As he parked the beat up old jalopy he drove in the staff lot of the Capital One Arena in D.C., the Heretic known as Broker glanced toward the boy in the passenger seat beside him. “You remember what I told you?”
Columbus nodded dutifully. “Don’t try to talk him into siding with the rebellion. Don’t try to talk him into picking any side. He’s neutral and he stays neutral. If I try to talk up our side he’ll—”
From the backseat, Shiori piped up, “Throw both of us out so fast our heads spin?”
Opening his door, Broker stepped out. “Correction, he’ll throw all of us out. And I’ll have lost any good grace I had with him. I went out on a limb to get you this meeting, kid. Don’t make me regret it.”
“We won’t,” Columbus promised, opening the other door while looking over his shoulder at the backseat. “Will we, boy?”
Giving a soft wuff of agreement, Vulcan waited for the back door to be opened before hopping down. Shiori followed suit. The metal dog cocked his head sideways as though listening for a moment before trotting over to a semi truck that was parked nearby.
Watching the cyberform sniff for a moment, Columbus turned his attention back to Broker. “The others thought I shouldn’t meet with you. They thought it was a trap or something, because you’re still part of Crossroads.”
Shiori stepped beside her brother, adding, “Some of them were pretty adamant about it.”
The dark-skinned man chuckled, making his long, clearly dyed red braids bounce a bit as he shook his head with a flash of golden teeth as he smiled. “That’s why Prosser showed up to check things out first? Yeah, I figured it was something like that. Let’s just say maybe I inherited a little bit of my old mentor’s thing for neutrality. You seem to make a lot more money if you sell to everyone.”
Quietly, Shiori noted, “I guess we’re glad no one paid you enough to turn us in.”
To that, the man shook his head once more. “Betrayal’s bad business. It might pay off once or twice, but your customer base dries up damn quick. Fredericks taught me that too.”
Columbus, meanwhile, watched him for a moment before quietly noting, “I guess I shouldn’t try to talk you into choosing a side then either.”
Broker shrugged. “Consider it easy practice for not talking the big guy into it. Now come on, you wanna meet him or what?”
Before answering, Columbus looked around the almost completely empty lot. “Not very busy, huh? Does Fredericks still have security around here?”
“NBA and NHL are both in the off-season,” Broker pointed out. “And yeah, he has plenty of security. As your little friend there is about to find out.”
Blinking, Columbus turned to see Vulcan still curiously sniffing at one of the wheels of the silver and blue semi. His mouth opened to say something, only to stop short as the truck abruptly moved. Except it didn’t just pull forward or something simple like that. Instead, the sides of the truck cab bulged out and then extended down toward the ground. Several giant metal fingers appeared, while the back of the cab shifted and extended a pair of legs. The truck cab straightened up on those legs, a head that looked like that of a human in a full plate mail helmet appearing.
Actually, Columbus realized, the whole thing looked like a guy in plate mail. Standing at its full impressive height of just over thirty feet, the silver and blue figure looked like an old knight combined with a…
“Transformer!?” he blurted out loud, eyes widening. For just a second, he actually forgot about everything else. “Holy shit, he made an actual Transformer?”
“Only because I asked very nicely.” The booming voice came from the upright robot itself, as he loomed over the pair. “You should’ve seen how many chores I had to agree to do.”
While Vulcan gave a single bark, Columbus opened and shut his mouth a couple times, feeling like he needed to sit down. There was a high-pitched whining sound in his head. Wait, that wasn’t just in his head. It was coming from…
He turned, to see his sister standing there, mouth hanging open as an incredibly high-pitched squeal escaped her. The girl’s eyes practically had stars in them, and she started a full-body shake that rose up from her toes, reached her head, then extended down her arms to her hands, making her fingers all-but vibrate.
“Is… uhhh…” The knight-robot pointed a finger to her. “Is she okay?”
“Eeeeeeeeeee!” With that glorious, delighted squeal, Shiori suddenly raised that way, arms flailing wildly before throwing herself up against the standing figure’s metal leg in a tight hug. “Ohhh my God, you are so awesome! This is the coolest thing ever! Ever! Aaaaaaahhhhh!”
Tilting his head to look down, the knight-cyberform asked, “She’s not letting go anytime soon, huh?”
“Kinda doubt it,” Columbus agreed. “Maybe if you told her what your name is so she doesn’t start calling you Optimus. Wait.” He paused, frowning. “Am I talking to an actual cyberform?”
A sound that was suspiciously similar to a cough escape the giant metal figure before he reached down to gently tap Shiori with one finger. “Milady?” He opened his hand then, offering it to the girl, who gave another high-pitched squeal before climbing on so that he could lift her up, depositing her on his shoulder.
Finally, the ‘robot’ answered. “No, I’m not a cyberform the way you know them. I used to be a… person. I was about to die and Harrison transferred me into one of his little friends.”
“Wait.” Perched on his shoulder, Shiori piped up, “He can do that? You used to be like, a human or an Alter and he just put you in a cyberform body?”
The figure was briefly quiet before replying, “I was a bit of a special case.” Looking over toward Broker then, he added, “I’ve got it from here. Harrison says he wouldn’t mind having lunch on Sunday if you’re up for it.”
Shrugging, the adult Heretic replied, “Sure, he knows my number. Assuming he didn’t lose it again.” With a wink, he pivoted to head back to his car, calling over his shoulder, “Have fun, kids.”
From her high perch, Shiori called, “Thank you for introducing us to the coolest thing ever!” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean coolest… guy?”
“I like to think of myself as still male, yeah,” the figure in question replied. “Haven’t had much luck trying to convince Harrison to make it physically official, though.”
Columbus shook his head slowly back-and-forth. “I came here to meet the father of cyberforms, and now my sister is talking about robot penises with a Transformer.”
“I know,” Shiori blurted, “isn’t it great?! Err, the Transformer part. Wait, what do we call you? Because seriously, I am really close to the whole Optimus thing.”
“As cool as that kind of universal crossover might be,” the metal man easily replied while watching Broker’s car pull out, “you can call me Galahad.”
That made both young Heretics and Vulcan do a double take as sounds of surprise escaped all of them. Columbus blurted, “Galahad? As in the Galahad?”
There was a brief pause, before the large metal man slowly answered, “Yeah, see, I know it might be hard for you to accept if you were raised as Bystanders, but Arthur was a real person and—”
“Hard for us to accept?” Shiori blurted. “Dude, we already know that Percival guy on the Committee is one of the knights. Not to mention, ya know, Guinevere is living at the camp with us. We are already completely brought up to speed on the whole Arthur thing.”
Galahad’s gaze snapped to the girl then, head turning and shifting back so he could stare at the girl as if she had become a second head attached to his shoulder. “The who in the what is staying where?”
Snorting at his reaction, Columbus spoke up. “She’s right, Guinevere’s at the camp. She was at the school, posing as a student.”
“And she kicked Ruthers’ ass,” Shiori noted with a grin. “It was awesome. But yeah, dude, we already know all about Arthur and all that. You’re really Galahad?”
Columbus wasn’t sure how a face that looked like the front of a plate mail helmet could look flummoxed and taken aback, but Galahad managed it. He stared at both of them, switching his attention between looking at the girl on his shoulder, then at the boy on the ground, then back again, repeating that several times before he finally spoke. “Okay, well, I definitely wasn’t expecting that reaction. She’s… she’s really at the Atherby camp? I didn’t think she’d ever join up with…” He trailed off, managing another minor miracle by looking thoughtful.
“You were one of Arthur’s knights?” Shiori hesitantly prompted, staring at him.
Seeming to snap out of a deep well of memories, the tall robotic figure made a noise before shaking his head slightly. “No. I mean, yes. Sort of. Yes, I was… I was part of… of that group. But I was never officially…. I started as a–I was only. I–” He stopped then, head turning toward the stadium. “Oh, uh, we should head in.”
“Head in?” Columbus stared at him a bit doubtfully. “How are–I mean you’re pretty–wait, what do people think they’re looking at when they see you?”
“You mean Bystanders?” Galahad shrugged the shoulder that Shiori wasn’t sitting on. “Depends. Sometimes they forget me entirely. Sometimes they act like I’m a really tall guy. I think the Bystander Effect has its work cut out for it with me in this form.”
“In this form?” Shiori jumped on.
He reached a hand up once more, holding it out for her to climb on before lowering her back to the ground. “That’s right. This isn’t my only body. I’ve got a handful of them scattered all over the place that I can jump between. It’s ahh… useful. Hang on, I’ll lead you in with a different one.”
His current robot body shifted back into its truck form while the two adopted siblings watched in awe and fascination. Afterward, the two of them just sort of looked at one another, then to Vulcan, who whined quietly before moving to Shiori for head pats.
They were waiting for only about thirty seconds before a man approached. The three looked that way, a bit uncertain. The man looked perfectly ordinary, just under six feet in height, with short brown hair very slightly unkempt, slightly tanned skin, and a cleanly shaven face. He wore nondescript jeans and a brown button-up shirt.
“Uh,” Columbus started, “hi?” Beside him, Vulcan made a curious sound, sniffing once before huffing with what sounded like amusement.
Giving them a brief smirk, the man raised a hand to wave. “Hi, yourself,” he replied. With those words, his appearance abruptly changed. The hologram of a normal person disappeared, revealing a metal humanoid shape beneath. His body was gleaming silver, with a glowing purple line running up both legs before joining into an arrow shape on his chest. His eyes were purple as well, and glowed just as brightly. When he spoke, it came through a speaker where his mouth would be. “You guys coming or what?”
Vulcan, for his part, trotted over that way while making a woof sound that clearly translated as, ‘Yeah, come on already.’
Recovering quickly, Columbus and Shiori both nodded before moving. Galahad pivoted back the way he had come and began to lead them to the stadium. As they went, Columbus spoke up. “Oh, um, this is Shiori and I’m Columbus. And that’s Vulcan. You know that already, but our parents sort of taught us that it’s rude not to introduce yourself. I’m pretty sure they meant for us to do that before we go climbing all over someone though.” He added the last bit with a squint toward his sister.
“Dude, he was a giant Transformer,” Shiori retorted defensively. “Dad would totally understand.”
“I’m with her,” Galahad put in. “I mean, if it was me, I’d understand. I mean, it was me, but it wasn’t… I mean…”
Shiori leaned close to her brother, whispering, “I honestly don’t know which is cooler, that Galahad can be a giant transformer, or that he’s also kind of a massive dork.”
Giving up on the semantics of what he was trying to say, the man clearly just opted to change the subject. “Right, so where was I? Oh yeah, I never actually met Arthur. I came later, after he was already… gone. My umm, my father’s people tried to kill me as a boy. Guinevere saved me. She raised me from the time I was a kid. Taught me everything I know, and… eventually knighted me.
“So she’s kind of like a mother to you,” Shiori murmured.
Making a soft chuckling sound, Galahad’s robot head tilted over toward the girl. “Yeah, you could say that Guinevere is like a mother to me and Lancelot is like a father. Which is kind of funny if you–”
“Guinevere is also Lancelot,” Columbus finished for him. “She kinda gave that away too, back at the camp.”
“Well shit, is she keeping any secrets anymore?” Galahad blurted, just as they reached a door on the side of the stadium marked for staff use only. There was a keypad there, and he reached out to hit a series of buttons until it beeped and turned green. Then he hauled the door open and gestured for them to head through. “Things must really be coming to a head if Gwen’s being open about stuff. That lady and her secrets…”
As they walked through an ordinary looking corridor that could’ve been in any office building to a completely unlabeled door, Shiori asked, “If she meant so much to you, why did you leave?”
“Does it have to do with your, uhh condition?” Columbus added.
Galahad opened the door and ushered them through into what appeared to be an unfinished room. “Yes, at least at first. I was… let’s just say I was magically cursed. I was going to die and there was nothing she could do about it. I didn’t want her to see me like that, and I didn’t want to see her get more and more desperate. So I left to die alone.”
Moving to the other side of the room, he reached up to the apparently blank wall and pushed something on it. There was a chime, and part of the wall slid aside to reveal an elevator. As the group stepped into the elevator, he continued. “Long story short, Harrison Fredericks found me and managed to transfer me into one of his cyberforms. He saved my life. But I wasn’t exactly… good with having robot bodies for a long time. It took a lot of effort and failure before I could control them properly.”
The elevator began to descend, as Columbus rested a hand on Vulcan’s head while speaking up. “That’s why you didn’t go back to Guinevere, at least right then?”
Galahad gave a brief nod of his metallic head. “That and I was ashamed of what I became, for awhile. Maybe it was stupid. Okay, it was definitely stupid. But I felt like I had lost who I was when I lost my body. I was a robot who couldn’t even control my arms and legs properly. It took me six months to figure out how to walk in a straight line. I didn’t want Guinevere to see me like that. After that, I just felt like I owed Harrison too much.”
As the elevator came to a stop, he added, “And by the time I felt like I could face her, I had no idea where they had moved on to. I didn’t know how to find them. She’s really good at hiding, let me tell you.”
The elevator doors opened to reveal a room whose size was truly mind-boggling. Despite the fact they had not gone down all that far, the ceiling appeared to be a good ten stories up. The room itself was circular, and the distance from one side to the other was the length of at least four football fields. Dozens of vehicles of all shapes, sizes, purposes, and conditions were scattered through the place, from bicycles to motorcycles to cars, trucks, full fighter jets, and even yachts. Various mechanical animals of literally any conceivable kind wandered or flew through the room as well, some in completely finished states, others barely more than a metal skeleton with wires and circuits hanging out. Tables piled high with equipment and tools were everywhere, along with blueprints, notes, odd ideas, and more scribbled on paper, on tables, on the side of passing cyberforms themselves (there was a half-finished cow with a sticky note on its rump about buying milk), and more.
“Um,” Shiori started while pointing toward the far end of the room, “are those dinosaurs?”
Sure enough, in a pen whose six foot fence seemed hilariously ill-equipped to hold them, a handful of cyberform dinosaurs, including a Triceratops, an Ankylosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus rex, and several others, wandered.
“Yeah,” Galahad confirmed. “Harrison likes his dinosaurs. Don’t worry though, he’d never let anyone buy one of the big ones. He has a thing about keeping anything over a certain size for himself, or super-close friends. Helps maintain our neutrality.”
Stepping in front of them, he turned to spread both arms out as if to gesture around the entire facility. “Anyway, this is one of the labs. You like it? We, ahh, don’t get many visitors.”
“Wait,” Shiori realized, “one of the labs? You mean this isn’t the only one?”
Galahad chuckled. “The only one? No, there’s at least five more this same size. Some of them have more stuff than this, some of them have just one or two things that he wants to work on in private. I’m pretty sure he’s got a whale-Titanic thing in one of them. He keeps himself busy. Which is why meeting new people for once is a good thing.” Turning, he pointed toward a door on the far left side of the room, so far away it was barely visible, and only then because it was a different color than the wall. “So, you three ready to meet the man himself? Let’s go say hi.
“Oh, and if he’s in the dragon room, try not to make a lot of loud noises. They startle easily sometimes.”