“Come on,” Smokescreen said. “We need to find Bombshell. He’ll be in here as his programming. Once we find that we can get Jazz back.”
“Right. The shot came from over there,” Mirage replied, motioning in the direction of a building on the far end of the square. “He’d be an idiot if he was over there with Jazz.”
“And Bombshell is many things but he is not an idiot.”
Smokescreen’s doors arched up as he looked out into the square, examining the space on a different level than his scans would allow. Scans were showing that there was nothing there - the deepest portions of his systems were not going to be fooled by this hallucinatory state - but his doors allowed him to work on a more instinctive level. And his instincts told him to move in the opposite direction.
“If I were Jazz,” Smokescreen said slowly, “and I wanted to keep us away from something, I’d play a downed flyer defence. I’d try to draw us as far away from Bombshell as possible.”
Mirage nodded, his optics bright with understanding. “The furthest safe house from this location is at the docks along the Rust Sea. But he’ll know we know that.”
“Exactly,” Smokescreen replied. “So then what? You know him better than I do, mech. Where’s the last place he’d think we’d think to look?”
“The main base in Iacon. He’s set himself up right next to it, confident that we’ll look elsewhere. But the klick he figures out where we’re going he’s going to hunt us down.”
“What if we make it clear that we’re heading to the dock and then circle back?” Smokescreen asked.
“Assuming that this place is like the real world?” Mirage said carefully. “That would work. Assuming that we don’t get lost or separated in here. There’s always the possibility that he’ll see that ploy coming and ...” Mirage shook his head. “We can’t over-think this.”
“Look, Mirage,” Smokescreen said. “You’re the special ops agent. You’ve been working with Jazz for vorn. I trust your instincts on this one. You lead the way, and I’ll have your back, okay?”
Mirage nodded. “Okay. Fine. I’m going to fire on Jazz and you lay down some cover smoke. We’ll head to the docks for a few blocks and then I’ll swing back to the base proper. Once you’ve drawn Jazz far enough away, swing back and meet me inside the main gate.”
Smokescreen pursed his lips but nodded. He didn’t like the idea of separating, but the fact of the matter was that this was his job. Creating a distraction so that others could do their jobs. “Fine.”
With that he sank down into his alt mode and revved his engine softly preparing his electromagnetic smoke for dispersal. In this version of reality an alt-mode wasn’t strictly required for anything, but force of habit was a very strong thing.
“Okay,” he muttered. “Okay, let’s get this done. Just be careful out there, okay, Mirage? Don’t automatically believe everything you see and hear. Even our sensors are going to be lying to us as Bombshell’s program tries to stop us.”
Mirage nodded, fighting back annoyance. . “Yes, I do believe we’ve covered everything, Smokescreen. I do under--”
Mirage was alone in what looked like an abandoned bar. The remains of broken furniture lay scattered across the floor, a floor that was stained with spilled energon and scarred by some ancient battle. Darkness clung to the walls and the corners, and there was something in that darkness. It was nothing that Mirage could detect, just a feeling in the back of his processor and deep within his spark. There was something watching him. something dark and dangerous and very, very angry.
“... you left us …,” a voice whispered seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. “... you should have been there …”
Mirage’s hand tightened spasmodically on his rifle and peered into the darkness. He extended his sensors in an attempt to pick up whoever was out there. They came back with nothing and yet the voices continued.
“... why weren’t you there with us? …. you should have been there …. it all went to the pit and you weren’t there …”
“Who is out there?” Mirage demanded tightly.
He knew that he shouldn’t be responding to these disembodied voices. Logically he knew that this was some kind of trick that Jazz’s defence systems were playing, or a side effect of Bombshell’s reprogramming. Assuming that this even was Bombshell’s doing. After all, he only had Smokescreen’s word to go on, and Primus knew that mech could not be trusted in any way.
“Don’t change the subject, Mirage,” a silky voice whispered from the darkness. “The Praxian has nothing to do with what we have right here. Right now.”
Mirage turned to face the voice’s direction. The darkness seemed to coalesce around him and seemed to form the vague shapes of Cybertronians. All were slim and lithe, with the graceful curves of the Towers models. As he watched, they seemed to move forward and retreat at the same time, becoming both ethereal and solidifying at the same time. There was something wholly wrong about them and their very existence, but his processor seemed fogged and he couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong.
“You belong here, Mirage,” the voice said, silky smooth and seductive. “You know that you should have been in the Towers when they fell. You chose the Autobots over your own people.”
“I didn’t,” Mirage replied, his voice quiet and unsure. There was definitely something wrong. He was supposed to be doing something. He had been here with someone … if he could only get this fog to dissipate he could think.
“You did. You know you did,” the voice accused. “But none of that matters now. Your back with us. You’re where you belong, aren’t you, Mirage?”
Where there had once been shadows there were now mechs. Hundreds of his friends and family were milling about. Music played and people were dancing - swaying and pressing close in an intimate embrace. He looked down and realized he had half a cube of high grade in his hand that he didn’t remember taking.
“You almost done with that, lover?”
Mirage turned and smiled at Stormflyer. She was a lithely built proto-flyer with beautiful green trim over a silver finish. Her optics were a stormy grey-blue, staring out at him from a narrow, pale green face. Something in the back of his processor told him that she shouldn’t be here but just as he grasped the thought it flit away as if never there.
He slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her close. This felt so completely right. So perfect. As soon as she was snuggled against his side he downed the rest of the high grade.
“I’m done with this one. Shall we fetch another cube or would you prefer hitting the floor?” he asked.
“I’d prefer to entertain ourselves elsewhere,” she purred seductively, bringing one grey hand up his back and dipping into his cockpit.
“Hrmmm … I think I might be able to be convinced, but we really should stay for a little while longer,” he said. “For show, after all.”
“Yeah, I suppose that we do need to keep up appearances, don’t we,” she said, her mouth forming a small moue. “But as soon as the Festival speech is given we can slip out the side doors.”
Mirage turned to face Stormflyer and tilted her chin up, meeting her lips with his own in a sweet but not in any way chaste kiss. She melted into him and together they moved further into the crowd on the dance floor.
“Smokescreen? Cybertron to Smokescreen,” a voice said from behind the Praxian.
Smokescreen turned to face the speaker, feeling as if he was moving through a thick liquid.
The bar was crowded tonight; so much so that they were probably breaking several by-laws with every new person that entered. But it was Festival time and the Council Police weren’t likely to enforcing anything in this quarter of Iacon - especially not when the bar and club owners had all paid their “suggested donations” to the Enforcement Bureau.
Mechs and femmes moved throughout the space, dancing, drinking, gambling, and interfacing in the dark and hidden corners of the building. The night was wild, unhinged, and stank of desperation and lust. Business as usual these days.
“Sorry, Topside,” Smokescreen said with a shake of his head and a rueful smile. “I was lost in the crowd.”
“Yeah? Well study them later, Mister Shrink,” Topside said with a chuckle as he handed a tray of engex cubes and goodies to Smokescreen. “You’re paid to deliver drinks and party with the guests, not work on your degree.”
“No reason I can’t do both,” Smokescreen shot back, his smile turning into a brilliant grin. “After all, the slag going on in here is perfect for my thesis.”
“Don’t let Jump hear you talk like that,” Topside replied, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “Damned functionalist only lets you work here because of the Praxian-chasers.”
“Hey I can spin an explanation for why I need to be a psychologist rather than a tactician or an enforcer. And if not, I can just waggle my doors at him and find other ways to convince him,” Smokescreen said with a teasing little wag of his doors.
“Yeah, keep telling yourself that one. But do it while you deliver those refreshments.” Topside pointed out to the dance floor. His tone was firm, but there was a glint of humour in his red optics.
Smokescreen turned away with his tray and moved through the crowd. Smile, flirt, touch, preen and complement. It was all steps in the game he was playing with the paying customers. Anything to help them deal with their fears and paranoias. Down this deep in the city, they were all living in a horror story. Claims were that the Noble classes were still getting real energon and enegex, and not the oiled-down slag that was being served down here. But when you got a mech drunk enough and offered them enough distractions they’d find it easier to ignore everything going on around them.
He flicked his doors and smiled at a regular patron - a patron who was a particularly good tipper and who, surprisingly, only wanted to talk in their private sessions - when something seemed to form in the edge of his optic range. Smokescreen shifted slightly to focus on whatever had caught his attention. There was something wrong over on the other side of the bar, but every time he tried to focus on it, it would slip away from his ability to process it.
Shaking his head, he turned back to the room proper. He was over-exerting himself, what with working here and trying to obtain his psychiatry license from The Institute. He was getting pixels in his visual processor, nothing more than that. And exhaustion would also explain this nagging feeling that he was forgetting something important.
“Don’t worry about it,” he heard a voice whisper behind him, and a hand ghosted over his doors. “All you need is right here.”
Smokescreen spun, sending the few remaining cubes and goodies scattering to the floor.
“Woah there, mech!” Vanguard said smoothly. He was a regular of Smokescreen’s. A regular who paid extraordinarily well. And it helped that he wasn’t hard on the optics in any way. Tall and thickly built, he looked like he should have been a miner or a gladiator had the Functionalists had their way. Instead he was a poet working for the Council writing propaganda to keep the machine running.
“Vanguard! What brings you to this end of town?” Smokescreen asked as soon as he had gathered himself and his tray back together.
The large tan and burnt orange mech shrugged slightly, the treads in his arms spinning lazily as he did. “I have a while yet before I have to make an appearance for the Council’s pleasure. I figured I was owed some of my own first.”
Vanguard reached out a large black hand and stroked the top edge of Smokescreen’s right door.
“So, you booked for the night yet? Or does Jump have you working the floor?” he asked in a low, seductive purr that sent a shiver up Smokescreen’s spinal strut.
“It’s a long night. No reason I can’t do both,” Smokescreen replied with a small smile. “Once you’ve signed off with Jump, of course.”
As he smiled up at Vanguard, the room behind the large mech seemed to shimmer and shift, and he was hit again with the feeling of moving through thick liquid. There was a nagging at the back of his processor, a feeling like he was forgetting something important. Like he was being purposefully distracted, but the harder he tried to grasp at whatever it was, the quicker it slipped away.
“You okay, Smokey?” Vanguard asked, concerned. “Look, if you’re too busy for some one-on-one time, I can come back later.
Smokescreen shook his head and forced his attention back to the other mech.
“No, sorry, no. I’m good,” he said a little sheepishly. “I’m probably just a little overclocked between working here and my Academy assignments. But I am definitely not to tired or overworked to spend time with you, Van.”
He handed off his tray to another server, took Vanguard’s hand and led him toward the elevator and the berth rooms.
The party spun around Mirage as he moved about the dance floor with Stormflyer. He had had far too much high grade and was surrounded by far too many brats who had never truly suffered a day in their lives. This was mindless, tedious, and he was hating every moment of it. All the glitz and glitter was doing nothing but hiding the rot hiding under the surface of everything. Even the mechs around him, drunk and happy, were hiding a panicked hysteria. They only had so long before their world collapsed around them all. They could only hide from reality for so long.
Smokescreen was pressed against the berth, Vanguard’s weight crushing him into the foam covering. It was both intoxicating and smothering. He desperately wanted to tell Vanguard to leave, but as sweet and poetic as he was, Vanguard was not a mech to enrage. And he became enraged easily. No was not a word in his vocabulary. Smokescreen wanted out, but he couldn’t afford his education without the added work, and especially not without Vanguard’s generous tips.
The past was being played back for both mechs as they leaned against the wall of the alley. They had been found by Jazz’s security systems and by Bombshell’s programming. They were trapped, pinned like a pair of insecticons pinned to a scientist’s wall.