“HAH! I win!”
Sari groaned, slumping forward and letting her head drop. “I was so close !” She dropped the controller into her lap and folded her arms over her chest, beginning to pout.
To her left, her friend--no, her enemy, now--laughed and offered her a wink with his optic. “In your dreams, I was waaaay ahead of you the entire time!”
“Nuh- uh !”
She pouted more than was strictly necessary.
Chuckling, he reached out to give her lower lip a very gentle poke with a very large finger. “None of that. Tell you what, we can make it best outta five instead of best outta three?”
Pout gone, Sari straightened up and beamed. “Now you’re talkin’ my language!” She grabbed for the controller again. “But don’t think that I’m going to go easy on you just ‘cause you offered to play a bit more, Bumblebee!”
“Would I think that?” He gave a good-natured roll of both optics before turning his attention back to the game.
Sari smiled up at him. Way, way up. Sometimes it was a pain, having a friend who was, like, fifteen feet tall. Her dad had said something about her needing chiropractic care in thirty years, what with all the craning her neck had to do.
But that was a small price to pay in order to say that she was best friends with a living, breathing robot from outer space.
She didn’t let it show, of course, but sometimes it hit her just how weird it was that she spent most of her day with a bunch of people who were at least three times her height and, if they weren’t careful, could squish her like a bug one of these days. Man. She wondered what people at public schools would say. Or private schools.
...Schools in general.
“Hello? Earth to Sari?” Bumblebee said, making her blink.
She realized he was waving a servo in front of her face, his fingers wiggling. Adopting a sheepish grin, she siad, “Sorry, was just thinking.”
She let her smile turn mischievous. “About how I’m gonna totally crush you in this next race.”
“Speaking of language,” came a voice from behind them.
Sari was proud of herself for not jumping. Not that it mattered much, though. Bumblebee jumped, and when his backside hit the couch they were on, she went bouncing a good foot or so in the air anyhow. “Prowl, do you mind ?” Bumblebee groused, turning to shoot a glare over the back of the couch.
“What about language?” Sari asked, as nonchalantly as she was able.
Another of her friends, an even bigger robot named Prowl, was standing behind the couch. Though his expression was, as usual, neutral, Sari knew that he was inwardly smirking. He and Bumblebee always seemed to get a kick out of riling each other up, and Prowl especially liked to take advantage of how jumpy Bumblebee could occasionally get.
Reaching up to play with his visor, Prowl addressed Sari, ignoring the other ‘bot entirely. “I heard about how there are more than 6,500 languages on Earth. Yet I’ve never heard you speak anything beyond English. Do humans tend to only learn one language?”
Bumblebee gave a belabored sigh. Sari, meanwhile, perked up at the chance to teach her friends about something new.
“No! I mean, some do. But a lotta people learn languages if their parents speak something else, or if the family has to move somewhere. There was that TV show a while ago about some guy who got struck by lightning and lost, like, half his languages.”
Bumblebee blinked. “How does someone lose their languages?”
“Scrambled their processor, sounds like,” Ratchet grunted as he stomped into the room. “But could he still talk?”
“Yeah! I think he could speak like, five languages or something. I dunno.” Sari waved a hand dismissively. “Why, you wanna learn a language, Prowl?”
Prowl shrugged. “We haven’t needed other languages for communication purposes yet. But it baffles me. There are so many people on this planet, and there must be so many situations where communication… simply cannot happen.”
“Well. Yeah? I mean, that’s what gestures and stuff are for.”
“Is there a reason you’re interrupting our racing, Prowl?” Bumblebee said.
“I’m asking our local expert a question. She can play with you while talking with me, she’s done it before,” Prowl said mildly.
Sari set the controller down next to herself and crawled onto her knees so she could face Prowl properly. She had to lean back to look up into his face, so she held onto the back of the couch for support. “I’m actually surprised we could all, y’know, speak the same language when we met. Do they speak English on Cybertron?”
Bumblebee let out a snicker. “Of course not! It was something we picked up when we got here. Basically hooked up into some tech we found and boom! Language. Easy peasy. So if Prowl actually wants to learn a language, he can just go do that without bugging us.”
“It isn’t that simple for us,” Ratchet corrected. “You remember how awkward our first few attempts at communication with locals went, before we fine-tuned the translations.”
“Well, yeah, but it doesn’t matter ‘cuz Sari could understand us just fine immediately. I don’t think we’ve ever had a misunderstanding.” Bumblebee puffed his chest out proudly, as though that was his doing.
“I never noticed that before, but yes. Isn’t it interesting that Sari could understand us--and us her--without issue from the start?” Prowl said. “What if we were to attempt another language?”
“I don’t wanna learn another language. The only language that speaks to me is racing,” Bumblebee said pointedly.
Sari grinned at him. “We’re getting there!”
“Well, hurry up, will ya? You gotta hit the ‘start’ button for me.”
“Why me? You’re Player One, you go ahead.”
Bumblebee sighed. “Right, right.” He hesitated, then pressed a button on his controller.
Sari turned and squinted at the screen. “Why are you in settings? Go back.”
“Okay, yeesh, someone’s pushy.” He went back, and hit another button.
Nothing happened on screen.
“Uhhh. Bumblebee?” Sari glanced between the screen and her friend. “Wait. Are you guys telling me that you can speak English, but you can’t read it?”
There was a beat of silence.
“Haven’t needed to, yet,” Ratchet pointed out. “We got all the tech we ourselves need, and it’s not like we’ve had to translate any of our data pads for you.”
“What? But I could have sworn--!” Sari turned to stare at Bumblebee, whose faceplate looked a little pink to her eyes. He was avoiding eye contact, sheepish about being caught. “We’ve been playing all sorts of video games ever since we met!” She paused. “No wonder you weren’t interested in that RPG I brought over!”
“Reading is for losers,” Bumblebee muttered.
“Says the ‘bot who wanted to join the Elite Guard,” Prowl said.
Bumblebee shot a scowl over his shoulder. “You can’t even read English either!”
Sari sighed. “Well, this is kinda lame,” she said, bringing one hand up so she could rest her cheek on it. “I had so many things I wanted to share! Like comic books! You gotta read to appreciate those.”
“Comic books?” She realized she’d caught Ratchet’s attention.
Turning to him, she nodded. “Yeah, it’s got all sorts of cool action and fighting bad guys and stuff! Kinda like what you guys do.”
“We could probably download an alphabet or three and figure things out from there,” Prowl said thoughtfully.
“Why do we need to download an alphabet?” Optimus asked from the doorway.
“Sari thinks we need to learn to read an Earth language,” Prowl informed him.
Optimus rubbed at his own chin. “Well, the thought does have its’ merits,” he admitted. “It might make communication with other humans easier if we could pass messages back and forth.”
“Not to mention texting!” Sari brightened. “Oh my gosh we could send each other messages! We could be friends on social media! We could do a ton of cool stuff!”
Bumblebee was beginning to perk up. She had the feeling he wasn’t entirely on board with reading, but he tended to respond well to her energy, so when she got excited about something, he was usually ready to at least try it. “Huh, well, I mean, what could it hurt? We could download it and give it a go! Then I could read this stuff on the screen. Not that I need to, in order to beat you,” he added, giving her a good-natured grin.
“Whatever,” she shot back with a giggle. “How long would it take to download the English alphabet? I mean it’s only 26 letters, so you should be able to get it in no time.”
“Ratchet?” Optimus said.
The crotchety ‘bot started to plod toward where he kept his data pad. “All right, I’ll see what I can do about this. One minute.”
“So that says, ‘stuart!’”
“No,” Sari groaned. “That’s start .”
“I don’t get this, it’s basically the same letters,” Bumblebee said, tilting his head and frowning.
Bulkhead reached up to scratch at his own helm. “Maybe we got the wrong alphabet?”
“No, we all made sure of that.”
It turned out that just because they could recognize the alphabet now didn’t mean they could read things.
Sari was about at her wits’ end. While at first it had been exciting, watching Bumblebee eagerly point out individual letters to her, she’d made the discovery that the leap between recognition and understanding was far too big for even a ‘bot to make overnight.
Especially without someone who knew how to help.
“We should take a break,” Sari said with a sigh. “I don’t think we’re getting to comic books tonight.”
Bumblebee’s expression fell. “Aww, but I was looking forward to that one you were talking about! WIth that guy who wears red and blue, like Optimus’s frame!”
Sari reached out to pat him on the leg--mostly because that was all she could reach. “Sorry, ‘Bee, we’ll have to do it another night. I’ve never had to explain reading to anybody before. I, uh, might not be the best person for it.”
“That’s all right,” Optimus said kindly. “It is still a step in the right direction for better understanding this world we find ourselves on, and it is another means with which we can better communicate with others.”
“Communicate,” Sari echoed. She chewed on her lower lip in thought. Then, she brightened. “Wait, wait, I have an amazing idea! Hold on!”
The ‘bots waited as she drew out a laptop computer, and began to boot it up. “Where’s the fire?” Bumblebee asked.
“Well, look, what we’re missing here is something so simple, I didn’t even think of it. You need a tutor! Or a teacher!”
“Oh! Like that tutor-bot your dad has you study with!” Bulkhead said with dawning understanding. “Maybe we could use it to learn?”
Sari’s mind flashed to that tired old bot and she sighed. “Ugh. That sounds awful, honestly. No, I’m thinking a real-life, human teacher. Y’know, someone who can explain stuff in a much more fun fashion. ‘Cuz that teacher-bot? Is so boring.”
“Learning is an integral part of growing up,” Optimus pointed out to her.
Sari stuck out her tongue. “I learn a lot while hanging out with you guys.”
He inclined his head and, satisfied, she rocked back on her heels, arms crossed. He continued, “Whatever the case, you realize that bringing another human into this base would be… tricky. We don’t need our base compromised, nor do we want them put in any sort of danger.”
“So we find a neutral meeting place!” Sari said brightly.
“A neutral place, for us.” Ratchet looked unimpressed.
Sari bounced impatiently. “Oh come on, it’ll be good for you guys to go out and meet people! And me, too!” She pointed at Optimus. “Don’t think I don’t notice those looks you give me when I talk about other people.”
“I don’t have a look ,” he protested.
“You do too.”
“Look, fine, you want us to get a… teacher? For letters?”
“Not just letters. You can ask ‘em all kinds of stuff! About art, or about languages or whatever!” Sari grinned.
Bulkhead leaned forward. “About art? That could be cool.”
“See? I’m a genius!” Seeing her laptop was up, she started to bring up the internet. “Now, just to find someone who would be a good match for you guys.”
“You have various stages of learning. Are you suggesting a general instructor, as opposed to a specialist?” Prowl asked.
“Yep. Someone who can show you the ropes. Especially with the more boring stuff so I don’t have to.”
Prowl let out a huff that sounded amused.
“Now.” Sari cracked her knuckles, and brought up a search bar. “Let’s get started.”
And this… is where you came in.