The copy machine's functional lifespan over, Dark Scream had to content himself with poking about in its innards and shocking himself on the coronal coils. Slapper and Gas-Skunk, meanwhile, helped themselves to the printing ink, alternately prying off lids, flicking gobs of the viscous semi-solid around like oversize boogers, and feeding entire cans into the printing press for the fun of watching them squish.
Dark Scream discovered the long, thin toner box about the same time the other two ran out of ink.
"Wow, it's amazing how flat those get when you run them through the rollers." Slapper made a show of dusting his hands clean, which just smeared the colors on each palm into a gooey jumble. "Too bad we're out. What's next? How about the Auto Mall?"
"Hang on a second. I want to see what this is."
The copy shop employees could have warned him about the dangers of fiddling with a box of toner, but they weren't around. Dark Scream foolishly pried off the lid and was promptly enveloped by a cloud of superfine toner dust. He caught his breath in surprise, choked, and went into a coughing fit, backing up in a futile attempt to escape the insidious stuff. The charged plastic particles clung to the living metal of his skin with the tenacity of microscopic barnacles, and his frantic scraping and slapping only served to rearrange them into bizarre electromagnetic patterns. Come off they would not.
"The salesguy didn't say anything about swarms of mechacidal nanobots," he coughed. "Lousy jerk."
"Caveat emptor," Slapper quipped, then ducked as the mostly empty container flew over his head, trailing a cloud of residual toner. With his vision impaired, the squirrel's aim was a little shaky. "Hey! Where did you pick up Latin, Screamer?"
"I didn't," Dark Scream growled. "I just knew it was something stupid."
"You could always ask for you money back."
"Calm down, it's just toner." Gas-Skunk dug into the debris in the printing area and came up with a five-gallon metal container of noxious-smelling fluid. "Here, why don't we try some press cleaner?"
"No way!" Dark Scream swatted the container away. "There is no way I'm letting you put some caustic chemical on my optics!"
Gas-Skunk sighed. "Okay, but you're really going to slow us down half blinded like that."
"Not to mention embarrassing us with your toner tattoos," Slapper chimed in helpfully.
Dark Scream snarled. Gas-Skunk shot the toad a warning look. "Slapper, why don't you go see if you can find some Windex in back."
Grumbling, Slapper burrowed his way into the storefront. They listened to him rummaging around in the debris. Periodically, some item he'd just unearthed would come flying back out of the store; many of these had no business being in a copy shop. Video tapes, a TV set, two boxes of A4 Cambridge Linen envelopes, matching letterheads, loose Exacto knives, several bags of M&Ms, an ancient stapling machine, oversized paper airplanes folded from various colors of 11x17 copy paper, a laminating machine, half a box of crayons, one Bev Doolittle painting, five hundred shrink-wrapped postcards with a grinning realty agent's mug shot, and a cheesy-smelling pizza box.
"Well? Any luck?" Gas-Skunk called.
"I'm looking, man, I'm looking," Slapper insisted, tossing aside a stack of memos dating from some time in the 1980s. "But I don't think this shop was very big on organization even before we trashed it." He looked at the light table, littered with vello and tape binding strips, one ant-infested donut, white-out tape, blue non-copy pencils and a battered Starcraft game CD. "And that's an understatement."
"Hurry it up, will you? The Autobots aren't going to wait forever."
Slapper muttered something under his breath and kept digging through the mess. A moment later the others heard a brief silence, followed by a series of arrhythmic thuds.
"Ahhhh! Ow! Gableeeeeeeeerg!"
"What's up with him?" Dark Scream demanded. "Did he find it?"
"Nope." Gas-Skunk craned his neck for a better look into the store. "Looks like he got his tongue caught in the folding machine."
When Dark Scream held his coughing back for a minute, he could indeed discern that Slapper was squalling and yelling in that peculiar way which meant his tongue was pinned. He'd heard it before.
"Moron," Dark Scream gritted. He was becoming more uncomfortable by the minute as the powder stung his optics and worked its way ever deeper into sensitive joints and circuitry. "He just can't leave stuff alone, can he."
Gas-Skunk looked sideways at his comrade and wisely said nothing.
"Listen, just find me some grass. I'll rub it off there."
"Whatever you say, Screamer." Gas-Skunk sat back on his haunches to scope out the area. "Look, how about that college campus? There's plenty of grass and the sprinklers are going. That should help wash off the toner."
"Which way?" Dark Scream groped about for a reference point. "You'll have to talk me over there."
"What about Slapper?"
"Ah, he'll figure it out," Dark Scream said, ignoring Slapper's mostly unintelligible protests. "Come on, my eyes are killing me."
Gas-Skunk was watching Dark Scream plough full-length through the wet zoysia grass and hydrangeas when X-Brawn pulled up and transformed.
"Uh, before I start shooting," he said in amusement, "would you mind telling me why rodent-boy there is playing Wheelbarrow?"
"He's celebrating your premature demise," Gas-Skunk retorted.
Slapper chose that moment to stagger out of the wrecked copy shop, dragging his accordioned tongue behind him. "Hey, guys, why'd you take off without me? I was--"
He spotted X-Brawn and gaped, tunnel vision kicking in as he forget everything else in delight over catching an Autobot with his back turned. "Die, Autobot! Haha! Right laser! Hasta la vista, vaquero!"
Warned more by his gut and the horrified looks on the other Predacon's faces than by Slapper's cackle, X-Brawn hit the deck and rolled out of the way. Dark Scream and Gas-Skunk were almost as fast, splitting to either side as the salvo whizzed between them to incinerate the cafeteria. Sparks and burning debris flew everywhere.
"Dear me," Slapper grinned. "I hope that wasn't important."
X-Brawn leveled his weapon. "Bronco blast!"
His barrage caught the Predacon squarely on the chest. With a howl, Slapper went flying back into the rubble from whence he came.
"You idiots! What are you doing?" Sky-Byte demanded over the comm. "I told you not to stand and fight! Get out of there -- don't give him time to call the others and pin you down! I need more time!"
"That's easy for you to say," Gas-Skunk protested. "You're not being shot at by your own team!"
"You don't have toner in places I won't mention in public!" Dark Scream added, rubbing at his thigh joints.
"That's as much as I want to hear about it, Dark Scream," Gas-Skunk complained.
"Come on, Fearless Leader is right for once," Dark Scream conceded. "We need to split up. I'll meet you guys at the rendezvous point."
"What about Slapper?"
Dark Scream spared the toad a glance. More of the roof had collapsed into the copy shop, and only the ends of his thrashing limbs were visible.
But the squirrel was running short on sympathy today.
"I think he's smart enough to dig himself out, don't you?"
Gas-Skunk scratched the back of his head meditatively. "Weeeell..."
Sky-Byte floated effortlessly along a quiet avenue, reading numbers off the right-hand curb as lacy shadows from the tree branches overhead slid across his back.
"895, 897, 899 and... No, no no! Now I'm on Halfpence Way," he exclaimed, gliding to a halt and looking about for help. "Hello there," he called out hopefully, spotting a lone jogger making her way across the sidewalk. "I don't suppose I could take a moment of your time to get some directions?"
She broke stride to shoot him a venomous glance and mutter something under her breath. His razor hearing let him distinguish every word perfectly. "A lovely college town, they told me. Well! Not only does this place look like a rock concert aftermath, but they had show up, too!"
"I just need to know --"
"You don't exist," she yelled. "My therapist said so and that session cost me a bundle, so it better be true!"
"But I --"
"Why don't you become one with the universe and stop bothering me!" She clamped both hands over her headphones to shut out his voice and jogged resolutely away, jet-black ponytail sashaying in time to her stride.
"Well," the shark huffed. "How rude! Fine then, I don't believe in you either!"
Discouraged, he sank down in near the broken display case of a ruined consignment store and regarded his many reflections woefully.
"Where can it be?" he asked them despondently. But they looked as unsure as he felt, and the few people in the store just stared blankly, their expressions oddly stiff with surprise or fear. His other surroundings offered no clue except the obvious: the other Predacons had already been here, leaving plenty of wreckage in their wake. Sky-Byte realized with a sinking feeling that he hadn't told them to leave the bookstore alone. What if they had already leveled it?
"I can't believe it," he mourned. "And I planned everything so carefully."
"Hold it, Sky-Byte! Sideburn, transform!" The youngest Autobot brother exchanged modes without slowing and landed squarely in front of Sky-Byte, feet apart. "You can just forget whatever you're planning."
"Can't those three losers do anything right?" Sky-Byte grumbled. "Distract and destroy. How hard can it be? Sky-Byte, terrorize!"
He transformed and reached through the shattered storefront to grab the first person who came to hand. "Here now -- back off, Autobot, or I'll be forced to injure this woman!"
Sideburn stared incredulously, then burst out laughing. "Sky-Byte, that's a mannequin."
"What?" Sky-Byte glanced at his hostage in consternation. "Oh, eh. Yes of course. I knew that." Flustered, he tossed the inanimate lady back into the consignment store with her fellow models, minus one shoe and an ostrich feather boa. The latter snagged on a finger joint and fluttered with every gesture he made as he tried a different tack. "Listen, you hothead, I'm not here to hurt anyone. Kindly be civilized and leave me alone."
"You just threatened a woman," the blue mech reminded him, smirking. It was hard to remember that the shark could be dangerous with that feather boa flapping after his hand.
"B-but she wasn't real!" Sky-Byte sputtered in protest.
"True enough," Sideburn acknowledged, cocking his head in consideration. "You either thought she was, or hoped I'd be too stupid to notice the difference." He leveled his crossbow and grinned. "Either way, I'm entitled to a shot at you."
"Now, see here--!"
Sky-Byte was saved by a crackle of static in Sideburn's comm unit.
"Sideburn, where are you?" Prowl's voice was tense. "We need backup!"
Sideburn glanced at the shark and held up his index finger politely, then put a hand to his helmet. "Um, I'm a little busy right now. Can it wait?"
"The Predacons are heading for the Auto Mall," X-Brawn put in shrewdly. "It's a little early to say for sure, but it looks like they're going straight for the Porsches."
"Oh, no! Not those sweet little Carreras!" Sideburn was horrified. "I go down a cross street for two seconds, and those monsters start targeting innocent bystanders! I'm on my way! Sideburn, transform!"
Sky-Byte just stood there as the blue Viper burned rubber down the street, not sure whether to be relieved or insulted at being forgotten so quickly and completely.
"The mockingbirds what?"
"I'm serious." Shelley wiped her hands on her pants and reached for a soda. "The cat sets off his car alarm every other night, and now the mockingbirds are starting to copy it. They go through the whole spiel."
"Poor Dad. He's so paranoid about someone stealing that car."
Shelley grinned. "If he wasn't losing sleep over it before, he is now." She opened the can and gasped as it doused her with a fountain of ice-cold Sprite.
"Oh, eh, I guess I shook them up a little, hauling them round in the backpack," Amy explained between giggles, and tipped her own soda carefully away from her face.
She paused with her thumb on the ring. "Hey... do you hear that?"
Shelley finished blotting her face on her sleeve and cocked her head attentively. At first she heard only the gentle burbling of the creek, but now that she was paying attention, she realized that there was indeed something else out there. They could both hear it now, a soft, troubled sound.
"It's coming from the park," Amy whispered. Shelley nodded. They put their drinks down and padded softly across the street, picking their way through the detritus as silently as they could. Something about the pitch of that noise made them want to keep quiet.
They stopped where the sidewalk dipped down into the park hollow, surprised by the sight of a Predacon warrior sitting dejectedly on the lake shore with his head in his hands, and no one but an overhanging willow for company. The ostrich boa floating on the water surface nearby added a touch of absurdity.
"It's that shark guy," Amy whispered.
"And... he's crying," Shelley murmured incredulously.
They hesitated, but his sobs were so genuinely heartbroken that they finally approached.
"Can I help you?" Amy asked matter-of-factly.
He wiped his eyes and looked at them in surprise. "Can you help me? Well, that's awfully nice of you, but I don't suppose you can, unless you happen to know where I can find 969 Nickel Street."
"There is no 969 Nickel Street," Amy told him. "Nickel crosses Esplanade somewhere in the 800s and turns into Halfpence."
"I know that," Sky-Byte groused. "I spent half the morning traversing that wretched street. But YahooMaps said 969, and that's what I was looking for." He flapped a piece of paper to prove his point.
Amy extended a hand. "May I see that?"
"Certainly." He passed the paper down to her. She smoothed out the fold lines and read aloud while shadows from the swaying willow wands danced across the words.
"'The Book Tree; Rare and Used books, Classics and Poetry, 969 Nickel Street.'" She looked up at him curiously. "You got this from Yahoo? It's handwritten."
"Yes, the printer was out of ink," he explained. "Slapper was printing episode summaries for some G.I. Joe cartoon and ran it dry. I had to copy that address off of the screen."
"I see. Well, I think you mixed the numbers up." Amy handed the paper back. "The Book Tree is on Nickel, all right, but it's at 696, not 969."
Sky-Byte sat up straight. "Really and truly?" he asked incredulously. "I was on the right street all the time? I was just looking for the wrong numbers?"
"Yeah." Amy nodded. "Don't feel bad. I write numbers backwards all the time in school."
"Oh, thank you, thank you!" Sky-Byte all but threw her a kiss before flipping into beast mode and sailing off through the trees, humming a happy tune.
Amy shook her head and ran her hand down a nearby willow wand, enjoying the feel of the glossy leaves and pliant wood. "A singing shark who likes books. Okay, that was weird."
"Sounds like he's been having a rough day," Shelley agreed, crouching to trace her name in the mud. Someone had left an unfinished game of tic-tac-toe; she made an X in the last blank compartment and drew a line through the completed row. There was cattail fuzz all over the shoreline, she noted. Strange. She picked up an unscathed seed head and ran a nail across the velvety surface, watching the floss expand from the scratch in its peculiar way and drift from her hand in the breeze.
"Actually," they heard the shark call back resignedly, "it's been about par for the course."
Sky-Byte hummed his way down the road, his happiness and faith in life restored. Within minutes he spotted the bookstore in question, tucked away in a small shopping center set back somewhat from the main street and screen from view by a huge old cottonwood.
"Well, what do you know, she was right! There's the Book Tree at 696 after all. I was looking on the wrong side of the street entirely. And it's untouched!"
He settled by the doorway and rapped politely. After a long moment, a clerk answered the door.
"Can I help you?" she asked, her voice quavering a little.
"Yes, I'd like to pick up my free copy of the 'Tears in the Sky' anthology."
Her face cleared. "Oh, you must be one of the contributors."
Sky-Byte beamed. "That's correct!"
"Wait right here."
He waited as she went inside and located the title in question, deciding to transform meanwhile so he could handle it properly. She had thoughtfully chosen the large print hardback edition; now she laid it in his outstretched anchor arm and watched as he carefully leafed through the pages.
"Oh, my. Here it is." He cleared his throat and read the words softly, feeling a thrill run through his transistors. The cottonwood leaves rustled overhead all the while like the sound of distant applause.
"The praise of children -Like sweet music resounding -Fills my empty heart."
"Why, I think that's just lovely," the clerk said sincerely.
"Oh, that's so kind of you. Thank you." Sky-Byte wiped his eyes. "Pardon me," he said apologetically. "It's an emotional moment for me, seeing my work in print for the very first time. Thank you again for your help."
"You're welcome, and congratulations." She smiled and went back inside, much relieved that her store was still in one piece.
It hadn't made much sense to begin with, and now it made even less. Slapper dropped the newspaper stand abruptly instead of throwing it at X-Brawn, as if surprised by something unseen. "Aww, man! Just when things were getting good!" he protested, and bounded off down the street.
"Hey, wait for me!" Gas-Skunk untangled himself from the dumpster into which Prowl had just knocked him and tore after Slapper.
Slapper's retort drifted back faintly. "Why should I?"
"Well, I hate to cut this short," Dark Scream told Sideburn, "but I gotta run! Dark Scream, beast mode!" He transformed and took off after the others. "I need an oil bath, ASAP!"
"Well, well, would you look at that!" X-Brawn exclaimed.
Prowl couldn't believe it either. "The Predacons are pulling out!"
"But why?" Sideburn asked in puzzlement, his crossbow still held ready. "All we did was chase them away from the Auto Mall. I don't think we scared them that bad."
"We don't know why they attacked the Auto Mall, or any of the other buildings for that matter," Prowl seethed, his frustration evident. He was always more uptight when civilians were directly endangered. "It's like they were just doing it for the fun of it."
"I wouldn't put it past them," X-Brawn agreed. "They definitely enjoyed themselves. But why risk fighting us just to vandalize?"
Prowl snapped his fingers. "Wait a minute! T-AI said there were some Sky-Byte sightings on the other side of town. They might have been covering for him!"
"Oh, that's right," Sideburn recalled belatedly. "I saw him too."
"And you never thought to mention this to us?" Prowl asked.
Sideburn held out his palms defensively. "Hey, I tried, okay? But it totally slipped my mind when you called for backup."
X-Brawn chuckled. "Can't imagine why."
"You did say something about being busy," Prowl conceded, after some obligatory grumbling. "I suppose we can sort it all out at base."
X-Brawn nodded. "But we need to make sure the little lady gets home safe first."
Sideburn looked from brother to brother. "Who?"
"Someone the scout dragged in," Prowl told him, and activated his comm. He had sent the racecar down another street to keep the Predacons from getting to the city's water tower, since they had been swinging in that direction at the time. Now, of course, it was out of danger. "Skid-Z, the Predacon attack is over. We'll meet you at the park."
People had started to circulate in the streets again as news of the Predacons' departure spread. It was not without some difficulty that the girls made their way up out of the park and back to the bus stop, bumping and weaving through the crowd. Pedestrians were milling and clustering in the street to gawk, exclaim and take pictures. The local news channel had sent a van to film the damage and interview disraught business owners while police cordoned off the wrecked buildings with yellow CAUTION tape, and firefighters went inside to check for live wires or gas leaks.
"You sure they'll come?" Amy asked, hopping up on the bench to see over the crowd.
Shelley stepped up beside her and nodded. "The white one said they would take me back home after they took care of something here. If 'something' was those other metal dudes, they should be back soon."
"Bummer," Amy muttered, then brightened. "Hey, maybe they forgot about you. You'll have to hide out in my dorm."
"Wouldn't that make the monitors happy," Shelley grinned. "Well, I guess it could have slipped his mind, but he did seem like the responsible type."
There was a flash of sunlight off a tinted windshield. "Hey, there." Shelley raised a hand to shade her eyes, then pointed. "I think I see them."
"Aw, drat." Amy followed Shelley's gesture and spotted the group of vehicles threading their way cautiously through the foot traffic. "Who, those cars?"
"Yep, that's them," Shelley confirmed as Skid-Z transformed and scanned the crowd, obviously looking for someone. "In fact, I think that's the guy who -- uh oh."
Skid-Z had cornered a pretty young Asian woman on the sidewalk nearby and was trying to talk her into coming with him. With her jeans and black ponytail, she did bear a superficial resemblance to Shelley, but she was not the least bit interested in letting the well-intentioned Autobot take her home, and told him so at the top of her lungs.
"Do I look like a hitchhiker? Go away! Go away! Oh, I should have known better than to think I might have a nice quiet jog for once!"
"What's the matter, lady?" Skid-Z asked in bewilderment, sidestepping to keep her from darting between his ankles and losing herself in the crowd. Really, she was making no sense at all. At least she was doing better physically. She hadn't even been up to walking before; now she was trying for a chance to outrun him. It was an amazingly fast recovery -- except for the fact that she didn't seem to recognize him. "Don't you want to go home? I just want to give you a lift!"
"Oh no you don't!" she yelled hotly. "Following me around everywhere was bad enough, but I draw the line at kidnapping!" And she threw her Walkman at his head. It bounced off his helmet before shattering across the sidewalk. Skid-Z flinched but wouldn't give up.
"Wait, you don't understand!" He bowed his head slightly and put a fist to his mouth in consideration; then his face brightened. "Oh, I know -- the injury must have damaged your memory! Look, I'll show you where it happened!" He picked her up with both hands, transformed neatly around her and zoomed off into the nearby space bridge portal, her high-decibel protest resonating long after they'd both vanished from sight.
"No, Skid-Z, wait! You've got the wrong person!" Prowl called frantically after him. But it was far too late. The number of pedestrians between Prowl and the portal ruled out a quick dash in either mode, and no one could catch the scout once he had a head start. "Oh, for the love of Sherlock..."
"Don't bust a gasket," X-Brawn said wearily, but not without amusement, while Prowl covered his optics to regain his composure and Sideburn just roared with laughter. "T-AI, looks like we'll need the portal open a little longer than usual." He turned to his brothers. "We'll just have to find the right lady and take her home ourselves, then bring that poor bystander back."
"Assuming we can get Skid-Z to pay attention to his comm, that is," Prowl sighed, pulling himself together. A persistent movement down the street caught his eye. "There, I see the kid. She's waving at us." He transformed and veered towards the bus stop.
Prowl's approach meant that it was time to hug Amy good-bye, but the laughter prompted by Skid-Z's mistake took the sting out of parting.
"It would have been fun to hide you at school," Amy sniffed, "but at least we had a great time today."
"Hey, I'll see you at Christmas break," Shelley reminded her, though she was sniffing a little too. "Only a few more weeks, okay?"
Amy snorted derisively. "Yeah. Only."
But she smiled a lopsided smile.
Don't worry, I slipped back into the fire station without getting caught. There was so much pandemonium, I think an elephant could have gotten in unnoticed. Now wait till you hear! Due to the extensive damage inflicted on my school during the metal dude invasion, Christmas break starts TOMORROW! I guess even large-scale vandalism has an up side, huh? Heh, heh heh -- I gotta remember that. Course, I wouldn't have gone so far as to burn down half the campus.
We're all crammed into the Motel 8 watching Star Trek reruns, even though it's way past curfew. There aren't enough monitors to control all the students. It's almost as fun as the time we went camping with Cindy and she started telling Bigfoot stories.
Gotta sign off now so I can mail this overnight. I'm so excited I can hardly pack. Be seeing you at the airport!
The Transformers: Robots in Disguise cartoons were produced by Hasbro/Takara and all relevant trademarks and characters belong to them. Nickel Street itself is transfan domain and may be freely recopied or archived.
I know nothing about first aid! Please don't base treatment for konked heads on anything in this fanfic.
I'd like to dedicate this story to
for loving me unconditionally.