No Child Left Behind
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This fic is based on a dream I had a few months ago. Some details have been altered to make more sense and to keep this fic from being a self-insertion deal, as well as an attempt to give the story an ending -- something the dream didn't provide, seeing as I woke up in the middle of it.
And oh look, I discovered how to make a horizontal break... silly Kenya...
"Jessie, get the kids out!"
Those were the last words I had heard from Spencer before the wall had crashed down on top of him, permanently silencing him before he could give orders to the rest of the convention staff. Just hearing that frantic order replay in my head stung my eyes and clogged my throat; even though Spencer and I had only been acquainted through our work on the convention, I had still respected him as a team leader and admired his passion for the project. I only hoped his death wouldn't be in vain.
"Jessie, I'm scared."
"I know, sweetie, I know. But we've got to keep moving, okay? Jason, Madison, over here, kids..."
"My arm hurts, Jessie."
"I'm sorry, Madison. We'll find some ice for it as soon as we're out."
"Those guys were really scary."
"Jessie, are we gonna die?"
"No, sweetie, we'll be fine. We just have to get out of the building."
Yes, I was less than truthful with him. But how is one supposed to answer a question like that? Especially when it's a child that asks it? Bad enough to tell an adult he might not make it out of the building alive, but to tell an innocent child? I couldn't bring myself to confess that, yes, there was a possibility -- a huge one -- that none of us would live to see the end of the day. I hadn't the nerve to tell the cruel truth, so had to settle for a kind lie.
A dull BOOM made the walls tremble, and a fresh chorus of shrieks and cries arose from the children. I shushed them and hurried them along, having to stop and pick up the smallest of them when she wouldn't move but only stood in one place crying for her mama. Thankfully she wasn't heavy.
Assorted rubble filled the hallway of the convention center -- chunks of concrete and ceiling tile, snarled wires and air-conditioning tubing, a mess of shattered glass and twisted metal framework that had once been a display case. And there was the human flotsom -- not dead bodies, but people sitting or standing around hopelessly, crying, rocking back and forth in terror, clutching bleeding wounds or broken limbs. Where was the rest of the convention staff? Shouldn't they be evacuating the rest of the building, or administering first aid? No time to ponder that -- I had an assignment. If the building was still standing by the time I got the children to safety, I would come back for others.
A dark shadow emerged from the other end of the hall, its details obscured by dust and the semi-darkness that had invaded the convention center since the first explosion had knocked out the power. The children whimpered and clustered tightly around me, like chicks huddling beneath the wings of a hen for shelter. I shifted the little girl in my arms to one arm and put my other hand comfortingly on the shoulder of the nearest child, squaring my shoulders back and trying to appear protective. I just hoped whatever was approaching couldn't see that my knees were shaking and my palms dripping with sweat...
I knew that voice... and my relief was so intense I nearly collapsed. "Cosmos!"
"This hallways' blocked, Miss Conway," the green and yellow Autobot told me, ducking beneath a ceiling that had only partially collapsed. "The entire gaming room fell in. I'll lead you out another way."
"Thank you," I told him, and despite trying to look brave I felt tears sneaking out of the corners of my eyes.
The little Autobot -- not little to me, of course, but certainly little compared to the rest of his kind -- crouched down and patted my shoulder as gently as he could. "Don't be afraid, Miss Conway. I was able to get a distress call to the Ark before Soundwave jammed communications. The rest of the Autobots are on their way."
"Can I ride on Cosmos' shoulders?" begged one little boy, his amazement at seeing the Autobot overcoming his fear for a minute.
"Maybe later, kid," Cosmos told him, and he motioned for me and the children to follow him.
Poor Cosmos. I knew he felt responsible for all this. And he had been so excited about coming, too, not to mention we had been excited for him to come as well. Our science fiction convention rarely played host to many big-name celebrities -- Idaho isn't really thought of as a place likely to harbor those interested in fandoms. And we had been in dire straits this year, as the only special-guest we had managed to secure for this year's convention had dropped out two weeks ago, citing "scheduling conflicts." So when Optimus Prime had accepted our request for an Autobot to make an appearance at the convention, we had been thrilled beyond words. No one had expected his arrival to lead to... this.
I couldn't blame the Autobot; I didn't have the heart to. This wasn't his fault at all. He couldn't have known that the Decepticons would consider him dangerous enough to eliminate... or that a madman would join their side to plot against him and the humans he was visiting.
"We'll shortcut through the dealer room," Cosmos told me, suiting actions to words by ducking through the doorway. We followed, huddling close for protection.
The dealer room was almost totally dark save for the faint blue illumination provided by Cosmos' optics. One young boy helpfully offered me his plastic lightsaber, and I flicked it on. The red light the fake blade emitted gave everything an eerie cast, but at least it provided a little light to maneuver through the room. Strangely enough, the dealer room was almost untouched by the bedlam that had seized the rest of the building. Only an overturned table, no doubt upset in the rush, hinted at the haste that had been taken to evacuate the room.
"This way," Cosmos urged, motioning us forward. "Oops." He backtracked slightly as he accidentally edged too close to a table laden with fantasy statues, tipping it over with a resounding crash. "Uh... I'll pay for those..."
"Keep going," I told him. "Right now upsetting the dealers is the least of our problems."
"Right." He forged on ahead, us humans trailing after him. Just across the dealer room and out the door...
I knew that voice... and it sent chills up my spine. A voice that could smooth ruffled tempers and charm a brick wall just as easily as it could blister the air with rage... the voice that had helped us build our convention from the ground up, then nearly ruined it in the space of a breath... a voice I'd hoped to never hear again after that fateful staff meeting a month ago...
"I see you have a friend with you," he continued. "In case you haven't noticed, I have friends of my own with me."
Cosmos froze, and I almost ran into the back of his legs. I leaned to the side to peer around him.
The doorway ahead of us was blocked, but not by rubble. Three figures filled the doorframe, while a fourth was actually inside the dealer room and crouching as if to spring. Two of the three blocking the doorway were human-sized but blocky and metallic, with gleaming visors where their eyes should have been. The one inside the room was larger but slung lower on four legs, sleek and deadly, scarlet eyes glowing evilly in the dark. But the fourth was definitley human -- slender in build, garbed in dark gray clothing meant to mimic the Imperial officers off of Star Wars. Even though his face was lost in shadow, I swore I could see him smiling coldly at us.
Cosmos spread his arms and stood in a wide-legged stance, making himself as big as possible. "Rumble, Frenzy, Ravage, you want the humans? You'll have to come through me first!"
One of the blocky robots burst out laughing. "Hah! The minibot thinks he's a match for us! Frenzy, Ravage, let's have some fun with him!"
The children screamed in fear as the three Decepticons leaped onto Cosmos, tearing at his optics, gouging at his joints, their fists hammering at weak spots in his armor. Cosmos grabbed wildly at his attackers, but they moved too quickly for him to grab ahold of them.
"Cosmos!" I couldn't hold back a cry of alarm.
"Don't worry about me!" he got out between swinging at his attackers. "Get the children out! I can handle the cassettes!"
A chuckle from the man in the doorway. "Seems you're short a bodyguard, Jessie."
"Shut up, Michael," I snapped, my anger at seeing Cosmos attacked giving me a brief spurt of courage.
"Getting cocky, are we?" he sneered, and as he shifted in the doorway the faint light caught and gleamed upon what he held in his hands -- a heavy pistol. I swallowed a scream.
"You're insane," I said, the words coming out of my suddenly dry throat in a fearful rasp. We'd all suspected for years Michael had been mentally unbalanced... if only we had voiced our suspicions before this disaster had hit...
"I'm brilliant," he corrected. "Pity you and Spencer never saw that..."
"Michael, let the kids go," I pleaded. "I don't care if you hate me and the rest of the convention staff, just let the kids go. They didn't do anything to you..."
"You don't get it, do you?" he said with a little laugh. "The kids don't matter to me. Nothing matters to me anymore. Except payback."
My hand fell on the nearest table -- that of a weapon dealer. Swords and knives and other blades -- meant for decorative purposes, but live steel nonetheless -- covered its surface, and my hands wrapped around a cold hilt that felt as if it had been carved with a dragon or other mythic beast. Trusting my gut instinct -- that Michael had never shot a gun in his life and would hesitate to do so now -- I yanked the knife from its sheath and slashed at his face. He staggered back with a pained shout, a red gash opening up on his cheek from temple to chin.
"Come on!" I shouted, shooing the children out of the dealer room. They were pale with fright at what they had just witnessed but obeyed without question. I hated that they had to see all this, but what could I do?
CRACK! A bullet impacted in the wall somewhere over my head, spurring me on. Michael was determined to not let me leave the building alive. As if it were my fault that Spencer had kicked him off the convention planning committee after he had drained half our treasury...
"Is Cosmos gonna be all right?" pleaded a little girl.
"He'll be fine," I assured her, though I was also trying to assure myself at the same time. "His friends are coming. They'll take care of things."
I could only hope they arrived in time, before the Decepticons completely destroyed the building and killed everyone inside. What kind of sane human could make a deal with these monsters, betraying Cosmos' location in exchange for twisted revenge?
Fresh air... sky! The doors of the convention center had been pried off their hinges, and the doorway gaped open to reveal a twilight sky and the city lights. And the sirens and engines ripping the air could only mean one thing -- help had arrived. I cried out in relief and hurried the children toward the exit.
The building and the surrounding area were a shambles, portions of the roof caved in, asphalt and sidewalks buckled and riddled with fissures, cars smashed and scattered throughout the parking lot as if a young boy had taken a hammer to his Hot Wheels collection. Explosions and the ringing boom of metal on metal rang through the air as towering dark forms clashed in battle. Sirens continued to scream, and red and blue lights bathed the area in a flickering glow as police and SWAT teams arrived to help evacuate the building. It was like a scene from an explosion-laden science fiction film, only far more real -- for the theater can't convey the shaking ground beneath your feet, the stench of smoke and ozone and heated metal, the utter sense of helplessness as two metallic giants come to blows not ten feet away from you.
There was an open park across the street from the convention center, and it was here that emergency crews and the rest of the convention staff were taking the survivors, gently laying the wounded out on the grass for paramedics to look after. A few smaller Autobots -- minibots, the Decepticon had called them -- were among them, guarding the injured and calming the hysterical among the unharmed. Cosmos wasn't among them, and that made my gut stab with worry. Did they know one of their own was still in the building, possibly in danger? Would they listen to me if I tried to tell them?
I set the little girl in my arms down -- my arms were aching too much to hold her any longer. "Okay, kids, just across the street and we're safe, all right?"
A terrible screech and a powerful BOOM shook the air and earth as a black winged Decepticon was flung to the ground close by. The children screamed in terror and clustered around me, as if expecting me to protect them from this monster. By some stroke of luck, the thing appeared to be unconscious... or offline, or however these robots put it...
"Across the street!" I repeated. "We have to get to the park. We'll be safe there. Follow me!"
They obeyed, huddling around me and shuffling forward, fearful but determined now that sanctuary was in sight. We crossed the sidewalk and reached the curb, and I stepped down to stand on the asphalt...
A gleaming wall of steel lurched across my field of vision, blocking our path.
"You're leaving the party early, Jessie!"
I backed up a step, pushing the children behind me. Michael hadn't followed us -- he had ducked out of the building and stolen one of the charter buses we'd hired to transport people to the convention, using it to cut us off from escape. He grinned at me now from the driver's-side window, his face a terrifying bloody mask of anger, one hand gripping the steering wheel and the other clutching his gun like a lifeline.
"You're dead, Jessie!" he screamed at me. "You and everyone else! This was MY convention, and you ruined it! You never should have voted me off the staff!"
"Why?" I retorted, fear and anger making me belligerant. "So you could bankrupt the convention? That money couldn't just disappear..."
"That money was mine to begin with!" he snarled. "I founded this convention, I planned it for years, and you all decide to take it from me! Well, if it can't be mine, it has to be destroyed!"
I expected to hear the sharp report of a bullet next -- and last. I didn't expect the piercing bugle of a big-rig's horn to cut off Michael's rant, making him turn to face the newest threat. Nor did I expect him to go death-white and cry out in terror.
"It's Prime!" a boy shouted. "It's Optimus Prime!"
I shoved the kids further back as a gleaming scarlet semi truck hurtled forward, headlights glowing like the eyes of a mythic beast, engine a challenging roar and horn sounding a battle call. I felt my breath catch in my throat. At that moment, with death staring me in the face and a battle raging all around me, the sight of Prime's charge was the most beautiful thing I could imagine -- and the most terrifying. For I knew what was about to happen, and as much as I wished no harm upon the children I almost wished I could stop it.
The impact of Prime against the bus was deafening, eliciting more screams from the children. The front end of the bus crumpled like an accordian, front tires bursting, glass spraying everywhere like a rain of razors and stinging my skin. Prime's cab buckled from the blow, and the roar of his engine became a high, pained rattle. Crushed against each other in a violent embrace, the truck and bus continued down the street nearly a block before finally coming to rest, a trail of black tire streaks and sparkles of broken glass marking their path.
A cheer echoed around me as the children hailed their newfound hero.
I couldn't tear my eyes off the wreck, barely noticing as the children dashed across the street into the arms of relieved parents and concerned rescue workers. There was no way Michael could have survived that crash. And Prime... how much tougher than ordinary vehicles were Autobots anyhow? I had no idea...
"Ma'am!" Someone was at my side -- a police officer. He was pressing a bandanna to a cut on my arm, one I hadn't even noticed until then. "Ma'am, come with us. The battle's winding down; we need to do a head count of the survivors..."
I wrestled free from his grasp and ran forward, my fear for the lives of the children fading... only to be replaced by a newfound terror. Prime had to be all right. He had just saved our lives...
"Cosmos!" I halted in my tracks and turned to see the little Autobot running toward me. His green armor was striped with ugly scratches, and he favored his right leg as he walked, but he seemed hardly to notice his own battered state. His optics were fixed on his commander.
"Prime!" Cosmos shouted. "Are you all right? Can you transform?"
"I... think so..." I can't begin to say how startling it was to hear a semi truck speak, even if deep down I really knew it wasn't really a truck but an Autobot. Or how startling it was to see the chassis of the vehicle split into pieces, twisting and unfolding slowly as if every movement pained him, the trailer pushed away and the cab reforming itself into a red, silver, and blue robot that would have towered over Cosmos and I had he been standing. But he didn't make a move to stand, only lay in the road amidst the broken glass and spilled oil and other fluids from the wreck, as if transforming had taken the last of his energy.
"Prime," Cosmos whispered, kneeling beside his commander. "I just radioed Ratchet. He's on his way."
"Tell him to help transport the humans to the nearest medical facility," Prime ordered, pushing himself up to his hands and knees. His optics flickered, almost like a human wince. I looked at his chest, rammed concave by the impact and leaking fluid in a few places, and winced myself.
"But Prime, you're wounded..." Cosmos protested.
"That is an order, Cosmos."
"Prime..." How did one address the Autobot leader anyhow? "Sir, please, don't hurt yourself..."
His blue optics locked with my eyes, and I couldn't go on.
"The children," he said. "Are they all right?"
I nodded. "One of them has a broken arm, but other than that, they're fine."
He nodded. "Good. Very good." He pushed himself to his feet. "I'm only sorry we didn't get here earlier, and that we didn't think to provide Cosmos with an escort. We thought a single Autobot wouldn't be enough to warrant a Decepticon attack."
I wanted to assure him that it wasn't his fault, that he couldn't have foreseen this, but the words wouldn't come. Instead all I could tell him was "Thank you."
The metal around his optics seemed to soften, and I almost imagined he was smiling down at me. "You're very welcome."
That was the last I saw of him before the police finally pulled me away to have my cuts looked at. By the time I thought to look back at the site of the wreck, he was gone.
A tragedy occured that day, I won't deny it. And my heart aches for all those who lost loved ones in the attack, as well as for Michael's family when they learned the truth about his involvement in the affair. All the same, however, I will never forget the sacrifices the Autobots -- specifically Cosmos and Prime -- made for us, nor how they risked their lives to protect the most innocent of the victims. They are truly good people, not mere machines.
Thank you, Cosmos. Thank you, Prime. God be with you.