It was a great day for a drive -- warm, sunny, a breeze that you could tell was from the ocean because there was the faintest smell of salt, and tons of roads around the old military base just waiting to be explored. If, that is, you had a car.
Sam Witwicky had one. At least, he'd thought he did.
Bumblebee didn't show at the time they'd arranged, so Sam waited. There was a perfectly good tree to sit under, and there was a good view from the overlook. And he didn't have anywhere else to be. As far as his parents knew, he had a summer internship, and Sam guessed he sort of did. There wasn't a lot of money to it, but he was basically getting paid to hang out with a bunch of alien robots and his girlfriend.
As the sun began its long orange slide from the sky, he realized he hadn't seen Mikaela, either.
The garage was long and low, like one of those old Quonset huts in Sam's grandfather's photo albums, but bigger. There were a few other buildings scattered around the old base, but most of them were empty. Sam and Mikaela had killed a couple of afternoons wandering through the more deserted buildings, where the junk wasn't interesting and every surface was too dusty to make out on. They'd made out on and inside of Bumblebee a few times, but that had started to get weird when Bumblebee apparently decided they were taking things too slow and cranked up "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."
He was pretty sure he'd find the two of them in the garage, and he was right. Bumblebee had one of his side panels open, and Mikaela was half inside, bent over in a way that made Sam half hope she wouldn't move for a good while, and half that she would move in very specific ways. He thought good thoughts and cleared his throat before Bumblebee could detect his pheromones.
"Hey," Sam said. "I thought we were going for a drive."
"Sam!" said Bumblebee. "I'm sorry. I'm a little disassembled at the moment. Mikaela and I were reviewing principles of Autobot mechanics."
Sam glanced over at Mikaela. She was wearing her usual tank top and jeans. They were stained with grease, and her hair was swept up into a tight bun on the back of her head. She had a tool in her hand, some weird-shaped thing Sam had never seen before. That didn't mean it was alien; for all he knew, it had a lifetime Craftsman warranty.
She grinned at him, a friendly grin, wiping her sweaty forehead with the back of one filthy hand. Sam grinned back. "Hey," he said. "I thought Ratchet was going to be teaching you that stuff."
"Couldn't," she said. "He's busy with the cast-offs."
"The All-Spark created some minor forms of life during our battle in the city," said Bumblebee. "Some of them were benign. Others... quite dangerous. We cannot tell yet if they have minds. Ratchet is working to neutralize or salvage some of them. If possible. There are Jazz's remains to consider, as well."
"Funeral?" Sam had wondered why the Autobots hadn't gotten around to organizing one. "It's been a while."
"Not a funeral," said Mikaela. "They strip the remains, salvage the parts. Some of them are passed along to new Autobots, or installed by friends as a memorial. Bumblebee was telling me about it."
Bumblebee nodded. "I myself will be taking on some of Jazz's components." He glanced over at Mikaela. "Mikaela, you fought beside myself and Jazz. I was hoping you would be willing to help me with the installation."
"Oh," said Mikaela. She looked up at Bumblebee in surprise. "Bumblebee. Um, sure. I'd be honored. But do you really want to risk it?" She rested a hand on the metal panel of his forearm. "I don't know what I'm doing yet. I wouldn't want to screw this up."
"I will instruct you," said Bumblebee. "It is simple. I will teach you how it is done." He hesitated, and his voice lowered. "As Jazz instructed me."
Sam could see where he wasn't wanted.
He tried to make a quiet exit, to not call attention to himself, but he should have known better.
It wasn't Mikaela who called his name.
"Sam," said Bumblebee, "you do not have to leave."
"No," said Sam. "I should. You guys fought together. You should do this. I'll see you later, okay?"
He looked back once as he beat his retreat. Bumblebee was lifting something metallic and irregular from a storage bin, and Mikaela was looking up at it the way Sam wished she'd look at him.
It was one thing to be stood up by a girl. It was something totally different to be stood up by a girl and your car.
No. That wasn't fair. Bumblebee wasn't Sam's car. He was Bumblebee. He was a giant robot, and an alien, and a hero, and any one of those increased his coolness factor but all three together? Forget it.
This place wasn't short on heroes. Mikaela had hooked up the tow truck and roared back into battle with Bumblebee, jinking and weaving so Bumblebee could get shots at the Decepticons. The soldiers had organized the civilian withdrawal, called in airstrikes, and gone toe-to-toe with armored robots big enough to squash them with a pinky. Sam had... run. Run a lot.
He'd been holding the All-Spark Cube, which had to be kept out of Decepticon hands at all costs, and he'd used it to take down Megatron by sheer luck at the end, but still. He'd run.
The semi was parked on the small ridge overlooking the valley. Sam hadn't realized he was heading there until he'd found it. There was a small road through the valley, and every once in a while a car went by below, heading from one small town to another; none of them ever turned toward the military base that had been shut down decades before. The Autobots hung out up here a lot. He didn't know what they saw when the cars went past. Inferior technology, maybe. Potential disguises. The way they changed their bodies, maybe it was like a fashion show.
The semi was facing the road, engine and headlights off. Sam walked up next to it and leaned against the door. He'd picked up a couple of pebbles along the way, and now he fiddled them about in his hand. The stones rolled over each other and around his fingers. The truck felt like any other truck.
"Sam," said Optimus Prime. "Good evening."
"Hey, Optimus," Sam said. "Anything going on?"
They were silent for a few minutes. A truck rolled by, far below. Sam rattled the pebbles back and forth, and then tossed one toward the edge. It bounced a few times against the rock as it fell. He rested his head against Optimus's door, looking up at the stars. They were bright out here, brighter than in the city -- really bright -- really, really --
The meteor blazed through the sky in the distance, a red streak in the darkness. It didn't look like a normal shooting star. It looked like something else, something Sam had seen before. "Optimus?"
"I see it."
"Is it one of yours? One of you?"
"I don't know."
The cell phone in Sam's pocket rang. He fumbled it out, pressed what he hoped was the right button. "Hello?"
"This is Secretary of Defense Keller. I'm trying the project phone for Project Cybertron. Who do I have here?"
"Sam. Sam Witwicky. Sorry. I just -- nobody was using it, I was going to call my folks -- "
"Never mind that, Sam. I need to get the Autobots on the line."
"About the meteor?"
"You saw it?"
"Sure did. Optimus Prime's right here. Hang on, let me hit speaker."
"Thank you, Sam. Hello, Optimus."
"John," said Optimus. "Thank you for calling."
"Optimus, I'm here with General Berghoff. We've got some inbound data on that meteor. The folks at NASA pulled in a little trajectory information from before it hit our atmosphere. Now, from what we can tell, it's coming from a totally different direction than you all did, but -- "
"We were scattered throughout the galaxy," said Optimus. "If it is one of us, it could have come from anywhere."
"That's what I thought, given our last conversation. I'm going to brief the President shortly, but I wanted to get your assessment first."
"Prime," said another voice, "this is General Berghoff. Your military specialist, Ironhide, is still working with some of my boys in Utah. We won't be able to get him back in time for this, I don't think, but I can scramble helicopters to investigate and put together a convoy -- "
"Thank you, General," said Optimus. "But we can investigate ourselves. There's no need to draw more attention than necessary. Not yet."
"We can't run the risk of it being Decepticons. We have to prepare a quick response force."
"I agree. But our arrival procedures -- Autobot and Decepticon alike -- are to blend into the immediate area as much as possible. If it is one of us, we'd be more likely to find out by going in carefully. This will take more time, but we can keep you fully apprised of the situation, and alert you if reinforcements are needed."
"General?" said Keller.
"If that's the way you want to go, Mr. Secretary, I'd recommend using the intervening time to mobilize a heavy response. We may not need it, but depending on what the Autobots find, if we do we'll need it quick."
"We'll move immediately. Do you have approximate coordinates for the landing site?"
"Yes. I'll send them as a text. Anything else?"
"Please let the President know that even if a Decepticon has arrived, hostile action on its part is unlikely while it is isolated and unprepared. General Berghoff's recommendation seems the wisest response available to your military at this time."
"Thank you, Optimus," said Secretary Keller. "Good luck."
The call disconnected. Sam stood for a moment, staring at the phone. It had seemed as if everything was only just over, and now the Autobots' war might be starting up again.
He was startled out of his thoughts when the phone bleeped again, as Keller's text came in. The phone had a GPS function, and Sam eventually figured out how to get a route to the crash site. It was a long, long drive. Well into the boondocks. Seemed to have good roads nearby, though. Hopefully whatever it was wouldn't just transform and drive away.
"Sam," said Optimus. "Will you come with me?"
Sam blinked. "Me?" he said. "And you?"
"I may need to interact with local humans along the way. If we are to keep the low profile your government has recommended, I'll need your help."
"What about Bumblebee? I mean, he's the scout. Right?"
"I would not intrude on Bumblebee tonight," said Optimus. "He and Jazz were close. The preparations have taken long enough, and tonight should be his own." Optimus paused for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, quieter. "Sam. Will you come?"
Sam looked back over his shoulder. The door to the garage was open, and in the light that spilled from it the shadows of Bumblebee and Mikaela were visible. As he watched, Bumblebee transformed back into a Camaro, and she cracked his hood to peer inside.
Sam didn't know if the high-performance engine in there was real, if it worked. Not that he could tell the difference, anyway.
"Yeah," said Sam. "Let's go." He took one last look behind him, then turned back to Optimus. "Let me grab a sleeping bag."
It was still a strange feeling to be lying across the front seat of a vehicle -- car, truck, anything -- and watch while the vehicle drove itself. When they passed through a town, Sam sat upright in the driver's seat, although the most he did was rest his hands lightly on the wheel. The steering wheel moved when it needed to, and Sam just sat there, or munched on the potato chips he'd brought along. As the hours wore on, and the towns dropped away, he unzipped the sleeping bag and lay under it across Optimus's front seat. He didn't sleep in earnest, but dozed fitfully. He'd left the radio off, and Optimus didn't seem to feel the need for any music.
He woke up when Optimus stopped for a train outside some one-stoplight town, and sat up, rubbing his eyes. He stepped out of the cab and made his way blearily to the side of the road. The train pulled through before Sam was done, but there wasn't any other traffic. He finished, zipped up his pants, and staggered back to where Optimus was waiting. Now that the train was gone, there was a strange humming in the early morning quiet, and Sam wondered for a second if it was Optimus before realizing it was the power lines.
His watch read four in the morning, and he wondered if Mikaela and Bumblebee were done yet with whatever they'd been doing.
Sam had always hoped that he'd have a car that would attract a girl. He just hadn't planned to have her hang out with his car more than with him.
Sam dragged himself back into the cab and sat there, yawning. "I'm not gonna ask if we're there yet," he said.
"Another two and a half hours."
"See, that's why I wasn't going to ask." Sam pressed his face into his hands, then rapidly slapped his cheeks. It was a poor substitute for caffeine. If they ever did this again, he was going to get Optimus one of those trucker coffeemakers. Of course, the thing would probably get smashed when Optimus transformed back into his real shape...
"Sam," said Optimus, "you've been quiet."
Sam looked up. "Sorry," he said. "I'm kind of working some things out in my head."
"Are you functioning normally? Exposure to the All-Spark sometimes has unusual effects."
Sam laughed a little at that. "No. Not that." He hesitated. "Did you ever have girl trouble, Optimus?"
"Well, yeah. You wouldn't."
"We have no girls, Sam."
"We are neuter. We do not reproduce by sexual means."
"You use parts, right? Mikaela said you build new Autobots. From pieces of the dead."
"Okay. That's... sorry, that's a little creepy." Sam shook his head, and tried to chase unwelcome images from his head. "I guess I never thought about it. The neuter thing, I mean. You all sound like guys."
"Our default vocalizations happen to fall within male parameters for your species. I could alter mine, if you like."
"No, man," said Sam. "Your voice is really cool. I wouldn't change a thing." He paused. "Maybe it's not girl trouble. It's -- you know? Have you ever had a friend where you didn't know why they were friends with you?"
"What do you mean, Sam?"
"I'm not worried that my girlfriend's going to break up with me. I'm worried my car might like her better than me. And it sounds stupid when I say it like that -- he's not my car, he's not my anything -- but it still bugs me, and I don't know why."
Optimus was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Bumblebee did not ask me for permission to stay with Mikaela."
Sam waited, but Optimus didn't say anything else. He just began to roll forward, picking up speed until they were past the one-stoplight town and back out into the backroad darkness. Sam leaned back against the seat, listening to Optimus's engine and the sound of the wind. He didn't bother to rest his hands on the wheel.
The truck stop wasn't as big as the ones on the interstate. Maybe it had been once, about fifty years ago, but it was still there -- farms had to get things in and out, and they'd passed a couple of the massive agricorporate places along the way. There was even the inevitable Cafe Risque, down the road a ways, though it looked a little anemic. Sam guessed there was such a thing as too far to drive to see a naked waitress.
"All right," said Sam. "What's the plan?"
"You're the expert," said Optimus. "What strategy would you recommend?"
"Small town," said Sam. "They don't like nosy strangers. Gotta be careful." He frowned. "I'm gonna get some breakfast."
"They're inclined to be hospitable over nourishment?"
"I hope so. Plus, I'm hungry." Sam glanced into the passenger seat, then to the back of the cab, the dash. The weirdest thing about having conversations while riding in Optimus was that he didn't know where to look when talking to him. "Might be a while. Honk if you need me."
"Good luck," said Optimus.
The door to the truck stop had an honest-to-goodness bell, one that tinkled as the door opened. Sam had to hide a smile. It was like something out of an old TV show: there was a counter with stools in front of it, and a middle-aged woman behind, and some old guy in the back on a short-order stove. The old guy had tattoos on his knuckles, and looked like he hadn't shaved in a while. The eggs smelled good, but it was the bacon that had Sam's mouth watering.
"Morning, hon," said the woman. She was short and stout, and the nametag on her apron read "Erlene." Her hair was red, and Sam guessed it was dyed, but what did he know about stuff like that? "You have a seat."
"Thanks," said Sam. He looked around. "Nice place. What should I get? I mean, am I supposed to say something like, 'Adam and Eve on a raft, wreck 'em, and a cup of joe?' "
"Hope not, honey," said Erlene. "I wouldn't know what the hell you're talkin' about. How about some scrambled eggs and bacon, your choice of side: grits or Cream of Wheat?"
"That sounds really good. Um, I'll try it with the grits."
"Scrambled eggs and bacon, grits! Coffee or orange juice?"
"You got it."
Erlene stepped away, and Sam glanced around at the other patrons. Two were close to him, one farther away, at the end of the counter. He'd seen a few other trucks in the lot, next to Optimus. One was almost as big, but both were a little dingier, a little more weathered, and neither of them had chrome everything and custom paint. There were times the Autobots' disguises seemed like genius. Other times -- he flashed back to all of them, parked on his lawn, thinking they were hidden -- they seemed ridiculously optimistic.
Erlene brought the coffee, and Sam drank gratefully. He was still stiff from curling up across Optimus's front seat, but at least he was waking up.
"That's a hell of a truck you got there," said the man next to him.
"It's not my truck, really," said Sam. "It's my dad's. Well, it will be. I'm giving it a shakedown."
"What happened? Guy splurged on the paint job, couldn't make payments on the truck?"
Sam laughed. "Something like that."
"Ain't that a thing. You doing a long haul?"
"Not so long. Did some highways, some back roads. Excuse to get away a bit, I guess." Erlene reappeared with a plate. She set it down in front of Sam, who dug in. "Oh, man. That's good bacon." He cast a wary eye on the grits, which squatted whitely in a light yellow pool of... something, then pulled up a forkful. The yellow stuff was butter. The grits weren't bad. "I like it around here. Roads are quiet, pretty fun. Even see the stars. I tell you, I saw a hell of a meteor last night."
The trucker just grunted. But Erlene, bless her heart, picked up the cue. "Oh, wasn't that the prettiest thing? Big and red like that -- my sister thought it was scary, but I thought it was exciting. 'course, I didn't think it'd actually hit..."
"It hit around here?"
"Looks like. Came down out by old Bill George's place."
"No kidding. Did he see it?"
"Oh, I dunno. Bill ain't what you'd call sociable."
"Nobody asked him?"
"He don't come into town much. Never was the outgoing type, but he's been awful quiet since his wife passed. Poor man, it took a lot out of him, you know how it is."
"Yeah," said Sam. "My granddad was the same way." It was the truth, and it felt kind of odd to say something true in the hopes that he could use it as leverage. He'd been honest, but it still felt a little bit like lying. "Do you think... wow, it sounds crazy, but do you think he'd let anybody go look for it?"
"Go look for it?"
"The meteor. I mean, if it hit out on his back forty, do you think he'd let somebody take a look at it? If they asked. It was pretty big. Probably something left on the ground, you know?"
Erlene frowned. She looked at him, then glanced at the parking lot.
"You ain't got a trailer on that rig," said Erlene.
"No, ma'am," Sam said. "No winch or crane, either. Couldn't steal it if I wanted to."
"I wasn't going to put it like that."
"No, ma'am. You're too polite."
Erlene looked down at him. Sam didn't look away. He turned his head up, and met her eyes. Sam held his gaze steady. Erlene's eyes were blue, and as they locked onto him he could feel her weighing her decision, a stranger's trustworthiness, her curiosity and responsibilities...
Erlene held the connection for a moment. Then she bit her lip.
She stepped back from the counter and rummaged in her apron for her pad and a pen. She flipped to Sam's bill. Scribbled something there. An address, a map.
She tore the bill free and handed it to Sam, but held onto it when he reached for it. "You look in on him for me," Erlene said. "Whatever he says. Yes or no. However it goes, whatever happens, you come back and let me know he's okay."
Sam said, "Yes, ma'am."
"I," said Sam smugly, "am an information-pumping god."
"Where is it?" said Optimus.
"About eight miles outside of town. Or what passes for a town around here. Mostly farms. Anyway, I got us a map. Left out the parking lot, go three miles, then a right, then I have to start looking for an old grain silo and forked roads and stuff."
"Good work, Sam. Let's roll out."
"Ha," Sam said, buckling his seat belt. "I love it when you say that." He grinned, and suppressed an urge to bounce in the seat a little as Optimus made the first left. Was this the way cops felt when they were solving mysteries? Maybe he should become a detective. This was awesome. "The meteor came down on a farm belonging to a guy named Bill George. He's kinda old, I guess. He doesn't come to town much. The lady at the diner said he'd kept to himself since his wife died. Sad, you know?"
Optimus didn't reply immediately. Sam didn't notice at first. He turned the map one way, then the other, trying to make its orientation match the road's.
"Sam," said Optimus after a few moments, "what do you do with your dead?"
Sam blinked. "Um. Bury them, mostly. Some people burn the bodies, till there's nothing left but ashes and stuff. That's what my granddad wanted. We went out to this national park he liked and scattered his ashes to the wind."
"That seems... final."
"Well, yeah," said Sam. "It is."
Optimus was silent again. When he spoke, his voice was softer, gentler. "Sam," he said quietly. "I am very sorry."
"You don't have to be sorry, Optimus," Sam said. "There's nothing to be sorry about. It's just the way things are."
"For you, it is. That is... uncomfortable for me to contemplate."
"Among us, the sadness of death is greatly softened by the potential for rebirth. I myself was built from the remains of an Autobot named Orion Pax. Built to be a soldier, a protector. A defender. A leader. Other parts were incorporated into me, and some of his went to other Autobots. Orion Pax and I were different, yet those who knew him have told me that in me, something of him is to be seen."
That's what the parts meant to them. Sam felt ashamed of himself. "I'm sorry for that stuff I said about parts being creepy, Optimus. I didn't mean --"
"I understand, Sam. Your life is organic, and finite. Your parts are yours, and yours alone; when you die, you, with your parts, degrade. To take another's parts while you live would be done with pain and at risk to your life. It is understandable that the thought of us doing so unsettles you. As the thought of your grandfather being burned and scattered discomfits me."
"I just don't like thinking about you guys as potential scrap. That's all."
"As scrap, we may yet live."
Sam nodded. It seemed to make sense, but he still shrank away from the thought. Then he realized that maybe it wasn't so alien, after all.
"When my granddad died," Sam said, slowly, "my dad's friend -- he told me that our loved ones aren't dead, as long as we remember them. He said granddad was alive in me. So as long as I lived, so did he."
Optimus was silent for a long moment. Then he said, "And when you die?"
The thought of his own death seemed strange and foreign to Sam. It shouldn't have. He'd nearly died before, when Mikaela saved him from Frenzy, when Bumblebee saved him from Barricade, the time Megatron knocked him off a building. But dying, really dying, from getting old and sick like his grandfather -- no, that was strange and distant, like getting married, or having kids, or filing an income tax return. Only more so.
"I don't know," Sam said. "I guess if I'm lucky, somebody will remember me."
It wasn't much. He felt it was lacking, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. He thought now, for the first time, about all the people in the years before him who'd died, taking with them memories of the people they'd known and loved, who'd died and taken memories of their own --
"Sam," said Optimus Prime.
"I will remember you."
Sam didn't know what to say to that. He opened his mouth, and thought about one or two replies, and finally settled on, "Thanks, Optimus."
He wasn't sure if he felt more weirded out, or oddly comforted.
Bill George grew mostly corn. Sam could tell that much, at least. He knew what corn on the cob looked like on his plate, or in the supermarket, or at a roadside stand, and except for being on stalks it looked pretty much the same in the fields. There was other stuff too, though, crops that Sam, a city kid, didn't recognize. Those plots looked smaller than the cornfields. Maybe Bill George grew them for himself, or didn't sell as much. Maybe they just didn't need as much space as corn.
Sam had never really thought about growing food before. He'd figured it was simple, but nothing was simple if you didn't know anything about it.
He was starting to realize how little he knew about a lot of things.
The driveway wasn't as long as he'd thought it would be, maybe because there weren't any close neighbors. Optimus rolled along it slowly. He seemed cautious, and for the first time Sam realized this could be dangerous. If a Decepticon was lurking nearby, he could get in the first shot before Optimus could transform. A Decepticon could be hiding anywhere -- behind the barn, in the cornfields --
It was a scary feeling, and Sam didn't like it.
Optimus was used to it, but he was a soldier. Like Lennox, and Epps, and Figueroa. Maybe they'd be used to it, too.
Maybe war was like this all the time.
Sam bent low over the wheel. "Optimus?" he said in a low voice. "Do you... can you pick up a signal or something?"
"No. I sent an innocuous broadcast, as might be transmitted by one of our homing drones. There was no response."
"So, if it was here, it's gone?"
"What, you think it was a Decepticon?"
Optimus didn't say anything. He pulled up in front of the house, and stopped.
"I'll go ask at the house," Sam said. "Maybe it's still around. Maybe its communication system was just damaged in the landing."
"Or maybe we've just told a Decepticon we're here."
"I will protect you, Sam," said Optimus.
"Great," said Sam. " 'You've got me. Who's got you?' "
"It's this old movie -- never mind." Sam reached for the door handle, then hesitated. "OK. Say it is an Autobot who came down. What do I say if I find it? You learned our language from the Internet. If the new guy's communicator, receiver, whatever, is broken, he's not even gonna speak English. How do I keep him from running away before I can call you?"
"Say, 'Ba-weep-gra-na-weep-ninny-bong.' "
"It's the universal greeting. 'Ba-weep-gra-na-weep-ninny-bong.' "
"...Optimus, are you shitting me?"
"You're shitting me! I know when somebody's shitting me, and you're shitting me!"
"I am not shitting you."
"Ba-weep-gra-na-weep-ninny-bong? What the hell does that even mean?"
Optimus didn't say anything.
"If you're shitting me, I am totally going to get you some naked chick mudflaps. And I'll make you wear 'em. In public."
"The universal greeting, Sam," said Optimus. "Use it."
He didn't sound angry, but he did sound short on patience. It was enough to remind Sam who was in charge. He guessed Optimus had picked exactly the right tone of voice for that. Probably part of being Chief Autobot, or whatever his title was.
"Ba-weep-gra-na-weep-ninny-bong," Sam muttered, as he hauled himself out of the cab.
If that didn't work, though, he was rolling out with "Klaatu barada nikto," and screw the consequences.
The driveway under Sam's feet was dirt, and as he walked toward the house he noticed several sets of tire tracks. One was worn and led to the side of the house, where Sam could see a pick-up with bald tires. One set was really fat, probably a tractor or something like it. And one... one was neatly cut, perfect tires with great tread, going around the house in the direction of the barn.
Got you, Sam thought.
He jumped over the low steps right onto the porch. The door was a dull red in color, with white trim around it. The paint was good, but dirty. Not old enough for peeling, yet, but a new coat of paint wouldn't be a bad idea. Sam knocked on the door.
At first, nothing. Then footsteps, loud and heavy, boots on a wood floor. Sam quickly straightened his hair.
The door flew open.
Bill George was shorter than Sam's grandfather had been, which took some doing. He had messy white hair and blue eyes that were cold and a little watery. He was older than Sam had expected a working farmer to be. His skin was loose and wrinkled, and the left hand on the door was covered in liver spots. Sam couldn't see his right hand. Bill George was holding it behind himself. Sam tried not to think about what might be in it.
The old man didn't say anything. He just glared.
"Hi," said Sam. "Mr. George? My name's Sam Witwicky. Sorry to bother you -- I was just passing through and they told me that -- "
Bill George slammed the door in his face.
"Um," said Sam.
Sam turned and looked back at Optimus -- who didn't do anything to give him a sign; he couldn't, as a truck -- and then turned back to the door and knocked again.
Bill George opened the door a little less. He glared at Sam again with one watery eye.
"I'm really sorry for disturbing you," Sam said. "I wouldn't have, believe me, but there was this meteor and -- "
The door slammed again.
Sam was losing patience. "Hey!" he bellowed. "Did a meteor hit on your farm last night or not? I just want to ask you about it. Erlene said -- "
The door flung open all the way. Bill George was there, in front of Sam, all five foot two of him, glowering in a way that made Sam involuntarily back off half a step.
"I don't give a good goddamn what Erlene said," Bill George said. His voice was a deep, gargling rasp. "Now piss off!"
The door slammed for the third and final time.
Sam, discouraged, trudged down the steps to Optimus. He opened the door and reached up to get a grip so he could climb into the cab. He fumbled his way in, then closed the door.
So much for information-pumping godhood.
Optimus didn't say anything at first, and that helped a little.
"You think the universal greeting would work on him?" Sam said after a bit.
"Could've been worse. He didn't pull a gun." Sam glanced out the window at the house. A curtain in one of the windows was pulled aside. He couldn't see in, but he figured Bill George was watching. "I think it's here, Optimus. Or if not, something was. This place is run down. Pickup truck's got crap tires, but something driving around in this yard had great tread. Maybe it's hiding here."
"Sam," said Optimus. "I need a scout."
"You got it."
"This could be dangerous."
"He's an old man," Sam said. "I think I could take him."
"And if you meet a Decepticon?"
"I'm an ignorant kid, I don't know nothing -- hey Optimus! over here!"
"That will have to do."
Sam leaned forward toward the dash, hands at ten and two. "So, what's the plan?"
"I'll roll off slowly. At the turn by the front gate, I'll be between you and the house. You get down on the step, then jump off into the ditch. Hide until I reach the next turn. It's visible to the house. He'll watch to make sure I drive away."
"And I sneak onto the property."
"Find a high vantage point and look for the impact site. We may find a clue there."
"Top of the barn," said Sam. "I'll check inside first. Looked like whatever had the great tires was parking in there."
"I'll give you ten minutes, then meet you over at the east fenceline of the cornfield."
"Awesome," said Sam. He grinned. "Let's do this."
The plan had sounded pretty cool, especially the part about jumping out of a moving semi, right up until Sam actually had to jump out of a moving semi.
He hesitated almost too long. Optimus was rolling slow, but it felt a lot faster when Sam was standing on the outside. The road was dirt, and it wasn't all smooth; there were little ruts and bumps, and Sam wondered what would happen if he lost his grip and fell --
He made the jump before he could think about it. The dirt was packed hard, and the landing rattled him, but Sam rolled over and into the gulley before Optimus passed. The thunk of the driver's door closing came to him as Optimus drove away, but he didn't watch it swing closed. He pushed himself close to the ground and waited. Bill George would be watching. When he saw that Optimus rolled off, didn't stop, he'd turn away from the window.
Sam waited until Optimus made the turn at the crossroads, then risked a glance up at the house. The curtain was flicking back into place.
Time to move.
Sam low-crawled across the road and into the cornfield on the other side. He stood up, cautiously, and started pushing through, trying not to bend the cornstalks and give himself away. He stayed in a straight line, following the rows.
It was hotter in the corn than he'd expected, and a little disorienting. He hoped Bill George had planted straight; he couldn't see anything but corn, and the trailing leaves from the stalks felt itchy, like rough grass against his skin. The rows were too close for Sam to run flat out. He moved as fast as he could, turning sideways to slip through the corn.
When he thought he'd passed the house, he started moving sideways. Carefully, a few rows at a time, until he could get his bearings. When he reached the edge of the cornfield, he stopped and hunkered down. There was a shed nearby. The barn beyond it. The house was farther away to the right. He could get to the shed easily, then dash across till he was behind the barn, then work his way back to it.
He glanced left, then right. Checked the windows of the house. Crouched low, took a couple of deep breaths. Then slipped free of the corn and across the grass, till he had cover behind the shed. He waited again. The next run would be longer. He glanced around the edge of the shed. The house was quiet. All the curtains were in place.
Sam ducked low and headed for the barn as quickly and quietly as he could. When he reached it, he walked around the outside, keeping the barn between him and the house. The barn was wood, rough and weathered. He made his cautious way around it, hoping for a side door. No such luck.
The front door, though, hung from a track on top. He pushed on it, carefully. It was loose at the bottom, and swung out and up enough for Sam to slip inside. He squeezed through the narrow opening, then turned around.
A car, a beautiful one, a Plymouth from the 1950s or whenever they'd made huge tailfins, was parked inside. It was in chrome and soft colors, white and baby blue, and Sam couldn't reconcile it with the old, grumpy man he'd seen at the farmhouse door. Sure, Bill George had been young once, but the colors were wrong. Red, maybe, black, or even a darker blue. Not something that looked like pastels.
The car was on the other side of the barn, and Sam made his way toward it, past the beaten-down tractor, past some kind of machine with wheels and handles that Sam couldn't name, past something with tubes and a funnel and something else that had an auger on it.
One of these days, Sam thought, he should actually getting around to learning a little about machinery. He wondered if Mikaela would teach him something.
The car was really gorgeous. Not a speck of rust or dirt. That gave it away. It didn't fit with the rest of the stuff on the property. Every bit of chrome was polished; every piece of glass sparkled. It was as perfect as Optimus's paint job, and every bit as obvious.
Sam stepped cautiously toward it and reached out a hand.
"Boy," said a voice behind him, "you know what that sound is?"
Sam swallowed. He raised his hands. Very carefully.
"Um," he said, "a shotgun?"
"All right, so you ain't as stupid as you look. 'course, you were stupid enough to break into my barn after tryin' to talk at me through a door. If you're tryin' to steal something or snoop around it's a damn fool way to go about it."
"I swear, I'm not a criminal. And I'm not IRS or FBI or DEA. I'm not dangerous, I'm not trying to get into your business, and I'm not armed or a threat to you in anyway, and you can probably tell that from the fact that I totally just pissed my pants."
"Yeah," said Bill George. "Well, you did manage to break into my barn. In some states, I'm clear to shoot your ass dead right now."
Sam said, "I'm really hoping this isn't one of them."
"It ain't. Yet."
Sam turned his head cautiously, but kept his hands raised. The farmer hadn't lowered the shotgun. It was still pointed in Sam's direction. The mouth of it seemed to go down forever into black.
"I can't feel free to shoot you," said Bill George. "But you're gettin' the hell off my land. You ain't comin' back. And you ain't sendin' anybody back, or I'll bury your ass on the back forty right now."
"You ... sending anybody back. That's interesting." Sam could feel the pieces falling into place. "You know about it, don't you?"
"You shut up. God dammit, shut your damn mouth. I am giving you a choice. It is a hard choice but that is the way it has got to be. Do you want to walk away and never come back, or do I just shoot, shovel, and shut up? That's your options. What do you say now?"
Sam said, "Ba-weep-gra-na-weep-ninny-bong."
The car didn't move.
Then there was a sliding, clanking noise, and the tractor stood up.
"God DAMN!" cried Bill George, and Sam couldn't tell if he was surprised or if he was just upset that the Autobot had given itself away. He hadn't pulled the trigger on either Sam or the Autobot, and that was as much as Sam had hoped for.
The Autobot was was smaller than Optimus, maybe Bumblebee's size or a little bigger, and it looked pretty calm, considering. Maybe it wasn't quite sure what shotguns could do, or at least what they could do to humans.
The Autobot looked down at him. "Ba-weep-gra-na-weep-ninny-bong!" it said. "Mffrgg zhrua sistslebopp?"
"Sorry," Sam said. "Ba-weep-gra-na-weep-ninny-bong is as far as I go."
"Son of a bitch!" the farmer said.
"It's okay," said Sam. "I'm a friend." He pointed a finger at the Autobot. "His, I mean. Not yours. Not yet."
The Autobot said, "Sheef blip cafritzija shikkytonktonk subbobbit."
"Thanks. Nice of you to say that." Sam turned around and lowered his hands. The gun wasn't pointed at him. It was low, angled toward the barn floor. Bill George was looking up at the Autobot with the strangest expression on his face. He didn't look angry anymore. He just looked sad, and a little scared.
"You were looking out for it," Sam said softly. "Weren't you?"
The old man looked at Sam sharply. Then he set his jaw. "I dunno what it is or where it came from," he said, "but I ain't gonna let anybody bother it. Nobody's gonna steal it, or hurt it, or cut it up to see what makes it work. Whatever it is, it's all alone."
Sam said, "It's not alone."
He wasn't sure what to say next. He chose the truth, even if it sounded crazy. "It's got friends. I'm with them. You heard about the city disaster a while back? That was them. It got spun a couple different ways, but that was them. Their planet was destroyed. They don't have anything. They're trying to find their way here. I guess it doesn't always work out. This one came down too far away."
"I figured it wasn't dangerous," said Bill George. "Seemed pretty friendly right off. Helped me pull some stumps this morning. Even killed some mosquitos somehow -- weird whiny thing, broke the glass in the kitchen window."
"Yeah," said Sam, "that's a directed audio weapon. My friend Bumblebee -- um, never mind." He glanced at the barn door, open a crack so he could see just a bit of the road beyond. "It's an Autobot. They're not from earth. There are other robots, like them -- Decepticons. They're gone now, we think, but there are others out there. Basically, they've been fighting each other for a really long time, and lately we've been stuck in the middle. The Autobots are kind of stuck here, now. So they're looking to make Earth their home. Work with us."
Bill George pursed his lips. He looked up at the Autobot, then turned to Sam. "What happens to it now?"
Sam said, "I don't know. Not my decision. It's up to -- well, him, I guess. And Optimus Prime. He's their leader. You saw him. Big flashy truck."
"Ba-weep-gra-na-weep-ninny-bong!" said the Autobot.
"Yeah," said Sam. "Ba-weep-gra-na-weep-ninny-bong, all right."
"I'll be damned," said Bill George. He rested the shotgun against the wall and pulled his ball cap free so he could run his fingers through his thin hair. "Well, let's talk to this Prime fella, then, I guess. Damn it all, though. Dunno what I'm supposed to do now. When it landed, it smashed up my tractor! I'd just got it fixed up. I'm out the money and I ain't got nothin' to show for it."
"Tell me about it," Sam said. "My dad and I paid four grand for a Camaro."
It was easier than Sam had thought to find a place that rented trailers. Easy didn't mean cheap, though. His dad was going to yell when the credit card bill came. Sam hoped the government would pay him back. Maybe he should get an expense account, or something.
He should have asked Secretary Keller about it when they were on the phone, but Sam had been too preoccupied with getting a change of pants.
Maybe he could get the government to buy Bill George a new tractor, too.
The connections on the trailer weren't hard to set up. Optimus knew what to do, even if Sam didn't. When everything was secure, Sam climbed back into the cab. The truck stop was across the road, and Sam thought he saw Erlene through the window.
"Everything all right, Sam?"
"Huh? Oh. Yeah. I guess -- I dunno, Optimus. I know you'll be backing this thing up on Bill George's farm -- and that's good, I can barely parallel park -- but are you sure this won't look weird? I mean, we've got a semi with a trailer hauling one old junk tractor here. That looks a little odd."
"I don't think that will be a problem," Optimus said.
Sam blinked. Optimus's directional was flashing. Sam looked where it indicated, down the road.
The big Plymouth turned into the parking lot and slowly coasted to a stop. Inside, Bill George took a deep breath and lowered his hands from the wheel.
Sam opened the door and slid from the cab. Bill George, moving slowly, got out of the Plymouth and came to meet him.
"Nice wheels," Sam said.
Bill George shrugged. He jerked his head back over his shoulder at the car. "Surprised me too. It decided... hell, how do I know? I came back and there were two cars. Maybe it figured it'd travel in style."
"Style," Sam said. "I'll give it that." He glanced at the old man. "Though I gotta say, I never would've figured you for pastels."
"Hmp," said Bill George. "The original was... it was my wife's car. She loved that old thing. Kept it in great shape. I kept it up after she passed on. Always kept a picture of Jeannie in it. Just in the visor. Put it there when I drove the car. Left it sittin', lately. Just drove it around in the yard. Maybe I'll take it out on the road some, now."
"Well," Sam said, "we got this one now. Gotta put it on the trailer. Why don't you drive it on up?"
"It can get up there on its own."
"Yeah, man. But, you know. Appearances."
Bill George drove the car up onto the trailer.
When the car had stopped, he took his hands off the wheel and sat, unmoving. Then he reached into his pocket. His wallet was leather, cracked and old. He pulled a photograph from his wallet and placed it inside the visor. Sam saw the face: a woman, smiling and youthful, wearing a haircut that had gone out of fashion decades ago.
The old man sat behind the wheel a moment longer, reached up to brush a finger across the photograph. Then he pulled himself out of the car, walked down the rear ramp of the trailer, and stepped away.
"You take good care of my friend here," the old man said. "Both of you."
"Will do," said Sam. He held out a hand, and after a moment's hesitation, George shook it. His hand was dry, but the grip was strong. "Listen, Mr. George. Long as you're here -- step into the truck stop and say hi to Erlene, will you? It's just -- she's been kind of worried."
The old man stiffened a bit. He pursed his lips and regarded Sam with suspicion. Then he turned toward the truck stop for a moment before looking back at Sam.
"Hell," said Bill George. "Guess I gotta. Need a ride home, don't I?"
He turned and slowly walked toward the stop. Sam watched him go, then opened Optimus's door and hauled himself up into the cab. He shut the door behind him, but didn't lift his hands to the wheel. He just sat there, watching Bill George make his slow way up to the truck stop and Erlene. There was a lump in Sam's throat that he didn't think was supposed to be there, and he told himself it was dust that made his eyes sting a little.
"It's all right, Optimus." Sam shrugged. "Just a little sad for him, you know? I mean, he loses his wife and almost shuts down. Then he gets a new friend, and we show up to take his friend away. Kind of sucks."
"His friend may not be gone forever," said Optimus. "Perhaps not even for long. Bumblebee wanted to stay with you, after all. And we cannot all stay on the base forever. There is work that needs doing."
"What, you're gonna look for a job? Optimus Prime, hauling freight?"
"Orion Pax did something similar once. Perhaps the knowledge is in my parts."
"Okay, you're talking about your parts again. We have to set some boundaries here. I mean, I had to borrow an old man's jeans and some clean underwear after I wet myself in mortal fear, but I'm never going to bring that particular bodily function up again if I can help it." Sam frowned. "Actually, thinking about it, I think wetting yourself in fear pretty much eliminates any coolness factor you've built up for the day."
"Mm," said Optimus. "On the other hand, you performed admirable reconnaissance, rescued an injured Autobot, and restored an isolated human to his community. Isn't that worth a little celebration?"
Maybe it was. Sam shook his head softly -- and grinned. "You know what?" he said. "Screw it. You're right. Let's kick back. Throw on some tunes!"
The speakers snapped to life. "You got the touch!" sang the radio. "You got the power! Yeah!"
"What?" Sam said, raising his voice over the synth and electric guitars. "What?! This -- this -- what the hell is this?"
"Music. This seemed the best of the radio stations available, Sam -- "
"Oh, my God," Sam said. "You love the eighties. You're a giant alien robot semi truck, and you love the eighties."
"I don't know much about Earth yet," said Optimus. "But I know what I like."
Sam shook his head. He opened his mouth to say something, closed it again, then just wrapped his fingers around the steering wheel and laughed.
"All right," said Sam. "Hit it."
The song was a little cheesy in that eighties way, but it wasn't bad, and Sam actually found himself nodding along as Optimus Prime roared down the road. The singer assured him that he had the moves, he knew the street, he broke the rules, he took the heat, and he was nobody's fool, and by the time they broke seventy miles an hour, Sam felt good enough that he pretty much agreed with it.
Sam was asleep when Optimus pulled into the base a little after dawn. He was flat on his back on the cab's seat, head tilted back, snoring. In his dreams, he was in the back of a sledge, being pulled across an endless field of snow. More snow was falling, and it tickled his face, but somehow it didn't feel like normal snow. It was warm, soft, and it didn't melt but just brushed over him with a gentle touch...
"Welcome home," Mikaela said, and kissed him.
"Hey," Sam said groggily. His eyelids fluttered, and he took her in. She was upside down, because he was lying across Optimus's seat and she was leaning in through the passenger door. Her hair brushed against his cheek as she leaned over him. "What'd I miss?"
"Sounds like I should be asking you. I hear you and Optimus had a little adventure."
"Really little. I got terrorized by a shotgun-wielding senior citizen..."
"Mm," said Mikaela, and kissed him.
"..saw some corn..."
"Mm," said Mikaela, and kissed him again.
"...and I tried grits."
"Grits? Really? What were they like?"
"They weren't bad. I was surprised." Sam rolled over on his stomach so she was right-side up. "Did you meet the new Autobot yet?"
"Not yet. Come on; let's go say hi."
Mikaela gave him a hand getting out of the cab, and Sam took it. Optimus was free of the trailer already; he transformed when Sam was out of the way, and as Sam turned to watch he noticed that Mikaela was wearing something oddly-shaped on a chain around her neck.
"What's that?" said Sam, nodding his head at it.
"It's from Jazz." Mikaela lowered her head and clasped the piece in one hand for a moment, then looked up at Sam. "It was... way more intense than I thought it would be. Bumblebee told me I should take this."
Sam said, "I'm glad he did." He was. "I guess Bumblebee and Ratchet have taught you a lot."
"Yeah," she said. "They have."
"Okay. What've you learned?"
"I learned how to give an Autobot preventative maintenance. I learned how to diagnose some simple problems, and correct them. I learned how to remove and replace a quofondent modulon instabulator, and I know a little more about what it actually does than you do."
"Wow. I'm impressed."
"Hey, I'm sure you learned something, too, on your little adventure."
"Yeah," Sam said. "I learned that Optimus was rebuilt from the remains of an Autobot named Orion Pax. I learned that I actually kind of like grits. Oh! I learned the Autobots? Aren't guys. They're neuter."
Mikaela laughed. "You thought they were all guys?"
"Sam, they're robots."
"Okay, they're alien robots, but if they did have sexes, then wouldn't it be weird if theywere all guys?"
"I dunno," said Sam. "Maybe? There aren't that many of them -- " Mikaela was rolling her eyes, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that he was about to get yelled at, even if he didn't quite know why. "What?"
The new Autobot said something. It sounded like a question.
Sam and Mikaela turned. The new Autobot had transformed and was stepping off the trailer. Optimus, standing beside it, said something back. Optimus went on for a little while, and he pointed at Sam and Mikaela while he did it, so Sam guessed Optimus was translating their conversation. When Mikaela looked at Sam, he shrugged; he didn't have any more idea what they were talking about than she did.
When Optimus finished, the Autobot said something else. Optimus said something back, and they both turned and looked at Sam and Mikaela.
Optimus Prime said, "Arcee has an interesting suggestion."
"Okay," said Epps, "this is officially the weirdest thing I have ever seen."
Sam squinted down the beach. The surf was rolling in a little rough, but it didn't seem to bother the Autobots. He looked at them, then back at Epps, pausing along the way to admire Mikaela's tanned shoulders. "What? Giant robots at the beach?"
"Ordinarily, yeah, but today I'm going to have to go with giant female robot at the beach. Ratchet, did you guys not realize how odd that looks?"
"What's odd about it?" said Mikaela. "They're on Earth now. Half the people on the planet are women. Arcee's just trying to fit in."
"Huh," said Lennox. He squatted down on the sand and glanced up at Arcee. "I didn't think about it like that. It's really nice of her, actually."
"The face, the voice, that's fine," said Epps. "I get that. The... um..." His hands fluttered in the air in front of him for a moment, hesitating, then quickly described an hourglass shape. "That is definitely weird."
"I dunno, Tech Sergeant," said Figueroa. "I think she's kind of cute."
"I modeled Arcee's new upper chassis on Mikaela's proportions," said Ratchet. "The alterations were relatively minor."
"Yeah," said Epps. "Okay, I'm just not gonna say anything about that one."
"Wise man," said Lennox. He squinted at Arcee. "That's not Mikaela's face, though."
"No," Sam said softly. "It's not."
The face of Jeannie George turned toward them.
"Chief Warrant Officer Figueroa?" said Arcee. "Ironhide was telling me that you're a fine driver. Would you show me some of the roads in the area later, if you aren't busy?"
Figueroa grinned and waved, then gave her a thumbs-up. "No problem!" he shouted.
Arcee raised a hand in acknowledgment. Epps shook his head. Figueroa beamed. "Hey," he said. "I think she likes me!"
Epps said, "This is against all laws of God and man."
A thought occurred to Sam. "Should we even be on this beach? I know it's an military area and all, but -- nobody comes here?"
"No," said Lennox. "We shell it sometimes."
"Great," Sam said.
"Don't worry, kid," said Figueroa. "We swept it. You're cool."
Lennox shrugged. "And everybody with spy satellites knows about them already. So there's no reason not to have a little fun. As long as we're discreet."
The sun was sinking redly in the sky. Sam squinted against the glare. Mikaela pushed her sunglasses up on her nose and lay down on her beach towel. "Just don't yell at us when the sunbathing giant robots show up on Google Earth," she said.
As Sam glanced away from Mikaela, he saw something moving back toward the cliff. He turned his head to look. The path down from the cliff wasn't empty anymore. Optimus was walking onto the beach.
"Hang on a sec," Sam said, rising to his feet. "I'll be back."
He jogged toward the cliff. It wasn't like running in the city; the sand cushioned the fall of his feet. Sam figured Optimus saw him coming from a long way off, but he waited until Sam was closer to nod hello.
"Hey, Optimus," Sam said. "Everything quiet up there?"
Sam waved an arm at the crowd down the beach. "Arcee's a hit," he said. "Mikaela's got a new grease monkey friend, Captain Lennox and Ironhide keep going over tactical scenarios with her. And I think Figueroa's in love." He shrugged. "I dunno, though. Looking back -- it's kind of anti-climactic, isn't it? I mean, no Decepticons, no explosions, no world at risk. I mean, it's not that I'm objecting to that, don't get me wrong, but -- "
"Not every part of life is epic, Sam," said Optimus. "Sometimes, the smaller things are those that matter."
"Like a photo of Jeannie George?"
"Does Bill George know what Arcee did?"
"Yes. She spoke to him, before the modification. She asked if he would mind."
"I guess he didn't," Sam said. He paused, then looked up at Optimus. "I didn't know what to think when I saw Arcee's new face," he said. "You're taking on parts from us now, too. Pieces of our dead."
"She will be remembered, when he passes," said Optimus. "And so will he."
Sam guessed they would. He remembered that Optimus had said he'd remember Sam, too, and wondered if that meant someday there'd be a new Autobot wearing a metal copy of Sam's face. He wasn't sure how he felt about it. He didn't know if it mattered. He was pretty sure it wouldn't to him then.
In the end, all that mattered was the world you left behind.
They couldn't do worse than the Autobots had done with theirs, after all.
"I gotta get back, Optimus," Sam said. "You coming for a swim?"
"No," said Optimus. "I'll watch, Sam."
Sam noticed that he didn't turn his gaze to the Autobots, or the humans, or even the water. Optimus leaned his head back and looked up -- watching as the sun dipped below the horizon, as the stars came out, one by one.
There was laughter down the beach, and Sam turned his head. Epps and Mikaela were piling driftwood onto a fire, while Lennox and Figueroa brushed embers from their clothing; next to them, Ratchet stowed away his still-glowing arm laser. In the surf, the other Autobots were splashing; Bumblebee saw Sam watching and lifted an arm to wave before he transformed to race Ironhide down the beach. Mikaela pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail, and the glow of the firelight on her face made Sam feel warm inside, and not far from home. As he walked toward his girlfriend and their friends, the deepening shadows made the trip seem long, and he thought about Bill George before Arcee had come, and about the Autobots scattered across empty space, lost and all alone. He shook his head to clear it of the thoughts, and walked on to the surf and the light of the fire.
He was halfway there when a sound rose above the ocean. It was the rumbling purr of Bumblebee's engine. The yellow Camaro slid to a stop in front of Sam, the rear sliding around until the car faced the ocean. Bumblebee transformed, the pieces of the car sliding smoothly around and under each other, until the robot squatted next to Sam on the sand.
"Hey," Sam said. "How was your race?"
"Ironhide wants two out of three," said Bumblebee. "He's convinced that he will do better over a longer race. 'A chance to really open up,' he said."
Sam laughed. "That'll just give you more time to build up a lead."
"Yes," said Bumblebee. "That's what I said." He hesitated, looking down at the sand, then turned his gaze back to Sam. "Sam... thank you for helping Arcee come back to us. I had missed her."
"There are still a lot of you guys lost out there, aren't there?"
"Too many," said Bumblebee. His voice was quiet, with more emotion than Sam was used to hearing. "Too many lost."
Sam didn't know what to say.
And then he did.
"I can't do what Mikaela did," Sam said. "I don't know anything about parts, I'm no good with tools. In fifth grade I broke my dad's thumb with a hammer while we were building a birdhouse. I failed at the Pinewood Derby, I can't fix a broken lawnmower, back home I'm not even allowed to change the oil. The things she did, I can't help you with." He took a deep breath. "But -- on Earth, we like to remember the people we've lost by talking about them. If -- if you want... you could tell me about Jazz."
Bumblebee was silent for a long time. Sam wondered if he'd said it wrong, messed things up somehow. Then Bumblebee spoke.
"I used to race with Jazz," Bumblebee said. Small servos in his face whirred as his eyes moved a little deeper into their sockets; Sam still wasn't sure yet if that meant a frown or a little smile. "He was much better than Ironhide."
" 'hide's trying, though," Sam said.
"Yes," said Bumblebee. "He is." He glanced down the beach to where Ironhide, still in truck form, waited, revving his engine. Bumblebee looked at him, then turned back to Sam. "Perhaps we should go easy on him."
"Just enough to make it interesting," Sam said.
They looked at each other.
"Nahh," they said together.
Bumblebee whirled around, his limbs spinning and torso swivelling, the pieces of his outer shell unfolding around each other, until the robot was gone and the Camaro was sitting next to Sam again. The door opened before Sam touched it, and as he watched the seat slid back to leave just the right amount of leg room. Sam placed one hand on Bumblebee's roof, and felt a grin slide across his face as he lifted his foot to step inside. Before settling into the seat, he stopped, one foot inside Bumblebee and one foot on the sand, and looked around the beach.
Arcee had joined Ratchet and the others at the fire. The firelight lit the features she shared with Jeannie George, and Mikaela's face, too; Figueroa was on his feet, telling a story by the look of things: Lennox was laughing and Epps was trying not to. Ratchet had extended his arm laser, and he and Arcee were tinkering with it while Mikaela watched, all of them warm in the light of the fire. Sam was half a beach away, and he still felt like he was a part of it, like he'd never felt a part of anything.
"All right," Sam said, closing the door and buckling his seat belt. "Let's roll out."
Bumblebee put the pedal down, and they shot up the beach in a spray of sand. Ironhide was already rolling, trying to get up to speed. Sam put his hands on the steering wheel, not guiding it, just resting lightly. They'd catch up to Ironhide soon, and then he'd be in the rearview mirror, like the receding fire. Like Optimus, by the cliff, a giant figure, tall and alone.
They sped off into the night, away from the fire, away from the cliff back up the beach, where Optimus watched and waited for the others to come home.