Chapter 1: More than Meets the Eye, part one
Gilgamesh Holzfaller woke up with what was probably the third worst hangover he’d ever had. He lay very still, swallowed through the pain and fog, and enjoyed the wonderfully cool and soothing floor underneath.
The aftereffects eased some, and soon Gil recovered enough to be curious. This was a very smooth floor, definitely not wood or stone, and, while cool to the touch, not conductive enough to be metal. He cracked open an eye and discovered that he was lying on glass. On the other side of the glass was a hazy field of some kind of energy.
That brought him fully awake and aware. He sat up and looked around wildly. He was in a glass box with circular air holes cut through the top. The air holes were large enough that he could probably get a hand through them, which was sloppy. However, the glass box was surrounded by an energy field that was suspended from metal prongs on either side of his prison. The field blurred details outside somewhat, but Gil could see a similar box nearby with Bangladesh DuPree lying in it. And around them?
It was obviously a workshop, hastily erected in the field from what he could tell. That, by itself, wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was the scale. The benches were easily five or six meters off the ground and correspondingly broad. Some of the rivets and bolts he could see were the size of his arms. Memories from before trickled into his thoughts, and the arrival of a giant silver and red clank that he last saw in the midst of a too-brief battle only confirmed them. It was real. The enormous and enormously destructive clanks had not been a dream.
For a moment, Gil really regretted attending Professor Scoria’s field demonstration, though probably not as much as the professor had before his sudden demise.
The clank was not only tall but surprisingly graceful in both how it was built and in how it moved through the workshop. It had a solid, mostly squared off look to its limbs, an unusual choice given how that created structural weaknesses that a more standard round form would handily eliminate. On its back were wings while its torso had other parts that might have belonged to a particularly vicious dirigible. One arm sported the death ray type weapon that Gil had last seen pointed his direction before seeing its bright pink ray of light. The clank muttered to itself as it organized parts, its voice sounding strained even as it grumbled. It paused in its work and looked around suddenly, as if struck by a fit of paranoia, and spotted Gil.
“Awake, are you? I suspected you’d survive,” the enormous clank shrilled in Romanian with a vaguely aristocratic accent. The clank’s red eyes gazed upon Gil with smug satisfaction. That it did so without bending down only brought home how high his prison was suspended above the ground. “Though you never know with frail, organic creatures,” it continued. “‘Lord’ Megatron thinks I’m wasting my time, but I think you could be useful .”
Tarvek Sturmvoraus carefully pulled himself to his feet, checking for injuries as he went. Plenty of bruises, a couple of scrapes, and a fresh layer of dirt, but nothing disabling. With a sigh, he pulled a few parts out of his pockets and idly assembled a small light, then flicked it around. The light flowed up tall metal walls lined with pipes and conduit, a similar but smooth metal floor, and the rubble from the cave-in. He could actually see where he had fallen, pebbles and dirt piled around a circular impression that made clear his recent fetal position. Grouchily, Tarvek scuffed the pile with a foot and looked around again.
The ceiling was at least fifteen meters high, probably higher, and the corridor was nearly as wide. Tarvek could easily walk along the pipes running parallel to the walls, if he had the inclination to climb up to one. Instead, he flicked off the light. Yes, there was some faint illumination from deeper within that was reflecting down the metal walls.
Cautiously, Tarvek crept down the giant hallway, footsteps quieter than a cat’s. It took far too long before he reached the edge of the light. The sounds of battle faded in that time, and so did the adrenaline. He took a moment to rest in the dim surroundings. No food, no water, trapped in an unfamiliar place by a sudden landslide. On the plus side, he didn’t seem likely to run out of air anytime soon. Also on the plus side, the crazy pirate woman (he refused to think her name, in case it might summon her forth from the darkness) wasn’t here, either. A quick inventory through his pockets found the usual mix of antidotes, small parts, and useful tools, but nothing that could be turned into, say, earthmoving equipment or a vehicle to get around these titanically sized hallways.
Tarvek began to regret his clever decision to investigate the source of the clanks.
The sudden approach of oversized footsteps brought Tarvek from his pondering and he looked around for a place to hide. Unfortunately, the floor and walls were completely smooth, and the pipes were close to the ceiling- far out of reach. There was simply no place to go other than back the way he came, which was a dead end. Rather than end up cornered and tired, Tarvek chose to stand his ground. The clanks were huge- surely he could outmaneuver them.
When two of the clanks did round the corner and rush his way, their look of astonishment on seeing Tarvek was easily matched by his own. They were hardly taller than he was! What a stupid mistake!
One of the clanks was mostly red in color, the other mostly yellow, and they both had little horns built onto their heads, similar to the viking helmets one saw in operas. They wore matching red face-like emblems on their chests. Tarvek observed that parts of them seemed to have been formed from pieces of small, sporty spark-work carriages of the sort popular in Paris, but mostly, he just stared.
Their faces were so animated! Their movements so smooth, so natural! Red fire, but he wished he could get a closer look on how they were built. Bright blue eyes stared back at him with real intelligence, not the simple calculations of common soldier clanks.
The red one stepped forward first. “Hello,” it said in workmanlike Romanian, its voice as natural as its hesitant wave. “Who are you?”
Tarvek blinked from his distraction with their construction and bowed, thoughts racing. “I’m Tarvek Sturmvoraus, a student from Paris,” he said, leaving his family connections out of it for now. If they recognized his name, they’d react. If they didn’t… well, that would be useful to know.
The two clanks looked at each other, then back at him. “Well, nice to meet you,” said the red one politely. “I’m Cliffjumper, and this here is Bumblebee. I don’t suppose you came from outside, did you?”
Tarvek nodded, carefully noting the names. Not only did they not seem to know of his family, it was almost as if they didn’t know about the attack earlier. “I did, but I’m afraid a landslide covered the entry,” he told them.
That got frowns. “I’ll go check it out,” Cliffjumper told Bumblebee. “You go tell Optimus.”
The yellow clank nodded and turned to Tarvek. “Hey, you want to come? It’d be better than being alone in the dark.”
Would they like him to come? Get a closer look at such amazing clanks? Wild horses couldn’t drag him away. He smiled, striving to keep it modest and friendly. “I’d love to,” he said honestly.
The two clanks nodded to each other and Cliffjumper ran off into the dark, beams from his chest lighting the way. Bumblebee looked at Tarvek. “You look tired. Need a lift?”
Tarvek blinked at the clank and looked around. “Do you have a way to summon one?”
Bumblebee laughed cheerfully. “Sure!” And with an odd, ratcheting sound, he folded and twisted, and soon, there was one of those small spark-work carriages in front of him, a relatively inexpensive but charming model. “Get in!” the same voice called from somewhere inside.
Tarvek wondered if he’d hit his head and was dreaming. He opened the door, stepped up inside and settled on the plush seat. The door closed itself, and as soon as he was comfortable the carriage moved, the various dials and levers working themselves as it rapidly sped down the hallway. It moved at an excellent pace, the ride smooth considering the model, and the only sign that the carriage wasn’t simply the latest from Paris was the red, face-like emblem where the maker’s mark should be, the same that the clanks wore on their chests.
It could all be a trap. They could be planning some horrible fate for him when he was brought to this Optimus. And yet, Tarvek could hardly contain his excitement. Intelligent clanks capable of transforming into new shapes! Clanks that could run, could talk, could laugh . The only way it could be better would be if he had the Storm King’s Muses here, too.
The silver and red clank had introduced itself as Starscream, second in command of the Decepticon forces, and gone on to interrogate and rant at Gil in a way that was distressingly familiar. Gil did his best to reply with the sort of gossip that the typical Parisian student would have accumulated, complete with asides of how he’d heard the story from a fellow student who’d been in a class with a professor who’d been overheard talking to himself. And while the conversation continued, Gil made observations.
The clank acted impatient and short-tempered in general, complaining about slights done to it (and yet, it never said it’d “show them all,” an odd cultural difference). It still listened carefully to the wild rumors Gil spouted, and seemed to find them more amusing than disappointing. It opened up some of the death rays other students had brought to the demonstration with tweezers to peer into the components, and asked both very basic and strikingly insightful questions.
All throughout, Gil tried to figure out what the clank was . A remote controlled device? Or perhaps the Spark was piloting it from the inside? Maybe somehow the Spark had managed to transfer their brain into the clank body? None of those hypotheses seemed quite satisfactory. The movements were too natural for a remote, and while the clank’s disdain of ‘organic creatures’ was entirely in character for a clank-obsessed Spark, the fact that it had proclaimed itself to be from another planet either meant that said Spark was really gone off the deep end, or it was telling the truth.
Also, Starscream was not the leader of these clanks. Surely, if it were the housing for the Spark who’d made them, it would be in charge.
Well, maybe not. Not all Sparks thought that far ahead. But it didn’t act like a deposed leader. It acted like someone who’d fought their way towards the top and wanted to take that last step.
Gil was just starting to come around to the idea that the clank was a Spark, all by itself, a revolutionary idea, when the interrogation came to an abrupt halt.
Unlike many who lived outside Paris, the clank took the news of the Master of Paris controlling the city itself very seriously, asking how far the reach extended and how much the city could move. It was while pursuing that line of question that it stopped, clenching a fist, and muttered about having to inform Soundwave, whoever that was.
“Stay there!” the clank snapped at Gil, as if he wasn’t trapped in some ridiculous magnetically captured energy field. “We will continue this later .” And then it stormed out.
Tarvek watched out the windows as the clank-turned-carriage raced down the hallways. Not all of the walls were as pristine as the ones he’d seen earlier. Some had large rocks jutting through them, or were marred by stalactites and flows that had formed over time. As they went deeper, they passed through a couple of rooms with broken equipment before arriving in one that was occupied. Here, Tarvek could see scorch marks and holes as well as dents, signs of battle. Several of the clanks in the room looked to be assisting others. They looked like they were regrouping. Recovering. The fatigue, the worry, the grim determination was all there. These were no mere clanks. They were far too expressive, far too human in how they moved.
With and slightly different ratcheting sound, Bumblebee transformed again around Tarvek, somehow managing to move him from sitting inside of the carriage to standing in front of the yellow clank in the process. Metal hands steadied Tarvek helpfully after the transition, supporting but not restraining him.
“Optimus! Hey, Big Bot!” the yellow clank called out, waving. “Found us a friend!” At that, one of the largest clanks, one that had a red torso and blue extremities and probably turned into a locomotive from the look of it, knelt down in front of Bumblebee and Tarvek in order to get a closer look.
“A friend?” The hairs on the back of Tarvek’s neck lifted at the sound of that voice. Tarvek and his sister, Anevka, had made extensive study of vocal harmonics for… reasons, and he didn’t need any of his carefully calibrated instruments to detect the command wave in the voice he had just heard. That it was from somebody who did not appear to be in any kind of Spark fugue-state only made it spookier.
Tarvek took a step forward and bowed. “I certainly hope so,” he said smoothly, easily keeping all traces of fear and excitement out of his voice. “I am Tarvek Sturmvoraus, a student attending in Paris. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
The clank nodded back. “I am Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots. I wish that we could welcome you in better circumstances.”
Tarvek made a dismissing gesture. “I’m pleased simply to be here,” he said honestly. “If you don’t mind me asking, just what are the circumstances? I’m afraid I don’t know quite what is going on.”
Optimus Prime looked over at Bumblebee. “Cliffjumper?” he asked.
“He said there was a way out, but it was buried,” Bumblebee replied, indicating Tarvek. “Cliffjumper went on to check it out.”
Optimus nodded, looked around the room to see if he was needed anywhere else before directing his attention back to Tarvek. “It’s a long story,” he said, shifting to sit on the floor. “To be brief, our home planet, Cybertron, has been engulfed in civil war for many thousands of vorn, and the conflict has consumed its resources. This ship, the Ark , was our last hope to search for new sources of energon. Unfortunately, the Decepticons boarded it soon after we launched. We crashed during the battle and seem to have been in stasis for some time. I don’t know why Teletraan didn’t repair us sooner, or if the Decepticons survived. If they did, it’s likely that your world is in grave danger.”
Tarvek had many questions, but he focused on the most important topic. “I suspect I have seen those Decepticons,” he said. “How do you recognize them?”
“They’ve got these,” a rustic voice proclaimed, and an oversized piece of metal landed nearby with a loud clang . Tarvek didn’t bother to control his reflexive jump before adjusting his glasses and taking a look. The piece was torn and singed at the edges, a souvenir of the battle, but it had on it a purple, sharp-looking symbol that, he supposed, vaguely resembled a helmet with visor and crown built in. The clank that had tossed it was another train engine type, it seemed, as large as Optimus Prime and almost entirely red in color.
“Then yes, I have seen them,” Tarvek said. “They attacked during Professor Scoria’s demonstration. I took shelter in what looked like a cave,” No need to tell them he was looking for a control module. Safer to play the coward. “And one of them fired at the side of the volcano, triggering the landslide. It’s possible that they’re still out there.”
Optimus nodded and looked up at the red clank. “Ironhide. Take Trailbreaker and Hound and go join Cliffjumper. If there are Decepticons waiting in ambush, we need to be ready.”
“Sure thing, Prime,” Ironhide drawled in reply before turning to address the other clanks. “You heard the mech. Autobots, roll out.” Two clanks joined him, one mostly black and one mostly green. The three of them turned and thudded down the hallway, moving as a squad as if from long practice.
Tarvek supposed now was a good time to ask some of the other burning questions he had. “Just how long is a vorn ?” he began.
Bang woke up in a foul mood. Her head hurt, she’d been shot by one of those stupid clanks, and worse, she hadn’t managed to destroy any of them. Their armor was a lot more dense than it looked.
As a pirate queen should, Bang checked her weapons first. She still had a couple of her favorite knives, though it looked like her death ray was gone. Eh, she’d get another. The glass box she was standing in was obviously Spark-stuff, but fortunately, there was a Spark captured with her. Mister Sensitive was in another box, already muttering to himself.
“Hey! Hey Gil! Brat!” His Sparkiness paused and turned.
“Dupree,” Gil acknowledged. “You’re alive.” He sounded like he was both relieved and annoyed. Bang got that a lot. She’d been sent to Paris to teach him combat skills without actually killing him or revealing to the city at large that she worked for his dad. It kept her from getting bored. Most of the time, anyway.
“Yeah,” she said. “And when I find who’s responsible for all this, I’m going to skin them alive.”
Gil sighed. “They’re made of metal.” Oho, one of the clanks was in charge, huh? “Your knives won’t work.”
Bang leaned against the side of the glass box. “So? You’re a Spark. Make me one that will.”
For a moment, Gil gave her that look of exasperation that reminded her so much of Klaus. But then, he paused, and his eyes unfocused slightly while he started turning out his pockets.
Well, job done there. The madboy was doing something useful. Now, to see if she could manage to get out of one of these glass prisons before Gil could. Wouldn’t that be sweet to rub in his face?
The conversation began with establishing common terms. A vorn was roughly 83 years. A klik was slightly longer than a minute. Energon was apparently fuel and food both to the clanks, and its creation from more mundane sources of energy took considerable expertise. (At this point, Optimus was interrupted by Cliffjumper reporting to him. Via radio. They had radio communications built in .)
“If the Decepticons are still nearby, it’s likely we’ll have to fight. But until then, we need to recover and repair what we can. Ratchet is working on the damaged portions of Teletraan I, and Blaster has communications. Wheeljack’s attempting to establish a stable source of energy.”
“I am merely a student, but I would like to assist, if I could,” Tarvek offered. He was nearly vibrating with eagerness to see more of their technology up close.
“We could use the help,” Optimus Prime acknowledged with a rueful tone. “Perhaps you could assist Ratchet. His work is the least likely to be dangerous.”
Tarvek turned to look at the red and white clank who bore hospital van symbols as well as the Autobot emblem. He had his head under a console, working on it from underneath. That was tempting- Teletraan I seemed to be an important part of the ship. And yet…
“What would be the most dangerous?” Tarvek asked, pushing his luck.
Bumblebee, Optimus, and two others all replied together, “Wheeljack.”
Tarvek bared teeth. It was an expression of joy, but it also had an adrenaline edge to it. “I want to go there .”
For a moment, he thought he’d pushed too far, that he would be told no. But then Optimus looked at Bumblebee. “Bumblebee, keep him safe if you can.”
“Sure thing, Op!” the bright yellow clank replied. He waved for Tarvek to follow him and headed down a hallway. “I hope you know what you’re in for.”
Tarvek jogged eagerly after. “I didn’t attend Professor Scoria’s magma regenerator demonstration to be safe . I wanted to see if it would work.”
Bumblebee silently thought that over for a moment. “ Did it work?” he asked.
Tarvek nodded. “It worked perfectly until we were attacked by giant clanks,” he said. “If the pieces are still intact, it’s probably worth salvaging.” Indeed, his mind was already buzzing with ways to repurpose such a device.
He barely heard Bumblebee’s quiet remark to himself, “Well, I’ve always liked a challenge.”
Chapter 2: More than Meets the Eye, part two
The magnetic systems bottling the energy field that held Gil and Bang in their glass cells were inspiring. Gil managed to use those concepts to create a knife-like object with a plasma edge and was just about to try it out on the glass walls of his cell when he saw something move out of the corner of his eye.
A clank in the shape of a sleek, black panther flowed through the room. Gil watched the smooth way it moved, elaborate hinges and axles turning as easily as flesh and blood. It would take supremely intricate gearage to recreate such natural movement. Even with the buzz of a Spark fugue, he struggled to picture the internals. No tick-tock jerkiness marred the clank as it hopped from the floor to the workbench, and from the workbench to the apparatus that held up the glass cells.
Gil realized belatedly that he was below the clank now, and being stared at in much the same way as an ordinary cat might stare at a mouse in a hole. The clank was only slightly bigger than a full grown tiger, but that was more than large enough to make Gil feel like prey.
It stayed there long enough for Gil to want to blink in sympathy, and then it strolled across the top of the device to go stare at Bang in the same way. DuPree barely glanced up from where she was wringing her hands after her third electric shock of the day. (The air holes were big enough to get a hand through. That didn’t make it an easy escape. Even chucking knives through them hadn’t been very effective.)
Finally, the clank turned around, wandering back down the machine to a flat panel attached to it. The giant cat strolled across the panel, small squares lighting up where the clank stepped.
The energy field and its magnetic containment shut off at the same time.
Wheeljack’s lab was an unholy mess. At some point the rock of the mountain had torn a hole in the wall, smashing the shelves there and disordering the parts and tools that had been stored on them. Dirt and dust was everywhere. Workbenches were tipped over and bits of wire stuck out of unfinished work.
And a tall clank colored with red and green racing stripes of all things was sitting in the middle, cobbling something together instead of cleaning it up.
Tarvek had an intuition. “Hello!” he called as he and Bumblebee entered the room. “Is it safe to come in?”
The clank turned and gave a wave to his two guests. “So far!” He looked between Bumblebee and Tarvek. “Bee, who’s your friend?”
Bumblebee smiled. “Wheeljack, this is Tarvek. He’s a local lifeform- they’re called humans.” Tarvek bowed. “Tarvek, this is Wheeljack- one of the best gadgeteers I’ve ever seen, and a good mech to watch your back.”
Wheeljack rubbed the back of his head. “Just doing what I do.” He extended a finger to shake. “Nice to meet you, Tarvek. Sorry about the mess. I was just working on a way to clean it up.”
Tarvek shook the finger. “Care to tell me about it?”
Wheeljack was more than happy to go into detail about his invention- something to sweep up both the dirt and parts and sort them out. Assuming it worked, it would clean up the lab in a fraction of the time it would take to do it all manually. Of course, it had to be made first.
Not for the first time, Tarvek suspected it would be quicker and easier to just do things the hard way, but that wasn’t really the point, was it? Time to find out what kind of mad science these Autobots had.
Gil curled into a ball to protect himself as the glass cell plummeted to the ground.
The impact was announced with a sharp crack as the glass hit hard enough to bounce. The two cells rocked against each other and rattled across the floor like dice. By the time it came to a rest, Gil was bruised and a bit dizzy, but he was alive.
And still surrounded by glass. But the glass was on the floor and already had great, big cracks in it. Gil eyed the fissures, picked out a good spot…
SMASH! Bang naturally broke out first. Fortunately, that meant that the cat clank jumped her while Gil battered his own way free. Gil would cherish the way Bang’s expression had gone from triumph to dismay for a long time. Also, her indignation at being pinned down and then picked up and carried by her back of her clothes, hanging like a kitten in a mama cat’s mouth.
Gil backed away from the cat clank carefully. His new knife prototype was already broken by the fall and tumble. He didn’t have any other weapons on him. Maybe he could do something if he could get up onto the workbench. There were tools there, some of which he could even use.
Then Bang jumped from the side and kicked the cat in the face.
The clank cat dropped her empty jacket and shirt before batting back at her while rumbling in warning. (Gil was relieved Bang was wearing her skull bustier- half naked Bangladesh DuPree was more than he wanted to deal with at the moment.) It backed up and pawed at her with the back of its clawed feet as she kicked and swung whatever she could grab at it.
“Bang! Bang!” She wasn’t paying him much attention, growling at the clank as she tried to take it apart all by herself. “DuPree!”
“I am going to murder some clanks, starting with this one!” she declared. “You got a knife for me yet?”
“I don’t think it’s trying to kill you,” Gil observed. The clank cat had backed up some, and now was sitting back on its haunches, trading bats with Bangladesh with its paws.
Bang paused, eyeing the giant kitty clank. It sat and watched her back, eerily still now that it wasn’t being attacked. “Huh. But it’s got the same mark the other ones do.”
Gil hmmed, looking at the purple emblem on the clank’s shoulder. “Maker’s mark, maybe?” He looked around. “Maybe it’s a simpler version. A pet, or something.”
The clank rumbled again, giving Gil the same unblinking stare it had before.
“I don’t trust it,” Bang said. “But if it’s not going to kill us, I say loot the place and get out of here.” She headed for the workbench.
Gil followed after, and so did the cat. It even helped him up, grabbing his clothes the same way it had Bang’s and jumping up to deposit him on the workbench before he could wriggle free. Gil hastily gathered what usable parts he could while Bang, ever practical, picked up the few intact death rays left. Before Gil could begin to rework anything, however, the cat grabbed him again, jumping down to the ground and heading out the door.
Which at least was where he wanted to go, if maybe not the method.
Bumblebee swore he was paying attention. He kept Tarvek safe from one explosion and two fires, helped pick up some of the pieces from the freshly cleaned but slightly singed lab, and all the while kept one optic on the human and one on everything else. There was no way somebody could have snuck past without him noticing.
So it came as a huge shock when another human punched Tarvek in the arm.
“You selfish prigg!” the slightly smaller human shouted as she continued to flail at him with her fists. “Giant clanks attack, you disappear, and I find you doing science! ”
Tarvek huddled away from the assault, shielding his face but not really fighting back. “Ow! Ow! Violetta!”
“Don’t you ‘Violetta’ me , you jerk! You have earned my hate. Take it like the pompous ass you are!”
“Hey,” Bumblebee interjected, stepping in to try to shield Tarvek from the assault. It didn’t look like the other human was trying to do permanent damage, but Bumblebee still wasn’t sure just how fragile these organic lifeforms were. Wheeljack helped by trying to gently pull Tarvek’s assailant away, with limited success.
“Why don’t we all just settle down and maybe explain what’s going on?” Wheeljack said as the newcomer slipped through his fingers for the third time.
“Ugh, fine! ” The new human stopped and folded her arms, glaring.
Tarvek straightened his armor and dusted himself off. “Bumblebee, Wheeljack, may I introduce my cousin and bodyguard, Violetta. Violetta, these are Bumblebee and Wheeljack, visitors from an alien planet.”
Bumblebee couldn’t help the outburst. “You have a bodyguard ? This is your bodyguard?”
Violetta seethed at them. “You don’t have to say it like that. I may not be a great Smoke Knight, but look at what I have to work with!”
Bumblebee waved his hands in negation. “No, that’s not what I meant. I just don’t normally see bodyguards beating up their clients.”
Tarvek shook his head, grimacing. “It’s a family obligation. Her branch of the family protects mine, and has for generations. So long as I stay alive, she’s doing her job.”
Bumblebee felt a sinking feeling in his fuel tank. “So what’s after you that you need to be protected from?”
Violetta hmphed, tossing her hair. “Mostly the rest of the family.”
It was interesting, Gil reflected, how the clanks’ war camp looked a lot like anybody else’s, only bigger. The earthwork walls, the weaponry, the construction. There was even a pile of scavenged scrap being broken down for parts under the watchful eyes of his erstwhile captor, Starscream.
The cat clank followed Gil and Bang around. It didn’t hide when they did, seeming to not care if it was spotted, but it also didn’t stop them or give away their hiding places. Gil found it suspicious, but also wasn’t sure how to get rid of it without giving away their location to the rest of the clanks. The smartest thing he could do would be to head back for Paris, write a report to his father, and let him take care of this.
So of course Gil was sneaking closer to eavesdrop and learn more instead.
Bang seethed, but was smart enough not to pick a fight when they were so obviously outnumbered. She fumed in silence as they hunkered down in a hiding place close enough to listen. They’d no sooner settled when another clank, one that was silver all over with a simply enormous gun barrel attached to his arm, marched over to Starscream and the oddly similar clanks working under his direction.
“Starscream!” the silver clank shouted. Its voice was rough, but it had a quality to it that commanded attention. This was the voice of someone who expected to be obeyed, and Gil suspected this was the leader he’d been wondering about.
“Yes, almighty Megatron?” Starscream replied, confirming those suspicions, “What do you want ? Surely you can see that I am hard at work.”
“Yes, digging around in rusty scrap,” Megatron replied. “A fitting place for you, Starscream, but I want results. Get out there and look for more energy!”
“As you command,” Starscream sneered back. He turned away from the scrap pile and the handful of similarly built clanks sorting through it to yell at the sky. “Skywarp! Thundercracker! Get over here!”
Two sleek dirigibles bristling with weapons descended from the sky close enough for Gil to make out the same purple maker’s mark on them as on the rest of the clanks. One of them was purple and black, the other a brilliant shade of blue, and both of them had enough rotary guns and rockets attached to take out a small air squad by themselves.
Gil could hear some heavy breathing from behind him where Bang was hiding. He ignored it as best he could.
Starscream watched them swoop down, the pair of them moving together in formation in a way that would take airmen years of drilling to perfect. When they were nearly overhead to the clank, he called up, “We’re going scouting! Lord Megatron has commanded it!”
And then Starscream rose into the air as if pulled up by invisible strings, and twisted with a series of ratcheting sounds, parts folding and tucking away as an airbag appeared from nowhere, filling in a moment. A moment later, three sleek dirigibles flew away, tacking against the wind with skill and speed that Gil doubted anybody else with an air squadron could currently match. The thought of that kind of firepower with that kind of precision chilled him. He turned to look at Bang.
DuPree watched the dirigibles depart with wide eyes. “I want one,” she murmured.
Gil set his jaw. “Let’s set some bombs first.” He needed to escape, and he needed to write his father. But first? He needed to try to slow these war machines down.
His family. His family ruined everything. It would probably have been smarter to explain earlier, but it had been so nice to be a random Spark surrounded by mechanical genius, if only for a little while.
No help for it now, but at least he can keep the explanation brief.
“For a long time, Europa was a battlefield. Every army headed by its own Spark-”
“What was that?” Wheeljack asked sharply.
Tarvek paused, wondering if he’d hit a translation problem. “A Spark. A madboy. Somebody capable of making bizarre wonders few others can duplicate.”
Wheeljack and Bumblebee exchanged a look. “But that’s not what we mean when we talk about sparks,” Wheeljack said. “Where we’re from, we use ‘spark’ to mean what makes a person what they are, what gives them life and personality,” the Autobot explained. “Most people who give it any serious thought consider it to be housed in the core,” and here he tapped his chest. “It’s a kind of a mystical term, though metaphysics aren’t exactly my strong suit. Quantum physics is more my line of work.”
Tarvek nodded, wondering if that was a clue to the clanks’ origins. Something to think about later. “Here, a Spark is someone capable of creating things that push the boundaries of science. Spark-work is notoriously difficult to duplicate unless by someone with a stronger Spark, but there are plenty of minor Sparks who make a living supplying unique goods to the markets. At least in a city like Paris. In the wastelands, they’re more likely to be killed.”
“What, really?” Bumblebee blurted out.
And wasn’t this working out great as a distraction from talking about his own family? Tarvek nodded. Violetta took up the explanation with a sigh. “One of the characteristics of a Spark is breakthrough- the first time they really warp the laws of science. A lot of Sparks die doing it, because the thing they invented turns on them or blows up, or because they use other people as test subjects and then someone kills them to put a stop to it. But, basically, no army’s going anywhere without at least one good Spark.”
Bumblebee looked glum at that. Wheeljack’s expression was harder to read since the lower half of his face was covered, but he still left the impression that he understood the relationship between war and science all too well. “So, is that why Tarvek’s family would hurt him?” Bumblebee asked. “Because he’s a Spark?”
Tarvek shook his head. “No, it’s nothing that simple. It’s political.” From the enlightened looks he was getting, the clanks did, in fact, have politics. Good. That would make this easier. “Sparks tend to run in families- if your parents are a Spark, you have a good chance of breaking through as well. And in the old days, the scariest, most powerful family of Sparks was the Heterodynes, who operated out of Mechanicsburg. They had armies, inventions, a whole town of loyal minions, and a castle nobody could conquer.”
The two clanks listened avidly to the story. “In the old days?” Wheeljack asked. “They not around anymore?”
“Not since the Heterodyne Boys disappeared,” Violetta answered. “But that comes much later.”
Tarvek nodded and continued. “The old Heterodynes raided and conquered their way across Europa for a long time, but then the Storm King appeared, Adronicus Valois. He gathered the Shining Coalition around him, warriors and Sparks faithful to his side, and they slowly fought back against the Heterodynes and other, lesser threats, finally building a fortress to hold back the forces of Mechanicsburg, Sturmhalten. Unfortunately, Adronicus disappeared on the night he was due to wed the Heterodyne’s daughter and end the war. Without him, the Shining Coalition fell apart.”
“So what happened next?” Bumblebee asked.
Tarvek sighed. “Adronicus had many children,” he explained. “Plenty of descendants to carry on his title. Too many. They ended up bickering among themselves. Nobody could take the title of Storm King. Instead, they split up to rule the cities he’d founded or created. The Fifty Families all have some claim to the Storm King’s throne, but nobody has been able to recreate the Shining Coalition to unite Europa since.”
The two clanks mulled that over. “Where do you fit into all this?” Wheeljack asked.
Tarvek bowed. “I am Prince Aaronev Tarvek Sturmvoraus of Sturmhalten, and I have an excellent claim if the opportunity arises to press it. If someone else wants the throne, that makes me an obstacle.”
Bumblebee gaped. “And they’ll kill you just for that?”
Tarvek nodded. Not just for that, but this was more than enough explanation to get himself into trouble. “The Fifty Families track lineage very carefully. Even if it’s not public knowledge, my eligibility isn’t a secret to anybody who’s serious about the Valois heritage.”
Bumblebee was silent for a moment, then rubbed the back of his head. “And here I thought the scariest thing I’d be protecting you from was one of Wheeljack’s inventions.”
Wheeljack made a token protest and laughed at the joke. Tarvek was momentarily speechless. He hadn’t expected any kind of loyalty, much less protection .
Suspicion that he couldn’t allow to show in his expression welled up. Nobody was ever this kind. That wasn’t how his life worked . Good things did not just fall into his lap from the sky.
Violetta gave him a commiserating look, knowing him and the situation better than the Autobots did. It helped. She really was good at her job, better than she thought, and she was loyal. Bruises on his arm aside.
He’d have to come up with some way to thank her. And keep her alive. Tricky. In the meantime, there was plenty of science to do here. And he needed to think of how he was going to get back to Paris in time for classes in a few days.
Making bombs was easy enough, but placing them had an unexpected difficulty- the clank cat wouldn’t let Gil or Bang go into any of the buildings. In fact, when Gil had tried to slip back into the workshop, it had made a noise of such exquisite exasperation that Gil momentarily wondered if it saw itself as the intelligent, sophisticated one and saw him and Bang as wildlife that wasn’t smart enough to run off into the wilderness after being set free.
But the charges were set, and set off, and soon Gil and Bang were running into the underbrush, away from the fires and smoke that occupied the clanks. The cat ran alongside them, easily keeping up.
It was a long way back to Paris. Gil tried a few times that day to shoo the clank cat away, hoping they’d gone far enough that it would want to go back where it came from. When he waved his arms at it, it ignored him. When they started walking, it followed them or shadowed from the side. Eventually, Gil set up camp. By unspoken agreement with Bang, they traded watches that night, neither one willing to go entirely unguarded while the cat was nearby.
The clank cat’s black body faded into the darkness as night fell, even the glow from its eyes. But when the morning came, it was still there.
Bumblebee left Violetta in charge of keeping Tarvek from getting killed by a random lab accident so he could tell Optimus what they’d just learned about their human friend. Also, he was hoping that somebody else saw the ‘Smoke Knight’ before she appeared in Wheeljack’s lab.
Nobody had. Security was definitely on the list of things that needed to be fixed. It was enough to make the others consider digging through the rubble to find Red Alert.
That still left telling the story about this ancient Storm King and his descendants.
Ironhide didn’t like the sound of it. “A bunch of nobles killing each other for some ancient throne nobody’s sitting on. What kind of planet did we land on?”
Bumblebee shook his head. “Just imagine it, Ironhide, living with a whole family of Starscreams.”
“Let’s hope they’re not that dangerous,” Optimus said. “It’s clear we’ll have to be careful how we interact with the human governments.”
“If they’re even half as dangerous as Starscream, that’s still a whole lotta trouble, Prime.” That was Jazz. Bumblebee found himself agreeing.
Optimus took a moment to consider. “The Decepticons are our responsibility. We need to find them first,” he concluded. “Hound, Cliffjumper- take a look around, but if you see a Decepticon, don’t engage yet. Call back to base.”
It wasn’t a sure thing that Cliffjumper or Hound would follow that particular rule, but they were both sturdy Autobots- they’d make it back even if they ran into a fight.
With the orders given, Optimus turned his attention to Bumblebee. “Bumblebee. What do you think of our human friend?”
What did he think?
Bumblebee was generally considered a good judge of character when it came to meeting new people. And the person he’d met... he kept secrets. He probably wasn’t telling the whole truth now. But unless Bumblebee missed his guess, Tarvek had really been thrilled to meet the Autobots. Before that, he’d braved an unknown cave alone. He’d jumped at the chance to work with Wheeljack when other people, especially other Cybertronians, would have stayed well away. And in a family where people killed each other, him and his cousin hadn’t been all that serious in that little tussle. It was more like watching turbofoxes play with each other than seeing somebody really trying to kill someone.
Bumblebee had seen more than enough people who wanted someone else dead.
“Op, I think he’s a friend.” Bumblebee answered. “And I think he needs friends.” Sometimes, that’s all that really mattered.
The Autobots did manage to find Professor Scoria’s magma manipulator, and Tarvek was delighted to find that it was mostly intact when Sideswipe and Sunstreaker brought it back to Wheeljack’s lab. After Tarvek gave a short explanation to Wheeljack of the principles it used, the two of them brainstormed a way to use the device to create a stable magma current. The heat energy from the current could be harnessed to power a steam turbine. However, instead of using the steam power directly, the Autobots would use the turbine to generate electricity!
A few days here, and Tarvek was sure he would learn enough to build his own lightning moat.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay here for a few days. If he failed to return in time for classes, he’d fall behind in his work and possibly fail them. Especially if he missed the practical portions.
He brooded over the problem during supper. (Violetta cooked. The food was definitely not poisoned, but it did have some odd flavor combinations. Not all of the scavenged supplies from the expedition paired well with roast lizard.) A magnificent sunset offered a spectacular backdrop for a brooding genius like himself, and Tarvek savored it. He also took time to appreciate that he was no longer trapped inside a cave. It was a great cave, populated by amazing and friendly clanks, but it wasn’t where he planned to spend the rest of his life.
Not that it wasn’t a tempting thought, but it wasn’t any more practical than living in the Immortal Library. There was too much to do, too many plans to complete.
It was with those plans in mind that Tarvek returned to the control center of the buried ship turned underground lair. He’d had his fun today. It was time to get his mind on serious matters.
So Tarvek spoke with Optimus Prime and explained the situation.
“I see,” Optimus said. “We’ll gladly help you get back to Paris safely. Would you be willing to do us a favor?”
Here it comes , thought Tarvek. The other shoe. “Of course,” he replied.
“I can see we have much to learn about the peoples and nations of this planet. Bumblebee volunteered to take you back to Paris. Would you let him stay with you for a while, to learn?”
Tarvek mentally shifted gears over a split-second. “Of course!” he said with much more enthusiasm than before, already coming up with cover stories and suitable dwelling space. “Would he be staying in disguise? I’d have to tell the Master the whole story, naturally...”
Bumblebee gave Tarvek a thumbs up from the side. “It’s probably best until we know more about how people will act,” he said. “You and Violetta know the territory. You’ll know if it’s safe to come out.”
Optimus nodded. “Bumblebee’s a quick Autobot, so you won’t have to leave tonight if you’d like to stay longer.”
If it weren’t for the inner voice saying that there had to be a downside to all this, Tarvek could have laughed. At least, his broad smile was genuine. “Wonderful!”
Gil’s trip back to Paris was, predictably, interrupted. The scurrilous Doctor Boffrand’s venomous octoslugs threatened a peaceful village with their acidic slime. With the help of a mechanized salt shaker and some explosions, Gil rescued the beautiful hostage, escaped the self-destructing lab, and saved the town. In the chaos, Bang ran off (with the letter Gil had written for his father). She’d turn up again in her own due time.
The black clank cat sat silently at the edge of the village and watched the cotoslugs try to poison it until Gil emerged smoking from the ruins of the lab with an armful of beautiful woman. Then and only then did it deign to squish the gastropods and follow Gil once more. It had been no help whatsoever.
At least it didn’t faint in his arms and expect him to carry it, Gil thought sourly.
Miss Barbier was apparently a denizen of Paris, so Gil escorted her to the city. She clutched at his arm nearly the whole way while the oversized cat shadowed them. It made for one of his more memorable entrances at the city gates. Ragged, tired, and in need of a shave, Gil was more than happy to send the grateful rescuee off to find her relatives. All he wanted was to get back to his apartment, get clean, and fall into bed.
Of course he had a letter waiting on him, asking him to visit Colette at his earliest convenience. Naturally.
He took advantage of the necessary steps to clean up and shave and get changed into presentable clothes to gather his thoughts. The cat was outside, at least. Mrs. Wathelet was a patient woman (had to be, to rent out to a spark), but had insisted that their arrangement did not include pets. She’d shooed the clank cat out with a broom.
And it had gone. It laid down outside the house and stared at the people walking past instead of watching Gil.
He hadn’t realized what strain it had been, to have it lurking nearby all the time. The relief at getting away was overwhelming. It was only now, as Gil rinsed his face and patted it dry that it occurred to him how suspicious it was. The cat hadn’t minded anybody before, exuding a kind of immovable cat-ness whenever he or Bang had tried. Neither had it yielded to sweet talk from Miss Barbier. It just did what it liked.
And while that was a very cat-like way to act, that didn’t explain why it was here, why it had followed Gil all this way only to back off when threatened with a perfectly ordinary broom.
It all added up to a host of suspicions and no way to confirm them. Gil ground his teeth in frustration. This kind of, of cat and mouse game was by no means his specialty. He could keep a secret (was keeping secrets). He could play a role. But poking and prying to find out what other people were doing? He preferred problems that could be solved cleanly.
What he needed was an expert at intrigue.
Colette was pretty sharp. Maybe she’d have some ideas.
And that sneaky little thought that said he actually knew of at least one person who did this kind of thing like breathing could get wound. Sturmvoraus was just too dangerous- let him in on one secret, and the rest would unravel eventually. Attending school in Paris- Paris! - was contingent on continuing to be a nobody.
A very Sparky nobody who dueled pirates and defeated villainous plots and had women draped over him all too often. And who was about to make a social call on the Master of Paris’ own daughter.
It was possible he was rather bad at being a nobody. But at least no one knew he was a Wulfenbach.
The extra time was put to good use. Tarvek finished the generator design with Wheeljack. Bumblebee and Violetta spent a lot of the time together, working up contingency plans and code words while keeping an eye on the two geniuses. Nothing too important was blown up, though Tarvek would miss that waistcoat. He’d just have to get another one.
There was still no word on the Decepticons as they prepared to leave, though the Autobots were sure they’d show up sooner or later. In the meantime, Teletraan I had drones out searching, and some of the more eager Autobots (particularly Cliffjumper) were out looking as well.
Tarvek offered to seed information to some of the people he knew, so they could strike at the Decepticons without implicating the Autobots and revealing that they had survived. Optimus turned him down gently but firmly.
“The war with the Decepticons is our battle,” he told Tarvek. “We have a duty to protect the people of Earth, not use them as weapons.”
Tarvek was convinced he meant it, too.
If the Autobots didn’t want to play the political game, then he could probably assume that their interest in the various powers and nations was mostly out of self-defense, to avoid being used in other people’s battles.
If Tarvek was going to help them do that, then he would have to keep them away from his family as long as possible.
That thought brought on a tiny twinge of conscience. It didn’t matter how careful he was, sooner or later, Grandmama would find out. And she would have plans. She had plans for everything. She was a terrifying woman.
She wasn’t the only terrifying person in Paris, either. Tarvek took the first leg of the trip back to plan out who needed to know the full details of his new carriage, and who didn’t.
The Master definitely had to know. Tarvek wasn’t about to get thrown out of Paris over something the Master probably wouldn’t care about so long as ‘Bee stayed out of trouble.
Colette was probably safe and would appreciate the warning.
His family would figure it out eventually, but not from him. He’d have to talk to Violetta about ways to keep the other smoke knights from sniffing the truth out too early.
None of his professors needed to know.
The Immortal Library? Hmm, maybe. They were politically independent, answering to nobody. It might be a useful place for Bumblebee to stretch his legs and study if he wanted. There was always the risk the information would travel back, but Tarvek could pass him off as just a highly advanced clank to the other patrons. A curiosity, not a harbinger of another war.
And on that note, it probably wouldn’t be long before the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons caught the Baron’s notice. Augh. At least while in Paris, Bee was safe from being taken apart by Wulfenbach’s people. Another reason to keep his nature secret.
Once he had the framework of a plan, Tarvek joined the conversation between Violetta and Bumblebee- she was telling a story of racing across rooftops in Sturmhalten, a rare happy memory from his home. He regretfully steered the conversation to their arrival in Paris. The three of them plotted together, filling in the details.
Bumblebee was quite adept at that kind of planning. His size and mobility suggested a scout or possibly a spy rather than the more straightforward Ironhide. It was possible that his cheery exterior was a mask, like Tarvek’s polished manners. That he wasn’t asking Tarvek all sorts of questions yet didn’t mean he wasn’t noticing what wasn’t said. The Autobots had been at war for a very long time, after all.
Something to keep in mind.
Tarvek had been burned by friends before.
“And who is this magnificent beast?”
“I don’t know if it has a name. I hadn’t thought about giving it one.” Too annoyed, didn’t want to get attached to it. “Maybe Stinky?”
The black clank cat gave Gil a very flat, unamused stare.
It’d followed him all the way to Colette’s chateau (actually, her family’s chateau, but she lived there). Colette met them both outside, leaning on a spark-work carriage of the latest model, the type with wheels. She wasted no time in cooing over Gil’s new companion.
“Non, non, not a Stinky, are you?” she said, rubbing the sides of the cat’s head. It stared at her, now, and Gil could swear it was trying not to roll its eyes. “Something dashing, like Midnight or Mistopheles or Inkblot.”
“Inkblot is dashing?”
“Ah, well, charming? If you can’t have dashing, charming will do. Shall we?” She waved at the carriage. Gil bowed and slid into the passenger side. Colette was driving, of course. It was her carriage.
“So, where are we going today?”
“There is a lovely new cafe with citron macarons. I thought we’d go… is your cat keeping up?”
“Ah, yes, it seems so.” Their conversation drifted off as Gil watched the clank cat lope alongside the speeding carriage, Colette sneaking glances.
“Will it follow us the entire way?”
Gil sighed and slumped against the door of the carriage. “I think so. It’s been following me everywhere since it showed up. I don’t know why- it doesn’t talk. It doesn’t do anything I tell it to. The only person it’s listened to so far is my landlady.”
“Knowing Madam Wathelet, I would be more surprised if it ignored her. She is a force of nature, is she not?”
Gil agreed. They chatted about lighter topics for the brief trip back to the heart of Paris, parking the carriage around the block and walking the rest of the way to the cafe. The cat walked alongside, ears alert and eyes watching the people they passed. Many of them shrank away from the scrutiny, while others paused and asked where they could obtain one of their own. Gil shrugged off the questions, telling them he just ran across it in the wastelands.
The cafe seating area was in its own little fence, and pets were not allowed. Some incident with a fire-breathing iguana, Colette explained. The cat simply blinked slowly, then walked over to a nearby lamppost and lay down next to it and seemed content to stay there. Gil hid his relief at once again getting a bit of breathing room.
He played the gentleman and held Colette’s chair for her as they sat down, then he picked up the menu and tipped it to hide his face from the clank. “Honestly, that thing gives me the creeps. It follows me around and watches everything. I’m tempted to find a way to tear it apart and get rid of it, except it hasn’t attacked anyone.”
Colette gave him a sympathetic look. “You have such a soft heart. If it were to menace me, you’d be after it in an instant, wouldn’t you?” She smiled. “I would like to know how it came to follow you, but perhaps you should tell me about the professor’s demonstration first. You are the only one to return so far, did you know?”
Gil’s thoughts blanked. “The only…?” Surely, surely somebody else survived that. The professor was gone, of course, but there had been nearly a dozen students and their valets. Sturmvoraus in particular never seemed to die no matter how many times he was stabbed or kidnapped. Or both.
Colette patted his hand. “It’s only been a few days. It’s entirely possible some of the others are lost?”
Gil shook his head to clear it. “No, no, you’re right. It could take a while to get back, and we all scattered when the attack came.” He ordered some coffee and some of the macarons Colette recommended, then began to recount the events of the doomed field trip.
The cat stayed by the lamp post. Gil kept his voice low so it wouldn’t carry.
Everything went to plan. Tarvek and Bumblebee obtained an audience with the Master and explained the situation. Bumblebee was registered as a carriage and Tarvek paid the tax gladly, moving on to rent an additional workshop/garage that the Autobot proclaimed to be fine accommodations. All the running around and paperwork was finished with more than enough time left over for Tarvek to take a relaxing bath in his apartment before bed.
Violetta grumbled about Tarvek’s smug face.
The conversation and the company was wonderful. Other students joined Gil and Colette, and the gossip flew. Soon, they were headed for a tavern to round out the night with drinks in good company.
The cat used the lamp post as a scratching post. Colette did not appreciate that and yelled at the clank for damaging her father’s city.
It did it again outside the bar.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach stayed up late, reading the reports. So many reports. He’d been up for, what, two days now? Next was one from Goderick Ninkom, mayor of Pope’s Nose, complaining about a clank army stealing all their lamp oil. Klaus made a note to send around a questor to verify the report. It sounded exaggerated, but one never knew. If it really was an army of clanks, that would likely mean an unknown Spark. That would be worth showing up in person.
In the meantime, there were some Wulfenbach troops not too far away. He would alert them to the issue and have them step up patrols. Even a handful of rogue clanks would be good exercise.
I am aware that the character in CATS is spelled Mistoffelees, but I thought a more Greek slant to the name would better suit students at a big university.
Chapter 4: More than Meets the Eye, part four
Starscream shouted orders to his Seekers, dodged enemy fire, and fumed. It wasn’t his fault the Autobots had survived after all*, but he was sure Megatron would find some way to blame him for it. At the moment, however, the Decepticon Emperor was busy wrestling with his counterpart. Rumble was tearing up the ground, slowing down the Autobots, and Laserbeak was harrying them, spoiling their aim.
That meant that the organics were Starscream’s problem. There were more of them than expected, but nothing that they couldn’t handle, primitive creatures that they were. Thundercracker’s little trick had crippled half a dozen of their flying machines. Taking out the ground defenses was child’s play with his null ray. The way was mostly clear.
“Skywarp, to me!” The inflated black figure appeared next to Starscream with a soft whump of air and changed back to his robot mode.
“What are we shooting?” he asked eagerly.
“Anything in our way!” Starscream said, giving him a push ahead into the storage depot. “Grab what you can before our glorious leader calls a retreat.”
Skywarp grumbled and Starscream snapped at him, but the two of them grabbed as many barrels of hydrocarbon fuel as they could. They’d convert it later- with the Autobots here, it was only a matter of time....
“Decepticons, retreat!” Yes, there it was, the dulcet tones of their revered leader. Starscream didn’t bother transforming- the local flying machines were frustratingly slow. Fine for blending in without being noticed. Horrible for actually getting anywhere in a hurry.
Starscream only hoped they’d gathered enough to blunt Megatron’s temper. It was all these primitive organics. They had plenty of weapons and devices to get in the way, but their energy sources were feeble compared to what the Decepticons needed. Starscream had done more scouting than raiding so far, searching for targets worth the trouble. If the Autobots hadn’t shown up, they’d have cleaned out this little supply depot, left nothing but rubble, and still been left wanting for more. As it was, Starscream had grabbed all he could store. He hoped Skywarp had kept on task enough to do the same.
They needed a better target. Some of the devices he’d seen would have required considerable resources to create and maintain. If they could track those back to their origins, they’d have enough to launch the ship and could leave this miserable planet behind.
If nothing else, there was that city- if it was vulnerable.
Sturmvoraus shrieked like a startled bloodbat.
Gil looked up from his notes for Professor Chauveau’s class, annoyed, then remembered that the black clank cat that sat by his table was of the same style and had the same maker’s mark as the army that had nearly killed them a few days ago. Gil had become so used to the clank’s ominous presence that the more murderous nature of its fellows had slipped his mind.
You could get used to nearly anything after a while.
It was a relief that somebody else had survived, even if it was Sturmvoraus cringing by the door in terror.
“You brought one back ?” The red-headed weasel gasped, back pressed against the wall and one hand pressed to his chest.
Gil decided to be nonchalant about it. He leaned back in his seat, balancing a pencil on a finger casually. “It decided to follow me home,” he replied.
Sturmvoraus flushed nearly as red as his hair. “Of course!” he said, throwing his hands up. “It and a dozen of its friends tried to kill you, so you just brought it home and fed it fish… or oil… or…” He paused, his color returning somewhat to normal as he distracted himself from his own rant. “ Does it eat anything?”
Gil lightly flipped the pencil to balance on a different finger. “Not that I’ve seen,” he admitted. “It’s a mysterious creature. Follows me nearly everywhere. I thought about trying to open it up to see how it works, but it always seems to know what I’m about.”
Sturmvoraus snorted. “Probably smarter than you are, then. Or at least has more sense of self-preservation.”
That deserved an eye roll. “And where were you when the clanks were shooting everything? Hiding in some dark corner?”
Sturmvoraus shrugged at Gil. “Well, that was the smart thing to do, wasn’t it? None of the death rays seemed to have any effect. Not that I’d expect a savage like you to grasp such nuances. You seemed quite eager to go up against them with your bare hands, like an idiot.”
Gil was about to protest that he’d had a plan of tripping them up with cables, but then he remembered that he’d been shot and captured, and it took some of the wind out of his sails. “I lived,” he said a bit grouchily. “Got away in the end.”
“Yes, well,” Sturmvoraus eyed the cat suspiciously. “Maybe, maybe not.”
And that sent a thrill of danger down Gil’s spine. Maybe not, indeed. Less than ten minutes, and Sturmvoraus had pinpointed the cause of Gil’s recent anxiety. It did feel like he was still, in some way, a prisoner, out on some bizarre parole. Still being useful , as the weird Spark clank had said he could be.
“I didn’t see you bring back anything,” Gil challenged to hide his reaction. “So far, it’s been the perfect pet- quiet, dangerous-looking, and it obeys posted notices.”
That got a little resentful pout from Sturmvoraus. It warmed Gil’s heart. Even if the vicious viper didn’t manage to somehow drive away the cat now, the fact that it was there would rankle him. Gil was petty enough to enjoy his victory. And hey, a backup plan never hurt.
Tarvek returned from class with his thoughts less full of Professor Chauveau’s study of Rinkins-Scott's Clockwork Elaborate Energetic Bombard than the large black cat that had sat by Gil’s side the whole time. He made sure to wander the streets like the lazy student he was, buying a coffee and pastry before returning to his carriage. “Bumblebee,” he said upon climbing in, “Let’s go to the gardens.”
Bumblebee nimbly wound his way through the busy streets of Paris, staying quiet until they arrived at the public gardens. Tarvek nibbled his snack. “Is something wrong?” the yellow Autobot asked as they waited for entrance at the gates.
“There was a Decepticon in my class,” Tarvek answered. “A large, black cat with the badge on its shoulder.”
Bumblebee jerked slightly. “That’s Ravage!” he said, keeping his voice low and internal. Violetta’s upside-down face appeared in the window.
Tarvek signaled her to come in and allowed himself to slump slightly in the safety of Bumblebee’s interior. “I take it that’s bad. Who’s Ravage?”
Bumblebee smoothed out his progress, slowing down to the ambling pace required in the gardens so its visitors would have time to appreciate it as they drove through them. Violetta opened the door and swung inside to join the conversation. “Ravage is one of Soundwave’s, a spy and a saboteur,” the Autobot answered. “He’s vicious. Sneaky, too. He can’t quite disappear from plain sight the way Mirage or your cousin can, but he’s still pretty good at avoiding being seen when he wants.”
Tarvek bit his lip lightly. “He’s stalking one of the other students who was at the demonstration. Holzfaller. Sticks by him constantly. Would he be in danger?”
“Maybe,” Bumblebee answered. “Ravage is dangerous enough, but if he hasn’t made a move yet, he’s probably after something else. Something Soundwave or Megatron thinks is more important.”
Violetta hmmed. “There’s a lot of things someone could be after here in Paris that would be more important than one of the students.”
Tarvek shook his head. “Not just any student- a strong Spark, trained up by the Baron before he came here. That’d make Holzfaller valuable to a lot of people. The Master certainly likes him,” he concluded sourly.
“So, maybe they’re after him in particular. As a hostage or an asset,” Bumblebee mused. “They wouldn’t know much more about Paris than we do, so I doubt they would be after specific items in the city.”
“They might have heard about the market and sent a spy to see what’s there,” Violetta offered.
“Sure, but Soundwave usually uses his birds if he’s just looking for things. They can go out and return quickly,” Bumblebee replied.
Tarvek hmmed. Paris was a city of wonders, the Master of Paris one of the last members of the Shining Coalition. His control over the city was legendary. He knew everything, people said, and could use the city itself as… a weapon.
“The city,” he said softly. “Holzfaller or somebody else must have told them what Paris can do when the Master commands it.” He stood up to pace, slightly hunched over in Bumblebee’s interior. “Is that louse helping them? I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s part of all those secret societies trying to figure out the control mechanisms.”
“Now, hold on,” Bumblebee interrupted. “Ravage could have played dumb. Or Holzfaller could have been threatened. We don’t know anything for certain.”
Tarvek flopped back on the seat. “I know,” he replied. “We’ll need to learn more.”
Violetta gave Tarvek a look. “So what’s the plan? I know you’ve got one.”
He smirked back. “Well, a little one, at least. Bumblebee, can you try to trail Ravage while keeping out of sight?”
“Sure,” the Autobot gamely replied. “Though I think Violetta would be better at it.” Tarvek tactfully ignored Violetta’s sudden blush at the compliment.
“Yes, well. Somebody should go let the other Autobots know the Decepticons are interested in Paris,” he said. “And while you’re faster, I think in this case we ought to have you nearby in case we need a clank to fight a clank.” Tarvek looked over at Violetta. “Think you can take a message?”
“Yeah, I’ve got plenty of Moveit,” Violetta answered. “Shouldn’t take too long. If you can stay alive without me watching your back.”
“I’ll take every precaution,” Tarvek said grandly. “I have a wonderful getaway carriage if it becomes necessary.”
Bumblebee rumbled a laugh as Violetta slid out the window.
Klaus was on the verge of vowing to give up sleep entirely. In one night’s rest, three more reports arrived of attacks by this new clank army. They had to be fast; the locations were spread widely, and in a raiding pattern, not a conquest pattern. All the places struck had oil or machine shops, the clanks leaving most parts behind in favor of fuel or weaponry. This was much bigger than some local disturbance.
Not a single clank had been captured or even disabled. In every location, the troops had been overrun. Klaus grit his teeth and wished for more information.
“Ta daa! Bask in my presence!” DuPree slammed open the door and sauntered into his office. She tossed a fat envelope onto the desk. “You’re going to want to read that one.”
Klaus managed to just barely contain his annoyance at the distraction. “Shouldn’t you be in Paris?” he asked, picking up the envelope.
That was Gilgamesh’s writing. He tore it open.
“I thought I’d deliver this one myself!” DuPree said cheerfully. “So I can tell you all about these amazing flying machines we saw.” Klaus was already scanning the contents of the letter, noting absently when the pirate dropped her cheerful expression for something more serious. “They’re going to be trouble. They can outfly anything I’ve seen.”
Klaus looked up from the missive. “DuPree. Can you find that camp again?”
She laughed. “Of course I can! They’re not really hiding it.” She clasped her hands to her chest. “Oooh! If we smash up the place, maybe I can get one of them to keep!”
Klaus nodded. “Perhaps,” he allowed. “Come with me to steering.”
“Oooh! We’re taking the whole castle? ” She grinned, baring teeth. “Yeah! Let’s show these metal monsters who’s boss!”
It occurred to Klaus after he was halfway down the halls, shouting orders, that his wish had been granted. By DuPree.
He refused to think about that any further. Sometimes, you just accepted what life threw at you.
*Actually, it was his fault. Starscream shot the side of the volcano to trigger the landslide that would bury the Ark and the Autobots “once and for all”. Unfortunately for him, that movement also knocked Optimus Prime into Teletraan I’s repair beam, causing the Autobot leader to be repaired and enabling him to aid the others.
Without the landslide, not only would Optimus not have been repaired then, but Tarvek Sturmvoraus wouldn’t have been delayed long enough to properly meet the repaired Autobots. Add to that Starscream taking Gilgamesh Holzfaller and Bangladesh DuPree captive, and pretty much everything that happens in this story is, in some small way, Starscream’s fault.
Chapter 5: More than Meets the Eye, part five
Pawns. Pawns moving on a great big board.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Klaus reviewed maps and troop movements. DuPree had needed three days to get to Castle Wulfenbach using a combination of travel methods. It’d take slightly longer to return with sufficient forces. Two squads of hoomhoffers, to deal with the flying clanks and serve as distractions. Jaegers, of course. The Fourth Aetheric Vapour Squad would meet them on the way to the enemy camp. Bangladesh DuPree would command her own squad of dirigibles, a good test of her ability to coordinate with the rest of the fleet.
All of it would coalesce around Castle Wulfenbach and its own support fleet. The castle was the largest airship ever built, with weapons both within and without, and many creative Sparks on board including Baron Klaus Wulfenbach himself. Klaus didn’t see a reason to get out any of the really dangerous items. These rogue clanks were a threat, but not an existential one.
Still, he worried.
Runners scurried away with the orders for departure. Klaus took a moment to visit one of his labs with the excuse of wanting to verify some of the technical information included in Gilgamesh’s letter. He made his way to one that he had used when his son was young and he had successfully snatched a little time to work with him directly.
Never often enough. The pressures of ruling, the secrets, the other children on board, all of it conspired to make those moments rare. Much less often than those times when Klaus had come here to work on ways to make Gil safer, to make him more likely to survive the natural hazards of life as a young Spark.
Klaus took advantage of the private moment, sinking down into a chair by a stained and dented table and to watch the sun as it lowered towards the horizon. Oranges, reds, and purples spilled through the bay window into the lab and across the cumulus clouds outside. He looked down at the notes he was supposed to be reviewing, but he’d already committed them to memory. Out of habit he picked up a pen and added some coded observations, but even that trailed off.
Klaus turned and looked down upon a small lobster construct in a large orange coat. Zoing was his son’s own creation, an extraordinary Breakthrough project. Loyal, charming, capable of speech (if somewhat difficult to follow), and eager to help. Gilgamesh had been only eight years old then.
The lobster construct seemed to have caught Klaus’ mood; his one eye was wide with concern as he offered up a steaming cup of tea.
“Thank you,” Klaus said. He accepted the offering and sipped. It was good.
Zoing sat with him for a minute or two and they watched the sunset together.
The moment passed. Klaus rose with a sigh and gave the empty cup back. He’d trained his son, tested him, taught him, bolstered him over the years. It would have to be enough. Gil was, at the moment, out of reach. Time to return to work.
Those clanks were going to learn what happened to raiders that threatened the Baron’s peace.
Bumblebee smiled to himself and shook his head. The reason Tarvek knew that his fellow student, Holzfaller, belonged to secret societies that researched how the city worked? Tarvek also belonged to them. Tonight, one of the clubs was meeting in the dead of night (actually still fairly lively, here in Paris) at a tavern that was officially closed for the evening. Chalkboards covered in equations and diagrams were stationed around the common room, while bits and pieces of building blown free by an explosion in a student lab decorated the tables.
It seemed like that sort of thing was just as common around human geniuses as Wheeljack. The students weren’t even slightly fazed by the damage, gathering eagerly to examine the evidence. Even from where Bumblebee crouched, he could hear cheerful argument and the clink of glasses. His hiding spot behind a rain barrel didn’t give him a good view of the interior, but that was alright- the students weren’t his target. Ravage was standing on his hind legs looking in one of the windows, and Bumblebee was watching him . So far, the cat hadn’t spotted him, but Bumblebee was taking no chances.
One of Ravage’s ears changed to a cone shape and extended on a cable to press against the window. His gaze never wavered from the arguing students. ‘Bee was sure that everything in there would be reported back to Soundwave.
It was tempting to rush the cat and ruin his spying, but Ravage was more than his equal when it came to a straight up fight. It was likely that all that ‘Bee would manage would be to startle him into running away, and then the Decepticons would also know that at least one Autobot was in Paris as well. No, if Ravage were going to be captured, Bumblebee would need a trap and a plan. He’d have to talk it over with Tarvek, see what could be done without endangering the humans that lived here.
Bumblebee idly wondered how long the meeting was going to last. From the sound of the drinking and laughing coming from the tavern, it could be a while.
The one good thing about the Autobots surviving was that Laserbeak could go spy on them. With the Nemesis II still insufficiently powered, the Decepticons lacked the ability to scan so far and wide as Teletraan I could with its drones. Megatron greeted his favorite warrior, holding out an arm so that the bird-bot could land on it.
“Laserbeak: report,” Soundwave instructed in his monotone voice. Laserbeak settled on Megatron’s arm and projected his findings onto the flat surface of the wall, a map with several locations tagged. It seemed the local inhabitants habitually hid powerful items away in remote locations. Doubtless if such efforts were taken to conceal them, there would be traps or other defenses as well.
“Excellent work,” Megatron praised the bird. “Starscream. Take Thundercracker and secure the item near the southern sea, here.” He pointed to a location on the map labeled EGYPT. “I will obtain this one myself.” He pointed at a location in the mountains to the east. “Skywarp will accompany me.”
“I will not fail, mighty Megatron,” Starscream promised, as he always did. Always promising, playing to a crowd that valued words and poses more than actions, a crowd that no longer mattered. Megatron was Emperor. They lived at his sufferance, and no other’s.
Megatron scowled, not bothering to hide his irritation. “See that you don’t! There’s no room for your bungling.” He turned to Soundwave, a more reliable if less imaginative officer. “Stay here and keep the ship secure.”
“Acknowledged,” Soundwave replied. “Laserbeak: return.” The door on Soundwave’s chest opened; his spy-bird folded into a box that stored itself inside.
Orders given, Megatron set off immediately, somewhat pleased to see that Starscream also wasted no time. So few of his warriors had been on the Nemesis, and even fewer on the sortie to the Ark. Megatron needed more of his army if he were to truly wipe out the Autobots. For that, he needed energon to power the ship and get off this miserable planet.
The sooner, the better. His Empire needed him.
Bumblebee watched Ravage spy on the students long enough to feel bored, the worst part of this kind of stake out work. Obviously, the Decepticon saboteur had plenty to interest him , but ‘Bee was watching a cat stare through a window.
The discussion inside sounded like it could go all night. Bumblebee kept himself from zoning out by recalling the names of old Cybertronian cities and when they were destroyed, but he was getting down to the really obscure ones when Ravage finally moved.
The sleek feline Decepticon stepped back from the window, dropping to all fours, and walked across the alley to the corner of the opposing building. He used his sharp claws to pry at the masonry, soon removing the surface layer to reveal a much more complicated interior.
Bumblebee took out binoculars to get a better look himself. The more he saw, the more he felt a draining sensation in his fuel tanks.
Sure, it wasn’t exactly like Cybertronian circuitry- it was layered, with systems overlapping and built right on top of each other. But it was also simpler in some ways. Simple enough to be easy pickings with the right control systems. Soundwave could do it, he was sure.
This was what Ravage was after.
The door of the pub banged open and students spilled out, arguing loudly and less coherently than before. The black cat looked over at the noise, then darted out of sight. Bumblebee suppressed the urge to swear- without an infrared camera or similar, the Decepticon would be nearly impossible to track in the dark.
That didn’t mean he wouldn’t try. He shifted to the carriage form to be less conspicuous, then quietly rolled through the streets after the cat.
Starscream eyed the location he was looting and didn’t like what he saw. It was some kind of stone building that was mostly shaped like the much larger pyramid constructions farther down the valley. Entry was too easy- there was already a substantial hole in one of the sides of the edifice. As Starscream led Thundercracker cautiously inside, they found evidence of traps and misshapen organic defenders, but the traps were all sprung or disabled and the organics were dead or dying. Finishing off the stragglers was pleasing but boring. Starscream entertained himself by deciphering the picture writing along the walls as they penetrated further.
It didn’t take long for him to realize that the writing was, rather than arcane curses or poetry or similar nonsense, a series of signs and directions to aid in navigation of the twisting passages. Practical but with decorative flair. He rather liked it and took some images to save along with the small parts he’d picked up as they descended.
Unfortunately, the spacious hallways soon narrowed to something closer to the annoying human sizes. Starscream’s readings showed the power source through several feet of wall. His audials told him there was combat going on in that direction as well.
He smirked. Time to make an entrance. He directed Thundercracker behind him as they took aim, taking a moment to appreciate Megatron’s sacrifice in taking Skywarp. Thundercracker did as he was told and didn’t wander off to mess with things. Skywarp had the attention span of a robo-minnow.
The first thing Tarvek noticed as he left the pub was that Ravage wasn’t in the alley anymore.
Neither was Bumblebee.
It took only a moment to find the damage the Decepticon had done to one of the buildings nearby. Unfortunately, that delayed him long enough for a headache to arrive.
“Sturmvoraus! What are you doing?”
Tarvek eyed the degenerate pest. “Where’s your cat , Holzfaller?”
So satisfying to see him break stride. “It’s not my cat. It just follows me!” Holzfaller stepped closer. “Are you saying it did this damage?” He sounded impressed. Tarvek barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes.
“Maybe. Probably. Something did while we were in there arguing.”
“I still say that the cinnabar color isn’t true quicksilver ore.” The graceless nitwit knelt down to examine the gouges at the edges of the damage.
Tarvek sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose under his glasses. “The Master ought to be informed.”
“I’m sure he already knows what he built Paris out of,” He said absently, measuring one of the scratches.
Tarvek threw his hands up. “Fine. I’ll tell him.”
The insufferable miscreant gave him a smug grin. “And I’ll catch a naughty kitty.” And with that, Holzfaller loped down the alley, eagerly following the evidence.
Which meant Tarvek was left to his own devices. At last. Now he could do some investigating of his own.
After informing the Master of Paris, of course. Tarvek wasn’t stupid .
“Skywarp! Don’t touch that!”
Sorry this took so long! Winter is always my worst season. And then, the last few scenes ended up not going the way I thought they were supposed to, which is probably why they were so hard to write. The characters won't cooperate if I try to push them in the wrong directions. Which means it's going to take longer for them to get to their destinations than I thought, dangit.