It was absolutely the stupidest thing he could be worrying about, in the midst of being shanghaied by an ancient used-to-be-Decepticon while the current Decepticons slaughtered thousands world-wide, but Sam was absolutely convinced that someone was watching him. Someone invisible and powerful and oddly enough-- not the Allspark.
He'd got used to the way the Cube's energy felt over the last couple of years: an energetic and purposeful kind of presence, curling warmly in the back of his mind, almost eager to shove information his way. Whatever loomed at the edges of his awareness now felt more-- judgy somehow, vast and alien and a lot less impressed with his existence. He doubted it was Jetfire, either, and definitely not any of the Autobots; the first moment he really remembered feeling it was back in the woods of Delaware, watching Optimus crash to the ground like a Kong-sized Humpty Dumpty knocked off his wall. He'd put the creepy feeling down to the rush of terror and fury that had crashed through him at the time, watching the light flicker out of the big Prime's optics as he begged Sam to run-- and afterward, to the exhaustion and desperation of running right back into the fray, slapping his hands over Optimus' shattered chest and channeling every erg of Allspark energy he could muster.
It hadn't gone away, though, when Optimus had shuddered miraculously back to life under his hands; nor when Brian and his team had shown up with a candy bar and ideas about what to do next. Nor on the drive to DC; nor when they found the Seeker in the Smithsonian of all the ironic places; nor when he had to stand by and watch while his girlfriend helped tickle the old stealth plane awake. It was just there, kind of like the sense of impending disaster he'd used to get as a kid, sneaking back home a minute after curfew knowing the odds were pretty good his dad was already lying in wait.
He didn't think anyone else was feeling the same thing, though whatever it was was definitely aware of them. Brian, in particular; the intangible sense of eyes on his back had shifted strangely when the ex-cop and his people arrived, echoing off the older man's Allspark field somehow in a way Sam couldn't quite articulate. None of the Allspark stuff translated well, really, but the almost psychic way the energy interacted with what the crazy scientist types called 'other dimensions of reality' were especially impossible to describe. He'd just as soon not deal with any of it if he could-- but as he'd long since passed Go and collected his $200, it would be really stupid of him to try to deny the cost as it came due.
He coughed on the harsh, dry air of wherever Jetfire had brought them, then sat up slowly, trying to place the sound of his girlfriend calling for him over the painful ringing in his ears. Whatever was watching him had shifted again, like a needle poking at the middle of his brain; he seriously hoped it wasn't the Fallen guy everyone was so worried about. It seemed like that might be the kind of thing an ancient Prime could do.
"Mikaela? Bee?" he yelled back, squinting around at the bronze and brown palette of a rocky, twilit desert. It kind of, sort of, looked like the arid landscape near Vegas, but not really-- and it had to be several hours east of DC, not west, given the obvious shift in time zones. The Middle East, maybe? Somewhere like Jordan or Egypt?
"Sam!" Mikaela called again in recognition, followed by the sound of running feet.
Sam climbed to his feet and braced for a tackling hug, holding on tight for a moment to just enjoy the fact that they were both still together and more or less OK. It had been one hell of a day already. Then he stiffened at the sight of a Cybertronian looming against the sky, for half a second convinced that they'd been found by a Decepticon-- before recognizing Jetfire's weird-ass metallic beard under the red glow of the figure's optics.
Right, then. First things first. Sam titled his head back and yelled up toward the Seeker. "Hey, asshole! Didn't you hear me say wait? Or does that mean something other than 'hey, let's pause and think about this a minute' in the Seeker dictionary?"
Jetfire gave him a distinctly unimpressed look, for all the world like a disappointed grandparent. Apparently, even back in pre-civilized-humanity days, Cybertronians had emoted like organic people; if it hadn't come with a side-order of impending disaster, the idea of getting a look at one of the original Primes for comparison would have really intrigued him. "What was there to think about any further? The next step was obvious."
"Obvious? Obvious?" Sam flailed. "Well forgive me being human, but we don't think at Cybertronian processor speeds, so how about you fill me on what exactly was so obvious about suddenly teleporting us to-- where the hell is this, anyway?"
"I told you to stand still, a clear indicator that I was about to open a space bridge! How else did you expect us to travel to Egypt?" Jetfire replied indignantly as everyone else began following the sound of their arguing to regroup. "And don't tell me you don't know what that is; I detected the distinct signature of space bridge technology on this planet's moon fifty years ago, greater than could be accounted for by the presence of another Seeker. Is that not how the Autobots arrived?"
"On our moon?" Sam gaped again, thrown by the reference. Fifty years ago was, what... 1961 or so? Right before the Blackbird had gone into production, according to the plaque he'd read at the museum... and also, right before the Apollo moon missions as well. "No, they came in a spaceship. Spaceships, actually," he added, remembering the Xanthium. "What's a space bridge?"
"A technology that had been lost millennia ago, one of the abilities of the Ancients," Optimus said, optics glowing like a pair of blue stars against the darkening sky as he approached. "Sentinel Prime recreated it near the end of the war, by means of a network of pillars to allow swift transport of soldiers, supplies and refugees-- but his ship, the Ark, was attacked by Starscream before he could deploy it and the wreckage lost to space. You say it is now here, on the satellite of this world?"
Dom made a noise of disbelief. "Now what are the odds of that?"
"I know where I'd put my money," Brian commented, eyes nearly as bright as Optimus' as he looked up at the big Prime. "Everyone just took Megatron at his word that he was originally here looking for the Allspark, but what if he was actually coming for the Matrix on the Fallen's behalf and just happened to spot the Allspark's signal as he approached? What if the Matrix is why the Allspark ended up on Earth in the first place? And now the Ark... it always seemed weird to me that our people would be so compatible, given our differences, but it's starting to look like there's a lot more going on here."
Hobbs sighed gustily. "C'mon guys, focus. I'm sure that's all very interesting, and one of you will explain why it's such a big deal later on-- but it's not what we're doing right here, right now, in literal Bumfuck, Egypt. What were those clues again, son?"
There was only one human in the world that had the right to call Sam 'son'—but Hobbs was right, this wasn't the time to argue. Sam took a deep breath, then squeezed Mikaela's hand and repeated the phrase Optimus had translated for him back in Delaware. "When dawn alights the dagger's tip, three kings will reveal the doorway."
"The dagger's tip has to be some prominent geographical feature," Hobbs crossed his arms over his massively muscular chest, then glanced over to the transformed Gurkha. "I don't know about anyone else, but I don't recognize that term-- google it would you, Belle? The three kings, though...."
Mikaela's hand clenched suddenly in Sam's. "Three kings... I probably wouldn't have thought about it if we weren't in Egypt, but... weren't the pyramids of Giza supposedly laid out to reflect the stars of Orion's belt? And those stars are sometimes called the 'three kings'? I remember it from all the astronomy stuff we went through when we were trying to figure out where Cybertron is from here. You remember, 'every winter Orion hunts in the sky, but every summer he flees as the constellation of the scorpion comes'."
"Right, and our best guess is, Cybertron's location's near one of the stars in Scorpius' tail," Sam remembered. "So, what... you think if we go wherever 'the dagger's tip' is, the stars of Orion's belt will point what direction we're supposed to start searching? Or the pyramids... but no, they weren't built yet when the Matrix was buried, and they probably weren't there when the Allspark crashed here, either. Gotta be the stars."
"At what time of year, though?" Fuentes frowned. "It would only be visible on the horizon at dawn for a very brief period. Are we talking some kind of prophecy, or does it refer to the season when it was buried?"
"If alien robots could see the future, I think we'd have a whole 'nother set of problems to be worrying about," Dom replied, very dryly. "Anyone know what the constellations look like from Egypt this time of year?"
Sam thought about that for a long moment, frowning as he mentally prodded at the Allspark energy. A cloud of glowing symbols responded, scrolling before his mind's eye... projecting results that correlated pretty strongly with the direction the sensation of watching was strongest from. Somehow, he wasn't surprised.
"Um... I think it would be visible at dawn? Maybe? Somewhere off in... that direction?" he pointed.
"You can tell that, when you don't even know where we are?" Hobbs popped an eyebrow at him.
Sam grimaced, then hesitantly offered further, "I think I can sorta... feel it from here?"
Primus; what if it was the Matrix he was feeling, resonating off that sliver of Allspark metal still buried in his shoulder? That was the only thing different about him, really, than any of the others, regardless of all the 'Samuel Prime' nonsense. If the Allspark had somehow been causing those clues to be left, then it didn't seem beyond the stretch of the imagination that the reverse could also be true: the key looking back to its creator.
...Assuming it was sentient, too. Which they wouldn't know until they found it. A shiver worked its way through Sam at the thought, and he reached for Mikaela's hand once more.
"Of course you can," Hobbs sighed, his mouth an unamused line.
"Then perhaps you are a Prime," Jetfire admitted, in a sort of reluctantly surprised tone that Sam had no trouble reading as maybe you have a chance at surviving this, after all. "Then you must follow your mind: your map, your symbols. And I will lead the Decepticons away, so when the Fallen sends them after the traces of my space bridge they won't find you before you're ready."
"Wait-- you're leaving us? Already?" Bestia spoke up, the eldest of the NBTs sounding a little uncertain for the first time since Sam had met her.
"Leaving? Who said I was leaving?" Jetfire harrumphed again. "This is the most interesting thing to happen to me since I arrived on this wretched planet! I'm merely advancing in an alternate direction!"
With that, the weird energy that had crackled through him before their first transport rose again-- and a rush of air filled the place where Jetfire had stood with an echoing retort.
"That mech needs a thorough regimen of diagnostic programs," Ratchet muttered, shaking his head.
Brian snorted. "Well, that was enlightening. Belle? You get anything yet on the location?"
The youngest NBT glanced toward Hobbs as if for reassurance that it was okay to share the information, then crossed his arms over his chest in imitation of the agent. "According to various sources, the Gulf of Aqaba was called the Dagger's Tip by an ancient civilization known as Sumer. But it is one hundred and sixty kliks in length, and twenty-four kliks wide at its widest point; further precision is impossible from such limited information."
"A lot of ground to cover," Bumblebee agreed, then flipped his radio over to a brief clip from the Proclaimers. "I would walk five hundred miles, and I would walk five hundred more...."
"Hopefully not that far. I guess the easiest thing is to go to the northernmost shore of the Dagger's Tip, and see if Sam's 'feeling' corresponds with the direction the stars line up," Brian shrugged. "Everything about this journey is imprecise; sometimes you've just got to roll with it and take your best-faith guess."
Optimus nodded, the motion slow and thoughtful. True night had fallen while they'd questioned Jetfire; his big mechanical frame looked almost like it was crowned with stars. "Fate rarely calls upon us when we are prepared for it to do so," he agreed, then engaged his transformation circuits, ponderously collapsing back into his semi-truck form.
He left his door open for a moment, but Sam waved the offer away; they'd already said all they needed to say in private about the incident in the forest. If he was going to get any rest on the way to the next stress point, he was going to do it with his partners. "Nah, I'm good; I think I'll ride with Mikaela and Bee this time."
"Very well," Optimus intoned solemnly. "Autobots, roll out."
A nighttime drive in the desert proved to be an unexpectedly beautiful experience for Sam, especially after so many months on a military base on a tropical island. He'd never seen anything like it. It was also a lot colder than he was expecting, and a heck of a lot less populated than where they'd been that morning. Sam was glad he and Mikaela had had at least a little warning they'd be going up a trip; he dug some snacks out of the hastily-packed luggage Bee had managed to keep hold of, and they shared a packet of cleansing wipes to get some of the sweat and dust out of their pores. Not that freshening up was probably going to make much of a difference in the end-- but it made them feel a little better, and that was enough reason.
Bee still had his connection back to NEST, too; he was only supposed to be rogue, not dead like Optimus. He relayed a text through to Mikaela's father for her, bouncing it through a bunch of satellites to obscure its origin from Decepticon tracking, then relayed back Major Lennox's extreme frustration both with the situation itself and with the hash the new National Security Advisor was trying to make of it. If Optimus had actually been dead, Sam thought Lennox might have blown a gasket trying to deal with the moron; as it was, he was determined to send as much backup as could be mustered regardless of Galloway's orders.
None of them wanted it to come to the kind of showdown that would require that backup-- but the alien cat was already out of the bag after the Fallen's broadcast, and it had escaped none of them that they'd have to go through at least one checkpoint sooner or later, depending on their ultimate destination. And probably more, considering how many countries bordered the Gulf of Aqaba. Even with Hobbs and Fuentes' DSS credentials to get them through it, there was no way they were going to be able to avoid all of the cameras, and there'd be no disguising the origins of those signals. Which meant the Decepticons wouldn't be far behind them, no matter what kind of distraction Jetfire was offering.
They reached the Sinai side of the gulf just early enough to catch a brief nap, before Optimus woke them to the first pale rays of dawn casting the world in shades of somber, washed-out blue. Sam opened Bumblebee's door and propped his elbow on his friend's still-scratched roof, breath catching in his throat at the sight before him.
"Wow," Mikaela breathed, staring into the distance where the lowest of three glimmering stars just barely touched the horizon. The rest of Orion's belt speared upward from there, like a signpost pointing exactly in the direction Sam had expected. "You were right; which kind of creeps me out. How long have those clues been out there-- and how could they possibly have guessed what time of year someone would come looking?"
"Of all the things that have happened in the last couple of days, that's what creeps you out?" He grinned at her, waggling his fingers in her direction. "Ineffable psychic source of an alien race, Mikaela. Maybe it can see the future, or at least, I dunno, a range of potential futures? Whichever, it hasn't told me; but we'd probably better save that discussion for when we're not running for our lives."
"Right," Brian nodded. He'd propped himself against Bestia's hood, chewing his lip while Dom paced beside the 'bot with arms crossed. "Impossible quest first, potentially redefining our understanding of the universe again afterward. I'm not exactly an expert on this part of the world, but aren't those the mountains of Petra?"
"You mean where that big stone city was carved into the rock? The one that shows up in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?" Sam raised his eyebrows, nonplused, as he connected the obvious dots. "The one that was built eight thousand years after the Allspark crash-landed on our planet?"
"And yet... you'd be pretty hard pressed to find any bigger doorways around here," Brian shook his head, mouth curved in wry amusement. "My guess? If you compare the dating on most of those old clue inscriptions, they'll turn out to date to around the time most of the city's tombs and temples were built."
Belle added his voice to the conversation there, not bothering to transform. None of the other 'bots had transformed since their stop either, or spoken aloud; Sam would guess they were just as thunderstruck about all this as the humans were, and probably more. "Direction verified, though with a significant margin of error; sightline projected by the constellation as viewed from this location does transect the city of Petra."
"Good enough for me," Hobbs scowled through Belle's open driver-side window. "Let's get moving again, people; I don't want to be caught empty-handed when those sons of bitches catch up with us."
"Let's just hope we can figure out what to do with it when we do find it," Dom growled, climbing back into Bestia.
"And on that cheery note," Sam snarked, patting Bee on the roof as he and Mikaela returned to their seats. "Unless anyone's got a different idea-- then Jordan, here we come."
About two hours of driving later, not counting the unavoidable stops, Sam's internal compass and the star-provided directions matched up and the small group approached one of the rock-cut buildings of Petra. It did look an awful lot like the one from Indiana Jones, but to his relief, it wasn't the same one; even considering all the other insanity they were dealing with, that would have been some next-level irony. But Al Khazneh, the one from the movie, opened onto a gorge and had been dug into a giant cliff face; the land was more open around their target, the mountainside behind it was more of a slope, and there was more visible wear and tear on its carvings. Obviously, it had been less protected from the elements and human visitors over the years.
It was still apparently the second-most visited site at Petra, and the biggest overall; they called it El Deir, The Monastery. Because of course a human holy site had been built on top of an alien holy object. It was going to make the political fallout of any damage they ended up causing even uglier, but there was no avoiding it. The sensation of being watched hadn't really grown any stronger during the journey, not like one of those hotter-or-colder games he'd played as a kid, but it was a lot easier to triangulate when walking a few meters to one side was enough to change the direction the pull was coming from.
"I know the archaeologists have been all over this place," he said, staring up at the massive structure with a frown, "but they must not've had the right equipment, or I guess the Primes' bodies or the Matrix itself could have been interfering with their sensors. So how do we find something that was designed not to be found? I'd rather not just blow the whole place up and hope we don't hit the thing we're looking for."
"Yeah, I'd rather we didn't either," Hobbs scowled. "You should have seen the damage the Decepticons did in Rome just before our meet-up in Italy; the fuckers actually took a drive down the Spanish Steps and landed in the Colosseum. I get how important this is, but we've lost enough human history to Cybertronian carelessness."
"I am afraid that was my responsibility; Starscream allied with the human Carrera in an attempt to set a trap for me, and I had no choice but to meet him there in an effort to minimize civilian casualties," Optimus responded, looming big and blue in front of the doorway. He was just barely taller than the massive entrance; with his feet on the sand outside, the antennae atop his helm just barely brushed the stone lintel.
"Not blaming you. But if we can minimize the damage this time, I'd appreciate it," Hobbs replied sourly.
"Ratchet?" Mikaela looked up at the chartreuse rescue Hummer. "You have more detailed scanners than most Autobots, right? Could you take a look?"
"I will make the attempt," Ratchet nodded to her, then took several steps toward the carved building. Optimus moved aside to let him through; Ratchet fit inside with a few feet to spare, raising his hands to send faint laser beams toward each of the interior walls in turn.
Sam and the rest of the humans followed him cautiously inside, accompanied by Bestia and Bumblebee. Belle took up a stance outside the doorway with Optimus to guard against intruders; Sam caught a glimpse of Hobbs patting his new friend on his plated shin as they passed, and was briefly glad to be reminded that at least one thing had gone right that week. Then Ratchet paused in front of a fresco set into the stone, doing an intensive scan of the ancient painting.
"Here," he said, turning to nod to Sam. "There is an open space behind this wall."
"Can we get in without blowing it up?" Dom asked, rapping his knuckles against the stone. "I don't hear anything-- wall's gotta be at least a couple inches thick."
"I will try," Ratchet nodded, shifting his arm into the superheated saw he sometimes used in combat. Then he carefully traced the spinning blade around the edge of the fresco, continuing until he could pull it whole from the wall. There was indeed a cavity behind it, but it wasn't empty; the skeletal frame of an ancient Cybertronian curved to fill the visible space, runes carved along its long-dead limbs.
"It's them!" Sam gasped in realization, laying a hand against the metal. "It's them I've been feeling, not the Matrix or the Fallen!"
Voices raised behind him in answer-- but Sam was no longer paying attention. Before anyone could stop him, he boosted himself up, crawling through a human-sized gap between the Prime's bones.