ship in a bottle

✧ CH04

forbidden fruit

They had spent so much time together, one would think Siren had a good grasp of this sort of thing by now, but whenever Nightbeat tried to show him how to do something, or tried to collaborate on figuring out what needed doing, somehow he always ended up distracted.

It felt as if time and space shifted away from them, here, now, in this server room they had finally found deep in the storage area of the station, and into somewhere else where there was just bliss and contentment and nothing else. He knew the information was being fed to him—things he wanted to know, even!—but being in the presence of someone he adored so utterly who was in their element was just too much sometimes. The way Nightbeat explained things (always so thorough, though maybe that was part of the problem), the efficiency with which his mind seemed to operate when he was put to task, the way he’d look back to Siren to make sure he followed, and sometimes, noticed that he didn’t…

“You got that?”

It was happening yet again. Siren took a second, then meekly shook his head.

Nightbeat just laughed, pulled him a little closer, and underlined something on the screen with his finger. Siren practically shuddered. Nightbeat’s lifetime of maintaining and operating small, delicate machinery that required more gentleness than most were capable of was apparent. Siren was definitely paying attention now. “See? This machine crashed when the power went out, so the data’s been corrupted. It’ll take some convincing before it lets us watch it in this bad a state, but it should be doable.”

Behind them, Nightscream scoffed. Not at the work, but the closeness. He seemed to not have a grasp on the fact that the line between the two was thin, or that it had only bubbled to the surface due to his own decision to sit in the back, doing nothing.

Siren felt the urge to defend himself, but Nightbeat appeared completely unbothered, so maybe Siren ought to be, too. (He would at least follow the three strikes rule, near-universal in sports throughout the known universe.)

How Nightbeat even remembered these file types none of them had ever heard of before this trip was confounding. He had to get a grasp of them to be able to rip their training video to take home to Nautica, but that he not only hadn’t forgotten any of it, but found a new use for it, too?

“There.” Nightbeat stepped away from the keyboard and motioned for a review of his. “Does that look right?”

Siren looked over the command Nightbeat had whipped up, seemingly out of nothing. “I think so? Shouldn’t you do a dry run? We don’t wanna mess it up more than it already is…”

“Indeed I should. See? You’re catching on.”

The simulated run returned the results the wanted, so the command was officially issued. Nightbeat’s cooling fans slowed down just as the terminal’s started roaring. “There. It’ll be a minute… Nightscream, what are you up to back there?”

Nightscream looked up from his communicator. He looked even more frustrated than usual.

It took an additional gesture from Nightbeat to get a response.

“I messaged my buddies, but it won’t go through…”

“Oh?” Nightbeat took a step closer.

Siren kept his mouth shut as he remembered what had occured on the way to finding this room: Nightbeat had whispered to him that he was sure Nightscream hadn’t messaged his friends, and the implicit, but not immediate concern that brought. Surely, now, Nightbeat was wondering what had changed. Accumulating stress? Nothing better to do? Something else? To Siren, it seemed inconsequential—he changed his mind about trivial things, seemingly at random, all the time—but if Nightbeat was interested, so was he.

Had Nightscream not been sitting against the wall, he’d have taken a step back. “What, is this news to you? Haven’t you guys tried to tell command what happened?”

It was honestly impressive that someone so small could sound so cutting over a simple question. “Hey, now! Another trip or two and you’ll realize interstellar air’s sort of an emergencies only channel.”

Another piercing glance. Siren almost wondered if maybe his face just looked like that, had he not seen him smile once or twice already.

Nightscream didn’t even bother responding. Instead, he reluctantly handed his comm over to Nightbeat, probably figuring that he’d get his hands on it in one way or another.

The huge, alien machine kept whirring in the background, lines of text on its monitor occasionally notifying them of steady progress. Nightbeat tapped away at the smaller one in his hand, too focused to remember he was among others until he sought their assistance.

They conducted a thorough test of anything and everything in the room that could communicate with the outside world. Thanks to the power outage the intranet not working was to be expected, but, theoretically, there should be no limit to communicating with the other distant networks, considering that their communicators were completely independent of the station.

No such luck.

Nightbeat shut his eyes, dreaming of possibilities. “There’s got to be something purposefully obstructing this.”

“So like, what is it, exactly?” Siren asked. “A shield, or…?”

“A shield, a block, a black hole… no point nailing down a term when we don’t know the specifics.”

“Well, what do you know?” Nightscream asked, making no effort to mask the doubt in his voice.

“All of its behavior is that of your typical communications blocker, but this one is especially limiting. Their blacklist seems to include every basic far-travel necessity—traffic, maps, weather, forums… it’s impossible to make any sort of well-informed decision. The question is why… perhaps it makes sense to have something like that in place.”

“That’s weird.”

“Especially that such a system wasn’t mentioned in our briefing. Their coverage of emergency protocol seemed thorough. I wonder why they neglected to inform us.”

Nightscream crossed his arms. “I guess I just assumed they’d be totally spamming distress signals, but this blocker-thing must be stopping that, huh?”

“Yes, there’s nothing going out. Though if they had this set up without our knowledge, it’s possible they have distress signals in forms we haven’t thought to look for.”

“Well, the point of distress signals is that they’re kinda standardized…” Siren pointed out. “If we were ‘Cons, sure, maybe there’d be ones that snuck past us, considering most of ‘em were usually issued because of them… but ‘Bots are well-trained in that kinda thing.”

Nightscream glared again. “I’m not either.”

It was only then that Siren realized that Nightscream was, in fact, not an Autobot, which brought a strange feeling—he really had been considering him one of his own, and still did. “Hey now! You’re on our team! We’d share classified Autobot secrets if there were reason to, never mind common knowledge!”

Nightbeat nodded in agreement. He always did privilege truth over loyalty.

“Whatever. It’s shady. That’s all.” Nightscream motioned for his communicator to be returned. Nightbeat seemed to have forgotten it wasn’t his.

“Even if we don’t know why they have this set up, we can guess that they have some sort of reserve power to be running it.” Nightbeat added, his now empty hand finding its way to Siren’s arm, currently powering everything in the room—the lights, the supercomputer, its massive monitors, its walls of long-term storage, its draining conversion process. He didn’t mind serving as a generator, but it wore on him. Nightbeat’s observation offered the idea of relief.

Nightscream lifted his head after a moment of reflection. The edges of his eyes were ever-so-slightly shaking. “…If there’s anyone left… wouldn’t they be wherever that power is?”

“Most likely.” Nightbeat nodded. “But hold that thought.”

The videos were ready. Nightbeat and Siren prepared themselves. Nightscream didn’t think to. He should have.

At first, Nightscream couldn’t look away - sure, he had seen footage of people dying before (which also happened to be when he learned to vet links before blindly opening them), but those were all so far removed from his experience that it was easy to forget they were real.

This was different. He saw places he recognized. Things he had wanted to check out once they had free time.

Their tour guide. Their supervisor. The kids who had trouble wrapping their head around the fact that they were around the same stage developmentally despite them being more than ten times his age.

The instant tragedy struck, it became corrupted to the point of being unwatchable. It was sickening to a pattern-recognizing machine like Nightscream to try and take in. Sometimes it would become readable for a brief flash before sinking back into becoming shifting psychedelic mush that branched far from its basis in reality. Nightscream wondered–especially for his kind–if that’s what it was like to die.

It seemed every surface in that room had a metallic sheen. There was nowhere to look that the distorted reflection of these already distorted videos weren’t. If he shut his eyes, they filled with the garbled audio beaming out of the mainframe’s powerful speakers. He wished he hadn’t drained his music player already. In retrospect, it was obvious that he should’ve rationed it, considering resources were limited.

His eyes fell once again on the thick cable jury-rigged into Siren’s arm. He could ask him to power it. He might even say yes.

It felt, for some reason, wrong to steal a glance at Siren as he bore witness to what Nightscream could no longer get himself to watch. The expression on his face was almost blank, and maybe Nightscream was just reading into it, but he seemed… hurt. Incredibly so. His body seemed full to the brim with anxious energy, ready to make a move, like he was imagining every moment he was seeing going differently, wishing he could have done anything to have stopped this from happening.

If that were true, maybe he wasn’t half bad, after all. But still, Nightscream shook his head, ultimately deciding not to ask for his help. He wasn’t that desperate yet.

So, he had nothing to preoccupy himself with. The others were intent on watching every ounce of footage they could, sometimes scrubbing back and forth, poring over the details. It was agonizing. He possibly could have excused himself from the room, but they might deem that unsafe, and besides, he felt too paralyzed to do… anything, really. At some point, he wasn’t sure when, he just stopped thinking. It was all he could do.

Some time later–hours, probably–they were finally done. Nightbeat had been waving his hand in front of his face.

“You in there?”

Nightscream’s eyes darted between them. That was confirmation enough.

“I take it you weren’t following along. I don’t blame you. So–come on, stand up, listen…”

Were they finally getting out of that wretched room? Nightscream did as he was instructed.

“The good news is that the footage of us is in good condition and makes perfectly clear that we are, without a doubt, innocent. And it doesn’t look like they did it intentionally, either. It was totally spontaneous.”

There was a pause for a response. Nightscream gave none. Okay, Nightbeat got what he wanted. So what? Not like it mattered now that they were all gone.

“…The ‘bad news’ is that we didn’t see what looked like anyone escaping. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that no one did, just that we aren’t any closer to finding them, if they exist.”

“You don’t have to spell it out.”

“…Right.” Nightbeat muttered. That was the first time Nightscream had heard him sound at all humbled. He had almost started to think he was a robot in the worst sense, but perhaps that wasn’t so. Although, considering everything else about him, he wasn’t yet convinced. “Anyway, we’re done here.”

Nightscream felt a wave of relief unlike anything he’d felt before at those words. For the first time, he felt perfectly content to follow Nightbeat’s path.

“And, if you don’t mind taking the lead, Nightscream… I have a feeling you might be first to sniff out any survivors.”

“Really?” Nightscream tried to hide the enthusiasm in his uneven voice. He had been under the impression that he would absolutely not be in charge of anything. On second thought, he supposed that assumption had no real precedent. He was, officially, a mission officer, the exact same title given to Siren. “Sure, I’ll try…”

It turned out “taking the lead” meant little more than deciding in which direction they’d steer. Nightbeat remained adamant that their pacing remain sufficiently slow. They had barely made way from the data storage room.

What should have been a breath of fresh air was anything but. The darkness was oppressive. The heat, more so. What Nightscream wouldn’t give to kick up a bit of wind as his alt mode’s wheels spun, but no, they just had to walk. He had to wonder if being so painfully detail-oriented offered any benefit. So far, they had nothing to show for it but having explored less than if they had moved more briskly. All of them had wheels, they could have done laps around the entire station by now!

Nightbeat insisted on silence, too, given than any distant pin drop could clue them in to someone’s continued existence… but surely someone would react to the sound of a small fleet rolling along, too?

Instead of listening, given that he was sure there would be far more obvious signs, various thoughts shuffled in Nightscream’s mind—wonderment of what Nyx might be doing at this exact moment halfway across the galaxy (whatever it was, he’d rather be there), some half-remembered advice imparted from the Oracle on what to do in situations such as this, how long it had been since he last refueled—all of them left hanging and incomplete to make way for the next one.

It came to his attention that at no point had he stopped walking. How long had they been doing this? At this rate, it–everything–would become unbearable, fast. The silence (and the dark, and the heat, and the company) was getting to him.

He had begun to significantly outpace the other two. It was the first time he had been ahead of them. Were they still following his lead? He was getting so out of it he couldn’t tell anymore.

Then, they heard a creak. Loud and conspicuous. Almost refreshing in its volume.

Everyone’s posture tensed. No one had to tell the others to stop walking. A creak was the last thing one should hear in a station of this age—it was too new to be decaying and too old to be settling.

It was long before there came another creaking sound, this one more long and drawn out. Even more seized by curiosity than usual, Nightbeat turned back to the direction they had came, marching brisk and light, eyes affixed to the exposed structure of the ceiling, where he suspected the sound was coming from.

It took Nightscream a moment to process what the gesture meant when Siren held his arm out in front of him to prevent him from following Nightbeat. Why Siren thought he would ever do that was beyond him.

They caught up to Nightbeat, who had made it all the way back to the server room, in time. Siren called to him as they took the final few steps. “What’s up? what was that? Did you see anything?”

Nightbeat simply shook his head. His focus was on canvassing the room which, to Nightscream, looked exactly the same as when they had left it not too long ago. Nightbeat stepped deeper inside. Siren followed him, automatically, it seemed. Nightscream was content to wait in the doorframe.

Nightbeat wondered out loud if it was a good idea to log back on to the room’s computer.

Nightscream felt compelled to speak up about something he’d just observed before Siren had a chance to (loudly, so loudly) respond. “Actually, guys, I just—”

He had meant to say he had heard another sound, though he wasn’t sure how to describe it (he could, but he sincerely doubted either of them would be familiar with the song it reminded him of). He was cut off by the others seeings its source before he did, warranting wide eyes from Nightbeat and a terrified yelp from Siren.

Nightscream took several steps back, into the hallway, away from the others, and it. Twisted around the exposed beams was something snake-like—he couldn’t begin to imagine how it looked unfurled. Its dazzling reflective sheen made its movements hard to follow. It seemed to be coming and going in every direction.

“Uh—what should I—” Nightscream asked, thinking it was closing in on him, but not entirely sure either way.

“Don’t move.” Nightbeat insisted.

“Are you kidding?!” Siren gasped. “Get away from it! Go! Go!”

Nightscream hadn’t realized how paralyzed he would feel when left without direction.

“You’re a point-one-percent—I mean, a green spark, aren’t you?” Nightbeat asked.

“Uh, yeah…” Nightscream muttered. When he took a step back, this… thing followed.

“Nightbeat, knock it off! Look at it, it’s after him!”

“Which is exactly why I asked that. I thought it might be drawn to the energy this computer was giving off when we were using it, but now I think it’s drawn to spark energy, or rather, who has the most of it. It’s like it doesn’t even see the two of us here.”

“What do you mean, ‘drawn to’?” Nightscream said, quietly. “What does it want?”

As if to answer, one of its tendrils fell from the ceiling. They all watched closely, unsure of its intentions.

There was no way to be sure, but Nightscream felt the sudden conviction that whatever it was possessed a great intelligence—it seemed almost as if it were trying to greet him. His shoulders relaxed slightly as it stretched towards him.

To the others, it must have looked different. Siren suddenly bolted towards them. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Drive, drive!”

Several arms grasped at Siren, who was already in car form, lights flashing, leagues ahead. Now Nightscream would never know what it was trying to communicate, and he didn’t care to stick around now that its hostility had been awakened. Nightbeat seemed to slide past it without much trouble.

No one had gotten a good look at its true size, so they kept driving until Nightscream felt too weak to continue. They stopped at an intersection of halls on some yet-unexplored level.

Nightscream didn’t bother to recover from the drive—he had barely even transformed back to standing—before giving Siren a piece of his mind. “What the hell was that?”

“A survivor.” Nightbeat said.

“No! I mean your stupid boyfriend completely overreacting!”

“I couldn’t just let it attack you!”

“How do you even know—”

“Enough.” Nightbeat interrupted, pulling them apart by the shoulders. Nightscream brushed him off immediately. “You’re right, Nightscream, no one of us knows what it is, so no one knows the proper way to react. Let’s figure out if we’re against it before we turn on each other.”

Both of the others reluctantly agreed. With arms folded, Nightscream tried to act constructive. “…It looked kinda familiar. Like those pets they have? Course I never really got a good look at any cause people keep ‘em in their rooms.”

“I was thinking the same. Though I wonder if they’re supposed to get as large as what we just saw.”

“How’s it still alive, though?” Siren asked.

“Maybe it just resembles one. It looked like it was trying to feed, or ask for food, but their metabolism is slow, and it’s only been a few hours since they were cared for… perhaps it’s a therapeutic drone for the medbay based on that animal, but… in either case, hostility like that doesn’t make sense.”

“Well, it only did that cause Siren yelled at it.”

“But before that, it was trying to get close to you.” Nightbeat kept quietly thinking, then shook his head. “But I can’t say it was trying to feed. There’s nothing I can say at this point. I’d like to observe it more, from a distance.”

“So we’re heading back?” Nightscream asked.

“No. It followed us there, I’m willing to bet it’s following us now. Your spark is… loud. It’s quite hard to ignore, especially with no other Lunarians around.”


“Simple fact. It’d be more rude to let it single you out. We need something that can handle it.”

“Like, what, a trap?”

“That’s on the list. We’ll be making a trip to the armory.”

“The armory?!” Nightscream hissed. “Like for munitions? It’s an innocent creature!”

“I have an obligation to protect you.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be smart? Can’t you find a way to do that without waving guns around?”

“It’s a precaution.”

“If it makes you feel better, we’ve gotta go get munitions cause we didn’t bring any…” Siren pointed out.

“Okay, look. Maybe I trust you with a gun, but him?”

“Nice try, but his trigger discipline is better than mine. Come on, you know what you signed up for. This is non-negotiable.”

Nightscream didn’t concede or continue arguing, he just quietly seethed. Nightbeat was dangling the credit he was there for on a string, and while he was desperate to get going with his life, he wasn’t sure he could forgive himself if something went wrong because he didn’t push back hard enough…

The silence turned to complacency. Nightbeat turned in the direction of the armory, but turned back slightly to make a quiet comment: “Thanks.”

Nightscream gave an awkward slight smile in return. It was instinctive, he didn’t mean it, and he was sure Nightbeat could tell that.

Siren was genuinely smiling, though. Which was weird. He reacted in the weirdest ways. He looked like he was about to say something, but even his under-tuned antennae picked up what the other two heard, ringing clear:

Machinery, suddenly churning in the far distance.

It was slow, steady, and, after some observation, drawing closer.

Nightbeat’s eyes raced as possible explanations formed behind them. The others waited on what he thought it might be.

No one said anything. They moved as swiftly as Nightbeat instructed them to.