Title: The Low Places
Author: Tiamat's Child
Character: Beachcomber, ensemble, ocs
Word count: 8,677
Rating/Warning: PG-13, mentions of character death
Disclaimer: I do not own Transformers!
Group/Theme: For the Livejournal community 7minibots: The Seven Major Chakras – Manipura (associated with the will, energy, and power.)
Summary: Beachcomber looks into the fate of an old friend.
The Low Places
Two and a half months after Unicron's death, Beachcomber dreamt of a missing friend.
In the dream they walked together through the encompassing darkness of the depths of the world – which world? He thought at first it was Cybertron, and indeed it seemed to be, for a moment. The walls reverberated with the flimsy pulse of metal and circuitry long abandoned, poorly maintained. But no, no it was not Cybertron, she laughed, and in her laugh basalt echoed, and the nearby pressure of magma, the more distant soaring strength of a hot spot, solid rock that burned through the coolness of Earth's crust. Ah, no, no, the world was dead, had never lived, was a wound gouged out of the surface of a live world and set to spin, suffering the pain of the impacts of space debris – Earth's moon or one of Cybertron's? He tried to focus, but he could not tell, it was as if his senses had been wrapped in the cotton wool he'd taken to packing samples in, these past twenty years.
All he knew was darkness, and her hand holding his, and his shoulder pressed to hers.
Dreams, Beachcomber knew, were important. He didn't particularly think they told the future, but neither were they anything so simple as memories with a hazy gloss. A dream like this one, one that held him as he moved through his day, going about the work of reconstruction, and left him thinking, a dream like that ought to be heeded.
"In twenty years," he told Perceptor, who was listening to him rather less than usual these days, "I've never been able to find anything – there's not a stray wire, no hint of any clue to tell me what happened to her."
Perceptor didn't say anything. That was all right. Perceptor was grieving. Not that Beachcomber wasn't, but he had his own ways of coping.
"I think," Beachcomber continued, "Now would be a good time to look."
Perceptor looked up. His movements were all too slow, like he was underwater, twenty meters down, thirty, and the pressure forced deliberation on him. Which wasn't too far off, Beachcomber was sure, except that it was emotional pressure, nothing to do with physics. That ached – Perceptor had always moved with a precise rapidity. Beachcomber was the languid one. What was normal in him was a sign of distress in his friend. "Who are we talking about?" Perceptor asked.
"Moraine," Beachcomber said.
Perceptor frowned, the expression of someone who never lost anything attempting to reconstruct a memory. "She was a student. Geology department?"
"Yes," Beachcomber said, unable to keep the amusement out of his voice, "She was one of mine."
"Ah," Perceptor said, "Yes, I remember her." He paused, hesitating, then added, "Beachcomber, she must be dead."
"I know. I'd like to find out, anyway."
Perceptor was studying him now, all his attention on Beachcomber for the first time in months. Worried attention, to be sure, but it was good to see him focusing on another person, rather than just an experiment. He'd even been ignoring his letters from Chip. It wasn't like him. "If you feel you must, I suppose you must," he said. Beachcomber was mildly surprised when he didn't follow this up with an admonition not to jump off any cliffs.
Instead, he regarded Beachcomber steadily for another few minutes, as if cataloguing him, like some particularly unusual astrographical display he couldn't be sure his recording equipment would capture accurately, and then turned away.
There weren't many places to learn the practice and theory of geology on Cybertron. It had never been a large field, and had gotten slowly and steadily smaller, until it died out completely for quite some time, at least as a living specialty. "All of this was before I was built," Beachcomber had told Moraine, as they sat together in the great square, where people came and went around them – most of them people quite considerably larger than themselves, very many of them people somewhat startled to find themselves skirting around a pair of diminutive academics who'd settled themselves crosslegged in a null point in the traffic pattern. "My teacher did a lot of work to build the department here back to something workable. It was a mess – there wasn't adequate instruction for the survey crews, even."
"Is that mostly who you get?" Moraine asked, "Explorers?"
"And the occasional miner, yes," Beachcomber said, "It's a small department. I hope that's a good fit."
"It'd better be!" Moraine said, with a little grin, "You're the only department on the planet with any sort of reputation, you know. Besides, I've always wanted to work with you."
"Me?" Beachcomber asked, quite absurdly flattered. He knew, in the abstract, that he was a legend in his field – well, of course he was, at this point he more or less comprised the whole and the sum of his field, except for the passionate amateurs and occasional interested explorer who kept him from going mad with intellectual isolation – but that didn't personally impress most of the people he knew.
"Yes," Moraine said, "Even if I hadn't, I like you already."
Beachcomber liked her, too. There was an odd sort of stillness about her, as if she was someone who had been tumbled about rather a lot before fetching up in one place and settling in there. She made him think she was someone who lived in the space just after a long sigh of relief. Since Beachcomber often considered himself to be living in the space just before such a sigh, he thought they'd suit admirably.
He said so. "Shall I draw up the records, then?" he asked, and she nodded.
"Yes," she said, "Please do." They shook on it there in the square, while a befuddled construction worker detoured awkwardly around them, muttering impolite things about people who spent all their time thinking and didn't put their hands to use like decent folk.
Beachcomber asked Firestar. "Did Moraine go with you?"
Firestar paused to answer, but she paused after she'd finished picking up the crate she'd just got a grip on when Beachcomber asked, because you didn't get all the places Firestar had been neglecting things like that. "Moraine. Wasn't she a geologist? Came in with you?"
"Yes," Beachcomber said, "She was one of mine."
"I'm sorry, Beachcomber," Firestar said, "I remember her, but I don't think she went with us. She never stayed in one place. I mean, she was like you, wasn't she?"
"She was herself," Beachcomber said.
"She wasn't a fighter. Not that way. You ask Kup?"
"Years ago. He never knew her."
Firestar looked down at him, past the box. She was quiet these days too, but Firestar was always quiet. She was quiet, and Inferno was noisy, and Red Alert could talk for hours, but was mostly quiet too. They all fit together, just like that, even when Red Alert and Inferno were off with the experimental teams, with Chip and with Carly and the rest of the human staff. She was grieving, but she wasn't quiet because she was grieving. She was just quiet. "Red's coming home," she told him, "He's going to get into the records – salvage the data, now that the structure's stable enough. Maybe he can help you."
"Thanks," Beachcomber said, and meant it.
"Beachcomber! Up here!" Moraine called, her voice brilliant in the wind that streamed from her place on the crown of the hill to Beachcomber's nearer the bottom.
Beachcomber was thinking about banners today, streamers of fine woven or thinly cast stuff set to fly from the heights of cities. Time was they'd been everywhere. Colors called out messages to anyone who saw them, sent by whoever happened to have bothered to climb that high. 'I miss you,' 'I need you', 'This House has come into good fortune,' 'Bless you who see this,' 'Have mercy on me!' People didn't seem to do that much anymore.
He went up the hill.
"Dreaming again, Beachcomber?" Moraine asked, when he leaned over her shoulder to see what she'd found.
"Mmm," he said, in nonchalant confirmation, "Why, look at that! It's a vertebrate."
"A charming one!" Moraine said, and passed the sheet of shale up to him, "However empty this world is now, it wasn't always so."
"I do wonder what happened," Beachcomber said, turning the pane to catch the late afternoon light. The fossil was unusually fine, with a slight shadow to show where the creature's soft tissues had extended beyond the bones. "This degree of biological sophistication suggests a thriving ecology."
"Yes," Moraine said.
Beachcomber looked at her, and something in him twinged. Have mercy, he thought, the old blue white blue white green pattern flowing in the small currents of an unusually tame atmosphere. "We'd better finish up and get back. I don't care for the thought of being left."
Moraine chuckled. "True. They might just overlook us in all the fuss."
"You're not much larger than the electron microscope, and that's a miniaturized model – it's not implausible."
Moraine's glance was dark and dry. He smiled brightly at her, as if he didn't know that they were pretty nearly exactly the same size. If anything, he was a tad shorter than she. "One or two more samples, yes," she said, ignoring their brief sidetrack, "Better make it mineralogical?"
"Better, yes," he said, and grinned at her, proud of her, of how rapidly her knowledge was growing into her skill, her skill into her knowledge, and how readily, quietly adventurous she had turned out to be. If you could call it being adventurous, which perhaps you couldn't, since it implied a kind of craving that he didn't think Moraine felt. Moraine was interested in just about everything, and she was perfectly happy to be interested just about anywhere she happened to be, no matter how mundane or how far away or how long she'd been there. It was a quality he admired because he did not share it. He had a tendency to get restless.
"And then it's home for us," she said, "Short junket."
"Ah, well. Rare chance, anyway."
"Yes," she said, and they got back to work.
Red Alert wasn't sure.
"Beachcomber, I don't have the resources to comb through all of this looking for one person."
"I know that," Beachcomber said, "It's all right. I'm the one looking for her."
"There's no guarantee she's even in here."
"I know," Beachcomber said.
Red Alert looked at him, the way Red Alert looked at most people, measuring, intent, uncomfortably like after he looked at you this way he'd be able to describe you so well anyone he spoke to would be able to build another you with everything recognizable but the spirit. "All right," he said, "I'll give you a copy. None of this is classified anymore, anyway."
"Thank you," Beachcomber said.
Red Alert winced. "Don't. This is a mistake I'm making. It'll only lead to trouble."
Beachcomber could hear his cue as well as anyone else who'd ever lived around Red Alert. "Oh, Red, you always say that," he obliged.
"And when was I last wrong?" Red Alert asked, and spun back to his salvage.
Beachcomber laughed softly to himself. It probably would be trouble. Dreams usually were trouble, and now Red Alert had said it. And it was true. The last time Red Alert was wrong about these things was a long time ago. Millions of years, if you disregarded the incident where he'd been shot.
"Thank you for the mistake," he said, and left before Red Alert could make a face.
Some days Moraine would hold whole histories in her head, and then describe them verbally, putting a mountain range back together, matching disrupted nappe to disrupted nappe, following a single chunk of stone back to its most probable origin. She'd stand, in the center of the lab, without even the need for a map, her optics not seeing the opposite wall, seeing something else, something older and harsher, something that had taken longer to rise halfway than it took a Cybertonian city to grow and fall. At such times her tone was as casual and intimate as if she were relating the doings of a couple of old friends, dear and close friends, on their last holiday together.
It was always a pleasure to listen to her, as she built time in the air and sped it up, so that what happened in three million years, four million, five, a dozen, took only the stretch of moments needed to explain it.
Once, she gave a demonstration to a small cluster of her fellow students – none of them in the geology courses, all of them watching attentively as she laid a banner over a lab table in a great flutter of cloth (red yellow white – colors for teaching, colors for learning), and said, "See, this is how some mountain ranges are built." She set her hands down on one end of the banner and began to push, so that the banner crumbled, up into little folds. "In one direction a piece of planetary crust is moving, you see? So that the layers of rock ruck up, like this, and make little folds – nappes, if you will." She pushed still further, gently, slowly, in her own time, and the folds gathered themselves up, folded emover/em each other, into still higher piles. "And then those nappes fold over each other, up and up, so that, over a very long time, you begin to see mountains."
"How long?" One of the students asked.
Moraine laughed. "Oh, millions of years. It depends on the system, the planet, the specific geological moment in the life of the world. But most things happen slowly."
"Sounds like your life, Reliquiae," someone said.
"Funny!" the accused shot back, which wasn't the wittiest reply that lab had ever seen, but fit the current purpose.
"Professor Beachcomber," Windrow of Sociology said, "Is it really so simple?"
Moraine snorted, and moved around the table to manipulate her impromptu modeling device from another angle. "It's more complicated than that," she said, "That's just the beginning."
"Moraine's right," Beachcomber said, "Most mountain ranges are messier. Like, say, most intra-cultural dynamics."
Windrow considered. "Suppose we want to learn more?" he asked.
Beachcomber grinned. "You know how it works! Enrollment in my classes is always open. All you have to do is sign up. Please do. We can always use a new perspective."
"Beachcomber! Hey, professor – wasn't expecting a call from you today! What've you got for me?"
Beachcomber laughed. "I might just want to say hello."
"Naw, not you. No offense, but if you're putting effort to it, it's something important. So what is it?"
"Ah, well. I'm looking for an old friend – she vanished sometime in the last five million years, I haven't seen a paint speck of her since, and Red Alert let me have Shockwave's records for the most likely time span…"
"Yeah, you did right to call me," Streetwise said, brisk and self-assured. There wasn't an ounce of smugness in his tone – there never was, only the absolute self confidence of a being too young and too competent to be accustomed to the thought that he might not be able to help. "I can think of a few people who might be willing to go through that for you. It'd be extra work for them, though."
"Any help would be appreciated," Beachcomber assured him, "It's more than I know how to handle."
"I'll ask around," Streetwise said. "Talk to you later, Beachcomber."
"Talk to you later," Beachcomber said, and took the hint to break the connection off.
He had thought to go looking for her, during the attack, but there was no time, and then there she was, equipment over her shoulder, Azimuth in tow. "Professor!" she said, and he reached out to her, setting his hand just above her elbow.
"Come on," he said, "Hurry, we have to go deep. They're not raiding anymore."
"They mean business, now," Azimuth said, "Yes, we thought so."
Moraine shook her head.
"Talk later," Beachcomber agreed, "Yes."
So they went, because there was no one to leave behind but a few of the other senior students, and a few other professors, who had all arranged their own hoped for ways out, none as reliable as the routes most of the school had been sent by, earlier, but enough to have faith in, nonetheless. Their own way was deep into the access tunnels, and then deeper, down and down and down, navigating ladders and tubes so small that Beachcomber and Moraine had to crouch and Azimuth had to crawl and wriggle through. "Well," Moraine said, after the second of these passages, "At least we know we won't be running into any major part of the Decepticon forces."
"Ouch!" was all Azimuth had to say on the matter.
Eventually, they went so deep that sight became useless, and Beachcomber led Azimuth by the hand, because he was an astronomer, and convinced of the necessity of light.
"You remember Kathy Holloway, right?" Streetwise asked.
"Yes, of course!" Beachcomber said, warming up with delight, "A very interesting person. Is she with the UNHRC now? I thought she was still working for Americas Watch."
"No, you're right, she hasn't switched," Streetwise said, "But she called me before I could find anybody who wasn't swamped, and between one thing and another – well, she's swamped, but you should know Kathy well enough to know, she's never so swamped she stops looking to be more swamped."
"Yes, I remember," Beachcomber said, with a quiet laugh, "As I recall, that's why the two of you get along so well. Kin regardless of species."
Streetwise laughed. "That's not fair, Beachcomber! I'm better than First Aid and Hot Spot, and you know it."
"That's a highly relative scale, isn't it?"
"You got me," Streetwise said, "You've got Kathy's contacts, still, right? She's looking to hear from you."
The thing everyone knew about the underground was how many crypts there were. Catacombs in every direction, the people who didn't go down said, And if you weren't who they wanted, what would the dead do to you?
"Please tell me this isn't another Decepticon catacomb," Azimuth said, as he clattered down from the open pipe, "Isn't there any way to go around?" There wasn't any light, yet, but they'd all grown used to the feel of a catacomb, the depth of the stillness, the faint, lingering scent of ancient votive offerings.
Beachcomber fiddled with their only lantern. "Wish I could," he said, ignoring the second half of the question, because Moraine had told Azimuth at least twenty times that there wasn't. "But there's no telling until…" It probably was, actually. Quite a few of the memorial statues had wings, and Autobots had never gone in for commemorative sculpture on quite this scale, but he couldn't get a strong sense of the inscriptions with his geological sensors. He'd never really taught himself to read with those senses. "Aha!" And light glowed softly in a circle about the lamp.
"Ouch!" Moraine said, a hand in front of her visor, "I thought you were going to shutter that, Beachcomber!"
"Sorry, Moraine," he said, "You all right, Azimuth?"
"Oh, I'm fine," Azimuth said, "I had mine turned off." Moraine made a small hissy noise, like a long disused heater, or rain on the streets. Azimuth laughed softly, and Beachcomber heard the soft creak of him gently squeezing her hand. "Sorry, Moraine. Don't mean to gloat."
"I didn't think you were," she told him, which was probably true, if not the whole story. Moraine never made noises like that unless she was trying to communicate.
Beachcomber stepped closer to the walls, where monumental statuary loomed in its niches, and lifted himself up onto the tips of his feet to get a look at the inscriptions. The calligraphy was old, and still faintly pink from the ages of pilgrims smearing their offerings across the loops and strokes, where the indents were deepest, and energon would linger longest. He shivered. "No," he said, "This isn't one of the Decepticons' places. It's older than that."
"Really?" Moraine asked, and then she was there, her shoulder next to Beachcomber's. "How can you tell?"
"The lettering, mostly," Beachcomber told her, shifting to let her get a better look, "See how that stroke there curves? That's an archaic style. Also, see, this line here – "
Azimuth had an easier time seeing than the other two, being somewhat closer to the height the tomb had been built for, even if he wasn't quite there. "'They stood against the Guardians'," he read, and whistled low, "Must be old. I don't even know what that means."
Beachcomber sighed. "Whatever else it means, it means this is older than Decepticons and Autobots. We're all just Cybertonians in here." He lowered the lamp and carefully shut it down. "I wish we had something to give them," he said.
Moraine took his hand, unerring in the dark, and stretched up to place both their hands on the inscription. She fumbled a bit before she found it, but find it she did, and it was cool and worn beneath their hands. "Azimuth," she said, "You touch it too. Our goodwill'll have to be enough."
Azimuth's big hand settled over both of theirs. It was so quiet. Beachcomber could feel the small thrum of life in Azimuth's hand, and the still smaller purr in Moraine's. "Please bless us," he said, "And we will remember you." He wasn't sure how you made an offering of goodwill, but he tried very hard, wishing for peace, for silence and rest for those who'd gone before.
They stayed like that for a long moment, until Azimuth pulled his hand away, and said, "We'd better leave."
"We'd better," Beachcomber agreed, reluctantly. There was something attractive about this place. Perhaps it was just the idea of unity, a notion that was like coming home, even though he'd never lived in a world that didn't have Autobots and Decepticons around the edges at least.
Moraine brought her hand down, but she did not let Beachcomber go. Instead, she curled her fingers closer into his – a gesture for his benefit, he knew. He squeezed her hand gently in return, grateful. "Come on," she said, "The way up is this way."
"Please grant us safe passage," Azimuth said politely to the statues in their unseen nooks.
So they went up, the three of them, through the twists of the catacombs, and the peace of the dead settled itself around Beachcomber's core, threading into every turn of his body, even as they scrambled up into another pipe, and left that place behind.
Kathy Holloway had always been a cheerful, brisk sort of person, still young by human standards, even if she was no longer quite as young as she had been when Beachcomber had first met her. Beachcomber figured she must consider that as something of a relief. She had been very, very young, after all, and for all the tendency of human culture to glorify the strength of youth, the strength of youthful intellectualism and day to day competence was not exactly something celebrated in song and story. Listening to her, he thought she'd grown into these qualities, let herself deepen. She'd always been a fast moving stream, but now she was carving a deeper bed for herself, laying the ground to become a river, purposeful in her strength and swiftness.
Mostly, though, she was still the woman he remembered.
"I was sorry to hear about what happened," she told him, and he knew that she meant the past as much as she meant Unicron and the shuttle attack and Optimus Prime's death, "I'm very sorry, Beachcomber."
"Thank you," he said. It was the first time since Unicron that anyone who wasn't a fellow Autobot had said anything about it to him, and words froze up inside him. He wasn't, suddenly, sure what to say. It was hard. Kathy's own life, he knew because she'd told him, had been notably free of tragedy, but she dealt with terror every day, with genocide and repression and torture, whole villages gone, people vanished as simply as they had in the course of his own war. She had experience, though none of it was personal, and her voice was strong with sympathy.
"I'll do my best to find evidence of your friend," Kathy said, "Do you want me to look for anyone else while I'm at it?"
"Far too many people," Beachcomber said, "But that's a job for more than one person."
"Yes. Though, really, a set of records like this – it should be possible to find people to go through them, it almost always is. I don't know if I should ask, but what are things like up there right now?"
"Very busy. Everything's a mess. There's so much rebuilding to do and we're all scraped thin."
"And most of this – a lot of this was a long time ago."
"Well, I'll see what I can do," Kathy said, "Good luck, Beachcomber."
"Thank you, Kathy. Good luck to you too."
"What about Orgone?" Beachcomber asked Perceptor, leaning forward across the small circle he and Moraine and Perceptor had formed against the edge of the Autobot base's big open room. "Did he get through?"
Perceptor shook his head. "I'm sorry, Beachcomber. I never got any word of him."
Moraine tapped her fingers against her leg. Perceptor looked at her the way he always had, warily, as if he felt she was likely to suddenly decide to engage in some small senseless act of base violence. "Have you heard anything of Suasion?"
"Yes, actually," Perceptor said, "He was caught and executed by the Decepticons before he made it to us. What about Drover?"
"I don't know," Beachcomber said, and looked to Moraine, "Do you?"
"He left early – not so long after you, Professor Perceptor, but he didn't tell anyone where he was going, not that I ever found out."
Someone might have said they were sorry, but they had been at this line of questioning for a long time, since they all four made it in and Wheeljack left them. 'Sorry' was beginning to lose meaning. The syllables had lost the import they used to sustain and now merely sounded rather odd.
There was nothing left to say about it. They were sorry. They were very sorry. All three of them knew it.
"What about Azimuth?" Perceptor asked, "He was an astronomy student, but I taught him once or twice – a few people said they'd heard he stayed with you."
"Azimuth went up to the heights," Moraine said, "There was a bombing run, and nowhere for him to go. Please excuse me, I think I've talked enough." She stood, and walked away from their small spot, out through the open arch, into the corridor and from there to who knew where.
Beachcomber did not follow her.
What Azimuth and Moraine had been to each other, Beachcomber had never been certain, and could not tell Perceptor, when his glance turned searching. He could say that they were both young, and strong, and gifted with quick and agile minds, and that on occasion Moraine had settled against Azimuth's greater bulk with every evidence of self-assured satisfaction. Sometimes he had heard them talking of philosophy, structural geology, the chemistry of stars, and their talk, except for being rather less acerbic, had sounded a great deal like his and Perceptor's, but still, this was not particular evidence of anything. Moraine had not chosen to discuss the matter with him, and Azimuth had never seemed to be aware that there were words for personal matters.
Beachcomber did not say all this. "Don't look at me," he said instead, "It's not my business to talk about it. What about Thermoset?"
"Gone. Just a matter of age, the medical staff said. All her processors failed at once."
Beachcomber sighed. "She went peacefully?"
"Actually, she was working with this student she'd taken on, and left us in the middle of an experiment she was conducting. Nearly blew us all to Cassiopeia and back."
Beachcomber laughed, delight cutting in through the sorrow. "She would have loved telling that story!"
"Wouldn't she have?" Perceptor said, "What about Cyotosol?"
"I've no idea, I thought he got out."
"Dead. Moraine found his body in the ruins after the last attack."
"Well," Perceptor said, having at last largely exhausted their circle of mutual acquaintance. "Well."
"Yes," Beachcomber said, and stood himself, "Come on, Perceptor, I'm worn through. How about that spot to settle down you promised?"
Perceptor followed him to his feet. "Very well," he said, "But I still have duties. I can't very well keep up this helping you settle in indefinitely."
"Of course not," Beachcomber said, because he knew Perceptor wasn't really helping him settle in. Beachcomber could do that for himself.
They walked together. After a long moment, Perceptor said, in a voice full of soft bewilderment, "It's just us."
"Yes," Beachcomber said, "Nearly." And then he was quiet, because there wasn't anything else to be said.
Days went by, and Beachcomber waited, despite the slowly growing tug in his circuitry that demanded that he move – move now, he had waited too long, though he had not waited at all. Kathy needed time. Time to sift and time to sort, time to get through the bureaucratic detritus of the ages. It was a large job for one person, even a person trained to it, as Kathy was.
Eventually, Ultra Magnus found him. "Red Alert says you're a menace."
Beachcomber smiled. "Surely you knew that!"
Ultra Magnus gave him a dry look. "He also says why. You know, Moraine never joined up with any of the splinter cells, that I heard of."
"I hadn't figured," Beachcomber told him, "Not really her style." This was new, though. He'd asked Ultra Magnus about Moraine once before, but at the time all he'd said was that he didn't know what became of her. More than that… Well, it seemed that Beachcomber had asked the wrong question, then.
"No," Ultra Magnus said, and Beachcomber looked at him closely, because Moraine was Moraine, and mostly alone. It often wasn't good to be alone. It did things to you, but Moraine had preferred it. He had always suspected that her small circle of working friendships at the university were, for her, almost overwhelming, nearly more than she could handle. It could be worrying. He wondered if Ultra Magnus had been worried by it. "I only met her the few times, but that much was clear. Built for survey, wasn't she?"
"Like I am," Beachcomber answered.
You couldn't exactly say that Ultra Magnus fidgeted. Ultra Magnus didn't fidget. He couldn't. He was too large. He did, however, have a wide array of small gestures that usually didn't interfere with his neighbors, and he deployed one of these now. Like most of these gestures of his, it didn't suggest nervousness. Rather, it suggested a profound and absolute weariness.
Beachcomber watched him sympathetically.
"She did, however, have contact with quite a few of us," Ultra Magnus told him, "She was an impressive scout. I don't know where she found all those energy sources, but if she hadn't, I doubt those of us left behind would ever have been in even the condition we were when your crew woke up. It let us keep building."
"She vanished, though. Hard to tell when. I never heard a report of her execution, and Shockwave was usually pretty conscientious about letting us know who he'd killed, but working in the underground the way she did –"
"I know it's likely she had some accident," Beachcomber said, "I don't expect to find her, exactly, but it's worth it to look."
Ultra Magnus regarded him seriously. Something in the set of his hands and mouth made Beachcomber think he was thinking of his own students – not that Ultra Magnus would have called them his students, but that was what they were to each other, nevertheless. "Yes," Ultra Magnus said, "It is. Good luck, Beachcomber. And please – watch yourself, will you?"
The last sentence was so full of resigned expectation that Beachcomber, notorious for drifting off into complex philosophical dilemmas in the middle of firefights, would do no such thing, that Beachcomber couldn't help but laugh. "I will," he assured Ultra Magnus, "I like being alive. You don't have to worry."
Ultra Magnus looked doubtful.
Beachcomber figured he deserved that.
"So you're to be off," Moraine said, sitting on the edge of Beachcomber's lab table, one foot tucked under the leg she allowed to dangle down towards the floor.
"Soon as possible," Beachcomber agreed, "Almost done packing."
Moraine kicked her free foot. "I still don't think this is a well considered course of action. Everyone's being much too emotional."
Beachcomber reached past her to gather up another piece of equipment. "You can't blame them. The situation's gotten dire. If we don't find energy sources soon…"
She huffed. "Nonsense. Stuff. We're not in a good position, I'll concede that, but panic doesn't help anything."
He chuckled. "Not everyone can be as cool as you when contemplating their own rapidly approaching death, old friend."
He was favored with a disgusted look for his levity. "And why not?"
"Everyone's been very rational, really," Beachcomber told her, "I assure you. The organizational meetings have been full of efficiency and sense."
"But no one will pay any attention to our reports!" Moraine protested, kicking her trapped foot free and leaning forward in a sudden burst of movement. "I know there's energy down there, it's just a matter of doing the work of finding it and getting the lines hooked up to bring up again! You know, Beachcomber, you were with me when I found –"
"Shhh, easy," Beachcomber said, and gently gathered up her hands in his. From Moraine this was a remarkable display of emotion, something desperate and angry. Moraine was steady, always. She didn't indulge in physical signs of distress. "Easy now. I do know. I think this mission's a good idea, but I also think you should keep up your work. That's why I pressed to go – I'm the better mineralogist, but you're the best structuralist I've ever seen or heard of. We're needed in the places we've been assigned. You find that energy source – you'll do it just fine without me along."
"And you're taking Syncline." The attention Moraine paid to Syncline had always been a little vague. If he asked her for instruction or input, she gave it, with all her customary competence and absolute patience, but she didn't seem to see him as a friend. Beachcomber occasionally wondered if she saw him at all. It was a shame – he'd hoped they'd like each other, click together, fit into place the way Moraine had with some of the other students back before the university fell. It had never happened.
"Hey, don't knock the kid."
"I'm not," Moraine said, tugging her hands away, "He'd just better watch your back, is all."
"Hey," Beachcomber said, "He will. I will too. And Perceptor's coming – you know he'll keep a good watch on me, if only because he can't be bothered to offer me prayers if I die."
"Don't be ridiculous," Moraine said, her usually even voice still harsh, "He loves you."
Beachcomber smiled, and reached out to set his hand on her knee. "Yes," he said, "I know."
Kathy called in what must have been the small hours for her. Her voice was quick and clean with that peculiar state so many humans worked themselves into, where, according to Carly, you felt as if you were walking on the cold flat of a knife, perilously high above the city, but fully free, utterly in control, with the strength and skill to run or dance or turn cartwheels if you chose. "Beachcomber!" she said, "Oh, good, I got you – I've had the most horrible trouble with transmission times, I think I got a solar flare in the way an hour ago, it was so very frustrating, but I've got you now. I do have you?"
"You have me," he assured her.
"Good," Kathy said, "Good. I have what you wanted – I'm not certain I've got all the references to her, but I have got the last one. I isolated the file and I'll send through to you, if that's all right. It's not an execution order – it's just a sighting, with no positive identification, but the description in the file matches the description you sent."
"A sighting?" Beachcomber asked, as he leapt up within himself – not an execution order, after all. The sudden giddy pulse of possibility was almost more than he could bear.
"Yeah," Kathy said, "Yeah. Look, the report's better than I can distill it for you. This Shockwave fellow was one hell of a bureaucrat. I've never read anything as through as these files. I mean, back in school we all thought the Nazis were big on paperwork, but they've got nothing on him."
"Shockwave started out as a director at a research institute, I think," Beachcomber said, "So it's not surprising."
"No, I suppose it wouldn't be," Kathy said, "Okay, you ready for the file?"
"Always," Beachcomber said, and eagerly gathered the transmission up.
Kathy's conversation was voice only, as usual across such long spaces, but Beachcomber could hear the triumphant smile that must be on her face in her voice as she said, "Great! And now I've got to try to sleep a little, or I'll be a zombie tomorrow. You might as well stab me with a puffer fish."
"I would never wish to stab you with a puffer fish," Beachcomber told her solemnly, "If nothing else, it would be an awfully awkward operation."
The transmission cut short on her laughter, and Beachcomber was left to the file.
"How's Syncline?" Beachcomber had, at last, asked Ratchet. This new, interestingly wet planet had turned itself about on its axis twice before he managed to get back to the medical chief to inquire. He hadn't, perhaps, been trying so hard. It was such an intriguing planet, and then Perceptor'd been lecturing him on making everyone worry about his irresponsible hide with considerable good cheer, and it hadn't seemed so long, after all.
Ratchet looked at him, that steady, solemn look that always heralded bad news, and Beachcomber froze, holding himself still. Still as still, as if that would spare him anything. What did he think? Ill fortune was did not rely on sight, and it certainly didn't put faith in optical configurations that needed movement to spot their prey. Freezing to avoid it was like freezing to avoid an oncoming passenger transport in the tubes. Pointless, and less than pointless. "I'm sorry, Beachcomber. I ought to have told you earlier. He didn't survive the emergency stasis."
Beachcomber just stared up at him.
Ratchet sighed. "It happens sometimes. I'm sorry. Do you need - "
"No," Beachcomber said, interrupting, "No, I'm quite all right. I just wasn't expecting it. Thank you, Ratchet, for letting me know."
And he was all right. He really was. After all, he'd lost other students.
It took Perceptor another turn of the axis to catch up with him. "What were you thinking?" Perceptor demanded, dropping down on the rise beside him, "Do we have to go through this dance every time I turn around, now? Because I don't think I can do that."
Beachcomber shrugged, and looked downward, where the stripes of a particularly beautiful sedimentary bed spread out between their legs. "Don't you think Syncline would have liked it?"
Perceptor nodded. "He'll love the place. You should bring him here when he's back online. With a little warning to the rest of us, mind."
Beachcomber didn't say anything.
"He might appreciate a little warning too. You drag him around too much." Perceptor leaned in to look closely at his friend. "What's wrong?"
"Perceptor," Beachcomber said, and stopped for a moment to inspect his palms as he spread his fingers wide. His fingers were long – the middle ones as long as his palm. Syncline's fingers had been smaller, more sharply tapered, but that had never seemed to get in his way. He could see Syncline's hands, capable and quick, and he clung to the sense memory. He couldn't let it get away. There wouldn't be others. "Ratchet says Syncline died in stasis."
"Oh," Perceptor said, a small, surprised answer.
"What can I do?" Perceptor asked, brisk and practical as he ever was, faced with pain. Beachcomber had always liked the way Perceptor's compassion ran – he was so pragmatic and workmanlike in its grip, infinitely sensible.
The fondness didn't warm him as far this time, though.
"Let's watch the planet turn," Beachcomber said, "I just want to see it."
"You can't see the planet turn when you're on it," Perceptor pointed out.
Beachcomber shrugged again. "I want to see the evidence, then."
Perceptor nodded. "All right," he said, and they stayed there until the local sun could be seen, just beyond the curve of the eastern horizon, washing the world a pale red.
Beachcomber walked into the middle of Perceptor's designs, picking neatly around the edges of the plans, but showing a distinct disregard for the fact that the table was a workspace, not a walkway for interfering minibots. Beachcomber wouldn't have put it that way, personally, but Perceptor did, in a strained voice that suggested to Beachcomber that he wasn't, in fact, interfering enough. Perceptor should be getting more rest than that. It was never a good sign when the microprocessors in his vocalizer started to glitch.
"How about an expedition to the center of the world?" Beachcomber asked, before Perceptor could quite finish his acid commentary on Beachcomber's common sense and common courtesy.
Perceptor stared at him. "Beachcomber, we don't have time to go to Reykjavík again. I'm busy. You're busy. It's a very beautiful city, but – "
"No, no," Beachcomber said, interrupting, "Not that world. This world."
Perceptor's stare turned even more incredulous. "You want me to go to the underground."
"Not alone," Beachcomber told him, "I wouldn't want you doing that. Actually, I'm asking you to come along because I know you wouldn't like it if I went alone."
"But you will if I don't come, won't you?"
Beachcomber considered this. "Probably. I think I know where to find Moraine, if she's still somewhere to be found."
Perceptor hesitated. "Beachcomber."
"If, I said. I haven't lost my senses."
Perceptor was staring at him. Beachcomber was used to that. What he wasn't used to was the feeling that Perceptor was staring at him because Perceptor was adrift, and was afraid Beachcomber was becoming unmoored too. Usually, Perceptor just stared at him because their courses diverged, and Perceptor couldn't believe Beachcomber would ever be foolish enough to take the path he was taking. Perceptor without a course was a strange sight. Beachcomber didn't like it at all. "Get a lamp," Beachcomber told him, "Or a lantern. I know you hate the dark. There's no stars where we're going."
There had never been funds to conduct a proper, formal survey of the underground, the truly interior parts of the planet. Or, if there had been, at some point, the records were now lost, along with the historical records that would have told them what the place had been, before it became what it was. The living city had grown over the old, and in most places the ways down to the past had been sealed up. Even if, he and Moraine found later, they had been sealed up badly.
Before everything else, before the energy crisis was more than somewhat worrying, before the Decepticons were more than an ominous niggle in the public consciousness, back when the Autobots were still a small collection of workers turned militia, Moraine asked him why they couldn't just go and do it themselves.
"It's too much like pure research," he told her, "Funding for everything that isn't immediately practical has been drying up for longer than I've been alive. That's why Perceptor's on edge all the time. His real interests are mostly theoretical. His work's too abstract to be fashionable right now."
Moraine shook her head and turned the chart she was looking out around. "That's short sighted," she said, "Who knows what's down there? Maybe there are answers to our problems. After all, our world doesn't behave quite like anyone else's."
"No, it doesn't," Beachcomber agreed. He thought for moment, as he read Moraine's chart, which detailed the physical properties of a planet composed primarily of hydrogen bonded to oxygen. It was very old, and the calligraphy was elegantly spiky. "Tell you what," he said, "Let's make a pact. First chance we get, we go, and if we can't go together, we share the information afterward."
Moraine looked up, and grinned. It was a rather more feral grin than her usual. Beachcomber thought maybe he was finally seeing part of why her habitual set of expressive gestures was so contained. He wasn't a nervous person, himself, but that look could be rather unsettling, if you were. "Permission or no?"
"Permission or no," he said, and answered her grin with a slow, lazy smile of his own.
In the end, they didn't go of their own will, but Beachcomber would never forget the places they'd mapped together, in the deep silence and the upper reaches, the low corridors of the city and the heights of the core itself. There were ways in, and ways out, and neither of them knew them all, for the all the time they'd passed in them, all the ways they'd tracked them. There were things down there to sustain a small bot, or two, or even three, provided they were careful, provided they watched themselves, ran at low levels, stayed below the sight of the Decepticons.
Moraine forever talked of going back.
Perceptor kept a hold of the lantern, directing its light where the tunnels joined and she came up out of the right hand one. That one, Beachcomber knew, was the one that went down, that went deep, that passed through the places where people had lived within any sort of recent memory, and split again, and passed beyond them, into passages only the dead knew. Perceptor's light was welcome, but Beachcomber did not need it. He knew her.
Her hands were empty, as they had been for so long, but Beachcomber looked at her and knew her mind carried many things, maps and information and experience. She had the thing that was all that a person truly had, the contents of their own mind, their native intelligence, the grace of their hands, the strength of their body, to do with as they pleased. It was the only thing you could possibly own for long, and the only thing you needed.
It was a thing she had kept.
Moraine looked back at Beachcomber looking at her, and there they were, for a moment, vastly pleased with the obvious. Beside him, Perceptor was stiff and silent with shock.
"I didn't expect you to come to meet me," she said, eventually. "It wasn't necessary. But I'm glad to see you, anyway."
He laughed. "I'm glad to see you too. I suppose it wasn't necessary, but I've been home long enough to spare the time."
Perceptor made a small, disbelieving sound. "How did you survive?" he asked.
Moraine turned her attention to him. Beachcomber did too. He stared at the pair of them, and made it look easy, besides, although it must have been hard work, looking both places at once. "Oh," Moraine said, "That's a very long story, Professor. Do you really want it now?"
Perceptor sighed. "No. Not particularly."
Moraine smiled at him. "I have missed you, Perceptor. Very much."
Perceptor looked dubious.
Beachcomber stepped forward to take Moraine by the hand. "Shall we go up? The Autobots have control of the surface these days, you know. I imagine everyone'll be pleased to see you. You and your maps – you've been on survey, haven't you?"
"Yes," Moraine said, exerting a gentle pressure on his hand as she walked along beside him. Perceptor, still displaying some evidence of general befuddlement, followed them with his hand lantern. "I didn't set out to go on survey, precisely, I was trying to scout an energy source, but I was spotted, and had to duck under, and I'm afraid it took me quite some time to work out where I was, and from there it seemed profitable to keep going. I've found the most amazing things. Got turned around a lot though. You wouldn't think it, but it's different when you're alone with no one to catch you going wrong."
"I knew about you getting seen," Beachcomber told her, "It's why I came down here. They gave Shockwave a pretty well confused report about an Autobot who just vanished. A friend of mine found it."
"Into thin air?"
"Off the edge of the world."
She laughed. "Lucky for me."
"Yes," Beachcomber said, and they all went up together, out of the twisting tunnels and passages of that place, into the city itself, where there were briefings and debriefings and security protocols, and all of the business of life.
"You can see the generator site here," Moraine said, pointing out the location on her chart with one hand while she clung to a small cube with another. It had been a long time since she'd had properly processed energy, instead of what she could scavenge and prepare for herself, she said, and Pipes, taking matters in the same sort of befuddled stride he'd taken all the construction injuries he'd been dealing with lately, had told her to go slow.
"No sense making yourself shocky," he'd told her, "Your systems won't like it. They're used to the bad stuff." He'd then given them all the look that Beachcomber had long ago dubbed the Don't Ask Me Why, I'm Not Really A Doctor look, and, still mildly bleary from being yanked out of a defragmentation cycle, gone to find Red Alert.
"Yes, yes indeed," Perceptor said, leaning over Moraine's chart from the opposite side of the table, "Why, this is amazing! Who would have thought – Thank you, Moraine. It's invaluable information, especially when one takes into consideration that the installations the Decepticons had completed nearer to the surface were all destroyed in Unicron's attack!"
Moraine tilted her head sideways, and leaned in close to Beachcomber to whisper, "Unicron?"
"Tell you later," Beachcomber whispered back, quickly, while Perceptor was still absorbed in the chart.
"Really quite impressive," Perceptor said.
Moraine regarded the top of his head impassively. "I was taught by the best," she said.
"Mmm?" said Perceptor, "Well, yes." He looked up to smile quickly at Beachcomber, and turned his attention back to the chart. "Naturally. You wouldn't accept anything less."
"Thank you!" Beachcomber said, beaming back at Perceptor with unalloyed delight. Perceptor didn't answer – he was lost in the world of power stations and lines to carry their output.
Moraine leaned forward again, drawing Perceptor's attention to this feature and that. Beachcomber rested his weight on the table and watched her, unconcerned with the information passing in front of him. They could go over it later, with better regard to what really interested the two of them, things of much less immediate concern to Perceptor and command.
Old friends. His two oldest friends, and he watched them both while he could, before Pipes brought Red Alert, and the graveyard quiet of the off shift turned into a busy swirl of people, all concern, and solicitude, and poorly restrained joy.
It's just us, he thought, as Moraine tapped the table neatly, and Perceptor tilted his head to catch a better angle, Nearly.
Right then, he knew it would be enough.