Thanks to ~pengo-ko on Deviant Art for permission to use the cover image. :)
Chapter 1: Merrily We Roll Along
Traveling's the fun
Flashing by the countryside
Making you think merrily, merrily
What can go wrong?
- Stephen Sondheim
Bumblebee was not sulking, thank you very much. He was not sulking at all. He hoisted his metal eyeridges into an exaggerated, cheery position to prove it. He didn't snap at Bulkhead when he stepped on his foot. He even forced himself to hum a little electronic ditty as he ran through a routine check of his systems. He was an Autobot, after all. Just because no one CARED that Raf and Bumblebee had been planning a picnic today, just because Ratchet insisted he needed Raf to check the programming on the new security system instead, just because the chicken salad would probably go bad and poison Raf and then he'd die, that didn't mean Bumblebee was going to pout.
For one thing, he didn't have the lips for it.
Still, the yellow 'bot had to stifle an electronic grumble as he watched Bulkhead and Miko duking it out in the latest fighting game. No one ever asked Miko to fix this or check that. Everybody tried to prevent Miko from taking too much of an interest in Autobot activities.
For the millionth time, Bumblebee looked over at the computer console. Ratchet was leaning over the workstation, typing away, while Raf was sitting on the edge of the massive desk, checking the source code on his laptop. Bumblebee wandered over, hoping against hope that Raf would finish soon.
"Oh, hey 'Bee!" his human partner greeted him, looking up. The smile on the boy's face cheered Bumblebee.
"Hey Raf. Can I help?" the yellow 'bot beeped, absently picking up one of the gadgets on a nearby tray.
"Bumblebee!" Ratchet instantly snatched the miniature blowtorch out his hand. "Don't fool around with my tools! They're delicate!"
"I wasn't going to break them," Bumblebee beeped, trying to maintain his not-sulk. "I'm not Bulkhead."
"Hey!" Bulkhead protested, looking up from the couch. Miko took advantage of his distraction and kicked his character in the head a half dozen times. "HEY!" he said again as he looked at the screen and saw his life bar draining away.
Raf ignored their skirmish, giving Bumblebee a smile. "Sure, 'Bee. You can—"
"Stay out of the way while we WORK," Ratchet interrupted, waving a hand. "Now shoo!"
"I mean it! I don't want you distracting Rafael."
"Fine . . ." Bumblebee stalked away, forgetting that he wasn't sulking.
"Hey 'Bee, you wanna play the winner?" Miko called. "And by the winner, I mean ME!"
"Nuh uh, ME!" Bulkhead retorted, hunching over his own controller.
"No thanks," Bumblebee said, with a shake of his head for the benefit of Miko. Humans never understood him. Except Raf, of course. His optics veered towards his human partner, who gave a helpless smile and a shrug. "I'm going for a drive."
"A drive?" Ratchet glanced up again. Really, was he going to stick his servo in this too? "Hmm . . . well, be careful. Maybe Smokescreen should go with you."
"No, I'll be fine," Bumblebee beeped a little too quickly. Sure, he liked the Smokescreen on a personal level, but the new recruit had a tendency to speed first and pay the ticket later. "Just open up a ground bridge and put me down anywhere. Somewhere new."
"All right," the Autobot medic agreed, tapping some buttons. "Have fun."
Fun would've been having Raf with him, but Bumblebee didn't bother to point that out.
A few minutes later, Bumblebee was rolling out of the glow of a space bridge portal. Smooth green hills rolled on either side of him with an open highway stretching invitingly in between. Bumblebee accepted the invitation. He accelerated.
Okay, he had to admit it, this WAS fun. Maybe not as much fun as it would've been with his partner riding with him, but it was still good to feel the grip of his tires on the road, the wind rushing past his sleek finish and the sunshine warming his paint job (recently detailed in black as well as his traditional yellow). His gas pedal sank towards the floor as he watched the mileposts whip by. The green hills fell away, replaced by a land that was at once striking and barren. Odd rock formations rose, striated with bands of rust red, dusty orange, and deep black.
Bumblebee beeped in surprise; they reminded him a little of the rocks around Jasper, but he'd asked Ratchet to put him somewhere new, hadn't he? He checked his navigational systems: "Badlands National Park, South Dakota." What a terrible name to give to such a beautiful area. He adjusted his side mirrors to get a better look at the striking landscape.
Suddenly he slowed down, adjusting his mirrors again and looking more closely. He'd seen a glint of metal, far in the hills . . . and it seemed oddly familiar . . .
Practice, as they say, makes perfect; Bumblebee had had plenty of practice spotting Decepticons. Reconnaissance was a scout's main function, after all. He wasn't able to pinpoint exactly what it was about that brief glimmer that suggested a 'Con rather than some human's car, but he trusted his instincts. He took an off-ramp and rolled quietly down the backroads to investigate.
"—and that's why energon production is down, sir," the Vehicon foreman finished. "We were hoping you could set up some kind of treatment or vaccine or whatever."
Knock Out gave him a level look. "The holo-flu?" His raised eyebrow suggested that he might be amused or might be angry, and that the miner had better hope it was the former. "You called me down here to treat . . . the holo-flu."
The Vehicon shuffled in place. "Well, sir, it has cut our productivity by almost nine percent . . ."
"Reeeally? I'm aghast." For that measly amount of energon production he was expected to treat who knew how many drones? His eyes flicked to the group lingering at the entrance of the mine, gathered to gawp at a Decepticon officer. No wonder their production was down, the slackers.
"Oh yes, sir, nine percent's correct," the foreman said, oblivious to Knock Out's ire. "I have the calculations right here—" He fumbled with a datapad, only to have it lifted from his grasp. The Decepticon medic didn't actually look at it, just swirled the datapad around, pinned between two sharp, pointy fingers.
"Well, we'll just have to see what we can do, won't we?" Knock Out said, using his most jovial voice.
The miner's shoulders untensed slightly in unconscious relief. "Thank you, sir."
"Just send, oh, three mechs up to my lab." He spared a glance at the datapad before tossing it casually over his shoulder. "Yes, I think three, to begin with."
"Uh, are you sure, Doctor? There are almost a hundred miners, and almost half of them have the flu. If you only treat a few at a time . . ."
"Ah-ah, first things first. Treatment comes later. After a thorough examination." His circular saw flipped out of his wrist, the teeth glinting.
"B-but . . ." The Vehicon took a step back from Knock Out's grin. It was the kind of smile mechs didn't forget, although they often tried. "But we know what the problem is, sir, it's the holo-flu. They've got all the symptoms—runny energon, minor leaks, blurry vision . . ."
"The layman's point-of-view is always appreciated, B-023." Knock Out said, his eyes half closed. "But Lord Megatron will expect a professional assessment of this epidemic. Don't worry, I've had plenty of experience cutting to the root of a problem." He revved his saw and the teeth spun into one sharp, silver blur. "So. Three test subjects—patients, I mean—to start with. Just point them out and I'll collect them post haste." He reached over his shoulder for his staff and let a burst of energy crackle over the prongs.
"Uh. Uhhhhh." B-023's optics slid rapidly from the medical officer to the now horrified group of Vehicons huddling by the mine's entrance. . "You know, sir . . . I think 'epidemic' might be too strong of a word. In fact . . . in fact, now that I think about it, I don't think it's the holo-flu—or anything else—at all. Just sheer laziness. You know how it is, one 'bot starts moaning about some little thing to get out of work and before you know it a bunch of other 'bots are doing the same thing—"
Knock Out allowed himself to look disappointed. "Malingering's not uncommon, of course."
"Malingering, yeah! Took the word right out of my vocals. The no-good mechs who were complaining are malingerers, that's all. After I lay down the law—and am I ever gonna lay down the law—they'll shape up. I'm really sorry," he finished, casting nervous glances at Knock Out, "to have wasted your time, Doctor."
"Just doing my job, B-023," Knock Out smiled the saintly smile of mech who has just found a significant chunk of free time on his social calendar. "Just doing my job."
Bumblebee watched the scene play out from behind a boulder. He couldn't hear everything from his current position, but he got the gist of the situation. The Vehicon foreman was now gesturing to the other miners, who brought some energon cubes out of the mine, perhaps attempting to impress the medic. Knock Out took a cube and turned it over in his hands, but his examination was cursory and his body language bored.
Time for me to make tracks, Bumblebee decided. He quietly turned around . . . and met an outstretched arm with a missile attached to it.
"Hold it right there, Autobot." A Vehicon was blocking his way, a flyer. His weapon remained centered on Bumblebee's spark chamber.
The Autobot scout weighed his options. He didn't want to fight every Vehicon in the place. Should he transform and race away? He was fast, but so was Knock Out, and it wouldn't take long for the mad doctor to catch on after this Vehicon sounded the alarm.
If this Vehicon got a chance to sounded the alarm.
"Well," Bumblebee beeped theatrically, "you got me." He held up his empty hands.
"What? What'd you say?"
Bumblebee's optics flicked in annoyance. "I said I'm your prisoner now. You won."
"Why're you talking like that?" the Vehicon growled. "You'd better not try anything funny! You're my prisoner now!"
" . . . right." What an idiot. It didn't take that much effort to understand Universal Aural Binary. "I'm sure your boss will have lots of questions for me."
The flyer must have understood that part, because he glanced beyond Bumblebee, towards the clearing where Knock Out and the Vehicon foreman stood. Just a second's distraction. It was all Bumblebee needed.
The yellow scout lunged, catching the Vehicon in the stomach with his head. The Vehicon let out a static-filled squawk as he tumbled to the ground, but had enough presence of mind to kick Bumblebee as he fell. The Autobot stumbled backwards as the Vehicon leveled his missile at him.
Bumblebee threw himself to the side and the missile sped past him. He swirled around to see it rocketing across the clearing, leaving a trail of smoke as it . . . oh no, oh slag no . . . as it disappeared into the entrance of the energon mine.
Bumblebee and his Vehicon foe stood dumbly for a moment, staring. Bumblebee recovered first. He didn't look back or worry about staying hidden. He just turned and ran, as fast as he could.
A moment later the shockwave slammed the Vehicon soldier into his back, knocking both the 'bots to the ground. Bumblebee's last thought, as the earth shook and a wall of white fire exploded around him, was that this was a stupid way to die.