For all the urgency with which Ratchet had dispatched them, Bumblebee was beginning to think that they were on a wild goose chase. The scanner in his hand bleeped pitifully, showing nothing, nothing, and nothing. If there was any kind of Decepticon activity in the area, it was very, very well-hidden. If he didn’t know better, Bumblebee might have thought that Ratchet had simply taken the first handy excuse to kick them out of the base, but he couldn’t think of any reason he’d want to do that.
“So, where are we, again?”
All right, maybe one reason.
“The coast of South Africa,” he said, looking up from the scanner. Smokescreen was busy poking his hand into the cliff face, the phase shifter giving his plating a faint shimmer where it met rock.
While he could see the things that irritated the rest of his teammates, Bumblebee had to admit that he liked the kid. Overeager, perhaps, but he wasn’t too proud to admit that he hadn’t been much different, back when the war was young. It took a special kind of idiocy to provoke Megatron himself into tearing your throat out, after all. Besides, it was nice to have a sparring partner more his size. Smokescreen might not have much practical combat experience, but he’d learned some neat tricks in the Elite Guard.
“Cool! I like it. It’s a lot greener here than in Jasper.” He gestured towards the tree line, thick and verdant. The jungle here was probably full of wildlife, too, when Cybertronians weren’t around to frighten them off. “So, are you getting anything?”
“Nothing,” he admitted. “It might have just been an error in the system. Raf’s improved the mainframe a lot, but you know how Ratchet and human technology get along.”
“Or it might just have been an excuse,” Smokescreen added, “I don’t think he appreciated my indoor racing.”
His vocoder spit out the curious trill that was as close as he could manage to a laugh. “I wasn’t going to mention that part,” he admitted.
“Nah, it’s cool, I kinda have that affect on people.” Smokescreen shut down the phase shifter and vaulted neatly over the cliff’s edge. Between their position and the shoreline lay a field of boulders, worn and mossy from the pounding of the sea, and he hopped from one to the other towards the water. “I even managed to pester Alpha Trion into kicking me out of the Hall of Records, once, and that guy’s patience is off the charts.”
Bumblebee buzzed inquisitively, leaning over to watch Smokescreen. His doors perked up, catching the warm wind off the sea, much stronger here, where the rocks funneled it up to him. Those rocks looked slippery, but Smokescreen didn’t seem to be in any danger of losing his footing as he leapt one to the next.
“It was about a quartex into my assignment, see,” he was saying, “and I knew that pretty much everyone but me was marching down to Kalis for some big battle. You know, something important. But there I was, stuck in a big, dusty library with the big, dusty librarian, and I just—well, I had to hit the road. Even if I couldn’t go to war, I had to drive, you know? My engine starts itching if I don’t burn rubber on occasion. You ever get that?”
Bumblebee suppressed a shudder. He tried not to think on his time without a T-cog too often. Helplessness hadn't sat well with him at all, less like an itch than like drowning. “Something like that,” he said darkly.
Smokescreen nodded. “Yeah, it sucks exhaust. Anyway, I might have tried drag-racing through the stacks, and I might have run Alpha Trion off his feet, ‘cause I didn’t see him turn the corner, and he might have shoved me out the door and told me to not come back until I was exhausted.” He shrugged, balanced precariously on one foot on the rocks. “Mostly he was pretty okay with me blowing off steam as long as I didn't wreck anything, though, so I guess it worked out in the end.”
“I see.” Bumblebee climbed down onto the rocks, himself. What was the harm, after all? Maybe whatever they were looking for was hiding down here, at the tide line, or maybe there was nothing to look for, in which case he didn’t really have a problem stealing a minute or two of downtime. To a human, the boulders would have been broad enough to stroll across, but to him they were more like stepping stones. “What was he like, then? The Archivist, I mean.”
Smokescreen looked at him oddly. "Hasn't Optimus ever told you about him? He was the guy's protégé."
Bumblebee shook his head. "Optimus doesn't like to talk about him, or Iacon, or anything from before the Matrix chose him." His optics spiraled down. He’d only dared to ask a few times over his long service to the Prime, and he’d quickly learned not to press the issue. "He must find it painful. Ratchet might know more, but I'm not about to pry, you know?"
"Sure." Smokescreen gathered his thoughts, his doors tilting to catch the salt spray in the air. For him, his assignment in the Hall of Records must have still felt like yesterday. "Well, Alpha Trion's kind of odd. He's huge, first of all." He threw his arms out to demonstrate. "Like tank-huge, definitely taller than Optimus. I have no idea what his alt even is, he never transforms and he wouldn't tell me. I have no idea how old he is, either. I tried to look it up once, even, but I couldn't even find any records! I think he hid them all just to annoy me. And he's got this plate on his chin that I swear goes down to here." He gestured towards his midsection.
“And he’s always carrying this book thing around. I’m not sure why, I think it’s, like, his diary or something. I tried to read it once, but it was all gibberish.”
Bumblebee felt his optics spiraling wide. “You tried to read Alpha Trion’s diary?” he asked incredulously. “He has a diary, and you tried to read it?”
“What? I was curious! There wasn’t anything else to do!” Smokescreen spread his hands imploringly. “Just don’t tell Optimus, okay? Anyway, after he caught me he decided that, since I was obviously so eager for something to read, I could start actually studying the things in the Hall of Records, like a scholar or something.” He made a face. “I still don’t really see the point. I mean, I’m a soldier! What good is a bunch of extra education going to do me?”
“It worked out for Optimus,” Bumblebee pointed out.
“I—huh. I guess that’s true.” Smokescreen kicked at a small, loose rock, sending it skittering over the boulders. “That’s different, though. He’s the Prime.”
They followed the small rock’s progress, kicking it farther along each time they caught up to it. Bumblebee checked the scanner several times in the hope that something might suddenly appear on it, but no such luck.
“So what did he make you study, then?” he asked into the silence. If they didn’t find anything, at least it was giving him an opportunity to learn about their new teammate.
“Ugh, everything. Let’s see,” Smokescreen began ticking subjects off on his fingers, “philosophy, boring; history, boring; history of the Wreckers, awesome; sciences, boring and full of numbers; literature… actually, this is gonna sound dorky, but some of the literature was okay. The Thirteen, the great heroes and epics and stuff, those were cool. The criticism, though, now that was boring. He had a lot of stories about the Primes, but he always got weird when I asked about them. Don’t know what was up with that. My favorite was Beta, though, the Epic of Beta. Lame title, cool story.”
Bumblebee looked at him curiously. The only Beta he’d ever heard of featured in a dimly-remembered fairytale about the founding of some long-dead city, and he said as much.
“I know, right? But the full story is actually about a million datatrax long and way more exciting. She fights with underworld demons and aliens and monsters. Hah!” Smokescreen balled up his fists and took up a boxer’s stance, balanced on the rocks, jabbing at the air. “She got a chance to prove herself, you know? That’s all I really wanted the whole time I was stuck there. But it’s not like there were any Quintessons handy to drive out or anything. And when my time finally came I just got knocked out.” He sighed. “Pretty pathetic compared to heroes like you, right?”
“Like me?” he wanted to say, but was rather sidetracked by the sight that greeted them as they crested a particularly large boulder. Instead, he opened the commlink to base. “Ratchet? We found something.”
“Finally! What have you two been doing out there, goofing off?”
“The scanner wasn’t picking anything up, and I see why, now. Whatever was here, it’s gone.”
Obscured by the boulders heaped around it, something had carved a huge gash into the rocks, one that stretched from there all the way to the water. Smokescreen was already bending to inspect it, poking his finger in. “Looks like energon,” he said, “probably most of it’s been washed away by now. I think either the Decepticons dragged something into the water, or they dragged it out and bridged away.”
“Do you want us to check it out?”
On the other end of the line, Ratchet sighed. “Might as well,” he said, “Hopefully they will have left a clue regarding their intentions. If nothing else, it will keep you two scraplets out of my circuits for a while.”
By the time they finally found the thing, they'd been walking for what felt like miles. It was slow going, as the water dragged on their limbs and the light dimmed. Bumblebee could feel the weight of the ocean pushing down on him, flattening his doors to his back, and as they kept walking, the pressure readout in the corner of his HUD kept climbing and climbing.
Smokescreen had chafed at the slow pace at first, so eager to find whatever it was the Decepticons were doing that he forgot to close all of his vents and had to rush back to the surface, coughing and spluttering, to clear them again, but he seemed to have gotten the hang of it, now. Bumblebee could just make him out as a dim, pale shape in the low light, wreathed in plumes of the sand they kicked up with each step. If they went much deeper, they might have to risk turning on their headlights in order to see at all.
"I wish my radar wasn't going haywire down here, I can't fragging see," Smokescreen complained over comms. "How are you so good at walking down here? I feel like the current's about to knock me over! Have you done this before?"
"Once," Bumblebee admitted. Granted, it hadn't been nearly as deep or as dark. And there hadn't been any Decepticons involved. Hah, maybe he should take Smokescreen to Maine sometime. If nothing else, he'd have human driving laws down pat by the end of the visit.
"You get to do all the fun things."
In the end they were lucky that their short-range comms still worked. It was far too dark to make out more than vague shapes down there, and Bumblebee couldn't make heads or tailfins of Decepticon encryption, but the short burst across their systems alerted them in enough time to duck for cover.
The groan of overtaxed systems carried so clearly in the water that Bumblebee thought, for a terrified instant, that the door was opening up right beside them, but then he caught a flicker of light on the far side of the plain, in what he had assumed were merely some particularly large rock formations. A gap that looked suspiciously like an airlock opened in the side of it, allowing water to rush in and a Vehicon to roll out. It was difficult to make out in the murky depths, but it seemed that the Decepticons had modified one of their mining drills to drag some sort of makeshift sledge behind it. It was impossible to tell what the cargo was; only that it warranted a minimal guard of two Vehicons plus the driver.
They watched the caravan’s slow progress across the ocean floor, tracking them by the glow of their optics. Another Decepticon transmission flickered across their systems, and the airlock door slid shut. The low rumble of overtaxed pumps started up.
They huddled down behind the scanty cover of a few actual rocks, heads close. “That’s a ship,” Smokescreen hissed. Bumblebee was pleased to note that he’d cut his transmission back to the narrowest band possible. It wouldn’t do to be caught out by the same mistake that had tipped them off to the Vehicons’ presence. “Should we go in, or try to follow those guys?”
Bumblebee considered. “Go in. We’ll be too easy to spot tailing the caravan.” He turned to look back at the place where the airlock had opened up. He could see, now that he knew what he was looking at, that what he had taken to be spires of rock were actually the spines of a Decepticon warship turned on its side, though several of them had been snapped off long ago. “Not that getting in will be easy,” he added, “We can’t exactly walk up and ask to use the airlock, and if it’s still pressurized inside, we can’t blast in through the hull, either.”
“Don’t worry, I gotcha covered!” Smokescreen raised his right arm, tapping the phase shifter significantly. “We can just walk in, no hull breach necessary.”
Bumblebee felt his doors perking up against the weight of the water. “Good thinking. Stealing the phase shifter is looking like one of the best ideas you’ve ever had.”
“Borrowing. I borrowed it.”
They snuck towards the ship, sidling up to it in the shadow of one of the long, menacing spines. Bumblebee paused with his helm pressed to the hull, trying to listen for any signs of habitation on the other side, but Smokescreen merely grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him through. Fortunately, there were no Decepticons on the other side.
What there was, was water.
“This part of the ship must have flooded when it crashed,” Bumblebee commented.
Smokescreen didn’t answer, too distracted by the sight of the inside of the ship. The running lights burned softly, giving the corridor an eerie glow, which Bumblebee recalled as being fairly typical of Decepticon ships in general, if his brief time on the Nemesis was anything to go by. A few had broken and been corroded by the salt, but he was surprised by the number that still worked. The artificial gravity, however, was another story. They walked along what had been the wall, with the illuminated floor on their right and the high ceiling on the left.
The next room they entered was much the same, and the one after that. Finally, they stumbled through a wall that had once been a ceiling into open air. It was a little brighter, but not by much.
Smokescreen opened all his vents in a quick cough, expelling the last bit of water from his systems. Bumblebee regarded the puddle spreading under their feet with dismay.
“I don’t suppose you have anything to dry us off with?” he asked hopefully, but Smokescreen shook his head.
“Nope, sorry. Guess we’ll just have to hope no one comes down this way until it evaporates.”
They stalked down the corridors as quietly as possible, weapons out, sensors alert, but it was a big ship and there didn’t seem to be many Decepticons on it. Not many live ones, at any rate. They stumbled over a few clearly ancient corpses in a knot where one hall crossed another; three Vehicons in a heap, a smallish jet, and a tank of a model Bumblebee hadn’t seen since the destruction of Cybertron’s last spacebridge. The sixth body was clearly that of an Autobot.
“Primus,” breathed Smokescreen. He knelt by the body, checking over plating so faded that it was impossible to tell what color it had been in life. “Give me a hand, Bee,” he said, trying and failing to drag it out from underneath the tank’s corpse.
“Smokescreen…” Bumblebee began, because they really did not have time for this, much as the sight tugged at his spark, but it would have taken a sterner spirit than his to resist the distraught look Smokescreen gave him. Sighing, Bumblebee braced his shoulder against the tank’s body and heaved. It was heavy, so heavy his struts groaned under the weight, but Smokescreen moved fast and dragged the Autobot’s corpse out from under it, separating the tank’s claws from her internals, her gun arm from the blackened hole in his chest.
They laid her out on the floor as neatly as possible, given the degraded state of her systems. Still, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. A bit of rust flaked off the wound that had killed her, and the last traces of remaining energon had dried to powder, but Bumblebee had certainly seen worse. She was mostly intact, for one thing, enough so that he could guess at her alt mode, likely some sort of truck or armored transport. Smokescreen hovered over the body uncertainly.
“Come on,” said Bumblebee as gently as he could, “we need to keep moving. There isn’t anything you can do for her now, Smokescreen.”
“I can’t just do nothing,” he replied. “It’s always like this, for me. Everyone else goes out and fights and dies and I don’t come along until it’s all over. I had friends in the Elite Guard, I should’ve been out guarding their backs the whole time I was stuck in that library, instead of just waiting to count how many of them came back at all. It’s not right.”
Whatever response Bumblebee might have made was interrupted by the whine of approaching engines. He could see the flare from a pair of thrusters approaching from the lower levels, rising through the shaft that had once been a level hallway. With a curse, Smokescreen backed away from the tangle of corpses and activated the phase shifter. Bumblebee had a brief glimpse of two Vehicons before they slipped through the wall into a dark, sealed room.
They crouched in tense silence, audio receptors tuned to the other side of the wall. The Decepticons muttered to each other, their voices indistinct. Louder was the scrape of heavy metal over the floor. Bumblebee felt a chill steal over his systems. There wasn’t anything to be dragged around there except the bodies. Beside him, Smokescreen began to tremble.
At least one more Decepticon came and went before the sound of grumbling began to retreat back towards the shaft. They slipped back through the wall again, chasing after the bright burn of a jet’s thrusters just before it rose up.
“Hey!” Smokescreen shouted, and Bumblebee could have hit him. The jet tried to turn, hindered by the bulky weight of the cargo net strung awkwardly to his underbelly. The corroded remains of an arm dangled out of the net.
Smokescreen, never one to over-think his actions, ran straight for the edge of the shaft and leapt, catching hold of the jet’s wings. They careened off, banging into walls as the jet tried to shake off his unwelcome passenger.
Bumblebee suppressed a sigh. He had been hoping to avoid direct confrontation for a little while longer. Now, however, the other jets had been alerted and were turning back. He opened fire, hoping to keep them off of Smokescreen, who was too busy shouting and trying to steer his Decepticon to pay much mind to anything else.
Charred, smoking, and apparently quite fed up with his Autobot passenger, the jet made a truly impressive roll, dropping the cargo net and sending Smokescreen flying in one movement. His aim was also to be commended, thought Bumblebee in the brief instant before Smokescreen collided with him and sent them both tumbling back the way they had come.
Bumblebee hardly had his feet beneath him before he had to dance back to avoid enemy fire. Smokescreen caught him by the elbow, and together they dove through several walls, putting a line of sealed rooms between them and the jets.
They tumbled out into a room stacked high with junk.
“Not my best plan, but it could have been worse,” said Smokescreen, right before everything went black.
He woke groggily, his processors slow to boot up, the way they might have been after Ratchet put him under for surgery. He was lying on his side with his head pillowed on something hard and angular, wrists cuffed together in front of him, and the light was dim. He flexed his doors.
Bumblebee booted his optics, craning his neck. Apparently, that was Smokescreen’s knee he was lying on. He struggled to sit up, though it was awkward without the use of his arms. They appeared to be in the ship’s old medical wing, in a makeshift prison consisting of… an overturned crate? Outside that was a sea of red visors. “What happened?” he asked, as quietly as his vocoder could manage.
“They must have hit us with an EMP.” Smokescreen whispered back. “I only woke up a minute ago. Still not sure what they’re doing down here.” He laughed humorlessly. “It’s just like Iacon.”
As quietly as he could, Bumblebee shuffled forward, trying to get a better look at their surroundings. Much of the equipment had been cleared out, and the empty space filled with piles of scrap. Some of it had clearly come from the ship’s computers, or the medbay itself. Some was merely base metal.
Some had very clearly been scavenged from the ancient corpses here. He could see an entire heap of T-cogs in various states of disrepair. The phase shifter perched on top, like an afterthought.
“What are you doing?” he wailed before he could think better of it.
Suddenly every visor in the room fixed on them. “Uh, salvage, duh,” said one of the Vehicons.
Smokescreen growled. “Don’t you have any respect for the dead?”
The Vehicons looked at each other. “No?” said one with the distinctive double-visor of the mining class, “I mean, they’re dead. They don’t care.”
The alloys commonly used to build their kind back on Cybertron tended to be difficult to replicate using alien materials, particularly on metal-poor planets, and anyway the Decepticons expended most of their mining efforts on energon and didn’t really have the time or the resources to process their own ores. That meant that new materials were generally reserved for the officers, while the rest made do with parts stripped from their fallen comrades as much as possible, which was easy enough to do, given their uniform builds. They’d found this derelict more or less by accident while dredging for energon several months ago, and had been cheerfully stripping it and its deceased crew for parts ever since, in order to supplement their current stockpiles. There were a lot of dead crewmembers, and some intact computers, and the medical equipment, which was where they found the EMP generator that had so handily knocked out their Autobot interlopers. This was all explained to them by an earnest and apparently very bored Vehicon.
“Of course, this wouldn’t have been necessary when Commander Starscream was with us,” he added mournfully, “He always kept a close eye on our supplies.”
“Oh Primus, don’t start that again,” muttered one of his fellows.
Bumblebee shook his head. All he could think was, of course Starscream would be fine with scavenging a dead bot’s cogs. He hadn’t even seemed particularly disgusted that MECH had stolen a live one’s.
“But they’re not yours,” said Smokescreen, “not all of them.”
“So?” The Vehicon shrugged. “Yeah, some of them are Autobots, I guess. Who cares? Do you think it’d be better to just bury them in the dirt like the organics do, or something?”
“Better than this.”
“That’s so wasteful! No wonder you guys are losing.”
Smokescreen scowled. “We are not!”
The Vehicon’s featureless face was difficult to read, but he still managed to radiate disbelief. “Your Prime has barely a handful of bots, you have to rely on the little fleshy things for supplies, and you yourselves are about to be transported to the Nemesis to see Lord Megatron, which Autobots don’t tend to survive very well, generally speaking. Pretty sure that is losing.”
Doing his best to ignore the conversation, Bumblebee eyed the phase shifter. It wasn’t far, and if the Decepticons knew what it was, they weren’t taking any particular trouble to guard it. If they could simply get close enough to grab it, they could get out of here.
While Smokescreen argued with the Vehicon, Bumblebee experimentally nudged at the edge of the crate. It moved, and it was a real struggle not to let his surprise show. Apparently, it hadn’t occurred to any of the Decepticons present to secure it at all. He nudged it again, and turned, trying to catch Smokescreen’s optic. Smokescreen glanced briefly at him, then the phase shifter. He tensed, though the Vehicon didn’t seem to notice.
As one, they rolled forward, knocking the crate end over end. It was not, Bumblebee had to admit, the most elegant maneuver he had ever pulled. The startled Vehicons went down like bowling pins, but they recovered quickly enough and began firing wildly. The heaps of scrap helped them considerably, sending shots ricocheting around the room. Bumblebee darted around a macabre heap of optical circuits, his optics falling on the phase shifter.
He dove for it, just under a stray shot from the miner's blaster. The bolt burned across his plating, but he plowed on, snatching up the phase shifter and activating it in the same movement. Now intransient, he ran for Smokescreen, heedless of obstacles or shots fired. He ran straight through one of the fliers and pulled Smokescreen up by the elbow.
Bumblebee waggled his doors. A shot went through them harmlessly. "Thanks. Let's get out of here."
Hand in hand, they ran. It felt rather like a bad holo-drama, and Bumblebee thought perhaps he would leave that detail out when recounting the story later. Unhindered by walls or blockages, they quickly outstripped the Vehicons behind them, though others appeared in twos and threes to join the pursuit as word spread.
Soon enough, they came to what had once been the ship's lower decks, right near the airlock. Another group of Vehicons paused in preparing another sledge, this one half-full of energon siphoned from the ship's reservoirs. Smokescreen skidded to a halt.
"Hey," he asked cheerfully, "you think that's enough energon to blow out the hull?"
Bumblebee regarded the sledge critically. "It might be," he said at the same time one of the Vehicons shrieked what? "Let's find out!"
Still holding hands, they each raised a blaster and opened fire. The Vehicons scattered, for what good it did them, as the volatile fuel went up in an impressive gout of blue flame.
It was, indeed, enough to rupture the hull.
Bumblebee flinched as the water rushed towards them, but it only passed through, as gentle as a breeze. The phase shifter glowed softly as all around them the force of the water tore at the sledge, the Decepticons, and the scrap metal.
"Well," Smokescreen shouted over the roar of the incoming sea, "so much for that. Gotta say, though, I was kind of hoping for something a little more momentous than a scrap yard for my first big heroic moment. It could have at least had a relic in it.” He seemed alight with the phase shifter’s faint corona, leaving bright trails in the water as it passed.
Bumblebee slung an arm around the kid’s shoulders. “That will come in time,” he said. “At least they won’t be able to pull apart any more of our fallen, this way.”
Smokescreen nodded. “I guess.”
The ship groaned as metal worn down by too many years in this alien, organic environment buckled under the weight of the water. The gap in the hull opened wider, pieces peeling off under the force. If any of the Vehicons had survived, they had been washed deep into the belly of the ship.
“Come on, let’s head back. It will be a long walk before we reach dry land and a ground bridge,” he let his optics spiral wide in amusement, “and you’ll have story of your own to tell, when we get back to base.”
They strolled out companionably through the gaping breach in the hull, indifferent to the implacable force of the sea.