Chapter 33: Allegory of the Cave
It's empty in the valley of your heart;
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears and all the faults
You've left behind.
But I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck.
I'll know my name as it's called again.
- The Cave, Mumford & Sons
There was energon nearby, underground. Smokescreen knew there was, he'd seen it in the cave. So why didn't his scanner acknowledge this simple fact? He turned in a slow circle, glaring at the display screen.
"It was definitely somewhere near these coordinates, sir." He hated calling Ultra Moron 'sir', but what choice did he have with the Second-in-Command of the Autobots looming just a few feet away?
"Are you certain this is the location of the anomaly?" Ultra Magnus had his own scanner, which showed no more activity than Smokescreen's. But his expression of distrust was aimed more at his subordinate than at the device in his hand.
"Yeah, right around here, I swear." Smokescreen started walking in a random direction, just hoping it was the right way. The narrow canyons lacing the area twisted and split constantly. Fragging cave had to be around here somewhere. It had been near a kind of slope, right?
He risked another glance at Magnus. The massive black and white bot stuck out like a sore thumb against the burnt orange and dusty yellow stone spires. He wasn't quite glaring, but his expression was stern.
"Operation of the ground bridge requires a considerable amount of energon, soldier. If we came here for nothing—"
"We didn't," Smokescreen crossed his arms. Ultra Magnus' eyes narrowed and the rookie hastily uncrossed them and said, "We didn't, sir." Ugh. "I know it's here. It showed up on the long-range scanner back at base.
That was a complete lie, and if Ultra Lazy Aft had checked the base's computer himself then Smokescreen would have been slagged from the start. When I'm in charge of the Autobots I'm going to run a tight ship.
Smokescreen bent over his scanner. "Oh, wow. I think I'm getting a faint signal from . . . over here." He kept walking and hoping.
"Hello Soundwave." Despite his recent worries, Trauma mustered up a smile for his most frequent and silent patient.
Soundwave glided into the room without acknowledging him, pausing to gaze at the chair an awkwardly long stretch of time before sinking into it. This was a relief. Sometimes Soundwave stood the entire time.
Unfortunately Trauma's relief was to be short-lived. The amount of awareness and focus Soundwave displayed towards the world around him varied greatly from day to day. And today Trauma might as well have been invisible. Today Soundwave's sole interest was watching Buzzsaw and Laserbeak, who he had unslotted from his back armor and chest armor respectively, explore the room.
As Laserbeak took an exploratory bite out of the chair leg, Trauma tried to tell himself this was a positive sign. Soundwave was protective of his symbiotes, keeping them close and rarely letting them undock anymore. For him to release both of them must mean he was very comfortable.
Or that he isn't aware that I'm here. What am I supposed to do? I don't have the first idea how to help him.
No! He couldn't listen to those negative thoughts. He would help Soundwave. He had to. He was the only therapist on the ship.
But if I mess up . . . I'm the only therapist on the ship . . . After all this time I still don't really know how to reach him. I can't fail him like I failed Knock Out. A familiar wave of guilt engulfed him.
He was staring at his own clenched hands. How long had he been doing that? How unprofessional. He had to keep his head—for Soundwave's sake. He was so easily confused and upset.
Trauma straightened in his seat, pulling in a deep breath. "Sorry about that, Soundwave. I'm fine. I was just a little . . ." He trailed off. Soundwave wasn't even looking at him. He couldn't pretend that didn't hurt.
It's not his fault. He knew that was true. But it didn't make him feel any better as he sat in silence for the rest of their hour, wondering what to do.
The computer screen flickered as Shockwave typed away with his single hand. His gun arm rested on the tarp-wrapped chassis on the table beside him. He could feel the hard edges of the metal beneath it, the sharply angled planes of the plating. But he never looked down at it. His optic was fixed on the flickering screen in front of him.
But the moment his pre-set reminder pinged, he turned away from his work station and picked up the energon cube he had readied earlier.
Over the years Shockwave had observed many instances of researchers becoming so engrossed in their experiments that they would forgo meals and sleep, continuing their work until they were physically on the brink of collapse. This, Shockwave found foolish. Mecha required energon and daily rest to remain at peak intellectual capacity. There was little point in producing a greater quantity of work if the quality of the output deteriorated.
Nevertheless, Shockwave acknowledged that he had experienced a certain amount of deviation from his usual schedule since Wheeljack's last (and final) visit. He had reduced his hours of nightly recharge by 37.5% and had stopped any pretense of pouring or sucking energon into the vestigial hatch (one could hardly call it a mouth) tucked away on the lower rim of his head, just in front of his massive eye. Drinking in such a manner had never been easy or convenient, but the action of lifting a cube and tipping it towards his face had offered a sense of familiarity and normality to those around him.
Solitude had changed his habits.
He threaded a narrow, flexible tube into the energon cube and, with practiced ease, slid the needle on the other end of the tubing into the energon lines at his elbow. Shockwave waited a moment, watching the blue liquid pull up the tubing and siphon into his systems, then resumed his typing.
Surprising that he had not thought of this method earlier. It was efficient and Shockwave's time was valuable. He had less time to spare, certainly, since Wheeljack was no longer fetching and carrying for him.
Wheeljack. Although he was unreliable and violent (even for an Autobot), Shockwave did regret his absence from time to time. His ignorant chatter, in the midst of the silent caverns, had not bothered Shockwave. And thanks to Wheeljack's foolhardy behavior, Shockwave had been able to take extensive notes on the effects of Synth-En on the Cybertronian frame.
Not a repeatable experiment perhaps, but immensely satisfying. It was a pity the inevitable end result would play out beyond Shockwave's field of vision.
Perhaps he should have delayed his final exchange, that of the Synth-En formula itself, and continued his study of the Autobot. But Shockwave had been impatient to begin next project, even before Starscream's unasked for visit.
His own eagerness did . . . concern him . . . to an extent.
Of course, there was a solid rationale for starting the project when he did. Renegade though he might be, Wheeljack steadfastly refused to give him the location of the Autobot's secret base. ("What's the matter, One-Eye, didn't get enough of the guest room first time around?" he had sneered unhelpfully when Shockwave had made this request.) But Wheeljack did agree to play gofer. This had proved useful until the Autobot's condition began to deteriorate . . . the inevitable result of his ingestion of greater and greater quantities of Synth-En. He had become unreliable. Therefore Shockwave decided he had to make the final deal while Wheeljack still exhibited a baseline of physical and mental soundness.
A perfect string of logic.
Still, as Shockwave turned his eye to the tarp under his gun, he couldn't help questioning his own motivations. He was not immune from error or emotion. Not even now.
Eons ago the Functionists had bestowed mental clarity upon him, thinking it a punishment, and removed his face, thinking it would shame him. What fools they were. For they had stripped away all the aspects of him that might have engendered shame.
Perhaps they intended to alter him further, to infect his processor with thoughts that were not his own or turn him into a malleable drone. But Megatron stormed the Institute before they had the chance. Shockwave stood beside him, propped on Dreadwing's shoulder, and watched his prison burn.
The sight awoke a deep satisfaction in him.
He understood then that he was not immune to emotions, merely insulated from them. The Functionists' labor had proven as imperfect as their logic. No matter. He would take this gift they had given him, an unmuddied intellect, and improve upon it. The rest of their legacy he would destroy, thoroughly and without passion, as one swept away any failed experiment.
His loyalty to the Decepticons remained, for it was only logical to continue their mutually beneficial association. So when Megatron turned to him with a face full of worry and reached a hesitant hand for what could no longer be called his cheek, Shockwave stared steadily with his one, new, blazing eye and said without inflection, "I apologize for my absence, Megatron. There is much work to be done."
He turned away and Megatron's hand dropped slowly.
It was for the best. The other Decepticons were swayed by passions and whims. They were noisy, impatient. And they were disturbed by him. This was only to be expected. He stayed in his lab when possible. Maximum efficiency was everything, and it could not be obtained if Decepticons were distressing themselves over his altered features rather than concentrating on the destruction of the Autobots.
Still, there were frequent interruptions. The Citizens had often dropped by his laboratory, which caused delays. He answered their queries ("How you doing, Shocks? What are you working on?") and politely but firmly shooed them away.
Starscream dropped by too, and was incapable of being shooed, politely or otherwise. As Second-in-Command she had the authority to go where she wished, unless Megatron ordered her otherwise, a fact she knew well.
Intelligent and classically educated, Starscream was one of the few mecha with enough of a scientific background to understand the basis of his work, if not the finer details. Regrettably, this had led to the cancellation of several of Shockwave's projects before they got out of the design phase. ("You are absolutely not to build a time machine, Shockwave. Really!") Still, her presence was not always obnoxious. Her collaboration—asked for or not—had at proven productive at times. Sometimes she offered criticism, sometimes a pragmatic suggestion. Most often both.
Megatron never dropped in. But he promoted Shockwave to Chief Science Officer. Which was logical.
Soundwave was less disruptive than the others. A quiet bot even then, he was content to lean the edge of his blank, angular faceplate against his curled, spindly fingers (one could not properly call it a fist), petting one or another of his mini-cons as he watched Shockwave work. If asked to leave—if Shockwave was about the engage in a dangerous experiment or simply did not wish company—Soundwave went, without fuss or protest. Soundwave trusted his judgment.
Shockwave stopped typing. The energon cube by his side was empty, siphoned dry. He removed the tubing from his joint, coiled it up, and placed it in the empty cube to be washed later.
The tarp was stiff beneath his fingers as he unfolded it. He picked up his scanner and swept it over the small frame. The white and blue plating had a few dents and a few scorch marks, but Shockwave knew it was the internal damage that had proved fatal.
This was for the best. Returning to the Heretic was illogical and would help no one, no matter what Starscream believed.
He covered the corpse back up and turned away as he studied the scanner.
He would not be swayed by emotion.
Soundwave sometimes, suddenly, found himself in new surroundings. Not via the ground bridge, the space bridge, the dimensional inter-connections that he had once coaxed and commanded until it had swung, sung, away in a dwindling hymn. No. It was more like walking into a film when a scene was halfway through. Except he was not the audience, but the actor. Without a script. Without a voice.
Right now he was walking down the hall. He did not know how long he had been walking, where he had come from, or where he was going. Trauma was walking next to him, silent, frowning into the middle distance.
All the halls in the Heretic looked the same. Soundwave stopped.
Trauma stopped too. He looked at Soundwave but didn't say anything. He looked . . . wrong. After thinking hard, Soundwave managed to pry a more specific word out of his memory banks: resigned.
Soundwave didn't understand. There was no one in the hall but themselves. Starscream was not there. Knockdown was not there. That look was wrong. His plating flared instinctively and he drew himself up so that his digitigrade legs almost straightened.
Trauma sighed and looked back down the hall, the way they'd come, his optics searching. When he looked back towards Soundwave he was smiling, but still sad. "It's all right, Soundwave. There's no one there."
Soundwave knew that. That was what made it all so confusing. Nothing was right. Nothing was ever right, hadn't been right, since— since since since—
Someone put a hand on his arm, not gripping it but nonetheless trying to slow him. That was when he realized he was rushing down the hall with strides so lengthy they were almost ridiculous. Trauma was still here, and it was his hand bringing Soundwave back to the present.
Soundwave didn't want to be in the present. He batted Trauma's hand away.
Trauma made a stifled, pained sound and took a step back, holding his servo. And Soundwave was still standing in the hall with him. It hadn't worked. And his chassis prickled with loathing at that look on Trauma's face. Not afraid or angry, but just . . . helpless. That was not right.
Not right. Not right. Not right.
Something: not right. Something? What? Query: where are— Query: where are—
His long arms bent at awkward angles as he frantically pressed his hands to his chest, his feelers uncoiling with the speed of striking snakes as they searched his own body. Where are mini-cons? Undocked! Not present! Where!
Trauma was saying something, shouting something, shaking his arm. Soundwave elbowed him away twice before the therapist's words cut through his panic.
"They're right here, Soundwave, they just went ahead a little, they're right here!"
And yes yes yes there they were, Buzzsaw and Laserbeak, peeking around the corner, worried by the noise and wondering what they'd done wrong. He called to them, the frequency he shared only with his symbiotes, and they rushed over and docked into place, Laserbeak protecting his front and Buzzsaw protecting his back.
He pressed his hands to his blank faceplate, shutting off his visual feed, refusing acknowledge the world that roared around him, refusing to move, refusing to do anything but call to his mini-cons and feel Buzzsaw and Laserbeak pinging back to him.
He spoke. "Missing."
"No, no." He felt Trauma's hand on his arm again, this time patting gently. "They're not. They're both right there."
"Oh, Soundwave. Let's get you back to your room. It'll be all right."
But Trauma did not sound like he believed it either.
Elongated shadows stretched behind Smokescreen as he crested a small hill. Ultra Magnus was a short distance off to the side, looking more and more irritated as his scanner registered nothing. Smokescreen's optics kept darting around the landscape, looking for something, anything, familiar. Somewhere around here, somewhere around here . . .
"THERE!" Smokescreen said, too excited and too loudly and too relieved to care. "There . . . is a cave over there. And I'll bet the energon's in the cave."
"Perhaps," Ultra Magnus grunted. He half-crouched as he let his weight pull him down a slope of loose shale. The red paint in his joints acquired a layer of grey dust.
"Yep, I'll bet it's in there." Smokescreen repeated, hurrying into the cave. No sign of Shockwave in the immediate vicinity, Primus be praised.
"Smokescreen, your reckless behavior—" Ultra Magnus began disapprovingly, ducking to get his shoulders through the entrance.
"Look!" Smokescreen interrupted, pointing at the scientific equipment dotted around the cave, speaking in a low hiss. "Someone's been here, sir."
Ultra Magnus straightened slowly, frowning. "Indeed." He stepped up to the console, tapping a few keys. "This is Decepticon technology."
"Keep your voice down." The black and white Autobot's optics moved to the energon crystals scattered around the perimeter of the cave. Now that they were inside the cave, the scanners were beeping excitedly. "They must have some kind of cloaking that prevents detection from the outside."
"Yeah, unless you have me on the team," Smokescreen boasted, puffing out his chest.
"Shut your mouth and draw your weapons, rookie."
Smokescreen transformed his arms to blasters, but paused when Ultra Magnus made for the stairs. "We're not going down there now, are we?"
"We are going to reconnoiter. I will summon back up if necessary."
Well . . . maybe it wouldn't be necessary. More glory for Smokescreen, right? He followed Ultra Magnus down the stairs.
So far this was not exactly going to plan.
Shockwave broke off another energon crystal from the wall of the mineshaft, adding it to the hovercart. The growing Predacons required a great deal of energy. Once again Shockwave momentarily regretted that he could no longer simply trade Synth-En to Wheeljack in exchange for regular energon. But done was done.
Instead of dwelling on it, he began mentally designing a mining drill which (unlike current models) could be operated by a bot with a single hand. There was no point in wishing for a dead past when he could be improving the future.
The cart was almost full of crystals when simultaneously proximity alerts bombarded him, red bars and overlays warning of massive equipment failure in the lab housing the Predacon specimens.
Shockwave wheeled around, leaving the mine cart as he broke into a run. The thick cables running from his back to his arm glowed brighter and brighter as he charged up his gun, his limb.
::This is Shockwave. I require assistance..:: His voice was calm, but he hailed the Heretic over an emergency hail, highest priority.
::Shockwave?:: It was Starscream. ::What kind of assistance? What's going on?::
Shockwave's hand gouged into the rocky wall as he pulled himself through the door and assessed the situation. The containment tanks had stopped aerating and from their control pads red glyphs blinked an emergency status. The cause was obvious.
::Intruders in the lab. Ultra Magnus and Smokescreen. They have not seen me yet.::
::Magnus? Retreat to a defensive position until reinforcements arrive.::
::Negative.:: Shockwave charged up his blaster. ::They are damaging my work.::
::Shockwave, that is an order!::
::I will accept an infraction for my insubordination, should I survive.::
::Shockwave, you listen here—::
He cut the comm.
Ultra Magnus was walking over to the oldest and largest specimen, which had grown so massive that its limbs were forced tight against its body as its bulk pressed against the confines of its tank. Its long neck was twined around its body and pressed against the glass.
"Watch closely, Smokescreen, this is how it's done." Magnus put his blaster against the tank, level with the Predacon's head. "Take care of the largest problem first."
"Indeed," Shockwave said as he shot him in the back.
Author's Notes: I've set up a Tumblr account specifically for story updates, search for username BlueskyscribeUpdates on Tumblr. :)