Brian stared out at the destruction marring what must have been a gorgeous stretch of natural forest, fingers tightening on Bestia's door handle. He'd been a little skeptical when Sideswipe had led them down a dirt track off the major highways, but there was no way to mistake the aftermath of a vicious brawl between mechanical lifeforms. He'd seen enough of that kind of damage in his days undercover with Sector Seven-- or hell, even during his team's rampage through Rio. At least in this neck of the woods, there'd only been two bystanders to worry about.
He could trace the path of Sam's flight by the massive gouges torn in the earth, left by clawed feet bigger than the kid himself. Whole trees lay like jackstraws on the damaged turf, surrounded by shrapnel sprays of splinters, blown off their roots by weapons fire or brute force. And here and there, tongues of sullen flame licked up a bare, stripped trunk; the scents of alien fuel and molten metal were sharp in the air from where bullets and heated blades had carved through armor into vital machinery.
Cybertronians could take a lot of damage, though, without deactivating; and whatever had happened here, only one Decepticon corpse had been left behind, sprawled on its back amidst the wreckage with only scraps of metal and wiring left above its torso. From the shape of the engines beneath it, and the shards of rotor scattered in the grass nearby, it had once been a helicopter-- probably the same one that had kidnapped Sam and Mikaela.
For a robot that championed peace, Optimus Prime was 4.3 metric tons of badass when he was angry, and the rest of his people weren't far behind him. "Damn. I hope they got here in time."
"Yeah. Looks like we missed the party," Dom murmured, circling the Charger to stand next to Brian.
Sideswipe had taken off after Ironhide and the twins as soon as they'd arrived, chasing the Decepticons who'd survived the attack. Bumblebee and Ratchet, though, had cornered Prime a little further up the road. The twenty-eight-foot red and blue 'bot looked... surprisingly shiny, as though his paint was factory fresh, not as though he'd just come out of a battle.
Even stranger, Prime wasn't reacting to whatever they were gesturing wildly about; he just... stood in the middle of the road, one hand cupped in front of his chest as though holding something precious.
Something man-sized, dressed in a black tee shirt and jeans, clutching tightly to Optimus' fingers.
"Look, I think that's Sam," Brian hissed. "And it looks like Bee has Mikaela."
"So they got the kids back," Hobbs mused, walking over with Monica from where Belle had parked. "Why do I get the feeling that's not the end of the story?"
"Got a few brain cells, for a fed," Dom agreed, then set off, leading the way up the dirt track.
Hobbs gave him a dirty look and deliberately paced beside him; Brian shook his head and fell a couple of steps back, sharing an amused look with Monica. The air of weary strain that had underscored all their interactions when she'd been undercover for the DEA was gone; working with Hobbs had apparently been good for her.
"Not what you expected when you got up for work this morning, was it," he nudged her, flashing her a smile.
Monica grinned back. "Oh, I don't know. Considering we were on our way to visit your cousin, I had a feeling things weren't going to go exactly according to plan."
"And how did you find my cousin Seymour?" Brian snorted. Simmons hadn't exactly gone into detail over the phone-- there'd been the small problem of Barricade tearing up New York to deal with-- but he'd said enough for Brian to guess that Monica and her 'muscle-bound goon' had made an impression.
"He asked me to 'say hi to that fickle cousin' of his the next time I saw him," she replied, wryly.
"Still going off on his 'one man, alone, betrayed by the government he loves' schtick, then," Brian rolled his eyes. "He does know his stuff, but the guy's completely crazy when it comes to the 'bots. To tell the truth, I think that's half the reason NEST let him go; to be a magnet for the conspiracy freaks, and pull in some of the folks who do need help but would never go to the government for it."
"You talk about NEST like you're not a part of it; I thought you were working for them now?" She arched an eyebrow.
"Depends how you define it," he shrugged. "Brian Wells is technically on their payroll-- that's the name I went under in Sector Seven-- but in practice, the team works more like consultants. We have a lot of contacts that wouldn't take well to official oversight, but are pretty damned useful in the hunt for rogue Cybertronians. It's still early days yet, but it's been working for us so far."
Though that might change with NBE-1 back in action. Megatron: the ultimate boogeyman to the human veterans of Sector Seven, not to mention the younger generation of Autobots. There was a reason most of Team Toretto had stayed on Diego Garcia after the news had broken.... and judging by the amount of expletives Ratchet was venting in clear English, never mind the Cybertronian invective he was probably adding over private comm channels, they'd been right to worry. Death hadn't mellowed the Decepticon leader out any.
"Hey, hey, young ears, here," Sam objected weakly from his perch. He was paler than usual, and seemed a little shaken; more like the stressed, confined teenager that Brian first met than the confident young man who'd conquered his problems and reclaimed his life in recent months.
"And as for you, Samuel James Witwicky," the chartreuse robot turned to point at him.
"Oh, God; when I told you to stop calling me Samuel Prime, I didn't mean you should use my full name instead," Sam groaned in reply, cringing back in the cup of Optimus' hand. "You sound like my mom. It's Sam. Just Sam. It's only one syllable; that shouldn't be too hard to remember!"
"You were told to run, and instead rushed back onto the field of battle! You may be the strongest living Avatar of the Allspark, but that won't protect you from Decepticons!"
"Yeah, well, I was pretty sure they wouldn't shoot me. I told you, there's something in my head Megatron wants, which he won't get if he turns me to mush. And it was Optimus." He clutched the metal fingers cupped around him more firmly, and the Autobot leader tightened his grip in response. "I couldn't just leave him like that."
"You took a grave risk, Sam," Optimus chided him. "And not only in facing Megatron."
"Yeah, well, it was my risk to take," Sam replied, obstinately.
"Hey," Hobbs spoke up from where he stood between an anxious Bumblebee and an angry Ratchet. "Someone want to tell us what the hell is going on? You're the ones who wanted us here. All Sideswipe said before he took off was that there'd been a fight here, and that those asshole Decepticons with the wings got away again."
A little color came back to Sam's face as his attention was drawn down to the group on the ground. "Uh... Agent Hobbs? I'd just like to say, before anything else..." he began, hesitantly.
"If you're going to apologize, kid, stow it. We don't have time for that shit. What happened here?" Hobbs crossed his arms over his chest, glaring up at the group towering over him, visibly unimpressed. The armored figure of Belle walking up behind him, even larger than Bumblebee if not as lethally armed, added weight to his question.
Monica moved forward to stand at his side; Brian waited for Bestia to approach, slightly behind Belle, then patted her thigh in silent question. A slight tingle of energy leaped from his hand to her frame, warning her what he wanted; Belle lowered a careful hand to pick him up, then extended the other for Dom and lifted them up to chest range to put them on more equal footing for the conversation.
Sam swallowed hard before answering. He stared at Belle for a moment, then threw Brian a strange, intent look-- one he wasn't sure how to read-- then sighed and gave his report.
"We were dodging a Decepticon signal on the ground when that 'copter came for us-- Bee's got some damage to his roof, Ratch, make sure he sees you about that later-- and dragged us off to some old industrial building. An electrical station, I think? I was kind of distracted for that part. Then Starscream hit Bee with something to make him kick us out, and Megatron grabbed me and threw me down on this concrete table. I might have cracked some ribs; it kind of hurts when I breathe. But I wasn't paying much attention to that either, because this doc-bot put a probe up my nose and projected a bunch of Allspark symbols right out of my head. You know how fucked up that felt? This oily metal thing wriggling around in my sinuses with Megatron looming over me the whole time, all 'There's something on your mind, boy.'" He deepened his voice, in imitation of the Decepticon leader, and gave a full-body shudder. "They were this close to cutting my head open to get at the rest of it when Optimus dropped through the roof."
"The rest of what?" Ratchet asked, annoyed. "The Allspark does not reside within your physical brain structures; such surgery would have destroyed the very energy that carried the information they sought."
"Tell that to Megatron." Sam shrugged. "He was looking for some kind of energon source hidden on this planet. Long enough ago that even the Allspark memories just had directions, not an exact location." He wrinkled up his nose. "And, just for future reference? Even if you could get the Allspark out of me that way, an alien brain-ectomy would not be on my bucket list."
"I think I speak for all of us when I say, ditto," Mikaela added, dryly.
"Wait. A pre-existing energon source? Not that project you've been working on with Ratchet and Wheeljack?" Brian asked, surprised. He'd just helped them set up an experiment in one of the classified areas of the base, meshing his finer control over the Allspark energies with Sam's greater ability and alien database-enhanced memories.
"Nah, man; I don't think he even knows about that. Which I guess isn't a surprise, considering he's been dead this whole time. But someone definitely told him I had the information he was looking for."
Optimus sighed. "Even if he knew, Megatron would value an immediate payoff over the potential of a gentler solution. It is his nature. During the battle, he asked me if the future of our race was not worth a single human life; I told him he would never stop at one."
"Yeah, right before he stabbed you through the Spark," Sam shuddered again. "Seriously, never do that again. What if I hadn't been able to fix it? You were dead, Optimus. Finito. Extinguished. I still can't believe that worked." Another tremor shook through his body.
Abruptly, it occurred to Brian what Sam must have done: the same thing all Allspark-touched humans could do, only to an insane degree. He'd laid bare hands on Optimus' frame and channeled all the energy he could into the Autobot. That was why the larger Prime sparkled like he'd never taken damage... and why everyone else was acting so clingy. No wonder the kid was shocky.
He scrounged in his pocket for one of the Snickers bars he carried to ward off his own-- increasingly rare these days, but still an occasional risk-- episodes of low blood sugar, and whistled at the kid.
"Heads up, Sam. Eat the whole thing, and have someone get you some Gatorade or something. You look like you're about to pass out."
Sam fumbled the catch, then stared at the bar in his hands like he'd just seen Mikaela naked and immediately tore at the wrapper with his fingernails. "Thanks, man. Seriously." He gave Brian another intent look, as if promising a longer conversation later, then sank his teeth into the chewy candy.
The Autobots exchanged looks-- transmitting silently again, unless Brian missed his guess-- and then carefully bent to set their passengers on the ground. "I can't promise anything, Sam," Optimus said. "But let us see what may be done to prevent another such encounter. Can you show us the symbols?"
Sam grunted as he finished the candy bar, then stuffed the wrapper in a pocket and wiped his palm on his jeans. "Yeah, sure. Anybody have a knife?"
Hobbs pulled one out of a sheath strapped to the thigh opposite his holster, nearly a foot long if it was an inch, then spun it around in a showy move to hold it out hilt-first.
"Careful what you touch this time," he snarked, popping an eyebrow at Sam.
Sam flailed, then gave the DSS agent a dirty look and took it from him.
"They come kind of in waves, but the part that repeats looks like this," he said, shaking off his irritation, and started hacking symbols into the packed earth of the road as casually as if doing math on a chalkboard. "Do you recognize it?"
Optimus watched silently until Sam was finished, then vented an imitation sigh. The longer he was around the 'bots, the more Brian noticed how much they anthropomorphized themselves; he'd thought his NBTs were picking up human-like behaviors from him and his family, but their NBE cousins did it, too. Somehow, it wasn't a surprise to learn their race might have been on Earth longer than previously thought.
"It is a much older form of our language, one now recorded only in the Allspark's memory. No surviving Autobot should be able to read it; only the Seekers have used it within living memory, and they have been missing for many millennia," the Prime said, slowly.
Living memory meant a lot more for sentient robots that counted age in thousands of years, not decades; but there was something about the way he'd said it....
"But you can read it," Dom said shrewdly, picking up on the same thing.
"I have never read it before. But I know these words, as though they were carved into my processor before I was sparked," Optimus replied, thoughtfully. "It is the language of the Primes."
Ratchet made a strange electronic noise, exchanging a glance with Bumblebee. "What does it say?"
"When dawn alights the dagger's tip, three kings will reveal the doorway."
"Well, that was anticlimactic," Sam spoke for all of them. "The doorway to what? The energon source?"
"Is the doorway even on this planet?" Mikaela asked, skeptically.
Bumblebee made a querying noise, then played a few measures of "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"
"Would those 'Seekers' you mentioned know?" Monica wondered. "Missing could mean hiding. Brian, your cousin said he found dozens of old Cybertronian signatures scattered around the planet, but no one followed up on them. Did he ever talk to you about that?"
"He told me a story about his mother meeting one... but I always thought it was some other Autobot or Decepticon that crash-landed here after Megatron. He never said anything to me about there being more of them... but I guess at this point anything's possible."
"If Megatron's willing to go to such lengths to retrieve this information, when he's been alive again all of a day... there's got to be someone else powerful on the scene, giving orders." Hobbs frowned.
"The Fallen, perhaps," Optimus speculated. "The last words of the Decepticon we encountered in Hong Kong were, 'The Fallen Shall Rise Again'."
"Then I think we'd better be willing to take a few risks ourselves, before shit gets a whole lot worse," Hobbs spoke up again. "Obviously I'm new here, but you can ask O'Connor and Toretto about my history; I've got plenty of experience catching bad guys, by figuring out what they're going to do next and getting out in front of them. And from where I'm standing, unless you're willing to guard every one of your people-- especially Witwicky-- every hour of every day and hope to whatever god you worship that they don't decipher that clue on their own, your best bet is to find the damn thing first and deny it to them."
"Megatron wasn't wrong about one thing," Ratchet added, grimly. "Without energon, our race is slowly dying. The Terrestrial-borns will also have severely limited lifespans without it." He nodded to Belle and Bestia. "Our experiment is producing promising results, but a ready-made source would be a gift from Primus. Whichever side claimed it could win the war by default."
And if the Decepticons won... so much for the natives they called 'insects'. Brian pictured his son's cherubic little face, back on Diego Garcia in Mia's arms, and silently nudged Bestia to put them down.
"What are we waiting for?" he asked, standing shoulder to shoulder with Dom as Bestia transformed back into her Charger shape behind them. "Brooklyn, here we come."
"Looks like I found my excuse to raid that meat locker after all," Hobbs said, sharing a look with Monica.
"Agreed," Optimus decided, transforming back into his Mack truck shape, a shining whirl of metal parts like a work of mobile art done in shades of red, silver and blue. "Autobots, roll out!"
Bumblebee played another sound clip as he followed suit, throwing a door open for Mikaela. "Number One, assemble the away team!"
Belle and Ratchet assumed their vehicular shapes next, reorienting in the direction Ironhide, Sideswipe and the twins had gone, ready to move in Optimus' wake.
Brian slid into Bestia's passenger seat, shaking his head at the spectacle. "I will never get past the urge to laugh when he says shit like that," he murmured, quietly.
"Till all are one," Dom quoted wryly, then reached over to lay a hand on Brian's thigh, expression falling into serious lines. "Bri...."
"Yeah?" Brian raised an eyebrow.
"Just-- I got a feelin'. Watch your ass today. I doubt whatever trick the kid did for Prime would work on a human. Even you, Mr. Magic Hands."
"Me? You're the one who tried to sacrifice himself in Rio."
"How many times you gonna keep bringing that up?"
"Until it sticks," Brian insisted, then leaned in to brush his mouth over Dom's, letting the Allspark energy rise just enough for his partner to feel.
"You know what that shit does to me," Dom grumbled, finally pulling reluctantly away.
"Raincheck?" Brian smirked.
Dom rolled his eyes, then slapped Bestia's dash. "You heard the 'bot. Roll out."
Only dust remained where the Autobots had been; Belle was the only one still waiting, revving his engine impatiently.
Bestia spun her wheels by way of reply, then sped by, flashing her tail lights tauntingly at his grill.