In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
He was in a darkened room that had a sense, rather than the sound, of a wall of water just beyond the window. Knock Out was half-aware of it, but his systems were settled in a comfortable lag; his dreams continued to unspool in front of him like a road reaching for the horizon. Late for my shift. I'll make Quickcut take it, he owes me. Got to trade for more 'foil before Hook starts squawking. The holofoil was in the room, probably. Yes, that made sense. That was why he was here. He would look for it. Later.
He was missing one wheel. That didn't surprise him. One time he'd traded two away, for wax. Trauma said that was stupid. His chassis would just get scraped up again, and now he couldn't drive. But so what. At least I'll die beautiful. He was under the scour of the noonday sun as he said it. "You're such a drama-bot." Trauma rolled his red optics. "We're medics. We're not going to die."
Knock Out woke up. For a moment the darkness confused him. All he remembered about his dream was that he'd been somewhere sunny. Within seconds he forgot that, too. Reality was enough to deal with. He was in car mode—he must have flipped into it in his sleep, he was sure he'd dropped off in robot mode—and someone's arm was looped over his roof. Trauma's arm.
Knock Out stayed still at first, gathering his wits while Trauma vented gently beside him. At length the red sports car eased forward ever so gently on his wheels—his three wheels—wiggling his way out of Trauma's embrace. At one point he froze when Trauma shifted in his sleep. ("Hnnnggghh . . ." as the lavender bot drew him close, tipping Knock Out nearly sideways.) But Trauma's grip soon relaxed again and Knock Out shimmied himself free.
Still in vehicle mode, he dropped down to the floor. It wasn't as far down as he expected. The couch. That's right. They'd never made it off the couch.
He transformed, hissing as he stumbled forward on his collapsed leg. There had certainly been no thought of fixing that once they'd got going. He'd been so afraid that he would have to coax, reassure, and cajole Trauma through the whole thing, while trying to keep it together—maybe even cry a little if rejected, which was one piece of acting Knock Out felt was solidly beyond him. But to his relief Trauma had been more ardent than hesitant.
Only once had he hesitated, when Knock Out slid open his side grill and started unspooling his cables. As Knock Out uncoiled his cables with one hand (with more skill than his cover story really supported, but he'd been feeling pretty ardent himself by that point) and rubbed the edge of Trauma's wing with the other, the jet had turned his head away, venting hard.
"We shouldn't," he'd whispered, arms still clutching Knock Out close.
And Knock Out had whispered back something short and simple. "It's okay," maybe, or "I want you" . . . He couldn't remember. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that Trauma shuddered and pressed him into another hard kiss, and Knock Out laid back and met him with fervor.
Easy. It was easy. Knock Out stood there looking at Trauma, looking at his face. It was good. He hadn't been expecting that. He dropped a ginger pat on Trauma's helm, the barest point of contact, and felt more self-conscious about the touch than any from the night before.
His broken wheel lay a short distance from the couch. Knock Out had a vague memory of kicking it off. Now he picked it up, rubbing his fingers over the tatters of shredded rubber lining the rim. He moved into Trauma's bedroom, glancing around. Trauma's love of knickknacks was evident on the shelves in here, but it was tidier than his office. The room was small, yet Trauma had fit a desk in it as well as the berth. A small window, covered with slatted blinds, looked out on—or more appropriately under—the bay.
After some thought, Knock Out knelt down and pushed his detached wheel far, far under the bed. He dusted his hands as he stood.
A tug on the chain by the window opened the blinds. The water outside was dark. He checked his internal chronometer. Could it really be that early? It would be hours before Knockdown was awake.
Knock Out sat on the berth and gazed out the window. But once in a while he wandered into the living room and peered over the back of the couch, past Trauma's wings, to look at his smooth, unmarked face.
Smokescreen glared at the Jackhammer as it rose into the sky.
"Rust-aft," Smokescreen hissed under his breath, his optics blazing like fiery stars. "Fragger. Pit-spawn."
There were no words strong enough to describe Wheeljack, but those were a good start. Smokescreen transformed his arm into a blaster and took the ship in his sights. But even in his white hot fury, he was smart enough not to shoot. The last thing he needed was the Jackhammer wheeling around to unleash its weapons on him.
Instead he had to be satisfied with staring daggers at it until its tail lights faded into the distance, then punching a rock hard enough to make his hand ache.
"I'll make you pay, I'll tell Magnus on you . . . Fragging vermin-lover, setting me up . . ." If Ratchet had found him there, unconscious in the lab . . . Yeah, that would've been bad. Real bad. Ratchet would never have believed he hadn't been involved in the break-in. Granted, he had been involved in the break-in. But that wasn't the point. The point was that he'd trusted Wheeljack and it had bit him in the aft.
Still bristling over the betrayal, he started down the hill that served as his vantage point. The land here was strange, rocky spires spearing at the moon, cliffs towering above him. Smokescreen descended in a controlled skid through the loose shale. He had bridged in to this odd landscape just in time to see Wheeljack ducking out of a cave; now it was time to see what he'd been hiding. Clearly his visit to Autobot Headquarters had a deeper purpose than getting drone parts to feed his disgusting pet.
Speaking of disgusting, small flying organics were darting in and out of the entrance in an irritating way. The gold and white Autobot batted at them, scowling, as he entered. The inside of the cave was larger than he expected, and a layer of organic goop made it even more unpleasant than most places on Planet Earth. Despite this, someone had set up a large, flickering monitor and a small science station in the cave. Yeah, this was the right place.
Smokescreen's optics narrowed. He had never thought of Wheeljack as the brainy type. More like the fist-to-the-face type. What was he doing here with science junk? Picking through empty vials and beakers left Smokescreen none the wiser.
"Probably something to do with his killer pet," he muttered.
What if Wheeljack had more scraplets lurking around? Like a vermin breeding farm. He wouldn't be that dumb, would he? Then again, Smokescreen had reliably found everyone around him to be insufferably stupid almost all the time. It was uncanny. Like it was his curse to be the only intelligent bot on the entire planet. He moved stealthily down a broad yet primitive set of stairs (just sheets of corrugated metal bracketed to hewn rock), ready to book it at the first sign of scraplets.
Instead, he found monsters.
Smokescreen stood frozen at the foot of the stairs, his optics cycling wide. Massive beasts floated in tall glass chambers, surrounded by golden liquid that radiated dancing patterns across the rocky floor. A slightly raised metal dais overlooked the room from the other side. The whole cavern was still and quiet. Somehow that made it creepier than if the weird creatures had been snapping and pounding at the glass.
On auto-pilot, Smokescreen walked over to the largest tank and stared at the armored beast within. It didn't open its optics or acknowledge his presence. Just kept floating. But he could see its chest expanding and contracting slowly.
The rookie's head jerked up as he heard heavy steps from a corridor at the far end of the room. Was it a beast that Wheeljack had already loosed? He would never make it to the stairs in time, and aside from the cylinders the room was wide open. No good hiding places. So a bad hiding place would have to do. Smokescreen backed up a couple steps and took a running leap, and clawed up the metal seam that bisected the biggest cylinder, heaving himself to the top through sheer determination. He ducked into a crouch just as a hulking orange bot entered the room.
Smokescreen slid down until he was lying flat, his spark spinning rapidly. Yeah, he was the best of the Autobots, the smartest and the most skilled and the most worthy of leadership. But being smart meant that he knew there were some fights that weren't worth it. He was trying to snoop on Wheeljack, not get melted into a pile of slag by one of the biggest, toughest Decepticons. He could hear Bulkhead's earnest voice now: "Don't mess with that one, Smokey. You see him, you run."
But Wheeljack hadn't run out of here . . . Why had he even been here? What was going on?
Smokescreen had known Wheeljack was a slagger, but he'd never pinned him for a traitor. He couldn't be. Maybe he'd been spying on Shockwave?
I'll figure it out later. I've got to get out. His joints ached from the self-enforced stillness. He couldn't take this. He was a bot of action. He was going to explode unless he moved.
If only he still had the Phase Shifter. If he ever met that Decepti-Doc again he'd make him pay for stealing it. Phase him into a rock and let Wheeljack's pet have some fun with him. Stop thinking about Wheeljack. Okay, seriously, he needed to go. Now.
He eased himself forward to check Shockwave's position. The orange and white 'Con was typing at a computer at the far end of the room, his monstrous face angled at the screen. Next to him was a table, but all that was on it was what must have been a failed experiment—a mechanical creature smaller than the other beasts, half-hidden under a tarp but clearly dead—and a cube of energon. But how did Shockwave drink without a mouth? Frag. It didn't matter. Focus.
The containment cylinder that Smokescreen had taken refuge on was in the center of the room. Shockwave was straight ahead him. The stairs were straight behind him. All he had to do was climb down and sneak out without Shockwave noticing him and unleashing his hell-beasts. Easy.
He wiggled backwards until his pedes hit open air. Letting his chest take his weight, he dropped his legs over the side. They scraped against the glass, making a faint screee sound.
Smokescreen froze, but the tap-tap of the keyboard continued without pause. Ha. Dumb 'Con. He pushed himself back farther, his hands tight on the rim of the cylinder as he lowered himself. The monster in the glass took up most of his vision, but if he squinted around the beast's bulk he could sort of make out Shockwave. Between the distortion of the glass and the golden liquid Smokescreen couldn't see him very well. Not like Smokescreen wanted to see his ugly mug anyway. It was enough to know he was far away.
He dropped. Thwump.
Shockwave turned, slowly and completely, like a battleship changing course.
Smokescreen remained in a crouch, frozen. His paint was partly gold, and the liquid in the tank was gold, and the creature floating in the tank was big enough to shield him from view. It had to be.
The Decepticon stepped to the edge of the dais, his gun arm raised. His massive blue optic swept across the room with unnerving slowness. Smokescreen could see him through the glass.
That doesn't mean he can see me.
After an eternity, Shockwave stopped inspecting the room and powered down his gun. Without any further reaction, he turned away and returned to his work.
Smokescreen backed up the stairs as fast as he dared, careful not to make a sound. He was the bravest Autobot, totally, but it wouldn't be fair to take on Shockwave alone. Had to give the other Autobots some of the glory.
Trauma woke with a smile on his face and a crick in his wing. He was on the couch. His smile faded, but the crick remained.
Last night. He dragged his fingers down his face then bunched them into a fist pressed hard over his mouth. "Frag," he whispered.
He sat bolt upright, optics darting around the room. Empty. But the berthroom door was ajar. He rested his trembling fingertips on it and noiselessly slid it open.
Trauma stood transfixed in the doorway. Knock Out was bent over the open file on the desk, Soundwave's file. As he watched, the red mech slowly turned a page.
He didn't remember crossing the room, he only knew that he half-believed he was dreaming until his hand landed on Knock Out's shoulder. It was smooth and familiar and shockingly real.
Knock Out jolted in surprise, instinctively swinging around as he drew the documents close. But he misjudged his injured leg and tripped backwards. He caught himself on the edge of the desk and pulled himself upright in a quick movement.
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, you just startled me." The grounder's eyes were full of caution. He had the folder in his lap, his finger marking his place. "I'm . . . I'm sorry, I was just curious."
"It's fine," Trauma said, although nothing about this was fine, and it was his own fault. "But other than that are you . . . okay?"
"Oh! Yes! Yeees . . ." Knock Out tapped his chin with his finger, staring off into the distance.
"Good, good." Trauma had no idea what to say. He had no idea what to do. Knockdown was going to kill him, and he would deserve it. Metal creaked. He realized it was his hands, complaining as he gripped them too tightly. "Um, come into the living room. We should talk."
"Okay." Knock Out limped heavily after him, wincing with every step.
How, Trauma berated himself, could he have left him like that? Was he that desperate to sink a charge into someone (not just anyone, but a patient, his processor reminded him helpfully) that he didn't even care if they were in pain? And Primus only knew what this was doing to Knock Out's mental state.
"Sit down, I'll fix your leg," Trauma said, opting to tackle the easiest problem first.
Nodding, Knock Out hobbled to the couch and sat with the holofile sheets clutched tight against his chest. He turned his head to watch Trauma unfastening his shoulder wheel. The little red clone's expression was uncharacteristically hard to read, almost reminiscent of Knockdown. For the first time it struck Trauma that he would not only have to explain to his boss that he had betrayed a vulnerable patient, but he had interfaced with a patient who looked like his boss.
His hands were shaking. He stopped for a minute to rest them. Just . . . just fix Knock Out first, the rest comes later. Trauma concentrated on setting the wheel into place.
He thought his spark was strained to its outer limits, but its rotations ramped up when he looked up and saw Knock Out had opened the file in his hands and resumed reading.
Oh no, he couldn't have that. Regardless of what else had happened, regardless of Trauma's failings, Soundwave deserved his privacy.
"Knock Out." Trauma took hold of the folder as gently as possible. Knock Out looked up with a frown, possibly because Trauma's hand had just covered the section he was about to read. "This is private, you understand? Not to be shared."
"Oh. Oh." Knock Out blinked, then nodded with a fervor that bordered on alarming. "Of course! I won't tell anyone!" Knock Out rose to his pedes. Distantly Trauma was thankful that the wheel held solidly in place. "I was never even here."
Wait, did Knock Out think he meant—? When actually he meant—! "Knock Out—" Knock Out, I meant the folder, don't tell anyone what's in the folder. Somehow it came out wrong. "Knock Out, where's your other wheel?"
Knock Out looked around, like the notion of having four wheels was foreign to him, and gave an apologetic shrug. "I won't tell anyone," he repeated, and gave an anxious, sweet smile as he backed out of the room.
Call him back, Trauma told himself. But he didn't.
He collapsed onto the couch, where they'd sunk into a heated embrace just hours before, and cradled his head in his hands.
Sneaking into the med bay was easy with the Phase Shifter in his possession. Knock Out slipped through the walls, into the tiny room that housed the Replicator.
He settled into the room's only chair and turned his comm line back on, amused to find a litany of angry texts from Bumblebee. The Bug had forgotten his late night gift of the Phase Shifter, apparently. Well, Knock Out had asked. He deleted them all, but sent a short note to reassure the scout that he hadn't jumped ship. Bumblebee's advice had turned out to be most helpful.
To Knockdown he sent a simple text:
Going to be late to work.
He thought about adding "sorry". But Knockdown knew him too well by now.
He could hear the Twins, Jumpstart and Ampule, puttering about in the other rooms, and Knockdown directing them to do something or another. Trauma was not due to be in, he'd be playing therapist today. Knock Out knew he was on the roster, an 11:30 appointment. Trauma typically sent a reminder fifteen minutes before, and then started harrying him with concerned texts if he was a no-show.
He leaned over the Replicator. He had not really come here to work, just to wait. But he needed a new wheel and tire anyway.
9:00, 9:30, 10:00. Tires were easy. 10:45, 11:00, 11:15. The wheel was almost done, but he kept making stupid little mistakes. He turned his comms off, then fretfully turned them back on two minutes later. He gripped his new tire, flexing it and turning it in his hands. Waiting. 11:20. Waiting. 11:30.
11:31 . . . No texts yet.
Knock Out collapsed back in the chair, hand on his forehead and tire draping foolishly across his face, and let out the biggest vent of his life, followed by a giddy laugh. It had worked! He was free.
And it had been good, even. Meaningless, but good. It had been such a while. Not since his assistant had . . . gone. Wouldn't he be furious if he were here now? He'd smash Trauma into a pile of purple scrap, that's what he'd do. He indulged in the rare pain of nostalgia for a moment.
Then he was tripping off to find Knockdown, to explain (with downcast eyes, in a stutter) that he had burst a tire and snuck in early to make a new one because he was so embarrassed about it.
Knockdown sighed and installed the new one without comment. He did not ask where Knock Out's old wheel was, nor did Knock Out offer any explanation.
He was feeling generous. But a little extra insurance never hurt anyone.