A few hours after midnight General Bryce stood on the pavement of the oil-stained lot, a chilly fall wind numbing his fingers. A thunderstorm had rolled in and water drizzled from the overhang of the warehouse. Individual raindrops seemed to spring into existence within the cones of illumination cast from the tall lights spread all across the pull-in yard. Beyond those limits the rain was largely invisible, only evidenced by the way raindrops drummed against the corrugated metal roofs and the flashes of lightning.
Bryce ignored the blowback of misty water under his shelter. His features were only lit by the blue speckles on the crowbar, lending cool-toned highlights to his clenched fist, and the red ember at the tip of his cigarette.
Smoking was a bad habit, he knew that. He was always on the cusp of quitting. But he always fell back on it when he was frustrated. And that Decepticon lived to frustrate him. Had the robot really damaged its t-cog or was it just a stubborn son-of-a-bitch? Either way, all Bryce had to show the Weapons & Development team was a beat-up car. (If only it had been Starscream he'd captured, or Megatron, or Soundwave. Even one of those Vehicons that turned into jets. Any of them but the car.)
Flicking the spent cigarette away, General Bryce pulled his phone out, scrolling past emails advertising new siding, the daily update from the boarding kennel, and a deal on pizza. Finally he found what he was looking for; he opened the email and read it for the fifth time. The Weapons & Development team was sending two of their people and they would arrive mid-morning.
He exhaled, the smoke rolling away from his lips. Glancing at the crowbar, he let its weight shift in his hand until one end of it hit the ground. He gripped the other end like a walking stick, a little awkwardly due to the hooked end.
Rubbing his thumb through a fading splatter of energon, he felt his confidence return. They would see that the robot was under his control. And hunger would drive the creature to transform eventually . . . maybe even while the W&D team was present. How satisfying if he could collar it right in front of them. Although there would be a period of panic and pain before it was truly cowed.
Good. That 'Con owed him—and the loyal citizens of the United States, of course—its pain.
He would take away the energon for the night, he decided. The renewed sight of its food in the morning—well, not sight anymore, ahaha, but the smell of it—might motivate the Decepticon to finally transform.
He was about to return to the warehouse that held the 'Con (he wanted it to know who was in charge and that meant rubbing his authority in its face as much as he could) when he thought he caught a flash of movement amongst the trees. It was hard to be sure in the night, in the rain. His face hardened with suspicion as he commed his men.
"Okay, he saw me," Arcee said, darting back into the woods and dropping into a crouch on the far side of a rolling hill. "What's the visual from your position, Jack?"
"Some guys are coming out of the warehouse. Looks like . . . three of them? And Bryce. One has a flashlight, the others have weapons." Jack had been left perched in a distant tree, with binoculars. "But Raf said there were five guards in there with Knock Out."
"No problem," Wheeljack's voice crackled over the radio. "Me and Bulk will distract the others."
"Be careful," Arcee warned, more for formality's sake than out of any belief that he would listen.
Ten seconds and one explosion later, all the lights of the compound below died, leaving it in pitch blackness.
"The generator just exploded, sir!"
"What?" Bryce turned around, the wet leaves and grass clinging at his legs. Rapid flickers of lightning lit the entire sky, as though mocking him, and the roar of thunder followed close on its heels. "What happened?"
"We're not sure, but it's probably related to the storm. We're investigating it now—"
"No! Back to your posts, guard the prisoner!" Bryce's teeth ground at the thought of the robot choosing this moment to transform. Didn't they understand that the only thing keeping it in check were the guns trained on it? If it got a headstart in the dark woods—
"Yessir. Sorry sir."
Bryce backtracked down the hill, trusting that his lackeys would follow. When he opened the generator room, black smoke billowed out. Ruined.
"Dig through the storage building. Pull out any lanterns or flashlights you can find," he snapped at the three soldiers. They saluted and jogged off, splashing through the puddles on the pavement.
Bryce stalked in the other direction, entering the warehouse where the Decepticon was housed.
"Sir!" The guards saluted, shining a flashlight towards him as he stood in the vast doorway, dripping with rain.
Bryce impatiently gestured him away, half-blinded. When another bolt of lightning flashed, the front half of a battered sports car with broken headlights was visible for a moment, despite the cardboard box it had backed into. Pathetic but amusing, how the Decepticon hid behind such flimsy material in its desperation for even the illusion of shelter.
"Stay vigilant. We have to protect our guest." He shot the Aston Martin a nasty look. "I have big plans for him tomorrow."
He left. The guard with the flashlight patrolled the perimeter, the other soldier divided his attention between the prisoner and the outer door.
The guard never noticed the water dripping off the car's bumper, nor the robotic arm that quietly phased up through the floor to pluck a few wet leaves out of its blank, broken headlights.
The Weapons & Development agents had been waiting forty minutes when the helicopter landed. The pilot shrugged out of his safety restraints and got out to greet them.
"Agent Sosa? Agent Ross?" he said, shaking each of their hands in turn. Felicity Ross was in her early fifties, with a stern expression. Sandy-haired Dennis Sosa was a few years younger and had the wiry physique of an obsessive bicyclist.
"That would be us," Ross said, her voice neutral even though she and Sosa had just been sharing mutual complaints about the tardiness of their ride and the sudden (and in their opinion unnecessary) urgency of this meeting at some mystery location.
Maybe something of it showed on her face, because the helicopter pilot shook his head.
"Sorry about the late arrival. They pulled me in on short notice. General Bryce has been getting more and more . . . excitable. I guess he's got something real special to show you. That's what he says anyhow." A note of doubt had entered his voice, but the next moment he dismissed it with a chuckle. "Listen to me blathering on when we could be flying."
"No worries," said Agent Sosa as he crawled into the helicopter. "We appreciate the ride. Better than driving."
"You got that right," Agent Ross said.
"Welcome to the base," General Bryce said, putting on a wide smile as the two agents stepped out of the back of the helicopter. They both nodded a greeting.
"I'm Agent Sosa, head of the Northeastern Weapons & Development Unit, and this is Agent Ross."
"Field missions and weapons testing," Ross said.
"Ah, wonderful," Bryce said.
"Yep. Nice place," Agent Sosa said out of token politeness. He glanced around, taking a few notes on his clipboard.
Agent Ross said nothing. She was eyeing the rusty warehouses with open skepticism.
Bryce cleared his throat. "It might not look like much, but wait until you see what's inside. Have you heard of . . . Cybertronians?"
Both the agents leaned forward in interest. Still sitting at the helicopter's controls, unnoticed, William Fowler shook his head and gave a quiet chuckle.
"As you can see, the bars are high-quality steel, a full eight inches thick. They can be electrified, too."
"Very interesting," Mr. Sosa said, "but . . ."
"It's empty," Agent Ross finished.
"It is, it is, yes." Bryce's fingers twitched and his mustache pulled up to the side as his smile seemed to veer out of his control. The bags under his eyes became more pronounced. "That's because we ran into some, ah—challenges. It's not so easy when your hardware has its own personality. Although the higher brain functions and ability to reason are exactly what will make Cybertronians superior weapons, able to be deployed in situations that—"
Dennis Sosa stopped listening. Project has problems, he wrote on his clipboard. Alien robot out of control? Lots of BS. Has alien robot head on pedestal.
"So where is the robot?" Ross said, forcing Bryce out of his ramble.
"The robot. Of course, of course." Bryce unlocked the padlock from an old, rectangular deep freeze and took a red plastic gas can out of it. He pulled the electronic collar off the pedestal, too, before heading for the door. "Follow me."
The gas can was odd enough, but Ross and Sosa raised their eyebrows when Bryce paused at the entrance of the third warehouse and grabbed hold of a small kiddy pool. It was shallow, shaped like a frog, and had bits of some congealed blue substance floating in the muddy rainwater in the bottom. A soldier standing guard at the door saluted and opened the door for them.
Gas canister. Kiddy pool, Sosa added to his notes. Maybe it would make sense later.
"And there it is! An alien, ladies—lady—and gentleman!"
"Where?" asked Agent Ross.
Bryce's eyes—they were bloodshot, Sosa noticed—twitched. "Under the cardboard. Andersen, Chestins—" General Bryce gestured towards two of the soldiers, then back towards a large, lopsided cardboard box. Now that Sosa looked closely, he could see the indistinct gleam of something metallic tucked inside.
"Dark in here," Ross observed.
"The lights got knocked out in the storm. We've been keeping them off anyway; it's a psychological thing, you understand."
"Not really," Sosa said. "Don't need to worry about that with most equipment." He meant it as a joke, but from the expression on Bryce's face, the General didn't take it as one.
Before Sosa could try to mitigate the damage, Bryce had stalked away.
"What crawled up his ass?" Ross said, not making much of an effort to keep her voice down. She'd always been a straight-shooter, and that tendency had only become more noticeable now that she was close to retirement.
"Don't know," Sosa said. "The whole thing seems a little . . . ehhh. But if he really has alien tech . . ."
Some members of the W&D team were fully convinced of the existence of death-robots rumored to be called 'Cybertronians', others were skeptical. They'd been asked to reverse engineer some weird technology in the past few years, but who knew where it came from? Still "it was highly advanced alien super-tech" made a convenient excuse for any and all failures . . .
At Bryce's direction, soldiers were pushing up the steel shutters covering the windows. Light came flooding in just as the final pieces of cardboard were dragged away. Sosa and Ross moved closer to get a better look at what had been hidden.
"Oh, it's a car," Agent Ross said, just as General Bryce returned.
The General's face dropped into a scowl, which he lifted into a smile that showed too many teeth. "It's a car in this form, but once it transforms . . ." He gestured upward. "A robot over twenty feet tall! Saws for hands! A killer!"
"How do you make it transform?" Agent Ross asked.
The General's mouth worked for a second. Then he marched off, dragged over the kiddy pool he'd left by the door, and uncapped the gas can.
"It'll transform when it's hungry enough," he said shortly, pouring an electric blue liquid into the pool.
Agent Sosa turned his attention back to the car. To say it was in rough shape was an understatement. Its red paint and purple decals were marred with scuffs and dents. The front tires were shredded and the headlights were nothing more than broken glass. Even the yellow wheel rims, which might have added a note of class, were chipped and scratched. Too bad. It looked like it had been a nice car, once.
"So that's an alien." He couldn't help but sound doubtful. "Does it understand us?"
"Oh yes, the miserable creature understands English. Don't you?" General Bryce smirked as he patted the car's hood.
Its front wheels swiveled from side to side. A deep voice emanated from somewhere under the hood. "Frag off."
"Huh, how about that!" Sosa said. "What's your name, car?"
"It's not actually a car. It's very dangerous." Bryce looked a little annoyed. "And it's called Knock Out, at the moment."
"Knock Out?" Ross said.
Bryce scowled. "It's a medic for its kind. It will be useful once we capture more of them. But yes, we might change its name. Once it's learned to behave."
"Didn't your email say this was some lone renegade Cybertronian?" Agent Ross said. "Where do you expect to find more?"
"I think we'll locate more renegades very soon." Bryce gave the car a nasty smile and another poke. "Don't you agree?"
The wheels shifted. "Frag off."
"Pretty rude alien, if that means what I think it does," Agent Sosa chuckled, daring to give the car a tap on its window.
"Frag off." Vrr, vrr, the wheels shifted.
Sosa paused. He and Ross exchanged glances.
Ross reached out to touch the roof.
Vrr, vrr. "Frag off."
She lifted the dangling side view mirror.
Vrr, vrr. "Frag off."
And finally, with mutual agreement in their eyes, Sosa and Ross both reached out at the same time.
"Fr—frag o—f-fr-fra-f-frag off."
"Okay, what the hell is going on here?" Ross said.
"What? Nothing! The alien is just stubborn! It's toying with you! If you knew the trouble it's been—" Frustrated, Bryce slapped a hand across the hood.
The hood sprang open and all three of them had an unimpeded view of the taped-together kitty walkie-talkie nestled beside the engine as it told them: "Frag off."
Sosa and Ross turned their eyes to Bryce. Open-mouthed, Bryce goggled between them and the car.
"It can't be. It can't be! It's impossible, it's, it's—" He reached for the kitty walkie-talkie, but Agent Ross caught his wrist.
"I'm sorry, sir. That's evidence," she said, her eyes hard and suspicious.
"Evidence." Bryce's fingers twitched, but he pulled away. "Yes. Of course. Excuse me, I just need to—" In a daze, he stumbled out the door.
Ross threw her hands in the air, disgust on her face. "What a waste of time! A four hour round trip for this?" She gestured towards the calico cat walkie-talkie.
Agent Sosa added a new line to his notebook: Alien is fake. Just a car. Bryce either liar or nuts. "Listen, he's not necessarily a con artist, maybe he's just crazy."
"Give me a break, Dennis."
"It won't hurt to investigate a little while we're here is all I'm saying . . . You, yes you." Agent Sosa approached a soldier. "What have you observed of this car's, er, behavior?"
The soldier, who'd been nervously staring after Bryce, turned his attention to Agent Sosa and saluted. "It mostly stayed under the boxes, sir. Bryce would come in to talk to it sometimes and leave energon for it." He nodded towards liquid in the kiddy pool.
"The car drank the 'energon'?"
"No sir, the General would just leave it in there for a while and then dump it later, behind the warehouse."
Sosa mentally added pollution to Bryce's list of sins. "Did the thing ever transform?"
"Not that I saw, sir. It talked sometimes, but I was too far away to hear what it said—"
"Frag off," said Ross.
The soldier looked wounded. "I'm just reporting what I heard."
"Well, given that information—" Agent Sosa began.
Before he could complete his thought, Bryce stomped through the door, purple-faced, with a crowbar clutched in his hand. Without saying a word, he reeled it back and began hitting every piece of the car he could reach. The rest of them stood paralyzed, watching his frenzied attacks battering the increasingly crumpled car.
"You worthless - piece - of - junk! How? How?" A vein throbbed in the General's neck as he spoke through his teeth. He switched his attention towards the soldier, suddenly storming forward to scream in his subordinate's face. "HOW DID IT ESCAPE?"
"It's . . . it's right there, sir." The soldier looked uncomfortable.
"No! It got AWAY!" Bryce swung around smacked a side-view mirror clean off.
"Maybe we should go," Agent Sosa said diplomatically. He only meant himself and Agent Ross, but the soldier hurried out of the warehouse after them.
And so did Bryce, unfortunately. "Ross . . . Sosa . . . You have to understand, it is real! It's an alien! The real one bleeds! It can't have gone far, you have to help me find it!"
"Of course we will," Sosa soothed. "We're on our way to do just that."
"Scouting from the air," Ross said.
"Yes, yes!" Bryce babbled, following them as they climbed in the helicopter. "And when you see it—"
"See what now?" the helicopter pilot asked, looking toward Bryce with interest.
Bryce stood stockstill for an instant. Then he lunged, his hands hooked into crooked claws. "You! You did this! Traitor!"
But the pilot had already slid the door closed and started the engine. Sosa and Ross pressed their noses to the window, watching Bryce gesticulating and kicking the ground until at last the grand sprawl of the autumn forest hid the tiny man.
Definitely nuts, Agent Sosa wrote in his notebook.