ship in a bottle

✧ CH02


The ship was always lively, but unusually so on days like this. Dozens were gathered in and around the shuttle bay to see their friends off on their journeys. It was difficult to tell at a glance who was there on official business and who had shown up of their own volition.

Two-thirds of Nightscream’s crew were leaving, but not together. Rav was to stay and continue his usual duties as a highly sophisticated diagnostic drone. Nyx was Nightscream’s senior (though not by much) and had already completed the schooling required to become a busy little cargo pilot. This time around she was delivering complimentary construction supplies and labor to a planet that had been devastated by the Great Cybertronian war decades ago. Her leaves were frequent, and nothing special. This, however, was Nightscream’s first-ever away mission, and she would not stop reminding him.

“Think you’ll be okay?”

“Uh, yeah.”

She put a concerned hand on his shoulder. She was a bike like him, and barely taller, but she sure liked to impose that extra fraction of a cubit. “You sure?”

“It’s tightening a few screws on a space station. Not open spark casing surgery. I think I can handle it.”

Rav, perched in his base bird form on Nyx’s shoulder, cooed in disagreement. He made a few clicks and chirps to remind them all of a few recent situations that Nightscream had, in fact, failed to handle.

“Oh, my god.” Nightscream couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s totally different. Seriously, I’m not even the one actually doing anything, I’m more like a glorified intern.”

“I don’t know about ‘glorified’.”

Rav agreed.

“Whatever! I’m only doing this because I need one more engineering credit, anyway, ‘n all the classes are full…”

“I still don’t see what it has to do with genetic engineering, like, at all.”

“Me either. But I’m not complaining again. I’m just gonna shut up and do it and then it’ll be over. That beats waiting even longer just cause I felt like bailing. Like, they barely even found a full crew in time… and I don’t blame everyone who refused. It’s in literally the middle of nowhere, even for space.”

“Oh, wow, you’re serious. You haven’t even whined once about being the third wheel.”

Internally, he couldn’t be less thrilled about the potentially nauseating amounts of PDA he was about to be exposed to, but he had committed to grinning and bearing it. He shrugged.

“Well, promise you’ll be careful.”

“I’ll try… anything I should watch out for?”

“Oh, tons. Let’s see, there’s flocks of Air Hammers, the Necrobot, the Shimmer…”

After the first item, which was a rare but documented phenomenon, Nightscream’s expression promptly soured. He should’ve known better than to expect a serious answer.

At least Rav thought it was funny.

”…Space vampires…”

“Just putting ‘space’ in front of something doesn’t make it scarier.”

“Says someone who’s never been.”

”‘Never been’? We’re in it right now.”

“That’s different! I’m talking deep space! Limited crew! Limited resources! Ugh, honestly. Where was I? Right… Ghost ships… the Infinites…”

“Now you’re just making stuff up.”

“Okay, so, maybe the Shimmer’s not real… but the Necrobot? Wouldn’t you rather live in a world where there’s a super nice guy waiting for you when you die? I know I would. And he records your cause of death, which is good motivation not to do anything too embarrassingly stupid.”

“Totally. I just don’t think people who were on the brink of death are the most reputable sources.”

“Okay, then how about the Infinites? Created by a mad scientist who dreamed of a galactic takeover? No limit to how many alt modes they had? Wouldn’t that be terrifying?”

“Maybe if it sounded even remotely possible.”

“Sure it is.”

“Think about it, Nyx. That’s a huge technological achievement! You think there’d be some sign of them having existed. All we’ve got is the story that a huge horde of them helped win the battle for Functionist Cybertron. Which… I know a bunch of people who were there are in this room, but,” Nightscream lowered his voice to a near whisper, “the way they tell it doesn’t make any sense! Like, forget the Infinites, how’d they even get all those matrixes? Yeah right. Seriously, you’d think someone would’ve taken a photo or something.”

“I think they were busy trying not to get killed?”

Nightscream crossed his arms and returned to normal volume. “Skill issue.”

“You say that, but you don’t get it. Space is dangerous! If you’re not careful out there, I’ll kill you. Seriously, though. You’ve got this? You know you can count on me for anything.”

Nightscream looked at her. The three of them had been best friends for ages by now. He found it frankly ridiculous that she felt that was a thing that even needed to be said. “No, I know.”

“Too bad I’m going in the complete opposite direction. But Rav’ll be holding down the fort here if you need to come crying home.”

“As if.”

They would have been content to keep loitering forever, but Nightscream’s name was finally called over the PA.

“Don’t forget about us when you go big for doing paperwork, ‘kay?” Nyx said with outstretched arms.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Nightscream hugged her goodbye. He lingered a little too long—Rav stopped engulfing him with his wings and instead started pecking at his head.

“Okay, okay, I’m off! Jeez!”

Nightbeat and Siren didn’t mind waiting around, given that their agreed-upon pickup time had no precise measurement, it just meant more time to people watch when a majority of the crew were all concentrated in one area (and one with good vantage points, at that). First Officer Hound, on the other hand, had places to be, and was beginning to lose his patience.

“Where is he? I’m this close to getting on the PA again.”

“I’m right here.” Nightscream took a hand off his luggage to wave. “Have been for… a while.”

Hound didn’t know what to say. How had he not noticed? He looked to Nightbeat, who silently confirmed that, yes, though easy to miss, Nightscream had been quietly waiting. (As for why Nightbeat hadn’t pointed this out, he wanted the answer to how long it would take the others to notice for themselves. The three minutes were about what he expected. As for why Nightscream hadn’t spoken up, Nightbeat was sure it had something to do with it becoming more awkward to do so the more time he let pass.) Rather than acknowledge his lacking awareness, Hound was swift to move on.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait!” Siren interrupted. “Nightscream! Hi! Wow, it’s really you, huh? I kind of didn’t believe it until just now!”

“Uh, hi.”

“I’m surprised, is all! Like, of all the people… I mean just yesterday we—”

Siren realized he should stop talking, but Nightbeat had already put two and two together. He inched closer and spoke in a hushed but direct huff. “So that’s what you were up to yesterday, huh? What about our conversation made you think ‘Oh, I know, I’ll try and make a non-issue into one’?”

“Nothing! Nothing! Listen, it was totally—”

“Totally painful.” Nightscream interrupted.

“My condolences,” Nightbeat said.

“Well, I was gonna say it was totally organic. Am I the only one who cares how weird of a coincidence this is?”

“Yes.” Nightbeat said. Nightscream nodded.

“God, you guys are no fun!” Siren groaned. “I mean, the one mission left with two free slots is the same one your little brother needs for a credit? What are the odds?”

“There’s only a few hundred crew members, and even fewer that are mission-ready. It’s a pretty high chance.”

“Hey, stop talking like I’m not right here, thanks.” Nightscream grumbled. “I’m not some… number, okay? And it makes perfect sense for me to be here. It’s you guys who’re out of place. When they told me the positions had been filled, I was expecting… you know… technicians. Not detectives or whatever it is you are.”

“We’re more than capable of following instructions.”

“And troubleshooting!”

Hound tapped his stylus against his datapad, silent. “Is this arrangement going to be a problem?”

“No.” Nightbeat and Nightscream said in unison. If any of them decided to back out now, it would put that space station months behind schedule for no good reason. They both liked to think of themselves as being above such behavior.

Hound looked around warily before accepting that answer. He continued with his explanation of their mission, or, at least, the important parts—there was no doubt that Nightbeat had already fussed over the document in its entirety, and would torment his captive audience with it on the the ride there. The task of getting the rest-stop-to-be’s heat radiators in working order couldn’t be in safer hands.

Finally, he handed the datapad over to Nightbeat to get in writing that he agreed to be responsible for his crew of two. It was only a formality, but Siren still looked at him like he was the entire world as he agreed to protect him.

Nightscream, however, looked considerably less thrilled.

It was eons ago, but Nightbeat remembered vividly how it felt to have so little say in what happened to you. Any given young person from anywhere else in the universe would be shocked at the degree to which young Cybertronians looked after themselves, but still, it was never enough. He considered mentioning that being entrusted to carry out a mission at all, regardless of rank, was flattering… but he knew Nightscream wouldn’t want to hear it.

With that, Hound left them for the next group. The three began to make their way through the crowd to the craft they would be leaving in. The alien shuttle’s outlandish design stood out among the majority Cybertronian vehicles (the Exitus prided itself on providing its own transportation whenever possible). Still, like any space-faring vehicle, this shuttle favored practicality over aesthetics; it was only strange how different practicality could be for two different species.

Siren turned to Nightscream as they waded. “This is your first trip, right? Excited?”

“Nnnot really.”

“Oh. That why you were late?”

“No, I was just… saying bye to my band.”

All the disappointment Siren had vanished in an instant. “Whoa, wait, that’s cool! Who plays what?”

“It’s more the sort of thing where we just say we’re a band and then don’t do anything.”

Nightbeat shot Nightscream a look—he knew he was lying, but he made no effort to try and get him to tell.

“Oh, I get that, totally.” Siren continued, apparently oblivious to the second layer of this conversation. “You guys got a name yet? Any plans?”

“Hey, uh… I was hoping for a quiet trip. You know. Listen to tunes, stare out the window… if that’s okay.” Nightscream was already equipping his headphones.

“Oh… yeah, sure.” Siren muttered. The sound bled out with almost perfect clarity, despite supposedly facilitating a “quiet trip”.

Their hosts were the few people in the room who were afforded ample personal space—it would be a PR disaster if someone happened to step on them, after all. Nightbeat started a chain of bows. While Nightscream’s personal audio equipment said “disinterested”, his bow said “extremely formal”.

They had sent a mid-sized shuttle, which in theory should have been more than enough, but felt cramped once it was filled with Cybertronian bodies. As if trying to make maximum use of the afforded space, their hosts were on the other side of the room—which didn’t come across as terribly inviting. Unbothered, Nightbeat made them immediately aware of his laundry list of questions (and though most were his in origin, he was to relay everything back to the equally curious Nautica). Even though it was to be a long trip, he was determined to mine as much as he could out of it. Siren chimed in, but only occasionally. Nightbeat spent the entire time quietly wondering if he was feeling self-conscious of his volume or just didn’t know what to say.

Their pilot’s attention was divided between getting the craft out of their mothership and recounting the wild tale of their narrow escape from a flock of Air Hammers on the way there.

A story about a ground-bound traffic jam would not have been so interesting. It was refreshing to be reminded of why he had chosen the stars in the first place—he seemed to have forgotten at some recent point.

Nightscream, true to his word, was busy staring out of the window. It was a rare opportunity to have nothing to do but socialize outside one’s species for days on end. Nightbeat wished he would recognize that, but he looked perfectly content to be in his own little world. Chances were slim that those headphones would leave his head any time soon, but Nightbeat wasn’t about to start telling him how to live his life.

Some of the Exitus’ other missions had already concluded and returned home by the time they finally arrived. They were shown to their temporary lodgings and allowed to settle before officially starting work the next day. They may have taken offense at being given emptied storage units had they not been a more comfortable size than the actual guest rooms (even Nightscream was just slightly too tall for them).

Their hosts were sure that it wasn’t their first impression: they were given a tour of the customer-facing lower decks beforehand, which, unlike the purely functional employees-only section that made up most of the station, was a masterclass in contemporary design. It was unfortunate that it seemed like they had stapled two unrelated crafts together, but it made all three of them appreciate the Exitus and its attempt to be a thoroughly pleasant environment all the more.

There was no furniture aside from industrial shelves. Nightbeat didn’t mind. Even somewhere like this felt like home when it was filled with Siren’s laughter.

“I can’t believe they actually shoved us in a closet! It’s almost cool. Making me realize how lucky I was to have an actual bed for pretty much the whole war. Is this what it was like on Earth and stuff?”

“We mostly stuck to our own ships, but this is certainly reminiscent of whenever camp had to be provided by the humans.”

“Oh, right, right. Wow.” Siren said, still looking around. “Wow.”

Nightbeat had never seen someone besides himself so interested in an empty room, though, for Siren, the appeal was almost entirely its novelty rather than its particulars. He figured he could leave him alone for a while without missing anything. “I’ll be back. I’m going to see if Nightscream needs anything.”

“Hah! Good luck with that.”

It was a joke, and he didn’t believe in luck, but Nightbeat always felt better when Siren said things like that.

He slid their wall-sized door closed before walking across the hall. This one was open, but he knocked anyway.

“Yeah?” Nightscream asked, not bothering to come closer to the entrance.

Nightbeat entered, though just barely. Despite this room being the same size as theirs, its occupant only took up a fourth of the space. It seemed so much emptier. “Just checking on my charge.”

Nightscream was occupied with shuffling the order of his things on the shelf. “No problems here.”

“Okay, good.” Nightbeat nodded. He knew now would be the time to say something like “see you tomorrow” and leave, but he couldn’t help sneaking a glance at what Nightscream had brought with. Most of it was things were not especially interesting: basic personal items, equipment needed for work, the music player he had only recently turned off. One thing, however, caught his attention: a small idol statue, given a shelf entirely to itself.

Nightbeat knew he shouldn’t ask. He’d pushed his luck far enough already. But he couldn’t help himself. “If you don’t mind me asking…”

Nightscream turned and put a hand on his hip. “What?”

Nightbeat pointed to what had caught his interest. “I’ve heard of the Oracle, but only ever second-hand.”

“Don’t point.”

Immediately, Nightbeat put his hand down.

Nightscream was clearly considering not honoring the request—he had no obligation to proselytize—but that action had won the tiny sliver of favor needed. “What are you?”

“A Neoprimalist.”

(That was a gross oversimplification, but he knew better than to bog down the conversation with his life story before it had even began.)

“Well, it’s not like I don’t believe all that… but it’s not everything, you know?” Nightscream turned his attention to the idol—most Primalist imagery was intensely anthropomorphic, but the abstract form before them was what had intrigued Nightbeat—it was like a gate, or a portal, or something. He wasn’t sure. “There’re parts of this world that have nothing to do with us. The Oracle oversees… well, absolutely everything.”

“Interesting.” Nightbeat nodded. “There are interpretations that claim Primus functions that same way… but his reputation as a god of war doesn’t seem to help their popularity.”

“No kidding.”

“With a name like ‘the Oracle‘… is there prophecy?”

“Uh, sort of? Supposedly, for everyone, there’s a point—or more like an opportunity, it’s not a guarantee—that they’ll be able to breach the Firewall.”


“You know…” Nightscream gestured vaguely.

“I assume it’s metaphorical.”


“But still. I know of two sorts of firewalls. One, the brick-and-mortar sort my dear Siren sometimes ensures are effective. The other, a virtual thing I’m usually trying to weasel my way through. So which is it?”

“Both? I mean, does it really matter? The point is that it’s guarding… something.”

”…Fair. This ‘something’—what is it, exactly?”

Nightscream exhaled. He was clearly not prepared for so many questions. “People have ideas, or say they’ve seen it. It’s like utopia, I guess. But I don’t… I don’t know what you want me to tell you, I have no idea. The whole point is that no one can really understand it ‘til they’re there, right?”

Nightbeat shrugged.

“Anyways, supposedly, some people can just… get past the firewall, easy. Like it’s not even there. She speaks to them. Through them. Supposedly.” Nightscream shrugged, too—he clearly didn’t consider himself much of a candidate for such an ability. “But that’s how it all started. Different people in different places all saying the same stuff, trying to give the same advice…”

“It seems that’s only started recently. Barely a cycle ago.”

“No, it’s older than that. Way older. She’s just been… quiet. On Cybertron, at least. Not a fan of millions of years of non-stop warfare, I guess.”

This was clearly not the easiest subject for Nightscream. There was still much more Nightbeat wanted to ask, but for now, it could wait. “I see. Well, thank you for enlightening me.”

Nightscream turned away. “Yeah.”

Nightscream closed his door for the evening and leaned forehead-first against it. He felt disgusting. That wasn’t work, so why had he agreed to talk about it? Would the Oracle hear his prayer and reverse time so he could stop that exchange from ever happening?

…No, of course not.

He slowly lifted his head. The light filled his eyes. He stopped putting the entire weight of his body on one arm and stood up straight (well, straight enough). He was no authority. Not on the Oracle, not on anything. Wasn’t that obvious? Why bother asking?

Not to mention that Nightbeat had seemed genuinely interested. He had been expecting dry poaching for facts, which frankly would have been easier to give… instead he felt as if he had genuinely been heard.

Somehow that was the last thing he wanted.

The communicator on the shelf practically sparkled under the fluorescent lighting. Did he want to phone a friend? His group chat was only a click away… they’d tell him if he was being ridiculous, or that he was right, or at least see something funny in it that he couldn’t. Then he remembered the severe delay there would be thanks to the distance between them and he decided he’d rather just forget this ever happened than inadvertently remind his future self.

He had never been too far from home, but it was sinking in now that he really was unimaginably far from it. If Nightbeat and that conjunx of his were the closest things to peers he had for the next few weeks… a shudder came over him.