Runaway: a TCS Story

Discussion in 'Transformers Fan Fiction' started by Porkulus, Apr 30, 2020.

  1. Porkulus

    Porkulus Too Many Hobbies

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    I know it's been a while since I posted anything involving my continuity, The Chosen Stars, but I've been spending a lot of time at home (as we all have) and felt inspired to get back to writing. This is meant to be a shorter story and takes place long after the events of the (still-unfinished) main story are over. It's actually something of a prequel to the setting for a tabletop game I've been playing with friends. I'll be uploading chapters as they're completed, but I'm not really on any kind of fixed schedule so please bear with me.

    After breaking out of a secret Decepticon base, Skids is on the run, and the infamous Decepticon Justice Division is close behind. He's outnumbered and outgunned- but he's about to find an ally in an unlikely place...
     
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  2. Porkulus

    Porkulus Too Many Hobbies

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    Chapter 1


    January 8, 2021
    3 AM Pacific Standard Time
    Blackrock, California

    Dropkick shifted his optics left and right. Everyone else looked just as bored as he was. He placed his hands on the table and began to drum out a little rhythm, quiet at first but with increasing enthusiasm as he continued. He was starting to get complex with it, keeping a beat with one hand while alternating the fingers on the other, when Shatter nudged him with her elbow.

    “Quit it,” she said.

    “Fine,” he sighed.

    There were four Decepticons in the small briefing room, or three, depending on how one counted. Shatter was in charge of base security, and Dropkick was her lieutenant. Across the table was the head scientist, Sunstorm, who had her hands folded nervously. Next to her was a hologram projection of Kiloton, the Earth operations marshal, who was stoic and statuesque, as always. She would have been in the room, but it wouldn’t accommodate her size class, so her hologram stood in for her.

    “Where is he?” asked Sunstorm, looking towards the door. “This shouldn’t take so long.”

    “Backdraft would have a good reason to be late to his own meeting. Give him time,” Kiloton replied.

    As if on cue, the door opened, and the base’s commander entered, carrying a datapad under his arm.

    “Apologies,” Backdraft said, taking a seat at the head of the table. “Let’s get started. Time’s of the essence, here.”

    Dropkick rolled his eyes, only to be elbowed by Shatter again.

    Sunstorm stood up, turned off the lights, and activated the briefing room’s display, showing security camera footage of the base’s main staging area. Guards were knocked out across the floor, and the heavy blast doors hung open.

    “As you all know, the Military Research Bureau’s projects here suffered a major security breach yesterday. One of our former test subjects who was scheduled for termination was able to escape.”

    She advanced the slide, now showing a rotating scan of the subject. He was a young-ish mech with a speeder body-type and a confused look on his face.

    “His name is Skids, and he was part of our research in Applied Psychometry. He was instrumental in collecting the data we needed for Harmony. His mental abilities have been… augmented.”

    “Augmented how,” asked Shatter, crossing her arms.

    Sunstorm tapped her fingers together and looked up at the ceiling in thought.

    “I’ll give you the simplest explanation I can. He, um, learns. Very quickly. We started him with logic puzzles, but in the span of a few solar cycles of testing, he had cracked the Trizer Dilemma.”

    Backdraft held up a hand to stop her. “For all of us who don’t know what the Trizer Dilemma is?”

    “It would be easier to say that he’s very dangerous,” Sunstorm explained. “He seems to have learned advanced combat techniques and firearm discipline. He was able to overpower our guards and hack our base’s security protocols in order to leave.”

    “All right, thank you,” Backdraft said, and Sunstorm returned to her seat. “Now, you’re all familiar with the clandestine nature of our operations here at Blackrock Base. I don’t think I need to explain how much of a threat this runaway poses. We’re surrounded by human settlements, and the Autobots maintain a sizable force in Mission City. We can’t risk being exposed to any of them, so immediate capture and termination of our test subject is the highest priority.”

    “We can do it, no problem,” said Shatter. “Security is itching for an external detail. I can have twenty troopers plus air support on deck in a megacycle.” Dropkick nodded with approval.

    “That won’t be necessary,” said Backdraft. “I called this meeting to let Security know that you’re off the case.”

    “What? Why?” huffed Shatter with disbelief, rising from her seat.

    “I would assume Comrade Backdraft has an alternative solution,” said Kiloton, attempting to defuse the room.

    “That’s correct,” Backdraft confirmed. “A large-scale operation by Security would only attract too much attention. We can’t deploy our Seeker team either, as we need them for reconnaissance and patrol. So I’ve called in a favor with a Party friend of mine. They’ve put a Justice Division squad on it.”

    Sunstorm covered her mouth and looked down towards the table. Shatter launched into a tirade of obscenities. Dropkick exchanged a nervous glance with Kiloton’s hologram.

    “That’s enough,” shouted Backdraft, silencing Shatter. “Your officers couldn’t stop our little runaway within our base. I doubt they’d stop him in the field. We need to resolve this quickly and without any loose ends. Nobody will do that better than the Decepticon Justice Division.”

    “Do you even know what squad they’ll be sending?” asked Sunstorm, looking back up while massaging the bridge of her nose.

    “I’ll let them introduce themselves,” said Backdraft, turning off the room’s display while powering up his datapad. He placed it on the table, and its own lower-resolution hologram crackled to life. The shimmering image of a head took form, though the face was obscured with a mask in the shape of the Decepticon insignia. The floating head swiveled back and forth, surveying the small briefing room.

    “I see you’ve instilled a sense of confidence in them, comrade Backdraft,” the mech said, his smooth voice loaded with spite.

    Backdraft seemed surprised. “What’s the meaning of this? I’ve let them know everything you told me to--”

    “It doesn’t matter. For some, faith requires a demonstration. Look and see.”

    Backdraft only managed to gasp before he rose into the air and crashed down onto the briefing room table. A huge, dark figure stood at the head of the table where he once had. Behind it, the door to the briefing room was open, the hallways of Blackrock base illuminated only by dim emergency lighting. Backdraft attempted to rise but the figure surged forwards past Sunstorm and pinned the base commander to the table. Sunstorm dove for the briefing room lights and flipped them back on. The mech was strongly built, heavily armed and armored. Covering his face was the same mask as the hologram’s.

    “Tell me,” he said, looking up from the struggling Backdraft to the room’s other occupants. “Are you unbelievers still?”

    “You’ve made your point,” said Shatter, gesturing towards her sidearm. “Leave him alone.”

    “Leave him alone? You see, he called for me. And I answered.” The mech pressed Backdraft against the table once more before releasing his grip. “From my understanding, it is you who have failed. Perhaps if different calls were made, I would be here to hunt you.”

    “Enough of these theatrics,” said Kiloton’s hologram. “Name and rank.”

    “Comrade Specialist Damus, sixty-sixth field operations squad,” the intruder said, not bothering with a salute.

    Kiloton’s eyes narrowed. “Is this your first operation on Earth?”

    “You don’t have the clearance for that answer,” Damus replied.

    “Are we really going to put up with this clown?” asked Shatter.

    “My involvement in your incident is no longer under your control,” Damus said, turning to face the security officer. “This is DJD business now. Like all of our business, you won’t be hearing about it again.”

    Backdraft eased himself off the table and found his datapad pushed onto the floor. “See? That’s exactly what we need.”

    “We’ve already begun tracking your target,” Damus continued. “That is all you need to know.” He moved back towards the exit, his footfalls surprisingly quiet for his size.

    “When should we expect an update?” Backdraft called out after him. The mech turned and raised an index finger towards his own optic, then pointed to Backdraft. He disappeared into the dark hallway outside.

    Shatter leaned back against the briefing room wall. “You know, nobody from Security would have tackled you.”

    Backdraft gritted his teeth. “You sound like someone who wants the kitchen patrol.”

    “Well, I’ve got a post to return to,” she said, gesturing for Dropkick to follow. The Security officers left, leaving Backdraft, Sunstorm, and Kiloton’s hologram in the room.

    “I’ll guess you’ve never worked with the Justice Division before,” Kiloton said.

    “Unlike some of us, I’ve never needed to,” Backdraft retorted.

    “My experience felt far more pleasant than this. In any case, it’s out of our hands now. Send me a report once you hear from them,” Kiloton said as her hologram closed down.

    Sunstorm looked up at Backdraft. “They’ll kill him, right?”

    “Do you expect anything less?”

    “No, it’s just that… with his level of augmentation, I wanted to… record the results. See what happened.”

    “Maybe you’ll get another chance when that Aurora pet of yours malfunctions.”

    Sunstorm bit her lip and left. Backdraft checked his datapad, noting the screen had been cracked. He powered it on to check if it still worked. Damus’ face emerged in hologram form once more, so he quickly turned the datapad back off. They would make the problem go away, after all. They were very good at making problems go away.
     
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  3. Porkulus

    Porkulus Too Many Hobbies

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    Chapter 2


    January 8, 2021
    6 PM Pacific Standard Time
    Lone Pine, California


    The Ninja 250 rolled to a stop on the gravel in the shade of the old pine tree. Jack Darby took off his helmet, flipped out the kickstand, and propped the bike up outside of his little garage. It was really a prefab tool shed, but it was big enough for his bike and some spare parts. Once he was done saving up, he’d get himself something bigger. A real house, with an actual garage. He looked over his shoulder at his trailer’s duct-taped windows. His mother had told him he wouldn’t make it on his own, but he was pulling it off. Maybe not in style, though. He knelt down to open the garage’s padlock and paused. The lock was missing.

    “Oh, hell,” he cursed. He backed away from the garage and headed for the trailer, which seemed just as intact as it had been when he left. The door hadn’t been kicked in and the lock worked when he tried his keys. Had someone just been after the parts for his bike? Oddly specific, he figured, but possible. He reached underneath his mattress and pulled out the hard case, popping the latches open a drawing his Hi-point. Whoever had broken in probably wasn’t hiding in there, but he didn’t want to risk anything. With his gun in hand, Jack moved back to the garage. He grabbed the lock-less latch and pulled upwards.

    There definitely wasn’t anyone hiding in the garage. As far as he could tell, nothing had been removed either. There was a significant addition: A dusty blue subcompact. It wasn’t a model Jack was familiar with, and it barely fit inside the tiny space. There definitely wasn’t room for the doors to open.

    “What the…” Jack muttered. Why would someone break in and dump a car? Maybe it was a stash of drugs that somebody wanted to ditch. That halfway made sense. But why put it in somebody’s garage? Did his trailer really look that abandoned? He didn’t have the answers, but he knew that the police should be notified. That would be the right thing to do. He stuffed his pistol into his belt and fished out his phone, dialing 9-1-1. His thumb was over the call button when he heard something, almost like a whisper. He looked around, but didn’t see anyone nearby. He pulled his gun back out and held it up with his phone at his side.

    “Come out,” he said, trying to sound as firm and calm as possible. “I’ve got 9-1-1 on the line. You’re not going to be able to hide forever.”

    “Don’t call the police,” said the whisper. It had a funny kind of accent, one Jack was certain he had heard before but couldn’t place.

    “Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t,” Jack replied, scanning left and right through his pistol’s sights.

    “The police will only make this worse,” the voice said.

    “That sounds like something a crazy person would tell me.” Jack slowly walked to the edge of the garage, ready to round the corner and confront whoever was hiding.

    “I’ll leave. I’m sorry. I’ll leave.”

    Jack whipped himself forwards, taking aim down the back of the garage. No one was there. He heard an unfamiliar engine turn over, followed by the crunch of gravel. He rushed back around the garage to see the blue car pulling onto the road heading south out of town.

    “Hey,” Jack called. “Hey!”

    The car peeled out on the asphalt, the tail lights flashing on in the growing darkness. Jack scrambled over to his bike and turned the ignition. Maybe this nutcase hadn’t stolen anything, but breaking into peoples’ places and stowing cars was definitely not safe. The police needed to know about this guy, whether he wanted them to or not. He needed a license plate number, and he was going to get it. He scooped up his helmet, clipped it on, and gunned the bike out onto the road.

    The driver of the car was speeding. Jack didn’t want to break any laws to catch him, but it became quickly apparent that he would have to. It was rush hour, and while 395 south wasn’t Los Angeles-jammed, traffic was heavy. Jack weaved in and out of SUVs and pickups lumbering south towards Hesperia and San Bernardino. The little blue car pushed ahead in the left lane, forcing a minivan to change lanes as it barrelled onwards. Jack pulled his Ninja into the center lines, splitting traffic as he raced on towards the car. He was catching up, and they were reaching a lull in the traffic. He shifted down and the bike’s engine roared as he gave it as much throttle as he could. The car was closer now, his view unobstructed, and he could see that it had no rear plate. Jack cursed and pulled closer, but the car swerved left, cutting across the lanes of oncoming traffic to turn towards the Lone Pine Airport.

    Jack cursed again and followed, the Ninja’s tires screeching from the sudden maneuver. The airport was really just a handful of hangars arranged around two runways-- it was a leftover from World War II, or something like that, according to a pamphlet Jack had glanced at once. The car darted right into the dirt parking lot and threw up a cloud of dust under its spinning front tires. Jack hit the brakes and swung the tail of his bike out, sliding to a stop. He waved the dust away from his helmet and started forwards again as the haze cleared. The car had bought enough time to escape from his view, but it wouldn’t help it much. The airport sat on open desert, and there weren’t many places to hide. He checked the first hangar-- the door was still closed, locked into the ground. He couldn’t be there. He drove to the second hangar and found the door wide open. He dismounted his bike and set it on the kickstand. He had a clear view to the back of the building. Anyone fleeing would be plainly visible. Jack could hear the car’s engine running from within, but there didn’t seem to be anyone inside the hangar. He pulled out his phone and turned on its flashlight function.

    “Come on, you’re making this worse,” he warned. “What am I going to tell the cops now?”

    He advanced into the building. There were only a few single-engine planes inside. Jack found himself looking back over his shoulder as he moved further. This guy was definitely crazy. He had boxed himself in. Jack wasn’t sure whether that meant he was stupid or dangerous, but his driving earlier made him suspect the latter. He passed in front of a Cessna and saw a flash of blue in the dark. He raised his phone’s light.

    “All right, I’ve… got you?” he said, his voice faltering. The car was idling, headlights off. No one was inside. Jack spun around, ready for an ambush. No one was behind him.

    “Where are you?”

    “Just go,” said the whisper again. “I shouldn’t have--”

    “You did a lot of things you shouldn’t have,” said Jack, swinging his phone’s light into the darkness as he drew his gun.

    “Put that away,” it said.

    “You haven’t given me a good reason to yet.”

    “Please, just don’t make any loud noises.”

    “That’s what a creep would say,” Jack replied, backing away from the car.

    “I’m trying to hide.”

    “Well, I found you,” Jack continued, tracking his pistol around the hangar in a circle.

    “It’s not you I’m hiding from.”

    Jack stopped. No matter where he had been looking, the source of the voice hadn’t moved.

    “What do you mean?”

    “I can’t explain that for you. But I never meant to cause you trouble.”

    Jack narrowed his eyes. The voice was coming from inside the car, despite it appearing vacant.

    “Well, I think you owe me a padlock,” he said calmly, circling around the car. He approached the hatch and lifted it open. There was no one in the trunk. There was, however, what appeared to be a folded-up motorcycle.

    “Please close that,” the voice said, clearly within the car. Jack followed its directions, now very concerned. He walked back to the front of the car, crouching to look underneath. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary in the undercarriage. There was only one, ludicrous conclusion left.

    “You’re a talking car,” he said, the words sounding even worse aloud than in his head.

    “Not exactly,” the car replied. The front bumper shifted in place and Jack stumbled backwards onto the hangar floor. The car began to break apart, separating into chunks which hinged and swiveled into new positions. A shape formed in the cyclone of parts, becoming apparent when an arm thrashed out of the chaos to push the churning machine up onto newly-formed legs. It was almost humanoid, if it weren’t for all of the car parts. A strangely-human head emerged above its shoulders as it knelt down in front of Jack.

    “Don’t yell. Oh, please don’t yell,” it said, its voice the same as the whisper.

    “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” Jack whimpered.

    “Look, I’m going to-- I’m going to sit over here,” the robot said, settling to the floor and raising its hands above its head. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

    Jack considered shooting it, but could easily see the creature impaling him in retaliation, or eating him, or something like that. “W-w-what even are you?”

    “I’m an alien,” it said. “You can call me Skids.”

    Jack massaged his forehead. “Oh my God. This… this is happening.”

    “It’s all real. Not a dream,” said Skids. “My people have been hiding on your planet for a few years now.”

    “Your… people?”

    “There are others. Lots of others. Look, I could take my time and explain all of this to you, but I’m trying to hide.”

    “From other ones like you,” Jack guessed as he rose to his feet. The initial shock had worn off, but now the implications of what the creature was saying were starting to sink in.

    “Exactly. I parked myself in your garage because I thought it was abandoned.”

    “Is it that bad?” he asked.

    “I’m sorry, I’d-- I’d only seen human residences in your, uh, films.”

    “Is that where you learned to speak English?”

    “No, the Decepticons taught me that. One of their tests. I’m a test subject. Fleeing, if you haven’t put it together.”

    “Okay, okay,” Jack said, looking into the distance in thought. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t know--”

    “You couldn’t have,” Skids interrupted.

    “I’ll just let you go, and-- and nobody has to hear anything about this,” Jack suggested.

    “I wish it were that simple,” Skids said. A jet engine echoed outside the hangar, and the robot stood up. “They’re here,” Skids whispered. He rushed to the hangar entrance and pulled the door down. He then ran back to the plane he had parked behind and changed his shape, once again becoming the small blue hatchback.

    Jack ran back towards him. “What are you--”

    “Get in,” said Skids, popping open the right-hand side door. Jack hesitated. A soft thump came from outside the hangar, followed by another, and another. Footfalls. Jack decided to listen to the alien car robot and threw himself inside. He was surprised to find a steering wheel in front of him-- he guessed that aliens were JDM.

    The heavy footfalls grew louder before stopping in front of the hangar door. A set of silver-gray talons punctured the soft aluminum and wrenched the door up, revealing a large silver robot outside. Large wings were folded behind its back, and Jack could make out pieces of a jet’s cockpit scattered throughout its body. It craned its head into the hangar, its eyes shielded by a black visor. It moved to swing itself inside the building, but stopped suddenly. It placed a hand to the side of its head.

    “This is Arcana,” she said. “There was a traffic disruption to the south. I’m investigating.”
    “Return to Lone Pine,” said a second, softer voice over the communicator. “We’ve located a human residence with a signature.”

    The robot’s face split with a malicious grin. “Of course,” she replied, ducking back out of the hangar. In her movement, she crushed the Ninja 250 under her foot. A chorus of grinding mechanical sounds followed, accented with jet engines that rose in pitch and moved away.

    “Is… is it gone?” asked Jack.

    “Yes,” Skids replied. “That was too close.”

    “Why do they want to find you?” Jack followed up.

    “They’re going to kill me. I was a test subject of some friends of theirs.”

    “And now they’re at my house,” Jack sighed. “I guess I’m not going back home.”

    “I’m sorry,” said Skids. “I didn’t know--”

    “No, it’s… it’s ok,” Jack said. “You were in trouble. You didn’t know what to do. I… I get that.”

    “You understand?”

    “It’s not like we humans don’t have problems of our own,” Jack answered. “I moved out here to try to make it on my own. It’s kind of like what you’re doing,” he said, “but, I mean, no one’s trying to kill me.”

    “They are now,” said Skids dryly.

    “Yeah… I guess they are.” Jack leaned back against the headrest. “What am I going to do now?”

    “I don’t know. That femme just now-- she’s with the Decepticon Justice Division. They’re not just going to leave you alone after this is over. No matter what happens to me.”

    “What if we tell the… the military or something?”

    “There are thousands of innocent Cybertronians like me on this planet. Exposing my presence would expose them too. We can’t start an interstellar war.”

    “You’re not making this easy for me, are you?”

    “It’s not easy,” Skids replied.

    Jack drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Okay, let’s figure out what we have to work with. You’re some super-advanced space robot, and you can turn into a car.”

    “Advanced isn’t the word I would use,” Skids noted. “But go on.”

    “I’m a human that’s pretty good at wrenching on a bike, and I can survive on ramen packets for weeks.”

    “Ramen packets,” Skids repeated.

    “I know Earth,” Jack continued. “At least this part of it. If nothing else, I can help you find a good hiding spot. The way I see it, if I don’t help you find a way out of this, I’m screwed. So I might as well help you out.”

    “You mean that?” asked Skids.

    “Yeah. I’m going to help you out, you weird space robot thing. It sounds weird if I have to say it, so just take my word for it. We’re in this together.”

    “Thank you, human.”

    “Oh, I’m Jack,” he said. “Jack Darby.”

    “Nice to meet you, Jack Darby. Lead the way.”

    Jack pushed in the clutch and moved the shifter into first. He pressed down on the gas pedal, let off on the clutch, and immediately stalled the car.

    “Oh, crap,” he said. “I haven’t driven a car in a while.”

    “I’ll drive,” Skids offered.

    “Yeah, thanks. Let’s head east. I’ve got an idea.”





     
  4. Porkulus

    Porkulus Too Many Hobbies

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    Chapter 3


    January 8, 2021
    7:30 PM Pacific Standard Time
    Panamint Springs, CA


    The sign, which only said “General Store,” nearly flickered out as Skids pulled into a parking spot. Jack didn’t take it for a good sign.

    “Do you need anything while we’re here?” he asked as he unbuckled himself.

    “I’m a little hungry,” said Skids. Jack was still getting used to how his voice filled the interior of the car. It was kind of unnerving, but not entirely creepy. For riding inside of an alien, it could be much worse.

    “So, should I buy gas, or…?”

    “Gas? Oh, no. I can eat human food.”

    “Okay,” Jack said as he opened the door. Unfortunately, they didn’t sell human food by the gallon. Except milk, he realized. He entered the store and exchanged a nod with the clerk as he scooped up a shopping basket. To call the day a blur would be inaccurate. Everything seemed astonishingly clear, which made the events all the more jarring. He was now on the run with an alien that could turn into a car. Of course. He was going to miss work tomorrow, and perhaps the next day. He might not ever make it back home. But he didn’t have much choice in the matter, and neither did Skids. This was one of those disasters that his mother had always told him he wouldn’t be ready for. He was going to do everything he could to prove her wrong. So with great determination, he pushed a jumbo-sized can of Chef Boyardee Beef-a-Roni into his basket.

    Jack gave the clerk a smile as he checked out and hefted his bag of supplies back towards skids, stowing them in the back seat.

    “I got some food,” the human said as he swung himself back into the driver’s seat. “Let’s try to make it a little further before we stop and eat.”

    “Sounds good,” Skids replied, backing out of the lot and onto the road. They drove on into the evening, before pulling off CA-190 below a sheltering cliff face. Jack pulled the bag from the back seat and began assembling his new sterno stove. Skids transformed into robot mode and took a seat.

    “Do you need any help?” he asked.

    “No, I’ve got it,” Jack insisted, folding the tabs together. He peeled open the can of fuel and set it alight, before resting the can of pasta on top. He eased himself away from the stove and found a seat on top of a nearby rock, wrapping himself in his arms against the evening chill.

    “You’re young,” Skids said.

    “Uh, yeah. I’ll be twenty-one in a couple months. How about you?”

    “Twenty-nine stellar cycles. The measurements don’t align exactly-- but I meant to say, it’s odd that you live on your own.”

    “Oh. Yeah, I guess it is,” Jack replied. “I’ve got family, if that’s what you’re asking. I just needed some space.”

    “I see,” said the robot, though Jack wasn’t sure how he could. He decided to change the subject.

    “What about you? How’d you end up… here?”

    Skids shifted forwards, briefly opening his hands over the stove for warmth. “I’m from the homeworld, Cybertron. I lived in the state of Helex, in the Decepticon Commonwealth.”

    “The Decepticons are the ones chasing you, right?”

    “Exactly,” Skids continued. “They’re a, uh, political party. That’s the best way to explain it. Helex is their capital on Cybertron. I wasn’t really involved with politics, I was just a factory laborer. I was really good at my job, I even got some commendations. I always met my quotas and then some. I could figure out any problem easily. The supervisor said I had a gift, and I guess word got around. The next day some scientists showed up and asked if I wanted to volunteer for an experiment on enhancing mental acuity. I declined, and the next day the police dragged me out of work.”

    “Okay, maybe you don’t need to tell me the whole story,” Jack said, adjusting the opened lid of the Beef-a-Roni with his pocketknife. “I mean, if it makes you uncomfortable.”

    “No, it’s all right. Are you uncomfortable?”

    “I mean, I just feel bad for putting things back on to you. My life seems a lot better by comparison.”

    “There isn’t a comparison. Everyone deals with pain and suffering in their lives. Quantifying it isn’t even possible when our experiences are only interpreted by ourselves. I don’t know what kind of difficulties you faced to make you leave your family at a young age, but even if I did, I couldn’t say how bad it was because only you felt it. The best thing we can do is be supportive for people who are suffering, no matter what their circumstances.”

    Jack stopped with his way halfway into the bag, reaching for his package of plastic tubs.

    “Damn, are you sure you’re a robot?”

    “That word means something different in our language,” Skids explained. “It may not look like it, but I’m made of flesh and blood like you are. Which reminds me, how’s the food coming?”

    “It’s done,” Jack replied, cautiously scooping the pasta into two plastic tubs. He sealed one and stuck his multitool’s spoon into the other. “The rest is yours.”

    Skids carefully lifted the hot can up to his head and sniffed. “Oh, interesting,” he said. “This contains Earth spices?”

    “What did you think it contained?”

    “Apologies,” said Skids, rolling his eyes. “I’ve only had Earth food once before.”

    “What’d you have?”

    “A chocolate bar,” Skids answered.

    “Well, this isn’t going to be anything like a chocolate bar,” Jack warned. “It’s definitely not fine dining.”

    Skids tilted the can back and chewed on the contents slowly. “Quite odd,” he said.

    “It’s canned. Never going to be as good as fresh,” Jack said through a mouthful of the pasta.

    “As true on your planet as it is on mine,” Skids said, sipping more of the pasta. “Thank you again, Jack.”

    “Hey, don’t worry about it,” Jack said. “I mean, I guess we should worry some. We’ve got a death squad trying to kill us.”

    “That we do. We should get back on the road when we’re done.”

    “Agreed. If we move fast, we should make it to Vegas in a few hours. We can find a better place for you to hide there.”

    Skids nodded and chugged his remaining Beef-a-Roni. He set the can down and transformed into the hatchback again.

    “Ready whenever you are.”

    Jack cracked open the gallon of water and poured some over his multitool and into the plastic tub, which he shook clean and dumped onto the gravel. He extinguished the sterno fuel and packed everything back into the bag before hopping into the car, explaining the next few turns they would need to make.

    ***

    January 8, 2021
    7:30 PM Pacific Standard Time
    Outside Keeler, CA


    Damus looked out over the salt flats as the setting sun moved behind a thin cloud. The breeze was moving east, over the ragged hills and towards the flat plains. Open. Exposed.

    Arcana’s jet mode screeched overhead, then turned and slowly looped back to his position, settling down in a hover on its chorus of whining lift jets. The silver plane touched down on its gear and transformed into her robot mode.

    “We’ve finished our investigation of the human residence,” she reported. “It belongs to a youth named Jack Darby. The data we’ve collected from local security footage and social media suggests he should have been home when we arrived.”

    “Meaning he’s travelling with our runaway,” Damus concluded. “The mechanisms of the chaotic universe turn onwards.”

    “Problematic, of course,” Arcana mused. “But not insurmountable. We can make them disappear, if need be.”

    “That will not be necessary,” Damus replied.

    “What exactly do you have in mind?”

    “Alone and with the world against him… this boy, to our runaway, is salvation. In his terror, that is the only truth he sees. But he deceives himself.”

    Arcana grinned. “I like the way you think.”

    Damus opened his communicator channels. “Staccato, Rake, I’m sending you coordinates. Proceed there and pursue our target if you spot him. If he fights back, keep a distance. Hacksaw, demolish the house.”

    “Consider it done,” Staccato answered.

    “After these messages ~ and now back to ~ this is an important job, you hear?” came Rake’s radio transmissions.

    “It’s a shame. This place looks ruined already… but I can make it worse,” Hacksaw giggled.

    Damus nodded and closed his communicator after sending the coordinates out. He turned to Arcana. “Get me everything on that boy,” he said.

    “With pleasure,” she laughed, her jets rising to full throttle. She ascended into the evening sky, leaving Damus alone on the salt flat once more. Underneath his mask he smiled. There was nothing like the simple pleasure of putting the world back into its place.



     
  5. Porkulus

    Porkulus Too Many Hobbies

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    January 8, 2021
    11:30 PM Pacific Standard Time
    Las Vegas, NV


    The city first revealed itself as a glow radiating up from the desert night. It simply emerged, nearly blinding, as they dove onwards on 95.

    “There it is,” Jack announced. “Las Vegas.”

    “All of those lights,” Skids said in wonder. “It’s like a festival.”

    “That’s kind of Vegas’ thing. It’s all one big party,” Jack explained.

    “You’re familiar with this city, then?”

    Jack sighed. “Yeah, I am. This is where my family lives.”

    “I see,” said Skids. “So you weren’t planning on coming back here any time soon.”

    “Exactly. But sometimes we can’t plan on everything. Right now, I need to get you safe. So that’s what we’re going to do. This city’s got to have plenty of places to hide, certainly more than the desert.”

    “So when you said you had a plan, you really meant you would work things out as you went.”

    “Hey, I know what I’m doing,” Jack protested. “I mean, I know exactly what I want to do.”

    “Sorry, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I’m just scared,” said Skids.

    “Hey, don’t worry about it. It can happen to all of us,” Jack said, attempting to reassure the robot. He looked into the rearview mirror at the receding darkness, knowing that he was no exception.

    After few minutes of Jack’s directions, Skids turned right into the shadow of a towering parking garage.

    “Not exactly a friendly-looking place,” he whispered.

    Jack slapped the side of his face lightly, shaking off his exhaustion. “Most people just put their cars here. Which is exactly what we’re going to do.”

    The young man nodded to a gate guard as they passed into the garage. Finding no spots on the first floor, Skids climbed up to the second. There were no vacancies there either, so they continued up to the third floor, where the little hatchback finally pulled into a spot in a center aisle.

    “All right. Now we lay low here until tomorrow,” said Jack.

    “Thank you again,” Skids said as his engine shut off.

    “Hey, uh, can I ask you something?”

    “Of course. What is it?”

    Jack drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, considering several ways of phrasing the question before realizing that none of them sounded good. “Is it weird if I sleep here? Or do you want me to step outside?”

    “It doesn’t bother me,” Skids replied. “Does it bother you?”

    “No, no, I just… I didn’t know if that was strange or not for you. I didn’t want to make things awkward.”

    “Everything about this is strange, Jack,” Skids answered. “But I don’t have a problem with you sleeping inside of me.”

    “Don’t… don’t say it like that,” Jack groaned.

    “Why not? Wouldn’t that be accurate?”

    “I’ll explain later,” he sighed, pulling the seat handle back and reclining. He inched his hoodie up over his head. “Good night.”

    “All right then. Good night, Jack.”

    Jack closed his eyes and tried not to think about how he was sleeping inside a living thing. For the most part, he was successful.


    ***


    “Jack? Jack? Wake up,” whispered Skids. A faint tapping echoed through the car’s small cabin. Jack cracked open his eyes and remembered where he was, his half-clear dreams about the prior day’s events having proven accurate. Yes, he really was in the talking car. Outside his window was what looked to be a priest. Truly, nothing in his life made sense anymore.

    “What the hell,” Jack groaned.

    “I don’t know who he is,” Skids replied. “We could be in danger.”

    “Yeah,” Jack said, moving his mouth as little as possible. He slowly moved his right hand to the gun under his belt, and with his left he rolled down the window.

    “Can I help you, sir?”

    The man outside was tall and slim, though his long coat seemed to make him much wider. He wore a tab-collared shirt with a crucifix, and thick round glasses covered his eyes with the glare of morning light.

    “I’m sorry to intrude,” he said with an accent that Jack thought was British or something. “But I was actually wondering if I could help you.”

    “Look sir, my soul’s just fine where it is,” Jack said.

    “But how about the body? I can find you a better place to sleep than this. I’ve got food, too.”

    “You’re misunderstanding. I’m just passing through,” Jack replied.

    “Aren’t we all?” the man asked, cracking a wide smile. “Look, if you change your mind, here’s my card.” He reached into his coat and pulled out a plain white business card, which he handed to Jack.

    “Thanks,” the young man replied, and the strange priest walked away. Jack turned the business card over in his hands. It really was a basic card, with only a few characters printed in the dead center. He squinted at them and realized they weren’t in English. It wasn’t in any language he recognized.

    “Uh, Skids,” he said, holding the card up in front of him. “Is this… something you can read?”

    “That’s Imperial Common,” Skids gasped. “It’s coordinates.”

    “So that dude’s a robot, too,” Jack said aloud. “He looked like a human.”

    “It must be a nanomatter avatar,” Skids explained. “I’ve only ever heard about them. He must have assumed that you were one too.”

    “So you can make yourself look like a human?”

    “No, it’s a device we can use. It can create a static facsimile of a human to help disguise ourselves, or we can control that facsimile remotely, temporarily transferring our consciousness into it.”

    Jack shifted up in his seat, looking over the hoods of the nearby cars. He spotted the silhouette of the priest moving away an aisle over.

    “I’ll be honest with you, you lost me at ‘static.’”

    “It is rather strange,” Skids continued. “I saw some of the Decepticons use them back at the base.”

    “Strange or not, our mystery man is over there,” Jack said, pointing. “Do you think he’s on our side?”

    “The Justice Division would have killed us on the spot. He’s not working for them, we can be sure of that much.”

    “He knew what you were and offered shelter-- that could be useful,” Jack considered. “But we don’t really know if we can trust him.”

    “Let’s scout out that location and see what we find. If he’s trouble, we can run,” suggested Skids.

    “Sounds like a plan. Can you give me those coordinates as latitude-longitude?”

    Skids rattled off a string of numbers and degrees, which Jack plugged into Google Maps on his phone.

    “Ok, we’re headed to 4700 Deckow Lane,” he said. “Damn, it feels like we’re in a spy movie or something.”

    “I’ll have to watch one some time. Let’s go,” said Skids, firing up his engine. His tires screeched against the slick concrete and the little hatchback swerved out of its spot. They rushed under the garage’s gate and slid onto the street, wisps of smoke spiralling up from the small front tires. Jack gripped the door insert as he was thrown back into the seat. The turbo spooled and hissed and fluttered as they darted into traffic.

    “Geez!” Jack exclaimed, holding himself steady. “That’s quick!”

    “We need to hurry, don’t we?”

    Jack placed a hand against the dash to brace himself as the car braked to slip around a car in the right-turn lane.”Yeah, but-- don’t forget I’m in here,” Jack grunted.

    “Sorry,” Skids said, slowing down. “Most of the time, we Cybertronians only need to worry about our limits.”

    “It’s okay, just give me some warning next time,” Jack said, clipping his seatbelt into place. “Then I’ll be ready.”

    “Got it. Get ready,” Skids warned, as Jack watched the tachometer climb like a rocket. They turned on to Las Vegas Boulevard as Skids Slalomed through traffic.

    “They call this ‘The Strip,’” Jack explained. “It’s all casinos and resorts.”

    “It certainly looks decadent,” Skids commented.

    “You’ve got a way with words, don’t you?”

    “Was there something wrong with what I said?” asked Skids.

    Jack smiled. “No, not at all. Left up ahead.”

    The left-turn signal was green, so Skids charged ahead and raced through the signal, feathering his brakes to maintain control as he merged with the traffic of Tropicana Avenue at fifty miles per hour. Jack looked down to check his phone.

    “We’re almost there. Another left up ahead,” he instructed his driver. As he looked back up, a flash of yellow caught his eye in the wing mirror. It was a sports car, low and wide, lingering uncomfortably close in the right lane. With the way Skids had been driving, it was unlikely the driver was trying to pass.

    “Hey, uh, I think we might have a problem,” Jack warned. “Check your six.”

    “Ah, a reference to the hands of a human clock,” Skids mused. “They don’t exactly look friendly.”

    “Maybe our friend in the garage wasn’t much of a friend,” Jack said. “Let’s figure out what we’re up against. Left now.”

    Skids turned and exited the main flow of traffic, following the side road to join the oncoming lanes of the divided highway. He quickly found a gap and raced into the herd of early-morning traffic, with the yellow car following closely behind.

    “Damn, he’s still on our tail,” Jack swore. “Okay, take a right ahead and we’ll be on Deckow. Then we just need to find the address.”

    “If this is the Justice Division, then we need to be ready for a fight.”

    “Any secret weaknesses you guys have I should know about?” Jack asked. “Like, will your circuits get fried if I throw water on you, or something?”

    “I’m afraid not.”

    “Well, it’s the thought that counts,” Jack sighed. The road led alongside a wide, barren lot. Up ahead, a single building stood on the right-hand side of the road, a warehouse with adjoining junkyard.

    “That’s got to be it,” Jack said, quickly checking behind them.

    “We’re still being followed?”

    “Yeah,” confirmed Jack, stuffing his phone back into his pocket. “Let’s get in there.”

    The parking brake popped up out of the center console as Skids snapped to the right, lurching into the warehouse’s lot. Jack grabbed his bag of supplies from the back seat and unhooked his seatbelt. The hatchback swung into the junkyard that wrapped around the warehouse, sliding to a stop in the cover of a pile of smashed cars. Jack bailed out, ducking into the shadows.

    “I’ll cover you as much as I can,” he said, tossing the bag to the ground and drawing his pistol.

    “Just be careful,” Skids said, transforming into his robot mode. The cybertronian walked out into the open, and Jack slowly peeked out over the trunk of a crushed sedan to observe. The yellow car drifted into the junkyard, kicking up dust and dirt as its rear tires spun on the loose ground. Its silhouette broke apart in the debris cloud as an angular robot slightly taller than Skids took form.

    Skids addressed his assailant in Imperial Common. “Who are you, and what do you want?” Jack watched his travelling companion reach towards his waist, where a storage compartment opened up and presented his palm with a pistol grip.

    “Strange,” said the mech that had followed them. The dust cleared, revealing his full, athletic form, with segments of his vehicle mode arranged as layered armor. His mouth was twisted into a sneer below his long, pointed nose, and his optics were concealed by a dark visor. “I thought you were supposed to be smart.”

    “So you’re with the Justice Division, then,” Skids said with a grimace.

    “Under normal circumstances, I’m not supposed to answer that question. But considering that you’re not long for the world, I’ll give you the privilege. I’m Staccato, from the sixty-sixth field operations squad.”

    Jack carefully lifted his gun above his cover, crouching to bring his sights onto the hostile robot.

    “Look, Staccato, be honest with me,” said Skids, his resolve steady. “It’s your job to uphold justice, isn’t it?”

    “That’s right.”

    “Then how can you hunt me down for escaping from my torturers? I never did anything wrong, but I was imprisoned against my will and used for experiments. Would you call killing me now justice?!”

    Staccato stood still, then raised his left hand to cradle his chin.

    “That’s what you’re going with? That’s how you’re going to plead for your life?”

    Skids gritted his teeth. This wasn’t what he had been hoping for.

    “That’s right,” he replied.

    “What a selfish way of thinking,” Staccato laughed. “The experiments at Blackrock Base were of vital importance to the Decepticons. Thousands, if not millions of lives will be saved by the fruits of that science. By escaping, you’ve put all of that in jeopardy. You want justice to trade thousands of lives for just one? That’s a mockery of justice. And that I won’t stand for.”

    A panel opened on the yellow mech’s forearm and ejected a pair of narrow cylinders forward. Staccato grabbed one, and the other’s fall was caught by the chain connecting the two together. With a flick of his wrist, he set the nunchaku spinning, then lowered himself into a fighting stance.

    “Now, if you want to come quietly, I can ensure your pain, and the boy’s, will be momentary. Otherwise, you should prepare to suffer.”

    “We’ll take our chances,” Skids said, pulling his stolen submachine gun from storage. Jack saw the weapon rise up and as soon as the deafening first shot rang out he braced himself and fired his own weapon. The two fugitives opened fire at their pursuer, but Staccato simply charged into the line of fire, reaching Skids in an instant.

    “Look out!” Jack cried, desperately trying to track the Decepticon’s blinding speed. Skids began to pull his gun off-target in an attempt to respond, but he was too slow. Staccato spun the striking end of his nunchaku into Skids’ gut, then up under his chin as he was stunned. With an open-palmed strike, Staccato sent Skids staggering back into a pile of tires.

    “No, no, no,” screamed Jack, centering the yellow mech in his sights again. He fired three rounds at Staccato, but while the bullets clearly found their marks and buried themselves in the larger robot, he did not seem much more than annoyed. He hooked his foot into a half-disassembled car door and kicked to his side, sending the debris spinning towards Jack, who dove down to dodge the hunk of metal.

    “You’ve done enough,” he said in accented English, turning his attention back to Skids. As the blue robot began to push himself back up, Staccato swung his nunchaku into the side of his face, spraying the dirt with blue-green blood.

    “Are you beginning to understand how outclassed you are?” Staccato asked, crouching next to the wounded Skids. Jack carefully pushed the car door aside and took aim again, this time having a clear shot at the Decepticon’s head.

    “Do you understand the gulf that separates you and I?” Staccato continued, picking up the smaller mech by the throat. “The moment you decided to run your fate was sealed. Now do me a favor. Stay down, and don’t waste my time.”

    With a grunt, Staccato lifted Skids into the air and then sent him plummeting to the ground, smashing him into the dirt face-first.

    “And now, for the little friend,” said the larger mech with smug satisfaction. He turned to find the human standing above the car door with his weapon raised.

    “Do me a favor and piss off,” Jack spat, unloading the rest of his magazine into Staccato’s head. The Decepticon stumbled backwards, but caught himself.

    “That’s not what’s supposed to happen,” Jack whimpered.

    Staccato reached to his head and brushed away several flattened lead lumps. He rapped a forefinger against his forehead. “Armored,” he said in English.

    “Yeah, I figured that out,” Jack said, dropping his pistol to the ground. With no more ammo, he could only attempt to flee, but the corrugated walls of the junkyard looked too high to climb.

    “I’ve had a lot of idiots try shooting me in the head,” Staccato explained. “But you are the smallest.”

    “I didn’t expect an award,” Jack said, locating a gap in the crushed cars just wide enough to sidle through.

    “And now for your prize,” Staccato roared, diving forwards to grab his human target. Jack ducked into the gap and wedged his way through, pressing himself free of the other side. He looked back over his shoulder at Skids, who was still crumpled on the ground. It wouldn’t be right to just leave him, but he didn’t know how they could escape at all. He slowed from a sprint to a jog as he thought his situation through. Even if he did run away, he couldn’t compete with the Decepticons. And then he’d die as a coward, fleeing from his responsibilities. No, he decided, that wasn’t an option. He made a hard right and ran into the open center of the junkyard, in clear view of Staccato.

    “Hey, space asshole! Yeah, you!”

    The Decepticon abandoned his attempts to reach through the gap and began to stomp towards the human.

    “Bad move,” he said with a sneer.

    “I’m not going to leave without Skids. And if that means I have to put you down myself, then I will!”

    Staccato literally looked down towards the human. He wanted to find some humor in the ridiculous bravado, but there wasn’t much enjoyment to be had in removing an obstacle this trivial.

    “You know that won’t happen,” he said.

    “Just try me,” Jack said, balling his fists. Staccato raised an arm above his head opened his hand to splatter Jack like an insect. With his fingernails buried in his palm, Jack countered with an uppercut. His attack never connected. Jack realized he had closed his eyes involuntarily, and forcing them open saw Staccato fall backwards, with two thin blades buried in his chest. A shadow rose up from beneath Jack’s feet, and he spun to find its owner.

    “Good morning once again,” said the Cybertronian blocking Jack’s sunlight. He was around the same height as Staccato but more heavily built, with bits of his vehicle mode draped down his back like a long coat. He pushed up a pair of thick lenses on his face and then reached into his bulky storage compartments to draw another pair of thin short swords. Jack recognized his voice, but also recognized a hint of his shape and face.

    “The priest,” he said aloud.

    “Call me Shepherd Tacker,” he said with a short bow. “Sorry if I spooked you there-- I just have a strict policy against making war on my property.”

    “Your property?” Jack asked.

    “One moment,” Tacker said, marching past Jack. Staccato began to rise back to his feet, but with a flash of his arms Tacker threw his two new swords into the growing collection of blades impaling the Decepticon. Painfully, Staccato forced himself up and whipped his nunchaku into a loose spin.

    “You have no idea what you’re dealing with, old mech,” Staccato winced.

    “You’re right. I don’t have the slightest idea who you are, though the insignia of yours tells me you’re a Decepticon. But I don’t care. If you come into my field and attack my flock, you’re dead.”

    “We’ll see about that,” Staccato growled, rushing forwards, just as fast as ever. However, as he reached Tacker, he froze before he could begin his assault. The old mech had reached down to grab the hilt of one of his swords still buried in the Decepticon. His grip was firm, and Staccato seemed immobilized by pain.

    “Your combat training taught you to ignore injuries like this, didn’t it?” Tacker asked. Slowly, his wrist turned, wrenching at the blade inside Staccato.

    “It… It doesn’t matter,” gasped the Decepticon.

    “I think it does. Otherwise I think you’d be crushing me, right now.”

    Provoked, Staccato attempted a wild close-quarters swing with his nunchaku. In response, Tacker twisted the blade further and pulled horizontally, making a clean cut out of the Decepticon’s body. Blue-green blood sprayed out from the deep wound. Tacker stepped aside as Staccato tumbled forward, barely catching himself on his knees. Despite his grievous injury, he rose again, his movements almost calm, but his optics were manic and bloodshot. He assumed a fighting stance once more, and Tacker turned to face him.

    “I’ll make another guess-- you’ve just used an implant to override your sensory response to pain, all so you can keep focusing on this fight.”

    Staccato charged again, using a complex series of swings and feints. Tacker blocked the strikes with his wrists, then reached forward and removed another sword while hooking a leg underneath his attacker. Staccato fell face-forwards to the ground, pushing Tacker’s remaining swords further into his body and out of his back.

    “You should probably put more energy into taking care of yourself,” said Tacker calmly. “But all the same, you’ll be glad you won’t feel this.”

    Tacker grabbed the Decepticon’s shoulder and rolled him over, extracting his two swords still lodged in his body. Tacker tucked them back into his storage compartments and produced a small metal disc topped with a button, which he placed on top of Staccato’s body.

    “I don’t know if you’re squeamish,” Tacker called out to Jack. “You might want to look away from this.”

    Jack felt confident in his constitution and did not look away. Tacker pressed the button and took a few steps away as the disc erupted into flames that quickly encompassed Staccato’s entire body, melting armored flesh from the multi-jointed endoskeleton below. The flames were blue-white and Jack was sweating from where he stood, well clear of the blaze. The smell was what unnerved him-- there was something very similar to burning meat, and yet something entirely alien with it. Though the uncanny smell made sense, it felt no less uncanny, and eventually, Jack forced himself to cover his nose and turn away. After a minute, Tacker tapped him lightly on the shoulder.

    “It’s over. Just ashes are left.”

    Jack turned back and confirmed that only a shallow pile of ashes remained of the alien robot.

    “Now that’s taken care of, how is your body? Your real one? It looks pretty rough,” asked Tacker, gesturing towards Skids.

    “I think you misunderstand,” Jack said. “That’s not me. I’m a human.”

    Tacker’s optics widened behind his thick lenses. “Ah, I see. Apologies once again. I know that was a rather gruesome introduction, but I do mean well-- Your friend needs medical help and I have friends that can provide. Care to join me? It’s just up the road.”

    Jack needed a moment, any length would do, to process the events of the morning.

    “Can I get a ride?”

    Tacker smiled. “On the house.”
     
  6. Porkulus

    Porkulus Too Many Hobbies

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    January 9, 2021

    8:00 AM Pacific Standard Time

    Las Vegas, Nevada


    Jack looked out of the pickup truck’s back window. Out beyond the bed, a heavy tarp hung over Skids, who had been chained to the tow hitch.

    “Is he going to be all right?” the young man asked.

    “Once we get him some medical attention,” Tacker replied. Jack found himself jumping slightly at the voice-- it was strange how he had gotten used to Skids’ voice materializing inside the cabin, but this stranger still spooked him.

    Jack settled back into the driver’s seat and buckled in. “How far is it?”

    “Just up this same road. I give out the address for the junkyard first so I can talk to people, get a handle on what they’re looking for. Sometimes, they don’t need shelter. If they do, I take them to the Citadel.”

    “The Citadel, huh? Sounds pretty sci-fi,” Jack mused.

    “Well, I didn’t name it. It’s not my establishment,” Tacker explained. The pickup lurched forward, dragging Skids behind slowly.

    “So then what’s your deal? You work for whoever owns it?”

    Tacker chuckled. “I’m a volunteer. There are a lot of lost sheep in this city. Cybertronians from all over the empire, displaced by war, famine, and unrest. This planet used to be a safe place for them, but now our wars are catching up to it. The big cities are some of the few places where my people can still hide, and I have a duty to help those in need.”

    “That’s pretty kind of you,” said Jack.

    “I’m called by the Covenant of Primus to serve. I’d like to think it’s not extraordinary at all. In any case, we’re here,” said Tacker, pulling into a parking lot. The lot was barren and disheveled, with litter drifting in the breeze. A few decrepit cars were scattered through the spaces, hardly enough to fill the building in the center of the lot. It was a brutal collection of squarish panels and hard angles. Adorning one edge of the building were stylized letters reading “ICE.”

    “What is this? A nightclub?” Jack asked as Tacker rolled around the back of the building to a loading dock shielded from the street’s view.

    “Used to be,” said Tacker, popping his driver-side door open. “But the humans gave up on it. It’s the Citadel now.”

    Jack gathered his supplies, unbuckled his seatbelt, and dismounted from the truck. He jogged over to the trailer hitch and began unfastening the chains. Once removed, he pulled back the tarp. Skids’ bruised face was frozen in a grimace.

    “Hold on, buddy,” Jack whispered.

    Now clear of his cargo, Tacker transformed into his robot mode and approached the loading dock’s sliding door. He rapped gently at the door’s edge.

    A PA system crackled on.

    “Password?” asked a female voice.

    “Backwards comics,” Tacker answered.

    “Well, hey, Tacker. Weren’t expecting you back so soon.”

    “I’ve found someone who has run into trouble. I think you’ll be uniquely qualified for this one,” he said with a smile.

    “Come on in,” said the voice, and the sliding door began to rise up along its tracks. Tacker moved back to Jack and hooked his arms under Skids’s shoulders. With a grunt, he pulled the unconscious mech into the abandoned nightclub. Jack ran after him, quickly enveloped by the scale of the building’s interior. The nightclub had clearly been a large space when it was in active use, but the new proprietors had stripped away all of the dance floors, bars, and balconies, leaving a large, warehouse-like space. Around the edges of the floor, Cybertronians of all shapes and sizes sat on mats, with what Jack assumed were their scant belongings scattered around them. Skids had talked about how he wasn’t alone, but the scene put his words into perspective. These were just the fortunate few to find a shelter-- how many others must there be in hiding?

    “You take care of all of them?” he asked, turning to survey the scene.

    I take care of all of them,” said a voice from above. An electric motor whined as a suspended catwalk lowered from above, coming to rest at eye level with Tacker. Leaning against the railings was a human girl, or at least what appeared to be a human girl. Jack had seen enough to doubt first impressions like that.

    “So you’re the one in charge here?” Jack asked.

    The girl put her hands on her hips and pouted. “That’s what I said, isn’t it? Jeez, Tacker, where’d you find this guy?”

    Tacker pulled Skids to an empty mat and turned the unconscious mech’s head to examine his injuries. “He’s like you, Miko.”

    The girl looked over at Tacker, then back to Jack.

    “Damn, you’re-- you’re not kidding,” she said, stepping to the catwalk’s controls. She pulled a lever and the platform descended to the floor, where she mantled over the railing and skipped towards Jack.

    “Well, how’s it feel to know about aliens?” she said, extending her hand out towards Jack. The young man shook it nervously.

    “I mean, I’ve been just focusing on what I can do,” he replied. “Your name is Miko?”

    “Miko Nakadai,” she said with a grin. “And you are?”

    “Jack Darby,” he answered.

    “Okay, Jack, great. I need you to get to work.”

    Jack was unsure if he had heard correctly. “Uh, work?”

    Miko looked back over her shoulder towards Skids. “Looks like your friend there’s taken some serious head trauma. I can patch him back up. But if I’m doing that, you and Tacker need to cover the rest of my job. There’s a kettle on in the back corner-- make sure everyone that’s hungry gets something to eat.”

    “Y-yeah, I can do that,” said Jack. He turned and looked for the back corner, and saw an industrial-sized vat sitting over a controlled fire. Tacker crossed over towards him.

    “Miko, I’ve finished preparations, and I’ve got your tools laid out. I’ll help Jack.”

    “Thanks, you two. Once your friend is safe, we can chat,” she said, sprinting towards Skids.

    Tacker walked towards the vat, and Jack jogged to keep up. “So, you said she’s like me.”

    “That’s right,” Tacker said. “She found one of us, and got drawn into our world, I suppose you could say.”

    “How many people are there like us, then? That know about Cybertronians?”

    “Until this morning, Miko was the only one I was aware of. So that puts my total at two.”

    Jack sighed. “For a second there, I had my hopes up.”

    Tacker arrived at the vat and unhooked a ladle from its edge. The mech stirred at the contents slowly. “Now, what do you mean by that? Did Miko leave the wrong impression?”

    “No, it’s not like that,” Jack explained, circling around behind the vat. A series of cut-down garbage cans were stacked neatly nearby, so Jack pulled one from the top and carried it to Tacker. “It’s just-- kind of hard to explain.”

    “Try me,” said Tacker with a smile.

    Jack took a deep breath, and set the makeshift bowl down. “I moved out a while ago because I got tired of my mom telling me what I wasn’t capable of. So I took on all of my own responsibilities. And I made it fine, you know? I got myself a job and a place to live, and I paid my bills. But, once this all started, I’ve been scared. I don’t know what I’m doing, really, and I wish there was someone else to help me. Someone to… I don’t know, it sounds bad, but someone to take it away.”

    “To support you, like a parent would,” Tacker deduced. “I see.”

    “I mean, I don’t really know how parents work for Cybertronians, but I guess that’s one way of saying it. It feels twice as bad, because it means my mom was right.”

    “From the little Miko has told me, I think our species are pretty similar in that regard,” said Tacker, picking up the trash can bowl. He ladled some of the vat’s contents into it and set it down. As far as Jack could tell, it was a potato soup. It smelled wonderful, compared to the canned pasta he had eaten for his last meal. “But I think your reasoning is a little off,” he continued, gesturing for Jack to pick up another bowl. Jack did as instructed and handed the can off to the robot.

    “How’s that?” Jack asked.

    “It sounds like you invested a lot in proving your mother wrong,” he said.

    “Well, maybe,” said Jack, receiving the next full can and setting it on the ground gently.

    “Just take a look around. All of these people were uprooted by some disaster or another. We can’t ever have full control of our lives. There will always be shake-ups. Our success is measured in our persistence to live through those hard times,” said Tacker, gesturing with the ladle. “You’re out here fighting. So I wouldn’t say you’ve failed yet.”

    “Is giving speeches like that a natural gift for Cybertronians? Just yesterday evening Skids gave me a good talk, too.”

    Tacker set the ladle back into the vat, hooking it on the upper edge. “I think the more likely explanation is that you haven’t had anybody to talk to at all, Cybertronian or otherwise. You need to talk, and we’ve just happened to be nearby. You grab that bowl, I’ll take the other two,” said the robot.

    Jack nodded and hefted the makeshift bowl up, following Tacker towards a group of small Cybertronians huddling under a blanket.

    “That makes sense,” he said. “I mean, I really have been on my own for a while now.”

    “Then I’m glad to have been here for you. That’s my job,” Tacker chuckled. He waved towards the Cybertronian refugees with a bowl of warm soup as he approached, setting the food down for them to take. Working together, Jack and Tacker made the rounds in only an hour, easily feeding the Citadel’s inhabitants. None of them seemed to take object to Jack’s presence, and a few asked Tacker in their language who he was. After Tacker translated the question for him, Jack simply told them he was a friend of Miko’s-- the extent of his current situation, Jack figured, was not something they needed to know. After making their rounds, they returned to Skids and Miko. Skids’ head had been wrapped in a heavy-looking makeshift bandage, and Miko was clad in a blue-green stained apron and long rubber gloves. As they approached, Miko waved, and liquid splattered off the gloves. Jack hopped backwards to dodge the spray and winced.

    “Careful,” he said.

    “In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t a hospital,” Miko protested. “You should be happy you’ve got someone to treat your friend at all. He’s going to live, but he probably needs to see an actual Cybertronian doctor for a full recovery.”

    “A doctor sounds nice,” groaned Skids from beneath his bandages.

    “I could bring Panacea, from the Earth Liberation Force camp,” Tacker suggested.

    Jack cradled his head in his hands. “Okay, okay, explain to me-- the Earth Liberation Force?”

    “Consider them my actual employers,” Tacker said. “They’re an… environmentalist group, opposed to organized settlement of Earth by Cybertronian factions.”

    “They think Earth shouldn’t be taken under jurisdiction of the Cybertronian Empire, especially while humans live here,” Miko clarified.

    “Do you think this is safe? I mean, while we’re fugitives?” Jack interjected. Miko and Tacker stared back.

    “Fugitives?” Miko asked.

    “Wait… that Decepticon,” muttered Tacker. “You’re telling me he wasn’t just some bandit?”

    “No, it’s the Decepticon Justice Division,” Jack explained. “They’re chasing Skids because--”

    “Shut up,” Miko barked. “Stop talking.”

    Tacker folded his hands and hunched down to confront Jack. “You shouldn’t tell us anything more. I’m afraid we can’t harbor you or your friend any longer.”

    “Oh, dear,” Skids grunted, propping himself upright.

    “Wait, you’re-- you’re just kicking us out?” Jack yelped.

    “The Justice Division are indiscriminate killers,” Tacker said. “If they trace you and Skids to the Citadel, they’ll interrogate everyone here, and then execute them. You can’t stay.”

    Jack clenched his fists. “Then… then what are we supposed to do? I mean, you saw what happened the last time we fought them! Are you saying we’re just going to have to tough it out?”

    “Please don’t get angry,” said Skids, attempting to mediate. “They really have helped us-- we can’t be ungrateful.”

    “It’s my job to see to the safety of my flock,” Tacker explained. “It pains me greatly to have to leave you on your own, but I can’t endanger the people here.”

    Miko peeled her gloves off of her arms, and dropped them onto Skids’ mat. “Okay, then, I’ll go with them.”

    Tacker nearly tumbled to the floor. “Miko-- are you serious?”

    “You can defend the Citadel better than I can,” she explained. “And I can’t let them go on their own. Besides, I’ve got contacts around town that could help them out. They’ll need me to negotiate with them, won’t they?”

    “You don’t have to do this,” Skids said, pushing his bandage up. He winced and decided to leave it where it was.

    “No, I think I do,” Miko said. “I’m just about the only person who knows what you’re going through.”

    “But the Citadel--” Tacker protested.

    “...will be fine. I’ll be back before long,” Miko countered. She moved to a far wall and pried open a panel that obscured a hidden recess. After fiddling in the dark space for a while, Miko emerged dragging a heavy crate. She kicked the top off in front of Jack, Skids, and Tacker, revealing ballistic vests and grenade launchers.

    “Jesus Christ,” Jack whispered.

    Miko leaned forward and rummaged through the materiel, pulling out a pair of polarized sunglasses, which she flipped open and rested on her face. “Now, let’s suit up. We’re going hunting.”

    Tacker sat down and sighed. “Well, I suppose there’s no sense in arguing now. She’s got her mind set on this. Jack, Skids-- I’ll be seeing you again soon.”

    Jack hefted a grenade launcher out of the crate, turning the weapon over in his hands. “Yeah, we’re going to make it back. Don’t you worry.”

    “Sorry I don’t have anything in your size,” Miko said to Skids.

    “I do have a weapon that I must have dropped back at the junkyard,” Skids noted. “And I think I could make use of our attacker’s weapon as well.”

    “Wait, you know how to use those nunchuck things?” Jack asked.

    “I do now,” Skids said, coyly tapping the side of his head. Jack understood.

    “All right, we’ll stop there first, then hit the road,” said Miko, throwing a fist into the air. “We’re on a mission! There’s no turning back now!”

    It was cheesy, but Jack couldn’t help but smile a little. With some reluctance, he put his own hand up, and Skids joined them. As they stood in solidarity, Jack’s reluctance became determination. He was going to see this through. He was sure of that.
     
  7. Porkulus

    Porkulus Too Many Hobbies

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    January 9, 2021
    10:00 AM Pacific Standard Time
    Las Vegas, Nevada


    Skids put on his left-turn indicator and moved into the turn lane.

    “How are you feeling, Skids?” asked Miko from the passenger seat.

    “Well, I’ve been much better,” the Cybertronian replied with a hint of pain. “But I could be much worse.” He executed the turn and pulled onto the next street.

    “I’m sorry I couldn’t fix you up all the way,” she said.

    “I’m just surprised you know how to heal him at all. Where’d you learn it?” asked Jack, who was cautiously checking the rearview mirrors for additional pursuers.

    “It’s kind of a long story,” said Miko, propping her head up with an elbow against the windowsill.

    “How about an abridged version?” suggested Skids. “If that’s all right.”

    “All right, all right,” Miko sighed. “A couple years ago, I was living in Japan, and I was getting ready to come to the States on an exchange program. I found an alien dying under a bridge and decided that was more interesting than going to a different country to write a bunch of essays. I helped them out and we worked together for a while…” she said, her voice trailing off.

    “Who were they? The Cybertronian that you met?” Jack asked.

    Miko looked out the window into the passing traffic. “A big dumb idiot,” she said softly. “Things didn’t… work out. But I figured since I was in on the whole aliens thing, I might as well do what I could. So I came to this country anyway, and started helping out the Cybertronian community here. That’s how I founded the Citadel and met Tacker.”

    Jack could tell that Miko’s omissions to the story were a sign to not pry any further, so he decided to redirect.

    “So how’d you get the Citadel? And all of these guns?” he asked.

    Miko pushed away from the window and stuffed a hand into the pocket of her denim shorts. She extracted something the size and shape of a credit card, but black and featureless.

    “It’s a ghost card. An alien’s best friend. Believe it or not, it’s a whole computer, with the sole purpose of grabbing bank account numbers. It pulls tiny amounts from hundreds of randomly-selected accounts on every purchase, and flags them as business expenses, donations, and so on. Since nobody commits fraud for a couple cents, banks will chalk it up to an internal error and refund customers, so nobody’s the wiser.”

    “That sounds highly illegal,” said Skids.

    “Most people that use them are long past concerns of legality, if you catch my drift,” said Miko with a wink. “I’m using it to do some good, so I think I get a pass.”

    “I’m not sure that’s how that works,” sighed Jack.

    “Oh, yeah, this is our turn, right here,” said Miko, pointing to the convenience store on the right-hand side of the road. Skids hit the brakes and turned into the small parking lot. Miko unlatched her seatbelt and slipped the ghost card back into her pocket. Jack considered their current situation and concluded that the morality of committing mass financial fraud was of less concern than the alien robots trying to kill them, and undid his own seatbelt. He placed a hand on the roof of the hatchback as he stepped out of the car.

    “This shouldn’t take too long. If something happens, set off your car alarm.”

    “You just assume that since I turn into a car, I have complete control over the alarm?” rebutted Skids.

    “You can’t?”

    “I’m just joking, of course I can,” Skids chuckled. “I’ll be fine. Just make sure Miko doesn’t try anything too illegal.”

    “You bet,” said Jack, closing the door. He followed Miko into the convenience store, where she made a beeline for the snacks aisle.

    “Is this really necessary?” he asked, as she examined a bag of pretzels on a rack.

    “Yes,” Miko answered, turning her attention to the candy bars. “Look up at the front.”

    A bored clerk stood behind the counter at the front of the store, discreetly posing for a selfie.

    “Her?” Jack wondered.

    “No, behind her,” said Miko, picking up a Zero bar.

    Behind the partial security gate at the front counter was a wall of cigarettes, ads for money transfers, and prepaid phone plans.

    “Maybe you should just explain it to me later,” said Jack, feeling his stomach rumble. The idea of a snack didn’t sound bad at all.

    “Okay,” said Miko, picking up a second Zero bar. She walked back up the aisle towards the counter as the doorbell rang. Before she could reach the clerk, another customer swept in, a woman in a leather jacket and curly dark hair. Miko halted and Jack caught up with her. He expected her to be frustrated, but the expression on Miko’s face seemed to be one of surprise.

    “Do you have a restroom here?” the woman asked the clerk. Her voice was a gruff monotone, conveying a sense of disinterest in the world around her. The clerk looked up and blinked.

    “Uh, yeah,” she said, fishing out a key from behind the counter. “It’s in the back,” she said as she passed it to the new customer.

    “Thank you,” the woman replied, taking the key. She turned around, revealing a police identification on a lanyard around her neck. Jack heard Miko gasp quietly as the customer walked past.

    “Do you know her?” he asked Miko.

    “Do you not?” Miko whispered. “Do you even watch TV?”

    “No, I don’t,” Jack said. “Who is she?”

    “Was that the lady from the police show? The angry one?” asked the clerk aloud.

    “It totally was,” Miko said, racing to the front of the store. “And she was in costume and everything!”

    “I’m not sure that I follow,” Jack said, scratching his head. “That was an actress?”

    “Yes,” said Miko and the clerk simultaneously.

    “From Brooklyn 99,” Miko explained.

    “It’s, ah, Stephanie Beatriz,” said the clerk, checking her search results on her phone. “Oh, I’m so glad I cleaned the bathroom this morning.”

    “I guess they’re shooting out here for the special,” Miko theorized. “Wow, I feel like I’m an insider now. I love that show.”

    “Don’t they film most shows in California, though?” asked Jack.

    “Well, yeah,” Miko said. “But they do special episodes with different settings every once in a while. So they must be doing one set in Las Vegas.”

    “Oh, all right then. Do you have everything you need?” Jack said, pointing towards the candy bars in Miko’s hand.

    “Oh, crap, right,” she said, remembering her plan. She arrived at the counter and placed down her candy bars. “I need the cheapest prepaid phone you have.”

    “Sure,” said the clerk, turning around to unhook a package from the shelf. “It’s not going to do much, is that ok?”

    “That’s just fine,” answered Miko.

    “That’ll be fifty-three twenty-two.”

    Miko drew the ghost card and swiped it through the PIN pad.

    “You want a receipt?” asked the clerk.

    “Uh, sure,” Miko said. The clerk pulled the receipt as it printed and handed it to Miko, who took it eagerly.

    “I’m going to see if I can get an autograph,” she explained.

    Jack looked out the glass doors into the parking lot. Skids was still sitting in his spot. Across the lot was a motorcycle that Jack recognized as one of Honda’s funky design bikes-- that must have been the actress’ ride. “Is that the best idea right now?”

    “Look, it’s all right,” Miko said. “It won’t take long. I know where we’re going after this.”

    At the back of the store, a door opened. The actress marched back up the aisle to the counter, and handed the key over to the clerk.

    “Thanks again,” she said.

    “No problem,” said the clerk. “C-can I take a photo?”

    The actress stepped back. “No,” she said firmly.

    “I guess an autograph is out of the question, then,” said Miko, sounding polite but defeated. The actress looked down at her, then over to Jack, then back. She reached out and took the receipt from Miko’s hand and placed it on the counter. She returned it with an incomprehensible signature across the top.

    “Oh, my gosh,” Miko whispered.

    “Take care,” said the woman, pushing the doors open.

    “Lucky,” grunted the clerk.

    Jack watched the actress flip up the kickstand on her bike and depart the lot. “All right, can we go?”

    “Y-yeah,” said Miko, folding the receipt and putting it in her pocket delicately.

    They left the store and opened the doors of the hatchback.

    “That must have been pretty cool for you,” Jack said.

    “Like you can’t believe,” said Miko, beaming. “I started following that show when I first came to the States. It’s really funny.”

    “I’ll bet,” Jack said.

    “What happened?” asked Skids.

    “Oh, Miko met a celebrity,” Jack explained.

    “That’s exciting,” said Skids. “But I’m still wondering exactly what your plan is, Miko.”

    “I guess I should clear that up,” said the young woman. She handed her second candy bar to Jack, then opened her own and took a bite. “So, you’re in big trouble,” she said through a mouthful of nougat.

    “We know that much,” Skids said.

    “The Decepticon Justice Division aren’t going to stop until they find you,” she continued as she chewed her chunk of candy bar.

    “Right, that’s been established,” said Jack, growing tired of her theatrics.

    “So, I’m going to make sure that they find you.”

    Jack swallowed his bite of Zero bar hard. “What?”

    “If you keep running, they’re just going to keep following you. So we’re going to stop running and take a stand. If we can kill the squad that’s chasing you, you’ll be home free.”

    “No, no, how is that going to work?” Jack protested. “We only survived that yellow car guy because Tacker showed up to save us.”

    “First of all, you’ve got me with you,” Miko said. “That’s like the equivalent of three-and-a-half Tackers. Second, we’re packing heat this time. And I mean high-explosive, anti-tank. It’ll cut through them, if we get a clear shot,” she said, pointing at the grenade launchers occupying the back seat.

    “Is that going to be enough?” Skids asked. “When I fought Staccato, he was nearly impossible to hit.”

    Miko wagged her index finger. “Ah, but I haven’t gotten to number three yet. We’re going to control the venue. There’s an abandoned shopping mall on the south side of town. It’ll be small enough for us, but hard for most Cybertronians to move through. We can set up an ambush that lets us hit them before they can hit us.”

    “But we don’t know where they are,” countered Jack. “How are we supposed to draw them into this ambush?”

    She crumpled up the candy bar wrapper and lifted up the prepaid cell phone.

    “I have my methods,” she said with a wink.



    ***


    Skids breathed out slowly, widened his stance, and swung forward. The nunchaku spun exactly as he predicted as it reached the end of the chain, allowing him to snap it out to continue the momentum. It was the same movement Staccato had used. He still could not find words to explain how his unnatural new ability worked, but within moments of watching the Decepticon use his weapon, he knew what it would feel like to use it. He understood the principles by which it moved and spun, and he knew the limited arcs he could swing it in to avoid catching himself with the outermost baton. The connections, the logic, all simply appeared in his head. Despite his complete unfamiliarity with martial arts, it was all there. Not a memory, just an intuitive understanding. Of course that was the stance to use. Of course that was how to strike. And Staccato’s martial art was far from the most complex discipline Skids’ power had given him command over. It was useful, but more than anything, unnerving. And to think that his ability was only a stepping stone towards what the Decepticons were building...

    “Hey, Skids, how’s it going?” asked Jack, walking into the abandoned food court. He had donned his flak jacket and had the grenade launcher holstered on his back.

    “I think I’m just about ready, Jack,” the Cybertronian replied. “Though I worry about the plan to split up.”

    “I do too, but it seems like Miko knows what she’s doing,” Jack shrugged. “You’ve got your walkie-talkie, right? If anything happens, we can just--”

    The walkie-talkie slipped into Jack’s ballistic vest chirped, as if on cue. He pulled it out and held it up.

    “I’ve just gotten the phone activated,” said Miko’s voice through the short-range line. “Let’s meet up before we start our patrols.”

    The large hallways of the abandoned mall provided plenty of room for Skids’ small alternate mode, so the duo quickly drove back to the central courtyard, where Miko was waiting. Skids opened his driver-side door as he made a hard left turn. Jack used the momentum to throw himself clear of the car, sliding to a halt in front of Miko with his grenade launcher in hand.

    “Whoa, a team technique,” gasped Miko. “That’s rad.”

    “It’s something I figured we could pull off,” chuckled Jack.

    “And we did,” said Skids, transforming into his robot mode. “You’re ready to make the call?”

    “I am,” said Miko, holding up the cheap cell phone. “I’ll begin now.”

    She punched in a number on the tiny buttons and held the phone out in front of her. “It’s on speaker,” she warned.

    “This is the Las Vegas visitor hotline,” said an automated voice on the other side of the line. “For destinations press one. For directions, press two. To speak to--”

    Miko quickly punched in a number on the keypad.

    “Customer support will be with you shortly. Your call may be monitored for quality assurance.”

    Jack rolled his shoulders slowly as he waited. This was a crazy plan, but he couldn’t come up with anything better. With Skids’ smarts and Miko’s insanity, they could work their way out of this. All he had to do was stay alive. No, he told himself. He could do more…

    “This is Janelle, how may I help you?”

    “Hey, Janelle,” said Miko. “I was just wondering how to get to the Cybertronian Empire.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “The Cybertronian Empire. It’s in space. Full of aliens,” Miko said. “Or do you know where I could find some aliens here in Vegas?”

    “Uh, um,” said Janelle, clearly flustered. “There’s the extraterrestrial highway, in Rachel, that’s close to town.”

    “Oh, that sounds nice. Do you think I could use the universal greeting on them?”

    “The universal greeting?”

    “You know, bah weep graaagnah weep ni ni bong.”

    “This… is a prank call, isn’t it?”

    “No, I’m just trying to contact the Decepticon Justice Division,” Miko explained. “I have their fugitive right here, if they can trace the call.”

    “All right, I’m just going to block this number.”

    “Have a nice night, Janelle,” said Miko as the call ended. “Well, that’s it. They should have traced it by now.”

    “It’s do or die,” grunted Skids, drawing his submachine gun. “I’ll take the westernmost hall, with the food court.”

    “I’ll patrol the easternmost hall, with the motorsport dealership,” said Miko.

    “Then I’ll cover the south hall with the department store,” agreed Jack. “And if any of us spot the Decepticons, we’ll call all channels on the walkie-talkie.”

    “That’s it! Let’s go!” shouted Miko, pumping her fist into the air again. The three split up, each moving down their own sector of the mall. Jack kept his pace steady. The department store itself was the principal point of interest, since its glass storefront gave a view into the mall’s parking lot, from which an attack by the Decepticons would likely arrive. Miko hadn’t explained how long the mall had been abandoned, but the store had been partially cleared out-- the barren shelving units remained in their original place, and some specialized multi-tier displays stood devoid of whatever products they were meant to advertise. There was no merchandise left, though the skeleton of the store remained. Jack didn’t find it creepy as much as he found it amusing. There was some irony in the placards declaring unbeatable deals over empty racks for clothing.

    Jack reached the storefront and scanned the parking lot-- it was still a desert of asphalt. That was what scared him. The last time he had fought the Decepticons, he had very nearly been killed. Though he now had the firepower to deal with them, was he really going to be an asset in the fight, or a liability? He didn’t want to hold anyone back, or get them hurt. He drove those thoughts away as soon as they arose. No, this was his responsibility now. There simply was no other option. Trying to run away from these problems wouldn’t solve any of them. He turned away from the storefront and headed back towards the hallway, following a different path through empty aisles than when he entered. The shelving units along the path were tall, functioning as dividers between the aisles. He speculated what could have been on them while the store was open. Not clothing, but perhaps household goods? Maybe linens? The tile flooring showed a lot of scuff marks from shoes, so maybe it was a toy section where kids would chase each other with basketballs while store associates yelled at them to stop. Jack was beginning to feel confident in the latter theory when movement through the perforations in the shelving stopped him. A silhouette was passing down the aisle to his right. He reached for his walkie-talkie and opened the line.

    “Hey, guys, I think there’s something down here in the department store,” he said. Only static came through the speaker in response. The silhouette moved to the end of the aisle on the right and swung around the endcap, stepping into his path.

    “Where do you think you’re going, Jack Darby?” said the actress from the convenience store, a smile spreading across her lips.

    Jack fished his pistol out, knowing he had run out of ammo long ago.

    “Stop right there,” he said, attempting to summon what bravado he could. “This is… a restricted area,” he added, following the advice Miko had given him in case there were human trespassers.

    “Oh, look at that,” she said, still using the same disinterested tone she had in the convenience store. “Do you think you’re going to just make me leave? That’s not how this works.”

    Jack remembered Tacker, and what Skids had explained about him.

    “You’re… a nanomatter avatar,” he said.

    “Smart,” she said. “I’m Rake, the assassination expert of the sixty-sixth field operations squad.”

    “I don’t get it,” Jack said, still clinging to his empty pistol. “How did you get here without going through the parking lot?”

    “I’ve been here since before Miko Nakadai made that call,” Rake replied, advancing down the aisle. “I’ve been following you since you came to Las Vegas. When I deduced that you planned on hiding in the mall, I entered ahead of you through the ventilation system. Unlike Staccato, I’ve followed my orders not to engage.”

    “D-dammit,” Jack swore, taking a step back as the facsimile of the actress came closer.

    “However, my commanding officer has just authorized me to let loose. And since you’ve conveniently backed yourselves into a corner, I’m happy to oblige him.” she explained.

    She crouched down and lunged forward in a sprint, closing the gap between them. Jack dropped his useless pistol and swung a fist towards her neck, but Rake’s nanomatter avatar rose up and snapped a hand closed around Jack’s wrist, halting the punch.

    “Fighting back or running is only going to make this take longer,” she said, flinging him to the left. Jack crashed into the shelving unit, which thankfully had no display arms mounted for him to collide with. He pushed himself back up and raised his arms in a defensive stance.

    “Well, then I guess I’m going to waste your time,” he grunted.

    The nanomatter avatar popped her simulated knuckles. “Be my guest.”