Ghost in the Machine
by K.Stonham
released 15th October 2007

It was over in an instant.

Sam was the best ground scout they had, fast and silent and with the all-important knowledge of Cybertronian technology that years upon years of working, living, with the Autobots had brought him. Next to Ratchet and Mikaela, Sam had the best understanding of how Cybertronian bodies, mechanics, sciences, and physics worked of anyone Bumblebee knew. Certainly better than his own, but then Sam had actively studied what Bumblebee had always known more or less intuitively. With the addition, nearly a year before, of the chip in his head that Sam, Mikaela, and Ratchet had designed and built, Sam was the absolute perfect liaison between the Autobots and their human allies, literally able to hear and understand Cybertronian, and respond in it as well.

The chip had had a few extras built in. Except when Sam was actively using it to transmit, it was utterly invisible to scans. Even Ratchet, with his incredibly delicately calibrated sensors, couldn't detect it, and he'd been the one to install it. It also had a masking field that erased Sam's heat signature on any infrared sensors, and a modified version of a basic Cybertronian force shield.

So while the rest of them were trying to take down Shockwave, Sam, unarmored and unarmed to make the best use of his effective invisibility, was sneaking around behind the Decepticon toward the bomb he'd constructed. If it was detonated... Bumblebee shuddered to think of the consequences. It would destroy any Cybertronians within a hundred-mile radius, to say nothing of more frail human bodies. It would, in fact, probably kill every living thing on the North American continent, and the radiation fallout would, in a matter of days, finish off every other living creature on the planet.

It was a planet-killer bomb.

It was so perfectly Shockwave.

He never knew what alerted Shockwave to Sam's presence. He just knew that Shockwave stood still for a second, then turned and looked at the comparatively tiny human who had almost reached the contraption.

"Insect," the Decepticon pronounced, and fired a full-force percussive energy blast at Sam. The chip's shield never stood a chance, and neither did Sam.

He was vaporized in a single instant.

There was a moment of shock before realization set in and Bumblebee screamed, nearly frying his vocal processor again as he renewed his attack on Shockwave, pulse blast after pulse blast winging free of his arm cannons. And, distantly, he knew that he wasn't the only one with the same reaction; Lennox was screaming too, Epps yelling curses at the top of his lungs, imprecations matched in Cybertronian by Ironhide.

Sam might have been Bumblebee's best friend, but, tagged with the nickname "the kid," he was a part of all of them, the best one to stand between Autobot and human and interpret, bridging the gap between two peoples and two cultures. But now he was gone.

Shockwave's shield, though, was older and stronger and powered by a greater force than Sam's bioelectric field which had, after all, only been human. "A valiant effort," the Pit-spawned drone pronounced. "Nonetheless, a failure. Punishment shall be meted out." And Bumblebee felt the signal pulse Shockwave sent to the bomb, and screamed denial even louder.

The bomb failed to detonate.

"What?" Shockwave asked, half-turning toward his creation, sounding disbelieving.

Bumblebee knew what Sam would say, could practically hear it running through his audials: "Nice try, Decepticon. I don't think so."

"This is not possible," Shockwave said. "The schematics were perfect, the construction impeccable."

"Yeah, well, humans throw monkey wrenches into Decepticon plots," Bumblebee's inner Sam replied, unheard.

"No one could have--" Shockwave said, ignoring the continued metal and plasma fire bursting against his shield.

"Excuse me, I--" mental-Sam interrupted, irritated, then paused. "Oh." And the voice went very quiet for a second. "Shit."

"This is not possible," Shockwave said again, taking a step toward his bomb. "I must examine--" And then he froze mid-step.

"I don't think so," mental-Sam said, voice very quiet and dangerous. "I'm taking your shields down, fucker."

"Sam...?" Ironhide questioned incredulously, lowering one cannon for just a second as he studied the frozen Shockwave.

Bumblebee's optics widened. "You hear him too?" he asked.

"That makes three of us," Optimus said, his own tone disbelieving.

"Aha," Sam's disembodied voice said, laden with grim triumph. "Got 'em. Guys... slag this sucker."

"His shields are down," Bumblebee told Lennox and his men. "Don't know for how long."

"Then let's take advantage!" Epps whooped.

"Concentrate fire below the spark chamber!" Lennox commanded, and as they all opened fire on the frozen Decepticon, Bumblebee could only hope that his processors hadn't truly taken leave of his logic circuits...

Shockwave was, indeed, a mostly melted pile of slag by the time they were satisfied he was dead. After hundreds of thousands of years of failed attempts to destroy the Decepticon psychopath, none of the Autobots wanted to be less than perfectly sure of his end.

Of Sam, there was no trace.

The triumph and the shock were melded into one, which didn't explain why Shockwave's bomb hadn't worked, or why his motor functions and force field had both failed at the critical moment.

At least, not until a bright spark of energy detached itself from Shockwave's cooling corpse just as Ratchet finally arrived. Bumblebee cupped his hands as the energy pulse wandered unsteadily over to them, like a bit of milkweed fluff on the wind, or Sam wobbling after he'd overextended himself. "Sam?" he asked cautiously, aware of the other Autobots gathering around him to stare at the pulse.

"Didn't even realize he'd got me until the bomb failed to go off," Sam's... ghost mumbled. "At least I got that done..."

"What're you guys looking at?" Epps asked, looking up. Bumblebee knelt, opening his hands just enough to show the shining spark there, but the humans didn't seem to see anything, judging from their uncomprehending expressions.

"Their optics don't see in the full spectrum ours do," Ratchet had to remind him.

"Sam's spirit," Optimus said for the humans' edification. "He defused the bomb and held Shockwave long enough for us to terminate him."

Lennox and Epps and their men stared at the empty-to-them space in Bumblebee's hands. "Holy Mary, mother of Jesus," someone said.

"Twenty-one grams," Lennox murmured.

The spark was starting to flare fitfully. "I think I have to go," Sam's voice murmured inside Bumblebee's audials again. "Can't stay--tell Mickey and my parents and Miles--"

"No," Bumblebee denied, shaking his head. "Stay. You have to stay."

"Spirits aren't meant to stay without a body to contain them," Ironhide said with unexpected gentleness, laying a hand on Bumblebee's shoulder. "Sparks return to the Matrix, you know that, Bumblebee..."

"See?" Sam asked, fading. "Gotta go, Bumblebee... it was great, all of it. Thank you for everything..."

"Stay," Bumblebee asked one more time, his vocal processor starting to choke up. "Stay with me."

Sam sounded shocked. "What the--" he demanded, and then the spark flared white and Bumblebee fell offline.

"Bumblebee?" someone asked through a dark haze, and it was Ratchet shaking his shoulder but Sam's voice asking the question.

Blinking his optics, Bumblebee slowly came back online, automatically running a diagnostic. Systems seemed normal, he thought; why had he gone offline like that?

He caught sight of his hands and for an instant didn't understand why they seemed so empty.

"Sam," he whispered.

"He's gone, Bumblebee," Ratchet told him softly. "I'm sorry."

"What the hell did you do?!" a different voice in Bumblebee's head disagreed, making Bumblebee's optics widen and causing the three other Cybertronians to freeze in their tracks and stare at him.

"Sam...?" Bumblebee asked slowly, his spark already starting to sing in certainty. His friend wasn't dead like so many others, wasn't gone, was here with him...

"Did you not watch those movies with me over the last eight Halloweens?" Sam demanded. "Dead people are supposed to stay dead, move on, whatever. Hauntings are not a good idea, Bumblebee!"

"Well," Ironhide remarked, "it seems his temper's intact, if nothing else."

"What are you talking about?" Lennox asked from where he was supervising Shockwave's remains being loaded onto a transport truck.

"Hey, cool, you have an internal holomatter projector?" Sam asked, and Bumblebee could feel him examining that subroutine. "I didn't know you had one. Why didn't you ever use it?"

"Holograms are dishonest," Bumblebee retorted. "Do I look like a Decepticon to you?" He glared at Ratchet when the medic snorted in amusement at the argument.

"Can I use it?" Sam asked. "I want to try something."

"...What?" Bumblebee asked, having learned to be wary of granting Sam's requests out of hand. He ignored the crowd of gathering humans who were looking speculatively up at him.

"Go car form," Sam requested. Not seeing any potential harm to either of them in the action, Bumblebee shrugged and folded himself into his alternate configuration. He felt the rarely-used projector hum to life, and blinked his sensors in mild surprise as a perfect hologram of Sam himself appeared in the driver's seat.

"...Sam?" Lennox asked cautiously, approaching slowly.

Sam grinned at him. "In the... um, not-flesh," he said. He opened the driver's door and stepped out, but the image fritzed out as soon as he left the vehicle's interior.

"Internal holomatter projector," Bumblebee reminded him as the ghost reappeared in the driver's seat.

"Great," Sam muttered. "Can't you, like, get Ratchet to upgrade you or something?" he asked.

Ratchet snorted at the request. "Ask Wheeljack, if he ever shows up," he directed. "He's the one who built Hound's external projector. It's not my field."

"Hmm." Sam pondered that for a minute, holomatter hands on Bumblebee's steering wheel, then released the projection and darted out the open door, a spark of energy visible only to Cybertronian sensors.

"Whoa," Lennox said, shivering suddenly, as the energy pulse brushed close by him. "Sam?"

"Sam," Optimus confirmed, watching.

"Man, this is some spooky shit," Epps said. "First giant alien robots, now ghosts. What's next? My life can't get too much weirder."

Sam returned to Bumblebee's front seat, reactivating the projector and reforming. "I think we can make this work," he said speculatively.

"Your parents," Lennox said, leaning one arm on Bumblebee's roof and looking in at Sam through the open door, "are going to be so pissed."

"Yeah, well, at least they're not dead from that bomb," Sam smarted back. "They'll deal." He looked away, back through the windshield. "Probably a good thing Mikaela and I broke up, though..." he muttered.

"Yeah, probably," Epps agreed. He looked at Bumblebee, then back at the hologram of Sam. "You two going to be okay with this?" he asked, voice serious.

"I'm not the one who invited a dead guy to haunt him," Sam said. "Bumblebee?"

It had been too soon. If it had been a vorn, an entire human lifetime, it would still have been too soon for him to easily let go of Sam. But since he'd had a chance... "If you'll have me," Bumblebee said silently, so that the humans wouldn't hear, "then stay. Please."

Sam's eyes widened and his thumb stroked reflexively over the Autobot symbol on the center of Bumblebee's steering wheel. "You sure about this, Bumblebee?" he asked the same way.

"Yes," Bumblebee said, then spoke aloud. "This way... I don't have to lose my best friend." And he hadn't known it was possible for holoforms to blush, but apparently Sam's mastery of the projector was already better than his had ever been.

"Yeah, well, be sure you remember that in a century when you've figured out I'm really the annoying roommate from Hell you're stuck with for the rest of your life," Sam jibed. He looked up at Lennox and Epps, smile on his face. "I think we'll be okay," he said.

Author's Notes

This story was a reaction after I read generalcordovan and OKami-hu's story "Twisted" (warning: dark, very dark, and not at all for the squeamish) and couldn't stop thinking about it. While I was subsequently in the shower scrubbing my head, this story popped into it. My head, not my shower. Though given that said head was in the shower at the time, that point is debatable. Anyhow, then it gave itself a title, and when things give themselves titles, you're generally doomed. So, following the end of the shower, I sat down and typed this out in about an hour.