The Magrada Academy of the Theatrical Arts - Caminus’ most renowned educational institution, where young Camiens were taught in the ways of performance, of dance, of playwriting, all that was needed to become a figure of reverence and influence. Spaces among Magrada’s student body were few, and coveted, and enrolment there was practically a guarantee of respect and admiration across the planet.
Nautica would rather be anywhere else.
The stage, she had learned, did not suit her, or her quiet voice, or her awkward demeanour, or her general lack of charisma. She didn’t hate it, not really - she didn’t think she had it in her to hate anything so trivial - but her true passion lay elsewhere. And yet here she sat, at the behest of another - the one currently lounging on the recharge slab on the other side of the room, flicking through a few apps on her phone and compulsively tapping out a rhythm on the bed’s metal surface, which Nautica was doing her best to ignore.
A few more minutes of this. Nautica was struggling to concentrate on her reading.
“Yes?” Perfectly polite, not a hint of irritation.
“Why’s your recharge slab like that?” She waved a lazy, orange hand waving toward the metal rectangle affixed to the wall on Nautica’s half of the room.
Nautica’s rotors hummed a little. “It’s more efficient.”
“Yeah, but this way’s more comfortable~” Firestar countered, stretching out so that her head dangled off the edge.
“I can fit more stuff in here this way!”
“You could have both if you just organised your stuff properly!” She gestured across the room, at the precarious stacks of datapads and tools and gadgets Nautica tinkered with in her spare time, unsupervised, unauthorised practical experiments that would probably get her kicked out of the dorm, or even the school, if the faculty were to find out about them.
“It is organised!” she insisted, “I know exactly where everything is!”
“Alright then, where’s your copy of At the Forge of Solus ?”
Nautica scrunched her face up in thought. “...Trick question! I don’t own a copy of At the Forge of Solus .”
“Yes you do, it’s right there.” Nautica’s eyes followed Firestar’s finger to the ground, where, sure enough, there lay a datapad face-down, the title At the Forge of Solus proudly engraved upon its back. “I don’t see why you need unique datapads for all these different books anyway. They could probably all fit on one.” She surveyed the stacks again. “...Maybe two.”
“I… tend to forget I have things if I can’t physically see them.”
“You forget you have things if you can, too, apparently.”
Nautica sighed, pinched the bridge of her nose. “Don’t you have studying to do?”
She shook her head. “I don’t--”
“You don’t need to, I know, I know. You’ve mentioned.”
Firestar hummed happily.
“Already got all my lines memorised.”
“Of course you have.”
Nautica jolted in her seat. “I’m sorry?”
Firestar practically somersaulted off the recharge slab, landing neatly before her roommate. “There’s a dance bit I think I need to practice for class, and if I need to practice it, you definitely do.”
Nautica flinched. Firestar cocked her head.
“Are you okay?”
“I…” Nautica stood, pressing the datapad she was reading against her desk a bit too firmly. “I’m going to go for a walk.”
“...Oh. Okay. See you later?”
* * *
Caminus, the only major city on the planet Caminus, was formed mostly from the dormant body of the colony’s founder, a Titan also named Caminus. Nautica sometimes wondered why those first settlers had made such an odd decision. Were they just not very imaginative? Sure, someone who grew up on/in Caminus would get used to it pretty quickly, but to any visitors or newcomers or other such outsiders it must seem awfully confusing. Still, she supposed, changing it now after so long would just be even more confusing, so there wasn’t much she could do.
She felt there wasn’t much she could do about a lot of things.
“Not like we get any visitors anyway…” she muttered, kicking a pebble into the pond at the centre of Magrada’s main courtyard. She dawdled under the starlight, only the sound of her own internal systems to keep her company. She wanted to transform, to race off into the night, but no, she had to be a submarine, didn’t she? Useless altmode. When was she ever going to be at a large enough body of water to make use of it? She might as well be a monoformer. But going through reclassification was too much hassle, too much paperwork, too much bureaucracy , and so a submarine she would remain for the foreseeable future.
There was someone on the bench as she approached it - a spiky, teal robot, large wheels set into her shoulders, scrolling through a datapad with a thoughtful expression. She took a seat.
Velocity looked up, and her face broke into a smile. “Nautica!” She flicked the screen of her datapad off.
“Oh, you don’t have to--”
“No, it’s fine!” she cut her off. “You want to talk, don’t you? I like talking to you.”
A moment of silence.
“Is it Star again?”
“No, no. Star’s fine, she’s fine.”
“But you’re still upset.”
“I know I’m upset. That’s why I’m here . If I wanted somebody to just describe my own emotions to me, I’d talk to… to…”
“...Yeah” Nautica sighed. Velocity laughed.
“What are you gonna do once we’ve graduated?”
“Quantum mechanics, hopefully.” Nautica answered, completely missing the point of Velocity’s question as usual.
“Odd place to study for that.” Velocity decided to play along. Less awkward than explaining to Nautica that she’d misinterpreted.
“Says the medical student.”
“I’ve got my whole life ahead of me.” Velocity shrugged. “I can afford to take some time for myself. Doesn’t have to be all work. Like, I’ll be a doctor someday, y’know? But for now… for now I’m here, and that’s fine.”
“Primus, you sound just like her. You’re all too relaxed about this.”
“Nautica, if everybody else you talk to seems too relaxed, maybe that means you’re not relaxed enough. It’s not like we’re a short-lived species or anything, you can afford some time off.”
“I know, I know. But… doesn’t it drive you mad? There’s something you want so much , and you just… can’t have it yet? Like, it’s right there, but you’re stuck somewhere you can’t reach it?”
Velocity nodded slowly - in agreement? Or just sympathy? Nautica wished she could tell the difference. “Yeah. But you’ll get there eventually. I promise.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t. But I know you. And I know you’re brilliant.” Velocity stood, stretched, her pneumatics hissing at the sudden motion. “Come on. We should get back to our rooms. Don’t want to miss class tomorrow.”
“I don’t have to recharge every night. I’m not that inefficient.”
Velocity smiled knowingly. “No such thing as too much rest.”
“I dispute that.”
“Oh, come on!” Velocity grabbed her hand, pulled her up. “Do you want me to walk with you?”
“...No, I’ll be fine on my own.”
Velocity nodded - still such an oddly enigmatic gesture - and, with a clap on the back, transformed into her vehicle mode and drove off towards the dorm. Nautica walked behind on slow, heavy feet, and hoped her mind wouldn’t wander anywhere too dark on the way.
* * *
Had it been impulse?
When Firestar had asked, she’d said yes, of course, but what did it even mean to be Amica Endurae, anyway? It wasn’t the same as just a “best friend,” was it? It was more than that, definitely; it was a lifelong bond. But it wasn’t a Conjunx Endura; it was lesser, somehow, like a stage below.
Nautica glanced over at Firestar’s empty recharge slab and grit her teeth. She knew that someday, long ago, before Caminus was even a glint in the eye of old Cybertron, these societal conventions had probably been forged to give people some kind of structure, a framework through which to process and discuss their feelings. But all they seemed to do nowadays was make everything so much more complicated than it needed to be.
And where was Firestar, anyway? It wasn’t uncommon for her to be out this late, partying or… or whatever, but normally she at least said something, left a note. Tonight, though, her room had been empty when she arrived.
She’d turn up, she told herself. She’d be fine. Firestar wasn’t the type to get herself into any real trouble.
Yes, she is .
Nautica groaned as she stood, setting out on the search for her wayward roommate.
The halls of Magrada were quiet, tranquil, Nautica would say, although she knew Firestar would disagree. “ It’s weird ,” she could almost hear her complaints, “ where is everybody? Where’s all the excitement? ”
It wasn’t long before Nautica’s worry turned into a routine, checking empty room after empty room. The silence loomed so long it became natural, as it often did to Nautica, and so when it was broken her spark practically left her body.
A tone from her phone, gentle yet persistent, impossible to ignore, and rotating on the screen was a strange symbol. Its fragmented, mosaic-like shape reminded her of the sigils of the Primes, or the Guiding Hand, but its shape was entirely unfamiliar - it seemed to depict some kind of long-necked alien creature, set within a fragmented circular border. Frowning, she tapped it, and the obscure glyph made way for a map - the school, she recognised instantly. A red waypoint flashed on and off, marking her assumed destination.
She raised an eyebrow. It… might be Firestar, she supposed. She wasn’t quite sure how she could make her phone do this, but then she wasn’t exactly the most well-versed in this area. “ All that tinkering, and you can barely send a text? ”
“ Don’t exaggerate ,” she’d retorted, “ I can send a text just fine. ”
“ Then why do you never answer mine? ” Firestar’s exasperation still rang in her ears from time to time. Perhaps it was because she’d never answered. But what was she supposed to say? Not everything needed a response. Although, in retrospect, that probably had. Too late now, though.
She cast her mind back to the map on her phone. She hadn’t passed the area it was directing her to yet, but she was close. She’d get there soon enough anyway, and if there was anything there, she’d investigate. For now, she would continue the search as normal.
After a few more minutes of fruitless hunting, she arrived at the place the marker on the map had been directing her to - a small, plain hallway, basically just connective tissue between two of the wing’s main lecture halls. She knew Magrada’s campus like the back of her hand, memorised over countless long walks through sleepless nights, and she knew that there was not a door in this hallway.
Why, then, was there a door in front of her?
It looked off, aesthetically, not like any of the other doors on campus. It was heavier, more like an elevator than anything… and, like an elevator, there was a button next to it, glowing red, and on that button was the same symbol as had appeared on her phone.
It was probably a bad idea to push buttons attached to mysterious, magically-appearing doors, right? That seemed like the kind of thing most rational people would consider a bad idea. Nautica liked to think of herself as a rational person.
...But Nautica was looking for Firestar right now, and Firestar definitely wasn’t.
She pushed the button.
* * *
“...Bit anticlimactic.” Nautica muttered after about two minutes riding the elevator down. She almost wished there were something else unsettling about the situation, something so clearly wrong she couldn’t ignore, but no. It was, from all evidence currently available to her, a perfectly normal elevator.
Which meant, sooner or later, she had to hit the bottom.
So she could wait.
She’d get there eventually.
She could wait.
“ OH MY GOD HURRY UP ” She kicked the wall of the elevator with all the strength she could muster, to the sole effect of hurting her own foot. “ow.” she grumbled, sinking to the floor.
“ Sulking’s not going to help, you know ,” Velocity’s voice said in her head. She knew, but she didn’t care. Sulking was fun.
Finally, blessedly, after several eternities had passed and the Guiding Hand had surely reforged the universe anew, the elevator came to a halt, and its doors slid open.
She was in a theatre. No surprise there, she supposed, but this theatre seemed to be different to any of the many others she’d been forced into in the past - the seats were positioned on a plateau encircling the stage high above it, to the point where it was almost impossible to actually see the stage unless you stood right against the barrier at the plateau’s edge. What was suspended above it all was what really caught her eye anyway - a gigantic, glowing blue sphere, pulsating at an achingly slow, yet steady rhythm, sending shimmers of light down the many cables holding it up, through the walls to parts unknown. It could only be--
“Caminus’ spark.” A deep voice beside her said.
She looked to her right - and up, to the head of the Transformer beside her. In his beast mode, clearly, he took the form of some gigantic, long-necked alien creature the likes of which Nautica had never before seen - except, she realised, on the insignia that had led her to this place. His eyes remained fixed on the stage, but he seemed fully aware of her presence.
“Are… you in charge of this place?”
“In a way. Though in another, this place is in charge of me.” His mouth did not move as he spoke, nor did his expression change.
“What is this place?”
“This... is the stage upon which dreams are forged into reality!” His dramatic excitement was an ill fit for his unmoving snout.
“...What does that mean?"
“Those called to this stage do battle to determine who will become the Top Star - to decide who earns the right to stand upon their own Stage of Fate, to craft the world they desire!”
“The world I desire…” Nautica’s eyes at last fell upon the stage - a plain, flat circle, furnished only by the towering podium at its centre. Atop the podium, something seemed to shine.
“...What do you mean, battle? ”
“If you fear mortal peril, then you need not. It is merely a friendly contest.”
Nautica nodded, unsure of how far she could trust this strange individual. This situation was so far removed from her frame of reference that her logic circuits felt like they were about to explode. “So, basically, if I go down there, and I win this... battle … I get to choose my own fate?”
“It is more difficult than that. But, if you are the last one standing once auditions are over - if you can prove the strength of your wish above all others - then yes. The Stage of Fate will be yours to claim.”
Audition. Battle. Neither were exactly her thing, to be honest. Audition after audition, she’d failed time and time again, and as for fighting… she wasn’t even sure she’d met anyone who’d ever been in a fight, never mind been in one herself. But if this was it… if this, right here, right now, was the only step she could take towards the life she wanted… then she had to take it.
“Take the stage, Nautica of the Wailing Walls, and claim your Stage of Fate!”
She thought she finally felt the host’s eyes on her as she leapt.
Caminus’ spark pulsed.
She was awash in a red nothingness, her ears filled with nothing but the mighty roar of some unknown machine, and… and music? She could hear music, now, she could feel it, in a way she never had before, and she suddenly knew what Firestar meant when she went on about her dancing, about the stage. The pastel abyss she was tumbling through endlessly shrouded her, both comforting and thrilling at the same time, and suddenly she knew what she was doing, everything she had to do.
She was transformed.
Somehow, miraculously and yet inevitably, she landed on her feet amongst the labyrinth, and instantly registered both a cape, affixed to her shoulder with a magnetic clamp, and the hammer in her hands. It felt different to the hammers she was used to - this was built for combat, not mechanical tinkering - and yet it felt perfect in her grip, as though she’d been wielding it for years. Instinctively, she knew she had to protect her cape.
The podium descended, spotlights shimmering through the hall as her opponent made their entrance - a matching cape on her shoulder, twirling a lance around her red-and-orange frame...
“ Nautica!? ” Her elegance vanished instantly, pure shock commanding her features.
From his position in the stands, the host spoke.
“Thus begins… the Revue of Silence. ”
On second thoughts, Nautica decided, maybe she’d acted a bit rashly.
“ I understand .”
Before any explanation could be offered, the stage began to shift. The ground beneath them crumbled as water rose from no discernible source, forcing the pair to scatter. Some of the ground rose with the water, eventually resulting in a stage consisting of a series of islands, connected by precarious bridges, with an impossible ocean below.
“What are you doing here?” Nautica cried out over the fading rumble of machinery.
“What am I doing here? What are you doing here!?” Firestar called in response, her eyes flicking nervously upwards. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Look - explanations will have to wait till after the audition. For now--” she adjusted her grip, poised to attack, “--we fight.”
“Firestar, wait--! ” Nautica protested, but was cut off by Firestar’s dive towards her, the lance sweeping her feet out from under her. Firestar was on top of her now, but her next attack was deflected by the hilt of her warhammer, pushing her away, off, onto the floor, giving Nautica the time to jump to her feet and run. But where? Where could she go? She couldn’t fight, she couldn’t fight her! But now here she was, because she’d just followed without thinking again, and now she was stuck with nowhere to--
She jumped into the water.
Home ground advantage, it seemed for a moment, but the sputter of her engines just reminded her how out of practice she was with her alt-mode, and the abyss below seemed to stretch down forever. She could stay down here for a couple of minutes before she fell. Above her, she could see Firestar peering through the murky waters, searching for her, preparing for her resurfacing. She supposed it would be difficult to swing that lance with any force underwater.
Nautica had known Firestar a long time - practically all their lives - and she’d never once seen her wield a lance, or any weapon, like that. Had she just neglected to mention it? Impossible. The day Firestar didn’t take an opportunity to shoot her mouth off about whatever new skill she was learning was the day the Liege Maximo decided that on second thoughts all that lying had been a bit out of line. She almost laughed at the thought. Although that said, she’d certainly done a pretty good job of keeping this a secret.
Why did it have to have been her , anyway?
Because you wouldn’t have come if it had been anyone else .
She knew what she had to do.
With a rush of her engines, she launched out of the water and into robot mode, smashing her hammer onto the ground where her opponent had been just seconds before. Firestar was already poised for a counterattack.
“I just wanna talk.”
She hesitated. “Finally.”
“But you have picked the absolute worst possible time.”
Firestar swung the lance, and instinctively, with far more skill than she’d ever learned, Nautica swatted it away with the head of her hammer. Firestar didn’t let up, strike after strike leaving Nautica on the defensive.
“But hey, if you actually wanna talk this time, I promise-- I’m all ears! ” A low blow from the lance’s hilt, knocking Nautica to one side - it was all she could do to stay standing. She barely managed to block the next one. “Like, seriously, what are you doing here? Why would you come here , of all places?”
“I was- gnh! ” A harsh blow, difficult to deflect, “I was looking for you! I was worried about you!”
Nautica could press the advantage - make use of the distraction, strike a blow, win the battle.
She did not.
“...You… were worried about me?”
“Of course I was worried about you! You’re my Amica Endura! I’m always worrying about you!”
“Well, how was I supposed to know that?”
Nautica blinked. The attack began again, and she was being pushed back once more.
“Seriously! You never talk to me! I never know how you feel about… about me! About anything! ” She added, too quickly. A blow to Nautica’s midriff with the base of her lance, and she was sent stumbling backwards, struggling to keep her balance. Firestar paused.
“I… kinda thought you hated me.”
Nautica stepped forward. “I… of course I don’t hate you. I could never hate you.”
“Well, why not? I-I know I’m not, like, the most observant but I can see how much you hate it here! And I practically dragged you here!”
“ No! ” Nautica yelled, quicker, louder than she’d intended. “It’s my fault! I followed you, I… I should’ve said something!”
“So why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know! Why didn’t you? ”
“I don’t know!”
Silence descended upon the stage, thick and heavy like the fog of a violent night. Neither combatant dared move, their weapons hanging limply by their sides, waiting for their wielders to dare make the next move.
Nautica joined her, at first out of sheer bafflement at Firestar, then at every other element of her night, and eventually it didn’t even matter what they were laughing at just that they were laughing together.
“Oh, Primus, we’re both such idiots.” Firestar grinned.
The laughter died, but the new silence was lighter, airier, a far less ominous presence.
“Me too. I’m sorry too, I mean. Sorry.”
“If you wanna leave, then…”
“No! No, I’ll stay. I want to… to see this through to the end. With you, if that’s alright.”
Firestar smiled. “More than alright.”
“...What do we do now, then?”
“Well.” Firestar twirled her lance through the air, effortlessly switching it between her hands without stopping or slowing. “As I recall, we were in the middle of an audition.”
Nautica gripped her hammer. “Bring it.”
And from his place high above, the host watched their performance, and he understood.
* * *
“So, now what?”
“Well, we’re both still in. Nobody’s been knocked out yet, as far as I know, so… we keep going, I guess. Your phone’ll do that… that bleepy thing, when it’s your turn to audition again.”
“Anyone else we know?”
“Ah… yeah, yeah! Your mate, the teal one…”
“Lotty!? No way!”
“Yeah, I fought her last night! She’s bloody vicious when she gets down to it, tell you what.”
Ooh, “I’ll have to ask her about that. Anyone else?”
“Um… the Cityspeaker wannabe, I think… Wingblade…?”
“That’s it! Yeah, she’s in… some others, too, I don’t really remember. In case you hadn’t noticed, the host isn’t too forthcoming with the details…”
“Oh, Primus. Who is that guy, anyway?”
“Dunno. Maybe he is Primus!”
“ Ha! Yeah, or Onyx Prime!”
“Ah, come on, the Vok aren’t real!”
“You don’t know that!”
The conversation came to a lull, Firestar lying on her recharge slab, Nautica leaning against hers.
“You wanna help me move my recharge slab? I’ve been thinking a horizontal position might be more comfortable.”
Firestar smirked. “You’re gonna have to tidy your stuff up first.”
“It’s perfectly tidy! I know--”
“...Fine. But you’ve gotta help.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“...Say, but what if he is somehow an avatar of Caminus…?”
The starlight shone over Caminus as it always had.