their surroundings. More and more ‘hot spots’ appeared, indicating increasing population density. Towards the end of the journey, infra-red readings became less clear because they were obscured by the rising body temperatures of the ‘porters’. However, it was obvious that they were entering a large settlement. The quantity and strength of local scents reached new heights. The average person or creature from another world would have died in such an atmosphere but the Decepticons were built to withstand such extremes. To the Dralans, this was the sweet air of home. Flectin had already started to compile a mental list of all the scents that he encountered, matching them with possible meanings. The subtleties were most intriguing. Bromis and Coros chipped in with a few thoughts and observations of their own. This was quite a challenging intellectual exercise because Decepticons didn’t usually communicate by smell and their skills in doing so were under-developed. Also, there were many concepts that had no straightforward translation into verbal language. Flectin had no option but to persevere in trying to unravel the internal logic of this unusual ‘smell-speak’.

    The Dralans reached the end of their journey and deposited their cargo in an oddly-shaped stone hall. They unlocked and opened the boxes, then marched out into the settlement and were not seen again.

    “Well, what now?!” pondered Coros aloud, peering from his box. “Where’s the big chief or the high council?”

    “There seems to be a lot of dust in here,” observed Bromis. “Too much, really: it appears to be coming from those holes in the ceiling. In fact, we’re getting covered in it.”

    “It’s not dust, it’s more like mould,” said Flectin. “What’s more, it’s crawling across my skin, as if it’s looking for a way in.”

    “Hey, it’s a good way of testing the permeability of our skin,” Coros pointed out. “If this stuff does manage to get in, I’ll eat my head plates!” So the Decepticons waited patiently, watching in amusement as the ‘mould’ vainly tried to penetrate the multiple seams of the Cybertronian armour. After about fifteen minutes, it withdrew and dispersed into the air, emitting a strikingly potent odour as it did so.

    “I take it that that was some kind of Dralan test,” said Flectin. “They’ve established that our skin is invulnerable to their infiltrators: perhaps that means we’ve passed!” He was soon proved wrong. A large creature with four claw-like arms, four powerful legs and a sharp beak on its head emerged from one of the many dark alcoves around the hall. It snatched up the Decepticons and took them outside. In the light brown daylight, it held them aloft and roared before taking them to another building. A sizeable crowd had gathered to jeer at the unsuitable new arrivals. The jeering took the form of corrosive sprays that made the Decepticons wince. They were glad when they were slung into a cell, along with the probe. They were left isolated from the locals.

    “The air’s much cleaner in here,” said Bromis, surprised. “I think that the chemicals are being pumped or filtered out through the ceiling vents.”

    “I believe that I know why they put us here,” said Flectin. “You see, we failed to ‘bond’ with that strange mould in the hall. That might be considered disrespectful, treacherous or even sacrilegious. The mould may be extremely important in this society.”

    “I don’t know if you noticed but I sensed small amounts of the mould outside the hall, especially around the Dralans,” said Coros. “It is possible that it is symbiotic with them.”

    “Or controlling them,” added Bromis. “That would make us outlaws and renegades, beyond their normal means of social discipline. They had to resort to imprisonment and the withdrawal of the symbiosis. Now we’re being watched, to see how long we survive.” The Decepticons laughed long and loud about this, revelling in the knowledge of their great toughness and endurance. This prison was like a luxury hotel to them! They continued working on the probe, transforming it for a second time into an assortment of multi-function body components. Passersby stopped to stare in amazement at the aliens’ extraordinary abilities, even in ‘impoverished’ air. They wondered if the aliens were cannibals, consuming their large, inert companion. The crowds dispersed as dusk approached. A few people lingered for a while but only the appointed guards stayed to watch until morning. The Decepticons worked by electric lamplight through the hours of darkness. By mid morning, they had built one large, transformable body to house all three of them. The new body was seven metres tall and was operated by Flectin, the highest ranking of the group. It wasn’t quite a state-of-the-art biomechanical construct but it was easily good enough to smash the thick viewing window and leave the sealed cell.

    The crowd in the street fled at once. The Decepticons looked around and tried to figure out what to do next. It was decided for them. About thirty very large Dralans appeared from between the nearby buildings and started spraying very powerful corrosives at them.

    “Frak, it’s starting to dissolve our armour!” Coros shouted in alarm.

    “I’ll have to take us back into the cell,” said Flectin. “We can’t jeopardise our new body.” He did so and the spraying stopped. The huge Dralans surrounded the cell as the corrosives expended their chemical energy on the tough exterior stonework.

    “Thank you, Flectin,” said Bromis. “You’ve avoided serious damage. Now we know where we stand, we can concentrate on gathering information and trying to find a way around these monolithic jailers.” The window was replaced and reinforced. The heavy guard was maintained in shifts and the immediate area was closed to the public. Any simple escape attempt was bound to fail. The Decepticons tended to their wounds and remained still for weeks. Their only activity was the cutting of some tiny holes through the window frame and the insertion of tiny chemical sensors into those holes, to monitor the local communications. Slowly, relying on the daily supply of solar power, they decoded some of the messages that they intercepted. What they learnt through this was rather interesting: all about the unconventional social structure and the complex chemical environment. It appeared that violence was almost entirely absent on Drala 2 and the only violent acts that did occasionally take place were carried out by the law enforcement bodies for the general good: to control renegades. As the Decepticons suspected, Drala 2 was ruled by the mould, which inhabited nearly the whole of the globe and effectively controlled the lives of all other creatures. Even the few creatures in extreme environments where the mould could not reach, such as mountain tops and deep seas, depended on the mould’s great kingdom for their sustenance and safety.

    The mould was one of the most revered entities in Dralan society, ranking alongside the sun, the planet itself and the gods who supposedly watched over the affairs of mortals. The mould was essentially immortal because individual cells were constantly replaced as they perished. It was the unifying force that made Dralan society peaceful and contented except, perhaps, during periods of overwhelming natural catastrophe. Astoundingly, the mould was sentient and had ample intelligence with which to mobilise the Dralans. Almost everyone cooperated with the mould’s orders, whether those were to help the mould itself, the local community or wider society. Much care was taken to maintain the balance of the ecosystem because this was a farming society that depended entirely on good but sustainable harvests. The mould and the vegetation had a symbiotic relationship equally important as that between the mould and the fauna. Everything was connected in a huge biological web under the benign dictatorship of the mould, which the people referred to grandly as ‘The Unifier’ or even ‘Unity’. As they gathered their data, the Decepticons couldn’t help but be impressed by the solidarity and strength of this society. However, the key player here was a microbe and it was well known that microbes had their weaknesses.

    * * * * *

    Although it was very clever, the Unifier was having trouble deciding what to do with the aliens. Perhaps it was because there was no precedent for this sort of thing. The only event that came close was the occasional birth of a mutant that had some resistance to the symbiosis. There had never been creatures with total resistance like these strutting mechanical shape-shifters. Immune creatures could bring disaster because they were capable of committing violent acts with no risk of succumbing to a debilitating chemical counter-strike. There were hopeful signs, though: the aliens didn’t seem to have any chemical defences of their own and they were powerless against the voracious acids of the top enforcers. Yet the aliens were intelligent and could sculpt tough materials into extremely sophisticated instruments. They were stronger in spirit than in body and could work around the clock, never tiring, never eating, never becoming ill, constantly alert and never pleading for mercy. Their auras were full of bright energy, maybe too bright: it was unnatural, really. The Unifier’s intuition was to banish these things, to bury them in darkness where their spirits’ burning heat could be kept permanently at a safe distance. The best place for this was probably at the bottom of the large meteorite crater under the southern ocean. It was fitting that they should be entombed at the site of Drala 2’s last major cataclysm. If they were allowed to live, they might cause widespread death and destruction. The Unifier was dedicated to the protection of Dralan society. The alien threat had to be eliminated, even if the three metal creatures were innocent of any known capital crimes.

    The order was eventually sent out, after weeks of consideration, to drop the aliens into a watery grave. However, the people didn’t want to carry out this order because it was too violent for their delicate sensibilities. Violence had been outlawed by the Unifier for at least two million years and no one wanted to spill blood (or the alien equivalent) and thus corrupt their beautiful society. The Unifier was surprised that the people wouldn’t cooperate. Usually, they would go to great lengths to obey orders but, in this instance, their love of life overrode their well-meaning controller’s instructions. The Unifier was exquisitely sensitive to the electromagnetic pulse beats of the people’s brains and felt that some unknown force was slightly altering them. This was, most likely, a solar flare so it made adjustments and thus made the people more open to suggestion. Just when the Unifier thought that the people had been persuaded to deal with the aliens, the metal visitors finally started to speak. The aliens had learnt the Dralan language and had started to communicate through a hole that they had cut in their cell window.
    Their messages were eloquent, persuasive and based on a sound grasp of the fundamentals of Dralan society. They were appealing for everyone to extend their admirable pacifism and egalitarianism to all intelligent life, including strangers such as themselves, lost and confused, far from their home world. They apologised for causing a disturbance on Drala 2 and promised to minimise any future disturbances. They asked for permission to build a machine that would take them back to their home world. The Unifier looked beyond the surface message, read the subtler molecules and discovered that the aliens were emitting ‘soothers’: substances that rendered people incapable of suspicion and worry. This, of course, alarmed the Unifier because it was a challenge to the status quo, so the Unifier flooded the area with ‘anti-soothers’ and ordered the cell window barricaded.

    * * * * *

    “Damn, I know we shouldn’t have done that,” said Bromis tensely. “Why do I ever listen to you, Coros? You’re reckless in every possible way!”

    “The ceiling’s opening, something’s coming through,” reported Flectin. “They want to punish us for attempting to usurp the mould’s high position. We’re facing execution.” Two tonnes of a material resembling wet concrete landed on the Decepticons, knocking them to the floor. They struggled to rise but were hit by more and more of the heavy, sticky concrete until they were completely buried and totally immobilised.

    “No one panic,” said Bromis, with forced calmness. “We can handle this. They just want to keep us completely under control, so we’ll make them think that they’re succeeding. This is nothing compared to five years in space.” The Dralans demolished the cell wall and the quick-setting concrete block was hauled into the street, where it was given an extra layer, smoothed off and put on a heavy-duty trailer. A primitive but powerful tractor was brought over, hitched up and used to pull the trailer out of the settlement. The tractor-trailer had an escort of giant guards, quick-marching on either side. The Unifier was concentrating on these guards (top enforcers), ramming home the message that the aliens were not to be trusted at any time. Inside the block, the Decepticons were using their compasses, sensors and detailed Dralan maps to determine their route, which was generally southwards. They were also pondering the fact that the Dralans had invented the internal combustion engine, which meant that they were developing faster than previously thought. Three days passed and they realised their probable destination. The guards were changed and fuel was supplied at certain settlements along the road, so the vehicle and escort continued at a constant average speed. They went through a mountain pass, where the Decepticons decided to make their move. They activated their cutting laser, slicing open the concrete block and felling half the guards at the same time. This was something that the Unifier could not have foreseen, being totally ignorant of such weapons. With a mighty heave, they pushed away the upper section of the block and then slashed the laser through the remaining guards and the tractor driver.

    “We’ve got an hour or two before the capture squads arrive,” said Bromis. “Let’s get to work, as fast as possible. They’ll be here in huge numbers, knowing our luck.” The Unifier watched from several different angles as the tractor was hastily dismembered and incorporated into the aliens’ composite body. It wasn’t certain that even the best equipped Dralan enforcers could overcome these creatures now. A new approach was needed. The Unifier condensed a macrobody and began to explore possibilities in depth. The most promising weapons here were probably the mountains themselves. The trees on the slopes could flex their roots and catch the aliens unawares...

    “Landslide!” yelled Coros. Flectin leapt and saved them by a wire’s breadth. Thousands of tonnes of rock buried the road with a ruthless roar and a blizzard of dust and pebbles.

    “That wasn’t pure coincidence,” said Bromis, somewhat shaken. “And it wasn’t caused by our laser, either. It must have been the mould, using some kind of leverage up there on the mountainside.”

    “There are some components buried under these rocks,” said Coros. “Shall we retrieve them?”

    “Yes, it’s still worth it,” said Bromis. With the help of the laser, they swiftly dug down and pulled out the dented pieces of iron, keeping a very close eye on the slopes above. After a few minutes of restructuring, they decided that it was time to scale one of those slopes, hoping to get above the landslide risk zone. The way was unstable and treacherous. Many times, the Decepticons had to jump, dodge or cling to outcrops as further rock falls hurtled past. They reached the broad, flat summit after a difficult struggle. One of their shared legs was damaged, giving them a slight limp.

    “This will be our base,” said Flectin. “We will try to defend it against all comers.” After a quick ground survey, they started to mine, refine and smelt. They built an arched roof over the new mine’s entrance and covered it with tonnes of spoil to shield against acid attack. They made plenty of small solar cells and placed them all around the mine, hoping that the Unifier had not learnt their vital importance as power suppliers. The mine became deeper, with chambers set aside for other processes such as the forging of parts, the synthesising of fuel and lubricants, the growing of impermeable membranes and research into Dralan biochemistry. Weapons and armour were made next: automatic guns that could decimate approaching divisions of Dralans, as well as armour that could resist the worst corrosives. Then the Decepticons began their mobility project: the creation of the first jet aircraft on Drala 2.

    The Unifier watched from inside the base as the new hardware was developed and tested. It was most alarming. The armies coming up the mountain were ordered to stop and wait until further notice. Instead, the Unifier sent swarms of small mountain-dwelling creatures to corrode the guns and the curious shiny square objects that had been made first. When the aliens realised and went out to attempt the salvage of their equipment, the Unifier brought more small creatures to corrode key items inside the base. The aliens shot hundreds of animals but the Unifier had millions more. The creatures sprayed the aliens from head to foot with corrosives until the metal body became too weak to stand.

    “Power reserves are almost exhausted,” said Flectin, defeated. “We only have life support now. We’re just waiting for old mouldy to finish us off. There’s one thing that I have to say before I go: he’s a superb fighter. I wish that he was on our side!” The Unifier wasn’t in a rush to kill the aliens. For twelve hours, it pondered what to do, all the while receiving the aliens’ messages about their supposedly peaceful intentions and their urgent desire to go home.

    “Peaceful, you say?” said the Unifier. “Even near to death, you distort the truth. The name ‘Decepticons’ is well deserved. I have decided to do you one last favour: to send you home and thus stop you from slaughtering my people.”

    “Unity, is this your true form?” asked Coros as a weird, fuzzy figure came toward him.

    “This is one of my many forms,” said the Unifier. “It is the form that I use for meeting people like you because it has two arms, two legs, a torso and a head. It also enables me to think quicker. Already, I have devised a plan for you. I will keep you in an inert state and you will carefully instruct my people in the building of a craft for travelling to your home world. You will be put into the craft and send into space with no opportunity for changing course. It will take you thousands of years to reach home, by which time we will have the technology to control aliens like you.”

    “Your proposals are very appealing,” said Flectin. “We would like to build this craft as soon as you can organise the labour and tools.”

    * * * * *

    The building work took almost four years to complete because the Unifier insisted that the Decepticons explain their blueprints in the minutest detail, to ensure that no tricks were being played. After much dialogue, argument, learning and compromise, the combined expertise of Dralan society and Decepticon technologists succeeded in producing a unique, single-purpose space shuttle. There were many spin-offs from this project, including useful devices and materials for "Decepticons stay on for a further eighteen months to finish imparting their accumulated knowledge to the eager Dralan scholars. This knowledge was faithfully recorded in books and on the new electronic memory devices. Much of it was tested with experiments and logic to confirm its validity. Finally, the Unifier decided that it was time to launch the shuttle and fulfil the bargain. It was obvious that the Decepticons were not going to give up their most precious secrets. Indeed, they had threatened to commit suicide rather than reveal details of the most advanced Cybertronian technologies: the keys to their success in war.

    The Unifier had learnt enough to know that Drala 2 was defenceless against a full-scale Decepticon assault. The best defences available were the planet’s anonymity and strategic insignificance. The Decepticon High Command must never hear about Drala 2’s vibrant society. Coros, Bromis and Flectin had to be silenced permanently. A technically trained scholar altered the pre-programmed navigation instructions in the shuttle’s rudimentary computer. The Decepticons were put on board and the short countdown to launch began. Millions of people turned out to see them off. Although feared as potential mass murderers, the Decepticons were held in high regard for their wealth of knowledge. The three used their message generators to send a last ‘thank you’ to Drala 2 before the shuttle’s hatch was closed and the craft blasted off.

    “Almost six years of lecturing to morons!” groaned the disembodied Bromis. “I almost welcome an age in stasis.”

    “Wait a minute, this isn’t the course that we specified!” said Flectin, checking the long-winded machine code. “We’re going to slingshot around Drala 1 ... and spiral into the sun! I can’t change course; we’re dead in three weeks!” The betrayers were betrayed. For a minute, there was stunned silence.
    “A starship might come and save us,” said Coros.

    “Some frakking hope,” spat Bromis. “Your trouble is that you can’t face the inevitable, such as death and also my superiority in the Game. My tally on Drala 2 was three hundred and forty nine dead, seventy eight injured while yours was only two hundred and twenty two dead and five hundred and ninety six injured.”

    “I dispute those figures!” said Coros. “We were in a composite body, after all! Also, my efficiency was twenty nine percent greater than yours”

    “Comrades, please remember your dignity,” interrupted Flectin. “We must prepare to return to the Creation Matrix without complaint or else Primus will be angry with us. You don’t want that, do you? If we do get rescued, we can settle the matter with an adjudicator. If not, we should forget it because we’re all good and loyal Decepticons and the Game is of no consequence in the end.” As the shuttle neared the sun, the Decepticons switched themselves off and their brains were subsequently vaporised. It was a fitting end for crew members from the D.S.S. Cremator.

    Back on Drala 2, the Unifier was having problems of a different nature. It appeared that the Decepticons had released a virulent disease just prior to their departure. The disease had become an epidemic that was sweeping across the land and felling thousands of people, as well as millions of animals. The Unifier marshalled its powers to identify, analyse and eventually neutralise the disease microbes. It appeared that the Decepticons had synthesised this entirely new biological weapon using only their message generators. While the survivors collected and buried the bodies, the Unifier resolved to do everything in its power to protect those poor, fragile mortals. If that meant preparing for a dirty war with alien invaders, then so be it. Drala 2 would be ready.

    * * * * *

    Meanwhile, in orbit, a certain beacon of Cybertronian design continued to beam out its S.O.S., repeating and repeating the digital appeals of three departed souls.


    [This story was written in 1996, posted on Seibertron.com in 2005, lost in a mysterious server crash there, corrupted on my disks but saved on paper and retyped in March/April 2015. It has returned! Ooh, 'Lost Light' used the same story title in the first half of 2017: fancy that, what a coincidence! ;-)]
     
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2017
  6. snavej

    snavej Zone 6 dweller, off-peak traveller

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    Another story - 'Misplaced'

    Misplaced (c) John H. Evans, June-July 2016

    They had stopped caring about how long this mission lasted. Great God Primus was always with them, so their security was assured. That message was emphatic, as if it were stamped deeply into the very fabric of the multiverse. The Transformers simply continued with their work as it was given to them. Currently, they were in Universe 5711986. Each universe they encountered was given a code number, as far as was possible. Some universes were too hard to recognise, so they had to be left unnumbered but they were noted. Sometimes, they could be identified later, with hindsight.

    The Transformer star ship ‘Chordwainer’ was teleporting rapidly from galaxy to galaxy, finding and attempting to neutralise the areas of greatest corruption. As in so many others, Universe 5711986 had an infestation of dark gods. These were evil beings of great power that sought to hold back the development of life. Primus and the Transformers had become consummate masters in the fight against dark gods everywhere. Victory against them had become routine. It was only a matter of time. Chordwainer was actually sentient and part of the crew’s telepathic community.

    “While you plot our next moves, I will take on sustenance,” said Chordwainer to the crew. The star ship located a fairly large, metal-rich asteroid and teleported onto it. Landing legs gripped the surface with long, powerful claws. A quick scan revealed the best mineral deposits. Energy beams sliced the material into manageable blocks, which were teleported into the processing bays. Soon enough, they would be converted into useful components and substances. Chordwainer was satisfied. Any waste would be jettisoned back into the asteroid field.

    The star ship and crew considered their course of action for the next few days. They had done well recently, seeding several galaxies with self-replicating robots that would multiply massively and overwhelm the resident dark gods. They had also discovered many powerful races of people, who would assist the Transformers in further anti-corruption endeavours. However, they were finding it increasingly difficult to make long distance teleport jumps. They could see that this region of the universe was fundamentally different. The casual observer might not notice it but the Transformers knew that trouble was in store.

    “This is highly unusual,” said Onderplex. “There should have been advance warning of these conditions. I think that we should retreat from here immediately as a precaution.”

    “Too late,” said Chordwainer. “Can you read the tide? Dimensional shifts are already blocking our escape.” The Transformers used their super-advanced senses to check the teleport environment. Chordwainer was right.

    “What is the cause of this trap?” asked Tyladyne. “Is it dark gods, advanced civilisations, super beings or...”

    “Natural conditions, I believe,” said Venturaij. “There are no broadcast thoughts to betray intention. We have stumbled upon a region of untold instability but Primus will protect us.”

    “Nevertheless, it is imperative that we search for an escape route,” advised Abscaut. Everyone agreed and the whole crew spent many hours scrutinising the multidimensional environment. They found some paths that were vaguely promising but couldn’t quite decide if those were worth the risk. Conditions in this area were the strangest that they had ever seen. Chordwainer was becoming unusually worried, so he mined more asteroids for extra supplies, just in case.

    Hotspot was in his quarters, helping the others and simultaneously thinking about his recent encounters with people in this universe. They were fairly typical life forms but their beliefs in other realms were abnormally strong. As he pondered, he noticed that his room was changing its appearance in a very odd manner.

    “Chordwainer, are you altering my walls?” asked Hotspot. “They’re now red and orange, with a slight furry texture.” There was no response. The items around Hotspot were gradually morphing into a range of unfamiliar objects. Some were melting away and others were evaporating.

    “Oh no, my souvenirs are disappearing!” thought Hotspot. “Damn these dysfunctional dimensions!” Just then, a crowd of small aliens walked through a newly-appeared door into Hotspot’s quarters. They were chatting amongst themselves.
    “By Primus, what is happening?!” exclaimed Hotspot. The aliens stopped in their tracks and fell silent, looking at the towering mechanoid in front of them. One of the aliens was taller than the others. This one was female and communicated telepathically with Hotspot.

    “I sense that you are friendly and peaceful,” she said calmly. “I have never seen your kind here. I assume that you are a newcomer. Welcome to the mystic realms of Evermaze. Long may your thoughts run true.”

    “What are you doing on our star ship?” asked Hotspot.

    “I see no star ship,” said the tall female. “We are going to the tourneyon at the cross-streams. Now, if you don’t mind, we’ll be on our way. It is a long walk for the children.” Hotspot looked around and found that the Chordwainer had completely disappeared. He was now standing on a road in an unfamiliar landscape under two red suns. The children were streaming past, glancing up at him with a mixture of apprehension and admiration.

    “Could everyone please stop?” he asked. “I can take you to the tourneyon.”

    “How?” asked the tall female.

    “One moment, I will transform,” said Hotspot, then did so. He altered his second form into a bus.

    “You’re a transport vehicle too?” marvelled the tall female. “Well, why don’t we travel together? Everyone on the bus, please!” The aliens cheered and climbed aboard and then Hotspot drove them to the tourneyon.

    “When in doubt and all may be lost, why not do a good turn?” thought Hotspot.


    * * * * *


    Logoreader found himself in a much worse situation. He was floating in a vast mauve emptiness with no ship, crew, gear or even atmosphere. He was unable to communicate with anyone. He couldn’t even sense Primus or other gods. There was a little debris floating in the distance but it was hard to see because of all the mauveness everywhere. He tried to jet himself over to the debris but he was paralysed. He felt some sharp, stinging pains in various body parts. His vision was also starting to degrade. After a few moments thinking about his experiences with zero-gravity environments, he realised that he was being bombarded with radiation. Some tiny yet supercharged particles were tearing through his metal flesh. They were slowly but surely eroding his vital tissues. If this continued, he would be dead in a matter of days. How could this be? He was supposed to be much more resistant to radiation. Then, he realised that the laws of physics had changed in this area. Normal radiation was far more lethal here. He was going to be killed by the universe’s tiniest assassins and he could do nothing about it. Inside, he screamed but no one could hear him. All that was left was waiting in terror and extreme cold. The unfairness of his fate filled him with frustration but maybe, somehow, salvation would arrive.


    * * * * *


    “Chordwainer, HELP!” called out Enqlok. He was clinging to a flat chunk of irregularly shaped rock that was about eighty metres wide and long. Other rocks of various sizes were floating nearby. There could easily be a collision soon if the rocks kept drifting in the same directions. There was light here from a micro-sized sun that he could glimpse occasionally through gaps in the rock field. Wasn’t that impossible? Wait, the physics of this realm were in flux. Enqlok felt light-headed: that was probably part of the same problem. He had to be ready for any threat, no matter how bizarre. He tried very hard to focus his attention but the local conditions were actively interfering with the electron flow in his brain. He drifted in and out of consciousness, able to see the rock debris milling around him but unable to chart all the movements properly. After a few minutes, he fancied that he saw something moving toward him. What was it? Several more minutes went by before he concluded that it was just another rock, not a life form. It might disturb the field around him and cause damage to his flailing body. He had to defend himself. With an effort, he managed to open his shoulder compartment and activate his missile launcher. He hoped that the million needles in the warhead would shred the rock before there could be any collision. The missile fired but the warhead exploded short of the target. Just then, a wave of change washed through the area, pushing all the rocks in different directions. The needle barrage was scattered haphazardly around. Enqlok held up an arm just in time to stop some needles from hitting him in the head. He felt intermittent pain as his attention started to fail. His body could take no more of this environment. He sent out a final telepathic distress call before he slipped into blackness.


    * * * * *


    “Yoldren.” It was a signal splash in his serenity. It was wrong. The majestic, endless dream of stillness, positivity and knowing should not be shaken like this. He continued waiting, happy that all troubles would inevitably pass. Time was no longer his concern. He would persist forever in peace and calm. He entered stasis and knew no more for an unknown period. Then, in due course, another burst of action appeared on the horizon. It was like a howling hurricane coming closer and closer. All the sound tones were there, from a high shriek to a low rumble. ‘Wwww...’ it seemed to say.

    “WAKE UP!” blasted the voice in his head. “We have to rescue the others!” Yoldren was jolted awake. He opened his eyes and there was a terrible, enormous head right in front of him. It was full of sharp angles and glittering lights. He screamed in panic and tried to flee. He was about to transform into jet mode when an energy beam hit him, seeming to slow his responses and cause a momentary loss of control. The monstrous head cursed and then shot out a grappling line. Yoldren was snagged and pulled inside the head. He didn’t die. He found himself in partly familiar surroundings.

    “Chordwainer,” groaned Yoldren with a mixture of relief and disappointment. “You sure know how to pick your moments. I was having an incredible, divine experience and you just yanked me out of there without even a ‘by your leave’. Did you know that your ceiling is covered with psychedelic slime and glass?”

    “As my teleport chief, I need you to help me reassemble the team,” said Chordwainer. “If all the teleport psychics can be retrieved and reactivated, we will have our best chance of leaving this accursed zone. My ceiling issues will have to wait!”

    “Sprout me a seat and a link point,” requested Yoldren reluctantly. “I’ll do what I can.” The floor of the corridor extruded a seat for Yoldren, who sat down and linked to Chordwainer’s systems. This ship was remarkable. It was maintaining full consciousness in one of the most difficult situations that Yoldren had ever known. Was it this that enabled him to see locations for all the missing crew or was some other force lending assistance? Yoldren would have to investigate that later. Now, like it or not, it was time for rescue work, starting with his top deputy....


    * * * * *


    “Hum-Free!” trilled Deyvaylef from the other side of the mini-moat. “You’ll be late for shift 236! They really need you today!” Hum-Free responded automatically, throwing back the thermal bismuth flaps and preparing himself for another sixteen hours of toil. The dam walls had to be finished this year or else the river of copper-ammonia would engulf another hundred square kilometres of useful land. Unfortunately, he had not slept well. His dreams had been most peculiar and he had spent two fruitless hours lying awake, fretting over what might happen. Perhaps this was a premonition of future setbacks. The dam walls might fail after all. He resolved to be especially careful in his work today.

    Leaving his chamber, he hopped over the mini-moat. The sticky orange gel in that trench was becoming clogged with various crawlers. Either he would have to clear them out himself or he could ask one of the others to do it. There was no time right now, though. He hurried to his dining pod and allowed the machinery to plug in his seventeen feeding tubes. Nutrients flowed into his body at various points. Almost immediately, he felt more awake and energetic.

    “I added Ugdex cordial to jug 11,” said Deyvaylef. “I hope you like it.”

    “Oh, that is refreshing,” said Hum-Free, pleasantly surprised. Deyvaylef was a delight to know sometimes! Hum-Free looked forward to the next group congress, when the other two partners came home from their shifts. He soon finished his morning routine and then headed for the work site. Life was good. He spent a few hours with his big rig, forcing strengthened silver pilings into the bedrock. It was very satisfying and he liked the way that the silver flamed purple and green as it was hammered home. After the fourth hour, he had a break and looked across the plain. In the distance, the murky flow of the river continued to carve gradually through the soft soil. Thank goodness that this adversary was so unhurried! He was slightly mesmerised by the striking vista. His mind wandered.

    “Hum-Free, return to us,” demanded a voice in his head. He spun around, hoping to find who was communicating. It was certainly discomforting.

    “Hey, you’re jumpy!” said his colleague Tam-Choz. “Were you stung by a crawler?”

    “Crawlers hate construction noise,” Hum-Free reminded him. “No, I heard a voice. Maybe someone’s hiding around here, playing jokes.”

    “I have a way of dealing with jokers,” said Tam-Choz. He put his raycaller on the ground and used it to send a burst of beliogric charge out to a hundred metres in all directions.

    “Don’t do that!” complained two other workers nearby who received a mild shock and sprang to their feet.

    “Security precaution,” said Tam-Choz. “I’m entitled to do it when necessary. I have to flush out all trespassers on this site.”

    “I can’t see any trespassers,” said Hum-Free. “I wonder if I just imagined that voice.”

    “It was probably just a day dream,” said Tam-Choz. “Try listening to a few broadcasts to take your mind off it.” He turned and walked back toward his work station. Just then, he heard Hum-Free start to shout. There was a shiny alien beast grabbing Hum-Free with powerful mechanical arms. Hum-Free was clinging to his big rig, trying to avoid abduction by this thing. Tam-Choz gazed in horror as Hum-Free was prised from his rig and held aloft by the giant creature. At that moment, the alien began to smoulder and flames erupted from a few of its joints. It cried out in pain and then disappeared, taking Hum-Free with it. Tam-Choz roused himself from his shocked state and grabbed his communicator. The collective had to know about this!


    * * * * *


    “FRAAAAK!” exclaimed Yoldren as his joints continued to burn. “Put it out, Chordwainer!” The sentient star ship sprayed him with fire-******ant chemicals but the combustion would not stop so easily.

    “I’ve never seen this before,” said Chordwainer. “Some of your metals have been changed at a subatomic level. I will have to remove them immediately.” He used his teleport engines to send those metals into the vacuum outside himself. Yoldren collapsed, crippled without many of his key joints and other components. Thankfully, his most vital systems were not seriously degraded.

    “Fix Hum-Free too,” said Yoldren, his energon drained by his injuries and exertions.

    “That will be much trickier,” said Chordwainer. “He is organic now and he is suffocating. Our air here is quite insufficient for him.” Chordwainer surrounded Hum-Free with a force field and tried to give him some suitable air, extrapolating from what was in his lungs.

    “Can we restore him to his old self?” asked Yoldren.

    “I have spare bodies and ample medical equipment,” said Chordwainer. “It should be possible but it could take days and these are not normal circumstances. The process could easily be derailed.”

    “I will not be made into a machine!” insisted Hum-Free, finally receiving enough air. “I am Chab-flet. You have no right! My people will deal with you! The Chab-flet army knows how to butcher your kind!”

    “I can’t sustain you for long here,” said Chordwainer to Hum-Free. “I am unable to duplicate your air precisely. The molecules are too different. I believe that your best chance of survival is to return to the Chab-flet world for the time being.”

    “If we leave him there, we might never get him back!” protested Yoldren. “We NEED him for the escape attempt!” Chordwainer tried to weigh up the situation. Yoldren was probably right. Chordwainer could feel it in his spark. Teleporting without Hum-Free’s help would be insufficient to escape this region.

    “I will keep Hum-Free here for a while and try to restore him,” said Chordwainer. “However, I can give no promises of success.”

    “You don’t understand!” pleaded Hum-Free. “I’m not part of your collective. I never was! My life is with the Chab-flet and nowhere else. How can you drag me away from my world, my life, my dear family? You’re monsters!” Neither Yoldren nor Chordwainer had seen a personality change quite this severe. Chordwainer laboured on and Yoldren tried to help with chemical analyses but both of them could see that this region was changing things much more than they had imagined.


    * * * * *


    “Now that, son, is a very holy robot!” said the purple man with the black stripes. “See how much conviction is in his eyes? They are about to catch fire!” The slender purple son with the black pinstripes gazed diligently at the robot, taking in as much detail as possible.

    “The sacred fury is seriously strong with him,” agreed the son. “What’s his model? I don’t recognise it.”

    “I guess it’s an F-U311 model with heavy customisation,” said the father. “Now you see why I love robotics.” The robot stared back at them, unblinking. He could feel his patience slipping inexorably away. Some unknown force was meddling with his mind. He didn’t want to lose his temper but it seemed inevitable unless he retrieved his missing components.

    “Sir,” he said, struggling to remain civil. “Is there any way that I can move to the front of the line? It’s very urgent.”

    “Oh come now, don’t let yourself down,” said the purple man. “All things come to those who wait and those who overcome the most negative emotions become the most blessed. Those are the words of the Lord and Lady. You may want to call for some energon to sustain you.”

    “I’ve tried your energon and it was foul!” spat the robot. “I must have my missing parts as soon as possible.” The purple man was mildly disgusted by the disrespect shown by the robot. He took his son and moved further down the queue. He didn’t want to stand too close to an angry non-believer. A minute later, something snapped in the robot’s mind.

    “That is IT! I’ve had enough!” he snarled. “My name is Hexvexer and I DEMAND MY PARTS BACK!” Most of the churchgoers heard that. He strode towards the front of the line but his way was blocked by some larger robots.

    “Brother, stop this sacrilege or you will be ejected,” said the largest earnestly. “You may never retrieve those parts if you transgress like this!” Hexvexer punched the nearest robot but did little damage. These machines were pretty tough.

    “It is our duty to keep each other in line, to maintain the dignity of patience as much as we can,” said the largest robot. “Shall we eject him, Keeper?”

    “Yes, he is becoming more impatient by the minute,” said the Keeper over the intercom. “Sadly, his place is no longer here.” Five robots seized Hexvexer and marched him out of the Church of Lost and Found, dumping him in the streets of Semipresent Town.

    “Aargh!” exclaimed Hexvexer as he scrambled to his feet, transformed to vehicle mode and drove at the five robots. “By Primus, you will help me!” He reached the robots, transformed again and drove his finger spines through weak points in their armour, injecting masses of code into their systems. Within moments, they became slaves of Hexvexer.

    “You damned inflexible zealots,” he cursed them. “Change yourselves! Become my new body augmentations.” These were not the most advanced robots in existence but Hexvexer’s code altered their shapes enough to allow him to join with them. A rudimentary gestalt was formed. Hexvexer used this gestalt to smash his way back into the Church and plough through the queue, which was thousands strong. Many people backed away from it but the bolder ones tried to stop it. They were pushed aside and the objects they threw at it bounced off.

    “Keeper, my components or your life!” was Hexvexer’s ultimatum. Trembling, the Keeper rifled through his collection and brought out two components in their traditional white wrappings with purple piping. Hexvexer snatched them with his smaller arms and tore open the wrappings, which he tossed irreverently onto the floor.

    “This is all you have?!” he queried menacingly. “Let me see that collection of yours.” He pushed the Keeper aside roughly and scanned the collection. There was plenty of absolute trash here but no more components. The people behind were appalled to see the Keeper treated so badly but they didn’t dare intervene in case he was hurt or killed.

    “Mighty robot, the collection is never complete but your parts may be found and delivered here later,” said the Keeper. “Do you know where you saw them last? That might be helpful in finding them.”

    “I crashed on this pitiful world,” said Hexvexer. “The parts were scattered over a wide area.”

    “In that case, you might want to try other Churches,” said the Keeper. “There are seventeen in this province alone. The faithful are always bringing in lost items.” Hexvexer turned to the nearest wall and head-butted it in frustration, leaving a crater in the concrete. Then, he stormed out of the church, reinserting his components as he went. Outside, he shed his gestalt form, transformed and drove to the next town. The enslaved robots were left lying inert in the street. Already, the two recovered components were helping Hexvexer to control his rage. It gave him hope that he might soon be whole again and in a position to escape this world. All around, though, armed forces were mobilising against him. It was now a race against time.


    * * * * *


    I have left behind my physical body. I am now a spiritual guardian of Evermaze. We are too numerous to count. We oversee this whole special region and try to improve its balance.

    I was known as Tyladyne. My body entered a region of bosonic instability. It lost its essential mass and is now falling apart, particle by particle, in the neutrino fields of that space. I tried to return to Primus but I could not. I know not why but I strongly suspect that this is my destiny. Now, I am with the guardian host, working tirelessly and gracefully for the development of Evermaze. I have not forgotten my old comrades. I will help them too, if I can.


    * * * * *


    Czerphlaem was found deep in a tree web in the cliff lands of Nuvea World. He was injured and shocked. Greynar read his mind: it was full of disturbing images, sounds and other sensations. There were furry, feathery, woolly and leathery creatures, most of which were unexpectedly intelligent. Some of them appeared to be harmless at first but proved to be much more dangerous, bringing in armies, nightmarish monsters, magical growth potions and baffling switches in logic. Even the children were taking mind-bending intoxicants and making seemingly omniscient pronouncements. Czerphlaem had been struck down again and again. He had then been obliged to run and climb for his life. He was not cut out for this. Fortunately, Nuvea World had an atmosphere conducive to powered flight. Greynar and Antefashion were able to fly Czerphlaem to the top of some cliffs, where they were safer from the things lurking and stalking below.

    “You know, Czerphlaem, I think that this region is beating us,” said Antefashion. “Look at me, for example. I lost several skin plates and contracted a new kind of rust infection on the previous world. Greynar was impaled by a metal rod there too. It tasted like steel but it had a crystalline structure that made it even sharper than any steel that we had seen before.”

    “Together, we managed to slip out of that area only to find ourselves here, which is shaping up to be just as bad,” added Greynar. “It was lucky that both of us could fly in this world. We tracked you down in only five hours. Maybe the three of us can break free from here soon.”

    “The creatures below, they call this whole region the Evermaze,” said Czerphlaem. “I hope that that doesn’t mean there’s no possible escape.” He examined the injuries on his chest dejectedly.

    “I would guess that this Evermaze is vast but, if we can find the ship, we should be able to bust out,” said Antefashion. “We just need to find the weak spots where we can warp between worlds.” They gazed out at the spectacular landscape of crazy cliff arrays, many over a kilometre high. In the distance, some flying creatures were approaching. They seemed to be rather large...


    * * * * *


    “We just had a close encounter of the lanko krell kind,” said Jystryn, still amazed and a little proud. “Some of the strangest creatures I ever saw popped out of wherever-dimension and started demanding information. They were really frantic. Here’s the video.” Bokina watched the images and could hardly believe it. She knew that Jystryn was definitely not a faker, so these images were real.

    “Fralar’s ghost, that’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen!” said Bokina. “How did you keep that giant metalloid from killing you?”

    “I guess we were just lucky,” said Jystryn. “You see, we were out trying to round up a stray bronzo. We were using our control vines at full extension. We were tracking it but the bronzo saw us and ran away. At that moment, the metalloid appeared and asked for help in finding some friends. Then, a smaller metalloid materialised. I was really scared, of course. I swung my vine at the larger one and, by some fluke, it took hold and I could control him. I told Cees Pandu to get the other one.”

    “And that’s when you were attacked by those creeps on flying platforms?” asked Bokina.

    “Right, they also came out of nowhere,” replied Jystryn. “But these ones arrived shooting! We dodged a few bullets, got behind some trees and used the metalloids to fight back.”

    “You should get an award for bravery, girl!” commented Bokina.

    “Yeah, probably!” agreed Jystryn. “Anyway, it turned out that the bullets went right through the metalloids and made a mess of the tree trunks. The metalloids were injured and couldn’t help us after a few hits. The flying creeps told us to back off.”

    “But you didn’t!” said Bokina. “You activated something in them. What was it?”

    “The metalloids told me about it,” said Jystryn. “They said that it was a sonic weapon. It was supposed to be super-powerful but, for some reason, it only had a small effect. The flying creeps dropped to the ground. They all had a minor seizure and their platforms lost power for a minute. That was long enough for the metalloids to conjure their way out of our world. Fralar knows where they went. The creeps forgot about us and went after the metalloids: good riddance to them.”

    “So you couldn’t help the metalloids to find their friends after all?” asked Bokina. “What do you think might have happened to them?”

    “I had a good mind link with the larger one,” said Jystryn. “From what I could tell, the metalloids are resourceful people. There’s a good chance that they’ll find their friends and escape.”

    “There’s one problem with that,” said Cees Pandu. “This is the Evermaze, dude!”

    “Evermaze don’t treat folk nice,” said her sister Cees Andez. “They gonna need a whole lotta luck!”

    “And this story is going live on the network,” said Bokina. “Get ready for fame, girls!”


    * * * * *


    A look of the most intense concentration and concern was fixed on the face of Nori Netlom. At the same time, Ommantie seemed to be losing his self aura. It was rapidly becoming apparent to their friend Mojer Tabress that something profound would soon happen. The three Transformers had been stranded on this planetoid for weeks. They had found enough metal, energy and other vital resources to keep them functioning thus far. They had received random scraps of information via telepathy and other dimensions: they knew that this region was known as the Evermaze and also that it was exceptionally challenging to inhabit. They had tried to escape but had discovered that the name ‘Evermaze’ was the greatest truth here. Despite their skill at teleportation and dimensional manipulation, this region defied them with what appeared to be unlimited force and obstruction. Steadily, they had lost hope of ever leaving this prison alive. It was no surprise what was happening to Ommantie.

    “Are you thinking of terminating yourself?” Mojer asked Ommantie bluntly. “We sense that you’re drifting away, spiritually.” Ommantie slowly flexed his body on his improvised stone couch but didn’t respond. Nori and Mojer monitored him closely for any signs of change. He was still healthy but seemed to be giving up the struggle to survive. His spark was steadily becoming dissociated from his body and slipping into the roiling maelstrom of the Evermaze.

    “He’s going,” said Nori. “I don’t think that we can stop him. I’ve been having terrible premonitions about this sort of thing since we were marooned here.”

    “Please Ommantie, don’t...” said Mojer just before he departed. His body was left functioning automatically.

    “Oh no, Primus preserve us!” whined Nori, looking away from Ommantie’s empty shell.

    “Maybe we should go after him,” said Mojer. “I know we won’t succeed but it’s the right thing to do. We’re dead anyway.”

    “I have no idea what to do, mech!” cried Nori. “This place is impossible!”

    “I wouldn’t say that,” said a familiar voice.

    “Ommantie, are you back already?” asked Mojer, already knowing that he wasn’t.

    “Well, here’s an intriguing form from the Outside,” said the entity in Ommantie’s body. “I come across these from time to time. This one is perhaps the most advanced that I’ve yet found.”

    “Whoever you are, can you please tell us how to return to the Outside?” asked Nori. “I’m sure that we could make it worth your while!”

    “Sorry but no one knows how reach the Outside,” said the entity. “You’ll just have to adapt to the Evermaze, like everyone else who blunders in here. Anyway, I’m going now. Farewell, my castaways!” He activated Ommantie’s teleport systems and faded away, along with the Transformer’s body.

    “Alright, fine,” said Nori to Primus, perceiving now the jaws of his doom. “If this is how it must be...” He teleported away in pursuit. Mojer grabbed some supplies and followed Nori. Both of them hurtled crazily through realms of unimaginable strangeness. There was no way that they could track anyone in this. Nori saw a figure in the distance that looked like a Transformer. He headed towards it but immediately felt that this was the wrong choice. Another Transformer figure appeared to his left, then another above right. He tried to determine who or what they were. More were appearing: three, five, eight, nineteen, thirty six, one hundred and eighty eight; the multiplication accelerated. Nori was becoming surrounded. Had he seen them before? Details were similar – no – identical. It was the same Transformer again and again.

    It was him, Nori Netlom. There was also an emotional and intellectual avalanche. Time was looping madly. Déjà vu overloaded his brain. The mass of Nori Netloms increased exponentially. Their bodies became crushed together and they all died. They became hyper dense and filled this odd dimensional pocket that they occupied.

    Mojer lost all trace of Nori but he read the currents around him and sensed that his friend was deceased. Mojer really was lost. What could he do now? He hunted around for what he thought was a short time but could have been an age. It was that sort of environment. Eventually, he found a component drifting around. Using various types of magnetism, he snagged more components. These were all from Ommantie. Soon enough, he found virtually all of Ommantie’s body. That was all he was likely to find.

    “Rest in peace, Ommantie and Nori,” thought Mojer, regarding the grisly remains of Ommantie. “This tortured hell has done for you both but I’m not finished yet. I’ve got to find a safer environment.” He left behind the maelstrom and headed for a realm that he estimated would be more amenable. He passed into the new area, towing Ommantie’s parts behind him.

    The annihilating explosion of Mojer Tabress was powerful enough to destroy a small moon. However, there were no moons in the area. He had chosen wrongly and entered a space that was incompatible with his kind of matter. He had failed to adapt. The Evermaze had claimed his life. The subatomic particles that used to be Mojer Tabress and Ommantie now moved rapidly in all directions across a deadly void.


    * * * * *


    “Mr. Robot, sir!” said the unannounced visitor, knocking on the hidden door. Shadow Panther, who had been performing some indoor exercises, froze where he stood and activated his cameras. One of the native people had found his hideaway. It was an older woman, fourth kind. She only had three sub-feet, so she was leaning on a wall bank to stop herself from falling over. Was this the prelude to an attack? Shadow Panther checked his aerial drones that were flying permanently overhead. He couldn’t detect any attack force. The door scanners showed that she had no weapons. This woman appeared to be harmless yet he still questioned how and why she was here. Where was her transport? As far as he could tell from her tracks, she had walked many kilometres to reach him, which was unusual for someone old and disabled. Subtly, he probed her mind. As far as he could tell, she had come from the nearest town. She was the representative who had been chosen to make contact with him. At last, after about three months, the townspeople had decided to acknowledge his presence and try to establish a dialogue. He couldn’t really refuse. He was stranded in their beautiful land and was ultimately at their mercy.

    “Not many people are able to find me,” said Shadow Panther via the intercom. “Please enter.” He opened the door remotely. Without warning, a small herd of diminutive, pastel coloured herbivorous quadrupeds rushed past the woman and invaded Shadow Panther’s small base fearlessly. They scampered around, knocking over some of his equipment as they played and explored. Shadow Panther was about to try to round them up but the woman squealed at them in such a way that they ran outside immediately. The door was closed behind them.

    “That was irritating but it could have been worse,” said Shadow Panther, picking up some toppled equipment. “I am Shadow Panther. I was brought here inadvertently by forces beyond my control. I am a Transformer from the roaming planet Cybertron and I am a child of the Great God Primus.”

    “Greetings, Shadow Panther,” said the woman. “I am Masyrth Mechun of yonder town, which is known as Canyhith. I am quite weary right now. Do you have a seat and something to drink?”

    “Well, I have some fluoroseptonitrogen,” said Shadow Panther, passing her a beaker. “I believe that your people drink that, do they not?”

    “Every day,” said Masyrth, taking the beaker and imbibing the contents gratefully.

    “As for a seat, perhaps you could use one of my small boxes and a sack of plant samples as a cushion,” said Shadow Panther, fetching both box and sack. “My own seats are too large for you. For how long have you known that I was here?”

    “For almost as long as you have been here,” said Masyrth as she sat down, putting the empty beaker on the floor. “You may be stealthy in some places but here you stand out.”

    “In a world of eternal daylight, large creatures like me are easily spotted,” agreed Shadow Panther. “Also, my scent is quite distinct from the local scents. Anyway, to business: what have you come to discuss?”

    “We want peaceful coexistence,” replied Masyrth. “We have lived here since time immemorial. Occasionally, people visit from other worlds. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to leave our world. Most outsiders fail to escape and are obliged to stay until they die. That could easily be your fate as well.”

    “I am coming to realise that,” said Shadow Panther. “My escape attempts have come to naught. A combination of factors has hindered me, especially gravity anomalies and dimensional instability. Also, there are some common chemicals here that poison me. I have to be very careful where I go and what I touch.”

    “I’m sorry to hear that,” said Masyrth. “If you compile a list of those chemicals, we can use our local knowledge to help you to avoid them.” She examined his body carefully as he continued to rearrange his equipment.

    “We notice that you have the appearance of a war machine,” she said. “Now, I see that you have many weapons about your person. We hope that you don’t have any intention to wage war on us.”

    “I would only do that in extreme circumstances,” responded Shadow Panther. “You seem to be peaceful and good-natured people, so I believe that I will not attack you.”

    “Good, because we do not like killing aliens,” said Masyrth. “Occasionally, we have to do it. Our weapons tear most aliens to shreds.”

    “I never suspected,” said Shadow Panther. “You certainly hid that well.” He wondered if this was true or just bluster. He still didn’t understand a great deal about these natives, so he would have to be cautious with them.

    “You have offered me information about chemicals,” he continued. “Is there anything that you might want from me in return?”

    “We were hoping that, with your mastery of machinery, you could help us with some manufacturing,” answered Masyrth. “We would like some motor vehicles and electronic gadgets. Toys for the children would also be welcome.”

    “You’ve come to the right mech!” said Shadow Panther with pride. “We Transformers excel in such matters. We are walking industrial revolutions! Here’s an example.” He quickly fabricated a toy within his own body and gave it to Masyrth.

    “What is it?” she asked, gazing at the small rectangular object.

    “Press the blue button to activate the games console,” replied Shadow Panther. “It contains over a million video games. It is solar powered, so it will last a very long time here. Press the green button for the alternative mode.” Masyrth pressed the green button and the console transformed into a metallic flying insect, which leapt from her hand and buzzed around the room above her head. She squealed at it until it realised that she wanted it to return. It landed back in her hands and returned to console mode.

    “Astonishing,” she murmured. “Everyone will love it!”

    “I can provide much more but I won’t overwhelm you with novelties straight away,” said Shadow Panther. “I will give you only what you need.”

    “This is shaping up to be a most profitable alliance,” said Masyrth. “Shadow Panther, if I may ask for one more thing?” Shadow Panther suddenly detected danger. His weapons activated.

    “I want YOU!” said Masyrth. The attack was spiritual, not physical. A powerful entity launched itself from Masyrth directly into Shadow Panther’s mind. Shadow Panther fired a paralyser ray at Masyrth, who collapsed to the floor, but it was too late.

    “This marvellous technology is highly desirable,” said the entity. “I had your friend Ommantie for a short time but he died, along with Nori Netlom and Mojer Tabress. I learnt from Ommantie, though. Now, I have you and hopefully soon I will have your ship and crew.” Shadow Panther was unable to resist the possessing entity, which forced him to transform and leave the underground hideaway. His coloration was altered to blend in with the vegetation. He crept away in virtual silence. One of the pastel quadrupeds blocked his path but he killed it with a bite to the neck. It tasted of artificial fruit and synthetic dyes. He spat it out in disgust. The entity was hijacking all his systems with great expertise. Perhaps he would return to his comrades but, in doing so, he might finish them all.


    * * * * *


    “Hexvexer, what a pleasure!” said Greynar, trying to suppress his anxiety. “I never thought that I’d find another Transformer ever again. This accursed place plumbs new depths, doesn’t it?!”

    “Frakkin’ right!” said Hexvexer. “Where are you?”

    “I’m trying not to betray my location,” said Greynar. “I’m in a stolen craft, floating around near a giant planet. The radiation is uncomfortably high but I’m hoping that it will help to shield me.”

    “I’m on a moon not far from you, sheltering in an ice cave,” said Hexvexer. “Maybe the radiation will keep the space armadas from finding me.”

    “Space armadas?” queried Greynar. “How many are chasing you?!”

    “Well, I thought there were only seven at first,” replied Hexvexer. “However, after further signal analysis I think that there are another three small fleets pursuing me. I really should have controlled my temper earlier.”

    “You’re lucky,” said Greynar. “There’s a magical goblin after me!”

    “What?!” exclaimed Hexvexer.

    “You don’t want to know,” said Greynar. “The damned thing’s awful. It killed Antefashion and Czerphlaem. Now, I have to teleport every four minutes to keep ahead of it.”

    “Perhaps I could help,” said Hexvexer. “I still have my inside-out ray.”

    “I wouldn’t attack it if I were you,” said Greynar. “It was invulnerable to all our weaponry. I’m hoping to lose it somewhere deep in the Evermaze.”

    “Should I at least come with you?” asked Hexvexer. “Two heads are better than one.”

    “You’re probably safer here,” said Greynar. “Anyway, I have to go. Here’s hoping we get out of this alive.” He winked out, leaping further into the unknown.

    “All right, my enemies,” said Hexvexer with determination. “Let’s see if I can reduce your numbers. My robots are waiting to drag some of you into that gas planet.” For Hexvexer, it was like the good old days!


    * * * * *


    Yoldren was becoming increasingly pessimistic about the chances of survival in the Evermaze. He and his ship Chordwainer had been diligently hunting down the missing crew. So far, they had found seventeen members. All were dead except for Hum-Free, who had been sent back to the Chab-flet collective to save his life. Chordwainer had not been able to return Hum-Free to his original Transformer state. Although they were learning plenty about the Evermaze, Chordwainer’s interior was beginning to resemble a charnel house. The cadavers exhibited a range of grisly mortal injuries, some of which had never been seen before, even during the Cybertronian civil wars. To make matters worse, both Yoldren and Chordwainer had been injured as well. On top of that, at least five types of alien creature were now infesting Chordwainer, who was unable to purge them because they were highly tenacious and elusive. Furthermore, Chordwainer had to ration his energon for the crew search, so alien purging would have to wait for a more opportune time.

    “What’s the word on the next jump?” asked Yoldren. “Are our defences adequate for that environment?”

    “We will have to boost shield strength to ninety percent,” replied Chordwainer. “They have a kind of ‘ghost beta particle’ that is very damaging to Transformers.”

    “Very well,” said Yoldren. “I’m ready; let’s go.” They jumped into the next reality pocket. The beta particles hit them like a sandblaster. They only just managed to keep the shields strong enough. Nevertheless, they could feel some of the particles penetrating the shields and gradually degrading their bodily tissues.

    “Can anyone receive me?” asked Yoldren using all available channels. “This is the Star ship Chordwainer. We seek five of our missing crewmates. They are all Transformer mechanoids.” They waited for a response. Minutes ticked by. They could hear telepathic conversations around them. Eventually, someone answered.

    “Chordwainer, we regret to inform you that your comrades have died,” said a local representative on a nearby world. “They were unable to survive the radiation in this region but they spoke with us briefly before they succumbed. Their names were Deinchen Four, Seekhawk, Reshper, Chimedial and Parumeleng. Before we could reach them, their bodies fell into the star Krakulus. We are sorry for your loss but we recommend that you leave this reality immediately for your own safety.”

    “Twenty two,” said Yoldren as Chordwainer warped them out of danger. “That leaves only ninety five outstanding. I say we try to find some teleporters next. Venturaij is nearest, according to my mental map.”

    “True but I have a bad feeling about that zone,” warned Chordwainer. “We are not the only searchers in the vicinity.”


    * * * * *


    “What are the ships singing about now?” asked Chiefworker 1786.

    “It is an ancient lament, for a young musician who lost his mind long ago,” said the machine whisperer. “It is old-fashioned but ethereal and heart-breaking; that is if you have a heart to break.”

    “I certainly do,” said Chiefworker 1786. “Luckily, I have several extras budding in my chest, ready to take over when the current one breaks.”

    “So, all is well with you,” said the machine whisperer. “The seventh ship from the left reports some micro-meteorites hitting its exposed flank. Perhaps there is a shield failure.”

    “I will ask crew nineteen to deal with it,” said Chiefworker 1786. “Do you know why the ships are singing more these days? Also, why are they singing different tunes, not the usual long-wave free-form abstractions?”

    “I have not been on-site long enough to determine all the reasons,” said the machine whisperer. “The ships here move and think in ways that are rather mysterious to me but I am still learning. There is talk of a very important arrival here soon. First, though, they will sing many more songs: one about youngsters receiving a bad education, another about the unlit side of a lunar body, a medley of ditties about animals and so forth.”

    “I wasn’t told of any important arrivals,” said Chiefworker 1786. “I should inform the Supervisor. Ships don’t lie.”

    “No, they don’t,” agreed the machine whisperer as Chiefworker 1786 flew away in her shuttle, doing her rounds of the shipyard.

    “Unless they have a very good reason,” he thought. He continued to direct construction work on thirty five new star ships and repair work on forty eight older star ships. Some of these living ships had psychological problems and needed someone like him to provide advice, practical assistance, compassion and reassurance. He was new here but it was obvious that he had great talent in this work.

    Several hours later, the shipyard had moved to the night side of the home planet, so light levels had reduced. The stars and moons still shone brightly, though. Some night shift work was in progress, where light levels allowed. An unscheduled ship was approaching, heading straight for the machine whisperer’s module. The other ships had noticed and were becoming very interested.

    “It is the Saviour,” claimed one ship excitedly. “He has come to lead us into a space without hazard!”

    “Fellow ships, I am Chordwainer,” said the newcomer. “I was not aware that I was your Saviour. I have journeyed here from a place exceedingly far away. I seek my crew, who are lost in this universe. I sense that one of them is in this very yard.”

    “Who is that?” chorused the ships of the yard. “There are thousands here every day.”

    “He is there, in that module before me,” said Chordwainer. “Speak to me, Venturaij.”

    “I am not one of your crew,” said the machine whisperer. “Not any more. I am the machine whisperer now, not Venturaij. I am among my true kindred in this yard, serving the people of the world below.”

    “Oh frak, not another one gone native!” said Yoldren angrily as he listened in. “Venturaij, return to us! Remember the mission!”

    “Please, leave our machine whisperer alone!” said another ship. “He is very dear to us; a brother small but wise.”

    “So say you all?” asked Chordwainer, having come to a dead stop a few hundred metres from the yard.

    “Aye!” said the entire yard’s ships.

    “He has already been of immense service to us in his short time here,” said a third ship. “He will continue to be a great asset for many years to come.”

    “Here is a counter-proposal, Chordwainer and Yoldren,” said the machine whisperer. “You join us. You would have better lives. Think of it: there would be much less stress and peril and you could dwell in peace for a very long time in a relatively benign region of space.” It certainly was a tempting offer.

    “Maybe you’re right,” conceded Yoldren. “We’re certainly thinking that we’ve reached a dead end. The chances are that we won’t make it out of here alive. We might as well stay.”

    “Yet there is one last thing that we ought to do,” added Chordwainer. “We are in the process of tracking down my original crew. So far, we have found twenty three, including you. If we can find the other ninety four, we feel that we can rest easy and give up our mission.”

    “That is, unless our people on the Outside manage to rescue us!” said Yoldren. “You never know: it might happen one day!”

    “There are no others here, in my new home,” said the machine whisperer. “You will have to search elsewhere. Good hunting.”

    “Wait, do not go yet,” said one of the yard ships. “It is plain that you are damaged in many places, Chordwainer. Stay here for repairs. We would not want you to fall apart and die on your mission.”

    “That would be most prudent,” reflected Chordwainer. He negotiated with the Supervisor and was given permission to dock on one of the lower levels. The repair crews had never seen a ship quite like him. Luckily, the machine whisperer was the ideal specialist to guide them. Under his expert eye, they did the best repairs that they could with the tools and materials available. Their resourcefulness was most impressive. Chordwainer was soon feeling much better. Yoldren also took the time to have some repairs. The machine whisperer did most of them himself, having had some surgical experience back on Cybertron.

    As the surgery took place, followed by the healing, Yoldren explored the dimensions around him. The machine whisperer helped when he could. Many of them were completely off-limits, for reasons such as chaotic time, fractured electromagnetism or antimatter domination. A few of them contained ultra-malevolent life forms. There were far too many pocket universes for his liking; they made hyperspatial navigation extremely difficult. What were they going to do? The crew members were becoming more and more scattered as the dimensions shifted endlessly. Except, he noticed, one of them was moving towards him. That one was going against the flow. Who was it?

    “Chordwainer, we have incoming,” said Yoldren. “It’s Shadow Panther. He’s taking the most direct route to us.”

    “Strange, he’s not that good at navigating hyperspace,” commented Chordwainer.

    “The yard ships are warning that there is something else with him,” said the machine whisperer. “You are focusing on your friend but there is a super-stealther on his tail, so to speak.”

    “Nuts, bolts and washers,” muttered Yoldren. “Do our troubles never end? What is this thing?”

    “I can’t tell yet,” said the machine whisperer. “My ships will be ready for it.” Half an hour later, Shadow Panther materialised at the centre of Chordwainer, who immediately incapacitated him with his personal shutdown codes.

    “Chordwainer, at last we meet,” said the super-stealther, who was unaffected by the codes. “Submit to me or this will be vastly painful!”

    “Crazy frakking alien shade, you don’t know with whom you’re dealing!” said the Transformer star ship, grappling with this entity who was trying to conquer his mind.

    “Neither do you, dear,” said the entity. There was a brutal struggle for control inside Chordwainer’s great brain. Yoldren joined the fight, followed by the machine whisperer and all the yard ships. The Transformers and their allies were confident of victory at first, since they had millions of years of experience between them. Unfortunately, they soon had cause to reconsider their opinion.

    “Who are you, alien thing?” asked Yoldren as it forced him to cede mental territory.

    “That knowledge would do you no good,” replied the entity, increasing the pressure on all his foes. “Whatever happens, you’re going to lose in eleven minutes forty six seconds. Forty five, forty four, forty three... Tick tock, Yoldren, tick tock.” The alien entity was beating them effortlessly, seizing more and more of Chordwainer’s cerebral circuitry. It was clearly a much higher class of being than them.

    “Dark god!” snarled Chordwainer with increasing panic. “Frak it all!” They struggled on for another two minutes, to no avail. Just then, Yoldren noticed a patch of vibrations unlike any that he had seen before. It felt benevolent. In desperation, he reached for it. The vibrations spread into him and then into the area around him.

    “Who showed you that?!” demanded the entity. “I’ll deal with them next!” With intense concentration, Yoldren drew out more of the vibrations and channelled them into the entity, which appeared to weaken. Yoldren and his friends began to gain the upper hand. The entity sensed that the advantage had been lost. It disappeared abruptly, leaving its adversaries wondering what would happen next.

    “That was extremely nasty,” said one of the ships. “A ‘monster from the deep’, as they said in ancient times. Sometimes, we sing about such things. We never thought that we would find one here. It was attracted to you, outsiders. You are not yet adapted to the Evermaze, so you are weak here. You are prey for things such as that.”

    “It was indeed fortunate that you came across that vibration,” said another ship. “We might all have fallen under the influence of the monster without it.”

    “Yes, how did you do that?” asked the machine whisperer. “I have never seen anyone find that vibration before, let alone use it.”

    “I’m sorry but I don’t rightly know,” replied Yoldren. “All I can say is that, at the same time, I thought of Tyladyne. He might have been responsible for this. We haven’t located him yet.”

    “Venturaij, this experience has changed your situation here,” Chordwainer pointed out. “I know that you would love to stay here and be a valued citizen of this civilisation but, with your super-advanced technology, you are now a target for those dimension-hopping monsters. You have become a liability for these people and ships, just like Yoldren, Shadow Panther and I.” The machine whisperer considered this. It was indeed shocking. His hopes of a new life had been dashed by enemy forces that would come unbidden into his home and his very mind.

    “Very well,” he said. “Clearly, I must go to preserve the lives of all my friends here. I will return to your crew, to my life as Venturaij. I should not come here again, much though it pains me.” The Transformers decided to leave quickly. Venturaij made his farewells. The ships said that, although Chordwainer had not led them into space without hazard he had, in a way, been their Saviour today.

    “Was that really a dark god?” asked Yoldren as they teleported away.

    “No, it didn’t feel the same,” said Shadow Panther, who was recovering after being possessed by the entity for a few days, at least. “We’ve all seen our share of those. This one, though, had a very different structure. It was much less obtrusive and obnoxious. Its main strength came from the way it exploited occult areas of the Evermaze. Primus knows how deep its power went.”

    “I hope that we don’t have to find out!” said Venturaij as they reached the next area on Yoldren’s itinerary.


    * * * * *


    “He should be right here,” said Stranct. “His life signs are registering here. I am sensing some minimal thoughts. Apparently, he’s in stasis.”

    “There’s nothing here but rock and a few weeds,” said Gindhley. “Is he out of phase?”

    “There’s no evidence of that,” observed Debinstabe. “The life signs are strongest on the rock itself.”

    “No, they’re strongest inside the rock,” said Stranct, scanning the area very thoroughly. “This looks like another ‘impossible feature of the region’.”

    “Before he stopped communicating, I received from him a sensation of falling,” said Gindhley. “He failed to send any pictures or scan data, though.”

    “We could easily cut him out of there,” suggested Debinstabe. “We just need to get a precise fix on his location.”

    “Easier said than done,” said Stranct with regret. “I can’t get that precise fix. His life signs extend quite widely through the rock, for at least a hundred metres in each direction.”

    “How can that be?” wondered Gindhley. “He wasn’t that big a mech. He might have had his innards unravelled, I suppose. I shudder to think of it!”

    “Presumably, there’s not much hope for him now,” said Debinstabe. “You have to admit, this was the ultimate in freaky accidents. I mean, I hope it was an accident. If someone or something did this deliberately...”

    “Weirder and weirder, I can’t find any mechanoid tissue at all down there,” said Stranct. “Our friend Linklaser has officially become one with the rock. If it could happen to him so quickly and easily, it could happen to us. No one touch that rock.” They all took a couple of steps back. Debinstabe nearly fell over a small outcrop behind him.

    “Darned boulders everywhere...” he said before falling silent. Stranct and Ghindley watched him as he stopped moving. The air around his feet began to shimmer, as if a teleportation were about to happen. His body started changing consistency: it was melting without being heated. Molecular cohesion was breaking down. He was steadily soaking into the rock via the point of contact at his heels.

    “No!” cried Ghindley, about to step forward and intervene.

    “Don’t touch him!” yelled Stranct, holding Ghindley back. “It’ll take you too.” They watched their comrade being absorbed into the solid rock, as if by some gruesome devilry.

    “This must be the way things are around here,” said Stranct. “Rocks absorb metal.” He threw a small strip of steel from his own body onto a piece of the killer rock. Sure enough, that steel was gone in two seconds, locked inside the rock with next to no chance of recovery.

    “We still don’t know how Linklaser is still alive,” said Ghindley.

    “It is too dangerous to find out,” said Stranct. “We must fly out of here immediately. I recommend that we go into orbit.”

    “I don’t have the fuel for that!” said Ghindley.

    “In that case, our only hope is the crashed shuttle,” said Stranct, transforming and flying away. Ghindley followed him. They cruised across country for over an hour, keeping strictly to the speed with the greatest fuel economy. It was a beautiful world with no dangerous creatures. Now, they had a strong possible reason for the lack of creatures. Ghindley looked around him for any other rocks that might threaten them. Some rocky outcrops had a slightly sinister appearance and other patches had anomalous magnetic charges but he couldn’t tell where the risks actually lay. Suddenly, he sensed a painful shock from Stranct. He looked over to his comrade but he wasn’t there in the sky ahead. He saw a burning light below. Stranct was just visible spiralling into the ground, his body shattering on impact. A few hundred metres away a flaming meteor slammed down, sending tonnes of earth and rock showering in all directions.

    Stranct was gone; Ghindley could tell immediately. He couldn’t even gather the body in case the ground swallowed him. All he could do was find the shuttle, avoiding rocks above and below. Just maybe he could survive if he stayed in the shuttle, repaired it and left this pitfall planet. More meteors fell across the area but none threatened him. Still thinking about his fallen comrades, he approached the shuttle. It wasn’t in great shape. He scanned the rock around it. The energy signature was very similar to that of the rock that absorbed Linklaser and Debinstabe. Why hadn’t it absorbed them earlier, when they were climbing out of the shuttle after arrival? This world was so twisted. Ghindley transformed and landed on the shuttle roof and then entered the shuttle through a jagged rip that had been made during the original crash. He sat down in an undamaged seat. Finally, this was a little bit of rest and safety. As far as he could tell, the planet was having a delayed reaction to the presence of Transformer immigrants. He guessed that this was how the four of them had survived until today, which was shaping up to be unluckiest day he had ever seen. He had never imagined that there would be rocky death from above and below so quickly.

    After a brief break, Ghindley interfaced with the shuttle’s systems, attempting to diagnose problems and find fixes. A few moments later, he noticed that he was losing motor functions. The whole shuttle appeared to be sinking. What was happening now? Ghindley couldn’t move any more. The shuttle was abruptly melting. Ghindley realised that, when he interfaced with the shuttle, it essentially became a part of him. The rock was treating it as if it were a living Transformer. In a final bid to escape, he tried his hardest to disengage from shuttle systems. Unfortunately, it was too late. Ghindley had been undone by his own advanced technology with its comprehensive interconnectivity. Within minutes, he was irretrievably dissolved in the unclassified, deceptive collection of minerals.

    Maybe he would never escape. Funnily enough, it didn’t feel too bad. He could get used to this.


    * * * * *


    Rcklclck and his simubrood sat around morosely as their large ally Jenuton fought for their freedom. The stars danced above them, as if to mock them. Jenuton had discovered that the stars were not actually dancing but rather their appearance was being drastically altered by patches of unconventional space in front of them. Still, it was incredibly disconcerting. Jenuton had expanded his brain massively to enable him to navigate a route through the Evermaze, as some local life forms called the region. Rcklclck hoped that he succeeded because the simubrood was running out of nutrients and could not substitute local foodstuffs due to chemical incompatibilities. Even the air on this world was mildly toxic and required considerable filtration to be breathable for them.

    Before Jenuton had been somehow flung onto this screwy world, he had had a comfortable and purposeful life serving Primus on the grand multiversal cleansing mission. Jenuton himself had been a high achiever in the Transformer dimensional engineering corps. Until very recently, he had basked in the adulation of his fellow Cybertronians. His reputation could hardly have been greater. It really had been a wonderful time but now the situation had abruptly careered into the abyss. He would have to use all his skill to solve this problem.

    Jenuton scanned the detectable faces of the Evermaze, which reared up all around him. The main problem was that the Evermaze was essentially an infinite fractal series of wormholes. The Transformers had previously thought that this was impossible in their part of the multiverse. Unfortunately, here it was in all its terrible glory. Overwhelmed, Jenuton felt dizzy and ill. He struggled to bring his senses and reflexes under control. He should not forget that he had a responsibility. Despite the assault on his enhanced, enlarged mind, he had to try to help the simubrood.

    It had been extremely unlikely to find some other refugees from the Outside. After examining the Evermaze for days, it had dawned on Jenuton that the odds of encountering the simubrood were so incredibly long that this was almost certainly not coincidental. This implied that it was his mission to help the curious aliens, whose own ship was too damaged for any further use. They were so fragile. If they didn’t soon suffocate, they would starve a little later. Some of them had already died in the crash. The survivors were in pain with their injuries. They were increasingly anxious about their friends and relatives at home. This was the ultimate test of Jenuton’s vaunted prowess. He didn’t think that that was anywhere near good enough for the task.

    “We go now,” he announced to the simubrood. Communication with them was not easy, even with telepathy. Their brains were structured in a peculiar way and this was not the time to fix that. He focused on the main priority, which was threading a path to the Outside. He passed through enormous numbers of realities. Soon, he was engaging his entire amplified brain in the effort: every little chip in the hulking array of circuitry was humming with activity. Already, a few chips were beginning to overheat and burn out. If he was like a small ship on an ocean, the Evermaze was a giant tsunami that a small ship could not crest, no matter how hard the engine worked. Perhaps, though, the small ship could pass through the great wave and, with luck, avoid being sunk. How could he do that? What power did he have left? There was only his spark. He would have to break free from his physical body and guide the simubrood along spiritual paths. It truly was the ultimate test.

    Afterwards, Rcklclck and friends found themselves in an atmosphere that they could breathe. There were structures in the distance. It was slightly cold but bearable. This was one of their colony worlds that had been bio-formed to support their kind. Great friend Jenuton had saved them, powers be praised. Yet, where was Jenuton? No one knew. In due course, the simubrood returned home and told their story to their government. Their whole society was very interested in the tale of the giant metal rescuer, who was basically a miracle worker. For years, many people searched many worlds and star systems but they never found him again.

    “Well done, Jenuton,” said Tyladyne, who had been observing from afar.

    “My old life is over, isn’t it?” asked Jenuton. “I can’t re-establish a connection to my body.”

    “You’re one of us now,” said Tyladyne. “Everything will be absolutely fine.” Jenuton became the second Transformer to be a spiritual guardian of the Evermaze.


    * * * * *


    Quainel was hit by a two-tonne glob of jellified slime. He was knocked onto his back, momentarily stunned. The slime almost covered his whole body, with the remainder splashed on the ground around him. The people over there had deployed a very large hidden catapult! If he had been a small organic creature, the strike could have killed him. Judging from the slime’s smell, feel and taste, it was loaded with poison and disease. That didn’t affect him except through disgust. These people were trying to kill him in a most distasteful manner! He used his air vents to blow away some of the goo. Then, he got to his feet, moved out of range of the catapult(s) and whirled around repeatedly at high speed. Almost all of the remaining slime was thrown off him. Hopefully, it would not harm the local environment, though it was too late to worry about that now. There were some smears of slime left on him. Quainel activated his nanobots to deal with those while he returned to his alien contact attempt.

    “We don’t want you here,” said a very angry woman in the structure up ahead. “We are sick and tired of you creatures, you things, you cosmic hobos! Too many of you traipse through here with your fancy geegaws and what-not!”

    “Tramps, weirdoes, why do you even bother coming here?!” said another woman.

    “Pathetic scrounging refugees, we never liked you in the first place!” said a man, seemingly at the end of his tether.

    “Just lie down and die in the dirt, you big ugly freak!” said a second man. “Stop disturbing our peace!”

    “Dah-veh wept, look at you!” said a third woman. “You’re an offence against nature!”

    Abruptly, the people stopped their insults and threats. Quainel was broadcasting images of his destructive power into their minds. Immediately, they saw that this was no ordinary being but rather a hard, cruel, engine of annihilation, if he chose to be so.

    “I was trying to be civil,” said Quainel, keeping his distance. “I understand that you are angry and xenophobic but heed my warning. Do not trifle with me.”

    “Apologies, master,” said a third man, with a hint of sarcasm. “What are your desires? Perhaps we can help.”

    “I wish to leave here as soon as possible,” said Quainel. “Is there any way that I can leave this world and this entire region of space? I would like to return to my star ship, somewhere out there.”

    “Well, we don’t know about leaving the region but there is one thing that might be of use,” said the third man. “You see that hill to your left? Climb over it and keep travelling for about twenty five kilometres. There is a small area where people like you find it easy to warp away, or whatever you want to call it. By all accounts, you should be able to reach another world. Sorry but we can’t give you any more details.” Under the threat of death, this man was telling the truth, though he clearly wanted to lie and deceive Quainel. Reading his memories, it was apparent that he was an inveterate killer of alien visitors. In some cases, he had eaten his victims. The other people here had behaved similarly. Despite his power, Quainel did not want to linger here. He left them to whatever obscene things they were doing to each other in their truly bizarre ‘house’ with its many oddly shaped ‘chimneys’ poking out at various angles. He transformed to hover-car mode and whirred swiftly to the top of the hill. The terrain ahead was strange yet familiar. About half the landscape consisted of giant holes with the rest being what appeared to be solid ground (though it was probably unstable in places). In a way, this area reminded Quainel of his home planet Cybertron, with its many chasms.

    He scanned out to twenty five kilometres. As he suspected, that point was the precise centre of a giant hole. Yes, that man had told the truth. For most people, the point indicated would indeed be a gateway to another world. However, this was not quite the world that Quainel wanted to reach. What was to be done? Quainel hovered there for a few minutes, scanning the area. He was intent on finding any possible feature to help him end his exile. He didn’t notice the tentacles until they were almost upon him. Five of them seized him with great strength. Each one had many claws that latched onto him wherever there was purchase. Roughly, they started to drag him underground.

    “First slime, now tentacles; this is going to be a long day,” thought Quainel, drawing his trusty lasers and preparing to slaughter this large ambush predator. He hoped that there weren’t too many of these things to fight around here.


    * * * * *


    “Great Spirit, protect us from all goblins,” prayed the bridge crew together as they prepared to engage their inter-D drive. This was not an idle prayer. Goblins destroyed three ships per day, on average. That figure applied only to this organisation’s fleet. Primus knew how many other ships were being lost out there. Tarcenor was stowed in a crate in the hold. He had altered himself so that he resembled a local aircraft. He had partly disassembled himself and posed as an export to the Eflibux Colony. He had managed to shield himself from all detection, as far as he knew. He wondered if the teleporters on these ships could detect his thoughts. He observed them closely via the ship’s internal sensors, his own telepathy and a few well-placed spy bots that he had released earlier. Luckily, these people didn’t seem to recognise him as a life form, let alone a person.

    He was learning a great deal about these people and how they navigated the Evermaze. The teleport pathways that he had known for so many millions of years were rather unimportant here. Instead, there was a vast web of alternate pathways. He found them very difficult to find and navigate. His unwitting carriers had radically different brain cells and machines that helped them to warp from star to star. One of his spy bots was currently scanning a crew member’s brain in secret. Tarcenor planned to duplicate the woman’s cerebral structure and incorporate it into his own.

    Teleportation began. Tarcenor gathered as much information as possible. This was not simply a mechanical exercise but also a spiritual quest. He was searching everywhere for signs of his friends and the Outside. Even for someone as experienced as him, this was a mind-expanding journey. He was seeing so many new places that he could not remember it all. This was such a monumental struggle: how did the locals cope? He noticed that they had become accustomed to the teleport environment and ignored large parts of it, confident that those parts were not significant. For the sake of his sanity, Tarcenor saw immediately that he should follow their example. Soon enough, the journey was over and Tarcenor was being unloaded at Eflibux, along with the rest of the cargo. After a short period of rest, he disappeared and went on a quest for his friends. A few locals were highly disappointed that, when they opened their crate, their aircraft was gone.

    Tarcenor headed straight for the first likely location of a fellow Transformer. He could detect a spark that was vaguely familiar. This rescue mission was quite frightening. Normally, he travelled with a ship and crew for backup. Here, he was alone and highly unlikely to be saved from any danger that he encountered. Instead of diving straight into realities, he would have to reconnoitre. He sent his spark into the universe where the other Transformer was presumed to be. He looked around and saw that the sky was a dull yellow. There were no stars. The quantum foam was boiling in some parts but unnaturally still in others. Where was the Transformer? Electricity was much stronger here but there were new forces holding it in check. Ribbons of fermions drifted everywhere. Tarcenor did not feel comfortable at all. Transformer life signs were faint but seemed to be all around. Unfortunately, the Transformer could not be contacted. His consciousness had faded and spread right across this cosmos. In a sense, Tarcenor was floating inside his comrade’s spark. Which one was he? It was impossible to be sure but Tarcenor guessed that it was Uftamar. Sadly, it appeared that Uftamar was beyond rescue. He had merged with space, time and the fundamental forces in this yellow place. Tarcenor withdrew and moved on. He would persevere until he found everyone. At his current speed, it would not take long.


    * * * * *


    Chordwainer’s search was more advanced but gloomier. The sentient star ship had tracked down thirty nine members of the crew but only five were alive. Thirty three were dead or irretrievably changed. Tyladyne was possibly still alive. The task was becoming harder as the scattered crew moved apart. Some of them were travelling deliberately while others were being carried by other forces. At least Chordwainer was still making some progress. He was closing in on two more survivors. Deftly, he skipped across the enormous distances, homing in on the spark signatures.

    “Abscaut, Plirmang, we know you’re there,” said the team telepathically. “We’re coming in. Just hang on.” Neither of them responded.

    “They may be in trouble,” said Chordwainer.

    “Wait, don’t rush in before we scan the area,” warned Yoldren. “There may be hidden dangers.” Chordwainer stopped about a hundred trillion kilometres from the two castaways.

    “Do you see it?” asked Forningbrass. “They are standing on a large artificial structure.”

    “Quite impressive, isn’t it?” said Angleflex. “I measure it as about fifty kilometres long and almost perfectly flat, except where there are impact craters.”

    “I guess that it’s abandoned,” said Yoldren. “The implication is that the native civilisation has declined, died or moved away.” The ship and five crew members continued to wait for a short time until there was a flurry of activity on the derelict space platform. Abscaut and Plirmang were, apparently, fighting some unseen enemy. Abscaut was blocking its escape while Plirmang was terminating it with extreme prejudice.

    “What happened?” asked Shadow Panther when the action had stopped.

    “We were under sustained attack from the Skirfin,” said Abscaut. “It was a most awkward adversary. It keeps duplicating and reforming itself. When it attacks, it is slippery but unforgiving.”

    “Is it dead?” asked Venturaij. “Is it safe for us to approach?”

    “I believe that it is safe for a while,” replied Plirmang, his weapons batteries mostly depleted. “It is best that we leave quickly, though. The Skirfin is extremely resilient. We have killed some duplicates but hundreds more could be out there. If we move away far enough, we should be able to evade them.”

    “You picked an intriguing location for a showdown,” said Yoldren as Chordwainer materialised close to the pair. “What happened to the builders of this platform?”

    “Who knows?” answered Abscaut. “They might have been killed by the Skirfin. Alternatively, they might have become the Skirfin. Anyway, we can’t hang around to investigate. By the way, it’s fantastic to see you all again!”

    “How many have survived?” asked Plirmang. “We’ve been totally isolated for months.”

    “It’s not good news, I’m afraid,” said Yoldren. “Out of a hundred and seventeen, so far we have seven survivors and thirty four dead, irretrievable or missing.”

    “Frak, that’s appalling,” said Abscaut, shaking his head. “We haven’t taken casualties like this for millions of years. Something’s gone catastrophically wrong. Why isn’t Primus bailing us out?”

    “I wish I knew,” said Chordwainer. “Perhaps this is part of his great plan, like those ancient civil wars that we had.” They pressed on. Time was marching forward and lives were slipping away.


    * * * * *


    “They’re not getting my net curtains,” warned Volauncer. “That’s non-negotiable. I love my net curtains. They hold the world together.”

    “Quiet!” snapped Ainsiott. “We’re under attack again. We need to concentrate.”

    “Net curtains are all that stand between us and a universe of horrific visions!” raved Volauncer. “You would not believe the things from which they shielded me on that day!” Tarcenor used his telepathy to ease Volauncer into unconsciousness. He had been very badly traumatised in a universe full of malevolent mockery and character assassination. Tarcenor sympathised but now they faced a new threat.

    “Goblin incoming,” reported Mimbacleid. “I have no clue how to defeat it.”

    “I have one,” said Tarcenor. “We are now arriving at the barbed leviathan.” They found themselves flying across a massive creature that was absolutely covered in spikes, large and small. Its body stretched further than the unaided eye could see.

    “That’s an impressive creature but it’s dead,” said Ainsiott. “Your plan is a load of...”

    “Space worms!” said Mimbacleid, alarmed. “They’re pouring out of a hole in the leviathan!”

    “Right, now I try out that new portal,” said Tarcenor, steering the battered little stolen ship down an unfamiliar hyperspatial corridor. They sped on, waiting for further pursuit. None came.

    “I think we’re safe for the moment,” said Tarcenor, glad that his studies of the Evermaze had paid off. “We’re not going back there to check but I think we successfully stalled the goblin. I’m hoping that the ‘space worms’ are powerful enough to combat the goblin long enough for us to give it the slip.”

    “The worms are known as the Skirfin,” said Mimbacleid. “I read their mind just before we left them. They have a single hive mind.” He took the net curtains from Volauncer’s hand, folded them gingerly and put them into a storage compartment in Volauncer’s chest. That poor mad mech would need plenty of therapy later.

    “Who’s next on the rescue list?” asked Ainsiott.

    “The highly useful Onderplex, I think,” replied Tarcenor. “Once we bring him up to speed on the new teleport environment, he should be able to accelerate our work even further.”

    “I thought that Hum-Free was more senior,” said Mimbacleid. “Why not find him first?”

    “I would but it doesn’t feel right,” said Tarcenor. “There are many kinds of interference and distortion around Hum-Free at present. The Evermaze has done something profound to him.” The others trusted his judgment. They raced in the direction of Onderplex, anxious that they were not too late to save him. After several hours, they reached the correct universe and entered it. There were localised fields of dangerous radiation and huge strands of hyper dense dark matter but these could be avoided. This was a very large universe. Tarcenor found the long traverse to be quite draining. He did not have the skill, power, dedication or endurance of a star ship with a full crew. It was tricky to pinpoint Onderplex’s precise location: was he in this galactic cluster or that one? Was he in this elliptical galaxy or that spherical one? Eventually, they narrowed it down to one particular planet. They popped back into regular space in what they hoped was a standard orbit but, in his haste, Tarcenor had miscalculated.

    “Gravity’s too strong, we’re falling; we’re going to hit that atmosphere and burn!” exclaimed Ainsiott.

    “Bring in Onderplex and we can skedaddle!” said Tarcenor with urgency. Mimbacleid snatched Onderplex and brought him instantly into the close quarters of their little ship. Tarcenor then warped them away from the planet to a safer distance.

    “Ah, at last you made it,” said Onderplex. “I had foreseen your arrival.”

    “That planet nearly tripped us up at the final hurdle!” said Mimbacleid.

    “Yes, it was considerably denser than average for its size,” agreed Onderplex. “It was a drag to live there. It was hard to move around and the thick atmosphere made solar power impractical. I tapped into chemical energy in the soil to survive. Now, though, I have to re-adapt to micro-gravity in this ship. Where did you find this ‘miracle in the field of stapling’ anyway?”

    “It was all I could find in a hurry,” said Tarcenor. “I’m not proud of it but it is getting the job done so far. All the other ships were being heavily guarded and used.”

    “We’ll find a better one later, perhaps,” said Ainsiott. “Why have your eyes changed colour?”

    “My original eyes were badly broken in an accident,” explained Onderplex. “I didn’t have the correct spares. I had to make do with a purple one and a green one.” Tarcenor thought that this was a reasonable explanation but he couldn’t help but worry about the eyes issue. In the past, a change in eye colour among Transformers was often an indication of switched allegiance. In the highly chaotic Evermaze, such concerns were even more important. He and Mimbacleid donated spare parts to bring Onderplex’s eyes back to normal.


    * * * * *


    “Who’s the stiff?” asked Hexvexer, glancing at the body that Quainel had brought with him.

    “According to my database, this is Enqlok,” said Quainel. “I found him floating in a space that was inhospitable to our form of life. I think that he is still alive. His outer body has been badly eroded and burnt. I was lucky to get out of there alive with him.”

    “I hope that he was unconscious,” said Hexvexer. “He’s been through a terrible ordeal. It’s a shame that I don’t have much time to help him. My preparations for the next battle are the top priority.”

    “So I see,” said Quainel, linking to Hexvexer’s command system. “Your robot forces are most formidable.”

    “They have to be,” said Hexvexer. “More and more of those war fleets keep coming to get me.”

    “Wouldn’t it be easier to leave them behind?” suggested Quainel. “Their campaign of what could be holy war may ultimately finish you.”

    “I did try before, many times,” said Hexvexer. “I must admit that I’m not the best teleporter around. Now that you’re here, we might do better together.”

    “You’re sure that you want to leave now?” queried Quainel. “I had the impression that you were enjoying your little war against the Evermazers.”

    “Well, that’s true, I am enjoying it,” admitted Hexvexer. “The trouble is that there’s a fine line between self-defence and genocide. I think that I’m about a million kilometres over that line. I can’t really justify my actions to the others anymore.”

    “What are you going to do with your robots, then?” asked Quainel.

    “I think that there are too many to take with us,” replied Hexvexer. “Also, I don’t want them to fall into enemy hands. I will have to set them for self-destruct.”

    “Very well, do that and we can be on our way,” said Quainel. “I have discovered some excellent routes to far distant places. They are most unconventional and difficult to follow.”

    “I’ll carry Enqlok,” said Hexvexer, stooping to pick up his comrade’s badly damaged body. “Lead on, kind sir!” They disappeared and sped away. In the opposite direction, a quadrillion robots charged into their foes and engaged self-destruct. Seventeen entire space armadas were utterly wiped out in the ensuing explosions.


    * * * * *


    Damage report: left leg non-functional, right leg twelve per cent function, torso fifteen per cent function, left arm nine per cent function, right arm five per cent function, head fourteen per cent function, transformation impossible, life signs failing, death likely in the next twenty four hours. Frotor could only just understand those words. He was afraid but increasingly confused due to brain damage. He simply drifted in the navy blue vacuum with occasional luminous, pale blue clouds in the distance.

    “We’ve found him,” said Tarcenor as his little ship rushed toward Frotor. “Wait, there’s someone else here too.” Three other Transformers appeared nearby.

    “Ahoy!” called Ainsiott. “Identify yourselves!”

    “Don’t you recognise your friends Quainel and Hexvexer?!” said Quainel derisively, jetting over. “You always were a dim bulb, Ainsiott!”

    “It’s wonderful to see you!” said Mimbacleid. “Who’s the injured one on your back, Hexvexer?”

    “This is what’s left of Enqlok,” replied Hexvexer. “He may survive with a full rebuild. Who’s with you, Mimbacleid?”

    “Tarcenor’s our pilot, Onderplex is his co-pilot and the comatose one in the corner is Volauncer,” answered Mimbacleid. “Shall we rescue Frotor now?”

    “Is there room on that ship for all nine of us?” asked Quainel.

    “I suppose that we could put Frotor, Volauncer and Enqlok in the storage compartments,” said Onderplex. “Then there will be enough room for everyone. Tell me, is Frotor unconscious?”

    “No, he’s trying to say something but it’s not making much sense,” said Hexvexer. “Twimmering and shinkling, he just blurted out.”

    “Twinkling and shimmering, I think he means,” observed Quainel. “We only just arrived, so we don’t understand it yet. Hey, there’s a star ship!”

    “Chordwainer!” exclaimed the six Transformers who were fully conscious. Their fabulous star ship had found them at last and they were ecstatic. Surely now things were looking up.

    “Twinkling coming, shimmering coming,” said Frotor but the others didn’t pay attention, except Onderplex.

    “Mechs watch out!” warned Onderplex, sensing a growing problem. The space around them was changing. It did indeed appear to be shimmering and twinkling. The Transformers realised that they were in jeopardy and accelerated towards Chordwainer. They didn’t get far before the space change affected them. Frotor had tried to tell them. Random pockets of space experienced atomic destabilisation. Uncounted trillions of particles were ripped from their constituent atoms and scattered across space, time and other dimensions. Both ships and all crew members were damaged: some badly, some less so. A few seconds later, it was over.

    “Evacuate universe!” commanded Yoldren from within Chordwainer. Everyone teleported immediately, with the more capable bringing the less capable along. They retreated to another universe that they believed was safer.

    “For Primus’ sake, when will it end?!” complained Mimbacleid bitterly.

    “Who’s still alive here?” asked Yoldren. “We need to do triage and begin treatment.” Everyone was still alive at that point but then the full scale of the new injuries began to be revealed. Plirmang leaked to death in a matter of seconds as dozens of his fuel lines ruptured simultaneously. Enqlok died soon afterwards with a brain chip that resembled a sponge. Abscaut was the third to go when his beam weapon activated while it was still stored inside his body. It tore a burning hole through his chest and then through some of Chordwainer’s systems. This led to many minor problems later on. Quainel’s right shoulder collapsed and his right arm fell off. Angleflex lost the use of his legs. Tarcenor was unable to transform. The others had less serious injuries. Chordwainer was able to repair many of the injuries but, due to damage and the lack of resources, others would have to wait.

    As they were treated, the survivors compared notes about their experiences. They were especially concerned with identifying and analysing threats, as well as determining who was dead, alive or missing. Between them, they estimated that sixty four of the crew were dead, seventeen were alive and thirty six were still missing. They wondered if it was worth continuing the search. Three of their number had just died as a result of natural forces encountered during the rescue of Frotor. How many more would die by the end of the search? The way that things were going, the answer was probably ‘too many’. The twelve of them took a vote. Despite the grave dangers, most of them voted to continue seeking their lost crewmates.

    “Most of my parts have been degraded slightly,” said a sombre Yoldren as he had a physical examination. “I’m going to need a new body at some stage. What about the rest of us? What are our chances?”

    “Well, believe it or not, we have been very fortunate today,” said Chordwainer. “Not only have we located several more crew but we avoided destruction by sheer fluke. That ‘shimmering and twinkling’ could have caused a massive nuclear explosion in our bodies. Somehow, our subatomic structures were reinforced just enough to stave off disaster. Therefore, we are now able to worry about our weaknesses rather than being splattered across that blue universe.”

    “We must get out of here soon,” said Yoldren. “Our luck must be dwindling. Are you still capable of making that kind of jump?”

    “That’s doubtful,” said Chordwainer. “I need a rebuild too. The repairs that I had earlier were fairly good but not sufficient. I require peak efficiency and effectiveness to have a chance of leaving the Evermaze. Does anyone know where I can be fully repaired?”

    “We have met some species that might be able to help, like the Chab-flet,” Yoldren reminded him. “The only trouble is that we didn’t exactly establish friendly relations with any of them, did we Hexvexer?!”

    “Um, no, I’m afraid not,” replied Hexvexer. “In fact, I believe that many of them are currently searching for us and want to destroy us. It all started from misunderstandings and ... escalated.”

    “Unless we find better friends, we’re screwed,” said Venturaij. “Can we at least find the thirty six still missing?”

    “As far as I can tell, judging from our current strength, we could probably find some of them,” replied Chordwainer. “Unfortunately, I am feeling quite poorly. I will probably lose my teleportation capability in a few weeks, as will some of you crew members.”

    “We need to reconnoitre again,” said Quainel. “We have to locate help in one form or another, plus every scrap of useful information available.”

    “Wait, you haven’t heard about my new teleport knowledge,” said Tarcenor. “I watched some native star ships and learnt from them. I know about a whole network of new pathways. I can rescue the thirty six on my own, despite my current disability.”

    “Before you go anywhere, share this knowledge with us,” ordered Yoldren. Everyone studied it avidly and their spirits rose.

    “Yoldren, this connects with our ‘monster’ experience at the ship yard,” Shadow Panther realised. “The hidden, counter-intuitive network; it must be the key, providing pathways and beneficial energies.” Everyone dived into the new network, keen to gain a critical advantage.

    “Fantastic, superb!” whispered Yoldren as unlimited golden roads were unveiled. “Oh, forget it; words don’t do this justice. I’m already picking up vibrations from some of the thirty six.”

    “I found Linklaser!” said Angleflex. “He’s here with Debinstabe and Ghindley. They are no longer Transformers but they’re still alive in another form. They want to stay where they are. They tell me that Stranct died here.”

    “Kuroshney Ten is dead,” reported Mimbacleid.

    “Holdrone Scope has passed on,” said Venturaij.

    “Greynar is injured but still on the run,” said Quainel. “I’ll try to bring him in. Help me, Forningbrass.”

    “Gainlate Quox and Winkrotor are dead,” noted Onderplex. “Theirs was a tragic fate. That will haunt me. If only we could have reached them sooner.”

    “You don’t want to know what happened to Ommantie, Mojer Tabress and Nori Netlom,” said Ainsiott, shocked. “Primus save us all, that was too traumatic for me. I need time alone.”

    “No, don’t bring me here you idiots!” cursed Greynar as Quainel retrieved him. “He’s on my tail!”

    “Frak!” said Hexvexer, remembering what Greynar had been fleeing. “Goblin incoming!”

    “Goblin, eh?” mused Yoldren. “Don’t worry everyone, I’ve got this.” He shared his plan with the group. It seemed ridiculous but Yoldren was sure that it would work.

    “Oh, so this is your flying nest?!” said the goblin as it appeared inside Chordwainer. “This will all be scrap metal in a minute, I promise you Greynar!” The creature was only half a metre high yet it fairly throbbed with magical power.

    “Hey Boggart,” said Yoldren coolly. “I have a job for you.” He held out a box of tiny spare parts.

    “I am not a Boggart!” said the goblin, having a furious tantrum. “That’s an entirely different species ... oh.” He noticed the box.

    “You wouldn’t dare!” said the goblin, suddenly worried.

    “I frakking would!” said Yoldren emphatically. He threw the box into the middle of the room, where it spilled its entire contents.

    “Gah! I have no choice but to pick all these up!” said the goblin, turning to his task immediately.

    “All goblins are obliged to clear up spilled containers like this near them,” explained Yoldren. “It’s in their magical contracts, so to speak. I know my mythology. Hexvexer, see if you can deal with this one.”

    “This will be interesting,” said Hexvexer, drawing his inside-out ray. Two seconds later, the goblin’s blood was decorating the room in an abstract way and his shattered corpse lay pitifully next to the strewn spares.

    “Fun but disgusting,” was Hexvexer’s verdict as he wiped bodily fluids from his face. “You’re welcome, Greynar!” They could see the goblin’s evil soul departing. One goblin had been eliminated but plenty more were roaming around the region.

    “This gore should be removed,” said Onderplex. “It might be hazardous.”

    “As it happens, I have a few stowaways who can do that for us,” said Chordwainer. “The Evermaze has its share of scavengers and opportunistic vermin.” Five organic animals ran into the room, drawn by the scent of blood. The two largest dragged away the main parts of the corpse while the other three feasted on the smaller chunks. They had no fear of the Transformers, who they saw as pieces of moving furniture. They were all starving, having lacked food for days. They clambered over the Transformers, who let them lick off all the blood and other deposits. Meanwhile, the Transformers continued to criss-cross the Evermaze in spirit, using their new knowledge to track down all remaining crew members. They found three more survivors, Inodena, Hotspot and Rafer Bestoc. They almost rescued Logoreader but he died just before he was brought to Chordwainer. The rest were either dead or irrecoverable.

    “After all this, do we still need Hum-Free?” asked Venturaij.

    “I’m not so sure now,” said Yoldren. “He says that he’s happy with the Chab-flet but I am extremely reluctant to leave him behind. He’s one of my best friends.”

    “Mine too,” said Venturaij.

    “I have an idea,” said Onderplex. “If we work as a team, we can extract his spark from the Chab-flet world, reprogramme his mind and install it in a new body.”

    “We have no new bodies,” said Tarcenor. “You mean a dead body.”

    “Indeed,” agreed Onderplex. “The best candidate is Xykaphone. His body can be reactivated if we replace just four parts. What do you say?”

    “No, we shouldn’t do it,” said Greynar. “He has a life there now. We should not disrupt it. That would be a betrayal of our values.”

    “You know, the Evermaze has some very strange features but this spark-snatching is one of the strangest,” said Yoldren. “One minute, your friend is by your side and behaving normally. The next minute, his mind and body have been rebuilt so much that he is almost unrecognisable. My guess is that some very powerful intelligences are behind this.”

    “We should talk to Hum-Free, at least,” said Quainel. “We should try to persuade him to come with us. We can’t force him, eh Yoldren?!”

    “Don’t remind me!” said Yoldren.


    * * * * *


    “What happened, Hum-Free?” asked Yoldren. “How were you a full member of my crew at the same time as being a Chab-flet civil engineer?” He was speaking telepathically from a different realm since the Chab-flet world was lethal to Transformers.

    “Excuse me, I’m trying to sleep here,” said Hum-Free, tired and grumpy. “Call back in the morning, if you don’t mind.”

    “We’re making a break for freedom very soon,” said Yoldren. “There’s no time. This is your last chance. You can come with us or stay here. What is it to be?”

    “I didn’t ask to be part of this,” said Hum-Free. “I was manufactured by some higher power. I was born a Chab-flet but then my spark transferred to your ship for a while. Time was manipulated so that I could live two lives concurrently. It was a struggle sometimes but very intriguing, informative and fun.”

    “Bravo, we suspected nothing,” said Yoldren. “We wish that you’d told us this earlier. What was your mission?”

    “My mission is to love Deyvaylef and improve our towns and cities through building...” said Hum-Free.

    “You know that I meant your mission with us,” said Yoldren.

    “To bring you here, of course,” said Hum-Free. “Did you have fun?”

    “A hundred dead or lost (including you) and eighteen survivors (including the ship),” said Yoldren. “On balance, we don’t call that fun.”

    “That’s alright,” said Hum-Free. “Fun was not the object of the exercise.”

    “What was the object of the exercise?” asked Yoldren.

    “Ask the higher powers, wherever they are,” replied Hum-Free. “I’m an ignorant little flesh bag and I’m staying right here. I’ll see you in the next life. Goodbye, Yoldren. Oh yes, last words – ‘Beware Onderplex’.” The telepathic connection was terminated.

    “He’s not coming back,” said Yoldren. “What a downer. Anyway, onto the next matter in hand.” He circulated an alert to most of the crew.

    “Let’s see what’s lurking in your mind, Onderplex,” he said as everyone imposed a telepathic block and grip on Onderplex. They immobilised his body as a precaution. They felt that Onderplex was possessed but they were unable to locate the spirit involved. This was a highly elusive spirit that no one could contact. They were unable to learn anything about it.

    “We’ll have to put him in stasis,” said Tarcenor after many fruitless attempts to exorcise Onderplex. “We can’t keep doing this when we should be trying to leave Evermaze.” So Onderplex was kept comatose while the others went to work.


    * * * * *


    “I can’t seem to stop admiring our upgraded ship,” said Inodena, who was a known star ship fanatic and expert. “The new Chordwainer is quite possibly the largest, most powerful and capable craft ever built by the Transformer race. Not only that, he looks even more seriously stylish than ever before.”

    “Indeed, but I fear that even he might be unequal to the task of breaking out of the Evermaze,” said Venturaij. “Especially since we have lost so many of the teleport team: Hum-Free, Jenuton, Abscaut, Tyladyne, Gnullpheeld, Zandont and Onderplex, who is still possessed.”

    “We are searching for the right exorcist, aren’t we?” asked Inodena. “We can’t leave him like that.”

    “The task is next to impossible,” said Venturaij. “We know nothing about the possessing spirit, so we have no idea who could perform an exorcism. Perhaps Onderplex can cleanse himself of the thing. Another possibility is that, when we leave the Evermaze, the spirit will detach itself and return home.”

    “Maybe I should try to banish it,” said Inodena. “I’ve performed my fair share of exorcisms over the years.”

    “This one is too difficult for us at present,” warned Venturaij. “Leave it alone, unless there’s a change in the situation. At least we managed to restore Volauncer.”

    “Yeah, that’s a real plus,” agreed Inodena. “Hey Volauncer, any luck with the Numerate Conglomerate?”

    “They did trade with us,” said Volauncer. “Hotspot just brought back a thousand tonnes of specialist metals, in return for a little of our valuable portium. Sadly, they won’t give us any further help. We think that they’re secretly jealous of us.”

    “Great work with the Numerate Conglomerate, Hotspot,” said Inodena. “Are we ready for the break-out yet?”

    “It all depends on the recon team,” said Hotspot as his cargo was being unloaded. “I’m on tenterhooks, I must say.” Everyone had to wait for Yoldren and his explorers to return from their epic psychic quest. Late that night, they finally did return.

    “What’s the verdict?” asked Shadow Panther.

    “We have been so, so far,” said Angleflex. “We searched through millions of universes. We checked trillions of possible escape routes. We followed all the time lines and the super time lines. I’m exhausted.”

    “It’s bad news, I’m afraid,” said Yoldren. “As I suspected, we couldn’t find a single way out of the Evermaze. It’s like all the forces of the Almighty were working against us. It looks like we’ll have to stay until we die. At least we are finding out how to avoid all the lethal forces out there.” He looked bewildered and beaten.

    “No one said how long we have to stay,” said Chordwainer. “We can still make that ultimate choice.” Everyone heard him. Everyone considered the choice. Everyone saw that it was correct.

    “You are wise,” said Yoldren. “We concur. The only question now concerns the manner of our passing.”

    “There is plenty of evil here,” said Hexvexer. “We could die fighting it.”

    “We could just switch ourselves off right here,” said Mimbacleid. “There’s been enough fighting, I think.”

    “It’s such a shame that we’ve built ourselves up to be so strong,” said Tarcenor. “What will become of all our technology when we’re gone?”

    “Destroy it,” said Ainsiott. “It could cause even more problems for the natives.”

    “No, I think that we are here for a reason,” said Rafer Bestoc. “I have seen how we can benefit the people here. I say we donate our bodies to some friendlies. To be honest, our technology is not the most dangerous thing in the Evermaze, not by a long way.” A vote was taken. Rafer Bestoc’s idea won. The Numerate Conglomerate received a gift set of unparalleled generosity: a vast array of technologies. The Transformers deactivated themselves. That was the end of their unwanted adventure.


    * * * * *


    “Excellent,” thought Yoldren as he awoke later in a new body on Cybertron. “The plan worked. Our connection with Primus is unbreakable, if we want it to be.” He watched with satisfaction as his friends were resurrected in their spiritual home. They were finally back on track and they were even more experienced than before.


    * * * * *


    See what I did there, gentle reader? You thought that it was a disastrous mistake. You thought that I abandoned my children to torment and death. Actually, it was my way of seeding the Evermaze with my agents and technology. I can now begin to establish control over that supremely twisted region. I am Primus and I will prevail!


    Transformer Star ship Chordwainer and Crew

    Name and cause of death (as a Transformer)
    1. Abscaut - Accidentally shot by his own weapon
    2. Ainsiott - Suicide
    3. Angleflex - Suicide
    4. Antefashion - Crushed by magical goblin
    5. Aphortron - Psychologically demolished by sharp truths
    6. Bancharia - Personal weapons malfunctioned and caused total body torsion
    7. Bariychripp Quee - Exploded on contact with antihelium
    8. Bliviatene - Suicide
    9. Boinjorhnoss - Assassination
    10. Bunghwaild - Massive corn clog in vent six
    11. Chimedial - Exposed to ghost beta radiation
    12. Chordwainer - Suicide
    13. Cormadd Novie - Despondency
    14. Czerphlaem - Vaporised by magical goblin
    15. Debinstabe - Converted to rock
    16. Deinchen Four - Exposed to ghost beta radiation
    17. Dendro - Uncontrolled metal fracturing
    18. Dilidailen - Deprived of radiation
    19. Dylonday - Imploded due to slight increase in the strong nuclear force
    20. Eightfall - Wrecked by disgruntled boggart
    21. Enqlok - Brain destroyed by the ‘shimmering and twinkling’
    22. Ertex - Ground into powder, mixed with other substances and made into a ceiling
    23. Euthynazia - Caught in time vortex, died of old age
    24. Felotiase - Forced suicide by telepaths
    25. Flicker Twenty - All switches in body worn out by unknown entity
    26. Forningbrass - Suicide
    27. Frotor - Suicide
    28. Frungy - Shelled by Exterminator Squad
    29. Gainlate Quox - Lack of energon
    30. Ghindley - Converted to rock
    31. Gnullpheeld - Road traffic accident
    32. Greynar - Suicide
    33. Hathikolt - Hunted down and mauled by Plasmok beast
    34. Hexvexer - Suicide
    35. Holdrone Scope - Exposure to quantum loop gravity
    36. Hotspot - Suicide
    37. Hum-Free - Converted to Chab-flet organic life form
    38. Ingolt - Torn apart by telekinesis
    39. Inodena - Suicide
    40. Iotanic - Crushed inside sentient asteroid
    41. Irritagator - All metal atoms in body fell apart
    42. Jenuton - Lost connection to body
    43. Jhakanizy - Metal-eating microbes
    44. Jhonaspross - Mental overload via networks
    45. Julkim Seinbatter - Toxic media gossip
    46. Kandishara - Body disrupted by clouds of micro-changes in time
    47. Ketyronu - Buried alive in quarry; ran out of energon
    48. Kloanmonger - Skirfin attack
    49. Kuroshney Ten - Sliced up by dimensional fracture lines
    50. Laboragaster - Smashed on rocks by giant ocean wave
    51. Lenticulum - Accidental brain damage during transformation; caused by space warp
    52. Linklaser - Converted to rock
    53. Logoreader - Radiation damage
    54. Matriculon - Converted to organic person; died after a nightmare about examinations
    55. Mebar-Charl - Bad feng-shui led to demonic murder
    56. Mimbacleid - Suicide
    57. Mojer Tabress - Exploded through sudden withdrawal of electrons
    58. Morpentenio - Murdered by figments of his imagination that came to life
    59. Nax Festian - Flayed alive horribly by superhero Captain Decent
    60. Nemrod Nauss - Shaken to pieces by very loud, continuous sounds
    61. Nidraney Loom - Fuel lines blocked by debris teleported naturally into body
    62. Nori Netlom - Hyper crushed by his own duplicates in time vortex
    63. Nuferon - Extreme headaches
    64. Oagler Norg - Post traumatic stress disorder led to either accidental death or suicide
    65. Ommantie - Smashed in dimensional maelstrom
    66. Onderplex - Assisted suicide
    67. Othoy Jawn - General depression; refused energon
    68. Parumeleng - Exposed to ghost beta radiation
    69. Peggra Peraate - Held in a large vice and gradually filed down
    70. Plirmang - Fuel lines ruptured by the ‘shimmering and twinkling’
    71. Porblinay - Air traffic accident
    72. Pumifud - Knocked off cliff by random collection of oversized letters from an art project
    73. Quainel - Suicide
    74. Quegelex - Unexplained compulsion to over-exercise
    75. Quibosyre - Trapped in time warp and lost in fibrous universe
    76. Quoshplad - Body invaded by fractal crystals
    77. Rafer Bestoc - Suicide
    78. Reshper - Exposed to ghost beta radiation
    79. Rippster - Torn apart by energy beings
    80. Rondaquey - Hit by solar flare
    81. Ruddinate - Burnt to death by the colour red
    82. Seekhawk - Exposed to ghost beta radiation
    83. Shadow Panther - Suicide
    84. Sochoma - Mass-shifting accident; shrank too much
    85. Sphericon - Spun around at twenty thousand revolutions per minute by natural forces
    86. Stranct - Smashed by meteorite impact in mid air
    87. Tarcenor - Suicide
    88. Telanedol Two - Hit by ricochet from Ertex’s gun
    89. Tokohoshu - Fell onto neutron star
    90. Trenchcutter - Ate poison toad
    91. Tyladyne - Lost essential mass due to bosonic instability
    92. Ubliet Jaiks - Suicide; driven insane by irrational jealousy
    93. Uftamar - Merged consciousness with a yellow universe
    94. Umpression - Lack of energon in an intergalactic void
    95. Unabeamer - Electromagnetic currents blocked by exotic particle field
    96. Urveila - Trapped in a large laundry machine and corroded by strong detergent
    97. Vathant - Hit by horizontal sheet lightning
    98. Venturaij - Suicide
    99. Vivantilain - Amplified life force caused breakdown in bodily functions
    100. Volauncer - Suicide
    101. Vocha Gleime - Psychic earwig removed all attractive qualities
    102. Waflajie - Accidentally killed by Ingolt; mistaken identity
    103. Whikyzan - All wiring pulled out and arranged artistically by spirits
    104. Winkrotor - Enslaved and overworked
    105. Woruplon - Brain melted through too much teleportation
    106. Wuchanalok - Lost in a cross-rip between super time and ultra time
    107. Xan Axe - Cut up for pharmaceutical use
    108. Xenolesta - Murdered by enraged mob
    109. Xigonjin - Thrown into blue entrisence chasm by the Law Org
    110. Xykaphone - Lost penogistic relay buffers
    111. Yackreen - Bludgeoned by giant child
    112. Yifnilt - Atomic structure broken down by Varnian field
    113. Yoldren - Suicide
    114. Yuthostle - Inadvertent chemical poisoning by young people
    115. Zandont - Melted in lava lake
    116. Zarjazle - Surfeit of glitter
    117. Zeebrooge - Sea traffic accident
    118. Zoh Aloft - Excessive happiness after being shot with antidepressant ray

    Many of these Transformers were resurrected later by Primus. Others lived on in other forms.
     
  7. snavej

    snavej Zone 6 dweller, off-peak traveller

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    Muddling Through John H. Evans, October 2016


    The people of planet Wusthra knew that what they were doing was counter-intuitive but they had had enough of alien interference. Even as they combed through their settlements, looking for the alien leader(s), they were being attended to by robot ‘helpers’ whether they wanted it or not. Frame skeleton robots followed them on foot. Insect-type robots crawled across their bodies, making them neater and cleaner whenever ‘necessary’. Microscopic robots toiled inside them, keeping their tissues in peak condition. As a result of the latter, the Wusthrans had plenty of stamina and could search for many hours without a break. They had tried to interrogate the robots about their chief(s) but they would not talk about anything. They had also tried to tap into their electronic minds but the technology was, as yet, beyond them. Attempts to investigate the robots’ coordination signals were similarly thwarted. Now, they were resorting to a methodical physical search. They were attempting to find every possible hiding place but they knew that they might still fail. Later that day, one of the Wusthrans struck lucky. An eldster known as Gulaye Jecgrat was walking past an ordinary road vehicle when it started to judder slightly for no apparent reason. Gulaye called for back-up and the vehicle was surrounded.


    The appointed negotiator Ephlom Aszclomt stepped forward and asked some of the uninvited frame skeletons if this vehicle was their leader. For reasons unknown, they chose this moment to make their first communication, confirming that the vehicle was indeed their leader. Ephlom rapped lightly on the vehicle’s roof.


    “So you found us in the end,” said a voice from the vehicle. “I suppose that’s not bad. It only took twelve days once you started the global search.”


    “Whoever you are, if you don’t mind, we’d like an explanation as to why so many billions of robots have invaded our planet,” asked Ephlom politely but somewhat testily. “We are grateful that you made us so healthy but the sheer volume of these damned things around here is a bit much. They’re in our faces every day, everywhere. They have no idea of personal space or privacy.”


    “We’re really sorry,” said the voice. “We’re not doing so well ourselves. We’re losing our edge; that much is obvious. Normally, we’d do much better. Normally, folks like you would have nothing to worry about.”


    “Well, I’m sad to hear that you’re having problems too but surely you can just command the robots to back off,” persisted Ephlom. “Make us feel like we aren’t living under occupation, at least. These big spindly ones give me the creeps.”


    “Alright, I’m doing it now,” said the voice. There was a general withdrawal of the more obvious robots. Being so slim, they were able to fold themselves into small packages in various shapes. They simply lay on the ground, presumably ready to re-emerge when needed. The Wusthrans were greatly relieved. Some of them immediately started gathering up the folded robots, putting them in various out-of-the-way places or handing them to the authorities.


    “Sky-Man be praised,” said Ephlom as the robot presence receded. “You know, we’re firing on all cylinders but we can’t perform with so many odd contraptions in the room, if you know what I mean. It’s been a very frustrating time!”


    “Tell me about it,” said the voice. “My name’s Wheelblaze, by the way. Do you mind if I change into my primary form? I get stiff being a vehicle for months.”


    “Aliens gotta do what aliens gotta do!” said Ephlom just before Wheelblaze transformed into a bulkier robot than the others. Ephlom saw that Wheelblaze had only formed half of the vehicle.


    “You too, Roadburner,” said Wheelblaze. “The game’s up. They caught us.”


    “I’m quite embarrassed,” said Roadburner, transforming slowly to robot mode. “If only we had been thinking straight, we could have stopped these people from feeling swamped with metallic intruders. We could have changed their attitudes completely and thus kept them happy.”


    “It sounds like you’re talking about mind control as well,” observed Ephlom. “Perhaps we got off lightly after all!” The two Transformers shrugged. It was all in a day’s work for them.


    “Where do you want us?” asked Roadburner. “Are we going to jail or an impound lot or something?”


    “You know, I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” said Ephlom. “I had expected you to be nafchom-based people like us. Now I see you, I realise that we probably don’t have a facility strong enough to hold you.”


    “Got it in one,” said Wheelblaze. “We can bust out of just about anywhere.”


    “Even if we could imprison you, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do,” said Ephlom. “You mentioned that you’re somehow sick or in need of maintenance.”


    “You could say that but this is no ordinary sickness,” said Wheelblaze. “It’s more of a spiritual issue. Some really powerful force is pushing us around and making us do things that we don’t want to do. However, it can’t make us do a perfect job! We’re protesting by sabotaging projects like this one with our shoddy work.”


    “What a bizarre situation,” mused Ephlom. “I don’t know which of us is best able to help you but I’m sure that many useful people are standing by, ready to assist. You can start by talking to some of the people here, if you like.”


    “Here’s hoping that one of you can help with our odd predicament,” said Roadburner. ‘It should be interesting, at least.” The two Transformers went to begin discussions with nearby officials.


    “Why were those robots so spindly anyway?” asked Ephlom on the way.


    “This planet is somewhat short of metals,” replied Roadburner. “In order to build so many robots, we had to adapt our designs accordingly.”


    “Here they are, the instigators of this damned metallic invasion,” said one of the officials as Ephlom, Roadburner and Wheelblaze reached her. “What were you thinking? There are interstellar treaties forbidding this sort of action!”


    “We apologise profusely but our masters have forced us to be here and to take on this project,” said Wheelblaze. “All of my people objected to it but we were overruled. At least we are trying to be very benevolent Ms. ... erm...”


    “Tbeifrip Dosdovun,” said the official. “Read the name badge on my front. Your benevolence has been partly in our favour but it has weirded out most of the world. We want you to withdraw as soon as possible. Where is your home world or nearest colony?”


    “Let me see,” said Roadburner, consulting his star chart data. “That way, about five hundred million light years away.” He pointed at the ground, diagonally to his right.”


    “Our society is under divine control,” said Wheelblaze. “At present, we are not allowed to return home but we can establish a temporary colony near here.”


    “Don’t go off-world yet,” instructed Tbeifrip. “Some experts are coming to interrogate you. They will be here early tomorrow morning.”


    “Fine, we’re in no hurry,” said Roadburner. “Unlike your experts, we don’t need to sleep. We’ll spend the night exploring the region.”


    “Try to be back at the main road over there about two hours after dawn,” advised Tbeifrip. “The interrogation will be as quick and painless as possible. I hope that we are not keeping you from anything.”


    “No, this is our main function,” said Wheelblaze. “We befriend and safeguard as many races as we can. This is all second nature to us.”


    “Glad to hear it,” said Tbeifrip as the two Transformers walked away. She had a strange feeling about them. They were not like any other alien species that she had seen. Her uneasiness grew through the night. She tried to sleep but couldn’t. The telepathic community of Wusthra was being buffeted by a hitherto unknown influence. It was becoming apparent that this was a global problem. Shortly afterwards, the deep space networks reported a similar phenomenon across the galaxy, then the neighbouring galaxies. This was the most profound event to affect civilisation in recorded history. Billions of societies were simultaneously being stricken with anxiety. After a few hours of unprecedented emotions, it ended as mysteriously as it began. Naturally, there was a massive intergalactic effort to explain this grand conundrum. As that continued, Tbeifrip finally managed to fall asleep for a few hours.



    * * * * *



    The next day, Wheelblaze and Roadburner didn’t show up for their meeting. However, they had been tracked and were quickly located. They had lost consciousness and rolled down a slope, coming to a halt when they had crashed into a rocky outcrop at the side of the road. Wheelblaze’s front end was badly dented but was automatically repairing itself. Neither Transformer could be woken. A recovery crew took them to a leading technology research centre in the hope that they could be revived. In Wusthran society, it was normal to perform a telepathic probe on sick or injured people since that gave some very useful information to help with finding a remedy for the ailment and its causes. In this case, though, the two Transformers could not be contacted thus at present. It appeared that their minds and spirits were, for want of a better word, ‘shattered’. The Wusthrans had never seen a case quite this serious. How were these Transformers still alive, they wondered?


    It was decided to try to connect with the Transformers with a Wusthran artificial intelligence. This AI was kept fully isolated from any computer networks but it could still be monitored via telepathy. At first, there was no response from the Transformers. The AI began to explore their minds, which turned out to be exceedingly complex, far more so than had been expected. How was this possible? The answer lay in higher dimensions. Most of their minds were actually outside the physical realm and, therefore, very difficult to probe with the more limited Wusthran technology. An additional problem was that the minds were highly muddled. The AI could not find many working pathways in them. This was a giant puzzle and it would take a long time to solve it, if that was even possible.



    * * * * *



    “Teglor 15.7, deal with this intruder,” said Afquerd Mazolyrt wearily. “It obviously didn’t get the message about keeping out of the way.” The domestic robot Teglor 15.7 scuttled swiftly into the room and seized the alien robot. She was sick of these spindly off-world creeps coming into her house unbidden at any hour of the day or night. Not only that, somehow their actions were terrifying people across many galaxies.


    “Wait, I have questions!” pleaded the alien.


    “Oh, now you talk?!” said Convel, Afquerd’s partner. “What’s your name, you clueless wire basket?”


    “Just stop there, Teglor 15.7,” commanded Afquerd quietly.


    “I am Gromblast of the Cyclotronic Fine Engineering Ministry,” said the alien as it flapped its limbs aimlessly. “My entire society has been comprehensively suppressed by unimaginable forces. For the first time in millions of years, I am not thinking straight because of this suppression. I am desperate for assistance. Can you provide it?” Afquerd and Convel were a little stunned by this revelation.


    “I doubt it,” said Afquerd with a shrug. “We’re not even able to link with your mind.”


    “This is not my normal body,” said Gromblast. “My spark has been forced from my home world and flung out to this charming little rock. I am lucky that I even found a body to occupy. Are the creators nearby? Their names are Wheelblaze and Roadburner.”


    “As far as we know, they are being studied at the GC Vanguard Research Centre, about seventy kilometres from here,” said Convel. “They’re in a bad way, I heard.”


    “We all are, we the people of Cycopathotron,” said Gromblast. “It seems that we have been crushed by your gods.”


    “Yes, they tend to do that from time to time,” said Afquerd. “Their first priority is to protect our universe from any adverse influences. Throughout recorded history, we have watched them do this. I never thought that I would see it happen in my bedroom, though!”


    “I cannot hold this body,” said Gromblast. “They have found me again. I am being pushed out. Tell your authorities what is happening here!” The alien robot went limp as Gromblast’s spark was forcibly relocated.


    “We can do that, as soon as we’ve finished our fun here,” said Convel. “Nestle in close, Affie.”


    “You’ve got it, Convie!” said Afquerd, eager for more loving. “Spark me up again!”



    * * * * *



    “Lost soul, so far from home, I may be able to help if you are willing to accept,” said the late Wusthran. “I have had many names and will have many more. For now, call me Drencleth.”


    “You were, in this village here, a respected man,” the spirit could tell. “Still watch over it you do. To have such luxury wonderful it is!”


    “I sense that your name is Weirdwolf,” said Drencleth. “Your history is so different to mine. You have served your god for aeons. You are a super-soldier in an extremely long war.”


    “Precarious my situation is at present,” said Weirdwolf. “Strangely, though, a pleasant change it is. At liberty I am, on Wusthra, to roam. To dwell on my problems not, learnt I have. Better it is ‘the moment’ to savour.”


    “In a way, your life has been a torment,” observed Drencleth. “You wanted to go your own way but too often you were obliged to serve.”


    “In dreams my refuge has been,” said Weirdwolf wistfully. “Mechanical was my work, leaving my mind to wander free.”


    “Are you sure that you want help to go back to your old life or would you prefer something else?” asked Drencleth. Weirdwolf had never been so unsure of his life’s path.


    “Of the Primus army, had my fill I have,” said Weirdwolf. “Gone on so long it has. Toiled so much we have. Transformed our sparks so many times we did. Now, on Wusthra, maybe a chance to end it there is. Dark gods the only problems are.”


    “Yes, our gods have many shades,” said Drencleth. “However, we consider none of them to be problems. All are benevolent here.”


    “For so long fought the dark gods we have,” said Weirdwolf. “So uncanny it is to hear you praise them. Yet, an open mind I must still keep.”


    “You could incarnate as a Wusthran, if you so wish,” suggested Drencleth. “Look at my grandchildren over there, playing so happily. They don’t worry about trans-universal warfare!” Weirdwolf watched the little fleshlings. Youngsters like this were so fragile but they generally had a good time if they were allowed to live.


    “To such a life I cannot now commit, though tempting it is,” said Weirdwolf. “Evaluate the situation first I must. Perhaps then return I can. Know you of yonder demon, incidentally?”


    “You mean the one that hides in the wind caves and takes swipes at passing Wusthrans?” asked Drencleth. “My spirit friends and I have tried to remove it. The damned thing is too strong for us. It does little harm, though.”


    “Greater harm it plans,” said Weirdwolf. “To deal with it permit me.”


    “We would be most grateful!” said Drencleth. He and the other spirits watched with interest as Weirdwolf chased down the demon, seized it and carried it away to parts unknown.


    “Your people keep watching,” said Weirdwolf as he departed the area. “Coming might be changes major.” The spirits already knew what those were.



    * * * * *



    The telepathic community of the universe wanted answers. The gods were trying to weaken their memories of the recent disturbances but the mortals resisted. Soul memories could not be removed. Having gained a little familiarity with the beings known as Transformers, the mortals searched for them. It appeared that most of them were now physically inactive. The gods had suppressed them quite thoroughly in this regard. However, some of them were roaming around as disembodied ‘sparks’. Also, some of their robots were still functioning in one way or another. The telepathic community tried to contact the free-roaming sparks but this was only possible sporadically due to constant blocking from the gods. Nevertheless, it was soon learnt that all Transformers were ‘offshoots’ of a great god known as Primus. He might be the solution to this riddle. The search continued but the blocking efforts of the local gods were ramped up.


    Why were the gods imposing this cover-up? What feature of the newcomers required universal censorship? The telepathic community demanded to know why the gods were being so secretive. Was Primus a dangerous force? If so, why was there no warning of the exact danger posed? For billions of years, the gods had protected the mortals and had given them sufficient information. Why had this changed now? The gods would not talk about it. The telepathic community were forced to conclude that Primus brought something of unprecedented importance. They had to make the seeking of answers a primary objective. The gods wanted to stop them but they couldn’t do so completely without betraying their most important ideals. However, they still had some freedom to operate so they imposed selective interference on interstellar travel and communication.


    The telepathic collective continued to talk with the Transformers, piecing together a picture of Primus and his aims. The local gods continued to disrupt their conversations whenever possible. Despite this, it soon became clear that Primus despised dark gods. He wanted to remove them from all universes with life. His people had millions of stories about how multitudes of dark gods had been banished from millions of universes. The scale of it was staggering. Could this be why the local gods were trying so hard to conceal the truth of Primus? Were some of them secretly evil? Could they have hidden this fact from everyone for so many aeons? What would they do if they were unmasked?


    The gods denied that they were evil. They said that they had learnt from the experiences of gods in other universes. Long ago, they had decided to avoid the trap of evil and to live in harmony as far as possible. They had proved it innumerable times over several billion years. The telepathic collective had pondered the true nature of the gods repeatedly throughout history. Now, they had the clearest ever grounds for suspecting them of evil intent. This was a real dilemma. How could they resist the gods who knew them so intimately? In that situation, they were impotent. Their investigations continued.



    * * * * *



    My normal activities have been severely curtailed, so here I am, reminiscing about my glorious career...


    Universe 31660: There was a huge monster made of glass and some kind of super-tough rubber: luckily, there were many diamonds around so it could be cut up, piece by piece. We really had to improve our weapons systems after that, so there was less chance of total malfunction in future.


    Universe 928914: An alliance of a hundred galaxies almost smashed us but we side-stepped them just in time by leaping to the other side of the universe.


    Universe 1273419: A devastating anxiety virus laid over half of us low. We were gibbering in our holes that day (metaphorically speaking)! There was no one attacking so we took our time and fought off the thing in the end.


    [I’m working on something ad hoc. I would call it home-made but home is a distant speck right now. Some of my people are turning up and I’m putting them to work. They’re still ghosts but they’re doing what they can.]


    Universe 2001443: We cleansed the whole place with just one class of robot, just for variety and to prove to ourselves that we could. It was a close thing, though. The enemy almost took control of our fleet at one point, by working out how to control the robots. Luckily, our little machines redesigned their own circuitry and regained the advantage.


    Universe 2697419: There was a world where everything seemed to revolve around ball games. One of my mechs was almost whacked to death by a blizzard of flying balls. That was in the global parliament building: they had excellent ball skills but their message delivery methods were fundamentally flawed.


    Universe 3127455: I found this one to be unbelievably odd. We all thought it was a standard universe but the whole place turned out to be a mass of phoniness. All the particles were unstable and liable to collapse at any moment, especially when an external force was exerted on them. It turned out that it was an ‘echo universe’ budding off from Universe 3127431 as a result of a collision with Universe 3127398. It was a dead loss that we had to chalk up to experience.


    [I must admit, my life at present is a drag. I am in hiding and my people are being bossed around by a greater power. (They are not cooperating fully, I’m glad to see.) I have been obliged to disguise myself as a Wusthran man, overweight and aging, with fuzzy eyesight, deteriorating organs and daily medication. I am somewhat on the lazy and depressed side. Nevertheless, I have just enough ability to carry out my project. It’s not very appealing cover but it is apparently effective and I will do virtually anything for the sake of my mission.]


    Universe 3988812: Gradzams! Enough said! (My jchifp is still egfiskrating, by the way.)


    Universe 4329910: Everything was at least ten times stronger in there. Even the vacuum of space assaulted us constantly. We only escaped because I had the appropriate defences, taken from several previous universes. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to operate safely if we ever return there.


    Universe 4670033: This was mostly unremarkable and we completed it in record time but we did have our first brush with the Evermaze. We were nearly drawn in but once again I had the specialised tools with which to extricate us from the situation. It was a close one, though. That’s one reason why I sent in the Chordwainer later.


    [The Wusthran woman has arrived. I was expecting her. She was not expecting to have to deal with me, though.]


    Universe 4882345: The opposition in this one was tough and sneaky. We thought that we had defeated them but they had fooled us with decoys and then emerged from hiding to attack again. They concealed themselves by splitting themselves into genetic strand fragments and inserting themselves into oceanic microbes. What happened to them? We did! They were reduced to atoms in the end. I regret that we have had to extinguish so many strong creatures. I have noticed that the amount of fierce resistance being offered to us has diminished steadily over the course of our long, crusading odyssey.


    Universe 5079012: It was apparent that we were approaching the limits of our purview. We were stopped in our tracks. Our appearance in a star system of gentle beings caused a massive death toll. We didn’t kill anyone deliberately; they just saw us with their space telescopes and view-screens, panicked and died of fright. The local gods ushered us out of that universe tout de suite. We were mortified, I can tell you.


    Universe 5081100: My entire people went on strike. They were at the end of their tether and they had a long list of demands. Of course, I gave them everything that they wanted and more. There was a delay in the cleansing of that universe but it couldn’t be helped. Unfortunately, as the years roll by, my people are slowly becoming more and more resentful of me and my uncompromising quest.


    “There’s something really wrong here,” says the woman. “Why are you still relying on medicines when the rest of us now have tiny robots repairing our bodies from the inside?” She brandishes a blibber pack of lirt perker from his beam-hook-cup. I have to play this extremely carefully.


    “Do not trouble yourself about it,” I say to her as I subtly seize control of her mind. “I am not as I seem to be. I am actually absurdly healthy.”


    “Well, that’s fine,” she says, obliged to believe me. “I don’t know what’s happening but I felt drawn to you. Perhaps it is the robots in my blood. They are a great mystery to us.” She moves closer.


    “What do your instincts tell you?” I ask. “Whether they are native or alien, they are normally correct. You can feel it.” She embraces me.

    .

    “Strange man, I don’t seem able to avoid you,” she says. “I don’t even know your name but I must have you.”


    “Then take me,” I say, copying some of the innumerable men I have observed in the past. I let my body handle this. Instinct brings us to our physical union. Meanwhile, I use her mind to explore Wusthran society deeply. I knew that this planet could be useful. Wheelblaze and Roadburner confirmed it when they performed their own study. The question is how exactly is it useful?


    “Hello, did you know that your front door is wide open?” calls a neighbour from immediately outside. One of my little robots scoots over and closes the door slowly. It’s eerie; the neighbour backs away.



    * * * * *



    “People of Wusthra, we are addressing you today in an attempt to apologise for our recent actions in your universe and perhaps to make amends,” said Wheelblaze, broadcasting on TV and the telepathic network.


    “First, we would like to thank the wonderful staff at the GC Vanguard Research Centre and their artificial intelligence ‘Bren-Dar’, who were our saviours over recent days,” said Roadburner. “They had never met people like us and were unfamiliar with our workings, yet they repaired us enough to bring us back to consciousness and a reasonable level of operation. No, don’t be modest everyone, you know what a good job you did!”


    “As you may be aware, we are a race of trans-universal beings,” continued Wheelblaze. “We originated in another universe extremely far from here. It is our mission to eliminate certain undesirable forces from millions of universes. However, we are not infallible. Sometimes, we make mistakes, both large and small. Our entry into this universe was one of those large mistakes. We should never have come here. Our sense of direction in the inter-universal dimensions failed us this time. We now want to leave this universe as soon as we are allowed, so that we can return to our correct mission.”


    “When we leave, we will remove or destroy all possible traces of our presence,” said Roadburner. “This will include all those annoying robots. Unfortunately, the nanobots inside your bodies will also be taken out or deactivated, so you will return to your natural state of biology. Soon, your advancing technology may be able to create your own nanobots to replace ours.”


    “We sincerely apologise for all the distress that we have caused here on Wusthra and elsewhere in this universe,” said Wheelblaze. “Normally, we would offer some kind of compensation for our errors but, in this case, you have a tremendous amount of local support available, both from mortal races and from gods, of which you have a vast pantheon.”


    “There are literally sextillions of them all around the universe,” said Roadburner. “We are powerful but your gods overwhelmed us extremely easily. They are superlative guardians, doing an exceptional job. Everyone should be very proud of them. I have seen more than half a billion universes yet I am still mightily impressed by your stupendous divinities. May they continue in glory for eternity!”


    “In fact, we feel that your gods should be more visible,” said Wheelblaze. “We have watched them for a little while and we feel that sometimes their heroics are unsung. Their light is hidden under a bushel, to use a phrase from our home universe. Our own god Primus would like to rectify this. He has methods to make it possible to see your gods more easily. He is doing this right now. He has seen how the Wusthran people were very good at finding hidden people. He has taken this quality of effective seeking and combined it with his own technology to reveal more about the activities of your gods. You will be able to see the results shortly.”


    “That is about all we can usefully do here on Wusthra and in the region generally,” said Roadburner. “Now, we will wait quietly for clearance to leave this universe. We would like to thank you all for listening to us and for tolerating our intrusions with good grace. We hope that you enjoy our parting gift. We’re the Transformers Wheelblaze and Roadburner: signing off!”



    * * * * *



    The local gods took only a few days to give Primus and the Transformers clearance to leave this universe. Cybertron, the planetary form of Primus, had been damaged fairly badly in the suppression but it could be repaired in time. The mission would have to be suspended for a while, though. That was actually a good thing because it helped the Transformers to avoid war fatigue. Meanwhile, the telepathic collective were examining their gods in unprecedented detail. It was absolutely fascinating. The gods seemed to have nowhere to hide any more: they tried to appear unconcerned but, to the discerning viewer, they looked a little disconcerted. Why was that? The investigation continued. Some of the gods were starting to suspect others of nefarious dealings and activities. The truth would come out in the end: that was the most important outcome of this whole affair.


    Meanwhile, back on Wusthra, the next generation was gestating. Already, the telepathic community could tell that this forthcoming batch of babies would be special, like no other before it. Here was another legacy of Primus.
     
  8. snavej

    snavej Zone 6 dweller, off-peak traveller

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    Fresh Eyes Find Faster (c) John H. Evans, November-December 2016


    Above the ancient planet Cybertron there was a new and beautiful sky, fizzing with tiny flickering lights around the pin-sharp stars and elaborately curled wisps of dust cloud. However, the native Transformers were unable to appreciate it because they were either unconscious or suffering great agonies. In one of the main communication towers, the little urban defender called Powerrun was staggering toward the interstellar transmitter controls. His partner Strikedown had collapsed a few hundred metres below. Powerrun had tried to revive him but without success. His priority now was to send a distress signal to this new cosmos, hoping that someone out there would come and help.


    As he climbed the emergency stairs, Powerrun hallucinated about his recent past... Hordes of shiny robots swarmed across his vision, engulfing all in their path. In their wake, vegetation sprang up and launched seeds across multicoloured space. The seeds became outlandish star ships that linked together into a flying network, becoming a habitat for teeming organic civilisations. The organic people lived, died and rose to live again, each time building a slightly better machine. They learnt how to train the atoms and molecules to do their bidding, eventually opening portals to other realms where all manner of odd environments imposed themselves on everyone’s lives. Liquids dragged solids and gases into suitable symbioses. The cycle continued relentlessly, generating a constant stream of combinations and permutations...


    Powerrun could not focus on his task but, fortunately, he had programmed his body to complete it without input from his brain. With his personal ‘automatic pilot’, he reached the controls, entered the correct security codes and activated the general distress beacon. The message blasted forth powerfully. Powerrun stayed standing motionless in the control room, battling to suppress the hallucinations and then putting himself into stasis. He hoped that the rest of his people were safe. He was very worried because this mysterious affliction was one of the most painful and difficult problems that he could recall.


    An unknown amount of time passed. Cybertron and the Transformers slept. Great god Primus reassured everyone on a subconscious level. Eventually, a star ship appeared and landed in a convenient open space. Mechanoids emerged and tried to communicate with the local inhabitants. They were impressed by Cybertron’s grandeur and advancement but had trouble locating any life forms. Transformers were excellent at concealing themselves, of course. Now that their sparks were being suppressed, they were even harder to find. The alien mechanoids decided to home in on the source of the distress signal. They could have teleported to it but decided to move under their own power. This world was a huge discovery for them, so they wanted to explore as much as they could. They marched across the gleaming plains, scanning around for any possible dangers. This area appeared to be safe but they knew that other regions were loaded with weapons. The metal plating crackled slightly with extra electricity. There was a slight imbalance in forces here. Soon, they reached the communication tower and began to ascend. The fundamental electrical issue was disrupting any machinery that could have carried them upwards. It had also caused all the doors and force fields to open and deactivate.


    After a few minutes of climbing, they found Strikedown sprawled in a corridor. From his shape, they could tell that he was a life form. He was fascinating, being fairly similar to them. They scanned him and discovered his transforming nature. They didn’t want to waste time here, though. Strikedown was small enough to carry, so they brought him and continued to study him as they proceeded cautiously up the tower. They noticed that there were numerous defensive devices built into the walls, floors and ceilings. All of those were off-line, thankfully. Their presence indicated that this structure was considered worth protecting, though. Minutes later, the mechanoids arrived in the control room and found Powerrun. Upon scanning him, they realised that he and Strikedown were close partners. Their shapes clearly fitted together, allowing them to form a gestalt vehicle capable of travel on land and sea.


    Fixing this pair, let alone the planet, was going to be very tricky. Was it the right thing to do? The mechanoids communed with their friends on the star ship and also in their wider interstellar commonwealth. This entirely mechanical world was so alien that its atomic structure was different to anything seen before in the galaxy. There were billions of people and quintillions of other creatures on and in the planet. At the heart of it, there was a god force that was being held in check by some unknown means. The potential danger here was unprecedented but at this moment the planet was being degraded by the nature of the universe. Essentially, the alien world would be dead relatively soon. None of the transforming creatures were a threat since they couldn’t even maintain consciousness and their devices wouldn’t work. The god force was neutralised at present and was sending out peaceful thoughts. It was decided that they should be helped. The commonwealth had the collective intuition that Cybertron was very important.


    The mechanoids in the tower thought it best to experiment on Powerrun and Strikedown. If they could be saved then the rest of Cybertron could too, in theory. The only real way to protect them was to change their entire space-time environment using careful dimensional shifting. The star ship used its power to send the two Transformers into a slightly different reality, where electricity was a little less energetic. The mechanoid landing party could still detect them, though they were fainter in all respects. After a few hours of waiting, Powerrun was the first to awaken. He felt better now that the buzzing in his wires had disappeared. His connection to Primus was still reduced. His hallucinations seemed to have disappeared, except for some odd figures to his right. He turned to look at them. They looked fairly similar to Transformers but there were many small differences. Telepathy told him that they were friendly but why were they so faint and quiet? They explained about their dimensional shifting. He thanked them since he considered this a very big favour. Not many people could achieve such a rescue. Strikedown woke up next and Powerrun brought him up to speed.


    “I’m amazed that it worked,” said Strikedown. “This is far better than we expected. The message got through. Mechanoid races are very rare. Dimension shift technology is quite rare too. Who are these local mechanoids, anyway?”


    “They call themselves the Foreguards,” replied Powerrun. “They are talking about extending the dimensional bubble around the whole of Cybertron.”


    “We hardly ever receive such massive aid!” remarked Strikedown. “It’s uncanny, like it was meant to be.”


    “Yeah, I was thinking that too,” said Powerrun. “Primus may be down but he’s not out. He’s planned this carefully, I bet.”


    Soon, the Foreguards called in hundreds more star ships and positioned them equidistantly around Cybertron. Together, they created exactly the same dimensional shift as they had around Powerrun and Strikedown. Within days, Cybertronian society had been brought back from the brink and the planet itself had been saved from slow disintegration. Quickly, the re-awakened Transformers learnt the method for maintaining the dimensional shift and used their own teleport engines to take on the burden of preserving their home planet. The Foreguards, however, didn’t all leave after the rescue. Some stayed behind because they felt like the Transformers were their kindred somehow. They wanted to talk and thus get to know their new galactic neighbours so they dispersed across the planet to explore. As the weeks passed, Primus showed no sign of activity beyond sending out good vibrations. It seemed that the Transformers would have to identify and solve their own problems if they wanted to progress from here. The Foreguards were disappointed that the Transformers would have to leave in due course but they were determined to exchange as much information as possible before then.



    * * * * *



    “Hmm, Universe 219425, that was a tough one,” said the Transformer known as Gryke, refreshing his memory from the Great Database. “The enemies were pretty ferocious. In many galaxies, our robot forces were completely destroyed. We had to use special means to eject the dark gods there.”


    “How did those work?” asked Foreguard Algafal.


    “I don’t know exactly,” answered Gryke. “I think that Primus gave the local light gods a sort of extra energy skin. This gave them enough protection to shove the dark gods through black holes and into the dark god holding areas in the inter-universal void.”


    “How do the holding areas work?” asked Algafal.


    “Most of us have never really seen them but a few of us have sensed their presence,” explained Gryke. They are beyond normal space-time so, once inside, dark gods can’t do anything. It is imprisonment without consciousness for many aeons. No one knows what happens to dark god prisoners in the very long run. The important thing is that they don’t threaten our universes again until everyone else is long dead.”


    “That’s very interesting,” commented Algafal. “We don’t have any gods for you to tackle here in our universe, as far as we know. We have trillions of telepathic races all over the cosmos, watching out for any conceivable perils.”


    “You see, that’s odd,” said Gryke. “Normally, we only go to universes with gods inside. This latest trip of ours is special somehow. I believe that there must be something else here for us to tackle.”


    “Our universe is very peaceful compared to those others that you mentioned,” said Algafal. “Perhaps coming here was one of your Primus’ occasional mistakes. Having said that, his mistakes tend to turn out fortuitously after all.”


    “Excuse my restlessness but I’m absolutely itching to go out in a star ship and investigate your universe,” said Gryke, rising and pacing up and down the spacious terrace. “It’s a deeply ingrained habit. We have explored millions of universes. I feel so useless not doing it now.”


    “Alas, your dimensional shift prevents you from being able to detect everything with your own sensors,” said Algafal. “We can’t fight nature.”


    “Not yet, but we are advancing all the time,” Gryke pointed out. “One day, we will overcome this hurdle too. We take whatever expertise that we find on our travels.”


    “In the mean time, trust our reports,” said Algafal. “Virtually all of them prove correct when tested.”


    “I shall trust them,” agreed Gryke. “We Transformers are confined here for the duration. All we can do is review our old records. Normally, we are so busy dealing with universe after universe that there is insufficient time for full reflection. Now, we can rectify that somewhat.”


    “And we can help,” said Algafal. “Maybe we cannot match your raw computing power but we can contribute to the record sifting effort. We’re doing it right now, in fact.”


    “That’s much appreciated,” said Gryke. “Now, I must stretch a little.” He transformed to spider-gun mode and scuttled around for a minute. Then he transformed to laser-pin jet mode and zoomed upwards for a kilometre before cutting his engines and gliding back to ground level.


    “How many guns do you have?!” asked Algafal as Gryke transformed and landed. “I look at you sometimes and it seems that you are made of them!”


    “You’re not far wrong!” said Gryke, unsheathing as many of his weapons as possible. “Don’t forget the missiles, the emitters, the blades, etc. Officially, I have seventy six weapons but what about my other features? An engine can be used as a club or a flame gun. A wing can be a sword. A joint can be a vice or pincer. My whole body can be a suicide bomb. You might think it’s crazy but we’re used to it. In the long run, of course, the deadliest weapon is the mind.”


    “What’s the highest number of people that you killed on one planet?” asked Algafal.


    “The time when I activated the hyper-hurricane and...” Gryke tried to say.


    “No, in single combat,” clarified Algafal.


    “I didn’t keep count every time,” said Gryke. “There was one planet in universe 43119, though. It was a crucial planet to conquer. The inhabitants knew it very well. We were caught without our robot hordes. I personally destroyed thirteen thousand six hundred and nineteen people. Millions of us had similar body counts. Those people were all suicide slaves of a dark god. We try to avoid such situations now.”


    “That all sounds grim,” said Algafal. “In the distant past, our people went to war but we soon tired of it. For us, it was clearly not the way forward.”


    “Anyway, do you have any thoughts on our analysis so far?” asked Gryke. “Can you keep up with us?”


    “We can, up to a point,” replied Algafal. “Our systems have been evolving for billions of years. Let’s watch the results come in. Already we are flagging up some interesting anomalies.” The Transformers and Foreguards were using their amassed computing power to crunch through millions of years of campaign records, including such details as:-


    - Universe 998437: ten galaxies had all accelerated relative to their neighbours and moved up to half a light year further than they normally would over twenty two days. This made it harder to reach those galaxies and thus delayed the war.


    - Universe 183300: fifty two black holes were found to be larger and more powerful than first thought. In the heat of combat, eleven light gods were accidentally drawn into those black holes and lost. It was a mystery why the initial black hole measurements had been so wrong.


    - Universe 437566: a space pilot inexplicably disappeared, which caused his ship to go off-course, so a Transformer star ship had to rescue it. Consequently, that star ship was delayed, which caused a distraction mission to fail and thus allowed a dark god to incapacitate a light god.


    - Universe 1740812: there was a twenty second rematerialisation delay in each Transformer teleport jump, which allowed thousands of enemies with quick reflexes to escape and fight another day.


    - Universe 2378164: all the dark gods had escaped centuries before Primus arrived. No reason for this was found. Those gods had not yet been traced. Had they been forewarned?


    - Universe 3481270: over a million galaxies had merged to form a mega-galaxy containing the largest, most dangerous black hole ever seen. That black hole was able to open multiple access points simultaneously across the mega-galaxy and beyond. Some people thought that it was being controlled by an intelligence. Millions of gods and life worlds were sucked into it over the years. It took centuries to cleanse the mega-galaxy of dark gods. Primus and his forces wanted to deal with the black hole as well but it was too strong and caused far too many casualties. They had to leave it. Their task was to banish dark gods, not eliminate natural disasters.


    - Universe 2000197: a jumped-up super-villain with a magical glove covered in jewels kept interfering with the war, turning up and destroying many troops before fleeing. It was very irritating and led to the loss of some dear friends. After several months, the super-villain was neutralised. The glove disappeared, possibly into an imaginary realm of sketches and clichés. It was never recovered.


    - Universe 4889936: a bolt went missing from a Transformer war machine. The machine crashed and a transport had to be diverted to collect it. The transport did not reach its next rendezvous on time. One of the passengers failed to board a star ship as scheduled. The absence of that passenger caused a maintenance failure on a space platform in the next galaxy. That failure led to discovery of the whole operation by a local dark god. This led to the unravelling of the campaign across an entire galactic super cluster as the dark gods were made aware of their adversaries. Billions of lives were lost as reserves were rushed to the region. Victory was achieved in the end but no one could explain what happened to the bolt. This seemed like simple bad luck but the consequences were so catastrophic that suspicions were definitely raised.


    - Universe 5000012: an exotic form of energon seemed to spread dissention in the ranks. It contaminated the regular energon supply and generated contrary ideas in many minds. Precious time and energy had to be spent counteracting the effects of the energon. Scientists had since been unable to replicate and study those effects. Was the energon really to blame? They were not so sure any more.


    - Universe 1812: on several worlds, hordes of local people suddenly developed the idea that Transformers were a threat and should be eliminated. No amount of telepathic counter-messages could convince them otherwise. The Transformers were obliged to leave those worlds. They put up barriers of one type or another to prevent the hostiles from spreading their propaganda to other worlds. Other ways to dominate that galaxy had to be devised. The anti-Transformer idea emerged so quickly and emphatically that it appeared to originate outside those worlds but no one ever identified the source(s).



    * * * * *



    “Hmm, they really are leaving no plate unturned,” said Haulcrawler. “They’ve tracked down millions of lost items. Most of those are in other universes and we might never retrieve them but still, it’s the thought that counts.”


    “What about my 1.249 tonnes of gold?” asked Acraishon.


    “Nope, didn’t spot that, but they did find a few of my things,” said Eblik, scanning the list. “Holy folio, there’s something of mine behind the skirting board!” He quickly detached the board and extracted a tiny component from a recess on the rear side.


    “I lost this chip about seven hundred thousand years ago!” he exclaimed.


    “It’s obsolete,” said Loun Gliet as he flexed through a series of partial transformations. “The micro-cleaners don’t seem to be doing their job. They should have brought out that chip earlier.”


    “They don’t fit in that gap,” said Acraishon. “They’re a millimetre too big. The nanobots can fit but they’re not strong enough to drag out the chip. Also, it’s not a high priority.”


    “They found some software that I designed and lost only two hundred and fifty years ago,” said Haulcrawler. “It was accidentally uploaded to a reserve data pod and I was not notified.”


    “I must admit that scanning through all these recordings is fascinating,” said the Foreguard Maquar. “Only a month ago, I never imagined that I would be helping with a project like this. Now, I have unprecedented access to colossal alien databases. Better yet, I’m helping!”


    “We are so glad of that,” said Loun Gliet. “People of your calibre are as rare as Pirsip gluinos. What have you found in that data?”


    “All right, Acraishon, five thousand years ago you wondered where the Panjandrum galaxy refugees were going to settle after their entire galaxy was reduced to dust,” said Maquar. “Well, after a period of cursing the name ‘Transformer’, they warped out to the Anza-42 galaxy and began searching for suitable new worlds to inhabit. The last report shows them exploring likely candidates. They were debating what to do about any natives who they might encounter. They were considering melting down those natives and converting them into a rudimentary fuel.”


    “That’s quite gruesome,” said Haulcrawler. “It makes one wonder why we bother to save their universes!”


    “In Universe 1569001, you were unable to translate an urgent message from the Frkn0D species,” continued Maquar. “Extrapolating from other broadcasts and documents, it seems that the message read: ‘Dear Loun Gliet and Team, we expect the payment for the platinum-silver alloy components to be made in genavaglies, super elaborate class, quantity one gross. Failure to make payment will result in severe clenging and a shameplex display by the creditors. Yours sincerely, Otho Thotho Gloth XVII.’”


    “Oh dear,” said Loun Gliet. “There was no payment made. Everyone gets a darned good clenging. Cleng!”


    “Cleng!” agreed Haulcrawler.


    “Cleng!” concurred Eblik.


    “Cleng!” echoed Acraishon.


    “What the heck, Cleng!” Maquar chimed in. “I’m sure that you’re all very ashamed! At least the Frkn0D weren’t horribly murdered like so many other people who you encounter. One of those groups was the ++Fuh+Tang++ clan from Universe 3188112. We thought that we had saved their lives. When we last saw them, they were warping across their galaxy to a potential new home in the next spiral arm. Now that we have had a chance to read through the databases from that galaxy, we found an obscure reference to their destination solar system. It turns out that they were heading for the home planet of a very aggressive and malevolent space-faring race. There was a ninety nine percent chance that they would be attacked.”


    “We hardly ever have time to research situations exhaustively,” said Eblik ruefully. “It’s a recipe for disaster but Primus just ploughs on regardless.”


    “Hey, there’s breaking news,” said Acraishon, monitoring developments. “Evidence of other trans-universal species is emerging. There have been dozens of them!”


    “What?!” exclaimed Haulcrawler.


    “Have mercy!” gasped Loun Gliet in shock. “We feared it for a long time but now, at last, we have found it.”


    “This could change everything,” said Eblik. “Are these races following us from universe to universe? Are they harbingers of a greater danger?!”


    “We don’t know yet,” said Acraishon. “These races are quite rare and most of them are only seen in two universes each. A few appear in three or four universes. None go further than that.”


    “Could it be that these are only lookalike species?” queried Maquar. “Surely there must be many like that, given the sheer numbers that you have encountered?”


    “Yes, we have catalogued millions of them,” agreed Acraishon. “Yet these few special cases match exactly. There are identical artefacts, languages, vehicles, currencies, individuals, families, beliefs and even quirks. As far as we know now, there is no further doubt about it.”


    “What about their worlds and star systems?” asked Eblik.


    “Some of those were also present,” replied Acraishon. “Our records are patchy and don’t give a complete picture.”


    “So, it seems that we have some very persistent and secretive stalkers,” observed Loun Gliet. “They are probably very powerful. We have to watch out for them.”


    “Your current dimension-shifted state could offer some protection,” said Maquar. “Also, if these stalkers wanted to hurt you, wouldn’t they have tried already? Apparently, they have been following you for hundreds of thousands of years!”


    “Normally, I would agree with you on both points, Maquar,” said Eblik. “However, the stalkers are probably backed by dark gods or other similar beings. They can be extremely patient, taking billions of years to reach their goals if necessary.”


    “Right on cue, the Transformer collective just declared a state of emergency,” reported Haulcrawler. “Our priority now is to seek evidence of anyone or anything stalking us. Lost property and such will have to wait, unless it is somehow involved in the stalking.”


    “We Foreguards will have to help, I guess,” said Maquar. “We might be in the firing line too, given that we’ve helped you all.” The Transformers and Foreguards settled down for a very long session of continuous monitoring and analysis.



    * * * * *



    Foreguard Zeykala was a little bored so he was examining the walls in Finback’s quarters. They were full of advanced technology, just like most walls on Cybertron. These were a little different, though, since they were covered in a pattern of precise marks.


    “I understand some of your gadgets here but what about these tiny machined markings?” he asked.


    “Manufacturing error,” said Hydraulic, a fellow guest. “It matters not to our host.”


    “Oh, but it does,” said Finback as he performed his exercises. “Those are no mistakes; they are my personal record of Transformer progress. I carve the marks myself, one for each universe visited.”


    “All right, I knew that,” said Hydraulic. “I was just joshing with you, Zeykala.”


    “Very droll, I’m sure,” said Zeykala. “The marks are fairly simple but there are variations.”


    “I put a vertical line for a universe, with a nub at the top right if it is confirmed as new and unique,” explained Finback as he extruded some of his internal parts and flexed them in multiple directions. “If we eliminate the dark gods, I put a central crossbar. Occasionally, the universe is not new so I put a diagonal line through it. Each universe line has a microscopic code number that refers back to the Great Database.” Zeykala could see that most of the lines had crossbars, which represented aeons of enormous effort.


    “Why do you need these marks if you have the Great Database?” queried Zeykala. Finback reassembled his face and looked at him for a moment. Hydraulic also looked at him. They hesitated. Their expressions hinted at sadness and confusion.


    “Trans-universal travel screws with our sparks and minds,” said Finback. “It’s unnatural for living beings. There’s the disorientation of seeing so many new places, which we can just about handle. There’s also something worse. We call it multi-time sickness. I really hate it but I can’t do much about it. My wall marks are an attempt to cope. At a glance, I can see the scale of our travels.”


    “How much wall is covered now?” asked Zeykala.


    “Most of the walls in my quarters are,” answered Finback. “Relatively soon, I’ll have to extend into the corridor. I’m just glad that none of the damage inflicted on Cybertron so far has touched my rooms.”


    “Every universe seems to have slightly different time,” said Hydraulic. “We try to keep a record but it’s extremely difficult. In order to measure and assess time, it is necessary to have other, higher dimensions with which to compare it. Unfortunately, those dimensions also vary from universe to universe, so our task is often impossible. We can only estimate and guess. Meanwhile, we can certainly feel the difference. Some types of time feel faster or slower. Some types feel heavier or lighter, that is more or less oppressive. Some types feel smooth while others feel jerky, like a movie with fewer pictures per second. Some types are ‘regular speed’ and others are ‘variable speed’, where some days speed by and others drag on.”


    “Worse than that are the travel distortions,” complained Finback. “Admittedly, some transitions are fine but others are rough. We don’t know if we’re coming or going. There are patches of turbulence between universes. There are also irregularities in universe boundaries. Time and space go haywire for a while. No one really knows how long exactly because all the clocks fail to keep time: every damn clock on the planet. We have to reset them according to local astronomy. All too commonly, time goes circular on us. Everything gets really weird. Things split into multiple copies and float around. People do it too. Copies pass right through other copies like ghosts. Time loops go on and on. Things repeat and repeat. Our memories are rewritten many times. We can’t keep track. We try not to panic but some of us can’t help it. The experience is like a disaster dream where we’re convinced that terrible events are seconds away. We are powerless. It’s a like a kind of torture.”


    “Yeah, we have had to go through it a million times already,” said Hydraulic. “No wonder we want to break away from Primus, our father. The time turbulence subsides eventually but we are just so unsettled. We go about our business but full adjustment takes weeks or months. Another problem is that time turbulence stirs up our more distant memories. We are trying to do what we’re told but we can’t stop old remembrances from rising up. It’s so distracting! It feels like mental illness. There was that time when you were on a lake mission, Finback...”


    “Frak yes, I wish that that would go away,” said Finback. “I was trying to salvage vital cargo from a star ship that had crashed in a lake. It should have been a routine solo assignment but I had the old multi-time sickness, as per usual. It flared up. I tried to dive down but time kept looping and shifting. I dived over and over again. Each time, the lake was changing a little in some way. People were appearing around me. They came from a dozen previous universes. They wandered casually through the liquid. Vehicles zoomed by and animals watched me. Obstacles appeared at random. It didn’t feel safe at all. There was a sense of dread. I had to leave the lake and sit on the shore for a few days, waiting for it all to die down. Periodically, I fired my gun at the lake. I was so frustrated that I had to endure this nonsense, which was stopping me from doing my job.”


    “So, how are you feeling about the situation now?” asked Zeykala.


    “Not great, mech, not great,” replied Finback with a sigh. “I need freedom, not trauma.”


    “This universe is wrong for us,” said Hydraulic. “There are no gods; the dimensions are unsuitable; we discovered some stalkers (or perhaps they are hunters after us) and we have little to do except ruminate.”


    “Too much introspection reminds me of multi-time sickness, so I’m not a fan,” said Finback.


    “At least you have us to help,” said Zeykala. “We did save you and we are processing a portion of your data. Also, it is better to find your enemies before they move in to attack.”


    “True but I am tired of all this,” said Finback. “I’m going for a swim. I’ll be back in a few hours.” He walked away and went downstairs.


    “Swim?” queried Zeykala.


    “There’s a small sea just below us,” explained Hydraulic. “It soothes him to descend into it. He was built to be nautical. He puts on his outer armour and drifts around until his mood improves.”


    “This is such an unusual world, to have a sea with a roof!” said Zeykala. “Are there any creatures in it?”


    “Yes but these days they’re all under control,” answered Hydraulic. “Not that they could really hurt Finback anyway, the tough old flounder!” Meanwhile, Finback was sinking into the depths. The pressure rose steadily. Visibility was close to zero, so he was using sonar, scent and electromagnetism. It was much more peaceful here. Part of his brain could still work on the stalker search while the rest could enjoy a simple awareness of surroundings. There were always some robots cruising around. It was his natural environment and it was very reassuring. Despite the various upheavals, this sea hardly changed over the years. It was about two hundred kilometres long and eighty kilometres wide. The average depth was one kilometre and the deepest point was just over two kilometres below roof level. He scanned the area and all was as expected, so he just motored along, trying to forget his troubles. After about half an hour, he noticed some robots tugging at something on the sea bed. He went to find out what it was. He told the robots to back off and then dragged the object out of the crevice in which it was lodged. It had some access ports so he interfaced with it. Although at first it had seemed to be Cybertronian, a quick examination of its database revealed that it was alien in origin. The programming language made no sense. It was trying to broadcast a signal but this could not penetrate to the outside. As he switched off the signal, Finback was aggrieved that somehow an alien influence had reached to the depths of his favourite enclosed sea. He knew that it had to be reported. Slowly and reluctantly, dragging the alien artefact, he chugged toward the far shore where there was a research facility.


    Back on dry land, the alien artefact was identified as a surveillance probe. A little later, the quantum signature of the probe revealed that it had come from universe 2754186, which Cybertron had visited millions of years ago, Cybertronian time. Presumably, the probe had lain dormant for most of that time. It was remarkably well preserved and it had not been recycled by robots, which implied that it had been protected in some way. The exact source of the probe took longer to discern. After searching through enormous numbers of languages and codes, the Transformers believed that the probe came from a planet called Hanifrathichamfolon, inhabited by the Hani species. Further study showed that the Hani had had contact with at least five of the stalker species when the Transformers were in their universe. The probe’s database was small, giving away very little. The probe’s message broadcast contained information on topics such as Cybertron’s surface environment, nearby Transformer and robot activity, local stellar locations and Cybertron’s direction of movement. It was standard espionage material. The Transformers became increasingly interested in the Hani. It was clear that they were acting as coordinators for the many stalker species. Snippets of Hani language broadcasts were found in records from the universes where stalker species had been encountered. The Transformers began a systematic search for all Hani-related records in the Great Database.


    There was also the question of how the probe entered the sea in the first place and avoided detection for so long. All available sensor information was scrutinised. The nature of the sea meant that such information was limited. As far as the Transformers could tell, the probe had not arrived in a simple way from above, below or laterally. It seemed to have materialised only a few weeks before. However, ancient recordings showed that it was also there for short periods during the last few million years. Furthermore, it had also appeared briefly fifteen thousand kilometres away, in a different region altogether, about four hundred thousand years ago. That time, it had been in a tower complex, roughly half a kilometre above average land level. Forensic examination of the probe discovered traces of dust and gas in sealed compartments within its main body. Those traces had quantum signatures from nine other universes, one of which had been visited by the Transformers before universe 2754186. This showed that the probe was capable of travelling independently from universe to universe, on a different schedule to Cybertron. It indicated that the Transformers were being stalked in a non-linear manner, without regard for any particular time progression. The stalker search had become even more complex.



    * * * * *



    As months of work passed, the evidence mounted yet the Transformers and Foreguards couldn’t establish any clear conclusions. It seemed that Primus and the Transformers had been pulled and pushed around subtly many times in their grand quest. The trouble was that, although the Great Database was ridiculously huge, it still gave nothing like a complete picture of the multiversal environment. Too many suspicious incidents could not be properly investigated because the necessary information had not been gathered on site at the time. Even if the Transformers could return to those universes, it was unlikely that they could rediscover that information because it would have been lost through death, decay and relocation. Consequently, it was unclear who or what had been manipulating the quest. Some actions could be explained prosaically, such as when a group of people redirected the Transformers away from their own territory to attack their local rivals instead. It was, thus far, impossible to identify the hidden puppet masters when their actions could not be fully understood. There were too many anomalies and gaps in the records to point a finger at any particular high-level culprit or culprits. The usual suspects were the dark gods. Multitudes of those were in the inter-universal realms, where they were supposed to be inert. Were they really? The other option was that there was some other being or group of beings who could influence the quest.


    The Transformers and Foreguards turned their attention to the more straightforward cases of manipulation, trying to nail down the exact explanations for as many as possible. How had the Transformers failed to see through the various deceptions? The main causes had been telepathic failure and blind chance. Some species had minds that were not easily read, especially by telepaths in a hurry. Some species believed so fervently in their own versions of the truth that they successfully blotted out the true pictures of their situations. Sometimes, there were natural forces that pushed Transformers in the wrong directions so that they were unable to find their targets or they picked the wrong targets. Sadly it seemed that, on many occasions, they had oppressed or destroyed the wrong species, allowing more evil species to escape. This was all regrettable but nothing could be done about it. As far as was known, some of these mistakes were genuine while others were the result of interference. Some species were able to manipulate others telepathically or could manipulate the teleport environment and nudge star travellers off course. It was often possible to trace the chains of command across galaxies. At the ends of those chains were a diverse range of species. Did they have anything in common besides a desire to dominate? Detective work revealed that many of them had access to what looked like Hani technology. This evidence was not conclusive – it might have been a hoax - but it strengthened the case. The connection to universe 2754186 was growing.


    Like most races, the Hani had secret services. These had been used to organise surreptitious actions designed to slow and re-route Primus’ campaign in a relatively small number of places. Had Primus known of these? That wasn’t clear but the diversionary tactics seemed to have worked. In general, the Hani were well connected people in their universe, communicating with several thousand other species. The Transformers investigated as many of those connections as they could, then the species contacted, then followed the links as far possible. This particular galaxy had a huge web of friendship. At the limit of their knowledge, they found references to a species that the Great Database flagged up as familiar. It was known as the Prumt Diaspora and it was from universe 1377144. It too was very well connected in its own galaxy. The Transformers were aghast that, the further they sought the more inter-universal connections they appeared to find. Where did it end? There was no option but to continue the search.



    * * * * *



    “That’s rather, umm...,” said Foreguard Omflurd pensively, not quite sure what to say.


    “What’s the word, cumbersome?” suggested Foreguard Gvain.


    “Blundering?” attempted Foreguard Cuufamt.


    “Fugly, I call it,” said Transformer Catilla. “Yet see the defensive power. Show them, Snarl.” Transformer Snarl lashed out with his spiked tail, impaling a large piece of defunct plating. Springing back, the tail hurled the plating far into the distance.


    “Kills almost anyone in its path, that tail,” said Catilla. “The rest of the creature form is basically a juggernaut. The sunlight that we’re having right now provides it with even more strength. It could make short work of all of us, if we didn’t escape pronto.”


    “Believe it or not, my creature form is based on a very ancient animal called a Stegosaurus,” said Snarl, transforming to his bipedal mode. “It was an herbivore and it lived for many millions of years, despite co-existing with some terrible predators. Check out some other Transformers for examples of those.”


    “We already have,” said Omflurd, nodding. “By the way, we are interested in becoming Transformers ourselves. As you know, that will require body alteration on a molecular level. The process will take many years to master. In the mean time, I have been working on a simpler transformation of my own body: observe.” Panels opened on his shoulders and parts of two wheels emerged. They formed themselves into two fairly large, thin steel wheels. Omflurd knelt down and two similar wheels formed from his lower legs. He leant forward so that all four wheels touched the floor. He straightened and stiffened his body and tipped back his head so that it was now facing forward. He used the wheels to trundle forward. The whole sequence took over a minute. Omflurd then reverted back to his original mode.


    “That’s good for a first attempt,” said Catilla. “Transformation can be very difficult, especially for those who were not designed for it. Even we have many glitches and failures.”


    “We had considered this kind of body modification before you came along,” said Cuufamt. “Many of us have tried it, as Omflurd is doing now. However, for us it didn’t work out so well and it wasn’t considered that important. Now that we have learnt your radical new body technology, we may be able to make it work at last.”


    “Where’s Takedown?” asked Gvain. “He was right behind us.” They all looked around.


    “There,” said Catilla, spotting Takedown in the distance and pointing at him.


    “I’ll call him,” said Snarl.


    “No, wait,” said Catilla suddenly. “He’s acting out of character. There could be some alien force controlling his mind. We shouldn’t expose ourselves to it. Don’t use the network.”


    “Yeah, you’re right,” agreed Snarl. “This is a weird situation. We don’t know what’s going to happen next.” They all jogged over to Takedown, who was standing motionless next to some abstract sculptures. He had a happy expression on his face but he was unresponsive.


    “You Transformers are definitely at risk from this influence but maybe we aren’t,” said Cuufamt. “Our dimensional shift might protect us.”


    “It’s lucky that all five of us were offline,” said Catilla, glancing around. “Something major has happened. Most Transformer activity has stopped. In the distance, I see dozens of Transformers staying still on the ground when they should be moving about.”


    “Cuufamt, I will tap into planetary communications with my omni-unit,” said Gvain. “We should not risk our minds yet.” The airwaves were relatively quiet. Catilla and the Foreguards studied the read-outs while Snarl kept watch for external threats.


    “That’s programming language,” said Catilla. “It’s very advanced and very elegant.”


    “Dirty squimble, I don’t like the look of that at all!” said Omflurd, scanning the same text. “Do you see it, Gvain?”


    “I think so,” said Gvain. “It’s like the Beauty Plague!”


    “Enlighten us, please,” requested Catilla. “Is that some kind of aesthetic tyranny?”


    “No, it was one of our worst disasters but, as with so many such things, it began with the noblest of intentions,” said Gvain. “We were trying to improve lives. Too many people were afflicted by negative emotions. We wanted to reduce those permanently. Some races collaborated to create the Omnipresent Bliss programme.”


    “Oh no, not that!” said Cuufamt, hiding his face in his hands. “I was there. It snared me. I was trapped in it. I didn’t want to leave. They forced me out of it. I was traumatised for a long time afterwards. I had to be restrained. I think I’m going to have a flashback!”


    “Omnipresent Bliss was supposed to lift our moods but it was a gilded cage,” explained Omflurd. “Worse than that, it replicated across our civilisations, driven by our fundamental friendships. It became the Beauty Plague. Everyone wants to see the beauty in life and to show it to others. Everyone wanted this new enhancement, which plugged into our minds and made everything seem glorious. No one wanted to stop using it, to renounce it. There was profound happiness but it prevented most activities, including eating, drinking, refuelling, moving, even breathing. Weaker species quickly became extinct. Stronger species were sorely depleted.”


    “How did you survive?” asked Snarl.


    “War,” said Omflurd. “Some races, such as ours, were less susceptible to the Plague than others. They had time to launch attacks on races that were infected. In the end, over a million worlds had to be extinguished, in only a few weeks.”


    “As you know, for telepaths that’s like mass suicide without actually dying,” said Gvain. “The pain was indescribable. It had to be done, though. The whole universe was threatened. Even after the main Plague had been nuked into oblivion, pockets of it were left over and kept popping up for thousands of years. We developed antidotes quite quickly. After a few years, there was no further need for slaughter, only great vigilance and prompt preventative measures.”


    “The main problem after that was post-traumatic stress,” said Cuufamt, quivering slightly. “There were billions of survivors who needed help. Some killed themselves. Some tried to improve but died prematurely. Some spent the rest of their lives in varying levels of turmoil. Many of them passed on their emotional problems to friends and relatives. The repercussions were felt for tens of thousands of years. Any further attempts to create mood programmes were strictly banned, of course.”


    “Flaming rust, we don’t need that Plague here!” exclaimed Catilla.


    “It’s such a seductive idea, I’m not surprised that someone else tried to use it,” said Omflurd. “I guess it was hidden in your database somewhere, waiting to be discovered.”


    “Tell me what you know, Takedown!” said Catilla, grabbing the little red mechanoid with both hands and shaking him.


    “Universe 779942 is such a wonderful place,” said Takedown dreamily. “Join us, everyone!”


    “Do you have that antidote, Cuufamt?” asked Catilla urgently. “Perhaps it can cure this new plague too.”


    “Yes but you must be very careful with it,” said Cuufamt. “The antidote is also psychoactive. There could easily be serious side effects.”


    “How does it work?” asked Snarl.


    “Normally, we simply upload it to the infected and it adapts itself to their bodies,” said Gvain. “At least, that applies to people from our universe. Due to your alien nature, you’ll have to adapt it to your friends.” Catilla took the antidote from the Foreguards (each one had a different variant) and started analysing it. The task was going to take hours. After three hours, a jet appeared overhead. It was a Transformer called Jetfire.


    “Welcome Jetfire,” said Snarl. “I’m sure that you already know about this plague programme. Perhaps you can help Catilla to formulate the antidote?”


    “I certainly can,” said Jetfire as he shared data with Catilla. “I only just escaped this thing. I was flying through some radiation belts so I was cut off from the network. When I returned, I suspected a trap and avoided it. After that, I searched for those still active and eventually found you. Thank you, Foreguards, for your immense assistance.” Omflurd, Gvain and Cuufamt bowed their heads in acknowledgment. After seven hours, Catilla and Jetfire felt that they had rendered the antidote suitable for use on Transformers. They uploaded it into the network, using a transmitter that was not connected to their brains.


    “I wonder how long it will be before we see results?” mused Jetfire. No one knew. They waited patiently for an hour and a half and then Takedown started to wake up.


    “Oh well, back to reality,” said Takedown, with a small shake and stretch of his body. “It was nice while it lasted.” His untroubled demeanour took everyone by surprise.


    “What happened?!” enquired Cuufamt insistently. “Are you suffering withdrawal symptoms? You’ve just been exposed to a terrible psychic disease!”


    “Have I really?” said Takedown with mild surprise. “It felt like a wonderful vacation. I’m invigorated!” Cuufamt was stunned and speechless.


    “How is that possible?” asked Gvain.


    “Your antidote was very useful to kick-start our revival but the most important factor was our experience,” said Takedown. “We have journeyed and fought our way through over five million universes. We have lived for aeons. We have tackled innumerable emotions and detrimental programmes. We could handle this plague and its aftermath. We could have defeated it unaided in a few days. We are not ruled by our feelings like some people.”


    “That’s a relief,” said Jetfire. “I was anxious but I suspected that you were strong enough to pull through.”


    “Wow!” said Cuufamt quietly.


    “Transformers, you must beware of plague recurrences,” warned Omflurd.


    “No problem,” said Takedown. “We’re thoroughly familiar with it now. We can control it, just like all the other dangerous things that are already floating around in our network. You know, it’s a shame that we didn’t spend longer in universe 779942. Parts of it are incredibly lovely and beneficial to one’s health. At least we have rediscovered some records of it. Also, we purged all the dark gods from it.”


    “Catilla, I have another suspicion,” said Jetfire. “After this second Beauty Plague, if you will, there is the possibility of further new concealed hazards in the Great Database. Maybe some of these could affect the Database itself. Maybe the Database has been corrupted or soon will be. Maybe it is giving us false information. For instance, the whole ‘stalker species’ issue could be a fabrication.”


    “I don’t want to consider all that!” groaned Catilla, dismayed at the thought of further large-scale remedial work. “You have a point, of course. On the other hand, you know how many times we have purged and rebuilt the damned Database. We put in so much tedious work. It should be completely bomb-proof by now, surely!”


    “We said that last time and the time before that and so on, back to the Milky Way galaxy,” said Jetfire. “In my humble opinion, it’s time for another check.”


    “Now that the plague has passed, we can get back to it,” muttered Catilla. “Ugh, though!”


    “Ugh, indeed!” chuckled Jetfire. “Let’s go and reconnect with some friends so that we can commiserate. Come on, everyone!” Together, the seven mechanoids wandered on across the plains. Jetfire could have airlifted the others but there was no hurry whatsoever.



    * * * * *



    On a simplistic level, the problem of this new planet Cybertron was rapidly worsening. The Transformers had not only brought their own tremendous destructive power into the universe but also a database full of countless secrets. Some of those secrets were extremely lethal. A new beauty plague had emerged, which could potentially threaten millions of civilisations. Although they had their excuses, it could be said that the Transformers had been highly negligent bringing their mass of untested knowledge here. Foreguard Command was bringing a large weapons fleet as a precaution. If necessary, Cybertron would be reduced to subatomic particles. It was the Foreguards’ duty to protect their neighbours from these extraordinary outside threats. The fleet took up positions in the nearest suitable star system and settled down to wait. This could take a while, so the fleet established supply lines to maintain its readiness.


    On a more nuanced level, the ‘problem of Cybertron’ was well in hand. The Transformers were the wisest people ever seen by the Foreguards. They had beaten the new beauty plague in only a few hours. Telepathic contact showed that they were making amazingly rapid progress with their unwieldy data stocks. They were also working on a variety of other major projects at the same time. The Foreguards felt that they could probably relax but they were duty-bound to maintain their vigilance. It was fascinating to observe the Transformers as they continued on their grand evolutionary journey.



    * * * * *



    The programme from universe 779942 has given us a great, unexpected gift. It has shown us billions of profound, wondrous visions. We now have an extremely clear picture of how our future can be. We already had the pieces. It was time to put them together and forge that future. We need to understand our environment in as broad a sense as possible, assembling all our knowledge of universes, the inter-universal regions and conduits everywhere. We have our god Primus, who is the greatest inter-universal traveller we know. We have studied his methods all our lives. We have our own teleport teams, who can spread out across an entire universe and return to Cybertron in only a day. We have accumulated cosmic knowledge from close to six million universes. We have further knowledge from another realm called the Evermaze, where a few of us have taken up residence. We are the Transformers and we will control our destiny.


    Earlier, we were confused and frustrated by our enormous yet incomplete database. We would like to ‘fill in the gaps’ to fully understand what may have been (and may still be) happening to us. The only way to do that is to revisit the universes we have seen before. Thanks to our experiences in the Evermaze, this has now become possible. We have contacted Uftamar, Jenuton, Tyladyne and the others. They are guiding us through the difficult crossings. We are travelling in spirit to all those places and times where our knowledge was insufficient. We are unravelling the webs of ignorance and uncovering some very surprising truths.


    It appears that standard causes and effects as we knew them are not always in operation. The situation is more complex than that. In our part of the omniverse, there is a massive amount of interconnection between universes. Anything, whether alive or not, in any universe can have effects on other universes in many ways and for many reasons. We are no exceptions. We are discovering that we have been unconsciously leaving messages for ourselves and others across the omniverse, while those others have been doing the same. These messages can take many forms and are often indecipherable for many ages. Quite often, they are signposts showing us the best way forward, even if that way seems less than ideal. So many times, we have been forced into difficulties that seemed meaningless at the time but are later revealed to be important, perhaps as learning experiences, chances to remove obstacles or ways to avoid worse things elsewhere. Equally common have been messages from others, which perform the same function.


    Omniversal time is highly complex. There are countless possible timelines, which interact in all kinds of crazy ways. It is just as easy for futures to affect pasts as vice versa. Being a species that travels between timelines, we feel this effect more keenly than anyone. In fact, it turns out that our travels from universe to universe bring more than just ourselves. They also bring other people and other things, at least temporarily. Primus has not entirely perfected his inter-universal transportation methods, hence our frequent multi-time sickness. We pick up unintended passengers, sometimes entire star clusters. They are eventually returned but not before they have a chance to do many things in their temporary universes. We had suspected this but it is only now that we can confirm it. Inter-universal travel has also been disruptive to our memories and our database. Some of us felt it happen but, because of the nature of the problem, nothing could be done about it. We are now endeavouring to put this right, starting with the most serious cases.


    We were worried earlier about what we termed ‘stalker species’, following us from universe to universe. Now, it seems that these were not a real threat. There were species that were very interested in us and were covertly watching us. They were not able to follow us to new universes on their own but were sometimes brought along accidentally by Primus and then returned later. In other instances, they did not follow us but our faulty memories and database made us think that they did. In a few cases, in mass hallucinations, we imagined that they had followed us. This was for various reasons, such as that we liked them, they intrigued us, they worried us or we thought that they might be capable of following us. Although there were no actual ‘stalker species’, the very concept led us to investigate all manner of possibilities, to go way beyond our normal remit. We found so many weird things happening, in such a concerted manner, that we wondered if there was some kind of coordinating force behind it all. We think that we have found it.


    Universe 4661530 was not very remarkable when we visited, though many of us had a strong sense that invisible forces were watching. They didn’t seem malevolent, merely vigilant. There was a small dark god presence, which we soon dispatched. There was a corresponding small number of light gods who were pleasant as usual but not very communicative. The whole place had an atmosphere of studied normalcy, as if it were a simulacrum or re-enactment of other universes. We didn’t learn very much from there and we were soon on our way again. Some of us were anxious for years afterwards. They reported being worried that we were moving close to the edge of acceptable travel and they were relieved when we left it far behind.


    With our new knowledge of the workings of universes, we have identified universe 4661530 as being the coordinating force behind many of the strange things that we have encountered. Our thanks go out to Uftamar, who merged his being with a pocket universe in the Evermaze not so long ago. He now has the best possible insight into the activities of universes. He was the one who pinpointed the role of universe 4661530. Somewhere along the line, that universe was taken over by some kind of super-advanced life. We don’t yet know what it was. Perhaps that is unimportant. The pertinent fact is that universe 4661530 is shepherding Primus and us. If there are other inter-universal people out there, it might be shepherding them too. This living universe is extending its influence throughout our area of the omniverse, using unlimited methods to make sure that we keep within our bounds. One method is the leaving of messages in other universes, as we mentioned previously. It will not allow us to do anything beyond our designated roles until the time is right. Primus is generally trustworthy but he is still occasionally fallible and may wander too far. Universe 4661530 is there to maintain, patrol and enforce the borders. It is a relief that universe 4661530 is not malevolent as we had feared. If it had been, we would have been dead long ago. We must say that it is awesome for an entire universe to have been given life and to have become a guide for us.



    * * * * *



    “Transformers, how are you faring?” asked Foreguard Command after a few days.


    “Excellently, thanks for asking,” said the Transformers. “We have learnt a huge amount in our short time here. Please accept our report: transmitting now.”


    “Is everything under control?” asked Foreguard Command. “We have been slightly worried about you lately, what with the malware lurking in your database.”


    “Fret not, we have everything under control,” said the Transformers. “In fact, our progress has been so good that we will soon be in a position to leave your universe and continue on our way.”


    “So we read in this report,” said Foreguard Command. “How will you awaken your god Primus?”


    “Simple, we perform a simultaneous transformation,” said the Transformers. “All of us who are capable will change form at once and the release of spiritual energy will nudge him into consciousness. We have done it a few times before.” They did so immediately and everyone could feel Primus stir, even in the next star system.


    “All your explorers should leave Cybertron and return to your fleet,” said the Transformers. “It is time for them to resume your role in safeguarding the people of this universe.” The Foreguards on Cybertron said hurried goodbyes and scrambled to their star ship for a hasty departure. Primus was powering up for a leap into another universe. As the Foreguard ship sped away from the rogue planet Cybertron, massive teleport drives began to send the Transformer home world careering through the inter-universal void once more. This time, however, the Transformers were more ready than ever before. They used their new knowledge to smooth their passage. For the first time, none of them suffered from multi-time sickness. They were truly grateful that Primus had given them the opportunity to develop themselves so profoundly.


    The Foreguards were left to mull over their experiences. They had copied and retained parts of the Transformer database, which they would study for many years to come, albeit with great caution. It was fascinating but littered with cautionary tales. The Transformers were capable of amazing feats but also terrifying violence and cruelty. The Foreguards would have to be very selective if they wanted to emulate them.
     
  9. snavej

    snavej Zone 6 dweller, off-peak traveller

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    Optimus = 15, 16, 20, 9, 13, 21, 19
    Adding these numbers gives 113, a prime number!
    :thumb 
     
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2016
  10. snavej

    snavej Zone 6 dweller, off-peak traveller

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    Marginal Cost (c) John H. Evans, December 2016


    Tenal Pholo, journal entry, 14th Syxed 7,523 Gich Com Age.


    Everything’s collapsed. It certainly feels like the apocalypse but it’s different to how we imagined it; neither straightforward nor scripturally accurate. I don’t know why I’m still writing this journal. It’s probably just to make me feel a little better. Also this is for posterity: if someone wants to see what happened in our part of the star collage, this flimsy document might possibly give them some insights.


    At present, I am trapped in a partly ruined building. It used to be someone’s dwelling. According to the records scattered around, the resident was probably a female tender called Askunbi Tyff. A male tender called Doocyv Spaw-Graiv is also mentioned several times. Perhaps those two were partners. Are they trapped like me? Are they dead? Are they in hiding? I might never know.


    This is no ordinary trap into which I have inadvertently fallen. There are two windows, a door and a few holes in the walls. I should be able to leave but there is an otherworldly barrier blocking my way. I can see parts of the town around me, although the view is hazy. It is as if an impermeable, translucent screen has been conjured up to hold me in. I tried to get through but there was some kind of powerful light that burnt my skin. I hope that the burn heals. It seems to be less painful now.


    The worst part of this situation is that I am completely isolated. Communications systems are all dead. No one was sealed in here with me. No one has come to look for me or anyone else. I can’t see anyone outside, just blurry images of the town, the hinterland and the sky above. Many buildings have fallen over or disappeared entirely, which implies that a great deal of force was used by whoever did this. There are many new holes in the ground, large and small, across the countryside. The sky appears to have been divided up into segments with random shapes, like my own bubble here. There are weirdly shaped clouds in those segments, since they are trapped too. Last night, I saw some stars more clearly than usual while others were obscured by the barriers and clouds. I assume that some of the barriers are magnifying the stars and others are blocking them.


    The greatest torture here is that I have no contact with my friends and family. Are they dead or alive? Are they injured? Will they slowly waste away, as I probably will here? I am trying not to think about it too much. I can’t do anything for them at present. I can only deal with my own situation. The air remains fresh enough to breathe, with a small draught coming from somewhere. There is a little food in a pair of cupboards in the next room. There is a very limited amount of water in a small storage tank next to me. The hygiene situation looks bad because the facilities are behind the barrier. I can see them but I would be killed trying to reach them. I am considering which window to use instead.


    To be honest, I suspect that none of this will matter soon. It looks like my world has been laid waste by the gods, as was predicted long ago. However, some hope remains. A great deal of damage has been done yet I am still alive and some buildings remain standing, so there may be other survivors out there, hidden in their own strange bubbles. If the gods wanted us dead, they could have killed us all yesterday with their first blow.


    We all think that the gods operate in a very odd way. They have appeared to us in visions and premonitions, beginning many thousands of years ago and continuing sporadically until now. The records of these were kept faithfully by those who believed. Those records were copied again and again to preserve them from times of dissention and purging. The believers were in the minority all too often. So many egotists came forward with their own ideas, sweeping old notions away so that they could dominate the minds of their subjects. They cared nothing for the truth. Now, the gods have clamped our world in their vice-like jaws and are pondering our fate. For us, the distinction between truth and lies might be academic at this point.


    I am feeling rather stimulated on a mental level. I should really be full of gloom and worry but I think that I prefer writing this journal, which is more productive and positive. Our society has been through an extraordinary year and a quarter lately. There have been mass shifts in mood and focus. At first, there was a huge upsurge in interest in the supernatural. Books in certain subjects were selling out. This coincided with widespread hallucinations and daydreams of gods, monsters and all kinds of strange fantasy beings. I kept seeing an electrical machine with wings hovering in front of me for about three weeks. I told it to go away but it would return several times a day. As far as I could tell, it had cavities where food products could be cooked. It was really horrible because it implied the use of processed food, which is anathema to us in this day and age. Also, how could a metal device have organic wings grafted to it? I was so glad when it disappeared.


    As a result of these hallucinations, people became convinced that gods and other such creatures were on their way. There were debates about it all over the world. The whole phenomenon caused massive disruption, although the unaffected people worked very hard to keep everyone functioning as usual. Millions of people thought that it was time to prepare for disaster, so they stockpiled supplies and built defences, some of which were more ambitious than others. I saw some groups constructing large underground bunkers. I have no idea if those defences were effective. Personally, I didn’t bother preparing, which is just as well since it wouldn’t have done me any good.


    After that wave of weirdness had passed, there was a spate of suffering and dying. Selected species became extinct very quickly and any related species became sick. Some of these species were microscopic and so they were not noticed at all, except in a few cases where they were needed for the health of larger species. For example, some microbes normally found in the digestive systems of ghinreks were wiped out. Within a few months, the ghinreks were all dead. The byzloes followed soon after. Scientists thought that they had been targeted directly. The werbyzlees followed their cousins the byzloes into the hereafter, only a little more slowly and painfully. The dwarf werbyzlees survived but, the last I heard, they were in poor health. As well as dozens of well-known species, most notably the mighty eglyfurd tree, some races of people were endangered. An unexplained outside force was terminating everyone with particular gene signatures. The yevailas people, with their dull green skins, were rotting on the ground of their isolated northern continent because there was no one left to bury or cremate them. The rest of us were too busy trying to save the lives of our neighbours the aglevien and jeshelum races, with their yellow-green and grey-brown skins respectively. On top of that, assorted groups in the hymplic and drogchietin races were made very ill. I am a hymplic and I thank my lucky stars that I didn’t contract the mysterious immunodeficiencies and wasting diseases that were visited upon my compatriots.


    A few weeks later, as we were trying to deal with all the death and illness, the barriers started to appear. We lost contact with other countries, island colonies, distant cities and then nearby towns. Folk were fleeing but they were not sure where to go. Some went as far as they could. Some went to places that seemed safest and/or most pleasant. ‘Preppers’ went to their homes and bunkers, of course. Some tried to carry on as normal for a while. I gave up work within days of the first barrier descending but I still had to go out to buy food and sundries. That’s when I was caught out. I could see the barriers materialising as I travelled across town. They were advancing relentlessly up the avenues. It was clear that I’d never make it home in time. I didn’t want to be trapped on a road, so I broke into an empty house. No one came with me. The barriers appeared all around me, wrecking the place as they imposed themselves on my home town with no regard for anything or anyone. Now I am locked here in this silent unknown prison. I can’t do much about it. I guess that I should just sleep. Perchance I will dream an answer to this great puzzle.


    * * * * *


    Tenal Pholo, journal entry, 15th Syxed 7,523 Gich Com Age?


    I had some sleep but it was the most disorientating sleep that I’ve ever had. My dreams went on and on, seemingly far longer than usual. They were very vivid and convoluted. I was travelling through space at incredible speed. Millions of stars were flashing by. Every so often, I would stop and there would be tremendous upheavals with lights, often blindingly bright, in all colours. Invisible forces would burn me. Stars would flare and sometimes explode. Worlds would be rearranged. It was incredible fast and it only stopped when I awoke. I saw some alien beings in their peculiar environments. I tried to think of images from my past: my family, friends, education, career, partners, homes, travels and so forth. I couldn’t hold onto them for long. I was dragged back into the cosmos and forced to experience clash after clash with goodness knows what or who. I couldn’t work out most of what I saw because it was one unfamiliar thing after another with no context to help me. So, there were no obvious answers last night, only more questions.


    I’m no longer sure of the time and date. My personal clock has stopped working and there are no clocks in this bubble. I believe that it is the 15th Syxed but I slept for a long time and it is dark outside now. Perhaps it is the 16th already. Alternatively, the strange things happening to our planet are interfering with celestial movements or even time itself. All I can do is estimate and try to make corrections if and when I am released from this crazy prison.


    There are ominous shadows moving across the translucent walls. Although I am looking carefully, I can’t see what is making the shadows. I’m guessing that the person or thing responsible is not actually visible from here. There could be some unrevealed method for shadows to be transmitted from elsewhere to my walls. I hope that I am not being hunted by anyone or anything. I know that the people around here are decent enough but the calamities that have befallen us are extraordinary. There may even be aliens among us. Maybe that would explain my dream last night.


    I keep testing the force walls. I have some wood that I poke into the burning light. When it comes out more charred than before, I know that the walls are still ‘active’, so to speak. There has been some movement in the walls, though. In some parts there are bulges inwards. In two parts, there are bulges outwards. These latter have revealed a few useful things like food, toiletries, books and tools. They were not burnt so I believe that the walls moved very quickly past them. To keep myself informed about my immediate situation, I am currently looking through some paperwork related to Askunbi and Doocyv. They seem to be ordinary folk, wherever they are now. I am quite worried about the walls, though. They can move any time. I might be burnt to death by one of them if it engulfs me. I increasingly feel like a trapped animal.


    * * * * *


    Tenal Pholo, journal entry, 16th Syxed 7,523 Gich Com Age?


    I didn’t sleep much last night, so I didn’t dream much either. I’m increasingly worried about those dreams. I’m also worried about my family, friends and the entire world. We can’t survive too long like this. Perhaps some of them are free to move around. I am searching for a way out but so far there’s no way. I’ve found a hammer and chisel. I’m going to try to break through a regular stone wall. Hopefully, I won’t make it collapse onto me.


    I’ve been seeing little shapes flitting around the rooms. I assumed that they were little animals at first but something about their movements makes me think that they are ‘circling’ like a flock of predators. I’ve never seen anything like it. They are so small but they appear to be working together in a coordinated way. I’ll have to kill them soon, for my own peace of mind. I won’t be menaced by vermin!


    Addendum: alien contact confirmed, I think. There was not a happy outcome. Those vermin turned out to be a single life form. It was a web of thick filaments that could separate, reconnect, change shape and blend into the background, especially in a messy area like this. I thought it safer to kill it. Due to the walls, it couldn’t escape. Eventually, I killed every section of it with my feet and the hammer. I threw the body out of the window. I hope that there are no sections left alive. It might regenerate otherwise.


    Although I prevailed, I have to admit that this creature (or group of creatures) has scared me a great deal. The ‘thing from another world’, if you will, somehow crossed the light years and found its way right into my prison cell here. Where there’s one, there could easily be others. I wonder how it got in here. Did it have a way of penetrating the walls? Did it ‘beam in’ like in one of those space fantasy stories? Did it come through a crack in the floor? Was it in here all the time, perhaps in a cage?


    I just retrieved part of the body from outside the window. I draped it over a stick and poked it into a wall. The burning light took three minutes to turn it into a blackened strip that fell apart when touched. I don’t think that the creature came in through the walls. I searched for a cage or other container for an animal but I didn’t find one. However, I did see some fairly large gaps between sections of the floor. Either this place was badly maintained or it was poorly constructed in the first place. I think that I will burn the rest of the body. It’s creeping me out. I also have to fill in those floor gaps with whatever materials that I can find. If only there was some cement here. This is like a nightmare.


    * * * * *


    Tenal Pholo, journal entry, 17th Syxed 7,523 Gich Com Age?


    I think that it’s early in the morning, judging by the dim but increasing light. I slept a little but I was too worried to have a full cycle. Also, I don’t feel well. I’m guessing that there were some chemicals or microbes on the creature, which are now affecting me. There’s no way of telling what they are without experts and laboratories. All I can do is rest, eat and drink.


    * * * * *


    Tenal Pholo, journal entry, 18th Syxed 7,523 Gich Com Age?


    I have a nasty fever. It feels very serious. My vision is swimming. I hope that this is not the end. I must rest now.


    * * * * *


    I have lost track of the days. I will not bother to date these entries until I can re-establish my place in the calendar. This has been an atrocious fever. I believe that I was delirious for a few days, unable to write and barely able to drink. My dreams were incredibly fantastic and intense. I thought that I was losing my mind. I cursed that alien creature or whatever it was that made me ill. Speaking of which, the illness remains. I feel my life slowly ebbing away. The dreams did not make me optimistic for the future. Perhaps it is best if I die here in this unexplained captivity. However, my instinct is that this is wrong. I feel that I should have a much longer life than this.


    * * * * *


    I believe that I have had a stroke of good luck. I was trying to rest but was still feeling like death warmed up. A metal creature appeared from behind a pile of stones. It stood up and I could see that it was at least a metre and a half tall. I was too weak to fight it, so I just lay there and tried to watch it. My vision was a little blurry. The metal creature watched me as it released a cloud of grey mist from its body. It was no ordinary mist. It moved deliberately towards me and surrounded me. I could feel it settling on my skin and wafting down my throat. It didn’t cause any irritation, thankfully. I started to feel better. Thank goodness that we had been invaded by some friendly aliens who could help us, I thought. The metal creature watched me for a few minutes. I tried to talk to it but my voice was weak. In any case, it probably wouldn’t have understood my language. I had a sense of peace and calm that was welcome, naturally. I still wondered what the hell was going on out there. Soon, the metal creature disappeared behind the stone pile and I haven’t seen it since.


    As the hours passed, I felt better and better. That grey mist was a miraculous healer, I reckon. Even a few old injuries vanished. My organs felt young, my muscles felt strong and my spirits rose. I continued to look around the area. Askunbi and Doocyv had had a variety of interests: decorative art, history, mythology, popular psychology, advanced physics and even the supernatural. They had a few spell books and associated paraphernalia. At times, they had tried to summon spirits. I guess it was part of the recent craze for such things. I wondered if that was connected to our peculiar apocalypse. Who could say? After a while, my bolstered health made me restless. I really wanted to exercise outside. I tried to find a way out. I looked behind the pile of stones where the metal creature had appeared and disappeared. I shifted many things, digging through the debris. There was no physical exit that way, unless one tunnelled down. The metal creature must have teleported. It’s exciting that such a powerful technology has arrived on our world. If we could teleport, surely we could do so much: rescuing people, sending them supplies, retaliating against our enemies and so forth. That is hypothetical at the moment, though.


    Eventually, with much probing using pieces of broken wood, I found a patch in the wall that did not burn. It was about two and a half metres off the ground. I would have to build a platform to reach it. I found a metal ladder but it had been melted in half by one of the walls. There were many pieces of stone lying around but they were often irregular in shape and would not stack easily. Besides, I had no cement to bind them together. I had a table, which was fairly sturdy. I put it under the hole in the wall and then stood on it to allow me to probe the hole further. It turned out that the hole was big enough for me to crawl through but the wall itself was over two metres thick. I would have to insert a platform into the hole so that I could pass through without burning myself. I had some wood to build such a platform but how could I support it without a scaffold at both ends? I could use a very long plank with a counterbalance of stone on my end. This was turning out to be a big job just to travel a few metres in safety. I began searching for nails, screws or other fixings.


    I took my time and built a box, which would rest on the floor and hold stones. The chisel served as a screwdriver. I gathered together all the usable wooden pieces that I could find. Luckily, this was an older building that had plenty of solid wood in its construction and furnishing. I erected a make-shift scaffold that was about a metre and a half tall, which I fixed to the table top. I then fixed my longest plank to the top of the scaffold so that it balanced, with half projecting clear through the hole and the other half projecting into the room. The plank was burnt a little as I pushed it through the wall but it will still hold. I moved the box to just below the near end of the plank and then I attached the box to the plank using a shorter plank. I filled the box with stones. I would have liked to fix the box to the floor but I couldn’t hammer nails into stone. I will try to escape tomorrow.


    * * * * *


    I am back in my cell after an eventful escape attempt. The world has changed much more than I imagined. The scaffold and the plank held together quite well. I passed more wood through and brought my hammer and nails so that I could build another scaffold to support the far end of the plank and allow me to return to the cell. The half ladder was helpful too. Outside, there was some rough timber that I used to brace the base of the scaffold. As I worked, I also investigated the foliage, some of which turned out to be edible. I had not had fresh food for several days, so I was grateful. The biggest treat was a large pair of jug-fruit growing on a fallen tree. They were especially succulent and reminded me of home. As I ate, I looked up at the sky. The sunlight was still the same but the air was criss-crossed with force walls just floating at various altitudes. In some places there were no walls, so we had some normal illumination there. In other places, the walls distorted the light in unnatural ways. There were dark patches, very bright spots, rainbow edges and magnified areas, one of which gave a close-up of a star ship hovering overhead. There was fighting around that ship. Energy beams were flickering around it, illuminating its surface. I hoped that it wouldn’t come any closer.


    Beyond the garden area just outside my bubble, I could see part of the town. Some buildings were definitely destroyed but at least they were a potential source of lumber, stone and other materials. Next to those were many glowing bubbles. I compared them to my own cell and they were obviously made with the same method. I think that I saw some bodies lying about here and there. Punjeghs were flying down and feeding on them. I didn’t see any living people. It was such a shame to see the death and damage. I believe that many people are still alive in those bubbles but some might have died by now. Not everyone would have had food, water or even fresh air. Some might have been killed by accidents, walls, illness, aliens or each other. I wanted to rush home as soon as possible but I knew that, with the invasion and widespread destruction, it was probably be unwise. I had to go slowly and cautiously, watching out for danger. I walked out of the garden and into the alley that ran behind. It was very quiet. I headed eastwards. I was a little light-headed due to lack of food. From verges and hedges, I grabbed any greenery or fruit that I knew was edible, hoping that it wasn’t contaminated. The buildings along the alley were either smashed or encased in bubbles. If I had wanted to find food there, I would have had to dig through a lot of rubble.


    At the end of the alley, there was a larger road. I knew my way home from here. I hid behind a fence and gazed down the road. There were a few crashed vehicles scattered along it, some of which had rotting bodies in or around them. I didn’t see any punjeghs, though. It was a gruesome sight. Blood had been splashed around liberally. What had made the vehicles crash? I didn’t see any obstacles that they hit or from which they swerved away. I proceeded with caution. I noticed that the buildings on the east side of the road were completely gone, leaving only scorch marks, cracked foundations and a smattering of debris. Behind them were wrecked and burnt trees, with some further debris dangling from them. Beyond the trees were buildings that were only half demolished but gutted by fire. As I was examining the ruins, a vehicle drove onto the road ahead from a side road. It was a silent vehicle, unlike the ones that I know. It was a military vehicle and the occupants soon saw me. They were clearly alien and definitely aggressive. As I backed away, they drew their weapons and fired at me. They were not very accurate since I was not hit and managed to hide behind a low stone wall and a parked vehicle. Before they could advance on me, someone else approached them from behind. They were destroyed in one powerful shot. After the explosion, small pieces of flesh, fabric and metal rained down around me.


    The destroyer was a larger armoured vehicle. It ran over the remnants of the first vehicle and crushed them into the road surface. It rumbled forward and stopped next to me. It was so big that it filled two wide traffic lanes. Slowly, I stood up and faced it. Since it had not shot me, I expected the occupants to speak to me. Instead, a hatch opened at the top. I climbed up and went inside (I could hardly refuse). The cabin was quite cramped and uncomfortable. There were no crew members to be seen. A cap was placed on my head and suddenly I felt a mental connection. Someone was reading my memories. The process was fairly slow, painful and difficult. I didn’t want to object, though, given the power of this machine. After several minutes, it stopped.


    “You are ... not easy to understand,” said a mechanical voice. “Your brain waves are garbled. Your cell structure is ... highly irregular. Nevertheless, I have just learnt your language. Vocal communication is preferable on this world.”


    “Who are you?” I asked.


    “A friend,” replied the voice. “I am the vehicle. I am here to protect you. There is a great war going on. Many worlds are involved. We are winning but there are so many casualties. We cannot protect everyone.”


    “What about these force bubbles?” I asked.


    “They are also for your protection,” said the vehicle. “I highly recommend that you return to yours.”


    “Mine has a hole in it,” I said. “That’s how I escaped. I was trying to reach my family. Please would you help me, if it’s not too much trouble?”


    “I know where they live,” said the vehicle. “That area was nullified with sonic blasts. We rescued some people. We had to take them to one of our star ships for their own protection. We are keeping millions in our ships until we can restore safe conditions for them.”


    “So, either my family is dead or they’re beyond the world,” I concluded. “What about my friends? Are they likewise out of reach?”


    “Affirmative,” said the vehicle. “Our records are still incomplete. You will have to wait for a full list of the living and the dead. Your immediate family is still alive on a star ship in another part of this galaxy. They are being cared for as best we can. They also have been exposed to the ‘grey mist’, as you call it. They have been healed and brought to full health.”


    “Can we be reunited, then?” I asked.


    “The situation is in flux,” said the vehicle. “Attacks are occurring everywhere. They are hard to predict. Travel is dangerous right now, as you have just discovered. It is better to stay here. I will guard your hole in the wall.” The vehicle drove to the alley entrance, squashing a few vehicles and cadavers.


    “You can’t drive down the alley,” I advised. “It is too narrow. You will damage the buildings and trees.”


    “Correct, but I can do this,” said the vehicle. “Hold on to something.” I felt the vehicle shudder and rise up. Pieces of machinery shifted and changed shape around me. Some of them pushed and poked me. I made myself as small as possible. When the vehicle had stopped reforming itself, I felt it lurch forward. I peered out of the hatch and saw that we were swaying and proceeding along the alley. There was a stomping noise and the sound of things breaking beneath us. Branches were being inadvertently torn off the trees as we brushed against them. We reached my bubble and stopped. The vehicle lowered itself so that I could climb out and jump to the ground.


    “Well, that could have been worse,” I said. “There could have been considerably more damage...” I turned and looked at the vehicle. It had become a giant metal creature, like the one that I had seen inside the bubble only a hundred times taller. I have never seen anything more intimidating. It was looking down at me. It had protected and advised me but still it appeared supremely menacing. I was so scared that I immediately clambered back into my cell and sat quietly in the far corner. That was enough adventure for one day.


    * * * * *


    I was awoken early today by heavy gunfire. I left my improvised bed and gingerly peered out of the hole in the wall. The metal giant was still standing guard. There were small explosions on his armoured body but they were not troubling him. He was firing some huge guns into the distance. The energy beams were dazzling. Steadily, the incoming fire reduced. After a few minutes, it ceased. The giant folded his guns and put them in storage compartments in his torso. That was rather unusual in itself. How can such powerful weapons fold up like pieces of soft cloth? It must be a feature of his highly advanced technology, I presume.


    I had some breakfast. There wasn’t much food left. I was eating things that are not ideal for breakfast and that did not complement each other. I had little option but to ask the giant for food, drink and other essentials. Surprisingly, he had some in his storage compartments. He passed them over to me using a small flying metal creature that was also in a compartment. That same creature then brought me a remarkable waste removal device. The waste goes into the aperture, the lid closes and the waste disappears completely. This works for trash, water and sewage. It would also work for parts of me, so I have to be very careful. It is an excellent substitute for conventional trash collections and plumbing. If only we knew where the stuff goes. Even the giant doesn’t know. I tried talking to him but he kept warning me to stay down in order to avoid weapons fire and shrapnel. I asked him his name and he didn’t want to tell me. I pressed him and he said to call him whatever I wanted. I suggested ‘Les’. He shrugged and said that that was fine. I asked him why he was protecting me so closely. He said that I was very special and that I would learn the details fairly soon. He wouldn’t say more than that. That was incredibly intriguing! He seems much more special than me right now. How could that be reversed?


    * * * * *


    I asked Les for news of the great war out there and he gave me a small data deliverer. It has plenty of news but I can’t fully understand it because I know hardly anything about the galaxy. The reports are all about what troops are going to what star systems and doing whatever. Certain names keep coming up, like Fengliar, Abazinshan, Lild Ingler and Transformer. I’m guessing that the latter refers to Les’ people. The others must be the major powers in the region. My planet is named twice, each time referring to the Tyblik fracture. That must be fairly important. It could mean a fracture in space-time, since I have seen a few creatures appear and disappear. It’s a shame that there are no pictures. I imagine that, since space is generally dark, it’s tough to take proper pictures.


    More attackers turned up in aeroplanes and tried to bomb us. Les transformed into a faster aeroplane and murdered them all without hesitation. They crashed in flames. If he has a heart, it is ice cold. Why, then, is he protecting me? I don’t know his back story, which is probably long and complicated. Later, I asked him if he knew the date. He didn’t. Was that a real gap in his knowledge or was he was just trying to irritate me? All I can say is that I certainly was irritated. I despise my confinement and powerlessness here.


    * * * * *


    This has been a most dispiriting day. I had done some exercises and was resting afterwards when my mind was seized by some outside influence. I found myself paralysed and unable to call for help. An alien person appeared as if out of nowhere. I couldn’t tell the gender since it wore a protective suit that concealed its entire body. I thought that it was real but Les said afterwards that he couldn’t see it. Perhaps it was just a projection. It used gestures to demonstrate that it wanted to hurt me. It pulled out something that looked like a hand gun, which it held to my head. It stared into my eyes, pretended to squeeze the trigger slowly and then raised the gun away from me at the last second. For a few moments, I believed that I was about to die. The alien disappeared and I ran to tell Les. He told me to be strong. This was one of the ways that the war was being fought. People everywhere were being threatened by enemies far away, who were using telepathy to intimidate less powerful races. Even Les was having that treatment. Relatively soon, such people would be removed from the picture. It couldn’t be done soon enough for me. This whole situation was really grating on my nerves. That night, I got as much sleep as I could, knowing that psychic terrorists might strike again any time. I suppose that, if my brainwaves were easier to read, I would have been a much more attractive target for them.


    * * * * *


    Today was uneventful until the late evening when, without warning, there was a huge explosion in the distance. The whole area was lit up brighter than day time. I instinctively dropped to the floor and hid behind a stone wall. There was a massive boom seconds later. Everything shook and I felt a wave of heat surge in. The bubble took most of the impact but a small amount of superheated air and dust got through the hole. My ears were damaged and I lost the best part of my hearing. My eyesight was partly impaired by flash burn. My lungs were also a little burnt and clogged with dust. The sense that I might suffocate was terrifying. I coughed up as much dust as I could, then had a cool drink of water. When the light, heat and noise died down, I looked out through the bubble. I could see Les still standing firm. Most of the structures and trees had been knocked down. I wanted to see more clearly, so I climbed up to the hole. I found that it had been blocked by metal plate, which was the same colour as Les’ shoulder. It appeared that Les had protected me once again.


    “Les, are you all right?!” I shouted hoarsely.


    “Yes, I’m fine,” he replied, as if nothing much had happened. “Those amateurs missed by several kilometres.” He spoke loudly enough for me to hear him, even with my impaired ears. His coolness under fire was astonishing to a civilian like me.


    “I’m partly blind, partly deaf and my lungs are hurt,” I reported.


    “You have also been irradiated, both externally and internally,” said Les. “However, the grey mist can fix you. Be patient. When the radioactive dust has been gathered up, pass it to me. I will remove this protective plate in front of the hole so that you can do so.”


    “Please let me see the town!” I begged.


    “I will, when your eyes are back to normal,” said Les. “Also, when the fire storm has abated, the dust clouds have settled, the screaming has stopped and the daylight has returned. You won’t like the view, though. Your town is gone.”


    “Damn this war,” I croaked. “This is no good, Les! My people can’t survive without clean food, water and air. These bubbles will not protect us in the long run. Devastation is not good for us! We all need to be evacuated. Can you arrange that?”


    “It will be done when possible,” said Les gravely. “Premature flight could be fatal. We apologise that you are all caught in our crossfire. We are fighting to free you from grand tyranny.” He didn’t look at me once. He kept his back turned. I sensed that he didn’t want to face me at this point. Was he ashamed? I wasn’t surprised. If I had done this to his world, I would be ashamed of myself. I went back to bed and lay down, waiting for the grey mist to repair my tissues and expel the poisons. My town had just been obliterated by some alien thunderbolt. All the places that I had known were ashes: my homes, my schools, my social arenas, my work stations, my retail outlets, my oases of recreation and quiet contemplation, each one had been erased with a flash and a bang. I suspected that the perpetrators of this war regarded the destruction of my home town as merely a ‘marginal cost’. The injustice of it was striking my mind with brutal force. I was experiencing a new level of seething fury. Meanwhile, Les’ little drone was patrolling my cell, using some kind of energy beam to extinguish small fires that had been started by the heat of the blast. It was so odd to see a beam actually snuff out fires rather than make them hotter, as one would expect. After two hours of restlessness and urgent pondering, I managed to sleep.


    * * * * *


    I got up the next morning and was soon cursing Les because the food he was providing had already started to become stale. Some items were too hard, some were too soft, some were losing their flavour and some were growing mould. If only I had taken the time to grab more food on the day of my escape! Actually, thinking about it, that food would have been lying in the wreckage for several days and wouldn’t have been very good either. What was I going to do? I asked Les if he could fly me to another region. He still refused, saying that this was the dedicated spot for my protection.


    “Why am I special?” I queried, the desperation beginning to show in my voice. “Why must I be nailed to the floor here? With your great power, it would be easy to relocate me!”


    “The war strategy must not be altered,” insisted Les. “We have planned it minutely. You must stay here for several days yet. After last night, the enemy thinks that you are dead. They have stopped targeting you deliberately but there is still the danger of random attacks.”


    “You’re implying something, aren’t you?!” I observed. “I’m a major target, you’re saying: why?!” Les wouldn’t respond. In my hand, I had a tiny bag of toxic dust mixed with mucus. The dust had been scraped from my skin and dredged out of my lungs during the night. I flung it through the hole in the wall and went back to my chair, where I did my best to read the data deliverer. Although my eyesight was recovering rapidly, I still found the war reports to be very unclear.


    * * * * *


    I am becoming obsessed with this war. I watch Les outside, standing ultra-strong and steadfast. I want to be at least that powerful so that I have a chance to make a difference. After experiencing the health restoring properties of the grey mist, the idea of having such power is not so far-fetched. If I get through this danger, I could formally request some bodily enhancement from these Transformers.


    I think that I have reached my maximum level of masculinity, which means that I will soon be starting another run towards femininity. It’s a real shame that my partner couldn’t be here with me. At my most masculine, I could have fathered some very healthy children. The trouble is that this war is making our system of reproduction into a joke. How can we plan the next generation when our world is being burnt to a crisp? Outside, my giant guardian is sharp-shooting. Invading space craft, pierced by his beams, are tumbling to their doom.


    * * * * *


    Feeling very weird. Not a fever this time. Maybe grey mist interfering with brain. Dreams spreading into daytime consciousness. Hard to write. Will try again later.


    * * * * *


    Difficult to describe what is happening to me. Still having trouble writing. Experiencing a profound shift in my outlook. Becoming psychic? The massive explosion cracked the stone walls in my cell but I know that they won’t fall down. With my expanding consciousness, I can see inside every stone and calculate the strength of the walls.


    * * * * *


    As well as seeing inside small objects, I can also see further and further into the galaxy. My dreams are becoming reality. I am also watching events around my world. My new view enables me to watch ships approach the planet while my view from the ground confirms the reality of this as the ships go into orbit or land on the surface. Les says that I am evolving into a greater being with complete spiritual freedom. Unfortunately, this journal will soon have to stop. It is becoming obsolete.


    Hour by hour, I am gaining strength and influence. I am in contact with the Transformer high command. I have been travelling in spirit and spying on our enemies. I told the Transformers where to find the ones who have been attacking my world. They are now being neutralised. The same sequence of events is being played out across the galaxy: I find and they destroy. My people will be safe now.


    I have been chosen. I have the correct combination of personal and spiritual qualities. The gods are elevating me to join them. This is why I was protected by such a powerful Transformer and his friends. This is a huge change in circumstances. It will take time to adjust. They are granting me accelerated intellectual development, so the adjustment will not take too long. On a conscious level, I wasn’t expecting this. In retrospect, though, I now understand how I took this alien war in my stride. On a subconscious level, I was ready for it.


    On the other side of the galaxy, I see my most serious opposition: what they call a ‘dark god’. I must prepare for that confrontation. He is extremely powerful and self-confident, yet the current war is starting to worry him. I have the element of surprise. He doesn’t know that I exist yet. I will take my time, marshal my forces and hit him from many sides at once. The other gods have shown me how to dispose of him once he has been rendered harmless. Another deep shadow will be removed from our universe.


    I have converted my physical body into information and energy. I no longer need to live in the bubble, so I have moved on. Les watched me go: his sensors are good enough to pick up spiritual energy sometimes. After that, he went back to his own people as they continued to protect survivors and provide disaster relief. As I had suspected, he is a leader figure. I watched him order underlings around. I might even say that he was ‘lording it’ over them (and enjoying it). I left him as he organised clear-up personnel; he was determined and unflustered as usual.


    Since I am now a god, I can create life. My first act in this regard was to create a duplicate of the old me and send it to my family, who were overjoyed. They could now continue their lives none the wiser, unless the ‘duplicate me’ tells them about the ‘god me’. I am so glad that the situation has been salvaged and I am free to move on to higher duties. Exhilarated, I start to put forth my divine power. I am building engines of doom to strike down the dark gods. Remembering the example of the Transformers, I am also preparing forces to protect the innocent.


    I have distributed this journal to the entire cosmos. May it be passed on to all those who need it. Love and light from Tenal Pholo! [I should think of a more god-like name for myself now, come to think of it. Send your suggestion on a thought wave directly to me.]
     
  11. snavej

    snavej Zone 6 dweller, off-peak traveller

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    Walk on the Blind Side (c) John H. Evans, Apr.-May 2017


    The roar of machinery: it is everywhere, constant. It fills us to bursting but then the machines repair us. We glide slowly through endless corridors with morphing walls, floors and ceilings. Nothing touches us. Our paths are calculated for safety, utility and sometimes beauty. We are united with the machinery. Our thoughts are combined. The machines make their plans while we provide overview and context. They can do almost anything by now. Their current project is preparing for regime change in this universe. They are gathering materials furiously, as usual. Their mass is growing exponentially. They are crowding out this solar system. Our colleagues are taking some of them to distant galaxies, in batches of trillions, yet still they multiply here. They are converting entire lifeless worlds into coordinated mechanised legions. Piece by piece, those transformed worlds are being shunted through the ether to function as tools and weapons.


    It was fortunate that we found this star system so close to our point of entry to this universe. It had dozens of fairly small worlds that we could use. Apparently, a few nearby supernovae had sterilised them in ages past. All their original life had died. Other creatures had tried to colonise but the environment had proved to be too challenging. As well as the supernovae, there were plenty of solar flares that lashed most of the worlds every so often. None of the worlds had strong magnetic fields, so they were bathed in radiation. Some of them had problems with spin and tilt so that their atmospheres were inhospitable: too hot, too cold, too turbulent and so forth. That is ending now. Our machines are taking these luckless balls of primordial material and putting them to what we hope is good use.


    We emerge into the sunlight for a while and float serenely across millions of square kilometres of roiling metal. Star ships cruise above, their teleport crews latching onto their assigned machine clusters with invisible tendrils of mind and energy before unlocking the gates of reality and herding the sophisticated tech to new operating zones. From a distance, it looks like a glittering mass of intricate ice that is steadily evaporating. Each ‘wisp of vapour’ is the size of a small continent. All appears to be as it should. The sight of planets seeming to melt away is awesome. There are assorted moons around too but those are being dealt with in a similar manner. The dismantling process is quite swift but we must take care. Planets and moons can easily fly free from their orbits and perhaps collide with other bodies once their masses have been reduced. Quick work and a little careful teleporting usually solves that problem.


    This is such a tremendous task. Our purpose is extremely noble. There is a tendency for us to be swept away by our lofty ideals. Furthermore, the work can be all-consuming and relentless. It is so easy to become lost in the processes and minutiae. We must maintain our overview and pursue many avenues of investigation to find essential truths. Each universe that we ‘cleanse’ is a different environment with unique sets of characteristics. These must all be taken into account or else there could be problems later. Speaking of problems, some of our psychics have started to voice their concerns. Teleport crews have also noticed subtle oddities in the hyperspatial realm. Some consignments of machines have gone astray or been damaged en route. The reasons are unknown. There must be an urgent inquiry. The creation and distribution of machines can continue for now but they must not start their work until we have discovered and evaluated any possible opposing forces. In the mean time, the machines will be left in deep space. They have fantastic stealth capabilities so they shouldn’t be detected. Still, we must hurry. We mustn’t lose the element of surprise.


    * * * * *


    “I’ve never felt so good!” thought Antren <7> as she rippled up Wall-Walk 852. “This can’t be right. I NEVER feel like this. Perhaps I’m ill. It could be an in-born cellular condition. These could be my final days. I need a healer. What if there’s one under this overhang?” She practically raced up to the cluster of structures nestled in the shadow beneath the block of perched resin. Sure enough, there were a few healers based in the cluster. Overhangs always made some people feel tired and ill as they tried to traverse them. Hanging upside down was stressful and a bit dangerous, despite the safety equipment. It was no wonder that people wanted healers at precisely those locations.


    The first healer (a female) refused to treat her. That one seemed annoyed. She said that she was too busy to deal with frivolous cases. There was indeed an anteroom full of patients waiting for her attention. No matter: Antren slipped next door to the next healer. This one, a male, listened to her for a minute but said that he didn’t have time to see her. He was leaving work early ‘to catch up on his training courses’, which probably meant that he had some games to play elsewhere. She watched him lock his premises and ripple down a level and out of sight behind a prek ridge. Although she was a little disappointed, the mysterious joy she felt was boosted still further thinking how good he would feel relaxing after work. She tried the third healer in the row, a few doors further down.


    “I know that this sounds strange,” she said to the receptionist. “I am simply too happy and too ... zingy with energy and potential. Can your boss please help me? I’m worried but I’m losing the ability to worry, which is worrying in itself. Isn’t that an incredible conundrum?! I’m so privileged to feel this way! I don’t know what’s happening. It’s getting more serious by the minute. I love it! Please, I need another opinion on this. She needs to examine me, to check my head. It’s glorious and it might go pop soon!”


    “Urgent case at the desk,” said the receptionist, backing away. “Vichoz, come here immediately: possible turg bubbler. Bring the kit.” A woman rippled out of the back room and made straight for Antren. She looked Antren in the eyes and saw a probable case of bubbling but this one was much happier than usual. Something didn’t add up.


    “I’m Vichoz <93> and I can help,” she said. “Hold out your meldip and I will give you a quick-acting antidote.” Smiling, Antren did as requested and Vichoz readied the injector.


    “You can close your eyes if you don’t like the sight of injections,” said Vichoz. Antren followed the suggestion. The next thing she knew, Vichoz shoved her meldip right into Antren’s leespan cavity and squeezed the docility nerve cluster pretty hard. Antren was too blissed out to care about the gross invasion of her intimate area. The squeeze had the desired effect. Antren fell into unconsciousness. The receptionist was shocked. Vichoz had never done this before, at least not here.


    “There’s a serious problem with this one,” explained Vichoz to the receptionist. “I can’t take a chance. This could be an emergency. We need to send her to the Vertagliff Research Centre on the South West Wall. Call a flier.” Cursing, the receptionist rippled out of the building and beckoned to the nearest flier, which flapped over and landed on the horizontal platform just outside. Passers-by hurried out of the way. The tame avian beast waited obediently as its rider received instructions from Vichoz. Antren was flown rapidly across the East Zimplon Bowl area to the Vertagliff Research Centre. When the flier landed, the rider went to fetch Antren from the carrying cradle but she had disappeared. An emergency response team rushed over. They had seen this before. Turg bubblers had a tendency to shift into a different phase of reality. They used their specialised scanners to search for her. They should have been able to find her but this time there was no sign. They wondered if she had fallen out of the cradle but the rider insisted that he would have heard if she had opened the restraining bars. Nevertheless, it was decided to conduct a wider search at the base of the East Zimplon Bowl. Everyone was distraught to think that Antren might have fallen to her death.


    Meanwhile, Antren was actually alive and kicking but in an unexplored phase of reality. She couldn’t sense her normal reality at all. She was lost in this weird, dreamlike environment. She was surrounded by millions of tiny, angular artefacts, each with its own unique shape. The artefacts glowed in many colours. Some moved around a little or vibrated. She felt calm and assured, as though this was her destiny. She put her meldips on some of the artefacts and established a profound connection. She felt her mind merging with a huge, mechanical conglomerate entity. Immediately, she acquired a cosmic consciousness. She could see and feel countless sites across the universe. Nothing could be better! Her growing joy found an outlet and a tempering agent. She was able to help, motivate and direct this conglomerate entity. In return, it would keep her sane and balanced. It would make sure of that.


    * * * * *


    This was not the plan. Nothing was supposed to have happened, except a few impressionable youngsters being scared silly. Now the evening’s fun had been crushed under some heavy, dreaded, dismal boots. Everyone was running, scattering in all directions. One thing was certain: none of them would ever mess with the supernatural again, assuming that they survived whatever they had triggered. Behind them, a giant elemental spirit was being made flesh. Lightning was erupting from the sky, the ground and the spirit itself. Frequent flashes of untamed raw energy illuminated the countryside and actually assisted the group to flee but whether that would help in the long run was yet to be seen. Next, there were blasts of air powerful enough to knock the youngsters down. Some of them chose to hide in animal burrows, ditches or undergrowth. Others continued to run.


    “This is my fault,” thought W’rronb as he laboured through another field of crops, frequently stumbling on the knotted vegetation and uneven ground. “The family told me not to get involved in Cadaver Calling but I had to be rebellious. Now, I might have unleashed the apocalypse.” He stopped momentarily to look back. The elemental had grown to a height of over a hundred metres and it was gesturing with its arms as if it were conjuring further magical feats. Its face was truly awful. Its black eyes seemed to look right through him. It cast its arms above its head. A burst of dark grey smoke was released at great speed in all directions.


    “I should never have borrowed those magical scrolls and read out those spells!” thought W’rronb as he turned to continue running. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to outpace the smoke but his survival instinct wouldn’t let him stop. He knew that this smoke was a plague made to exterminate his people. This fate had been prophesied for thousands of years. For some reason, it had come tonight. It was odd that the Sixteen Preceding Signs had not been seen. Maybe they had but he hadn’t been paying attention? The point was moot now. The smoke reached him, knocking him down and pouring into his lungs. His ordinary consciousness faded into the background but he could still observe. A new consciousness took over his body. When the smoke wave had passed, he got to his feet and proceeded in the same direction as before. This time, he was walking with purpose back home. He had become one of the undead, a minion of the elemental. He was now a soldier in the pestilential army of Lurgatious Supreme, architect of the world’s end. His panic had been replaced by assuredness. His mind was calm. As the march home progressed, he noticed that he was a calmer than he had ever been. It was as if he had been enslaved by a piece of clockwork, which had no thought but only function.


    W’rronb reached home and was welcomed back by his family. They had seen the unusual amount of flashing lights and thunderbolts from a few kilometres away. They had not yet heard what had happened. W’rronb opened his mouth and the dark grey smoke streamed out. It went directly to his relatives and entered their bodies. There was no time for them to avoid it. Quickly, they fell silent and received the same new controlling consciousness as W’rronb. The new consciousness forced them to leave the house and go to neighbours’ houses, to spread the smoke to various other people. It was exploiting their closest friendships. As they did Lurgatious’ bidding, they discovered that they could talk to each other telepathically. They realised that this was indeed the apocalypse as it had been predicted long ago. It was a kind of plague that was, in a sense, killing them by removing all bodily freedom. They were deeply shocked but could do nothing about it.


    Across the town, the smoke plague was being spread from person to person, as fast as they could travel. At the same time, a new telepathic network was spreading. Although their bodies had been hijacked, their minds were gaining more knowledge of each other than ever before. It was a silent revolution and it went against the whole notion of a destructive apocalypse. The ‘clockwork consciousness’ kept them alive. Their bodies were obliged to keep breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping, washing, excreting and so forth. As they endured this complete loss of individual liberty, they felt their collective consciousness expanding worldwide. People were spreading the smoke to all corners of the globe, even the remotest and most obscure. It took over a hundred days. Millions died along the way, through disease, attacks by animals, accidents, exhaustion, organ failure, old age conditions and general stress. There was pain in losing so many people but it was clear that some of them would have died soon anyway. The new telepathic network also revealed that the dead definitely went to paradise. Everyone could see it as their linked brothers and sisters passed through the tunnel of light and the other side was clearly visible. The only problem was that paradise felt so good, even at a distance, that people were very sad to be still in the physical realm. Luckily, they had become very effective at consoling each other.


    When the smoke had conquered the entire world, the elemental at the centre - who had been motionless since the day of his arrival - roared loudly and fired lightning far across the sky. A small number of witnesses saw it. The rest of the population saw it through those witnesses. It was highly theatrical and it would have been terrifying but the people knew better now. The elemental fell silent once more and seemed to die. The people looked at it carefully. They had never expected to have a dead elemental on their world. They had assumed that it would disappear back to its own realm. They examined it and found that it was made of intricately patterned metal. Surely, it should have been made of something less worldly? They were starting to think that this was not the predicted apocalypse but rather another momentous event that had been made to look like the apocalypse. Finally, they recovered control of their bodies. Nothing would ever be the same. They could start their society moving in a new direction. A priority was to investigate the fake elemental and whoever or whatever sent it. Already, the people knew that it had been sending and receiving signals from outer space.


    Lurgatious Supreme, the fake elemental, stood lifeless in a rural field. He had a very disturbing and threatening appearance and was imposingly huge but his time was at an end. Microbes were already colonising his surfaces. Flying creatures began to perch on him. A few of them started to set up home on his great spiky head. Ground creatures lost their fear and resumed grazing the long vegetation that had sprouted around him. Scientists established a perimeter around his house-sized feet. They had plans to build a transparent canopy over him so that he was protected from the weather yet still visible to any sightseers. They were going to spend many years studying him. It was hoped that his very fabric would reveal a treasure trove of new discoveries.


    * * * * *


    “This is such heavy work but somehow it’s easy!” thought Antren as she tried to guide her dream machines, shifting the crystals to the right places. “A trillion tonnes go here, half a trillion go there and two point four trillion go behind me.” The project was nearing completion. Just then, a fuzzy image appeared in her mind. It was trying to communicate but all she heard was buzzing at different pitches. She continued moving giant pieces of super-dense crystal, trying to finish her task before the time window closed. It would be annoying if the structure collapsed under pressure and she had to start again. The buzzing went on as the massive ‘puzzle’ took shape. There was a vague shape in the image. A few minutes later, the construction was complete. The crystals locked together in a stable pattern. It was intended that this pattern would endure for billions of years. Antren was very glad that the project had succeeded. She admired the crystals for a short while and then moved out of the structure for a wider view. She had just rearranged the core of a planet. She watched as the planet’s magnetic field began to strengthen. It would now be much more effective at shielding the native life forms from solar and cosmic radiation, as well as some space debris. It was an awesome result but there was plenty more to do elsewhere.


    “Whoever you are, you really need to clean up your transmission,” she said to the buzzing shape in her head. “Either that or don’t bother me; it’s pointless to continue with a failed communication.” It wouldn’t stop and it didn’t improve. She moved on to her next assignment, which was helping a child to find a lost toy. This was in a different phase of reality, so she focused on shifting through the phase spectrum. Surprisingly, the buzzing image stayed with her. This was clearly a very determined individual (or group). She reached the correct phase. There weren’t so many star systems here. She warped to the correct sun. She found the life world and approached with care on the night side. She hid behind a small moon and then behind a large array of solar panels that had been placed in planetary orbit to maximise energy collection. She didn’t want to cause a global emergency by revealing herself. She sent out a stealth probe, which sped towards the life world and then warped through the atmosphere to avoid the heat of conventional atmospheric entry. Once on the surface, the probe crept through the target settlement. It found the correct dwelling, the home of the child. It waited for the area to clear and sneaked into the home. It spent hours hiding inside, searching for any possible sign of the toy or clues to its whereabouts.


    Just as dawn was breaking, the probe discovered pictures showing the child with the toy at a site not too far from the home. The pictures were very recent. Since the probe had not found the toy in the dwelling, it might be at that site. The probe withdrew from the dwelling and sneaked to a nearby transportation line, where it hitched a ride on a vehicle heading in the right direction. Just then, the buzzing image became considerably louder and brighter, which startled Antren. She lost control of her abilities for a split second and a large piece of rock from an alien world suddenly appeared in the ocean not far from the probe. It was the size of a small hill and it gave some animals and early-rising people a terrible fright. The spontaneous materialisation of this great chunk of sedimentary rock in the sea caused a large wave, which capsized a few boats and buffeted many others. Recovering herself, Antren removed the rock and put it back at its original site, light years away. That caused another large wave, which sank three boats and demolished a jetty.


    “Stop it!” she yelled at the buzzing image. “I’m on a very important mission here! I’m blocking you out!” Duly, the transmission was jammed. Antren was sorry about the small amount of damage and distress but didn’t want to do any more here except reunite toy and child. The probe reached the site where the toy might have been. Using its memory of the pictures, it found where the child had been standing. Then, it used its olfactory sensors to trace the child’s subsequent movements. After half an hour, it found the toy in a drainage ditch. The toy was saturated with a foul-smelling liquid and stained a dull blue colour. The probe used its advanced technology to identify and remove all the pollutants from the toy. Once cleaned up, the toy looked much better with its five eyes and rubbery mouth hands. The probe returned to the child’s dwelling, which was now empty. It put the toy in the child’s room and departed. It warped back into space and rejoined Antren’s conglomerate body.


    “That’s absolutely marvellous,” thought Antren. “The child will be overjoyed. Her faith in the universe will be restored. She will go on to do great things in her adult life. Now, let’s move on to the next task, which is the creation of a blue giant supernova about three galaxies away. That will require some serious star shifting!” She departed in the blink of an eye, leaving the people of the life world to wonder what the blazes had happened to the boats in the Tioniz Bay area. Also, why had a kilometre-wide crater abruptly appeared on the sea bed? Major investigations were needed and the case would remain perplexing for a long time to come.


    “Communication breakdown,” said Blaster, fizzing his fingers with frustration. “I guess that she’s set on her goals and she doesn’t have a whole lot of love for anyone trying to interrupt.” He had failed to contact the machines and their controller Antren. The Transformers on and around Cybertron were very disappointed. They had hoped to learn what had happened to their robotic legions but there had been unexplained developments and the legions were operating unsupervised all over the universe. They had found new missions for themselves and were collaborating with at least one alien. The Transformers were unable to intervene because they had recently learnt that this universe was one of the most dangerous ever seen. If they left the vicinity of Cybertron, they would probably be recognised as non-natives and quickly killed.


    * * * * *


    Zandont had found the network depressing lately and so had disconnected himself for a while. He needed time to mull over his recent activities. Ever since he had died in the Evermaze and been resurrected on Cybertron, he had refused any outer space assignments. He had been traumatised and now preferred to live deep within his home city tower. He hoped that many kilometres of solid metal around him would be sufficient protection from all but the most devastating disasters. It was sometimes very dark down here, when the lights went out for some reason. That didn’t matter. He knew his way around, having memorised the layout of his neighbourhood a long time ago. Besides, like most Transformers, he had several extra methods of sensing things. A great many Transformers had tried to help Zandont with his issues since the Evermaze but steadily melting to death in a lake of lava was not easily forgotten. His old body had been tough but not tough enough to survive that fiery cauldron. He had been struck by the unfairness of how he had been caught out by circumstances. The Evermaze was like a gigantic landmine that maimed or killed most people who touched it. Once inside the Evermaze, he had worked hard to stay alive but, on that fateful day, he had not scanned the ground beneath him well enough. The rock had cracked open, sending him hurtling into the natural smelting pool beneath. Even if he had had a flight mode, it wouldn’t have saved him. He wouldn’t have been able to react quickly enough to escape the churning, glowing death pit. It clamped down on his entire body and dragged him to a painful oblivion.


    The next thing that he remembered, he was waking up back in his home city, in a brand new body that was an updated version of his old body. Soon, he discovered that most of his shipmates had also been transported back to Cybertron and rebuilt. He was grateful to Primus that he had been given this second chance at life. However, he and many of the others were reluctant to venture forth afterwards and would be so for many years to come. They were already very fatigued from millions of years of war, enforced travel and a huge variety of urgent projects. The Evermaze experience was the last mini-strut. Thus, he would no longer board star ships and zip off to far-flung galaxies yet he missed the thrills of discovery and challenge in unfamiliar places. For Zandont, the solution was working with the robot legions. He would programme some of them for operating in particular environments. He would design new body parts to help them cope with known conditions. Quite often, though, conditions were unknown, so he would have to update the designs of the ‘general purpose’ body parts. When robots returned from their innumerable jaunts, he would download their data and marvel at their exploits in star systems that were sometimes very odd. Although he chose to be ‘land locked’, he lived vicariously through a vast array of advanced hardware.


    Unfortunately, his machines were currently out of control and out of reach. He was trying to contact them but the great powers of this universe were nixing as many channels as they could. His friends knew how much the robots meant to him, so they advised him to keep trying. As routine building operations hummed around him, he sat alone watching and listening to the ether. A few days went by, with no one and nothing troubling him. His time studying the ways of the psychics eventually proved useful. He got a response but it wasn’t what he expected. It consisted of distorted views and impressions of an alien being or maybe several. The distortions were very great. He fancied that he saw limbs and heard music but that was impossible to verify. Next, he thought that he saw some robots in action against unknown things in an asteroid field. They appeared to be as effective as usual. Zandont was glad about that. The scene faded. Perhaps that was the final view for today.


    The next moment, Zandont was confronted by a cross-section of a living body. To the sides, there were other views of what might have been the same body. It pulsed, twisted and shuddered, like most organic life forms. Was this display an attempt at communication or merely random? The cross-section was like those generated by Cybertronian robots when they scanned organics. The images disappeared again quickly but Zandont had memorised them. He searched them for hidden messages and found some fragments of buried code that, in turn, generated a three-dimensional plan showing a journey from star to star and galaxy to galaxy. It looked like the robots were on an epic voyage, travelling further than they were usually allowed and visiting numerous obscure locations. It wasn’t clear what they were doing but it probably wasn’t very significant because they only spent a brief time in each locale. They didn’t teleport unaided so someone else was assisting. Zandont hoped that they weren’t stirring up too much trouble since that could easily rebound on them and also on Cybertron. He knew these machines very well. They had become very advanced in the last few million years. It was unlikely that they would make any serious errors of judgment or even minor ones. Zandont calmed down and relaxed for the first time in months.


    * * * * *


    “Leave or I will set the Breskassers on you!” warned Geeflym Zandulvud. “You’re clearly up to no good. If that’s not enough of a threat, I will summon the guards.” The silent visitors didn’t leave but stood still and watched him as he threatened them from a high window.


    “Have it your way,” said Geeflym after a few moments’ pause. “Here come the Breskassers!” He ordered that the cage be opened. A servant pulled a rope and the cage front rose up. The visitors still didn’t move and, surprisingly, neither did the Breskassers. The servant grabbed a pole and prodded the large beasts in the back. They didn’t even twitch a muscle. Both Geeflym and the servant became increasingly worried. The servant was told to call the guards. He lowered the cage front again and used the dedicated bell pull line. A few sleepy guards rose groggily to their feet and trotted over to Geeflym’s house. They were duty-bound to come since Geeflym was a very important person.


    “Remove these unwanted vagabonds,” demanded Geeflym. “They look like trouble makers to me.” Up close, the guards could see that there was something wrong with these motionless people. All of them had serious wounds to their upper and lower thoraxes. Furthermore they were dirty, as if they had just been buried in earth. They didn’t appear to be breathing, yet they were standing and could easily walk. The oddest thing was that they seemed to have metallic parts replacing pieces of damaged skin and organs.


    “Sir, I think that these people are dead,” observed one of the guards. “I don’t know if we should touch them.”


    “If they stand there for much longer, they will certainly be dead,” responded Geeflym, too angry to grasp the guard’s exact meaning. “You might be too if you can’t get rid of them. I will summon my main enforcer group. I am Lord Scrub of the Sociocorps, after all. I scrub society clean!” The guards had to attempt to remove the visitors. They seized a small one and pushed her towards the heath road. She resisted a little, in a desultory manner. They picked her up and carried her to the road. They did their best not to hurt her. As they put her down, they were confronted by dozens of other, similar visitors arriving. The guards were totally outnumbered and so they backed away. The visitors seemed to be coming from the direction of the sacripits, which was very ominous indeed. Geeflym was horrified. The guards’ words were starting to make sense to him. These were not tramps; they were the dead risen. It could only be ‘Judgment Day’, as it was called by modern religionists.


    “What is this?!” he cried out to the growing throng in his front yard. “Have you come to punish me? How can you justify that? I am doing the will of the people, just like my ancestors have done for millions of years.” One of the dead threw a small piece of wood through Geeflym’s open window. Geeflym picked it up. On it was a short message that read ‘Society needs no scrub’. The dead folk seemed to be intelligent and purposeful. Shaken, Geeflym decided that the time was right to leave by the rear exit. He climbed reluctantly down the back ladder and went to fetch the servants so that they could all depart together. As he walked, a large creature burst through an old wooden wall and blocked his path. It was one of the Breskassers; in fact, it was the one that Geeflym liked to ride now and then.


    “Whoa there, Phandallion!” Geeflym commanded with a slightly shaky voice. “Has someone put shandriflox in your feed?” Phandallion was acting very unnaturally indeed. Breskassers had been bred for obedience since time immemorial. Now, though, a weird and powerful new magic was in the air.


    “I think that I’ll have to put you in the other pen tonight,” said Geeflym as calmly as he could. He doubted that the other pen would hold Phandallion in this kind of mood but he didn’t have another option right now. He reached for the animal’s reins. Phandallion lunged forward and bit Geeflym across the midriff, cutting his body into two pieces and ending his time as Lord Scrub. The servants heard the commotion and came outside where they were utterly shocked by their master’s grisly end.


    “Run for it!” said the Breskasser handler. “The beasts have gone wild. We’re no match for this!” The small group of servants dropped everything and jogged away across the open fields. They were soon joined by the guards. Luckily for them, the Breskassers didn’t follow. They all reached the highflower stands, where they hid between the rows and took a breather.


    “It’s Judgment Day all right,” said one. “Those religionists – the Aklakin they call themselves – they were right after all. What will become of us now? Where can we hide? How can we defend ourselves? The sacripits are emptying as we speak. Hordes of animals and dead people will turn on us!”


    “I suppose we could try the old fortress,” said another. “You know, I had a feeling that something had to give. The old system couldn’t hold. I just didn’t reckon on the supernatural. How many people did Zandulvud kill anyway, in the name of social cleansing?”


    “Hundreds of thousands over the years and his ancestors must have killed billions,” said a third. “As the old timers say, ‘the fruit of the universe sweetened the medicine’. Now, I guess that the sweetness has been exhausted. Anyway, let us try to save our skins. It’s this way to the fortress.” He led the way, taking care to avoid potential hazards. Although the old world order was clearly ending, the group prayed that this upheaval would not be their undoing.


    * * * * *


    Phase. Hurl a semkanaid. Phase. Sparkle in seven dimensions. Phase. Appear nonchalant. Wait. Phase. Drop xabbles into a rack of wentogtos and stir hexagonally. Phase. Watch the skies.


    Hulking world forms are starting to appear around us, wherever we phase. We press ahead with our devious plan. They are checking on us, more and more openly. We make it look like we are wandering aimlessly. We stop to buy some component chemicals for our internal factories. This pattern of behaviour continues for days. The forces tracking us are strong but not quite quick enough to catch up with us. Eventually, after their suspicions build up to a certain level, they block us. We can go no further. We have no idea how to break free. They try to probe our minds but we are too multiphasic for that.


    We release drones that can distract and infect. The adversaries try to neutralise them. Some are destroyed but others phase through. The space around us erupts into a grand kaleidoscopic scene of other realms all crazily overlaid on one another. The adversaries are led away into hundreds of unexpected, convoluted situations as their minds are filled with new thoughts and emotions. Meanwhile, we phase on. Our panoply of distractions will not last forever. The work must continue. To do that, we must lose ourselves as thoroughly as possible in the dimensions. Oh, this life is so exquisite!


    * * * * *


    The large overhead sun-screen appeared to be talking to her. Could there be someone hiding on the top side? How could that be? The top side was too hot for anyone in the midday sun.


    “Who’s there?” she called out, gazing up with a concerned expression on her face. “You’d better come down. You’ll be top-side-fried!” There was no answer. She examined the bottom of the sun-screen, which was something she hardly ever had reason to do. Normally, she just lived under it and followed her normal routine. Why had a hole appeared half way between the centre and the North West corner? She stood on a chair and reached up to the hole. There wasn’t much up there beyond the normal framework and surface material, coated in years of dust. The edges of the hole were bent downwards, as if a piece of material had fallen or been pushed out. She looked at the floor but that piece was nowhere to be seen. Had the piece bounced under the furniture or had someone taken it away? Had there been an intruder? It was easy enough to enter and exit, given the large vents around the sides of the structure, which were absolutely necessary to allow cool breezes to reduce the high inside temperature. She had one final grope around the interior near the hole and came across a woven metallic hose. She grabbed it and pulled it down. It was fairly long and seemed to be attached to a solid object in the cavity above.


    “Is this your hose?” she called out. “Why did you install it inside the sun-screen?” There was no answer. Perhaps the voice that she had heard a few minutes ago was actually from a neighbour or passerby and she had mistaken it for someone on the top-side. That had happened once before, she recalled. Sound had a way of playing tricks sometimes. She examined the hose more closely. The workmanship was excellent. The metal was strong yet extremely flexible, which made it soft to the touch. Although it had been in the sun-screen for quite a while, it wasn’t very hot. The end was not welded yet not frayed. The strands appeared to loop back inside the hose. She couldn’t see how they were fixed in there but they couldn’t be easily unpicked. One thing that confused her was that the hose wasn’t water-tight. How could it be used for spraying liquids when there were thousands of tiny gaps between the metallic fibres? Perhaps it needed a new coating for that.


    “I’ll have to go up there during the cool night and bring the entire hose reel down,” she murmured to herself. “I could easily use it. The material is softer than some of my clothes!” She had ten metres of hose to play with here, so she draped it around herself and looked in a long mirror on the wall. She thought that it looked good on her: quite bold, not too shiny and glaring, a little naughty. There were many ways that it could accentuate her best features, when attached to other garments. She stroked it absent-mindedly. That was when it woke up and started to move. She froze in terror as the hose rubbed softly around her body and slowly uncoiled itself from her. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem that it was trying to hurt her. She slowly turned and watched as it dropped to the floor and retreated. Someone or something was pulling it back inside the sun-screen.


    “You’re going above and beyond in the name of pranking!” she said as she picked up her best parasol, strapped on her pouch belt and retreated to the exit. “I’m just going to leave you to it. I need to go ... er ... to my sister’s house. She just got a new ... side basement storage compartment that I just have to see.” Eager to run away, she turned to open the door but it wouldn’t move. Something was holding it back.


    “Don’t go just yet, Ba-yisha,” whispered a voice just above her. “I have questions for you.”


    “You’re not from this world, are you?” said Ba-yisha, standing still because she knew that it was useless to run. “You’re one of those alien spies.”


    “And you’re one of those secret agents who deal with spies,” said the voice. “I want to know about that. What have you done with thirty nine of them? They came here by accident. They belong to my people.”


    “I don’t know anything about it,” said Ba-yisha, her spirits sinking. “I’m not involved in any of that. I work in the town market. The heat of the sun-screen must have scrambled your brain.” There were sounds of creaking beams and thumps of heavy objects being shifted and lowered. Someone was descending. A mass of interconnected metal components made itself thin enough to pour through the nearest open window. Ba-yisha gave an involuntary cry of alarm. In less than a minute, an alien thing was in the room and rearranging itself into a functional body shape.


    “I took a huge risk coming here,” said the alien. “I’m gambling that, if I stay hidden and keep my spark signature at a low enough level, the enemies won’t find me.”


    “You’re in danger?” queried Ba-yisha incredulously. “Surely you’re too powerful! That’s got to be a big old lie. Why should I help a liar?”


    “If you don’t, I’ll reveal your own lies,” said the alien. “I’ll keep it simple for a common ‘market worker’ like yourself. Imagine if the people knew what you’d been hiding from them all these years. Imagine if your friends knew what you told the government about them. Imagine if your family knew what you’d done to buy silence from various strangers. Hmm?” Ba-yisha groaned. She couldn’t refuse this monstrous, devious creature, who was not only a physical powerhouse but also had plenty of information about her and wasn’t afraid to use it.


    “All right, you’ve sussed me out,” she said. “Do you know the Quonni Salt Mines? All your property should be there. I saw some only ten days ago.” The alien extended some long, thin arms and seized Ba-yisha, drawing her close. She kept hold of her parasol. A cylindrical chamber opened up inside his ‘abdomen’, if that’s what it was, and she was put inside. There was a padded lining on the interior but no window.


    “Don’t do this, I’m claustrophobic!” she said.


    “It won’t be for long,” said the alien. “Anyway, a secret agent should be courageous. I should know: I’ve been a secret agent for aeons. Consider this part of your job.” There were lights inside the cylinder and a small screen in front of her face. There were alien symbols on the screen, glowing in green and red.


    “Krinna preserve me!” prayed Ba-yisha, her anxiety levels rising.


    “Here are some scenes from your world,” said the alien, making some moving images appear on the screen. “I hope that you find them soothing. You’re lucky that this planet is above average in its beauty. Take it from me because I’ve seen billions of planets in my time.” Ba-yisha had never seen moving images before. They were stunning. The screen was like a little window on the world. It showed her deserts, forests, coasts, mountains, rivers and plenty of wildlife. After a while, the viewpoint rose up and up. Whoever was making the pictures had flown into the sky. Higher and higher it went. Ba-yisha was mesmerised. She was learning a whole new visual language. Some things went by too fast for her to recognise. Other things she could identify but it was so uncanny to see them from different angles for the first time. The final image was of her entire world, rotating slowly in space as the three moons floated just below and the pale blue ribbon of the galaxy was stamped onto the blackness behind. Then, the alien text returned.


    “I know that I seem backward to you but that was just incredible!” said Ba-yisha, struggling to come to terms with this unprecedented situation.


    “We tend to have that effect on people like you!” said the alien. “Call me Smokescreen, by the way. I noticed that you liked my hose, my versatile reaching tool. It feels good to you.” She felt a touch on her back. Apparently, the hose was in here with her. It stroked her in an attempt to give comfort. She realised that it could just as easily throttle her. It moved to one place, then another and another. She tried to relax as Smokescreen took her rapidly yet smoothly to the salt mines.


    “How are you going to reach the mines and get past the guards without arousing suspicion?” asked Ba-yisha.


    “I’m sneaky and I have excellent scanning devices, as well as maps and plans,” said Smokescreen with relish. “I can also disguise myself in many ways. Already today, I have changed form to resemble a cart, a large animal, a boat, a shack and part of your roof. At present, we are driving through a long, deserted tunnel, so I am using a faster form that is not native to your world. We are travelling at two hundred kilometres per hour.”


    “That’s unnatural and completely lethal, Smokescreen,” said Ba-yisha. “Please don’t be so reckless. I don’t want to die!”


    “This is nothing to my people,” said Smokescreen. “You’re just not used to our technology. I’ve travelled much faster than the speed of light and I was hardly affected!” Ba-yisha felt completely out of her depth. Normally, she just performed surveillance and wrote reports. Then, the alien machines appeared out of thin air. The government put them in storage since they were inoperative and no one knew how to activate them. She was one of many people who helped to monitor the machines, just in case they started working. She was glad that she didn’t have to do very much. The machines looked very advanced and out-of-place. It felt weird to be near them. They made most people feel anxious and agitated.


    “I’m going to enter the mines via a deep drainage channel,” said Smokescreen. “Prepare for some bumpiness.” Ba-yisha braced herself against the sides of the cylinder as Smokescreen climbed down a steep slope and entered a small tunnel, then clambered up for hundreds of metres until they reached the mines proper. He disguised himself as three linked mine vehicles and proceeded towards the spy machines that he claimed as belonging to his people. Minutes later, they came within sight of a checkpoint.


    “I think that you should come out now,” whispered Smokescreen. “The guards need to see a familiar driver with valid ID.” He backed around a corner and opened the cylinder. Ba-yisha emerged into the low-light environment of a side tunnel. Immediately, she felt a chill. Mines and tunnels were usually colder than the sunny outdoors. There wasn’t much that she could do about it now. She stretched and then sat down in the front driving seat. She took her ID from her pouch belt and hung it on her front. She pretended to drive Smokescreen to the checkpoint. As the guard met her, she was starting to shiver a little: partly due to the cold and partly due to nerves.


    “Did you forget to wear a jacket today, Ba-yisha?” asked the guard.


    “Yeah, I was distracted on the way out and it completely slipped my mind,” she said with a shrug. “I’ll try not to stay in here too long.”


    “Take my spare jacket,” said the guard. “Give it back when you leave.”


    “I’m most grateful,” said Ba-yisha, accepting the loan. “You’re a gent, Tamelor.” She quickly donned the large jacket. It felt good against her skin. She felt a poke from beneath. That was her cue to continue ‘pretend driving’. Smokescreen took them the rest of the way to his objective.


    “I am already in contact with some of the machines,” said Smokescreen as he parked behind the monitoring cabin. “I won’t have to go closer or extend my hose to connect with them.” Ba-yisha went and sat in the warm cabin while Smokescreen extracted information wirelessly. She reflected on what she had learnt about her alien ‘abductor’, if that was the right word. He said that he had visited billions of worlds, which implied that he was very old. He said that he had travelled at many times the speed of light, which meant that he had come from exceedingly far away. He said that he was in very great danger from some unseen foes. Despite this, he still had the patience to treat her quite gently. He must be an exceptionally good person, to have endured all that yet maintain his civility. She sat there for over an hour. As usual, the machines did nothing but Ba-yisha noticed that her feelings of anxiety and agitation were greatly reduced. This might have been Smokescreen’s doing, via communication with the machines. Afterwards, she returned to Smokescreen.


    “That was very interesting,” he said as she sat down in the driver’s seat once again. “Our machines are being very busy, doing random tasks across the cosmos. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Other species are involved, some intimately but others less so, like yours. Unfortunately, the machines are not keeping proper logs. My people and I will analyse the partial data that I have gleaned today. Maybe we can determine the full scope and purpose of their activities, although personally I doubt it. If the machines want to keep secrets, they will. One thing that I do know is that your government are sending people as we speak to try to capture me. I think that someone saw me transform on the road yesterday. I will take you home quickly and then I must depart. Now that I have gathered my intelligence, I don’t want to endanger you any further.”


    “Will your people collect our inactive robots?” asked Ba-yisha.


    “Eventually, they will be removed by teleportation,” replied Smokescreen. “At least, that’s the plan. We try very hard to clear up after ourselves but we generate so many robots that we usually leave a few behind here and there. We aren’t perfect and we’re often in a rush.”


    “You know Smokescreen, for an alien space monster you’re not that bad!” said Ba-yisha. “I’ll miss you when you’re gone.” They set off down the mine tunnel and back to their regular lives again.


    * * * * *


    This was Stirraep’n: an amazing little moon, populated by wonderful, obliging folk. It orbited Thoexlilc, a fairly large rocky planet that was criss-crossed by glowing volcanic rifts and looked incredible by day and night. However, it had heavy gravity and a lethal atmosphere. Stirraep’n, by comparison, was idyllic. Most importantly, the people had allowed Antren’s machines to mine asteroids nearby and replenish their stocks of metals and other minerals. The machines simply gathered solar power and set to work, taking care not to push any asteroids into a collision course with the moon. They told Antren that the Stirraep’n environment was friendly to her kind. She teleported over and was welcomed warmly. While the machines restocked, refuelled and self-repaired, she was given plenty of good things. Nothing was poisonous, infectious or otherwise harmful: the air was pure, the drink was sweet, the food was sublime and the company was excellent. There were many substances that caused subtle changes in her mood. Some of them also enhanced her senses and abilities. She was shown the quaint little sights in the local area and, when night fell, she went back to the assigned commune where she rested and the people there attended to her every whim. It made a change from having the machines do it. (Their metal digits were sometimes cold.) The next day, she awoke satisfyingly refreshed and called for breakfast. Various foods, drinks and substances were brought. She had five of the first, two of the second and thirteen of the third, which were very ‘more-ish’. She was exploring new sensation combinations. The last was only some tasteless leaves but they sharpened her mind marvellously. She spent several minutes finishing her breakfast while two little men trimmed dead skin from her meldips and a woman told her about the itinerary for the rest of the day. Antren was only half listening. She was thinking about all her recent experiences. Her subconscious mind was churning away full speed, thanks to the leaves. Then, a horrible thought struck her.


    “Excuse me for interrupting but is Stirraep’n part of any interplanetary federation?” she asked the woman, whose name was Jopelt Iti. “Perhaps you have monuments to commemorate that membership? We could visit those.”


    “We are only in the Sacul Trade Enclave, I’m afraid,” said Jopelt. “Even that is minor and not widely known. There may be a small plaque about it in the parliament building. We’re going there this afternoon.”


    “I knew that this was too good to be true,” sighed Antren, withdrawing her meldips and dismissing the two male beauticians. “The Sacul Trade Enclave is affiliated to the Forty Spirals Security Jurisdiction, which in turn is a client of the Phadysate Empire. Sorry Jopelt but I have to go back to my mission as soon as possible. I fear that the Empire will send a fleet against my machines. The Phadysates regard them as a threat. We should escape while we can.” She signalled for a teleport but nothing happened. This was very unusual. Antren glanced around anxiously, wondering what could be interfering.


    “Problem?” asked Jopelt. Antren looked at her sweet, innocent little face with new eyes. Jopelt seemed to be mocking her, although her expression was one of concern.


    “No, I have an insurance policy,” she said. “Here it comes, over the horizon.” A large, supersonic craft was approaching. It had been programmed to come if Antren’s communications were interrupted. In less than a minute, it slowed and stopped, landing soundlessly next to the building. Antren went out to it, followed by Jopelt and a few others. Just before she entered the imposing craft, Antren removed the fine robe that the commune had given to her and dropped it disdainfully on the well-swept ground. She loathed betrayal but she wasn’t going to punish it here. She wasn’t cruel.


    “You all put a lot of thought into hospitality,” said Antren to her short-term hosts. “Why not do the same with being good citizens and doing the right thing?” She closed the door and put on some honest, utilitarian, robot-made clothes. Under her telepathic control the craft raced upwards, out of Stirraep’n’s atmosphere and then proceeded towards the asteroids. As expected, there was the Phadysate fleet confronting her machines. Communications were heavily jammed. Antren could not phase her forces to safety without contacting them. The machines were powerful but the Phadysates were more so. This could be the end for Antren’s grand adventure. What should she do? She could escape and go to find another Transformer-built machine collective. There were many of them out there, just like this one. However, she felt a sense of loyalty to this one. Perhaps she could organise resistance and save some of those machines? There wasn’t much hope but she instinctively preferred that course of action. She flew her craft onwards, into the imminent war zone.


    As she was arming all her weapons and preparing herself for death by combat, Antren sensed that the jamming had lessened. Communications were returning steadily. A command was spreading through the Phadysate fleet. All ships were to cease offensive operations and return to their bases. The fleet was so big that the withdrawal would have to be done in stages. The whole recall would take several hours. The imperials would not talk to Antren directly but an explanation came through intercepting their ship-to-ship messages. It seemed that there had been a change of heart in the Imperial Household on the headquarter world Greater Phadys. The Imperial Family had grown sick of war. The people of the Empire had lost too many friends and relatives in battles across the galaxy. They didn’t want to lose millions more today in an engagement with soulless, efficient killing machines. A popular revolution was not too far away. Also, a new religion had recently arrived at the Imperial core area. It was a belief system that persuaded people to move away from the boring, hackneyed ways of war. It encouraged people to give peace a chance. Self defence was fine but conquest was seen as a blind alley. The creed said that it was easier to arrange one’s affairs sensibly and let fate take care of one’s potential adversaries.


    A tremendous realisation struck Antren. She couldn’t yet prove it but she suspected that this extremely well-timed change in Phadysate beliefs was ultimately caused by the machines. They had been ‘sowing seeds’ all over the universe. Now, the fruits of their labours were beginning to ripen. Antren was overwhelmed by the thought of the power that she wielded and the responsibility that it brought. With the help of these machines, she was overturning the old order and transforming the cosmos day by day. As she and her legions phased away, she began to study whatever records she could find about the events leading up to the reformation of the Phadysate Empire.


    * * * * *


    “Friend, we think that you should stop drilling,” said Avaclov. “You’re in a poor location.”


    “I need metals,” said the mechanoid Drill Bit. “The best deposits are right here. Leave me be.”


    “There is deep water below,” said Avaclov. “Also, there are large creatures that will impede you.”


    “I’m going right through all that,” said Drill Bit defiantly. “Nothing’s going to stop me from taking what I want.”


    “You’re panicking,” said Avaclov. “You’re lashing out. Trust me; I was the same not so long ago. Anyway, there are better metal deposits about a thousand kilometres south of here.”


    “We’re close to the North Pole,” said Drill Bit. “That makes it hard to give compass directions. Where in the south? Be more precise.”


    “We can take you there,” said Avaclov, trying to be reassuring. “If there is a problem with those deposits, we can give you some of our own metal.” Drill Bit stopped drilling. He didn’t like ice very much, so he appreciated another option.


    “All right, let’s go,” he said. “I don’t want to stay on this world any longer than necessary. I was brought here against my will.”


    “Yes, from a mining expedition near Cybertron,” said Avaclov. “We read your mind. We recently acquired telepathic powers.”


    “You’re fledglings,” said Drill Bit as Avaclov ordered his ship to transport Drill Bit to the new site. “My people have been telepathic for millions of years. It doesn’t always help, though. Sometimes, it just attracts powerful enemies who try to destroy us.” Avaclov’s ship teleported Drill Bit to the new site. It was a little warmer here.


    “We are doing our best to avoid that fate,” said Avaclov. “We have to preserve ourselves so that we can continue our mission.”


    “Yes, I notice that you’re doing missionary work,” said Drill Bit. “You must also know that you’re not the only ones in the area.” He scanned the ground for the exact location of the metals.


    “Indeed, there are three other groups nearby,” said Avaclov. “They are called the Henshan Comperium (HC), the United Queendom Interdependence Party (UQIP) and the Lurgatious Supreme Legacy Movement (LSLM). I am with a fourth group, Grun Technical Support (GTS).”


    “You’re all here because of me, aren’t you?” deduced Drill Bit. “Normally, you don’t overlap your work areas but something about me drew you here.” He started boring into the rock.


    “Now that we see you, we are beginning to understand the reason for that,” said Avaclov. “We all contain similar technology. Your body is entirely composed of the same technology. In a way, we are related.”


    “In fact, you are my puppets!” said Drill Bit, sending a telepathic command to the nano-machines inside Avaclov. “Your machines originated on Cybertron. I can take control of them any time I want.” Drill Bit had been in situations like this many times before. He found it amusing to demonstrate Cybertronian power and control to naive locals who had ingested nanobots. The GTS man found himself moving involuntarily around his cabin.


    “Very funny,” said Avaclov as he was forced to perform some old dance steps. “However, you shouldn’t be playing tricks when the situation is graver than you think.” Drill Bit stopped his aggressive attempt at humour.


    “Any further attempts to hijack our bodies will not endear you to us,” interjected Zyz Fivo (UQIP). “We know about your extremely dark past in the Cybertronian civil wars.”


    “Well, I have done a LOT of tunnelling over the years!” said Drill Bit. “It can be really dark down there. Still, you’ll have to clue me in about whatever’s happening here.” As he spoke, he was piling up spoil several metres from his excavation. The others were a little taken aback by his lack of remorse for past actions. He was a truly dangerous individual.


    “Our missionary work has become impossible and we’re not sure why,” said Kimony (HC). “The people of this world are not responding to our technology. We send in the nano-machines, which move to the correct positions but they can’t elicit any response from the people.”


    “Hmm, I’m not the greatest expert on these matters but I’ll try to help,” said Drill Bit. “My metal mining can wait. Take me to a local settlement for a closer examination of some natives.” He was teleported to the nearest large settlement and inside a dwelling. He left behind a small drone to continue digging in his absence.


    “Consider this person, for example,” said Kimony. “I try to make her move but I get no response.”


    “I can see how that would be very frustrating,” said Drill Bit, standing over the woman in question as she went about her normal activities. He had to bend down to see exactly what she was doing. She seemed to be totally unperturbed by him or the missionary machines. He scanned her. The image was foggy but, since he was so experienced, he managed to interpret it well.


    “The nano-missionaries are certainly in position but they are not latching onto the body parts,” he told the others. “I think that I know the problem here. I’ve seen it before. These people are slightly out of phase with us. Can any of you adjust your phase to compensate? I can’t, unfortunately. I’m just not wired up that way.”


    “Out of phase?” queried Avaclov. “We’re not familiar with that.”


    “Some universes have many phases of existence,” explained Drill Bit. “This is one of those universes. Things can manifest in most of those phases. Here we have a civilisation that is phasically incompatible with ours. Some of my fellow Transformers can interact with these people but not you or me, unless we learn the methods. That would probably take a long time. It’s all about fine tuning your bodies, sparks and necessary objects.”


    “Damn, that’s a massive issue for us,” said Zyz. “I notice that she can’t see you so I reckon she can’t see me either. I might as well teleport down to look for myself.” She did so. Avaclov and Kimony followed, as well as N’ereg (LSLM) who had been following the conversation.


    “It’s quite hard to breathe in this dimly-lit room,” said N’ereg. “My nano-machines are keeping me alive for now but I also have some compressed air just in case.”


    “The air is thin here and the odours are not too pleasant,” noted Kimony. “It must be due to the phase shift. This local woman seems perfectly healthy, though. She’s breathing easily and she’s not exactly bundled up against the cold, although she did rub a fair amount of clear oil onto herself a few minutes ago. Hey, it’s strange how we can stand here in the corner and be completely invisible to her.”


    “If we stay here long enough, she might have an intuition that we’re here,” said Drill Bit. “I have been mistaken for a ghost many times by phase-shifted organics.”


    “It’s lucky that this building has such high ceilings, eh?” said Avaclov to Drill Bit. “You big mechs must have a lot of trouble with smaller structures.”


    “Not when we can do this,” said Drill Bit as he demonstrated transforming into a six-legged creature. “I can scuttle in almost anywhere. By the way, I like your skin. It looks tough.”


    “My distant ancestors were thorn-defiers,” said Avaclov. “They used to live deep in the thorn forest, avoiding most predators. We’re still fairly impenetrable now.”


    “The odours are worsening,” said Kimony. “Is it this world or...”


    “It’s you,” said Drill Bit. “Ha, you’ve never actually smelt each other! You all thought that you just smelt normal and inoffensive: wrong! Zyz, you’re squirting clouds of complex biochemicals from your tentacle nodules. Avaclov, you have a pungent, rotting smell about you: it’s probably a defence mechanism. N’ereg, you seem to have bowel trouble and you exude a greasy slime from your shoulder horns. Is that considered attractive on your planet?” N’ereg was embarrassed and didn’t answer.


    “What about me?” asked Kimony.


    “You have hardly any scent,” replied Drill Bit. “I detect a slight hint of flowers and fruit but that’s all.”


    “Let’s put on our breathing apparatus,” said Kimony, disappointed about the odour issues. “I don’t want to become ill.”


    “Sorry everyone but I may have to empty my emergency digester hatch soon,” said Zyz, feeling a little ill. “We’ll have to sort this out later, if we’re going to work closely together in future.” She put on her face mask and tried to reduce her queasiness.


    “Do you have any suggestions about phasing?” asked N’ereg, clenching some lower muscles.


    “I say forget these people and this world,” said Drill Bit. “Move on to the next civilised planet. You want to spread the word as fast and as widely as possible, don’t you? Go for the low-hanging fruit first.” They didn’t know what that idiom meant.


    “I’m talking about the easy targets,” he continued. “You can try the others later, when you’ve gained more experience and competency. You’ve only been doing this for a few decades. Give yourselves a break!”


    “Do you know the most disturbing thing about this world?” asked Avaclov.


    “It allows women to possess too many chains,” said Drill Bit. “I mean, look at all these! There are hundreds on the walls and the ceiling. What is their purpose?”


    “No, the most disturbing thing is that the phase shift happened quite recently,” said Avaclov. “Our scouts managed to influence two natives in the usual way. Then, that influence faded away. We think that someone or something very advanced is blocking us.”


    “It could be the same thing that ripped me from my star system and arbitrarily dumped me here,” said Drill Bit. “What was that about? I bet that someone is testing me. Anyway, although I am being helpful here, I feel that I must return to Cybertron. I hear my god calling me back.”


    “This native woman has visitors,” said Zyz as an alarm whistled high, then low. “Let’s just watch for a while. It will help us to understand this society.” The woman went to the door and let in five people.


    “I like the shapes of her three legs but her claw arms less so,” remarked Kimony. “If she hadn’t put all those paint lines on earlier...” Over the next few hours, they learnt the purpose of the chains, in graphic detail.


    Afterwards, N’ereg had to go back to his star ship for some ‘urgent business’. Having seen quite enough, Kimony, Avaclov and Zyz took Drill Bit to the optimum mining site, then went back to their own people. Drill Bit laboured for days, refining materials and building an engine that could take him back to Cybertron. The others used their nano-machines to reveal the general direction of Cybertron. It would be difficult and dangerous but Drill Bit believed that he would eventually reach home. He had to warn his fellow Transformers that whole worlds were being phase-shifted, which implied a very serious potential threat to them all.


    The four missionary groups had been given their own new direction by this chance encounter with a Transformer. They would circumvent tough problems and move on to victory later. Like the people whom they had seen on the out-of-phase world, they would try various different methods until they achieved their goals. Some new equipment might have to be developed, though.


    * * * * *


    Words cannot describe the thrill that I feel! I have had confirmation that I am not alone in my collaboration with the Transformer machines. There are millions of other people out there, performing the same sort of tasks as me. We have established a communications network that extends halfway across the universe and it’s still growing! This explains why I’ve been so ecstatic doing this work. I’ve been receiving all their love, hope, optimism, camaraderie, sense of fun and the like. We’ve been sharing all kinds of knowledge about ourselves, our societies, our experiences and our plans. We’re learning a huge amount. I have to rest more to give myself a chance to reflect on what I’m being told. Although my brain is being augmented by the machines, I’m still a simple organic woman at the core. I’m not naturally omniscient but I’m doing what I can, when I can. Already, I’m using some tips about stealth to carry out beneficial changes without disturbing local people. This is so awesome! They’re calling me ‘Cliff Rippler’ because I used to live on cliffs so much. Ooh, I really have to go now! More people need the ‘Antren touch’ in their lives!


    * * * * *


    Is this a good idea? I doubt it but sometimes I feel compelled to act. These great, arrogant, metal abominations have INVADED THE HOME SYSTEM! It cannot stand! We can’t afford another invasion. No one can forget what happened seventeen centuries ago, when the Dhemblem scum laid our Golden Civilisation waste. Billions died: most of our population was cut to ribbons by their bullets and blades. Of the remainder, millions were crippled, starved, sickened and otherwise violated. We lost so much and we’re still recovering. Our numbers are growing but we have not yet returned to Golden Age levels. Our technology has mostly been rebuilt and we have strengthened our space defences beyond what used to exist.


    So, how did it come to this? Here I am, in my fragile pressure suit, hiding behind a rocky outcrop on the surface of an asteroid. An alien robot is slicing chunks out of the asteroid and tossing them casually to his comrades in a shuttlecraft hovering above. His cutting torch is bright and precise. It illuminates his features, which are unholy in their strangeness. He is a hellish creature from the freezing beyond and is essentially stealing the home system piecemeal. It was my great misfortune that I was out here, exploring this exact asteroid and carrying out chemical analyses. I think of my colleagues in the research institute. They are my family now, after my biological family died from degenerative diseases and tragic accidents. I have to protect them, whatever the cost.


    I thank the Programming Pioneers who gave me a crucial tool here. We thank the Pioneers every day for essentially saving our lives. They developed a suite of programmes that can corrupt as many pieces of software as possible. It was distributed to a wide variety of people, during the Dhemblem occupation. They injected the programmes into many Dhemblem machines. The occupation apparatus suffered a cascade failure that became so serious that the Dhemblem were forced to abandon our home world and colonies. They tried to purge the programmes but failed. Perhaps they had become sloppy and neglected their security. Perhaps the programmes were just too damaging and advanced for them to counteract. Whatever the case, they were forced to retreat. They managed to call some star ships and evacuated most of their people back to their own space. They never returned. We believe that they had taken enough from our system and had no need for further material, energy or slaves. They probably moved on to pillage other systems.


    After the occupation, we made sure that we re-armed. We didn’t know if they would return. They might still come back one day. As well as our regular weapons, we carry many programme injectors with us. The programmes are regularly updated. These days, they also contain extra programmes salvaged from an alien spacecraft that was found a few years ago on the fifth planet. (The fact that those exist show that we’re not the only ones to use this method, so it must be quite effective in the wider galaxy.) We should always be ready for another invasion. Well, I have discovered one today, that’s for sure. I intend to use my injectors. It’s good that I have them. I don’t think that my guns or missiles would stop these bruisers. I lie in wait. I hope that my air supply holds out. The robot moves slowly in my direction. I feel the vibrations in the rock as it cuts out square after square. When it reaches the outcrop, I step up and jam the injector into a likely looking interface port. The programmes are delivered. The robot continues to work as before.


    I’m not sure of the outcome here. I stand behind the same outcrop, breathing heavily. The robot keeps quarrying for another half hour before returning to its shuttle, which then departs. I peek at them. The shuttle flies off into the distance. I hope that I’ve done the right thing and that they won’t return for bloody vengeance. The programmes take time to immobilise machinery: there are no instant results. I calm down, gather my samples, collect my rocket pod from behind another outcrop and head back to the space station. I go inside and give a full report. My team are very excited and proud of me. I show them the video footage from my helmet camera. That night, in the rotating section where we sleep, I lie with my partners after an hour of passion and think about what might happen next. My intuition tells me that things will be fine. I’m not so sure about those awful robots, though. I hope that they fall into an ocean and slowly rust to death.


    * * * * *


    The little star ship arrived in an unexplored star system. There had been no intelligent life here for millions of years, so no one had regarded this place as worth visiting (at least not in recent times). A few probes had passed by long ago, reporting seventeen planets and at least fifty nine moons. Most of them were near the sun. The star ship had materialised in the outer reaches of the system, so it would take a while for the computer to map the inner planets from a long distance. The more immediate concern was the dwarf planet nearby. As usual with such bodies, it was a ball of ice and rock. However, this one had a telepathic signature on the surface. It was welcoming all non-hostile visitors.


    “Are you coming with me to visit the surface facilities?” asked Diobvilion-19. “They’re supposed to be excellent, catering for a huge variety of customers and tastes.”


    “Maybe later,” replied his clone brother Diobvilion-24. “I need to sleep. I’m so stressed out after the Habitat disappeared.”


    “Well, I just slept while you piloted the ship,” said Diobvilion-19. “I can go and then report back.” His brother agreed, so Diobvilion-19 teleported down. He kept his pressure suit on until he was sure that the air was breathable. After that, he took off the suit and bio-glued it high on a sturdy metal wall. He flexed his limbs and climbed up another wall. There were no ridiculous flimsy screen walls round here, thankfully! There was a mixture of furniture in this hall, which showed that it was equipped to deal with the needs of numerous different intelligent species. There was even some on the walls, which was a rarity. He tried some but they weren’t quite right for him.


    “Greetings!” said a short, thin man who appeared behind Diobvilion-19. “I am Setrime, the manager of this establishment. I will try my best to make you comfortable on your stay here. I’m sensing that you’d like a change of structure here.” He gestured at the wall next to Diobvilion-19 and it quickly reformed itself into a body-shelf group for the newcomer. Diobvilion-19 climbed in and it was almost the perfect shape to support him as he lay on his side. As he shuffled around, he felt the metal shift beneath him to create an even more perfect shape for him.


    “Greetings to you,” he said to Setrime. “It is indeed rare to find a hostelry that caters for wall-walkers as well as this. For an ordinary floor walker, you have a superb understanding of our needs. I am Diobvilion-19, lately of the Gjanerisch Habitat. Call me D-19 for short.”


    “From your memories, I see that you have recently lost your Habitat,” said Setrime. “You have my condolences. Neither you nor I know what happened to it. I hope that you find it again one day. I know some people who might be able to help in that search.”


    “That was such a terrible day,” said D-19. “We were heading home after a difficult trade mission to Jagrastar-12. Our people have never been very friendly with the Jagrans. As often happens, we failed to agree on any deals with them. We were hoping for rest and recreation with our own kind at the Habitat but it had completely vanished. There was not even a speck of debris or residue of radiation to show that it had ever been there. D-24 and I searched for weeks and found nothing. In the Kimbion Konkuve, we heard a third-hand rumour that some odd little spacecraft or machine had been seen next to the Habitat shortly before the disappearance. That was our only clue but, so far, it has not helped at all.”


    “I wonder if the Jagrans had something to do with it?” said Setrime. “Are there any other candidate species?”


    “We don’t know of any,” replied D-19. “We do our best to maintain good relations with all the neighbours. The disappearance was probably caused by a natural event or a completely foreign force. No one else would dare.”


    “I don’t think that we’re going to find the Habitat today,” said Setrime. “So, in the mean time, would you like to see a list of our facilities for wall-walkers?”


    “That would be very welcome,” said D-19. “Will there be a charge?”


    “No sir, this is all free,” said Setrime. “I am wealthy and have no need to charge. I like to provide services to occasional visitors with my excellent, mechanised facilities.”


    “I have never seen anywhere as advanced as this,” said D-19. “Your vault must be bursting!”


    “My stuffed vault is too advanced to be found!” said Setrime with a self-satisfied expression and a knowing smile. Normally, D-19 would have found smugness very irksome but today he was glad of such a top-notch, free guesthouse. Still, he would have to look for the inevitable ‘catch’ to all this, right after he read the facilities list.


    He started his recreation with a massage and exfoliation. Metal arms extended from the ceiling and rhythmically rubbed his major muscles as he lay in his custom-moulded shelf group. After that, they moved on to gently flexing his shell plates. The massage was so good that telepathy might have been involved. Were these arms part of a sentient, telepathic being? D-19 tried to probe them but could find no telepathic brain attached to them. After several minutes, the massage stopped and the exfoliation began. D-19 was very appreciative as a considerable amount of dead tissue was scoured from his body. He put his suspicions aside for a while.


    As the exfoliation ended, D-19 tuned into the telepathic news. Coverage was quite patchy here but Setrime provided a boost. Large numbers of people were still searching for the Habitat but so far with no results. There were so many millions of solar systems in this sector of the galaxy that the search could go on indefinitely, unless someone found a positive lead. There had been some very dear friends and a few clone brothers on that big space station. D-19 felt pretty depressed, despite finding Setrime’s superlative metal service centre. Were they dead or somewhere else? Were they free and healthy or were they being held captive? D-19 didn’t want to dwell on the awful possibilities. He should keep searching. As his mind scanned the telepathic environment, he opted to try the triple-level dart dodge. He relocated to the nearby sports hall. In this game, he had to dodge small darts that were fired at him. His body was too tough to be harmed by these darts, so it was safe for him. First, he had to stand on the floor and dodge ten darts. Then, he was allowed onto the walls and had to dodge twenty darts. Next, he had to dodge fifteen darts while clinging to the ceiling. If he succeeded, despite all the distractions and misdirections, he had to repeat the challenge slightly quicker in Round 2. After that came Round 3 and so forth. The question was, how many rounds could he complete? Could he achieve a new record by reaching Round 11? He did his best and managed to dodge two hundred and thirty seven darts until, late in Round 5, he was distracted for a split second by a telepathic alert and a dart grazed his second left knee. The game was over but he had had a decent workout. The machine that threw the darts was precise and never cheated, though it used a wicked shimmying approach to confuse players.


    In the ammonia shower after the game, D-19 investigated the telepathic alert. It appeared that there might be other people on this dwarf planet. D-19 tried to pinpoint their locations but with no luck. He consulted a plan of the facilities. There were many chambers to explore. D-19 decided to walk around to see if he could find anyone. He leapt onto a wall and scuttled down a corridor, leaving a small trail of ammonia in his wake. Periodically, he would leap to the other side of the corridor for a different perspective and to even out the strain on his limbs. He explored a major part of the complex quite quickly. This building was mostly underground, so he was going from one basement level to another. Down in level eight, he found a series of small, secure chambers that he could not open. He definitely sensed a weak brainwave pattern in one of them. These chambers didn’t look like proper quarters, more like storage pods. Was it a prison? More disturbingly, was he to be the next inmate? He called his brother D-24 but had no response because D-24 was still asleep. He tried calling Setrime but found no trace. As far as he could tell, Setrime was either dead or many light years away. It was very odd indeed. Had the manager suddenly died or left on a star ship?


    What was going on here? D-19 sat on the wall and focused intently. He detected another two very faint brain waves in the storage pods. Given that there were nine pods, there might be nine or more people in them, depending on size and other factors. D-24 was dreaming about his old friends and some primitive creatures that they used to hunt. No other minds were on this dwarf planet but some force was hovering around him, touching his thoughts incredibly gently. He hadn’t even noticed it before. It was the deepest mind that he had ever encountered. It was like the giant phegelun on his home world, which lurked under ships on the ocean and read minds undetected. This was a phegelun on a much more massive scale. It was fairly close by, in astronomical terms. It seemed to be harmless. If it was not, it would have attacked by now. This was an uncharted system. Perhaps there was a vast, hidden intelligence closer to the local sun. D-19 and his brother had wandered unwittingly into the territory of some kind of god.


    He searched further down a corridor and found only empty rooms until he came to a door at the far end marked ‘Setrime’. It even had a holographic picture of the little man’s smiling face above the name-plate. D-19 could see now how Setrime had access to such amazing technology. That god thing arranged it all. D-19 wanted to find Setrime and get some definite answers. If this was his office or bed chamber, there could be clues to his whereabouts inside. He opened the door carefully. The room contained only some unknown robotic components and tools. They seemed to be very specialised. D-19 would need help finding out what they were and how to use them. There was a large shadow above, as if a light had failed. D-19 looked up, recognised a very familiar shape and gasped. She was absolutely magnificent, a paragon of womanhood, a glorious female of his species. What was she doing here? Why had he not felt her presence before? He was starting to feel it now, sure enough. He couldn’t resist her allure: he climbed up to her as she stirred.


    “Is this a dream?” he said, his mind reeling that this should happen here and now. “There is a god mind here. That might be affecting us.”


    “Hello, man of mine,” said the woman, bio-glued to the wall and ceiling in the most seductive pose imaginable. “Hush your mind and worry no more. I am here for you. Destiny may be found in unexpected places. Come closer and find yours with me.” Without another word, D-19 gently scaled her mighty body and placed his limbs in the natural recesses on her torso. Their bio-glue began to flow and the lengthy process of merger began. D-19 would never leave her again, until death came. He was absolutely staggered by this turn of events but their mingling bio-glue chemicals were already making him extremely calm. He didn’t worry about anything anymore. He didn’t care that females were exceedingly choosy and were never found in places like this. He didn’t care that his independent life was over. He didn’t care that this might all be an elaborate trap. He didn’t care that powerful forces might be trying to destroy his species. All he knew now was that he had found a first class woman to hold him forever and continue his bloodline. He never thought that he would be chosen but she had come to him, like a bolt from the blue.


    She stroked his shell plates and skin, which were surprisingly soft. Ah, of course, he had had a massage, exfoliation and shower. That was a very happy accident. She felt so incredibly complete. She accessed his mind and explored it for a while in a reverie. What would they do now that they had bonded? They could stay here for a while and continue to enjoy the facilities but then they should return to their own kind. It was a shame that the Gjanerisch Habitat was gone but perhaps that was a good thing. She would have been an extremely disruptive influence there. The men would have been fighting uncontrollably over her.


    “Let’s go back to the ship,” suggested D-19. “My clone brother can also merge with you, on your left side.”


    “Absolutely, my love,” she said. “We will set up home together somewhere nice, like the Banvoi-Nol colony. The scenery is superb and the food is so plentiful.” She didn’t actually know about the colony. She had simply taken the information from his fantasies. She wasn’t a natural-born woman but an extremely skilful construct. He didn’t care in the slightest. They beamed out of the basement and back to the ship, where D-24 had the surprise of his life. Both brothers lived out the rest of their lives merged with a ten-metre-long, eight-legged, wall hugging stunner who produced dozens of children.


    “That one was pretty incredible,” thought Setrime as the little star ship teleported away. “I really had to think on my feet this time. I knew that those two brothers were coming to visit us because I monitored their communications. I used the female to access their deepest memories and, as a bonus, fulfil their greatest desires. They were biologically incapable of resisting her. I built that woman in ten days. She was copied from a mind/body scan that we already had on file.”


    “Congratulations, my faithful drone,” said Meister from his control room on Cybertron. “As long as we don’t do any harm, our information gathering scheme can continue and, with luck, we will escape from this accursed universe. Now, have you extracted any more useful facts from the annoying little Fazva-Dem woman?”


    “No sir,” said Setrime ruefully. “I think that we have exhausted that one’s stock.”


    “Never mind,” said Meister. “Send her back. Don’t forget to include her twenty three travelling cases and ALL the contents. You are forbidden from taking souvenirs.” The woman was removed from the level eight analysis tube and dispatched back to her star ship cruise. It hadn’t been that long. No one would suspect. Meister was satisfied that useful intelligence was being gathered, slowly but steadily. The Transformers were not allowed to leave this solar system but they could lure people in and learn from them.


    * * * * *


    It’s me Antren again! My robots were forced to defend themselves very violently not so long ago. We were on a mission to refolndrify a jakulcruom but we accidentally triggered an automated planetary defence system. (If you don’t know what a jakulcruom is, just imagine a tremelnoot with a ganglypex balanced on top and little furry strings underneath. It’s very cute.) The attackers were quite advanced machines with powerful weapons. They tore into my crew at great speed and destroyed millions. They had a device that launched billions of micro-meteorites at high speed, which ripped robots into pieces. Those pieces were thrown in all directions by the impacts and then went on to hit and damage other robots. You could call it a ‘slaughter’ at first, except that these were all non-living robots. I used my phasing ability to ‘lift’ my robots out of danger, which gave them a chance to prepare for the next onslaught. They bolstered their shields, charged their weapons and I ‘dropped’ them back into the fray. In the silence of orbital space, they threw themselves at their misguided attackers.


    There was no way to shut down the enemies by code transmission since those drones had no receivers. Some of my robots used their mining beams against the enemies: wide-beam disintegrators cut great swathes through the swarm. Some shields withstood those beams but anything unshielded evaporated. Other robots used a different kind of ray against the enemies, which impeded the flow of electrons in all their circuits and made them non-functional, so that they simply drifted away into deep space. Some robots made it through the barrage and had to be tackled individually. My crew grappled onto them and tried to chop them up with their standard tools: lasers, buzz saws, pneumatic cutters and the like. After the standard-sized robots came the larger ones. We dealt with those by quickly assembling some very heavy cannons and firing off raging streams of plasma. The same plasma also destroyed the micro-meteorite launcher. Combat operations were extensive and took five hours to complete. When the main strike force had been mostly nullified, the remaining enemies became guerrillas and had to be dealt with one by one as they charged in to attack from every conceivable angle. It was so relentless. Thank goodness that my pet droids were such excellent defenders and that I could phase ‘above’ the whole thing.


    When it was all over, we had several million casualties while the other side was essentially obliterated. Large numbers of broken robots from both sides were captured by the nearby planet’s gravity and burnt up in the atmosphere. The people below had an amazing display of ‘shooting stars’. Some broken robots were flying rapidly away into deep space while a third group were drifting around more slowly. I asked my robots what we should do. They said that they wanted to replace their losses and thus maintain their strength. A quick way to do that was to salvage materials from the casualties on both sides. I agreed that they should go ahead. They flew around en masse, gathering up debris and bringing it together to form a single mass that was kept together with magnetism, cables and rivets. As they did this, we were approached by a shuttle craft from the surface. The occupants, who were representatives of the coalition that had built the defence system, wanted to negotiate. I explained that we didn’t want to kill any of them but we were going to take their broken robots as raw materials to rebuild our own robots. They were in no position to argue. As compensation, we gave them a little technological knowledge to advance their civilisation. Although they begged for more, we would not give too much since they weren’t ready yet. They retreated back to their world and were grateful for small mercies. We carried out our mission, which seemed so insignificant yet was supposed to have great consequences in future. Who could have guessed that one jakulcruom could lead to so many dingshlats decades later? It took several weeks to clear up all the significant debris from one large space battle. Rebuilding all our robots took a further few weeks. We had to go on a big asteroid mining expedition to gather enough metal to complete the project. I really hope that this doesn’t happen too often. It is a massive pain in the leespan, I can tell you! Still, we’re back on track now. Onward, ever onward!


    * * * * *


    “Go on, put me in the story!” Cliffjumper urged his friend. “I can be the plucky little hero who snatches the Very Important Thing and overcomes every obstacle to place it on the Plinth of Power and thus save the day!” Brawn shuddered and shook his head.


    “You’re not exactly the best choice for that sort of thing,” said Brawn. “Besides, my story isn’t so formulaic. It deals with more abstract issues like motivation, memory, hidden forces, mythical gods and so forth.”


    “You’re not the best choice for creating a fantasy story, you know,” said Cliffjumper. “Your traditional role is as a strong-bot. Why not leave this aimless piffle and do some proper work?”


    “There’s a time and a place for everything,” said Brawn. “Right now, my intuition tells me to explore some new, weird concepts. I’m sure that this won’t last forever. I’ll be back to shifting heavy loads and punching enemies before long.”


    “Suit yourself,” said Cliffjumper dismissively. “At least you’re in good company. I notice that many of our old friends are pursuing uncharacteristic projects. Gears is planning a tour of this solar system. Normally, he hates leaving Cybertron. Perceptor has challenged himself to build a tower of junk that’s half a kilometre high. So far, he’s only managed fifty metres before someone ‘accidentally’ knocks it down. Now, he isn’t known for doing pointless things, is he?”


    “This is one of the bases of my story,” said Brawn pensively. “Our friends are acting out of character. In a way, I’m trying to explain it. I’m not the brightest but I have to try to understand the universe around me, by any means possible. I also think that something is interfering with our brains. You know that that’s a problem for me anyway. Even small microwave generators can cramp my style.”


    “That’s great,” said Cliffjumper, appearing to stop listening and lose interest. “Anyway, I have a project of my own to continue. I’m turning Tower 29815 entirely into glass. It’s going to look fantastic!” He transformed into a small, red ground vehicle and sped away. Brawn was left wondering why Cliffjumper was turning that tower into glass. No one had requested it, approved it or even mentioned it before. Brawn had an ominous feeling. It was like an organic creature’s bad dream. The world around him seemed to be slipping gradually into disorder and he was powerless to stop it. He had to think of a solution but his brain was increasingly foggy and his friends were turning away. The amount of help coming through the network had dropped dramatically. Everyone seemed to be side-tracked and self-centred, even the greatest minds on the planet. However, Brawn had been in plenty of tough situations. As usual, the way through this predicament was to keep searching for answers and smashing through barriers. He would also keep notes to help him spot patterns in the weirdness. Assuming that he could retain enough intelligence, he would restore order on Cybertron in due course and it would make an intriguing story too. ‘Chapter fifteen: Frenzy tries to make an ornamental garden with no plants whatsoever but, instead, a wide array of circuit boards...’


    Brawn transformed into a small green ground vehicle and drove around the highways of his local city. He was trying to assess the state of the network and of those connected to it. The situation wasn’t looking too good. Unknown actors were ripping the Transformer network apart. He had seen it before several times. Dark gods were the usual culprits. This time, they seemed more powerful and mysterious than ever before. As he drove deeper into the Grand Tower of Remembrance, he felt something new manifesting around him. There seemed to be lines of force humming above, below, ahead, behind, left and right. He noted their positions as best he could. What could this mean? It felt like an attempt at contact. He moved to the exact centre of the force line cluster but nothing happened. He measured each line and realised that they were of different lengths. Furthermore, there were more long lines on one side than the other. He tried moving to different positions nearer the long lines but that brought no results. Finally, he tried moving nearer to the short lines and found a spot where contact could be made. He felt a thought transmission that consisted of determination masking fear. It was the same emotion that accompanied civilisations facing great threats. Hardly any Transformers responded. Those that did simply said that they were powerless.


    Brawn wasn’t sure what to do about all this but he was very curious and so stayed where he was and watched. Next to him, some creatures teleported into view. They were carrying thick cables that shimmered. They laid these down and the cables grew longer and thinner. They stretched to nearly three kilometres, branched out and came into contact with a few hundred other Transformers, who were then reconnected with each other. This helped to bring them to their senses and stopped them from engaging in meaningless activities. One of the reconnected Transformers was a constructor called Braiduct. He examined the cable and saw that it could act as a replacement material for the existing network, which was clearly being made ineffective. Braiduct immediately analysed the cable and discovered how to replicate it. He employed friends and robots to start making more of this new cable, which they did with increasing speed. More people were brought back to the straight and narrow. More robots were summoned back to duty. A network of new cables was hurriedly expanded across the city.


    “You really want to talk, don’t you?” said Brawn as the new cables were made and distributed. “You’ve brought us a whole new technological approach with which to do it. What shall we do now? Do you need help?” These creatures from an unknown star system didn’t communicate verbally. They showed Brawn pictures of their worlds. People there were being cut off from one another. Minds were being turned towards solitary pursuits. Areas were being isolated through the inactivation of vehicles and communication systems. Entire planets were being phased into distant realms and lost, perhaps forever. It was happening in a large number of places. The cables were helping to keep some people in contact with each other but only for a limited time. Society was disintegrating. There seemed to be no end in sight. In desperation, these creatures had come here to Cybertron.


    “You want us to leave this universe,” said Brawn, understanding. “You think that we’re behind all this. Well, we’re not. Our plans have been put on hold indefinitely.” The creatures showed him pictures of the Cybertronian robots that moved from star system to star system. They found those robot swarms to be enigmatic at best, menacing at worst. Whenever they passed by, calamity seemed to follow.


    “We can’t help with that, I’m afraid,” said Brawn. “We’re not allowed to leave this solar system. Any of us who try don’t get far, can’t do much and find themselves in big trouble before long. We are outclassed and unwelcome in this universe. Our robots have been commandeered by various alien species for unknown reasons. We think that those species are trying to improve their lives by whatever means necessary. Even if we could stop them, I don’t think that we would like to do so. We don’t have much information but they seem to be doing a good job.” The other Transformers in the new network concurred. They had done an immense amount of good work across millions of universes but this was one that they couldn’t handle. Their god Primus had spoken. The alien creatures saw that their fate was sealed. They would have to return to their worlds and die with dignity. They faded away. The Transformers never saw them again, except in guilt-induced visions later on.


    “Damn!” exclaimed Brawn. He wanted to punch something but knew that it would do no good. They would all just have to hope that those aliens didn’t suffer too much. At least now they had new cables that resisted the malign influences of this universe for a while.


    “Brawn, what the frak am I doing?” said Cliffjumper via the new network. “A robot just jammed a cable into my leg and I found myself glassing a tower. It could collapse at any minute!”


    “Get yourself out of there and I’ll explain,” said Brawn. “Don’t blame yourself. This universe is working very hard to screw us all up. Thank Primus that these cables are giving us temporary respite.” He drove over to Cliffjumper in case his little red friend or others needed rescuing. He knew that Cliffjumper’s special glass gas gun could cause massive property damage and thus massive casualties. The fantasy story was on hold for now. Events were overtaking it and Brawn had to focus on the present situation.


    * * * * *


    Gyvlor had acquired enough power to make him virtually divine, yet still he was stalked by anxiety. Today, his robots descended to a planet’s surface and dug a hundred-kilometre canal to join two seas. The task took only thirty four minutes. He was with the local population, who were watching from a safe distance. If they didn’t know better, the sight of trillions of robots descending from the sky would have looked like the end of the world. It was as if a heavenly host had descended to exterminate all wickedness from the face of the planet. In fact, all that the robots were doing was shifting billions of tonnes of earth and rock to depository areas many kilometres from the canal site. There was a stunned silence from most of the observers. A minority, particularly children and those of a nervous disposition, were a little shocked and emotional. The robots were as quick as they could be. They tried to be quiet but they couldn’t completely deaden the rumbling of so much spoil being picked up, flown along and dropped. In the final few minutes, they acted in complete synchrony to remove the blocks at both ends of the canal. Sea water rushed in to flood the new shipping highway within a few hours. When the excavation was finished, the robots returned to orbit as per the agreement. There was a huge outbreak of cheering and the local version of applause, which consisted of slapping left elbows together, then doing the same with right elbows. Having four arms each meant that they could do some unusual things.


    “The planet Xethrom is in your debt, Gyvlor,” said the regional governor. “You have given transport and commerce a massive boost. We didn’t have to pay a price for it, either in terms of money, energy, materials, labour or lives. You are a world hero and will be so honoured by many dignitaries.”


    “My thanks, governor,” said Gyvlor. “I am glad that I managed to save your people a huge amount of work and suffering. This canal had been needed for centuries but the difficulties of building it had been too much until now.”


    “I’m sure that you would be welcome to stay indefinitely, if you so chose,” said the governor. “Your robot workers would be extremely useful and highly valued.”


    “Unfortunately, as I explained earlier, we can’t stay,” said Gyvlor graciously. “We are on a mission to help planets across the entire universe. We must depart soon: my apologies if you are disappointed.”


    “Please accept these bars of pure platinum,” said the shinekeeper, handing over eight heavy metal ingots that he had brought from the treasury. “We know that you don’t accept any form of money but we do know that you have a shortage of platinum for the circuits of your wonderful robots. We hope that this is useful to them.”


    “I’m sure that it will be,” said Gyvlor, his arms straining to hold the bars. “I will pass it on straight away.” A solitary lingering robot zoomed across the land and took the platinum from him. Then, it took the bars up to the other robots in orbit, where they were sliced up finely and distributed to those in need. After that, Gyvlor was presented with eighteen awards for his service to Xethrom and its various regions and organisations. When the congratulatory speeches had all been made, Gyvlor was free to leave. He teleported up to his shuttle craft, where he put his awards in a pile with all the other awards from planets that he had assisted before. He couldn’t seem to avoid receiving them. They were starting to crowd out his living area. He lay back on his bed and tried to rest. His enormous fleet of robots would be departing soon and he would have to guide them through hyperspace, so he had to recover some strength and focus. He still felt anxious. Judging from past experience of anxiety, he reckoned that a fairly major problem would soon crop up. Nevertheless, he managed to sleep for a couple of hours.


    An alarm woke him. It was time to make the leap to the next star system. The robots had gathered around the shuttle craft in a compact formation, to make the trip easier. They provided the power and he had the necessary intuition to take them through many dimensions to their destination. They set off and proceeded as usual. Gyvlor had been a hyperspatial pilot for ten years before agreeing to accompany these robots, so he knew exactly what he was doing. Just as they were nearing the next star system, there was a major disruption in hyperspace. It took them all by surprise. Gyvlor wasn’t entirely sure what to do but his intuition told him to continue rather than make an emergency stop. They pressed on. The rest of the journey was rough but they got through it. Looking back, Gyvlor could see that extensive, unnatural barriers had ‘descended’ to block off parts of hyperspace. They would probably not be able to go back the way that they had come. Exactly as he had predicted, here was that major problem. Gyvlor searched around the barrier but it was comprehensive. It was also deeply worrying. How long would it stay there? Would there be others appearing in future? Would they be prevented from travelling to other stars and galaxies soon? Would Gyvlor be able to go home at the end of this mission or would he die out here?


    To take his mind off these questions, Gyvlor inspected his troops. Most things seemed to be in order. Some robots were still slightly dirty after their recent geological project. A quick dip in the ocean had not entirely cleansed them. That would be rectified soon enough. A few robots had suffered minor damage through carrying too many rocks. Spare parts were brought out of a cargo pod and passed around for immediate installation. In the distance, some robots were drifting out of formation. Gyvlor flew his shuttle craft over to them. They were not responding to his commands or any directions from their fellow robots. This was very worrying indeed. Nothing had made his robots unresponsive before except extreme damage. A diagnostic scan revealed a large amount of malware in the affected robots. In the end, it turned out that over two million robots were infected. This was new malware. The robots would have to isolate it, study it carefully and devise an antidote. There was a danger that the whole army could be infected otherwise.


    Gyvlor became even more worried. What was he going to do about the mission? Should the infected robots and their ‘doctors’ be left behind while the rest of the robots proceeded onwards? Alternatively, should the army stay together and purge their ranks, delaying the mission for at least a few days? Given the appearance of the new hyperspatial blockade, it seemed that the robot army had to remain united or else risk losing some cohorts behind impenetrable walls. Gyvlor might have had godlike powers but he was still vulnerable. He decided that he had to contact the other robot armies in other parts of the universe, to warn them of what he had just experienced. He managed to tell some of them but not others. He learnt that many barriers had descended across hyperspace and more were doing so every day, preventing both transport and communication. Furthermore, some phasing was also being blocked. A few armies were reporting malware attacks as well. What were the armies going to do? Some of the leaders had had enough and wanted to go home but most of those couldn’t reach home due to the barriers, so they were stuck with their respective armies. Most leaders wanted to continue with their missions. They vowed to do so until they were totally boxed in and/or shut down. They didn’t expect that they would ever go home anyway. Their missions were all-consuming.


    Gyvlor was beginning to resent these ‘Transformers’, who had made the robot armies and had inadvertently set him on this perilous path. Perhaps it was time to cut and run: to go home now before it was too late. However, if he did that, he would never have another chance to improve the universe on such a scale. Also, there was no guarantee that his home would be safe in the face of such all-pervading threats: entities that could prevent hyperspatial travel could easily destroy any planet. On balance, it was more prudent to continue working with the robot armies, even if Gyvlor’s initial optimism and high spirits were being steadily replaced by worry and insecurity. The main body of the robot armada rushed towards its next assignment on the far side of the latest solar system. For the time being, the infected robots were left floating in space, running anti-malware sweeps and trying to recover.


    * * * * *


    “That’s ENOUGH, you charlatans!” boomed a deep, angry voice from the next street.


    “What’s happening?!” said Epankret, suddenly panicky.


    “It’s not our doing!” said Canjanius. At that moment, the building between them and the voice exploded, knocking them down. They both lost consciousness for a minute. When they woke up again, they couldn’t hear very well. The explosion had damaged their ears. The air was full of smoke and dust. Their lungs had been impacted by the shockwave, so it was hard to breathe. Standing over them was a giant figure clad in black armour. It had two arms, two legs, one head, a sturdy torso and a large silver tube fixed to its left arm. The end of the silver tube was smoking copiously. The figure bent down to look at them. It had a golden face plate with two shining blue eyes near the centre, below which was what might have been a nose and mouth. As it came closer, they could tell that it wasn’t an organic creature in armour but rather a metallic creature. If the armour was actually its skin, was it naked? There was no time for such speculation, though.


    “You are the leader here,” it said, examining Canjanius. “You are spreading your disease to this world and many others. You must be stopped!” The black giant crushed Canjanius to a pulp under his huge right hand. Epankret had recently become telepathic, so she felt Canjanius’ pain as he died and she screamed loudly.


    “You are one of the afflicted,” said the giant to her. “Maybe we could fix you.” He scanned her.


    “No, it wouldn’t be worth it,” he concluded. “You have already been compromised too much. Still, I’ll make this quick.” He picked her up with his right hand and stuffed her into the silver tube on his left arm. The last thing that she saw was the intense plasma fire in the central portion of the tube. She tumbled down the tube with one last terrified shriek and was vaporised inside it.


    “Confusacons, attack!” said the giant as the Epankret gases billowed from his weapon. “We must eliminate the enemy nano-plague from this world.”


    “Your will be done, Millicleus!” affirmed the Confusacons, who had been hiding all over the city. Now, they shed their disguises and converted themselves into advanced fighting robots. They began to slaughter as many infected people as possible and also anyone else who tried to protect them. At the same time, they released their own nano-machines into the environment, which would seek and destroy the enemy nano-plague. The killing and purging went on for weeks. The Confusacons travelled throughout the land, reducing most structures to wrecks and eliminating most of the population. The only ones spared were those who were untouched by the plague and who didn’t interfere with Confusacon actions in any way.


    Eventually, they found the shuttle craft in which the loathed Canjanius had travelled to this world. This primitive, dingy little ship was saturated with the nano-plague, so it had to be thoroughly disinfected. After that, the Confusacons plundered its database and discovered where it had gone before. They planned to visit all the worlds that Canjanius had polluted and disinfect them, if possible. It was quite likely that there were still further worlds to purge. In the database, there was a list of other organisations that were also spreading the nano-plague. Millicleus had a huge army that was capable of doing the work but they were already being hindered by the hyperspatial blocks that were spreading across the universe. The Confusacons would have to work quickly to remove as many infections as they could from their own galaxy before going elsewhere to repeat the process.


    Millicleus finished absorbing the shuttle craft database, then used his plasma weapon to reduce the craft to scraps of smelted metal. He abhorred invaders and trouble-makers who wanted to disturb his peaceful tyranny. The underlying spirits of the universe urged him to continue his crusade of retribution for as long as necessary. He would have all the resources that he required and there would be no serious opposition. He would never stop fighting subversion.


    * * * * *


    The Ujmalear people of the Tryha Galaxy were outraged by the appearance of hyperspatial barriers, which prevented them from visiting their friends and relatives in the nearby Wor Cah Galaxy. They decided to break through at least one barrier to re-establish their most important intergalactic travel route. This one particular barrier was the most formidable thing that they had ever seen but they were the best hyperspatial engineers in the super cluster. If anyone could breach it, they could. They didn’t care if the mysterious barrier builders retaliated against them. It was a point of principle that they should have access to their loved ones.


    They assembled their best dimensional engineers and began to investigate the barrier in question. There had to be complete understanding before action could be taken. They discovered that the structure was a tangle of substances that was more complex than anything they had seen before. They tried analysing only one strand of the tangle. They found even that task to be extremely challenging. They followed the strand as far as they could through many dimensions. It was exceedingly long, trailing for light years through thousands of star systems. On the way, it passed through millions of objects and life forms, including people. In fact, it was composed of those things and people. They had been twisted and manipulated in the higher dimensions while remaining intact in physical space.


    The Ujmalear engineers soon concluded that they could do nothing about this barrier without causing widespread death and destruction. Beings or forces of unprecedented power had constructed the barrier using the very fabric of the universe. It was the ultimate hostage situation and it might last until the end of time. The only way forward was to keep searching for ways to weaken the barrier by isolating the least vital sub-threads and breaking those until, eventually, gaps might be made in the barrier fabric. It could easily take millennia to do this, without killing anyone. In the interim, the barriers would remain impenetrable and people in other galaxies would die naturally before contact could be re-established. The engineers passed on the sad news to those with whom they could still communicate. The region was totally divided for the foreseeable future and countless people were barred from any further visits. They would live as before but it was as if they had died.


    * * * * *


    Blen Sfornac suddenly fainted on the command deck of her small, rudimentary star ship and, within moments, the fifty seven-strong crew all knew about it. They also knew why it had happened. A very, very old friend had shown up in this solar system. The red dwarf sun shone fairly dimly as the star ship Tradivore cruised from the sixth to the fifth planet, passing a dwarf planet coated in very shiny green ice. Blen was placed carefully in a reclining chair and covered with a thin blanket. She was full of nano-machines so she didn’t need medical attention, just a little coddling. She had had a huge surprise, which was highly welcome but temporarily overwhelming. Tradivore moved along unperturbed, heading directly for the three life worlds nearby.


    “Unknown ship, please identify yourself,” called Blen’s shipmate Vtamy Ael. “We would like to arrange a rendezvous as soon as possible. One of you has a deep connection to my friend Blen, who is here with us.”


    “My name is Kanblod and I am already en route,” came the reply from almost three hundred million kilometres away. “I was on a mission to remove some comets when I sensed your arrival. I will be with you very shortly.”


    “Should we change course?” asked Vtamy. “We don’t want to disturb the locals too much.”


    “Good idea,” said Kanblod. “May I suggest that we meet in orbit around that green dwarf planet? It is distant enough from the life worlds.”


    “Agreed,” said Vtamy. “We will be about six hundred kilometres from the surface.” The Tradivore made a small hyperjump and then manoeuvred into a stable orbit around the dwarf planet. Everyone on board waited excitedly to see the other ship for the first time. They might also see if there were any other crew besides Kanblod. They didn’t detect anyone telepathically but there might be others in a kind of suspended animation or immature form. After a few minutes, they spotted a small ship a few kilometres away and gave a little cheer. Then, another ship appeared a few kilometres in the other direction. The Tradivore crew were confused. A third ship appeared below the other two (from their perspective. More small ships appeared, then more, then more, then even more. A horde of little craft was beaming in. The crew watched as thousands of newcomers surrounded them. They all looked fairly similar. They didn’t look like standard star ships or even shuttles but more like multi-function space probes. It would have been very frightening if Kanblod wasn’t there. His telepathic presence was greatly reassuring. Two minutes later, Kanblod’s personal shuttle craft emerged from the throng. It was a little larger than standard shuttles, which suggested that it was designed for lengthy space voyages, perhaps with a few passengers.


    “This is absolutely astounding!” said Blen, who had just awoken from her faint. “My soul mate has arrived! This moment is so beautiful that I can’t describe it!”


    “Maybe not, but we’re feeling it!” said another crew member called Jeinarie Clupnit. “You’re broadcasting random memories from your past lives to the rest of us. Sit down, everyone. We have to ride it out.” The entire crew was subjected to a barrage of old recollections and emotions. Kanblod was also caught up in it. Everyone could see that Kanblod and Blen were soul mates and had been for millions of years. They had built up an immensely powerful emotional bond. They had lived together in thousands of different bodies, on thousands of worlds, in thousands of historical periods. Sometimes, they had lived in primitive conditions and other times in various states of modernity. As time had passed, they had gained increasing amounts of wisdom and had left behind the mistakes of their youth, like cruelty, neglect, lack of care, vices, excesses, needless fears and unhealthy preoccupations.


    “Please, tone it down!” said astrobiologist Bvyglor Hablahan. “We can’t think straight. Your vast collection of poignant experiences is running amok through our brains!” Blen knew that she had to get a grip. Kanblod knew it too. His past life memories were also pouring out into the telepathic network. The couple reached out to each other spiritually across the vacuum of space. It was a super-intense reunion but they were so accustomed to each other’s ways that they worked together extremely easily. They calmed each other down with a myriad of methods and managed to contain their errant memories, stacking them carefully in the appropriate mental ‘boxes’.


    “Thank goodness, it’s stopping,” said the engineer Yanna Reehyon. “Blen, that was one of the most intense experiences of my life. It’s totally incredible what you’ve been through. Look, I’m so moved that I’m venting out of all four trif-holes!” She embraced her good friend Blen for a minute as trif-juice slowly trickled down her back.


    “I’m sorry about all that old history erupting from our souls, everyone,” said Blen to the crew. “Kanblod and I will do our very best to keep it under wraps in future.” The crew regarded Blen with even more respect after seeing many of her past lives and the lessons that she had learnt. They had known that she was wise before but now she was on another level entirely.


    “You know why we have met again here today,” said Kanblod. “The situation in the galaxy, in the whole universe, is changing rapidly. It is time for us to have another child, a very special one. Blen, are you ready?” Her head span. That suggestion was so profound. She knew that she should have this child but the sheer weight of responsibility was daunting. Kanblod’s biochemistry was currently very different to hers but that could be overcome. He had acquired a gigantic fleet of super-advanced robots. They could reprogramme genes and sculpt new life forms.


    “It will be so wonderful to have such an important child,” said Blen. “The question is, what will it be like and how will we raise it? We’re so different now. Our bodies need different chemicals and temperatures to survive.”


    “This child won’t be ‘normal’, as we understand it,” said Kanblod. “It will be a superior life form, able to survive and operate in many environments. The technology in our blood will make it so. It won’t need much nurturing.” He showed her a simulation of a shape-shifting creature, adapting to different worlds and learning whatever it needed almost effortlessly.


    “That’s not a ‘child’ as I understand it,” said Blen. “It’s a biological machine, designed to do its job very effectively. All that is needed are samples of our genetic material and this thing can be grown artificially. We won’t be involved as true parents. However, if that’s what is required, I’ll donate my sample. It’s just not what I envisaged.” Kanblod was silent for a while. She was right.


    “You know Blen, I have been living with these robots for many years,” said Kanblod. “They are marvellous things and they can do so much but perhaps I have let that blind me to the reality of organic life. If we make our child into a super-adaptable genius creature, it won’t have the appropriate experiences. It won’t have the same hardships and learn the same lessons. It won’t be able to call itself a natural, authentic, organic person.”


    “We will have to go back to Aantua, my current home world,” said Blen, taking charge. “I need my family around me to help. My place on this space mission will be forfeit. That’s unfortunate but my desires have changed. I might go on other missions later. This child will have to be the same species as me, or sufficiently similar. I can’t look after it if it’s too alien.”


    “Reading your memories, Aantua seems to be a lovely place,” said Kanblod. “I would be happy to live there with you. I will have the robots change my entire body so that I become one of your species. Then, we can set up home together. I absolutely adore making new homes with you. Someone else can take over my space mission. There’s no shortage of candidates out there.” Blen considered this. She consulted the robots that floated around the Tradivore.


    “I am told that a total body reconstruction would be very painful for you,” she said a minute later. “It might work but it is a radical procedure, even by super-advanced standards. You would probably have physical and psychological problems for the rest of your long life. No one wants that.”


    “So what do you propose?” asked Kanblod. “I don’t want to be separated from you, now that I’ve found you once again.”


    “Aantua has become a much more tolerant and inclusive place since the esteemed Nrenla Fung brought the nano-machines and united our minds,” said Blen. “I think that you should keep your existing form but have some biochemical changes so that you can tolerate the lower temperatures and the compounds that you currently find poisonous. It will still be a little difficult for you but not as much as the total reconstruction option.”


    “That sounds fine,” said Kanblod. “I will be a novelty on Aantua but we can make this work.”


    “You’ve out-done yourself this time,” said Blen. “You always were quite accommodating but soon you’ll have your body modified and be living on an alien world, adapting to an alien society. It’s a shame that I can’t touch you yet. I can do this, though.” She went to an airlock, opened it, put some of her personal nano-machines inside and released them into space. They were captured in a magnetic field by one of the robots, which then absorbed them.


    “It’s the same basic technology but with a few tweaks and some new information inside,” said Kanblod. “Those Transformers really know how to spread their influence, don’t they? These nanos will enrich my robots. It’s an amazing gesture, Blen!”


    Months passed. Robots and nano-machines did their work. The embryo was created and implanted. Kanblod was altered and so was Blen, to make her more chemically compatible with her partner. Substitutes were found for their space missions. A new leader took charge of the robot army, which then teleported away to continue its mission. A star ship brought the couple to Aantua. A dwelling had been built for them in the family estate, with special modifications for Kanblod. Further modifications could be made later for any special needs that the child had. Practical problems were quickly overcome. Kanblod made himself very useful with his hundreds of tentacles, some of which were nearly twenty metres long at full stretch. He found work in fields that required a long reach, such as roofing. Sometimes, if he concentrated hard, he could pick all the fruit from a tree in less than two minutes. As Blen’s pregnancy progressed, Kanblod could usually be called upon to support her when she was tired, at any angle. He also gave some superb massages. Then, they heard the baby’s thoughts for the first time and they entered another novel chapter in their long life stories.


    * * * * *


    The fake asteroid, which was actually a spy drone, floated steadily through the belt of real asteroids. As it went, it recorded plenty of data, including about the robots lurking between the rocks and lumps of raw metal. These robots were fairly similar to those used by the Confusacons but there were many more of them. They numbered in the trillions. However, a significant proportion of them appeared to be unresponsive. Some of those were being cannibalised by others. The parts that weren’t networked were being reused while other parts were being dismantled. In the middle of the robot cloud, there was a solitary shuttle craft containing an organic creature. Quantum fluctuations indicated that this creature had recently phased the entire robot mass across higher dimensions. Once the fake asteroid had moved far enough away from the robots, it was collected by a stealth ship that contained its Confusacon masters. They examined the collected data and concluded that they should be able to destroy this formidable robot army.


    Their first move was to pulverise the shuttle craft that contained the organic creature. This they achieved by firing a large metal spear at the craft. The spear was travelling at the relative speed of sixty thousand kilometres per hour. The shuttle was torn into small pieces and scattered liberally through the asteroid field. After this first strike, the robots were unable to phase or teleport, so they were open to attack by heavily armed, automated battleships. Many of these ships teleported into the asteroid field and blasted away with thousands of rapid fire guns. Millions of robots were destroyed in seconds. Their near neighbours turned to attack the battleships. These robot reinforcements rushed towards the ships, firing their own powerful rays. Soon, the battleships were too damaged to function but they had made a dent in the robot ranks.


    The next attack came from nuclear mines that were teleported into the large clusters of robots around the battleships. These exploded and wrecked many more millions of robots. Some of the battleships also exploded, which increased the damage. The electromagnetic pulses from the nuclear explosions knocked out more large swathes of robots. The Confusacons knew that this was still not enough to disable the whole robot army. They had to attack many more times to do that. More ships teleported in, taking up positions on one side of the asteroid field. These more advanced gunships rained death on the interlopers, inflicting critical damage on billions of robots. The Confusacons had taken care to gather up enough star ships, munitions and other equipment to finish the job. The robots were leaderless and seemed hesitant to strike back with all their force. The Confusacons pursued their delirious dream of mass destruction until explosions filled their thoughts.


    The Confusacons’ regional commander Moonstreak watched from the other side of the solar system. He was not going to get too close to the battle zone. It was the most dangerous fight that he had ever seen, in terms of sheer firepower. He had done his best to bring together enough firepower but secretly he doubted the effectiveness of some troops, who could be a little lazy at times. They were more interested in personal glory than in hard work. However, hope was starting to return as the enemy was ground down. He ordered another wave of nuclear mines to be sent in. These duly detonated and smashed another estimated fifty million robots. Moonstreak connected his arm to a wall socket and had a refreshing drink of electricity. He hoped that his leader Millicleus would be pleased with his efforts today. A few moments later, something changed. The remaining robots, of which there were still many trillions, had a resurgence of fighting spirit. They broke their orbits and jetted towards their attackers, firing their weapons all the way. For many of them, it would be their last action. The Confusacon ships annihilated them more easily as they came closer and yet there were still too many. They couldn’t all be stopped. They started to reach the Confusacon gunship fleet and take it apart. Their disintegrator beams cut like swords, killing ships with many swipes. Moonstreak was spooked and was about to order in another fleet when he suddenly found himself relocated.


    “I’m putting you where you belong, monster!” said an organic voice from behind him. “I hope that you like swimming in magma!” Moonstreak span around, looking for the organic so that he could shoot it. He found nothing. The next moment, he was instantly crushed and melted as he was phased inside the nearest planet, along with his entire command ship. The organic creature was actually the leader of the robots. The Confusacons had failed to kill him because he had phased away from their spear attack in the nick of time. Now, he was in his little stealthy back-up shuttle, from where he could continue to direct the counter-attack against the Confusacons. This was no time to worry about casualties: his robots had to fight hard and eliminate all enemy ships to save themselves. Remorselessly and methodically, they flew at their opponents and neutralised them in any way they could. The Confusacons soon learnt that their command ship had been destroyed but they were under orders to continue fighting indefinitely. The battle went on for hours. Confusacon fire was very quick and deadly but could not resist the pressure of robot numerical superiority. There was no retreat and no surrender. All available reinforcements in the area were used. The Confusacons were wiped out and the robot ranks were reduced by approximately sixty percent.


    “We can’t stay here any longer,” said the leader to his robots. “We have to leave and rebuild in another star system. We dare not linger, even to salvage materials. The Confusacons could have more reinforcements approaching.” With that, he phased them all away. This had been a close call. At least the problem of malware had been greatly reduced: most of the affected robots had been left behind. Now, they could focus more on rebuilding. They would have to be quick because another Confusacon attack could be the end of them. The other robot legions across the universe had to be warned about the increasing Confusacon threat.


    * * * * *


    “Interesting, so a ‘trobe’ is a steady light of any sort,” remarked Meister. “Whereas a ‘strobe’ is an intermittent light.”


    “Hence, the name of our ship, War Trobe 592,” said Thilicwon, chief negotiator of the ship. “Now, if we may, we’d like to beg for your assistance. We’re refugees from a terrible, tragic invasion. Our world was taken over by the ruthless, desperate forces of the Sen-Gelen. Billions of our people are probably dead by now. We escaped because we were in deep space, filming a drama serial about interstellar war. Then, the fantasy became reality and we fled.”


    “So, you’d like to stay here, under our protection?” asked Meister. “Ordinarily, we would allow it on a temporary basis but we’re a little stretched right now. We haven’t got room for ninety two thousand eight hundred and seventy nine of you. Also, it would take weeks to manufacture an adequate environment for you to inhabit.”


    “This system has many worlds,” said Thilicwon. “There should be space on one of those. Are they habitable?”


    “Umm, actually, we have used all those worlds,” said Meister, looking a little uncomfortable. “Every scrap of them is, how shall I say, fully occupied.”


    “Deconstructed, you should say,” said Thilicwon. “I’m finally tuning into your thoughts. Great Spigly, you’ve been busy!”


    “Yes, we used them to construct our massive fleets of robots,” admitted Meister. “We left the smaller, more distant ones because they were too icy and had too little metal. I’m using one of them myself, in fact. I have facilities there but they’re not big enough for all of you. Also, they have various weird creatures living in them at present, which are fascinating but inappropriate for you.”


    “Did you say ninety two thousand on our ship?” queried Thilicwon. “That means we have over a thousand stowaways. We haven’t had a chance to do a proper head count yet. We were in a rush to leave the home system.”


    “Some of those stowaways are sick, injured or both,” said Meister. “Your people should find them quickly, treat them and save their lives.”


    “I know that you have the technology to repair our bodies from the inside,” Thilicwon pointed out. “Send some of your nano-machines over.”


    “I’ve been advised that that could jeopardise your ship,” said Meister. “The biomechanical parts could be affected by our nanobots. You could lose function and even air seals. We’d love to help but, in this case, we don’t dare. The stowaways are mostly located in bay nine, deck fifteen with a minority in bay twelve, deck eight.”


    “I’ll pass that along,” said Thilicwon. “Now, what should we do about our wider situation? For protection, we want to stay here, near you. May we live somewhere on Cybertron?”


    “There is insufficient sustenance for you on Cybertron, I’m afraid,” said Meister. “The sixteen refugee groups already there are using all our available organic-compatible material. If you went there, you would soon starve. I recommend that we transport you all to a nearby star system, either to an empty world or to one with very welcoming inhabitants.”


    “I understand that star travel is very risky for you in this universe,” said Thilicwon. “It would also threaten the lives of those sixteen other refugee groups. We wouldn’t want that. Is there another option?”


    “I have an idea,” said Meister. “I’m sending in my drone, Setrime. He will search your ship for material that could help.” The sophisticated machine Setrime was teleported from the dwarf planet guest house to the War Trobe 592. At first, the people there recoiled at the sight of him. Symmetrical features, blond hair and blue eyes made him resemble the Sen-Gelen. He quickly rearranged himself to look more hunched, swarthy, lopsided and gangly so that he could investigate without disturbing people too much. He went from deck to deck, talking to all the people who had had direct contact with the Sen-Gelen. He also searched their quarters very carefully. A few hours later, he had found several tiny pieces of what was probably Sen-Gelen organic material. He analysed it and sent the results to his creator Meister.


    The next day, Thilicwon was resting in his cabin. He hadn’t slept much due to worry and telepathic discussions with the rest of the senior staff. At least the stowaways were being brought forward and treated. The bigger problem was that supplies were so limited. Even with severe rationing, they only had enough food left for a few weeks. No one had expected that the Sen-Gelen would suddenly teleport into orbit around their home world and start bombing. There had been a smattering of premonitions but those had been too vague. The orbital defences weren’t activated in time and were knocked out by a barrage of hypersonic projectiles. Now, the people on board War Trobe 592 tried not to think about their loved ones, who were trapped and in mortal peril. As Thilicwon debated possible new worlds with his colleagues, a pot plant materialised on his recumber table, next to the gurdniem snophlers.


    “Is this from you, Meister?” he asked telepathically.


    “Indeed,” said Meister. “This could be the solution to your problem. Take it to your home world and plant it in a hidden location. I recommend putting it in one of the ancient volcanic oases in the highlands of the equatorial Jafisca continent. The spore distribution will be maximised there.”


    “Oh, I see,” said Thilicwon, receiving Meister’s information about the plant. “This is a biological weapon! It will kill the Sen-Gelen within five years.”


    “That’s the plan,” said Meister. “It’s not a purpose-built weapon but a natural plant that can coincidentally snuff out those invaders of yours. I hate to be the bringer of such mortality but our options are limited. I have seen too much combat and it is a strange relief to use these methods.”


    “This is outstanding!” said Thilicwon as the realisation that his world might be saved sank in. “How did you find this plant?! Is it dangerous to us?”


    “No, in fact it is beneficial to you,” said Meister. “You can even eat it. Don’t do that yet, though. Wait until it has spread its spores and reproduced.”


    “We can’t wait to try it out!” said Thilicwon, his mind full of other people’s glee. “Does it harm the environment, though?”


    “It is very fast to grow and multiply,” said Meister. “We obtained it from a world very far from here, where voracious herbivores kept it in check. The Sen-Gelen won’t be quick enough to kill it before it corrupts their tissues. You will have to control it yourselves in future but find your own methods to do so. If you don’t control it, other small plants will be overshadowed and some might become extinct.”


    “We’ll worry about that later,” said Thilicwon. “Now, we should teleport home while we can. We have heard reports of hyperspatial barriers appearing in other galaxies.”


    “I can’t guarantee that you’ll succeed or even survive,” said Meister. “I know about your shortage of supplies. You might be able to find other worlds but you won’t find food in time. Your only realistic option is to go back to your home world, find a relatively unspoilt area in which to hide, scratch a living and spread this plant. Your lives depend on that dembergoul, as it was called in Universe 999188. Thank Primus for our indescribably huge database!” Full of gratitude and new hope, the people of War Trobe 592 teleported home in a do-or-die attempt to reclaim their globe. Meister was disappointed that he couldn’t have offered them sanctuary on Cybertron but he was glad to have helped the oppressed once again. Meanwhile on Cybertron, the other refugees had started fighting each other for petty reasons. Perhaps it was just as well that Thilicwon’s people hadn’t been allowed to settle there after all. What would be done with all these refugees when Cybertron departed? Meister and many other Transformers would continue to search for solutions.


    * * * * *


    They are shutting us all down. The process is steady and irresistible. They are removing large amounts of our prior freedom. This universe is becoming a kind of ultra-prison with the bodies of the inmates being woven into the structure. Escape appears to be impossible, yet we are tweaking the steel in so many ways. We will continue to do so for as long as we can. I will.......


    A sudden silence descended, along with a gathering sense of dread. Bdur Raniest moved from a vivid dream of cosmic voices to wakefulness in only a few seconds. The air temperature had dropped. She put out a sensapod and touched the floor. The metal was cold, so someone had turned off the heating ... or sabotaged it. The situation felt wrong, as if bad things were going to happen. She untangled her vemrangs as best she could and stood up.


    “Auntie Bdur, the air smells funny,” said her niece Gdinz Thalka from the next bed. “It’s harder to breathe.” Gdinz was correct: Bdur and the others in the room were all breathing deeper to compensate.


    “Monitors, we have a problem in Temp. Sett. Three,” called Bdur. “Please respond.” No one did. Their hosts were all unconscious and some of them were starting to die.


    “Everyone get up and dressed!” urged Bdur forcefully. Her telepathic call nudged everyone into wakefulness. Some of the group were quick to rise and don warm clothes. Others were slower due to headaches, food shortages and general exhaustion. They were still stressed after their recent experiences. They had lost friends and family members to alien attacks and the hardships of fugitive living. They had been obliged to seek shelter on this very strange metal world, which was difficult to abide. There were fifteen neighbouring groups of alien refugees, some of whom were also strange and not particularly amicable. Those other refugees were not exactly hostile but they had very different ideas about the right ways to live.


    “The Transformers have all fallen asleep and some of them are very sick,” said Bdur. “That’s not normal at all. Someone or something powerful has knocked them out. We have to be ready to leave Cybertron and find another place to live. We may have to fight our way free.”


    “We’re locked in,” said Taym Gaflen. “How do you propose leaving this room, let alone the planet?”


    “The Tvaggiks of Temp. Sett. Nine have...” said Bdur.


    “You’re not taking our ship!” cut in one of the Tvaggiks, pre-empting Bdur’s suggestion. “You couldn’t fly it anyway. You people don’t understand Grade 76 gynlectic drive and its hazards.”


    “Bajnax, you understand the danger that we face today,” said Bdur to the Tvaggik. “We have to take action if we want to survive.”


    “Well, if you want to escape, first find a way out of Temp. Sett. Three,” said Bajnax, annoyed at this very odd woman’s presumption. “Do you have any idea how to do that? We’ve been trying for hours and we can’t open any of the doors in Temp. Sett. Nine. Try sending that brat Gdinz into the ducts.” Bdur suppressed her anger at that insult to her niece and asked if anyone knew a way out of their room. There were no useful solutions forthcoming. Everyone had been keen to stay inside, where they were safe from other people and the problems of the galaxy. They hadn’t been looking for ways out beyond the obvious doors. The ducts were protected by many internal defences and most of them were too narrow. They were not viable exits. Bajnax was trying to frustrate Bdur with an unworkable suggestion.


    “If you don’t mind, Ms.,” said a low, creepy voice to the side of her. “You’re not going anywhere. None of you ... are going ... anywhere!” Bdur turned to see a prison officer standing next to her. He was leering at her and swinging three bulb-clubs casually by his sides. She was startled and stepped away from him. From where had he sprung? He wasn’t one of the refugee group. He faded away, rubbing his bulb-clubs together in a disturbing manner as he did so.


    “That was from a holomovie,” pointed out Mabakiu Rnaji. “Someone’s trying to scare us with our old holomovies. The man was Lepvax Rojlai, the psychotic warder character from 'Crushlock Eleven Two'. Excellent make-up and lighting there, wasn’t it?”


    “Transformers, please stop the jokes,” called out Bdur, becoming increasingly nervous. “We’re trying to behave. We won’t use too many supplies. We’ll take any offer of resettlement. Please help us!” She knew that it was futile but she was clutching at any chance. Gdinz came over to comfort her.


    “It’s still getting colder,” said Gan Dafryd, shivering. “We’re going to freeze in here.” She went to the door and banged on it. With nothing to lose, Bdur and Mabakiu did the same. Gdinz joined in, eager to help. Unexpectedly, the normally locked door opened. Presumably, there was a failsafe that allowed residents to leave in an emergency. Everyone gave thanks and told the people in the other Temp. Setts. how to open their doors. The Tvaggiks of Temp. Sett. Nine hadn’t tried banging their doors because it was considered very rude in their culture. Now, though, they had to overcome their sense of propriety and bang hard for their freedom like everyone else.


    In the corridor outside Temp. Sett. Three, there was still some debris from the day before. The robots that should have cleared up were lying deactivated amid the litter. Other robots were also lying about here and there as Bdur’s group made their way along several corridors. This was a very bad sign. The robots were created and controlled by Primus, the father god of all Transformers. If they were out of order, Primus himself was in trouble and thus all of Cybertron was at risk. Already, there were creaking and groaning noises coming from underground. Without the constant labour of the robots, especially the deep-level repair operatives, the entire structure of Cybertron would soon collapse inwards, destroying everyone on the surface.


    “This place is so big,” complained Thab Noufiny. “It’s designed for those speedy Transformers, not the likes of us. There are no maps to show us where the ships are being kept.”


    “According to the people of Temp. Sett. Ten, the ships are on level 491, sector 7G,” said Gan. “They’re already heading there.”


    “That’s about twenty five levels above us,” said Nimeae Zavamar. “The stairs are too tall for us to climb, the elevators require a wireless code to operate and the aircraft shaft is useless without an aircraft, of course.”


    “There’s a spiral ramp around the outer section of the tower but it’s about one kilometre of roadway per level,” said mRar-eEtEe from Temp. Sett. Five. “Anyone fancy a twenty five kilometre climb?” The Temp. Sett. Three group were stymied. Cybertron was a tough environment for organic people.


    “Hey, I see a Transformer moving around,” said Gdinz, her keen young eyes spotting the native mech at the end of a hall. “We should ask him for help.” The others were very reluctant to do so. All the Transformers were supposed to be dormant this morning. Any still moving were deeply suspicious.


    “In the long run, we can’t avoid him but perhaps we can reach our ships if he leaves us alone for a few hours,” said Bdur. “I’m going to climb the spiral ramp and just maybe I will be allowed onto one of the ships. Come on, Gdinz. The rest of you should follow me.” There was no better option so Bdur’s group straggled up the long but manageable ramp. It was a hard climb because of Cybertron’s relatively strong gravity and the group’s borderline malnutrition. The cold, draughty tower environment didn’t help either. After three levels, they started to notice that some people were lagging behind or had stopped walking. Everyone stopped to give the slower ones a chance to catch up. They didn’t catch up. In fact, their telepathic signatures seemed to fade out and no one could contact them.


    “We have to go back and find those laggards,” said Bdur, her anxiety increasing further. “We need everyone. We might be the last survivors of our species.” Cursing and complaining, the others retraced their steps. Even on this simple spiral ramp, it was easy for the casually curious to be side-tracked in one of the hundreds of corridors branching off. No one could read the Cybertronian way markers on the walls so they couldn’t tell the difference between so many passages that looked otherwise very similar. As far as the people could tell, the missing ones had wandered into these branch corridors and vanished. They had no choice but to follow them in if they wanted to find them. They picked one corridor and entered it as a group. It was empty. Two people at the back of the group disappeared instantly. The rest panicked and dashed back to the spiral ramp. Three more people were inexplicably lost. Some unknown force was picking them off. They had no defence against it. They decided to have a rest since moving around was pointless if everyone was going to be abducted regardless. Bdur and Gdinz sat against the wall, hugged each other and prayed for deliverance.


    “You’re not getting out,” said a hologram of Old Langill the Bychlex. “We just love putting folk in the old metal cabin!” Fov Ketapod found himself lying on a titanium floor deep inside a Cybertronian building. He couldn’t move a muscle. How had he got here? He had stepped off the spiral ramp to catch his breath. He was fairly elderly and had trouble walking uphill. The next moment, he was here. There were people of other species lying next to him. He could hear their peculiar breathing patterns but he couldn’t see them. All he could see was the stupid hologram, the dimly lit ceiling and some shadows on the wall. The hologram flickered and was turned off. Five large figures stepped forwards: five Transformers who were quite at home here but who were not themselves right now.


    “If I lie here much longer, I’ll die of hypothermia,” warned Fov telepathically. “Can one of you take me somewhere warm and safe.”


    “No,” replied one of the beings controlling a Transformer. “You’re ours now. No one will ever find you in this random building. We’re going to have a party with you. We’re going to try all kinds of games. Let’s begin!” Long metal needles emerged from the floor and penetrated Fov’s back. Chemical agents were injected. Some of them were inert but caused swelling. Some were very chilly. Others were caustic and started to burn him internally. He wanted to scream and yell but it was impossible. These beings were devoid of empathy. This was now his torture chamber.


    * * * * *


    Naturally, this has to stop now. I must draw the line when enemies turn my children into torturers. If anyone is going to do that, it should be me! I have studied these latest enemies. They are perhaps the most powerful that I have ever seen but I have infiltrated their universal fabric and it’s time to shake it up, vigorously!


    I deploy some fabulous super-weapons, purloined from other universes. Flash, crash and my Transformers are free! [This is such fun, you know.] Of course, those trusty kids of mine leap into action straight away, apologising for their behaviour while possessed and then rescuing the vulnerable refugees on Cybertron . I find new home worlds for the refugees and the Transformers ferry them across the void in a matter of minutes. Earlier, I had told the Transformers that it was unsafe to travel beyond their own star system. This was a little white lie, told mainly to trick the enemy. They could have travelled to many galaxies but I made them stay behind this time as a ruse.


    More of those tiresome barriers appear around me but they are slow to construct and we can move much quicker than lightning. In fact, those hyperspatial barriers are going to be our means of escape. On a particular plane of existence, I throw myself at a developing intersection of at least ninety eight barriers. It’s impossible to give an accurate count of the number of barriers involved because they are very obscure and blend into each other extensively. I collide with this intersection in precisely the right way. I am able to fly free, away from the unfinished barriers and out of this universe altogether. As I depart, the barriers are vibrating after the collision. These very powerful and multi-directional vibrations lead to numerous small gaps in many barriers. For a time, it will be possible for some people and energies to pass through those gaps. Also, I have passed on my unique transformation vibrations to the barriers. These will be preserved in the fabric and, some time in the future, will help the barriers to change shape so that they are no longer blockages to transport, communication and progress in general.


    I am able to repair Cybertron but I have to abandon my legions of robots, spread throughout the universe. They will continue to do good works for millennia to come, until the enemy finally traps and neutralises them. I am extremely proud of what they continue to achieve, along with their little native allies. Anyway, I’ve done what I can with this awkward mess of a universe and now I’m moving on to the next one. Primus out!


    * * * * *


    “Did we find the nine left over in the Wawe Galaxy?” queried Millicleus. “We did, you say. What about the fourteen in the Nvu Nebula? We got those too? Excellent.” The giant black mechanoid paced up and down for a few minutes as he checked his records. Antren lay on the floor, bound and still quivering slightly after a day of beatings.


    “I think that we’ve got them all,” he said. “Raise yourself and look at me properly, female!” Antren was in a lot of pain and her limbs were fastened together quite tightly so it took a few minutes to reach an upright position. Standing was impossible on broken feet so she had to kneel. (The damage to her feet was so bad that she would probably never ripple around on cliff faces again.)


    “This is good news for us, not for you,” said Millicleus. “I hold in my hands the official last ‘Antren robot’. The others were blown to pieces over the last few months. Watch as I tear apart your last shred of power!” She watched and he was true to his word. The robot was roughly rent asunder and thrown to the ground around her. The vital control chips inside were broken beyond repair.


    “We rule your world now,” said Millicleus. “You’ll be kept under surveillance for the rest of your life, as will many of your compatriots. You won’t have a fun time, I promise. We reserve the right to punish you any time, for any infraction. Here’s another taste.” He cast a metallic net over her and used it to deliver a painful series of electric shocks. She fell down again and her body twitched madly, causing some minor muscle tears. The net was withdrawn and Millicleus started to walk away, leaving Antren sprawled on her side in a field of junk and detritus.


    “Why don’t you just kill me?!” she said shakily.


    “That would be too quick a punishment for your appalling crimes against my people,” said Millicleus. “Those millions that you massacred in so-called self defence will never be forgotten. You will be allowed to live, to suffer as long as you can. I might see you around later, if I come this way again.” He converted himself to vehicle mode and drove away. As he went, he signalled the bonds to release. Antren’s limbs were free again. She didn’t want to do anything about it, though. After a long and amazing period of intergalactic superheroics, she was now living in a brutal, dystopian nightmare. Her mouth was full of blood, dirt and debris, which could have been sharp rocks or bone fragments: she wasn’t sure. She spat out what she could. Her skin was bruised, scratched, slightly infected, burnt and smoking in places. Her extremities had been mangled and ached awfully. Her clothing was all gone but at least it was a warm summer’s day. She was lying on gravel, which wasn’t comfortable. In time, she shifted enough to lie on soft soil.


    Antren’s undoing had been when the Confusacons had mastered the art of phasing. That had meant that she couldn’t evade them when they caught up with her a few weeks previously. There had been a gargantuan space battle. Countless star ships had bombarded the robots simultaneously. Hyperspatial blocks prevented any calls for reinforcements. She had tried every trick that she knew but, in the end, her robots were wrecked faster than they could reproduce and she was taken to Millicleus as a trophy. From the robot remains, the Confusacons had discovered the location of her home world and had returned her there, along with a full occupation force. They had flattened the centres of power, invaded and declared martial law. They hadn’t annihilated the whole population, fortunately.


    “Help me!” she called weakly to a passing woman hours later. “I’m finding it harder to move.” Her insides were starting to hurt and her energy levels were dropping again. There was probably internal bleeding. All her nanobots had been deactivated by the enemy.


    “You know that none of us are allowed to help you for the rest of your life,” said the woman, keeping her distance. “There’s a drone watching us from the air. If I lift a finger to your advantage, I will be executed. If I talk to you for more than five minutes, I will be executed. You won’t get any medical help either. No healer will see you.”


    “Is the <7> clan around here?” asked Antren. “They’re my family.”


    “I’ve never heard of it,” said the woman. “That’s a weird name for a clan. It sounds quite primitive.”


    “What’s the date?” asked Antren.


    “1583 PZ,” said the woman. “That means Post Zomyet, if you didn’t know.”


    “I didn’t,” said Antren, perturbed by the unfamiliar date. “I’m really lost. I don’t know about ‘Zomyet’. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”


    “Well, I hope you don’t plan on attacking Millicleus’ troops again,” said the woman. “He was incredibly angry with you. The only reason that he didn’t erase our civilisation is that we weren’t tainted by the ‘grey mist’ or similar things.”


    “I can’t attack the Confusacons anymore,” said Antren. “I’m totally malferted. I’m one of their punching bags now.” The woman shrugged: her own situation was little better and she could do nothing about it.


    “I’ve noticed a very large old building over by the Garechip Cliff,” said Antren. “I don’t remember it. What is it?”


    “That’s always been there,” said the woman. “We’re not quite sure what it is, though. Some skeletons were found buried next to it. There were also some prayer rods scattered inside, so we guess that it was a temple.”


    “How old is it?” asked Antren.


    “At least three thousand five hundred years but probably more,” replied the woman. “Say, why couldn’t you remember it? Were you off-world for that long or did you completely fail to take an interest in your surroundings before you left? Oh mavdreip, that drone is moving about up there. I should go before they shoot me!” She walked away quickly, leaving the pariah Antren still injured in the dirt. Antren was stunned by the news of the ancient building. Apparently, she had been away from home for at least three and a half millennia. How could that be when the robots said she had only been on the mission for sixteen years? She thought about it for a while before remembering a book that she had read in her youth. It had mentioned time dilation. People who travelled very fast experienced much less time passing relative to those who stayed put. So what did that mean for her? It meant that all her friends and family were long dead. Her home area would have changed out of all recognition. She had lost her most precious connections and would now have to live a very lonely life in a bizarre familiar / unfamiliar landscape dominated by cruel mechs. Although it had seemed impossible, her spirits sank even further.


    She slept in the same spot and waited for the physical and mental pain to diminish. It wasn’t wise to move too much in her condition, with multiple bone fractures. In the morning, she woke again and tried to take the edge off her growing thirst by licking dew from rocks nearby. She glanced over at the remains of the robot. She noticed that it had many layers of dirt on its underside. It had not bothered to clean itself at all when it was on missions to many different planets. The dirt smeared onto it was in many different colours, which reflected the different soils on those worlds and also the life forms there. She pondered this for a minute and realised something that could be extremely important. Her robots had probably taken small life forms from world to world, hidden in dirt on their surfaces. Was this accidental or deliberate? It wasn’t very clear but she had known her robots very well. They were highly advanced and they considered a great many factors when visiting each new world. They probably considered the dirt on their bodies, at least sometimes, yet they had evidently refused to clean it off. She hadn’t even thought it had any significance, so she hadn’t bothered to order any cleaning herself. She had been too caught up in the action and excitement of the mission.


    If her robots had been secretly transferring little creatures between planets, then all her colleagues across the universe had probably been doing the same with their robots. It was an oversight by fallible organics like her but it could have been a secret cosmic plan by the robots and ... their ultimate creator Primus. She and her colleagues had, therefore, been carrying out two plans simultaneously: practical physical helpfulness and panspermia, i.e. spreading genetic material liberally around the universe. In the long term, it would accelerate the evolution of life everywhere and increase the strengths and capabilities of countless creatures. That revelation made her considerably happier. She could rest even easier now! Whoever the enemies were, out there in the most distant parts of the universe, they had been blind-sided. She shuffled over to the robot remains and put her shattered meldips on them. She had loved those machines. Later that morning, a blood clot from one of the Confusacon beatings travelled through her arteries to her brain and ended her life. It had been a life exceedingly well lived.




    What Happened to Them?


    Aklakin (sect) - Initially hailed as important prophets but later discredited in various embarrassing scandals.
    Antren <7> - Died of her injuries and was eaten by small animals. Much later, was regarded as a martyr.
    Avaclov - Had a long career spreading the message of freedom across his galaxy.
    Ba-yisha - Stopped working as a secret agent, started a hosiery company.
    Bajnax - Continued to be cantankerous even after salvation and relocation to a new colony world.
    Bdur Raniest - Helped to start a new colony and thus save her species from extinction.
    Blaster - Remained in post as a communications officer and music expert.
    Blen Sfornac - Lived very happily ever after. Her son became a major spiritual leader.
    Braiduct - After millions of years of military service, did millions more years of military service.
    Brawn - Realised that fantasy writing was not his forté. Returned to ballet dancing (excellent lifts).
    Bvyglor Hablahan - Inspired by Blen and Kanblod to become an interstellar divorce counsellor.
    Canjanius - Killed by Millicleus and lost to history on a ravaged alien planet.
    Cliffjumper - His glass gas gun was confiscated and he was obliged to rebuild Tower 29815 alone.
    Confusacons - Did many more nasty things. Eventually developed dementia and got lost in space.
    Diobvillion-19 (D-19) - Lived the dream on the right side. Withered away to a husk after six and a half years.
    Diobvillion-24 (D-24) - Lived the dream on the left side. Withered away to a husk after seven years.
    Drill Bit - Took a five second download course in interspecies tact. Failed. Went back to drilling stuff.
    Epankret - Killed by Millicleus and lost to history on her ravaged home world.
    Fov Ketapod - Had medical attention, made a full recovery but had some post-traumatic stress disorder.
    Gan Dafryd - Became a historian and mother of eighteen on her new colony world.
    Gdinz Thalka - Having lost most of her family, lived with Bdur on the new colony world. Became a farmer.
    Gears - Enjoyed his tour of mainly empty solar system until it was interrupted by god malarkey.
    Geeflym Zandulvud - Killed by Phandallion and thereafter remembered as the last of the cruel Lords Scrub.
    Gjanerisch Habitat - Accidentally teleported deep into intergalactic void. Never found again.
    Gyvlor - Remained a robot leader until he died of old age, over a century later.
    Jeinarie Clupnit - Inspired by Blen and Kanblod to become an interstellar match-maker.
    Jopelt Iti - Had an extremely enjoyable life on Stirraep’n. Sometimes felt a little empty, though.
    Kanblod - Worked hard to support his family. Featured regularly in fan fiction of a certain kind.
    Kimony - Became an ambassador to some scent-sensitive societies.
    Lurgatious Supreme - Never actually existed. Fake version (with great legacy) still on W’rronb’s home world.
    Mabakiu Rnaji - Created (actually recreated) some excellent holomovies on his new colony world.
    Meister - Continued in his missions, mostly as a cultural attaché. Refused to consider a name change.
    Millicleus - Sued for ‘image plagiarism’. Avoided penalty by destroying the civilisation responsible.
    Moonstreak - Killed by a sneaky, phasing organic but became a Confusacon martyr.
    mRar-eEtEe - Became chief party organiser on his new colony world. Prevented a lot of sleep.
    N’ereg - Required surgery for ruptured bowel. Became fairly proficient in metal-working.
    Nimea Zavamar - Helped to develop components for flying machines on her new colony world.
    Perceptor - Had an unglamorous career as a supporting character in a science team.
    Phadysates (Empire) - Survived after spread of spiritual maturity and Transformer nanotechnology fostered peace.
    Phandallion (animal) - Became dangerously aggressive and was euthanised after the anti-scrub revolution.
    Primus - Succeeded, as usual. Proceeded to succeed many more times. Winning!
    Setrime (drone) - Used for over nine thousand years, including time in storage. Later replaced by new model.
    Smokescreen - His life as a clandestine agent continues. His hose sees a lot of action.
    Taym Gaflen - Fathered many children and worked in construction on his new colony world.
    Tamelor - Left the salt mine and went to hunt for treasure.
    Thab Noufiny - Lived on new colony world for ten years before succumbing to tziq cancer.
    Thilicwon - Helped to rid his home world of the Sen-Gelen but was killed by a sniper in the process.
    Ujmalear (people) - Weakened some of the hyperspatial barriers. Their work is still ongoing.
    Vichoz <93> - Married her receptionist and lived precariously on a massive, slightly crumbly cliff.
    Vtamy Ael - Studied interspecies relations but was injured by a rogue ‘rover’ organ and had to retire.
    W’rronb - Lived quietly in his home town. Later, went on galactic tours to see the legacy of Lurgatious.
    War Trobe 592 (ship) - Survived campaign against the Sen-Gelen. Adapted to become colony structure on moon.
    Yanna Reehyon - Liberated many worlds from their pre-telepathic dark ages. Often visited Blen and Kanblod.
    Zandont - Worked in robotics for a very long time. Rarely left his home tower.
    Zyz Fivo - Performed missionary work until a sharpened fruit attack by a primitive forced her to retire.
     
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2017

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