The door slid open with a sound like a tired snake, revealing a corridor made for candlelight.
Mikaela carefully shifted the paper-wrapped package under her arm, kept a firm grip on the oversized Styrofoam cup, and stepped out of the elevator. The tunnel stretching before her had been recently scraped out of solid rock, with a haste shown in the drill marks still evident on the walls. Fluorescent lights and rivers of insulated wiring traced a sinewy line across the ceiling, and air from hidden circulating fans gasped passed her ears. The whole effect was claustrophobic and vaguely ominous, as if she were staring down the throat of a dragon.
Grinning wryly at the blank eye of the security camera above her, she shook off the familiar feeling and strode purposefully down the corridor. It was long and gradually curved, with only a few side passages that yawned open suddenly, creating pockets of darkness that made the skin crawl on the back of her neck. Every thirty yards, another security camera stared, the panels of hidden weaponry below them mutely promising violence.
She counted three more cameras before the passageway ended abruptly, the stone bursting out into a manmade cavern half the size of a football field. Here, the cameras had been replaced by a small, handpicked squadron of elite army soldiers. These twenty men were lined up against the walls, their composite plastic weapons gleaming wetly in the light, standing so statue still that they quickly became all but invisible.
The only other thing to catch the eye was an oversized, curved desk with six computer monitors, which faced the only other tunnel in the cavern. Sitting behind this glut of technology was a man with the round, serene face of a Buddha statue and all the jittery energy of a caffeinated Chihuahua.
His busy typing paused at the sound of her heels clacking against the floor, and Mikaela waggled the Styrofoam cup invitingly as he turned. "Hey, Art. I come bearing gifts."
Arturo held out his hands, his face splitting into a wide, welcoming smile. "Darling, where've you been all my life? Come to papa!"
"If I didn't know you were talking to the caffeine," she teased, "I'd be offended."
"I'd never dream of speaking to you that way," he said with wounded dignity, plucking the cup from her fingers. "What we have is pure and unsullied. While me and Mr. Coffee here…" He inhaled an appreciative breath of steam. "It's just physical."
Seeming to suddenly materialize out of the stone, one of the guards stationed at the mouth of the second entrance moved. Taking a step forward and standing rigidly at attention, he slung his heavy weapon easily over one shoulder and pulled a metal detecting wand from his belt. "Don't get him started, ma'am," he deadpanned, his gaze locked in the middle distance. "All he needs is a little encouragement, and we'll never get any peace."
At the sight of another familiar face, Mikaela smiled. "You think he's chatty? Ask Bluestreak about his day sometime." The package under her arm shifted unexpectedly, and the crinkling sound of the paper seemed to drain the levity from her. She took it in both hands and stared at it for a moment, before turning to Arturo and asking, "So how is he?"
Unfazed by the subject change, he set down his cup and turned to the monitors. Four of the screens were tied to the cameras leading to the elevator, and another showed a detailed floor plan of the cavern and surrounding tunnels, with each person in it highlighted by a blinking red dot. The sixth and largest screen was tied into a sophisticated camera that monitored the second tunnel; a place where no one would dare to install lights.
Arturo typed busily at the keyboard, and the camera view switched from the hellish glow of infrared to the sullen green of night vision. The altered viewpoint revealed a room carved deep into the stone, its only opening faced with thick planks of wood and bulletproof glass. He tapped at a fuzzy figure that could be seen lounging inside the dark cell, his head turned and staring out at them as if he could sense their scrutiny. His mouth was a shifting point of darkness amongst the green as he spoke, ceaselessly and without pause.
"He's been pretty calm today," Arturo said. "Just sitting in the dark, talking in that weird way of his. Some of what he says is familiar, but for the life of me, I can't place it. Makes me wish I'd paid better attention in my English classes."
"Make me a copy, and I'll take it to Glenn after I'm done here." As the technician nodded and began to search for a disc, Mikaela asked, "What has he been saying, exactly?"
He stopped rifling through a desk drawer long enough to point to the tiny device inserted in his ear canal, which fed him a constant stream of audio from the next room. "Listen for yourself."
With a single keystroke, the chamber was flooded with an eerie, echoing singsong:
"'--When will that be?' say the Bells of Stepney
'I do not know,' say the Great Bells of Bow
Here comes a Candle to light you to Bed
Here comes a Chopper to Chop off your Head
Chip chop chip chop, the Last Man's--"
The chanting stopped suddenly, and the grainy figure on the monitor rose to his feet.
"Your heartbeat is in my ears," he rasped. "It pounds so loud, I can't think." He reared back and slammed his fists against the glass; a sound that reverberated down the passageway like thunder. "Come, come, little drummer girl. Come see me!"
Arturo shuddered. "I hate it when he does that."
"Mikaela," the voice crooned. "Sweet Mikaela.."
Suppressing her own desire to shiver, Mikaela emptied her pockets, letting her keys, cell phone and a few dollars in change clatter against the desktop. She kicked off her heels with their tiny metal nails and removed the copper pins binding her hair. Lastly, she tugged off her ring, the thin circle of platinum catching on her knuckle joint an instant before sliding free. She handed this to Arturo, who took it solemnly and dropped it into a desk drawer for safekeeping.
The nameless soldier came forward then, waving the wand carefully over her body. The metal detector hummed and whined, but the telltale squeal was absent, even when he ran it over the package cradled in her arms. Satisfied, he clipped the wand onto his belt and swung the gun back into his hands. Once again at attention, his eyes still focused at some point above her head, he asked, "Need any company, ma'am?"
"No, thanks. He wouldn't hurt me." Mikaela watched as the soldier ran a thumb over the stock of his weapon. An unconscious, nervous gesture. "But I'm not so sure about you."
She brushed passed him without another word, hesitating only slightly before stepping into the tunnel. Darkness swallowed her up immediately, making phantom points of light dance before her eyes. Blinking rapidly to chase them away, she began to shuffle forward, counting each step under her breath. At one hundred and seventeen, she reached out with one hand, and her fingertips brushed cool glass. Its surface was pockmarked with dozens of pea-sized air holes, and through them whispered a voice, gravely and strained, as if from constant overuse:
"It is the cruelty, the madness of she. To walk in beauty, when I have no eyes to see." There was a sudden scrabbling sound from a few inches away, and she had to lock her knees to keep from leaping back in fright. "Mikaela. Hello."
"Hey, you," she said, forcing lightness into her tone. "I brought you a present."
Using the glass as a guide, she trailed her hand over and down until her knuckles rasped against wood grain. It took only a moment more to find the handle that operated the sliding drawer, which allowed small items to pass between the cell and the outside. She shoved the package in and closed the drawer quickly, pushing it open on the other side. There was a busy ripping sound followed by a long pause, and Mikaela could imagine him trailing his fingers over the knitted blanket, his eyes drinking in the bright colors even in this utter dark.
"So lovely, so sweet," he finally said. "Such a kindly visitor to my lonely prison cell."
It was an old argument, and so there was no heat in her voice when she said, "You're not a prisoner."
"High and low and side to side, my home of crystal and stone. The windows are hiding, and the door will not speak to me." A truncated squeal followed his words; fingernails scraping against glass. "This is freedom, then?"
"Power up the lights, please. You've sat in the dark long enough." Knowing that he could see it, she gave him a reassuring look and quirked an eyebrow. "It's okay. There's no one here but me. Sweet Mikaela, remember?"
"Memories. One need not be a chamber to be haunted."
It was a cryptic statement that made no sense, but still he complied. Light as pale as phosphorus began to spill from the locked room, steadily growing brighter, and soon she could see the intricate network of crystal strings embedded into the walls, ceiling and floor. It even impregnated the glass viewing wall, lacing itself through the tough material like a spider web, glowing brighter for every drop of power it absorbed. This solidified Energon net was a collaboration of the finest minds of two disparate worlds; brilliant and beautifully constructed. A crystalline Faraday Cage that made all of her assurances a lie.
He continued to slough power, and the Energon net sucked it up just as readily, letting off a shine that soon painted the room in pale watercolor hues. The rich mahogany of the dresser, chair and table was washed out and tired under this light, and it turned the cream-colored foam mattress and sheets into a dirty dishtowel white. The only scraps of color that seemed untainted came from the blanket wrapped around his whip-thin shoulders; a riot of red and yellow and blue, so stark against his white t-shirt.
A young man with a lean and hungry look, whose eyes never lost their pinprick pupils, no matter how bright or dim the light. They were strange, mad eyes sunk in features she knew better than her own, and they prompted Mikaela to lay her hands against the glass. Her fingertips unconsciously sought out the tiny air holes and pressed hard against them, as if she could force her way inside by effort of will alone.
"Oh, Sam. I've missed your face."
Hunching his shoulders and ducking his head, Samuel James Witwicky giggled into the blanket. "Sam's not here right now. Please leave a message."
Mikaela's heart twisted in her chest, but her expression revealed nothing as she peered through the tangle of crystal and Swiss cheese glass. She took in the sight of his too-sharp cheekbones and the bruised slash of his chapped, bitten lips. She watched the restless fluttering of his fingertips, and sought out the bare patches of stubble peeking from his hair, legacy of a fit of temper that had made the crystalline cage burn so brightly she had been blinded for half a day. She gathered up all these new changes, these little truths, and swallowed them down. It was a bitter pill, but she accepted it readily, as she always did.
A small enough sacrifice, so that she could smile at him and mean it.
Some of Sam's inexplicable amusement seemed to fade at the sight of her expression. He shuffled towards her and delicately touched three fingers against the glass, their hands only a few centimeters apart. His eyes caught and held her own; copper brown ensnaring glacier blue. This close, despite the pinprick pupils, they were comforting and familiar. As safe as quicksand.
"How have you been?" he asked softly.
The question sounded so ordinary, the use of inflection so much like the Sam she used to know. Mikaela fought back a sudden, wild urge to claw her way through the locked door and into his arms.
"Good," she said, vaguely proud of the steadiness in her voice. "The government has named me interspecies liaison in your absence, with a clip-on badge and a mountain of paperwork to prove it. Prime is keeping Bumblebee on as my counterpart in the Autobot ranks. It works well, since we spend a crazy amount of time together, anyway."
Feeling awkward, she fell into an uneasy silence, her gaze sliding away from his. It had been a rote disgorge of data, which told the truth and explained nothing.
She had never been good with words. Although quick-witted and intelligent, with a dry sort of humor, the eloquence that had bloomed in Sam over the years had managed to elude her. Until recently, that hadn't mattered, for Sam had been her foil; loquacious when she was silent, disarming when she was grim. They had balanced each other out beautifully, and it seemed so unfair that she now had cause to wish it had been different.
If she had worked at it, if she had tried, maybe now she could use words to breathe life into the emotions trapped behind her eyes. Maybe then she could make him understand how different it was without him around, how the sounds of the world had changed. How the house creaked and groaned in ways it had never done before, and how the soft rustle of the bed sheets around her body had become deafening. How Bumblebee didn't talk as much anymore, his voice grown static-laden and hesitant. How the echo of her own thoughts had never seemed so hollow, or so loud.
But like many wishes come far too late, there was no help for it, no appeal. She would have settle for simple truths.
"Bee says 'hi,' Sam. He misses you almost as much as I do."
"And who does he miss? The me, or the I?" With alarming speed, that hoarse, steely edge had crept back into his voice. He removed his hand from the glass, burying his fingers into the blanket and clutching hard. "He knows. He knows. Friends are meant to be lost, and no one can truly love a god."
With a sigh that seemed come from her toes, Mikaela rested her forehead against the glass. He seemed to be increasingly fixated on this idea of divinity. Perhaps it was the only way he knew how to wrap his mind around all that had changed, so quickly and without mercy.
It had seemed like a miracle, at first. Begun with inexplicable malfunctions around the home they shared, their lights burning out and microwaves shorting with such regularity that they had joked about ghosts. And then came the aches, which had rippled beneath his skin in sudden twinging waves, like growing pains. They had subsided quickly, but hot on their heels came dreams, filled with weird vistas and thoughts that seemed slow, alien, and utterly terrified. Sam had worried that he was going crazy, but a paring knife and a single careless moment in the kitchen had proven it to be something far, far stranger.
The little cut on his thumb had healed in seconds, so fast he didn't even have time to bleed.
He was pinned beneath Ratchet's scanners less than an hour later, but a series of exhaustive tests had shown only that he was a healthy and active man, perfectly normal for his age. Ratchet had seemed personally offended by the lack of unusual readings, and had made it his mission to track down the reason behind the changes in Sam. Eventually, though, the culprit had to be discovered through observation and guesswork, for all of Ratchet's tests never revealed anything but an ordinary human being, even as it became increasingly obvious that Sam was not.
His powers --for powers they were -- had grown by the day. He quickly developed the ability to understand Cybertronian speech and to ride the signals given out by their comlinks, spying on enemy conversations and speaking to any Autobot as easily as picking up a telephone. Wounds, no matter how severe, would mend in a handful of heartbeats, without even a trace of scarring. Eventually, this ability had expanded to others, allowing him repair one of them with the same unthinking ease that he used to heal himself. He'd even begun to experiment with old electronics and bits of tempered steel, certain on a level close to instinct that he would one day be able to give the Autobots the one thing they desired most. New life, and the promise of a future.
It seemed that only humans, trapped in their cages of flesh and bone, were beyond the scope of his gifts. That limitation had done little to lessen the impact of his presence on their allies; some of whom began to look upon him with a wary kind of awe. He had borne all that and more with exasperated good humor, and although she worried for him, he seemed able to survive --even to thrive-- under the weight of his new life.
It was over a year later when that life had begun to sicken and sour, and to this day, she couldn't understand why it had come as a surprise. It had started with a loss of appetite, mild at first, but steadily increasing until even a bite of food or a drink of water would trigger brutal fits of vomiting. He quickly turned thin and lost muscle mass, his voice developing a dry click, but even after a month, when he should have died of thirst twice over, he had remained active and clear-headed. It was as if he was being fueled from within, powered by something no one could name.
The voice had come next, beginning as a breathy whisper in the back of his mind, disjointed and filled with confusion. Things long familiar had suddenly turned strange, and she would sometimes catch him running a hand over the countertop with a wonder close to disbelief, as if he'd never imagined such a thing before. His moods had quickly grown from unpredictable to frightening, the slightest provocation slingshotting him from black despair, to sobbing terror, to a screaming, savage joy.
And every day, the voice had grown clearer and stronger, gaining in personality. As essentially incompatible as sodium and water, they had begun to tear at each other, fighting for control of a life that neither could fully grasp. The thing within him could no more comprehend the beauty of every heartbeat than Sam could grasp the peace that comes from existing outside of time, deathless and cold.
A thing that was never meant to become aware had done just that. It called itself Allspark, and it hungered for something that Sam could not name.
It wasn't long before he had descended into an almost dissociative fugue, losing sight of his connections with people and the linear nature of time. He had begun to refer to himself as 'we,' as if the battle taking place within his soul had changed, becoming a partnership in mutual destruction. With horrible methodicalness, they had proceeded to shred themselves to bits, blending together until 'we' once again became 'I.'
In the end, he had lost control completely, no matter how hard Mikaela, Bumblebee and the rest had tried to help. His powers had become dangerous, where a single fit of temper was enough to scramble every Autobots' processors within a hundred yards. Computer panels and lighting systems would die in an explosion of sparks, and a few had even wadded up into pretzels of hot, twisted metal, as if crumpled by a giant fist. Some bots had begun to whisper that it was only a matter of time before one of them would be next.
And then came the final straw; a day that still echoed in Mikaela's mind like a scream. It had brought about this cave and its crystal prison, where no metal or machines were allowed. A necessary incarceration, perhaps, but she had yet to forgive Optimus for giving the order to carry it out. She had been reduced to a literal observer in Sam's life, and it ripped at her soul to watch as her husband continued to change into something wholly new and utterly mad.
No help. No appeal. As always.
Steeling herself, she lifted her head from the glass and met his eyes. "You're not a god," she said. "In some ways, it'd be easier if you were. You do remember, don't you? The Allspark's acting like a parasite. It's leeching off you, corrupting you-"
"It is this flesh that corrupts me!"
The crystal net suddenly shrieked as it absorbed a tsunami of energy, and light exploded from the room like a bomb. Mikaela acted on instinct, turning sharply on her heel and collapsing to her knees, arms shielding her tightly closed eyes. The air pressure in the tunnel seemed to increase, as if the rock walls were compressing and bowing inwards, buckling under Sam's mercurial, raw nerve shift in mood. It was agonized rage made manifest, so full of sound and fury that she wondered crazily what had happened to the whimper at the end of the world.
Hunched over like someone gravely ill, her hair falling around her shoulders like a cloak, she raised a hand and waved blindly at the tunnel's mouth. Thanks to his ridiculously advanced camera, she knew that Arturo would still be able to see her, and so she curled her hand into a fist and gave him a shaky thumbs up. She wasn't ready to leave yet, and she had no desire to be dragged away by a bunch of overzealous soldiers in protective eyewear.
Arturo must have complied with her unspoken request, for she was left to ride out the assault alone. The screaming of the crystal lessened in increments, until it settled into a low, heartbreaking whine, like the sound of a dying angel. She dared to crack open her eyes and raise her head, firefly dots dancing in front of her vision. The light pouring from the room was still too bright, but it was bearable, like the desert sun on a bright afternoon.
Ears ringing, she climbed shakily to her feet and turned to squint into the Energon-laced cage. Sam had thrown the blanket aside during his fit, and he now stalked from one end of the glass wall to the other. His face was outwardly unchanged, but inwardly transformed into something terrible by a rage that thrashed towards its surface like a leviathan, its toothed maw wide open and hungry. The light bleached his skin until it seemed to merge with his shirt, and his eyes held all the predatory gleam of a tiger's.
"You dare? You, whose kin rip out the bones of this world and fight like dogs over the marrow? You, whose body sags with dying cells, your every exhalation laced with poison?" The disgust in his voice was an open wound across her heart, and the echoing expression on her face made his lip curl, as if he wanted nothing more than to spit. "All of you… things. Death in dark cloaks, with sickle and scythe, consuming the living so that you may continue another day. Even now, I can smell the dead flesh rotting in your gut. You fester."
Rage bubbled under her skin, sudden and caustic, bringing with it a taste like corroded copper pennies in her mouth. She lurched forward and slapped her hand hard against the glass, returning his glare through wisps of raven-black hair.
"So does everything else!" she snapped. "We eat to survive, just like the animals do. Plants take nutrients from the ground, which wouldn't be there if other living things hadn't died to supply it. And when this body you hate so much stops working, it'll be food for bacteria and worms." Each word was sharp and deliberately spaced, turning them into weapons that she wielded without mercy. "Not even Cybertronians are safe from this. They may not eat living things, but they've reduced their world to ashes and slag, and they kill as readily as we do. When they die, the living dismember the shells and take the parts they need to repair themselves. What remains is melted down and used in construction."
Sam's ire splintered under the weight of her words, the light in the room beginning to dim. Mikaela couldn't help but respond in kind, relaxing her aggressive stance and continuing gently, "Don't you get it? It's a part of life that not even you can avoid. We live. We die. We are consumed. It's not bad thing, it just is."
The crystalline keening died entirely, leaving behind an echoing silence broken only by the sound of Sam dropping to his knees. The light had faded to such an extent that he was little more than a collection of pale highlights against the dark; a shadowy wraith that reached out with shaking, boney fingers and gathered up the discarded blanket.
"Let it be the finale of seem," he rasped, with such broken sorrow that guilt slid down her spine like ice water. "The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream."
His childish lash of anger, her righteous rage… suddenly, none of it mattered anymore. She knelt down to his level and laid her hands flat against the glass, as if in supplication. "It's not all doom and gloom, you know. There are good things, too. Sweet things. You used to know what those were, baby. We figured out most of them together."
There was a shuffling, sliding sound as he crawled towards her on his hands and knees, appearing out of the gloom with the blanket draped over him like a careless shroud. He fell against the clear wall and rested his cheek lightly on one of the embedded ribbons of Energon, as if searching for comfort. His breath fogged the glass as he sighed, sounding more exhausted than she could understand.
"Some part of me remembers. But now... now it's all too loud, too bright, too much to feel. It spins. It spins and blends, sweet Mikaela. You're a seed in your mother's belly. You're young, you're old. You've been dead a thousand years." As he spoke, he drew a finger through the vapor in a series of broad, wavering strokes, "Music in heartbeats and clouds of dust, and all of you pale, dying things, madly dancing. I'm deafened by the noises you make."
The Cybertronian language was the most complex Earth had ever known, with a bewildering sentence structure and intonations that ran the gambit from sub- to ultrasonic. It was impossible for a normal human to fully grasp its spoken form, much less to curl their tongue around even one of its haunting, electronic syllables. Its written form was something else entirely, however, and Mikaela had long since learned how to interpret its graceful, ornate script. She did so now, sorrow a rolling parasite in her soul as she translated the tired words etched into the steam of Sam's breath:
In unity, despair.
AN: 'The Great Bells of Bow' is an old nursery rhyme, and the quote 'One need not be a chamber to be haunted' is brought to you by the immortal Emily Dickinson. 'Let it be the finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.' comes from a surprisingly creepy poem about death, written by Wallace Stevens. All three are considered to be public domain.