Chapter 15 - Combinatoric
The big question was how exactly to bait the trap. Common sense would dictate not placing their actual prize at the heart of the ambush. Aside from the possibility of damage, if things went wrong somehow, they could very well lose it. In the end, though, Silas simply shook his head and declared that they keep the mysterious cargo where it was.
"But why, sir?" the administrator asked.
"Because we don't know how they're tracking it," he replied. Soundwave had been especially thorough in leaving no electronic trace of his intrusions. "They managed to find a piece of salvage that was buried halfway down a mountain. If we move this, there's a chance—a high chance, by my estimation—that they'll know if what they're looking for isn't here."
The administrator nodded and turned back to his screen with a sigh. "It's quite a risk."
"Yes. All the more reason to be ready for them," Silas replied.
And MECH would be ready for them; the Decepticons were sure of it. It wasn't the first time the Decepticons had launched an attack that they knew their enemies would expect. They'd been at this for millions of years, after all. The last assault had been relatively cautious, by their standards. After all, MECH hadn't had something they wanted, they'd had someone they wanted. A certain level of finesse was required in instances like that.
Of course, their version of finesse had ended up razing half of the Arkansas base to the ground. That was all the more reason to fear what they considered a more reckless assault.
"Retrieving the Combinatoric is, of course, our priority," Megatron said, standing on the bridge of the ship, his arresting voice carrying his orders to the massed army of drones beneath him, "Nor will we needlessly waste resources if the weapon is no longer attainable. But this is not a mission where speed is the priority. We will stay until we are satisfied or bereft, and MECH will suffer every moment of our presence."
The day before the assault was one dominated, somewhat surprisingly, by something approaching bureaucracy. The troops had to be given a general briefing, the officers another, and the specialized agents yet another. Everyone knew their place in the assault, and if the ranks moved in concert, MECH would be ground to pieces in the devastating machine that was the full brunt of Decepticon might.
"Despite the success of our aerial reconnaissance," Megatron said later, to a much smaller group of mecha, mostly consisting of his offers and a few seasoned Eradicons, "we will need to attempt to get a closer look at this base, to narrow down likely storage locations for our prize. The number of scouts we have that are small enough to do this are few and far between." He looked to Soundwave questioningly.
Without a word, Soundwave nodded.
In the tense, dark stillness that hung like a pall over the shipyard, a guard on his rounds paused, tilting his head. He held absolutely still, as if waiting for something, until he heard it again: a very faint sloshing sound. He elbowed his partner, who'd been speaking softly to another guard. "Shh. You hear that?"
The first guard held up his hand for silence. All three men held utterly still, listening intently, and the sound came a third time: the gentle swish of something moving through the water. "Probably a crocodile," the second guard offered, while the first shook his head. "These guys are big. I'm pretty sure we'd notice if one of them was in the water."
"Yeah, but I'm not about to just write this off without checking." He knelt down, clicking on his flashlight. The source of the noise was not right underneath them, but close enough to see: a dark, low shape in the water, and a pair of raised, unblinking reptilian eyes that threw back the light eerily. The alligator swished its tail and floated out of the circle of light, angling towards the shadows under the dock, away from the humans.
The first guard let out a deep breath. "Okay. Well, good."
"What kind of night is it gonna be," the third one chimed in, "if alligators in the water is a good thing?"
"Better than the alternative."
Under the surface of the water, Ravage made his way silently and steadily towards the heart of the docks. He disengaged his alligator-styled holoform only when the glow of the flashlight faded from above, and the human voices died away.
The last time a major assault had been carried out on a MECH base, the Autobots had beaten the Decepticons to the punch. There was definitely something to be said for allowing one's enemies to take each other out, but a decisive victory with no competition for the spoils was an even better proposition. As the countdown to the final strike wound down, it became increasingly clear that they'd managed to move faster than the Autobots this time around.
They'd be launching their assault before the hour was up, but it was still moving far too slowly for Scorponok's liking. He lurked under the surface of the water, occasionally climbing up one of the support struts of the base's structure, and sometimes clinging upside-down to the underside of the ground itself, in the places where it cleared the water line.
He hadn't been on Earth long enough to have a holoform generator installed. His only means of concealment would be his own wits and his quickness—no pressure, right? Every now and then he'd receive a ping from Ravage as they quartered the complex, marking the movements of the patrols and listening to the conversations of the humans. The prevailing mood seemed to be that of faint tension, sometimes marked by silence, sometimes filled with inane, nervous chatter.
They were strange, like everything else on this planet.
At last, Scorponok received the message he'd been waiting for: a silent flicker of thought through his bond with Blackout. The first wave was moving in. Rather than clamber up onto the surface of the base proper, Scorponok turned and slid back into the water, tucking his front claws in close and swimming with his legs, slithering as confidently as if he had been built for the murky waters.
Round one was nothing special, but he still didn't want to be caught beneath the base during a bombardment, and he wouldn't be needed again until the second phase of the attack.
The Autobots had been in the Homestead Reserve Air base for about an hour before they received the alarming, but unsurprising news that some kind of assault had been launched on a nearby shipyard. "Definitely not human," Fowler relayed through his phone. "I think your boys are making their move."
The humans of the air base, as always, offered their support, and as always, Optimus turned them down. "Focus your efforts on clearing the surrounding area, both on the land, and in the sea," he replied in grave tones, kneeling before the commanders and officials Fowler had brought to him, "for we have no idea how far our enemies are willing to carve their path of destruction." He wasn't met with much opposition. No-one on the base could be called a coward, but they'd seen images of the remains of MECH's Arkansas base.
Optimus stood and turned away from them, leaving the humans to their plans. He crossed the tarmac to were the rest of his troops were waiting. "Ratchet, we'll need a bridge," he called through his comms, "and stand by for potential wounded."
The first wave was nothing spectacular. A squadron of drones swooped low over the base, their engines screaming, raining plasma bolts down on the structures below them, aiming for anything and everything that looked large or important. MECH wasted no time in returning fire, and as the squadron pulled up, they barely missed the volley of sparking projectiles that the humans had sent arcing through the air after them.
They made a second pass, under Starscream's command, flying in a staggered, spaced-out formation. Starscream was testing the saturation of his enemy's firepower, seeing how well they could handle scattered targets. The answer proved to be, well enough, for one of the projectiles hit home, slamming into the underside of one of the drones and ripping it out of the air in a haze of crackling electricity. The drone managed to veer slightly before he lost consciousness, intending to direct his crash at one of the warehouse structures, but he only managed to scrape his wing along the roof. His course carried him beyond the platform, and he crashed into the water.
First blood went to MECH.
"Very well," Starscream said to himself as he watched from the uppermost deck of the Nemesis, his eyes narrowed, standing still despite the occasional tugging of the high-altitude winds. It was time for the next wave.
This time, when the squadron made their pass, they raked the air with an endless, tight barrage of plasma bolts, providing covering-fire for their fellows; as soon as they passed low enough, the eradicons shifted in mid-fight, landing, one after one, on the concrete and skidding to a halt. It was time for the fight—and the search—to begin in earnest.
It was at about that point, when the battle was shifting gears and at peak chaos, that the Autobots saw fit to arrive.
"Arcee," Optimus said as he transformed his weapons into place, "among us all, you have the best chance of recovering the Combinatoric." He paused for just a moment, regarding her gravely; aside from her size affording her the greatest ease of movement in the relatively tight quarters of the shipyard, she was the quickest and most agile of them all. If anyone could dodge through two different sets of enemies and still come out victorious, it would be her.
"One step ahead of you," she said, shifting into alt-mode. "I'll see you when I find it." Before he could say anything else, she roared away, swerving into the space between two buildings, and was rapidly out of sight.
Arcee wasn't the only scout touching down in those moments. Three squads of drones had been dispatched by space-bridge in three different places across the shipyard. "All right," the leader of the southern trio—a pair of fliers and one land vehicle—said, "check your comms. Scorponok's running recon for us. You getting this, sir?" A wordless affirmative pinged back through the comm-line. "All right. Everyone else? Good. Tell us where you need us, and we'll get looking."
On the north and east sides of the shipyard, the other scouting squads were making contact with Ravage and Laserbeak, waiting to be directed to the places each symbiont had scouted out before. "Looks like we're heading over there—" the squad leader pointed towards what looked, at first, like a distant wall, but proved to be a stack of crates upon closer inspection. "Which one of you's the translator, again?"
"I am, sir," replied the lone vehicon among them.
"Stay between us," the squad leader said with a nod. "And we'll carve your path."
It was a comforting sentiment, but even so, Switchgear followed them with quiet terror curling in his spark.
Somewhere high, high above the shipyard, Soundwave flew. The sounds of combat only faintly reached him up here, and though an outside observer might feel as if he were waiting for a moment to swoop in, he was, indeed, already deeply engaged in the battle below.
He could see through Laserbeak's eyes, could feel the way the wind tugged at her wings and the heat from the missiles she expertly dodged, spinning and ducking through the air, drawing fire away from her squad of searchers. He felt the cool water sliding off of ravage's back as he climbed out of the water before his own trio of drones, yellow eyes narrow and fierce, moving as swift and silent as a shadow as he led them through the fringes of the battle.
He could feel Rumble and Frenzy, who had landed with the second wave, gleefully setting to their appointed task, which was, in this instance, wanton chaos and destruction. There was vengeance in their violence, and the humans scattered and fled before when they realized that these new opponents were small enough to make their cover useless.
The overlapping perspectives flooded Soundwave's brain, a rush of mental stimulus that was both strangely new and utterly familiar with him. It had been so long since he had felt this in-control, this complete. Soundwave sent a wordless ping of warning to Ravage about a threat lurking around the corner; he commanded Frenzy to make brief use of his battle-cry, creating an opening for his brother to rush in and push past the line of firing weapons. While Laserbeak focused on her complex, endless acrobatics, Soundwave calmly marked her targets for her, and one by one, she felled them, trusting his targeting systems and sending each bolt unerringly towards its goal.
The five of them had become, in those moments, a cold and devastating mechanism of war. Soundwave's spark sang with a sort of vicious joy, with the thrill of conquest. He allowed himself, in his own quiet, muted way, to revel in his strength and the strength of his symbionts. This is what you tried to take from me, the violence seemed to say, this is the final, dreadful consequences of everything you've done, or tried to do, to us.
They seemed to be getting the message. Soundwave received a ping from below that Megatron, having spotted Optimus, was taking the field, and he tilted his frame, letting himself slide in a downward sideways slant, closer to the battle. Tonight, it felt right to be down there with his Intended, surrounded by his symbionts, striking down their mutual enemy at its heart.
Tonight, Soundwave wanted to get his hands dirty.
"Optimus!" The warlord's voice carried easily over the cacophony of battle as he streaked from the sky. Spotting his nemesis wasn't at all difficult, even from such a distance. The forces that had been harrying Optimus retreated as they saw Megatron drawing nearer, ducking into buildings or scurrying away down the alleys between the warehouses. They'd seen this mech take a blow from their tesla cannon and survive. They knew better than to stand in the way of this duel.
At least, not until the two combatants were sufficiently distracted.
Megatron's armor glinted in the dark as he shifted mid-air, landing on his feet with a force that shook the platform, end-to-end. He spread his arms, grinning in unabashed, arrogant pride at the destruction around him, radiating assurance. "You're late."
Optimus kept his eyes on Megatron. His soldiers had split off, fighting desperately against both sides. There was no backup here. There was only the same, timeless struggle. He hefted his axe and steadied his stance silently, regarding Megatron with a burning blue stare.
"No noble last words? Nothing to say before I cut you down?" Megatron stared at Optimus, who remained grimly silent. Megatron raised his fusion cannon. "Very well. I am merely moments from silencing you for good."
That seemed to be the end of it; Optimus charged, Megatron fired, and the next moment the two mechs met with a resounding clash to re-ignite the war between them once again.
The battle raged, a three-sided free-for-all, until Starscream gave the command for Blackout to even the odds a bit. Now that they had officers on the ground, it would do well to dull whatever advantage MECH was wielding against them. He dipped out of the dark sky, flanked by two eradicons. "We'll cover you, sir," one of them called through the comms. "Just name your target."
"My target is the base," Blackout rumbled. "This won't be confined to any small area; we will head for the center. Send out the warning to our unshielded troops." His escorts wove around him, clearing a path through the sky. The Decepticon officers had been shielded against Blackout's unique ability, as had his two escorts. Across the battlefield, fliers swooped in for a quick landing as the rank-and-file soldiers braced themselves for the moment of disorientation that they knew was coming. Blackout wheeled into place, pivoting neatly in the air, and turned his focus inward. All he had to do was draw upon the power curled in his spark, and wrench it like so—
There was a low sound, almost too deep for the humans of the battlefield to hear, as Blackout's pulse-wave swept over the battlefield. Silence followed in the wake of that sound as the Autobot fighters stumbled and the technology employed by MECH fizzled under the effects.
It did not linger long, though. It was only moments before the retort of human gunfire split the night again. The MECH forces had recovered the fastest out of all of them, even the Decepticons who'd known the pulse-wave was coming. Within moments, though, the eradicons were back in the air, and the Autobots surged back into the fight.
"They seem to be prepared for your assault, sir," one of the eradicons commed as he zipped past Blackout.
Blackout hovered in place. Something wasn't right. Though he could see that he'd disabled a good deal of their high-tech weaponry, they were still armed with guns that were purely analogue. The weapons looked downright archaic—it had been done deliberately. He hadn't been able to use any of his abilities in his initial fight with MECH. There was no way they'd done this in preparation for his assault. So, if they hadn't done this in preparation for Blackout's pulse-wave, what had they made the preparations for?
Realization dawned, but too late.
"Clever trick," Silas murmured softly, down below. "Let's show them our version."
"All fliers out of the sky!" Blackout barked. His escorts dropped like stones, hastening to obey. "The enemy—"
The EM pulse shot through the entire dock in waves. MECH hadn't just activated one device: they'd activated an entire network of them from where they'd been implanted throughout the docks. The Cybertronians on the ground were not instantly knocked out, but they were stunned, and the few moments' pause granted by the pulse was all the time MECH needed to push the advantage. They didn't, though—not immediately. All humans on the ground remained in cover.
This was because the fliers that had been strafing the battlefield were dropping from the sky and crashing to the docks. One of them managed to gather his wits enough about him to dive into the water, but the rest either crunched headfirst into the concrete or ploughed their way through the docks, scattering shipping containers and tearing through buildings as they went. The destruction was immense, on both sides: clearly, MECH had not anticipated just how many eradicons would be close enough to have been affected by the pulse.
Blackout was the only flier still in the air: his natural abilities shielded him from such forms of attack. For a few long moments the battlefield was nearly silent, except for the regular chopping sound of Blackout's rotors. He was the only aerial threat left, and the only aerial target.
After the stunned silence had passed, but before the chopper could rally himself, two missiles arced from the ground towards him. One missed, sending a building up in a fiery bloom, but the other hit home, sending Blackout careening through the air with the force of the blow. He managed to remain upright, but in the few moments it took him to recover, another, smaller missile was arcing at him from below: it, too, found its target, prongs digging into the chopper's armor as it delivered a powerful paralytic shock. It was only then that Blackout's rotors stilled, and he dropped from the sky, crashing into a wall of shipping crates, carving a path of messy destruction until his hurtling form collided with one of the low warehouses.
There was only a split second's time for a cry of dismay from the MECH forces on the ground before the warehouse went up in a roaring rush of flame. A small chain reaction of explosions rocked the buildings along the seaward side of the base, sending shipping crates careening into the ocean or across the asphalt.
Nobody could tell just which side had taken the most casualties, but one thing was for certain: the tides had turned.
Blackout's pulse-wave had been disorienting, but not devastating to the drones on the ground. The southern trio regained their wits, checked their weaponry to see if the safeguards had held, and then prepared to move forward towards the target Scorponok had marked. Mere moments after they'd started, though, MECH's EM pulse had rocked the shipyard, and very nearly knocked all of them out.
"What the hell was—" the leader was cut off by a sudden explosion. A wave of force carrying fire and wildly caroming shipping crates knocked all three of them off their feet, sent them scattering and skidding across the asphalt.
It took a moment for Switchgear's senses to return to him. He could hear other explosions all around him, muffled by distance and by the high-pitched ringing in his audials. Something had struck him—he couldn't tell what. Perhaps a shredded section of half-melted shipping crate, perhaps a chunk of concrete. Silently, still somewhat stunned, he pushed himself off the ground and activated his visor, which flickered fitfully. He tried to speak, but only a burst of static came out.
He had to find his companions.
The squad leader had taken the worst of the damage, and even before Switchgear drew near to him, he could see that the drone was dead. He'd gotten caught between two crates, crushed by the force of them slamming together. The other drone was gone. Switchgear didn't know if he'd been flung into the water, or if he'd woken up first. When he tried to comm him, there was no answer. Desperately, Switchgear switched to Scorponok's signature. "Sir? Sir, are you there?"
Nothing. Switchgear hadn't seen Blackout fall from the sky. He didn't know what fate had befallen the chopper's symbiont. All he knew was that he was alone, in the middle of a battle, surrounded by his enemies. What do I do? He thought frantically. What do I do?
His gaze fell upon the twisted remains of his fellow drone. A feeling that was somewhere between sadness and shame shot through him. You do what you came here to do, he told himself, find that weapon. Switchgear didn't feel any less frightened, but he did feel a sight more determined, as turned and moved through the labyrinth of crates.
Scorponok returned to consciousness slowly. The EM pulse hadn't been what knocked him offline. It had been the feedback of pain and shock that had flooded through his bond with his carrier. As Scorponok clawed away the last shreds of unconsciousness, he pinged his comms frantically, only to find them non-functional. Tentatively, he reached out for Blackout, and was horrified to feel how weak the response was from his carrier.
Blackout was dying.
Scorponok rolled over, righted himself, and launched across the battlefield, heedless of the dangers around him. He charged through the wreckage towards the place where his host had dropped from the sky.
When the initial chaos from MECH's EM pulse had died down at last, Arcee opened her eyes. The destruction had been immense, but rather than flattening the structures of the base around them, it had made them more unpredictable. The looming yellow cranes had been knocked to haphazard angles, blocking off former alleyways between the stacked cargo creates and buildings. Some of the warehouses had been ripped open, their walls blown out in all directions, their contents scattered.
It had been a maze before. Now it was a labyrinth. Arcee muttered irritably to herself and got on the move again, altering her course. With any luck, the explosions had disoriented her foes, and she could make progress before she ran into any-
-Arcee rounded a corner and nearly collided with a vehicon. Her soldier's reflexes kicked in, and she immediately sprang back, dropping to a fighting crouch with her dual pistols aimed at the foe. The vehicon seemed less prepared, and instead just took a step back, watching her in evident horror. It didn't even try to form any of its weapons. Instead, it just slowly lowered its arms, staring at her. After a moment, it said, "Well, get on with it, then."
Arcee narrowed her eyes. "You're just going to let me shoot you? Nice try, 'Con, but I'm not that gullible."
"Well, I don't see what it is you could possibly have to lose," the enemy soldier answered back somewhat primly, "it would be a good trick indeed if I could pull it on you once I've been shot to death."
"You might explode," she pointed out.
"Oh. Point." The vehicon considered this. "I'm not going to, though."
It was beginning to dawn on Arcee how surreal this conversation was getting. "So what's with the death-wish? Usually you drones go out fighting."
She got a bit of a rise out of it—him, she knew now—at the "drone" comment. "If you must know, I'm not technically a combatant. I was brought here for other purposes. I know full well how long I'd last if I picked a fi-"
He was interrupted by a rattling roar and a sudden burst of light a few buildings down: a missile, colliding violently with its target. Heat washed through the air, and all around them, the sounds of combat were beginning to splinter the night again. The vehicon looked away for a moment, and Arcee took two quick steps towards him before he flicked his visor back to her, aiming her pistols directly at his face. He shrank back. For a moment they just stood there, and the slowly, Arcee tilted one of her pistols to the side, away from him, and fired at a wall—or, rather, she tried to. The only response to her triggering the weapon was a soft click.
"Your friend's little stunt knocked out my weapons," she said with a hint of dry humor. Life was hard. Scaring vehicons witless was one of the simple pleasures she intended to take advantage of.
"Oh," he said. He continued to watch her uncertainly, obviously wary of her, but also not keen on trying to fight her anytime soon. The roar of nearby gunfire (human gunfire, they both noticed) broke the strange silence again. "We are... both deep behind enemy lines," the vehicon began uncertainly.
"You can't fire, and I can't hit the broad sign of a barn, as the humans say."
"Yep," Arcee said again, thinking to herself that that was a characteristic most vehicons seemed to share.
"I think you know what I'm about to suggest," the drone went on.
"Yeah, but I wanna hear you say it."
The vehicon sighed. "I think perhaps we stand a much better chance of not being captured and dissected by... w-working together." He shuddered, as if it felt wrong just to say it. "But as soon as we're in the clear, I am gone."
Arcee glanced at the sky for a moment. As if on cue, two sparking stun-missiles arced through the air, flying well over their heads and not aimed anywhere near them, but menacing in their presence all the same. It was interesting that he had said he would run as soon as they were in the clear, rather than try and fight her. Of all the Decepticons she could be temporarily forced to rely on, the safest was probably a coward. She nodded to the side, indicating that the drone should follow her, and got on the move. "All right. No names, though."
"I know who you are, Arcee," he replied somewhat scathingly, "we all know who you are."
Arcee snorted. "Well, fine. Might as well make it even, then. Who're you supposed to be?"
The drone hesitated for a moment. "Switchgear," he finally said. "You can call me Switchgear."
A harsh clanging of metal striking metal rang out, joining the rising cacophony that was swelling through the shipyard once more. The EMP blasts and the resulting destruction had not ended Optimus and Megatron's duel. It had merely paused it. Throughout the battle, MECH forces had entrenched themselves in the surrounding buildings and attempted to make potshots at the two battling titans.
As soon as Soundwave landed, he sought to put an end to all that.
Soundwave had gone down to one knee after MECH's blast, but otherwise shook off the assault silently. It seemed the precautions they'd taken against Blackout's abilities had only provided them partial protection. He glanced quickly behind him to make sure Megatron was still on his feet, and turned in time to see Megatron doing the same for him. A flicker of amusement passed through him, and silently, he nodded. Narrowing his eyes, Megatron returned his attention to Optimus, who was shaking off the last effects of the pulse and bringing his axe up.
In the next instant, Soundwave received pings from all of his symbionts, verifying that they were still on their feet; he returned them.
The MECH forces surrounding them had taken the opportunity provided by the pause to re-assert their positions. On the open ground, they were fair game for Soundwave's lashing tentacles, but in the buildings, they were harder to get to. Luckily, Soundwave had a solution for that.
Rumble, Frenzy: Return, he commanded through the link. The twins began to make their way across the battlefield, heading directly towards the MECH line while Soundwave kept the humans back and under cover. While MECH focused their attention on him, his symbionts would approach from the rear. They'd be caught between two murderous symbionts and their equally-murderous host. They'd come here hoping to take down what was obviously the toughest mech on the battlefield while he was distracted, and had landed themselves firmly in a trap.
What a gift. If Soundwave had possessed a mouth, he might have smiled.
MECH found the unlikely allies first. They announced their presence by firing a sparking stun-missile, which Arcee artfully dodged, and which Switchgear hurriedly scrambled out of the way of. On reflex, Arcee whirled to train her blasters in the general direction of her attackers—which, of course, would do nothing, since her guns weren't working. But of course theirs are back online, she thought bitterly to herself.
She hesitated for just a moment, and the humans that had found them took full advantage of it. The first strike had been made with a stun-missile, but the second was with a much less elegant weapon: a grenade. Arcee rolled out of the way, but not quite fast enough: the blast caught her in the side, sending her rolling the stunning her momentarily.
No time. Arcee gritted her teeth, forcing herself into a sitting position. Her free hand went to her side, which was already drenched in her energon. The human was hefting his stun-missile launcher again, advancing. MECH didn't want her blown to bits, after all. She let the human take a few more steps before she uncoiled suddenly, striking out with a single foot and using the momentum of the motion to pull herself into a half-crouch.
The human made a few leaping steps backward, and nearly overbalanced himself, but managed to avoid the kick. With a low sound that might have been a chuckle, he raised the rifle again, aiming it directly for Arcee's chest.
Arcee gritted her teeth, still holding onto her bleeding side, and raised her head to face her enemy, but she was quite suddenly yanked off her feet. Before she could register what was happening, she was dragged backwards. Talons dug painfully into her shoulder. The MECH operative who'd shot at her made a few determined, jogging steps for her, but the mech dragging her shifted, momentarily released her, and began to furiously hurl debris at the human, who was forced to retreat a bit.
It was the vehicon, of course. Arcee struggled to her get feet underneath her, and together they retreated into the bombed-out shell of a warehouse, which was only in possession of three of its walls but most of its roof. Switchgear dropped her somewhat unceremoniously on the incline of rubble that half-covered the warehouse floor, and peered back around the way they'd come. "...I think it left. Oh, wait, no-" He stooped and picked up a chunk of concrete, tossing it at the unseen target. "Ha! Got him," he said, sounding quite proud of himself.
Arcee gave a painful sigh. She couldn't exactly celebrate the idea of a Decepticon beaning a human in the head with debris, but she would rather chance hurting a MECH operative than ending up on their dissection table. She pushed herself into a sitting position, clambering up the incline of rubble and examining her side. The wound was deep, and bleeding profusely. "Damn," she said through gritted teeth.
Switchgear turned back to her. "Oh, dear," he said. "You're... right, that doesn't look too good."
Arcee clamped a hand over her side, doing what she could to stem the flow. Nevertheless, energon was dripping down through the torn hunks of asphalt and strewn warehouse rubble beneath her, running in little rivulets between the rocks. She narrowed her eyes and watched Switchgear warily.
He hesitated, but after a moment, began to approach her. Arcee pushed herself up, trying to stand, and he waved a hand dismissively, saying, "No, no, I'm not going to—just relax." He procured a simple patch-up kit from his subspace and held it out to her.
Arcee slowly took the kit, still watching him in silent suspicion.
"I... don't know how to put it on, though," he said after a moment.
She got to work, popping open the kit and plastering the temporary patch to her side. It didn't do anything to stop the pain, but it staunched the bleeding significantly. Switchgear watched her, his head tilted curiously, but he didn't speak, and didn't move except to occasionally glance back through the ragged hole where one of the warehouse walls used to be. "...thanks."
"Well," he said quickly, "you're no good to me dead." The line was spoken in a rush, with no real conviction. It was a very obviously planned response.
Arcee rolled her eyes but let the drone retain its dignity. She peered at the ceiling. "At least we're covered from above. We need to recon, though, and see where we are, and how much further we have to go..."
"I can do that," Switchgear said, "and I'll take one of these with me." He leaned down to hoist up another chunk of concrete. "Okay, so, what should I... be looking for, exactly?"
Arcee sighed. Of all the Decepticons she could have found herself unexpectedly cooperating with, she had to end up with the single most incompetent drone on the battlefield. "For starters-"
A soft beep and click interrupted her. Both Cybertronians froze, looking hurriedly about, but there was no-one else there. Arcee formed her pistols (they still wouldn't fire, but the intimidation factor could be useful) and began to back towards the edge of the room. "What was that?"
"I don't know," Switchgear answered softly. "I think it came from under you. Where you were sitting."
Arcee crouched slowly, peering at the mound of rubble she'd been reclining on. Very carefully, she began to clear it, and after a moment Switchgear came over to help her, their fingers and talons occasionally slipping on the energon that had trickled down through the mess. It had reached as far as the floor, they saw as they dug deeper. It had also reached something that had been knocked asunder by the blast, and was lying near the bottom of the pile at a skewed angle.
A cargo pod. A cargo pod, specifically, that had been smeared with energon. The electronic lock display was flickering green. Arcee and Switchgear slowly looked at one another, and, without a word, hauled it loose.
Wheeljack dropped as he ran, sliding along the ground like a determined baseman, narrowly dodging a sparking stun-missile that hissed over his head. He let his momentum carry him forward, towards his enemy, sparks scattering from the place where his armor met the asphalt. Above him, in a relatively small watchtower, his foe tracked his progress with his rifle, but before he could fire again, Wheeljack tucked into a forward roll, lashing out with his swords and slicing neatly through three of the four support structures of the watchtower.
It tilted precariously, but held. "Aww, come on," Wheeljack said, standing.
A thud-thud-thudding of heavy, approaching footsteps announced the arrival of his backup, and Wheeljack stepped neatly to the side as Bulkhead finished the job, bringing his wrecking ball around in a short, brutal arc against what remained of the watchtower's support. The human inside scrambled frantically to grab a hold of the rail as it went down in a heap.
"He's gonna need to sleep that one off," Bulkhead said. "You okay, Jackie? That blast was nasty."
Wheeljack shrugged. "Comms are fried, and I'm not going to be shooting anything anytime soon. Luckily—" He brandished his swords, which flashed in the flickering light of distant, growing fires. "I've got a backup plan." A pause. "Two backup plans."
Bulkhead hefted his wrecking ball. "You're not the only one. Probably best to stick together for now—and Arcee's still in there somewhere." He turned, flicking his eyes over the wreckage around them, plainly worried.
"Sounds like a plan to me." Wheeljack nudged Bulkhead. "Hey, she's tough. If anyone out there has cornered Arcee… well. I feel sorry for them. Guns or no guns."
The sound of nearby rifle-fire provided a neat punctuation to Wheeljack's statement. He and Bulkhead exchanged glances, grinned almost in unison, and returned to the battle.
"It's beautiful," Switchgear breathed. He was trembling—practically vibrating, Arcee noticed, as they reverently laid the Combinatoric on the ground before them. Arcee didn't know if she would call it beautiful, but it was definitely something.
It almost looked like the barrel of a gun removed from the stock. Dark, heavy, and long, it was, criss-crossed in fissures and facets that made its exact shape difficult to pin down. It didn't seem to be moving, but it also somehow didn't seem to be stationary. It was confusing to look at. Arcee couldn't stare at it for a long period of time, and neither could Switchgear. It didn't seem to have any handle, grip, or anything indicating how it should be handled or pointed.
It was criss-crossed in gently glowing glyphs, but these were difficult to read. They seemed to slide away from the eye as the Combinatoric's surface continued to gleefully play tricks with the light.
Before either of them could speak, a blue brilliance suddenly rippled along the surface and lashed out, passing over both of their bodies. Arcee and Switchgear flinched, but felt nothing other than a faint tingling through their EM fields. For a moment afterward, the brilliance hung in the air, swirling faintly around the Combinatoric (something in the motion struck Arcee as familiar), before it vanished.
Apparently, they'd failed whatever test it had intended for them.
"Now," Switchgear looked to Arcee, "we just have to figure out how to get it to work." The sight of the Combinatoric had driven all other thoughts from his head. He'd forgotten he was talking with an Autobot, forgotten that they were in the middle of a dangerous battlefield, surrounded by their enemies, forgotten everything except for this otherworldly thing before them, darker than the shadows around it and older than the ground it rested on.
"There's a riddle," Arcee began.
"Yes! I've seen some of the inscriptions, but never all of them at once. Let's see..." He began to translate, though the unreliable surface of the artifact was giving him just as much trouble as it was Arcee. She began to join in, reciting the lines that she knew from memory. "Oh, that's—you're absolutely right, 'infinity' is a much better translation, given the context. Where did you learn this?"
"Optimus," she said simply.
"Oh! Of course." Switchgear knew their leader had been an archivist. "Now... I am guessing we need to figure out what kind of weapon it is if we're to activate it, somehow. But I do not think that either of us here can wield it."
"'The noblest power,'" Arcee quoted.
"Right," Switchgear said.
Amalgamous Prime was the shiftiest of the Thirteen—as the name of his shape-changing descendents, the Shifters, implied. The first thing to remember about Amalgamous Prime was that he would often go out of his way to trick others, even when it wasn't directly beneficial to him. Some scholars said that this was because of an inherent flaw in his nature that even he was compelled to obey. Some say it was because he found it hilarious.
"Sever the flow all lines to the spark," Arcee mused. "Some sort of blade?"
"Maybe—lines to the spark? Is that what you gathered from the translation?" Switchgear looked to her in surprise. "We were missing that bit."
Arcee gave him a look.
"Right, right focus. ...hm, still, I think the wording itself is important, if this is meant to be a riddle. The glyph for 'flow' also seems to carry an additional connotation, as if it were more than just a line—a pathway, perhaps. A road, even. The spark, or heart... yes, I can see where you picked up that, it seems to make sense. The center, is what it says..."
Arcee shook her head and cut off his rambling. "Not sure how that helps us. It says it undoes all defenses. Maybe it shuts the enemy down?"
"You're probably going to hit me for this, but I have to bring up a point of translation here-" Arcee hit him. She didn't hit him hard, though, and Switchgear went on, "The glyphwork here seems to indic—wait no, it's here, there we are. This thing keeps moving, somehow... I want to say 'penetrate,' but it's more than just undoing, the connotations are something that—that makes something undo itself from within-"
"Unlocks?" Arcee asked with a frown.
This time Switchgear hit her, but he did so in enthusiasm, whapping her on the shoulder. "That's it! That's exactly it! I am that which unlocks all defenses. ...hmm, now that's tricky."
The second thing to remember about Amalgamous Prime was that he was second-happiest when he knew something someone else does not.
Arcee frowned. "Unlocks all defenses..." Something Switchgear had said in the back of her mind nagged at her. A road? "Unlocks a door of some kind? What sort of metaphorical door could it be referring to?" She placed a hand over her spark chamber.
"Unlocks a gate, maybe," Swichgear murmured.
Arcee looked sharply towards him. In her mind's eye she could still see the swirl of glowing energy that had briefly surrounded them when the Combinatoric had acknowledged their presence. It had seemed familiar to her then, and now she knew where he had seen it before. "That which guards infinity..." she murmured. "That which unlocks the roads of the spark..."
Switchgear had gone very still, mentally running the words Arcee had recited to him through his mind. "The centermost place. And unravel—unveil that which is unseen. Unknown? Reveal the unknown? A road that reveals the unknown?"
They both fell silent and stared at one another.
The third thing to remember about Amalgamous Prime was that he was happiest when he had convinced someone else to know something that was wrong.
"It's not a weapon," Arcee whispered.
"It's a gate," Switchgear whispered back.
No sooner had they spoken that the glyphs along the surface of the Combinatoric began to blaze with a light too bright to look at. The air itself began to tremble, and a wave of force knocked them both over. They scrambled to raise themselves up. The Combinatorial rose, balancing on its point, and pivoted slowly in the air, the harsh and complex angles of its form shimmering faster, distorting its shape to an impossible clash of geometries. Switchgear and Arcee had to look away.
And then it shot up into the air. The roof exploded upwards and outwards, the walls buckled and shivered away, and another wave of force swept it all contemptuously back. The trembling in the air became a rumble, and the sounds of the pitched battle that surrounded them faltered and then died as the glowing artifact rose higher, hovering above the battlefield. The rumbling continued. Reality itself seemed to be shuddering, as if it didn't want to touch this strange and powerful thing that was hovering in the air.
And then, as the last of the gunfire died, stunned into silence, a new sound rang through the air, strange yet unmistakable, that shook all the surroundings beings to their respective cores. It was a low, dark noise that emanated from the Combinatoric itself.
It was the sound of laughter.