Objects in Mirror
Arizona sunsets are some of the most spectacular in the country. So people claimed, who had hiked down the many trails that riddled its famous canyons. And in the summer, it was not just the color, but the relief from a sweltering day that made sunsets welcome.
June was just around the corner, the air dry and clear, with a great scoop of moon hanging in the sky when headlights flashed on a little used road above Hoover Dam. Once upon a time, one would have suspected a couple of kids, heady with excitement over their first romantic stirrings. Lately, though, people avoided the area – the government cars and tanks parked about it were one reason. The other was, perhaps, a newfound sense of apprehension to be out under open skies, for the skies were no longer so empty. Who knew when next there might be visitors? Or whether those visitors would be friendly?
The car whose headlights they were pulled to a halt on the point, overlooking damaged Hoover Dam, and sat there for a moment, engine idling. Then suddenly, it unfolded, becoming a yellow robot, who stood for a moment gazing out at the horizon. Then, stretching first one leg, then the other, as if stiff, it sat down atop the hill, propped its 'chin' on its hands, and waited there, silent save for the quiet thrum of gears.
It did not have to wait long. On the road, as it bent about the foot of the hill, another set of headlights appeared, and after perhaps another quarter hour, a black SUV bearing government plates rolled to a halt in the little lot just below the hilltop. Lights faded, and then a door opened and a dark-suited form emerged.
"You're late," the robot informed him.
"And you're early. Again," Reginald Simmons replied, teeth flashing white in the fading light. He climbed the short distance up to join Bumblebee. "What say," he asked, as he hiked, "we split the difference, call it SOP, and forget about it?"
Blue eyes flashed – quite literally – and the panels on Bumblebee's back, the most sophisticated tactical sensor suite on the planet, twitched as they drew together. Anger, or resentment – Simmons had figured that out quickly enough. Mostly because Bumblebee had not tried to hide it, just as Simmons never tried to disguise his glee – the disconcerting lust of a hunter off his leash.
Of course, soon enough, there would be no leash. There would be no Sector Seven, and consequently, no Agent Simmons. And since honesty was perhaps the peculiar (and peculiarly disturbing) hallmark of their relationship, Bumblebee hadn't tried to pretend he wasn't gloating over that. Well, 'gloating' was not quite the right term – more the cold satisfaction of the wounded in the face of his tormentor's loss. And whenever Simmons seemed to be winning the little war of words that had sprung up between them, one could be sure the Autobot would ask after the state of Simmons's desk, whether Sector Seven had recalled its bureau-issued firearms, or just remember aloud that as of the first of June, Simmons would be welcomed to the ranks of desk jockeys somewhere down in L.A.
In fact, this would be their final meeting as field subject and field agent. For four years, they had played an anonymous game of hunter and prey; no longer. Bumblebee would be taking Sam and Mikaela home, while Ironhide saw to Lennox and Epps. Prime would be going east with Ratchet on convoy duty to ensure that the humans at least got the remains of their Decepticon brethren safely onto the ships that would take them to their watery end. There was always a chance, after all, that surviving Decepticons might make an attempt to grab memory core or programming or spare parts. Barricade was MIA. So, too, Starscream, though no one doubted that he would return. And who knew whether they were alone?
Too, Prime wanted to be certain that no more of their kind ended up in human laboratories. Dead they might be, and ordinarily in need of salvage, but in this one case, it seemed better to ensure that what was broken could not be remade. Not even at a second remove.
By the time all such chores were done, the disbanding of Sector Seven would be complete. Bumblebee would no longer be "NBE-2"; Simmons would no longer be "Field Ops Agent Simmons." It was a pleasant thought, at least to Bumblebee, whose panels relaxed back into their usual position.
"Pretty night," he observed after a moment. "Great spectrum."
"You coulda stopped at 'pretty night,'" Simmons snorted, a touch derisively.
"Why limit myself?" came the quick rejoinder. Then: "So, why did you ask me out here? Last good-bye?"
"Firstly, let's be clear, because there's a lot of mental imagery nobody needs: I didn't ask you out, sweetheart, I asked you up here," Simmons said, and gave the Autobot a look. "When in Rome, learn the idiom!"
"I can't help it if you reduce your language to innuendo," Bumblebee replied, unfazed and certainly unapologetic. "We have a saying: fault is often in the look, not the thing."
"Whatever! Anyhow, secondly, no, I actually asked you to come up here so I could give you something," the soon-to-be-ex-agent declared, reaching into his jacket pocket. Were Bumblebee human, that action might've been cause for alarm; however, he had thoroughly scanned the area upon arrival, and had scanned Simmons and the SUV both several times for Decepticon weaponry. Had he found any, he wouldn't have let Simmons come any closer than the car lot. Standard operating procedure, indeed, and consequently, he knew as well that the man's sidearm was safely holstered somewhere other than his pocket.
Rather, Simmons withdrew a slim piece of plastic-encased electronics and flipped it open. A tiny screen lit up, and a chime went off, announcing messages yet to be retrieved. "You're giving me a cell phone?" Bumblebee asked, skeptically.
"Not you, sweetheart, the kid. It's the kid's phone, y'see? We picked it up in the raid, haven't gotten around to giving it back, and now seemed like the time," Simmons replied with a shrug, even as he began playing with the buttons. "Figured you could give it to him."
"Why not give it to him yourself?"
"Mostly on account of his parents threatening to get a restraining order, and we're supposed to be all tactful now. You know, average Joes – nice guys. So, I'm bein' nice," Simmons replied, with a smile that was far too manic for nice, even in Bumblebee's alien, and so occasionally mistaken, opinion. Indeed, the smile broadened even further 'til it attained what humans might call shark-like proportions. "Got the battery all charged, even added a number in for him – let's give it a try!"
With that, Simmons pushed a button and put the phone to his ear. Bumblebee, almost immediately, stiffened as his own com channel flashed an alert, signaling a call. No priority status, and in fact, it wasn't even a Cybertronian com code. It was... human. A phone number. The Autobot spy shot Simmons a sharp look. "You have my com code," he said flatly, even as he opened the channel.
"Coming through nice and clear," the Sector Seven agent reported cheerily through the phone.
"Did Prime give you that number?" Bumblebee demanded, ignoring the other's humor.
"Prime seems to think most of you would vape me as soon as look at me, so he very kindly gave me his com code in case I need to talk to any of you," the man replied. "Think he's lookin' to keep the messes under the carpet."
"You hacked my com system while I was on your fragging lab table!"
"Look, you know, we been over this," Simmons said, holding his hands up, sounding only slightly placating. Bumblebee bridled, and the low hum of unseen systems coming online could be heard. Simmons raised a brow. "Didn't I say it first time we talked afterward?"
At that, Bumblebee went very still, the reaction of a mech attempting to keep control. It was true, they had gone over certain rather sensitive ground before. Several times, even, in their own peculiar way, though only once with any openness – only once, that very first time.
Bumblebee hadn't really expected ever to hear anything resembling a sincere apology from Agent Simmons, and in that, he hadn't been disappointed. On the other hand, he had been surprised that first time that Simmons had walked right into the garage in Mission City that the Autobots had been using as their field base and repair bay. He had come in unannounced, gone right past Ironhide, who had fairly vibrated with outrage, and ignored Ratchet, who for once had been shocked speechless, to stop in front of Bumblebee.
Before Bumblebee had been able to react, he had said, jovially, "Well well, lookin' good! Better." Beat. "Ah hell, you look like crap still. We'll save the Kodak moment for later. Anyhow, couple things I wanted to say, but here's the main: done is done. May not be water under a bridge between us, but my point is there's flow – can't go backwards and change things. Maybe you can, but I can't. And if you can, great. But if you can't, then I'm saying – on my end, it's over. Don't know about yours. You wanna talk – look me up when Wrenchy – "
"Ratchet," Ratchet had snapped.
"Yeah, right," Simmons had said in that breezy, dismissive manner of his, then continued almost as if he'd never been interrupted. "Look me up when he's finished with you. Meantime, I'm outta here. Ciao, guys."
And that had been that. The man had strolled right back out without a second look. It had probably been fortunate for him that all of them had been far too shocked to move. Or shoot. Even Ironhide. Even Sam and Mikaela had been slack-jawed with amazement.
"That guy," Sam had opined, "is seriously nuts."
"Most people aren't like him," Mikaela had added, her eyes going from Bumblebee to Ironhide with some concern.
"Optimus isn't going to let me shoot him," had been Ironhide's only, and rather disappointed sounding, comment. Privately, Bumblebee had shared the sentiment, and for the next two days had done his best to put Simmons out of his mind. Tyger Pax had been hard enough to deal with; Hoover Dam might not have been nearly as bad – appalling as it was to him that he could make that comparison – or as long, but it had left the same cold at the core of his being, where the memories dwelt. He didn't need Simmons stirring them up.
But he couldn't seem to stop analyzing the bizarre visitation, either, and on the third day, he had begun digging. It had taken him some time, but under Ratchet's laser-scalpel, time was one thing he had not lacked, and so eventually, he had determined that Simmons had no listed phone, and more than that, that the closest thing to a connection with the outside world that Sector Seven had was a dummy server in a Reno-based office that was clearly a front. Its internal servers were isolated. He might've guessed that – it was not the first time he had tried tracking some of his pursuers, after all, and with as much success.
But Simmons had said to look him up, and Bumblebee was determined to do it.
A little more thought had sent him searching through recent wireless traffic logs – an act that was undoubtedly illegal, but there was no way he was going to trip the watchware on Earth's systems. Eventually, he had come up with a number of unlisted cell calls routed through a local cell tower, some of which were clearly government to judge by the cryptography on some of them. A few minutes of 'jiggering' the code and he had had everything he needed.
Encrypting his own com signal so as to block its com code from being registered, Bumblebee had dialed into Simmons's cell and left a text-only message. And then he had waited.
Two hours later, while Ironhide was on duty elsewhere, the response had come in the form of a jeep bearing Simmons and a couple of other Sector Seven agents. Ratchet had started to protest, only to cut himself off mid-sentence as Bumblebee had shot him a tightwave transmission: Don't! Let him come.
The medic had given him an incredulous stare, but sensing Bumblebee's mood, had backed down and busied himself with his own work, ignoring Simmons, who came right over to peer at Bumblebee, all the while smiling broadly. "So, Mr. NBE Oh Two. Gotta say, I was beginning to think I'd misread ya."
"You have no idea," had been Bumblebee's reply, and that had set the tone for every subsequent meeting.
They never talked about much, to listen to them – little things, bits of news, the weather, the New York Yankees whom Simmons followed avidly. And of course, there were the insults – always the insults, one of two constants in their conversations, the other being the silence where history lay obliquely informing all speech. Little skips, little pauses, odd inflections – Bumblebee more than any of his comrades understood the tonal speech of humans. He didn't just imitate it. And so he knew what Simmons was saying, knew what that edginess meant, and knew also that Simmons knew that he knew, and it was enough to keep them talking. A strange and disconcerting conversation – Ironhide couldn't fathom it; Ratchet didn't like it; and their human friends got rather breathless whenever Simmons came by, sometimes leaving, sometimes intervening with their own complaints and hatred. Mikaela especially despised him. Simmons never batted an eye.
Optimus, perhaps, understood something of the matter. Bumblebee had gotten a few hard stares from his commander, but Prime had asked no questions. "Call me if necessary," had been his only comment, and then he had pointedly ignored the issue. It was Bumblebee's concern, in other words, and that suited Bumblebee just fine.
For a week, Simmons had made a point of stopping by the garage every evening. And once Ratchet had pronounced Bumblebee repaired, they'd taken to meeting at odd hours – mostly when Bumblebee called Simmons, since he had never given out his com code, and took steps to ensure that no one with Sector Seven would be able to identify it. Sometimes, Simmons just showed up, or they agreed on a rendezvous before parting. Once, Simmons had left word for him with Ratchet. Another time, he had used Optimus.
And all the while, neither of them had ever said a direct word about what had happened on the L.A. River, what had happened beneath Hoover Dam.
Now here they were, two weeks later and twenty miles from even the outskirts of Mission City – in the very place of that dreadful silence, which was perhaps why it couldn't be any longer ignored. Simmons, of course, had wanted it this way – that was understood, as Bumblebee stared at the man, who stared right back and a little too sharply.
"Give me the phone," Bumblebee said after a long pause. Simmons sighed.
"Just gimme a test call back so I know I've got it all set up right," he said. And when Bumblebee simply stood there, looking at him, he added, "Look, it's not like you're giving anything away. Your number's in here already."
With a cycle of vents, the Autobot complied, and a moment later, the unmistakable tones of 'Another one bites the dust' rang out. Simmons grinned. "There we go! Got your ring-tone all set, then, sweetheart – I'd say make nice for me to the kid, but I know better."
So saying, Simmons tossed him the phone, turned, and made as if to leave. Bumblebee stood there, the phone cupped in the palm of his hand, and he stared after Simmons, optics narrowed. Something was not adding up, here.
Which was why, when Simmons reached the lot and paused to pull out a cigarette and a lighter, he called after him: "Simmons!"
The Sector Seven agent glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah?" he called back.
"Why did you really call me up here?" Bumblebee demanded. "No games!"
"No games?" Simmons snorted a stream of smoke. "Aw, c'mon, you're killing me here!"
"I highly doubt it. Answer me, Simmons: what do you really want here?" And when the man just shook his head, Bumblebee eyed the car behind him, then quick as his name, he dropped to one knee, left arm held just above the ground, and where once his hand had been, there was a hollow lit by an ominous blue energy. "You want to walk home?" he asked, coolly.
Simmons eyed the crackle of electricity, took a few drags on the cigarette before he shrugged and leaned back against the car's hood, a grin lighting his face once more. "Like a footsore amputee, my friend!" Which made no sense, but with Simmons, that hardly mattered. "You know why I went into field work?" he asked. And without waiting for Bumblebee to answer, replied: "Because you guys were gonna be the biggest hit this planet had ever seen. You just don't quit!"
He shook his head. "Even before any of the rest of you showed up as the walking, talking – or falling, driving, I guess – real thing, every test we'd ever run on NBE-1 pretty much told us one thing: we weren't gonna be takin' you out without a lot of work. Did you know," he asked, "that NBE-1 actually came out of cryofreeze once?"
"No," Bumblebee replied quietly.
"Well he did. Way back before he was here at Hoover Dam – back when Ghost 1 was the big deal, we – Sector Seven that is, not me personally, but my Dad and his buddies – had to move him from the Arctic circle down to here. Didn't go too well. Had a little Russian problem and our mutual friend woke up. Damn near took everybody out. Tough old bastard, NBE-1," Simmons declared, with what Bumblebee realized was admiration.
Before he could comment, however, the Sector Seven agent shook his head and continued: "Granddad – also with Sector Seven – knew about it – it was all over the organization. He raised us on that story – top secret my ass! Not in our family! At least, you know, not after he got... confused." A flutter of fingers in the vicinity of Simmons's left temple suggested 'confused' went beyond the usual sense. "Later on, in training, a bunch of us got our hands on the surviving recordings – damn, that was one piece of work! Knew right then – I was goin' into field ops, no questions asked."
"Because you wished to protect your people?"
"Well yeah, that too," Simmons said breezily.
Had Bumblebee been human, he might have done a double take. As it was, he simply stared at the man. "What do you mean, 'that too'?" he demanded, suspicious.
Simmons snorted. "Look, sweetheart, it's not that hard to grasp – I'm in it for the same reason you're in it."
"I just said – "
"Aw, c'mon, butterfly, get to the sting!" A fiendish grin flashed up at him as Simmons hopped off the car and began climbing back up the hill toward him. "You know what I mean – the sting. The op. The sweet stuff – all that."
"I don't know what – "
"Ooh, foul, my friend! Bzzt! Do not pass go!"
"What are you babbling about?" Bumblebee asked, exasperated.
"You. And me," Simmons said, very slowly, craning his neck to stare up at the Autobot. Then, abruptly, "How long?"
"How long, what?"
"How long have you been in the game?"
The game. Memory flashed – Jazz's face stared back at him, optics bright and with that Pit-fired grin that said he was a mech on a mission... and he was taking 'Bee with him. "You and me, 'Bee – time to dance another round. You in?"
There had always only been one answer to that question. Bumblebee lifted his eyes from Simmons to stare out at the horizon once more.
"It's been a very long time," Bumblebee said slowly. "Longer than your species has been on this continent."
"That a fact? Huh." Simmons seemed impressed. He took a drag on the cigarette, and then suddenly uncharacteristically serious: "Then don't you tell me you don't know why we're in it. Only one reason you play this game that long – because you love it."
Bumblebee let his vents cycle. "Maybe once," he said quietly. "But it's over now." Simmons snorted, muttered something foul under his breath. "It is over," Bumblebee insisted, tone sharpening a little. "We're leaving tomorrow. And you're losing your badge. It's done."
"And if you really believe that, my friend, then you'd better do a u-turn and haul ass back to Prime, hand in your decal, and get the hell out of Dodge, and especially, especially get away from the kid!" Simmons snapped.
Bumblebee's panels twitched, as that sudden cold fisted in him again. "Explain," he growled.
"You're the one built from logic boards," came the retort. Then: "Don't make out like you don't get it – you know you do." Simmons shook his head and stabbed middle and forefinger, cigarette firmly set between them, up at the Autobot. "And if you want my advice, sweetheart, the best thing for you and the kid both is to just admit it and go a few rounds with your trigger-happy Topkick friend. 'Least he's got it straight."
"I don't recall ever asking your advice," Bumblebee snapped.
"Hey, I'm a generous guy like that."
"You don't know me."
"Oh yeah?" Simmons challenged, gesturing to the now darkened landscape and to Hoover Dam looming dark over the river. "Then why're you out here, huh? 'Cause you like me?"
"I'm here because you asked – "
Simmons sighed, flapped a hand. "Yeah, yeah, yeah – butterfly, you're driftin' again. Seem to remember I dropped a ball in your court a couple weeks ago. You're the one who bounced it back. Been playin' ever since."
"This isn't a game," Bumblebee protested.
"Damn straight – it's the game. And it's you thinkin' about getting back into it. Got a little bruised up this time out, did we?" Simmons asked, grinning. "Or is it dinged?"
"You ought to know," Bumblebee hissed, voice absolutely cold. "You were the one responsible for the worst of it!"
"Yeah, I was. Got you roped down, frozen, shipped out to the lab. Matter of hours. Don't like it? Well, obviously not," Simmons replied, perhaps just a touch quickly. But bravado or stupidity kept him going: "You don't like it – fine. So do something about it."
"You heard me – do something about it. C'mon. I dare you!"
"We don't seek to harm your kind, Simmons!" Bumblebee snapped, though he found his right fist clenching...
"Oh, well, isn't that nice?" Simmons snorted. "'Cept you're not, really. You and NBE-1? You're like cousins – not-nice is in your... blood. Oil. Whatever. Same with me. You and me, we're not nice. We just look it sometimes."
This was getting beyond ridiculous. "I'm not like you," Bumblebee said in a low voice, engine rumbling insistently as panels flexed back once more.
"You coulda fooled me! Especially that one time when you pissed - yes, pissed, don't try gettin' technical on me. You're too good not to know what you're doing! Anyhow, when you pissed lubricant all over me during interrogation – seemed like you were havin' a good time," Simmons replied, and one could probably cut a diamond on his smile. "Admit it, sweetheart – you like it. You get off on it. That's why you haven't shot me yet – you get me, see?"
"'Get you'?" Bumblebee shook his head. "You are a venal, arrogant, foul-mouthed sadistic little glitch!"
"And that's why you're here," Simmons shot back, with entirely too much relish. Bumblebee growled, motor revving. His tormentor just grinned the wider. "You wanna get back in, then I'll be there, one way or the other. And so will your tricked out alien tanks and whatever else you've got comin' our way. S' the way it is, and it didn't take me ten thousand years to figure it out."
With that, Simmons let his cigarette fall. In the heavy silence, he stepped down on it, grinding it into the earth. Then: "I gotta go. The Yanks're playin', and the boys and I are heading out to a bar for a last drink before our little reassignment – maybe find a few girls that don't ask questions, know what I mean?" Simmons paused, considering Bumblebee a moment. "Probably not," he decided. "Be seein' you around, though. Ciao, butterfly!"
Bumblebee didn't answer him, did not even watch him go – not, at least, on visuals, though ingrained, mistrustful habit had him following Simmons's heat signature down the slope and over to the car. He heard the door open and shut; the engine turned over, and he damped down IR scanning as the headlights came on. Simmons backed the SUV out of its spot, made smoothly for the exit.
But the SUV had only just pulled onto the dusty little road when it slowed to a halt and the horn blared. "Hey!" Simmons yelled through the window. "Hey, Bumblebee!"
With an irritated cycle of vents, Bumblebee turned, bringing his lights up in a double flash – What?, to any Cybertronian. That might not be so clear to a human, but incomprehension had never stopped Reginald Simmons's mouth.
"You want serious, here's serious: don't think baby-sittin' the kid's a way out. You do, you're gonna get rusty and get him killed. Maybe you, too. And that'd be damn disappointing." With that, Simmons hit the accelerator and Bumblebee watched as he slalomed down the hill and out eventually onto blacktop once more.
Bumblebee, however, remained where he was, and after awhile, resumed his seat, staring out at the stars. Time passed. Crickets sang and the moon began to drift down towards the earth again. In the moonlit darkness, everything seemed preternaturally still, the land empty.
Eventually, however, another pair of headlights appeared on the road below. They followed it up just to the foot of the hill, then stopped, and a few moments later, they seemed to rear upward. Bumblebee shuttered his optics as powerful floodlights swept over the crown of the hill, pausing where he stood out against the crestline. Then suddenly, they died.
Some minutes passed but soon enough, Bumblebee heard the heavy footfalls of another mech approaching, and sensors quickly enough identified who it was.
"Optimus," he said, without moving. His commander did not answer him immediately, but simply came to join him, sitting and looking out at the night. "Were you tracking him or me?" Bumblebee asked after a time.
"Simmons. He's far easier to trace," Prime admitted. A pause, then: "What happened?"
What had happened? Bumblebee considered this question some moments, and at length, replied, "Just... talk. Mostly him talking. As usual." Optimus's vents cycled hard at that, and his engine purred softly with amusement. "Just shop talk – field ops... personnel issues."
"Anything of use?"
"Maybe." Bumblebee hesitated a second, then: "Everything gets twisted around with him – I feel like I can't tell where up is, like everything is unreal. Especially me – like I'm... just the image of the man." He paused again, then added, "And I don't like his looks."
Optimus grunted. "Will you continue these meetings?" he asked.
"I don't know that I can avoid them. He seems to think we'll be seeing each other in California." Bumblebee glanced sideways and up at his commander. "Do you want me to continue meeting with him, sir?"
Optimus seemed to consider this a moment, before he said, slowly, "Simmons strikes me as the sort who will deal himself into whatever we may try to do here. Like him or not, we'll not easily be rid of him, and that may not be a bad thing. Better the force we know, as the humans say – it makes damage control less difficult."
"Then I should continue as his liaison?"
"Mm. No, I'll deal with him," Optimus replied, and Bumblebee heard the light stress on 'deal' and stiffened a bit.
"He's likely to like that, you know, sir. He's –" How to put it? Bumblebee shrugged helplessly and gave it a name " – he's special ops."
"I know. But I think I have his measure." There was the slightest of pauses, before Optimus finished: "As I have yours."
"Do you, sir?" Bumblebee asked quietly. Blue optics flashed in the darkness as Prime cocked his head at him, then gave a low, rumbling chuckle. He stood, beckoning Bumblebee to join him.
When he had, he laid a hand on his shoulder and replied, "I imagine I do. We have all taken our wrong turns in this war, of course, so that time alone will tell, but despite Simmons – or rather, because of him, much though it pains me to thank him for anything! – I've little fear of being proved wrong. Does that answer you?"
"It does." A beat, then: "I hope you're right."
Optimus grunted softly. "Come," he said, "the others are waiting, and we all have long drives tomorrow."
"And every day after," Bumblebee said ruefully.
Prime laughed at that. "Indeed, we do!"
Author's Notes: It's actually a small essay (slightly updated because I find this actually helped me as a writing exercise), but I feel a need to explain myself and this story. Feel free to skip ahead to the acknowledgments in the final paragraph if this isn't your cuppa.
One of the things that bothers me and also fascinates me about Bay's movie is the blatant way in which it plays on our collective, disavowed fantasies, showing them up front as humor and inviting us to enjoy them. While, as I hope to show, nearly every character participates in these fantasies, I will focus on two in particular: Simmons and Bumblebee. Simmons is obviously the easy choice, here: for at least part of the film, he's the designated bad guy – of course he will be informed by our fantasies about the Big Bad Authoritarian, allowing us to safely understand ourselves as "Not that guy!"(1) Bumblebee, however, may be less obvious, yet for this very reason, he is perhaps more effective than Simmons in getting us to swallow certain things we ordinarily would hold at a distance, and it's in large part because of the way his character 'uses' humor. Humor, because it puts us at a distance from the action, allows us to identify with the one who brings it about, and to enjoy what we otherwise might not find acceptable.
It is this ambivalent relationship that humor maintains for us with an act or an object that, I think, makes Bumblebee's character (to say nothing of Simmons's, who goes from funny/sometimes scary bad guy to funny ally in under twenty minutes) hard to capture. His upbeat, friendly characterization (generally speaking, and minus his relationships with Decepticons) exists in tension with the Bumblebee who plays a pivotal role in one of the two 'interrogation' scenes I find most disturbing, particularly given the political context we are currently enduring in America today, where torture and human rights violations are at the forefront of international concern. In light of that context, I want briefly to examine these two scenes, which occur back to back, involve Simmons and 'Bee both, and which stand out as significant against this real world political backdrop.
The two interrogations scenes show Simmons sexually baiting and humiliating of a female minor in his custody (2) as a part of his interrogation of Sam and Mikaela, and Bumblebee lubricating on (aka taking a piss on) Simmons when Simmons refuses to answer the questions of the recently liberated Sam and Mikaela.
Neither Bumblebee nor Simmons ever show any evidence that they understand their actions towards those in their custody to be problematic or degrading in any way: they laugh it off, deny it. Bumblebee shrugs, as if to say 'What?' (3); Simmons just relishes every moment in a rather obscene manner, or treats his behavior as "getting off to a bad start" where his ex-prisoners are concerned. Usually, we follow right along with their disarming refusals to acknowledge what they've done. Of course we do – the film very deliberately presents these actions as funny, as punchlines to a joke. And to be fair, we get the joke, though if these scenes were presented as straight out drama, I doubt anyone would be laughing in the same way.
It's on reflection, usually, that we find ourselves wondering why we laugh, although one we do sometimes feel the moral dissonance (to borrow from the idea of 'cognitive dissonance') even as we're laughing.
That's one of the things laughter can do for us – it, as I said, gives us distance enough not to be touched by some situation we would otherwise find distasteful. In our enjoyment, we are therefore implicitly setting ourselves over against the objects of humor. This in itself need not be morally problematic – but it can be when it puts us at a distance from the victims of actions we ourselves are partly responsible for. In this case, we call "toilet humor" what 'Bee does to Simmons, when if we were to read it somewhere else, say in the latest scandal of unethical treatment of prisoners in our custody in Iraq, we could have to call it something else. Likewise, Simmons's sexual baiting and objectification of Mikaela can be read as a clever, snappy comeback to her effort to regain control and deny his authority. But if we heard an actual record of an older officer saying such a thing to an illegally detained minor of the opposite sex, we couldn't laugh at it without revealing something unsavory about where we identify ourselves: not with the victim, but with the victimizer (4).
Again, this is where humor enters in to make the script's exploitation of these rather unsavory aspects of our society pass without (too much) notice. Humor allows us the best of both worlds: its ambivalence in these cases precisely centers around our identification with the abuser, but an identification that is disavowed, distanced enough that we don't recognize where we stand to find some things funny. In this case, we have massive injustice in our treatment of prisoners, to say nothing of the daily violence young women are subjected to by sexism pushed onto the silver screen and offered up as humorous incidents for us to enjoy. And in fact, we do enjoy them insofar as we don't recognize ourselves when we enjoy. Thus the humor serves to let us face ourselves as "in a mirror darkly", to borrow a phrase. We don't recognize either the mirror or the reflection consciously, and insofar as we don't, we can enjoy this film without any discomfort.
This is what I had in mind when I began to think I would need to address all this in fanfiction. Of course, the challenge of writing a story that tries to focus on the reflective relationship we have to the film is that I can't just come right out and say any of that. I have to inject my findings back into the story in a way that respects the story-telling aspect. With this fandom, I'm not sure I'm fully equipped to be able to do this as well as I'd like to be able to do it (5). But it's something I've wanted to do since I saw the film, and I thought I'd give it a shot. What follows is an attempt to say how I tried to handle showing that reflexivity, so if that holds no interest, then once again, you may want to skip down to those credits in the final paragraph (less the footnotes, of course).
I believe (or at least hope) that the story is its own support for the claim that Bumblebee and Simmons can be unmasked as being far more than merely comic characters for us. Assuming that that is the case, the trickier point when writing this story was to make visible the precise nature of the mirroring relationship that I see operating between these characters and us within a story format. I have already explained that I believe we can read our own social fantasy in these two interrogation scenes, by paying attention to where and how we are invited to enjoy. But how to portray in a story this reflexive relationship that we have with the movie, given that by its very nature, that relationship must pass unnoticed if it is to be effective at all? That was much harder for me to translate and I do not know that I have the skill to wholly succeed in that aim.
Nevertheless, when I was considering how to portray or suggest this reflexive relationship, I took my lead from the (otherwise tedious) exposition scene at the observatory. I'm sure everyone remembers this scene: it's the moment when Ironhide demands that Prime explain why the Autobots should risk themselves fighting to save "a violent and primitive race." This question is key, and that Ironhide asks it is particularly significant to me. To clarify why I find it especially meaningful, once again, we need to look at the comedy interlude where Ironhide plays the greatest role – namely, the yard scenes while Sam is looking for the glasses – and then connect that back up to the observatory scene.
Ironhide's unique comic contribution to the search for the glasses at Sam's house consists entirely of his threatening to shoot a chihuahua for getting him wet (he landed in a pool, yet he's worried about a chihuahua making him rust?) (6) and the suggestion, maintained in the face of Prime's horrified rebuke, that the Autobots shoot Sam's parents. It is worth looking a little more closely at this latter exchange, in fact, for like other comic moments, it is, I think, unintentionally revealing.
When Prime reacts to Ironhide's suggestion, he doesn't say that the Autobots will not harm Sam's parents: he extends the ban on violence to all humanity, reminding Ironhide that "we don't harm humans!" In other words, not just these (annoying) ones are safe from us, but we don't hurt any humans. Ironhide's response is: "I'm just saying we could. It's an option." Coming as a response to Prime, he is not simply holding out for the possibility of eliminating Sam's parents: he's holding out for the possibility of shooting any human who gets in the way. Funny as it is, Ironhide's response marks an escalation: not just these two, but now each and every human being stands as targetable for Ironhide, according to the strict logic of this exchange. Tongue in cheek and sheepish his response may be, but the fact remains: that's still his answer to Prime's (all too serious) rebuke. And while the tone may seem to 'take back' in part Ironhide's initial suggestion, that apparent humorous 'backing down' actually enables the scope of violence to be broadened drastically. Or rather, it enables us to grasp the latent framework out of which emerges Ironhide's initial suggestion to shoot Sam's parents.
With that in mind, fast-forward now to the scene on the observatory, and by way of connecting the two scenes, ask yourself if, from a purely logical standpoint, you could conceive of a greater inconsistency than that Ironhide complain of the violence and primitiveness of another species. By implication, Ironhide does not consider the Autobots to be violent or primitive; yet his own behavior directly contradicts this notion. Moreover (and this is the key point for me), he doesn't even realize it! But through this misrecognition, truth speaks: Ironhide says of 'the humans' what is true of himself and his own people.
We find a repetition (and so a kind of confirmation) of this misrecognition in Prime's own response, one which, perhaps, correlates best with the hallowed "average American view" of America itself: Prime does not deny a certain violence and primitiveness proper to Cybertronians, but he puts it at a distance by maintaining that once Cybertronians were not so different from Ironhide's human beings. To which, the viewer inclined to talk to his or her television screen while watching movies might reply: "Once upon a time, as opposed to now, Prime, when you have constantly to rebuke Ironhide for reaching for his guns to solve 'problems' who happen to be people? As opposed to now, after there's been a genocidal war that you're still fighting?"
In both cases, we are dealing with the logic of disavowal and self-misrecognition, looped through a variation on the same strategy: project onto another, who by default becomes a fantasmatic Other, the disavowed truth of oneself. By seeing that truth only there, in the other, one is thus enabled to enjoy it, to maintain it in oneself at the necessary distance for it not to put one's identity in question.
Thus, to return to my initial claim, when I began looking around for a way of representing in a dramatic fashion the viewer-film relationship, I found that Bay had already given me an analogous relationship within the film: Ironhide (and Optimus) have the same disavowed relationship to the human Other as we, the viewers, do to the film as a whole. Humanity is the screen on which Autobot fantasy is projected, enabling them to (wrongly) identify themselves, just as the movie itself – these characters – are screens or vehicles for the display of our own social fantasies. These fantasies structure what counts as reality for us while concealing a crucial aspect of ourselves from us even as it plays out before us. "Reality," in other words, is the world where I can, without any trouble, identify with Bumblebee and enjoy his "toilet humor" without realizing what goes into reading Bumblebee's action as toilet humor.
This is why, near the end of my story, Bumblebee has to find himself just the image of the man (of a certain mankind), rather than the other way around: in the first place, making Bumblebee Simmons's reflection acknowledges that Simmons, in his direct staging of an obscene enjoyment, is the disavowed truth of Bumblebee; in the second, it's an oblique way of suggesting the relationship that we have with Bumblebee as a part of the film as a whole, of mapping our relationship with the film onto the analogous relationship between Autobots and humanity within the film. This effectively puts us (or at least, ideally it would put us) in a certain bind: if we are with Bumblebee against Simmons, we are nonetheless still bound to Simmons; the alternative is direct identification with Simmons himself. This attempt to pin us all down to that unpleasant choice may be slightly undermined by bringing in Prime at the end, but both dramatically and in reality, I have to leave room for hope – for the possibility of a road to redemption, however long and however winding and uncertain (7).
And with that (minus the couple of footnotes below), here endeth the essay. Credit goes to Jurassic Park for that iconic mirror-T-rex shot that yielded up the title, to far too many books by Zizek that give me a particular lens on viewing this film, and of course to Muhammed Ali for the very usable "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Bay, Alan Dean Foster, and the amusing people who fill Teletraan 1 Wiki with easily findable data also must be credited for their work, which led directly to mine.
(1) In addition to the interrogation scene proper that I'll discuss in the body of the essay, Simmons's rap sheet also includes his depersonalization of Bumblebee ("Get this thing frozen and ready for transport"), which culminates in explicit, institutionalized torture. Why not dwell on them? Are these not obviously problematic? The answer is yes, they are obviously problematic, but just for that reason, you'll note they aren't presented as funny. These actions and words serve a different function than what I'm talking about: they encourage us not to identify with Simmons, but to identify, via pity, with his victim – Bumblebee. If we ended up laughing at Simmons's degrading treatment of Bumblebee in this instance, we'd miss the whole point of the scene, which is to create tension over the (apparent) loss of one of the good guys and a sense of what they are fighting against. Torture and depersonalization are used here in a very straightforward way – it may be manipulative as all hell, depending on whether you think that torture scene needed to occur, but unlike the humor scenes, that scene in no way creates an ambivalent relationship between us and Simmons, in which we partly identify with him and his actions and partly reject (because it sits uneasily with our sense of who we are and what we're about) the identification with him.
(2) Internal to the lubrication incident should be Mikaela's and Sam's revenge on Simmons, which is only slightly less hard to swallow only because of the immaturity factor. This does not mean that we should swallow it, of course: I'd be willing to bet that we identify just as much with Mikaela (and Sam) when Mikaela gets Simmons to strip as we do with Bumblebee when he takes a leak (in all senses of that phrase) on Simmons. If I don't focus on Mikaela in the story or in this mini-essay, it's because I lack the space to effectively present Mikaela dramatically, and the essay is a support for this particular story. But we should, I think, pay attention to that scene, as well.
(3) And while there are several in-frame arguments one might make to try to cover Bumblebee at least from the charge of degrading treatment of a prisoner, I find that these arguments are insufficient, but also that they are, at least from one view point on the film, irrelevant. They are irrelevant precisely at the point where we reflect on where we are invited to enjoy ourselves in these scenes, which is another way of saying, where we are invited to identify, in a disavowed way, in this film.
(4) I'll grant that this scene with Simmons and Mikaela is much more ambiguous in terms of how we are supposed to react to it. I found it quite disturbing, but I also noted people laughing in the theater. This may have been nervous laughter, but it serves that same purpose – put a distance between me and what's on the screen, so that I can avoid dealing with the disturbance. And given the way Turturro really plays it up during the car interrogation scene, I can't help but think this was intended on some level to serve as comedy.
(5) In terms of character voice (really, in terms of my ability to believably pull this story off as a piece of dramatic fanfiction), Simmons turned out considerably more foul-mouthed in my story than in the movies or than I'd really expected, but I hope that it translates, to a degree, my sense of him as a man who enjoys obscenity, but also enjoys obscenely, as well as what I perceive as his fundamental "cussedness." He's a tough guy with a smart mouth and telling moments of glaring, comic stupidity – he's exactly who I needed to push Bumblebee's buttons. Bumblebee I fear may oscillate wildly between one emotional pole and another, resulting in melodrama of the bad sort, and he may also suffer more than either Simmons or Optimus from having been present through two different narrative shifts – one concerning the narrator's viewpoint, which doesn't stabilize for quite some time, the other being a shift in theme towards the end that may be more allusive than clear, unfortunately.
(6) Incidentally, Ironhide's reaction to being peed on ("lubricated on," as he says) by a chihuahua undercuts the primary mitigating argument designed to shield Bumblebee from the accusation of reprehensible treatment of a prisoner: namely, that he didn't know what he was doing since Cybertronians don't excrete waste in that way and don't have a sense of how the act of lubricating somebody else could be read as degrading or disgusting. Ironhide explicitly claims the dog has lubricated on him (not peed, lubricated – exactly what Bumblebee is said to do to Simmons) and he finds it disgusting ("Yuch!") and/or insulting, and detrimental to his bodily integrity ("That's gonna rust!").
Thus even if Bumblebee does not understand how his action will be read from out of a human context, there can be no question but that he knows very well that the Cybertronian context does not read this act positively. He therefore cannot be excused on the grounds of ignorance – whether or not he understands humanity, he understands his own people and what they find acceptable and unacceptable, uplifting and demeaning, clean and dirty.
But even without all that extrapolation to Cybertronian culture, he understands his own job: what he does to Simmons is meaningful and effective as a means of coercion or of punishment only insofar as he assumes a continuum between Cybertronians and humans. In other words, to do what he did, he has to be assuming that a human would find being lubricated on just as unpleasant and (possibly) demeaning as a fellow Cybertronian would. Otherwise, it fails to be either a meaningful or an effective act within the context of interrogation.
(7) Also, I was irritated by the poor use made of Prime, thankyouverymuchMichaelBay&Co.